Meillassoux, Contingency, and Kantian Catastrophes


By the end of Chapter Three of Meillassoux’s After Finitude we are left with a rendering of the world reminiscent of Monadology, expect with some rather big differences.  Meillassoux has described a world of chaos wherein each entity is at once self-contained, completely contingent and not connected to any one thing or another vis a vis a principle of reason etc.  Naturally, this leads to a chapter long consideration of Hume, but Meillassoux insists “one unavoidable consequence of the principle of factiality is that it asserts the actual contingency of the laws of nature” (83).   In the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes:

We have said that all arguments concerning existence are founded on the relation of cause and effect; that our knowledge of that relation is derived entirely from experience; and that all our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition that the future will be conformable to the past. To endeavour, therefore, the proof of this last supposition by probable arguments, or arguments regarding existence, must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.

…It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance…Let the course of things be allowed hitherto ever so regular; that alone, without some new argument or inference, proves not that, for the future, it will continue so.

Finally,  Hume concludes:

In vain do you pretend to have learned the nature of bodies from your past experience. Their secret nature, and consequently all their effects and influence, may change, without any change in their sensible qualities. This happens sometimes, and with regard to some objects: Why may it not happen always, and with regard to all objects?

For Meillassoux, all of the philosophical interlocutors we met in the previous chapter believe in causation, the only difference being that some think that we can’t ever know the sources of the cause. While Meillassoux (for better or for worse) ultimately places Hume on the same side as the other philosophers he is criticizing, his argument rests on a distinction (which is generally conflated) between the necessity of the laws of nature and their stability. Thus, the problem is recast:

…we might ask how we are to explain the manifest stability of physical laws given that we take these to be contingent…if laws are contingent, and not necessary, then how is it that their contingency does not manifest itself in sudden and continual transformations?  How could laws for which there is no permanent foundation give rise to a stable world? (92)

While many would think that the continual consistency of the physical world refutes any claim to contingency, and that if the laws of nature could change, they would have to change quite frequently.  In After Finitude, Meillassoux is only concered with showing that this “frequential implication” is inadequate, especially the version put forth by Rene Vernes.  Vernes defends “frequentilism” and invokes probability to argue that Hume and Kant both believe in the neccessity of laws.  I’m not going to rehash Meillassoux’s account of Vernes argument, but here’s the gist:

The nub of the argument consists in registering the immense numerical gap  between those possibilities that are conceivable and those that are actually experienced, in such a way as to derive from this gap the following probibalistic abberation: if physical laws could actually change for no reason, it would be extrordinarily improbable if they did not change frequentely, not to say frenitcally (99).

Meillassoux’s response to this is quite interesting and creative, and I certainly look forward to reading the fully developed critique of necessity and solution in his future work, but all in all, I found this to be provactive but not nearly as convincing as say, his hammering away at correlationism throughout the book (which is growing on me).  Real “quick and dirty,” Meillassoux locates the underlying assumption that drives “frequenitalism” as a confusion of possibility with the sum total (if not infinite) of conceivable possibilities.  Here’s Meillassoux again:

Thus, this probabilistic reasoning is only valid on condition that what is a priori possible be thinkable in terms of numerical totality (101).

Meillassoux distinquishes contingency from change and draws on Cantor’s principle of the transfinite–e.g. the quanitifable totality of the thinkable is unthinkable–to problematize the notion that talking about a totality of conceivable events at all.  Again, I’m not going to reproduce the argument, so I’ll just let Meillassox speak for himself once again:

We have at our disposal one axiomatic capable of providing us with the necessary resources for thinking that the possible is untotalizable.  However, the mere fact that wer are able to assume the truth of this axiomatic enables us to disqualify the necessitarian inference, and with it every reason for continuing to believe in the existence of the necessity of physical laws–a necessity that is mysteriously superimposed onto the fact of the stability of these same laws (105).

