Meillassoux’s Claim About Kantian Counter-Revolution.


I don’t know if this is relevant information for those reading Meillassoux, and since everyone is now, then so am I. I have to say that his final chapter – “Ptolemy’s Revenge” – is a bit annoyingly suggesting that no one ever before Meillassoux thought of either phrasing it this way or posing the issue this way. I happen to know because I wrote a paper about it, not Meillassoux, but interpretations of Kant’s claim to a “revolution,” so just to set the record straight, although Meillassoux might have come up with all it himself, there’s a body of literature dealing with the precise significance of Kant’s revolution and his claim to “Copernican Revolution” – take, for example, N. R. Hanson’s classic (and short) essay on the topic: “Copernicus’ Role in Kant’s Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 20:2 (1959), 274-81.

8 thoughts on “Meillassoux’s Claim About Kantian Counter-Revolution.

  1. Meillassoux is indeed far from the first to have claimed that Kant’s so-called ‘Copernican revolution’ really amounted to a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’. Here are a few, much earlier examples:

    Ralph Barton Perry (1910):

    Kant compared his theory of knowledge with the Copernican Revolution in astronomy … But Kant did not point out the fact, nor has its importance ever been sufficiently recognised, that the Kantian revolution was virtually a counter-revolution, through which the spectator again became the centre of the system. Nor did this counter-revolution either begin or end with Kant. It is a movement of epochal proportions, supported by a wide variety of thinkers, and dominating philosophy from the time of Berkeley to the present day. Its central motive is the restoration of the supremacy of spirit.

    Norman Kemp Smith (1913):

    Kant’s comparison … of his new hypotheses to that of Copernicus has generally been misunderstood. The reader very naturally conceives the Copernican revolution in terms of its main ultimate consequence, the reduction of the earth from its proud position of central pre-eminence. But that does not bear the least analogy to the intended consequences of the Critical philosophy. His main aim is nothing less than the firm establishment of what may perhaps be described as a Ptolemaic anthropocentric metaphysic.

    Roy Wood Sellars (1944):

    Kant’s so-called ‘Copernican Revolution’ … was in effect a counter-revolution preparing the way for Romanticism …

    Bertrand Russell (1948):

    Ever since Kant […] there has been what I regard as a mistaken tendency among philosophers to allow the description of the world to be influenced unduly by considerations derived from the nature of human knowledge. To scientific common sense (which I accept) it is plain that only an infinitesimal part of the universe is known, that there were countless ages during which there was no knowledge, and that there probably will be countless ages without knowledge in the future. Cosmically and causally, knowledge is an unimportant feature of the universe; a science which omitted to mention its occurrence might, from an impersonal point of view, suffer only a very trivial imperfection. In describing the world, subjectivity is a vice. Kant spoke of himself as having effected a ‘Copernican revolution’, but he would have been more accurate if he had spoken of a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’, since he put Man back at the centre from which Copernicus had dethroned him.

    J. J. C. Smart (1963):

    Kant’s so-called Copernican revolution was really an anti-Copernican counter revolution. Just when man was being taken away from the centre of things by the astronomers, and when he was soon to be put in his biological place by the theory of evolution, Kant was, by means of his metaphysics, putting him back in the centre again.

    (I happened to have these quotes because — time-permitting — I’m writing a paper on this; I thought I’d post them here in case they’re of interest to others.)

    Considering the fact that Kant never used the expression ‘Copernican revolution’; that the passing allusion to Copernicus in the B-Preface to CPR (comprising three sentences, two of which are confined to footnotes) is the only one which appears in his entire oeuvre; and that, in employing this analogy, Kant did not (and indeed, according to his own most basic philosophical principles, *could* not) have intended to say anything about ‘man’s relationship to the universe’ … considering all of this, one might think rather too much has been read into this analogy over the past century (!).

    I actually think that there is good sense in characterising Kant’s philosophy as a kind of ‘Copernicanism’, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the usual fable about ‘man’s expulsion from the centre’. While Meillassoux’s Just So Story about post-Galilean philosophy (and Kant’s role in it) may be rhetorically powerful, it amounts to a very serious distortion of the actual history. If the Continental neo-realists are looking for a whipping boy to hold responsible for the historical onset of ‘correlationism’, and for the divorce between science and philosophy, they’d do much better to pick on Reinhold (who, along with the Spinoza controversy, played a pivotal role in determining the reception and interpretation of Kant’s philosophy amongst the immediate post-Kantians and in shifting the problem-situation away from any concern with natural science). Frankly, Meillassoux’s suggestion that it was Kant who brought about the historical divorce between science and philosophy (‘the Kantian catastrophe’) is laughable, and only betrays his own lack of understanding of Kant’s project, the history of 19th-century philosophy, and of science itself (all of which appear in the form of crudely-drawn caricatures in After Finitude).

  2. Damian, thinks for an informative comment, I’m sure Lou is checking out all these books from the library right now – you do have to realize that you are officially an “anti-realist” and a “correlationist” now and will burn in hell with the rest of us?

  3. Yeah, one of the books I really want to read soon is Friedman’s “Kant and the Exact Sciences.”

    Kant had an insane amount of contact time with his students and taught a lot of math and science. Friedman actually looks at the math and science Kant was teaching and shows how this leads to important reinterpretations of some of the claims Kant made.

    Has anyone here read this book? If you’ve read it Damian, any thoughts on how it fits with your project?

  4. Have you seen Robert Hanna’s books as well? I have his Kant, Science, and Human Nature and in the preface he says that his initial project was a gigantic book on Kant and science and it became two books: the late one above and the earlier Kant and the Foundations of Analytic Philosophy which I don’t have…

  5. At some given coordinate of time, all of science will be seen as a sort of historial esoteric knowledge, such that theories will be nothing more than chess openings, eternal possibilites divorced from pretensions of veracity, mostly fun, but essencially nothing more than variations of the orthodox king’s indian repertory, among others. The debate on Meillassoux is not one of truthfulness in the perennial sense, but one of honesty and consistency in the intellectual realm. In this sense, damian’ examplars are mortal darts.

  6. Worthwhile post, friend. I would throw Latour’s name on the list, and I am sure he must have borrowed it from such thinkers as noted by Damian. Latour, at the very least, mentions Kant’s counter-Copernican revolution in “We Have Never Been Modern” (’83, I think), and probably had done so elsewhere.

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