Philosophical Fanaticism: Reading Meillassoux Part 2


There is a strange little section in The Star of Redemption where Rosenzweig talks a bit about the fanatic and the pagan.  Here’s Rosenzweig:

The fanatic, the sectarian, in short all the tyrants of the kingdom of heaven, far from hastening the advent of the kingdom, only delay it…The ground prematurely cultivated by the fanatic yields no fruit. It does that only when its time has come. And its time too, will come. But then all the work of cultivation will have to be undertaken afresh. The first seeding has by then rotted, and to assert that these rotten remnants are “already” or “in reality” the same as that which later ripens into fruit is but the willful foolishness of pedants. Time and the hour are the mightier the less man knows them (Star of Redemption,  272)

In the closing section of the second chapter of After Finitude, “Metaphysics, Fideism, Speculation,” Meillassoux comments:

We are trying to grasp the sense of the following paradox: the more thought arms itself against dogmatism, the more defenseless it becomes before fanaticism. Even as it forces metaphysical dogmatism to retreat, sceptico-fideism reinforces religious obscurantism (48-emphasis mine-SO).

This is quite a statement, and I do like reading the Rosenzweig and Meillassoux quotes side by side, but as well shall see, Meillassoux has a good deal to say about the rotted out seeds of metaphysics. Anyway, here’s some more reading notes and thoughts about After Finitude. At the start of this chapter we are reminded that “our task..consists in trying to understand how thought is able to access the uncorrelated, which is to say, a world capable of subsisting without being given…this is just to say we must grasp how thought is able to access an absolute” (28).  So, of course, in this chapter Meillassoux continues to work through the problem of ancestrality–clearing the brush so to speak. One of Meillassoux’s problems with metaphysics, or rather, the reason he thinks metaphysics has failed, is that it has continually sought/seeks to locate some sort of necessary being.  And here Meillassoux even falls in line with the well-worn critique of onto-theology.

So, rather aptly, the second chapter opens with a consideration of the ontological proof for the existence of God found in Descartes’ Meditations to illustrate the quest for necessary being which then dovetails into a brief consideration of Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, which of course, aims at showing the necessity of not just one being, but all beings.  Yet, while such “pre-critical” philosophers, or the “early moderns” like Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz offer us a solution to the problem of ancestrality/arche-fossil because they do admit we can know a mind-independent world that harbors its own truths.  Yet, ultimately, such pre-critical attempts fail given their reliance on the principle of sufficient reason.  To this end, It is well know that Kant attacked ontological argument for the existence of God vis a vis the problem of existential import (“existence is not a predicate”).  Kant argues that the use of predicates alone does not necessarily imply the existence of their referents. At best, we can only assume the existence of entities named by our words/predicates; we cannot prove “existence” by means of the use of language alone.  The ontological argument does nothing less than identify God’s essence with existence. Kant then, leaves us with the impossibility of real necessity, but at the same time real necessity shows itself condition of every metaphysics. So, what is to be done? Throw it out of course!  Here’s Meillassoux:

…to reject dogmatic metaphysiscs means to reject all real necessity and a fortiori to reject the priniciple of sufficient reason, as well as the ontological argument, which is the keystone that allows the system of real necessity to close in upon itself.  Such a refusal enjoins us to maintain that there is no legitimate demonstration that a determinate entity should exist unconditionally (33).

There is a brief discussion of the critique of ideology refashioned as a critique of the necessity of the world/state of affairs etc that strikes me as rather interesting, but I’ll just leave it at that.  Anyway, so what’s left?  Well, Meillassoux plans to proceed in a rather interesting way: “we must uncover an absolute necessity that does not reinstate any form of absolutely necessary entity” (34) or put differently, rejecting dogmatism for speculation, the impetus is to locate “an absolutizing thought that not is not absolutist.”  In order to clear the space for this move, Meillassoux makes a (interesting, but I’m not sure how convincing just yet) distinction between weak correlationism and strong correlationism. The former is exemplified by Kant’s well known move in the fist Critique: we can think the things-in-themselves, but we can’t know them.  Such a position insists upon the finite nature of reason and the conditional nature of our access to being, e.g. the pure forms of intution (space and time) and the categories apply only to the phenomenal realm.  The latter, according to Meillassoux, best exemplified by Heidegger and Wittgenstein (41ff), insists we can’t even think the things-in-themselves, let alone know them.  The strong correlationist leaves behind Kant’s weak correlationism and limits him/herself to the facticity of our experience without any reference to the noumena or absolute.  Here’s Meillassoux:

When I maintain that this or that entity or event is contingent, I know something positive about them–I know that it would have been physically possible for this person to act differently, etc. Contingency expresses the fact that physical laws remain indifferent as to whether an event occurs or not–they allow an entity to emerge, subsist, or to perish.  But facticity, by way of contrast, pertains to those structural invariants that supposedly govern the world–invariants which may differe from one variant of correlationism to another, but whose function in every case is to provide the minimal organization of representation: principle of causality, forms of perception, logical laws, etc.  These structures are fixed…(39).

So, strong correlationism gives birth to/is a philosophy of facticity.  Meillassoux’s project, so to speak, is to open up a way to think the thing-in-itself without absolutizing correlation or reverting to the principle of sufficient reason.  Put differently, facticity must become (absolute) contingency.

The last part of the chapter is rather contentious and made me chuckle.