Nice move.  In fact, if we commit ourselves to absolute contingency we cannot necessarily have any recourse to physical laws which means that once this very scaffolding of necessity is taken away, chance is impossible (109f).  So, at bottom, Meillassoux is trying to illustrate that just because the stability of events that occur seems to be stable, it doesn’t imply any form of necessity. Meillassoux qualifies his argument by noting that in order to make such an account of nature more convincing an account of how stability emerges even in face of absolute contingency (110f).  Issues for another book I suppose.  And this doesn’t really minimize the overall argument and really, accomplishment of After Finitude (it’s only 128 pages after all!).

Again, in the closing paragraphs the Cartesian thread returns (and promises to return in future work):

…it is clear that such a resolution of the problem would require that we be in a position to do for mathematical necessity what we tried to do for logical necessity.  We would have to be able to rediscover an in-itself that is Cartesian, and legitimate the absolute bearing of the mathematical–rather than merely logical–restitution of a reality that is construted as independent of the existence of thought (111).

This, says Meillassoux, will form the bridge between the problem of ancestrality and stability emerging from absolute contingency (111).  It should be clear by now that ancestral occurences exist in themselves and not for us.  The insistence of the philosophy of access is a direct result of the “Kantian catastrophe” in philosophy, and we should we jolted out of our “correlational slumber:”

In philosophical jargon “Copernican revolution” means that hte deeper meaning of science’s Copernican revolution is provided by philosophy’s Ptolemaic counter-revolution.  We will henceforth refer to this “reversal of the reversal” as the “schism” of modern philosophy, which expresses the following paradox: it is only since philosophy has attempted to think rigorously the revolution in the realm of knowledge brought about by the advent of modern science that philosophy has renounced the very thing that constituted the essence of this revolution; that is to say, science’s non-correlational mode of knowing, in other words, its eminently speculative character (119).

Ultimately, if we read the two above quotes together, the retrieval of Descartes (from page 3) notion of mathematical necessity and absolutization without any recourse to the principle of reason, but instead the principle of factiality, is deployed in order to translate mathematical statements into necessary conditions of contingency.  His position is an odd one: the absolutizing mathemetical necessity is to be brought to bear or rather, joined with the absolute contingency of the physical world, especially detailed throughout the chapter on Hume and in the final chapter, which verges on a rather damning critique of the Kantian legacy and its effects on both science and philosophy since.

All in all, I’m still evaluating the whole of the book, but it’s absolutly worth reading, if only for the clear and direct presentation (rather than those professors of Derrida Mikhail hates so much) and filled with strikingly original lines of argumentation.  One thing I wonder is if the problem of ancestrality repeats the same mistake as say, a possible critique of Derrida, (I think launched by Zizek) viz., that Derrida generally rests deconstruction on something undeconstructable.  That is to say, as something that persists in-itself and completely free from correlation, is the arch-fossil actually the “undeconstructible kernel” or uncontainable “excess” of the correlate?   I don’t know.  Perhaps the question does too much violence to Meillassoux, but it has been floating around in my head for a while now. Yet, this should not take away from what I thought was a rather novel book.   If I’m not too lazy I’ll post some thoughts about the overall project later on.

For the morbidly curious and completely maschochistic, here are some prior Posts on After Finitude:

Grasping (at) the in-itself: Reading Meillassoux

Philosophical Fanaticism: Reading Meillassoux Part II

More Monotonous Musings on Meillassoux: Factiality

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20 thoughts on “Meillassoux, Contingency, and Kantian Catastrophes

  1. It’s kind of like going to Las Vegas, no? I once was standing in some palatial casino that is basically a simulation of Venice and I overheard someone say (not in English–otherwise it really would have been like Venice) something to the effect of “Great, now we don’t have to go to Venice.” Same here, “Great, now I don’t have to read Malabou or Meillassoux.”

    Or, our services, by which I mean our craptasitc summaries and musings have sparked someone to go out and read the book carefully, for some reason I hope it’s solely out of of spite!

  2. You have to admit that it is all very narcissistic – instead of making my unintelligible notes in my super-hipster leather-covered notebook, I can actually see them displaced on a website…

  3. Yes, very narcissistic and self-serving indeed! Such is the definition of a blog, right? Duh.

    I have to get one of those super hipster leather covered notebooks, then I’ll write on the front of it, “The Super Awesome Notes of Shahar Ozeri.”

