Grasping (at?) the in-itself: Reading Meillassoux


I picked up Quentin Meillassoux’s newly translated book, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, a while back and have finally gotten around to cracking open the cover.  I’ve only read the first chapter, but I was struck by the direct and succinct presentation of his quarrel with Kant and post-Kantian critical philosophy.  Even the title is somewhat striking.  For someone like myself, who has read and invested in a great deal of the usual 20th century phenomenological suspects: Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida etc., human being/human finitude is the passageway from which all serious philosophical work emerges.  This is what Graham Harman has described as the philosophy of access and it has been a bit of a rallying cry up until this point in such circles.  An objective world in itself?  Hmmm—–impossibly un-graspable since Kant’s critique.  The title suggests (promises) a whole other story.  On the final page of the first chapter, Meillassoux writes:

The virtue of transcendentalism does not lie in rendering realism illusory, but in rendering it astonishing, i.e. apparently unthinkable, yet true, and hence eminently problematic (27).

It’s hard, given my phenomenological background, not to find this passage more than a bit jolting.

Meillassoux presents philosophy after Kant as well, being in a bit of a bind, it’s not quite idealist, nor is it realist.  That is, we’re too “enlightened” to think that we would have any sort of direct access to the things in themselves, but we’re too pragmatic to allow ourselves to denigrate the world to something that we alone engender.  Meillassoux calls the in-between position “correlationism.”

By “correlation” we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other…

Correlationism [is] any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined (5).

Put differently, the correlationist insists that we can’t really think of human being without a world, but also insists upon the converse, we can’t think of a world without humans, so philosophy has to result in some sort of correlation beteween human and world.  This is not very subtle, but seems to be somewhat accurate,  For example,  one need only look to Heidegger’s insistence that reality doesn’t cease to exist or exists when Dasein isn’t around (I’m thinking of his discussion of gravity in the beginning of Being and Time–when I get home maybe I’ll look up the passage).  In fact, on page 8 Meillassoux himself provides an example from Heidegger, who even with critiques of representation and the subject/object binary still remains tied to correlationism with his antecedent or originary correlation of being and thought vis a vis Ereignis.  All of this results in/demonstrates the “correlationist circle:”

We cannot represent the “in-itself” without it becoming “for us” or as Hegel amusingly put it, we cannot “creep up on” the object “from behind” so as to find out what it is in-itself–which means that we cannot know anything that would be beyond our relation to the world (4).

We’ve lost what Meillassoux calls the “absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us,”  and have placed our philosophical stakes in who can provide the best human-world correlation.  Is it Dasein-Being, or how about I-Other, or maybe noesis-noema, or why not, language-addressee?

Now, since I’m in a sharing mood today, I found this passage quite jolting as well (bear with the jargon, I’ll get around to defining, as is it summarizes Meillassoux’s challenge and it will provide a nice segway into a brief but regressive presentation of the argument):

Confronted with the arche-fossil, every variety of idealism converges and becomes equally extraordinary–every variety of correlationism is exposed as an extreme idealism, one that is incapable of admitting that what science tells us about these occurrences of matter independent of humanity effectively occured as described by science.  And our correlationist then finds himself dangerously close to contemporary creationists…might not the meaning of the arche-fossil be to test the philosopher’s faith in correlation, even when confronted with data which seem to point to an abyssal divide between what exists and what appears? (18).

Ok, onto some neologisms: the term “arch-fossil” gestures to things/entities/materials that existed before human life and as such have “ancestrality: “any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species–or even anterior to every recognized form of life on earth” (10).  This is all rather interesting and Meillasoux begins his assualt on correlationism by asking some simple questions about how we think about the nature of (ancestral) statements about things that happened before us humans burst onto the scene, viz., the Big Bang, the formation of the Earth, and the emergence of human life.  For him, (we) correlationists will have a big problem when we are trying to wrestle with the arch-fossil.   The correlationist can’t accept that some being actually exists before being given to us, so we qualify it by saying that it’s given to us as existing before this giveness (“being gives itself as anterior to giveness”).  We don’t really know anything about the world before we humans because the world only holds meaning as given to a thinking thing.  The correlationists left the objective world to the scientists, but also arrogantly insist that they are getting at things science just can’t do, namely, a so-called logical priority of statements about the world over any type of chronological priority–as Meillassoux puts it–of the ancestral occurences.  Here’s the crux of the problem, correlationists mess with the content of statements like “the Big Bang was 13.5 billion years ago:”

For the correlationist, in order to grasp the profound meaning of the fossil datum, one should not proceed from the ancestral past, but from the correlational present.  This means that we have to carry out a retrojection of the past on the basis of the present.  What is given to us, in effect, is not something that is anterior to giveness, but merely something that is given in the present but gives itself as anterior to giveness.  The logical anteriority of giveness over the being of the given therefore enjoins us to subordinate the apparent sense of the ancestral statement to a more profound coounter-sense, which is alone capable of delivering its meaning: it’s not ancestrality which precedes giveness but that which is given in the present which retrojects a seemingly ancestral past (p16).

