Meillassoux: Lenin’s Best Disciple


Here’s another one. All that business about Meillassoux’s arch-fossil argument being so immensely and devastatingly novel that surely now all the idealists correlationists will die a horrible death reminded me of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism, a rather bombastic and, as some argued, not very deep philosophical book, written primarily for political reasons. Whatever the case may be, this is 1908 and here are a couple of quotes (Lenin has a style of his own, makes for a fun reading):

We have already seen that this question is particularly repugnant to the philosophy of Mach and Avenarius. Natural science positively asserts that the earth once existed in such a state that no man or any other creature existed or could have existed on it. Organic matter is a later phenomenon, the fruit of a long evolution. It follows that there was no sentient matter, no “complexes of sensations,” no self that was supposedly “indissolubly” connected with the environment in accordance with Avenarius’ doctrine. Matter is primary, and thought, consciousness, sensation are products of a very high development. Such is the materialist theory of knowledge, to which natural science instinctively subscribes. [Chapter 1.4]

To summarise. Three augurs of empirio-criticism have appeared before us and have laboured in the sweat of their brow to reconcile their philosophy with natural science, to patch up the holes of solipsism. Avenarius repeated Fichte’s argument and substituted an imaginary world for the real world. Petzoldt withdrew from Fichtean idealism and moved towards Kantian idealism. Willy, having suffered a fiasco with the “worm,” threw up the sponge and inadvertently blurted out the truth: either materialism or solipsism, or even the recognition of nothing but the present moment. [Ibid.]

If things-in-themselves, apart from their action on our sense organs, have no aspect of their own, then in the Mesozoic period they did not exist except as the “aspect” of the sense organs of the ichthyosaurus. And this is the argument of a materialist! If an “aspect” is the result of the action of “things-in-themselves” on sense-organs—does it follow that things do not exist independently of sense-organs of one kind or another?? [Ibid.]

[Drum roll] I give you the “arch-fossil” argument!

 

14 thoughts on “Meillassoux: Lenin’s Best Disciple

    • Awesome – Can you tell me where? Is it in After Finitude somewhere? And Brassier/Nathan Brown? I’d love to follow this up. Also, why is Lenin an authority here – his book is rather weak, philosophically speaking, it’s mostly a tool to defeat his opponents. Needless to say, it’s rather thin on arguments and thick on personal abuse. Does the fact that the famous arch-fossil argument comes from Lenin not bother anyone?

  1. It’s in a footnote. Page 246-47:

    “Though he does not mention him, Lenin’s tract may well have provided a source of inspiration for Meillassoux’s book. That the ‘correlativism’ excoriated by Lenin in 1908 remains in full force a hundred years later is both a testament to the continuing relevance of Lenin’s intervention and a depressing reminder of mainstream academic philosophy’s seemingly imperturbable idealism. Whether or not Apres la finitude was partly inspired by Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Meillassoux’s profoundly original speculative alternative to correlationism quells any suggestion of imitation.”

    • Thanks, I have the book around here somewhere. I suppose one can also read Lenin-Meillassoux connection (apart from inspiration or imitation angles – I’d like to read something about Meillassoux commenting on this connection) as a testament to the simple fact that “but how do you know if the world exists when you’re not there?” question – with arch-fossil or without – is really really old. That was my original inspiration for the post: by the time Lenin gets around to it, it must have been around for ages since Lenin is more of a syncretic thinker, his most important philosophical works being this one and his Philosophical Notebooks which are only awesome if you’re already into Lenin and has little true philosophical value. I suppose Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks are like Harman’s Toward Speculative Realism collection – it’s awesome for the converted and rather dull for the outsiders.

  2. I found Nathan Brown’s essay on the Middlesex Philosophy website (when there was such a beast…). I’m sure that it’s floating around somewhere. I remember that the essay was very smart, and that the relay between Meillassoux and Lenin was Althusser.

    I can’t remember where Meillassoux actually talks about Lenin. Is it in an interview or something? Maybe Brassier cites it in N.U.

    • If anyone finds this Nathan Brown piece, I’d like to know (link it here) about it as well.