  4. Fido, you’re making me blush – I know Shahar has no shame, so he is probably showing this comment to all his friends and students – personally I find my notation system in need of some revisions and often I simply search the blog to see about a source I mentioned but lost my own note – this is basically a large repository of ideas that are only worth pursuing for about 5-6 paragraphs…

    PS That book about listening and opera in Paris totally changed my whole perception of performance and opera experience in general, so some good do come out of this exchange of notes…

  5. This really is a service, and I agree with Fido. Thanks guys!

    Shahar, you should let your mom know that grade sheets and newspaper clippings shred up great as absorbent bedding for small pets.

  6. Ah, Shahar is my hero and will be back to blogging and chewing gum at the same time in short order.

    I start next week – we must be living wrong.

  7. Pingback: Meillassoux on Badiou « Larval Subjects .

  8. And seriously, start date of 9/8? Carl and I obviously need to quit our jobs…but then Mikhail would be our colleague, like they say, there’s no free lunch….

    Once I surface from the endless equivocating and inability to resolve anything in the meetings I’ve been sitting in all week I’ll be back to chewing gum, macrame and blogging with due diligence.

    Carl, I’m glad that I can function as a heroic figure for you, but if I learned anything from Hollywood, there will be a period of down and out soul searching (hero? I’m no good!), then a sort of intervention (they’ve got grandma!), then selfless commitment (with great power comes great responsibility, I’ll do it) followed by a marathon sewing session to detail my outfit just right…I’d imagine some sort of montage put to “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” Oh, Loverboy, was machst du? Or was that Steve Perry??

  9. Shahar, please keep us posted on your mythostereoheroitipic progress, and don’t stint on the overwrought spandex ’80s radio rock. Surely we can work some Quarterflash, REO Speedwagon, and Survivor into this soundtrack.

    Now, what’s the heroic thing we should be doing when our meetings bog down in equivocation? I need to figure out how to back up my usual snappy repartee’ with some kind of sanctioned ultraviolence against the agents of evil.

    Mikhail must be on a quarter system? So later he’ll have three where we have two, and three is more than two.

  10. Has anyone read ‘Spectral Dilemma’ in Collapse IV? It’s a bit surprising to see the same guy who condemned correlationism for its ‘defense’ of religious fanaticism potentially give birth to a cult of the contingent god. I doubt it’s Meillassoux’s intention to found a new religion but…who knows? After all, his next book (adapted from his dissertation, I think) is called ‘The Divine Inexistence: An Essay on the Virtual God’.

    If it’s as rigorously argued as After Finitude the reactions are going to be quite interesting.

  11. Hi, Alex. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I have read that essay by Meillassoux, and honestly, I have no idea what to make of it. Meillassoux seems to want to mobilize the notion put forth in AF–the necessity of contingency–so it can be recast as an ethical resource. Put differently, it makes me think of Sartre, e.g. can the overwhelming anxiety and horror that mainfests itself as a result of absolute contingency be brought together with ethics? You’re right about the oddity of the same person railing against correlationism as fanaticism, for then Meillassoux approaches the above ethical questions by tring to circumvent the theism/atheism binary. E.g. an encounter with god/corspse? The idea that this atheistic/theistic dilemma is at bottom spectral, e.g. nothing more than a ghost, strikes me as interesting, but well, weird. Not to mention it’s a ghost whose memory continually haunts us, and moreover, mandates a mourning so we can generate an ethical and not “deathly” life. This angle strikes me as similar to some things Levinas (gasp) has written, e.g. the il y a, trauma in OTB etc.

    The question of God then, I guess, is spectral since it has been generated by horrific deaths, whether God’s own death or those victims of God’s cruelty. The answer, if I read correctly, is that we have to open up a place for mourning that can address both types of deaths. Hence, divine inexistence vis a vis absolute contingency/chaos, so well, God may, just may exist in to come.

    Again, I have to confess, when I read this, I thought, hmmm..interesting, but ok, who cares? What difference does this make, really? I wonder. I mean Aristotle had a loose conception of a God that doesn’t care about us and didn’t even know if we exist…

    By the way, cult of a contingent god, good name for a pop band!

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