The problem is an interesting one, for this attitude is rather different from the more literal (objective) meaning of the scientist’s comment that “The Big Bang was 13.5 million years ago.”  So back to the quotation that jolted me: this notion/problematic of ancestrality–it seems to me–is going to play a big role (the role?) in helping Meillassoux shift (if not completely turn upside down) the conversation that began with Kant with regards to our comportment towards the “real” or “objective” world.  How all of this begins to cash out remains to be seen, but it’s compelling reading to say the least.  Whether or not Meillassoux grasps the in-itself or flails around grasping at the in-itself remains to be seen.

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5 thoughts on “Grasping (at?) the in-itself: Reading Meillassoux

  1. Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism seems, to me atleast, to turn on the conflation of saying that there is no world outside of human experience with the more pragmatic claim that, even if there is such a world, there is nothing philosophically interesting to be said about it.

    To say that “it’s not ancestrality which precedes giveness but that which is given in the present which retrojects a seemingly ancestral past” seems to be just a tricky way to say that the ways that present scientists and philosophers talk about things that existed before humans arrived has more to do with the scientists and philosophers than the things themselves.

    Philosophers, I think, would be well served to put the grasping/flailing at the in-itself to rest. I can’t see any way besides hoping for justification between philosophical and scientific peers to deal with ‘ancestrality’ or reality, writ large.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Nick, I see your point, but I’m not so sure and based on my understanding of Chapter 1, there’s two things/options to be said here. First, the correlationist (or whomever) can simply deny the importance/gravity of the arch-fossil problematic. In turn, the reality of the ancestral realm is to also be thrown out the window–no problem. Second, and this also points your remark in paragraph 2 as well, one could hang onto the idea that the arch-fossil appears to gesture to a reality that is non-correlational, although it’s completely illusory. Why? Well because the very idea of a non-correlational reality is nothing less than the idea of X being manifested without any conditions of manifestation, which is just unthinkable in the phenomenological circles, for instance. This means that the meaning of an ancestral statement (The Big Bang happened 13.5 billion years ago) points to an ancestral phenomenon that persists independently of the conditions of manifestation and not just that, it keeps holding onto the very conditions it seems to deny. So the correlationist, says Meillessoux, saves the ancestral statement while throwing out the ancestral phenomenon–but here’s the kicker, the correlationist can only insist upon a non-correlational reality in thought. Its ontic meaning–to use Heideggerian parlance–is latched onto, or depends upon a more transcendental sense, independently “for us.” All of this is rather unsettling for me, but I must admit, it’s almost like a cool breeze on a stifling day. Now, given the title of the book, I can only assume that Meillassoux is going to attempt to restore some sort of absolutism into metaphysics, but an absolutism of contingency, and not falling back into the (monotonous) obsession with the transcendental conditions of our experience.

    just a tricky way to say that the ways that present scientists and philosophers talk about things that existed before humans arrived has more to do with the scientists and philosophers than the things themselves.

    Again, I see your point, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me as I read through Meillassoux –especially his jolting passage (at least to me) that equates correlationists with creationists–is that the challenge is to be put to post-Kantian critical philosophy or idealism: perhaps scientific realism, the arch-fossil, ancestrality etc isn’t that naive. Sometimes my students can’t understand why it might be problematic to insist on a mind-independent reality (and yes, vice versa as we move throughout history), which I generally would brush off as somewhat naive, but Meillasoux is problematizing the dogma of criterion of intelligibility, meaning and sense I think. But you are right, the proverbial tennis court needs to be smoothed out so that philosophy and science are on equal footing on both sides of the net, then the seemingly wild and speculative claims we hear on the science side can be greeted with some healthy interpretation on the non-correlationist philosopher side, rather than releasing the correlationist hounds and cutting off scientific claims at the pass.

    Put the grasping at the in-itself to bed, not Meillassoux…I do think I may share some of your skepticism here, however…

  3. Pingback: Philosophical Fanaticism: Reading Meillassoux Part 2 « Perverse Egalitarianism

  4. Pingback: More Monotonous Musings on Meillassoux: Factiality « Perverse Egalitarianism

  5. Pingback: Very (very) Fast Collisions: Recreating Big Bang « Perverse Egalitarianism

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