For all this talk about the “religious” turn in Continental Philosophy and whatnot, Meillassoux suggests that “by forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return of the religious” (45) and in turn he discerns a connection between a certain form of religiosity inherent in “postmodern” philosophy and facticity:

[Strong Correlationism’s] contemporary predominance seems to us to be intimately connected to the immunity from the constraints of conceptual rationality which religious belief currently seems to enjoy…Religious belief is considered to be beyond the reach of rational refutation by many contemporary philosophers to be conceptually illegitimate to undertake such a refutation (44).

This gap between Kant (weak correlationism) and the philosophers that adhere to strong correlationism is far from harmless, however:

It points to a major shift that has occured in our conception of thought from Kant’s time to ours.  This shift, from the unknowability of the thing-in-itself to its unthinkability, indciates that thought has reached the stage where it legitimates by its own development that fact that being has become so opaque for it that thought supposes the latter to be capable of transgressin the most elementary principles of the logos (44).

That’s right, we can say whatever we want to about the in-itself, the absolute etc.  And here we return to the initial (remarkable!) quote I stuck in at the start of this post.  The state of philosophy?  Lots of capricious belief, correlational theologists of alterity, the beyond, the Other, all enabled by those strong philosophical correlationists.  Restricting ourselves to finitude had the opposite results Kant aimed at in the Critique, it would seem what we are left with is a “becoming-religious of thought” (46).  What’s left?  Here’s Meillassoux again describing the surrendering of the philosopher to the person of faith:

Having continuously upped the anty with scepticism and criticisms of the pretensions of all metaphysics, we have ended up according all legitimacy in matters of veracity to professions of faith–and this no matter how extravagant their content.  As a result, the struggle against what the Enlightenment called “fanaticism” has been converted into a project of moralization: the condemnation of fanaticism is carried out solely in the name of its practical (ethico-political) consequences, never in the name of the ultimate falsity of its contents (47).

From Rosenzweig’s view, both the pagan and the fanatic fundamentally misunderstand their ethical self-constitution, which as a result, causes them to fetishize themselves. However, whereas the pagan remains open to revelation, to becoming a witness, the fanatic does not. The pagan is still completely self-centered, but recognizes his finitude, while the fanatic completely disavows his finitude. Rosenzweig inverts the relationship between the pagan’s awareness of finitude with the fanatic’s religious pre-occupation with the otherworldly.  So for Meillassoux, what are we do to faced with the fideism and fanaticism he describes?   Well, here’s the final sentence of Chapter 2: “we have to rediscover in thought a modicum of absoluteness–enough of it, in any case, to counter the pretensions of those who would present themselves in its priviliged trustees, slloely by virtue of some revelation” (49).

All of this is interesting. I’m not sure whether or not his insistence of correlationism tends to overstate the case, for we could certainly find counter-examples, perhaps even in the thinkers he names as correlationists throughout.  Yet, I’m not sure what good this would do, for Meillassoux’s whole project here is effectively pre-critical and he is tackling a problem that itself has been pushed to the wayside, not to mention he is recovering and using concepts that have also fallen out of favor in the last century or two.  After all, the first page begins with a discussion of primary and secondary qualities…

2 thoughts on “Philosophical Fanaticism: Reading Meillassoux Part 2

  1. I wouldn’t characterize him as pre-critical, especially since I see him as attempting to really pass through the critical turn and become post-critical. He doesn’t get to these arguments for why, though, until the 3rd chapter – so the pre-critical label may still be valid in the 2nd chapter that you’re at (I’m not sure personally – by the time I read the book, I already knew the basic arguments from other sources).

    I won’t ruin the 3rd chapter, especially since Meillassoux is so clear and rigorous in his own presentation, but I’d be surprised (and intrigued as to why) if you still thought afterward that he was pre-critical.

    I’m curious as to why you aren’t fully convinced by the distinction between weak and strong correlationism though? It becomes a key distinction for Meillasoux’s later arguments, and as a descriptive term it certainly seems valid to me.

  2. Hi, Nick.

    I kind of wish I hadn’t used the term “pre-critical” as a descriptor of Meillassoux, but at least in the second chapter it seems appropriate, but now as I’m midway through the third, what with the “conversation” between the dogmatists, the correlationist and the speculative idealist, I think you may be right. However, at the start of the book he seems to want to recast, but maybe not restore, the theory of primary and secondary qualities. On page 3:

    …all those aspects of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully be conceived as properties of the object in itself.

    So maybe this part is pre-critical, but the other half of the story, viz., the move towards absolute contingency, is not.

    As for weak/strong correlationism, the former seems to be unproblematic to me. Yet, at the same time I had moments when I was reading the first two chapters where I wasn’t sure I recognized say, the Hegel Meillessoux was talking about. On the one hand, I think the way he framed the problem is interesting and certainly warranted since it’s a distinction that has carried through the history of Western thought since Paremenides, e.g. thought/being, but at the same time I can’t help thinking if this distinction becomes somewhat restrictive/reductive. Interesting intervention into the history of philosophy? Of course. However, it’s only because Meillassoux insists that correlation is the sole move/relation and it plays such a pivotal role in the book that I’ve been thinking perhaps its overstated, again, I’m not so sure. And really, if say the Levinasian/Derridean concept of the trace evades correlationism, what would it matter for Meillassoux’s argument? Very little I think. All that said, I do see the parallels with Badiou’s notion that all conditions are thought, philosophy is meta-thinking, for it seems that Meillassoux wants thought to play a similar role. Hence, the distinction between weak/strong correlationism…

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