Interesting Critique of the Critique of Correlationism


I read through Markus Gabriel’s essay, “The Mythological Being of Reflection” and was reminded of something I quickly posted a few months ago, “Should Philosophers just wear Labcoats?” I was avoiding grading a stack of papers and found myself quickly purusing Rorty’s Objectivity, Relativism and Truth:

…any academic discipline which wants a place at the trough, but is unable to offer the predictions and the technology provided by the natural sciences, must either pretend to imitate science or find some way of obtaining “cognitive” status without the necessity of discovering facts (35).

Now, I have no idea if this actually represents Rorty’s own stance on the use of science in its relations to other non-scientific fields, but it gestures to a rather interesting phenomenon.  That is, if one wants to achieve at best some prestige, or at worst, acceptance of those in the academy,then one has to become “scientific.”  This seems especially evident in those who would like to teach Intelligent Design alongside evolution in the science classroom.  In this case, religion or religious discourse is “dressed up” and parades around as science.  I’m sure there are other examples. This got me thinking about some of Tom Sorell’s criticisms directed towards various attempts to cook up a scientific philosophy under the guise of  “naturalism”  in his book Scientism.  That book isn’t fresh enough in my head to make any substantive connections here, but I think I recall his solution was some sort of version of Kant.  Gabriel’s solution is a bit different, but he makes some excellent observations about Meillassoux’s concepts of ancestrality and correlationism along the lines of Rorty’s comment above:

Perhaps one should engage in the realism-antirealism debate instead of tying the weaknesses of correlationism to ancestral statements alone.  Perhaps one would better consider the most sophisticated arguments against metaphysical realism presented by Putnam or the systematic elaboration of a theory of objectivity in terms of a plurality of truth predicates propounded by Crispin Wright in his Truth and Objectivity which presents a sophisticated account of anti-realism.  Instead of this, Meillassoux commits himself to a naive sort of objectivism, even if it is for the just cause of fighting creationism and its ilk (86).

A little further down:

…it should be the cause of extreme astonishment if the philospohers referred to as correlationists by Meillassoux, such as Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger were not capable of understanding that the sun has existed before man. Neither idealism nor phenomenology is an ontic theory according to which the existence of human beings is the efficient cause of the existence of particular objects such as the sun, the Milky Way, or Niagra Falls.  That there are epistemological conditions of possibility of experience or even ontological conditins of possibility of determinancy uberhaupt is a second-order claim of reflection…Meillassoux’s critque of correlationism simply misses the distinction between ontic (first-order) and ontological (reflective) theorizing.

Markus turns the tables on Meillasoux:

In order to repudiate correlationism, he would have to show that the ontological claim according to which the in-itself is only in-itself for us entails ontic non-sense.  Yet, he does not even distinquish the various layers of reflection and theorizing, a shortcoming very common in the debate about idealism, constructivism etc. (87)

While the tone is a bit snarky, I actually think Gabriel offers some interesting critiques of so-called correlationism here. I’ll have to think more about the other half of the critique, regarding necessity/contingency, but my knee jerk reaction is to agree with Gabriel here.

4 thoughts on “Interesting Critique of the Critique of Correlationism

  1. Leaving aside for a moment productive criticisms of Meillassoux’s arguments, Gabriel’s critique misses the point. Gabriel claims that Meillassoux conflates the ontic with the ontological in obviating the necessity of a framework (the ontological) through which scientific “facts” (the ontic) take on meaning–statements about the arche-fossil require a network of meanings within which to make claims to validity and therefore Meillassoux’s attack upon any point of view that does not take those claims literally is false from the start. But this only recapitulates the correlationist argument through placing all the emphasis on the necessary conceptual mediation of any claim to validity. Gabriel would still need to answer Meillassoux’s question: what happened 4 billion years ago? Did the accretion of the Earth take place or didn’t it? That any answer to this question presupposes a conceptual framework is hardly at issue. Rather, the question becomes one of whether the conceptual framework itself is adequate to the world it seeks to describe. While this question may raise specters of a correspondence theory of truth, it is nevertheless necessary for any philosophy that isn’t some version of idealism. Meillassoux’s solution is hardly satisfying, relying, as it does, upon a faith in the ability of the rational mind to grasp the absolute. But the problem itself is one worth taking very seriously.

    • Question: “Did the accretion of the Earth take place or didn’t it?”
      Answer: “Yes, it did”

      What exactly is the issue here? Why do we need to know what happened 4 billions years ago when a simple test question – Did my parents had sex to conceive me? – cannot really be answered by me, since I wasn’t there to observe the act. Humanity and its existence concerns me as much as me and my existence – if I wasn’t there, someone else was (my parents), so I have to rely either on their testimony (god forbid) or my superman power of deduction. The whole business of arch-fossil, despite giving some people obvious (and embarrassing) philosophical erections (search Larval Subjects for “correlationism” + “fossil”), is rather silly. Admittedly, Garbiel’s attempt to disprove Meillassoux by hitting him there is also somewhat puzzling, since, again, it doesn’t even seem like a very important part of the argument.

      • I’m largely in agreement with you here, Mikhail. The more important (damaging) component of Gabriel’s critique of Meilassoux, in my opinion, has to do with the difference between the contingency of necessity and the necessity of contingency. One of the problems with Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism is that he doesn’t really leave any room for say, biology, as he generally relies on physics to make his case. Biology– as a discipline–cooks up laws, but those laws came into being vis a vis observation and as such, are dependent on well, us. I’m certainly not the only one to point this out, I think I read something along these lines in either Gabriel Reira or NY TImes blogger Simon Critchley’s review of AF last year or so.

        I like Gabriel’s angle here, actually. Meillassoux’s “strategy” is to pin down a bunch of philosophers that are at bottom, making epistemological claims about reality (for-us) as actually making ontological claims about reality in and of itself. Having done that, Meillassoux suggests, well ok, argues, logical necessity gives us access to the absolute; except he doesn’t really explain exactly how it is such ontological knowledge is ultimately warranted.

        So, yes, the above quotes need to be supplemented with this business of necessity/contingency. You have to like Gabriel’s “punchy” writing here though…

      • I second Shahar’s point that the real weird stuff with Meillassoux comes in with the modal talk.

        I’m sympathetic to Garbriel castigating Meillassouxians for not taking into account all of the work spawned by Crispin Wright’s fantastic Truth and Objectivity. M’s refusal to discuss Graham Priest’s work is I think even more shocking since it’s highly, highly, highly relevant to the claims he makes about contradictions, and I very much doubt that he and Badiou don’t know of it.

        This being said- if we learned one thing from the Lee Braver reading group last year, it’s that the ontic/ontological distinction just won’t do the work that Heideggerians want it to. Heidegger saying that stars *exist* without Being (since Being is tied to Dasein) makes no damned sense, especially given the way H sets up the problem of Being in the first place. He actually came very close to admitting as much in his letter to Richardson, though of course he obfuscated in a pretty obnoxious manner at the same time.

        I don’t want to debate this issue one more time, so if Gary Williams or that Danish guy (Daniel?) wants to have the last word here, take it. Please.

        I just think that beating up on Meillassoux for not going through the ritualistic ontic/ontological claim is uncharitable in the extreme. All the stuff about semantic doubling applies directly to that maneuver, and by my lights refutes it soundly.

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