      Lenin’s a philosophical lightweight indeed, but he’s an insightful lightweight – I wouldn’t dismiss him completely. Of course, it is odd that Meillassoux would never mention him in After Finitude when parallels are so obvious.

      Here’s a fuller version of Brassier note (I have a PDF of the book, so it’s easy to find and copy):

      It is worth mentioning in this connection the striking similarities between Meillassoux’s attack on correlationist fideism in Après la finitude and Lenin’s assault on clericalist idealism in Materialism and Empirio-criticism (originally published 1908, tr. A. Fineberg, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972); especially in Chapter 1, sections 2 and 3, where Lenin lambasts the ‘correlativist’ theory of subject and object which he explicitly connects to ‘fideism’. My thanks to Damian Veal for pointing these parallels out to me. Though he does not mention him, Lenin’s tract may well have provided a source of inspiration for Meillassoux’s book. That the ‘correlativism’ excoriated by Lenin in 1908 remains in full force a hundred years later is both a testament to the continuing relevance of Lenin’s intervention and a depressing reminder of mainstream academic philosophy’s seemingly imperturbable idealism. Whether or not Après la finitude was partly inspired by Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Meillassoux’s profoundly original speculative alternative to correlationism quells any suggestion of imitation.

      Aside from this note, there’s nothing else about Lenin in Nihil Unbound and, judging by the note, we own this information (about the connection) to Damian Veal, not Brassier. Maybe Damian knows (if he is reading). I’m sure the great expositor of Meillassoux will cover this aspect in his comprehensive take.

  3. Speaking of searching PDFs – here’s a note 8 on page 87 of The Speculative Turn (Toscano’s essay):

    There is a further convergence in these two attempts to recast materialism. As their discussions of noncontradiction suggest, both rely on a preliminary ‘atomization’ of things, objects and laws. In the case of Meillassoux one could perhaps critically refer to Anton Pannekoek’s critique of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, according to which ‘for Lenin “nature” consists not only in matter but also in natural laws directing its behaviour, floating somehow in the world as commanders who must be obeyed by the things’. Anton Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher, ed. Lance Byron Richey, Milwaukee, Marquette University Press, 2003 [1938], p. 129. In order for Meillassoux’s reasoning to operate, is there not a need to pre-emptively reduce the real to a domain of entities rather than relations, such that arguments based on the principle of non-contradiction can have their purchase? And is there not a parallel weakness in Colletti’s refusal to consider the position according to which a materialist ontology may be concerned with processes, not things?

    And Adrian Johnston essay mentions Lenin’s book but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

  4. Zizek brings this up to somewhere, maybe the book he co-authored with Markus Gabriel. Anyhow here is what Zizek writes in the first paragraph:

    It seems a weird coincidence that After Finitude was first published almost exactly a century after Lenin’s ill-famed Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Quentin Meillassoux enacts a forceful return to the “naive” question of the existence and cognizability of reality in its independence from our (human) mind – in this respect, After Finitude can effectively be read as “Materialism and Epirio-Criticism rewritten for the 21st Century.” The crux of After Finitude is the mutual implication of the contingency of necessity and the necessity of contingency: not only is every necessity contingent (groundless, “without reason,” and under the shadow of the permanent possibility of its collapse), but, even strongly, the only thing that is absolutely necessary is the contingency (of the laws of nature, of their necessity). The beauty and strength of Meillassoux’s argument is that the conclusion he draws from this unconditional assertion of contingency is not some kind of universalized agnostic relativism, but, on the contrary, the assertion of the cognitive accessibility of the reality in-itself, the way it is independently of human existence. The “finitude” to which the title alludes is the finitude of the Kantian transcendental subject which constitutes the phenomenal “objective reality”: Meillassoux’s aim is no less than to demonstrate – after Kant, i.e., taking into account the Kantian revolution – the possibility of the cognition of the noumenal In-itself.

  5. The name of the essay by Nathan Brown is “Rationalist Empiricism/Dialectical Materialism: from Althusser to Meillassoux.” There used to be a link on the Middlesex site, but now that it’s moved to Kingston the link seems to be gone.

  6. Pingback: Meillassoux: Lenin’s Best Disciple (via Perverse Egalitarianism) « Minimal ve Maksimal Yazılar

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