Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
Elsewhere on the web, Jim Chamberlain (a former IPS member) posted a link to the work of Quentin Meillassoux, an emerging new voice in Continental philosophy and a former student of Badiou. It looks interesting and worth checking out.
And this Amazon page has some interesting reviews.
Here's an essay which gives a pretty good overview of Meillassoux's work. I'll copy the first half of it here:
A NEW FRENCH PHILOSOPHER
This article is a review of Apres la finitude, the remarkable debut book of Quentin Meillassoux.1 In my estimation, this work is one of the most important to appear in continental philosophy in recent years, and deserves a wide readership at the earliest possible date. An English translation by Ray Brassier will be published by Continuum in the near future.2
Meillassoux's book is written in a lucid and economical style, covering abundant terrain in just 165 pages. It offers bold readings of the history of philosophy-Aristotle is not realist enough, Hume not skeptical enough. It shows bursts of scathing wit, as when drawing wry parallels between the anti-Darwinian reveries of creationism and major schools of presentday philosophy. Most importantly, Apres la finitude offers a ruthless attack on virtually all of post-Kantian philosophy, now labeled as "correlationism," and proposes an original "speculative" solution (though not in Hegel's sense) to the Kantian impasse. Meillassoux proposes nothing less than a return of philosophy to the absolute, which for him means reality in itself apart from any relation to humans. The critical portions of the book strike me as definitive: much of what we know as analytic and continental philosophy looks rather different following his assault on correlationism. Meillassoux's own ideas, plausibly described as the mere antechamber to a larger and still unpublished system, lie open to possible objections. Nonetheless, his appeal to an "ancestral" realm prior to all human access succeeds in defining an unexpected new battlefield for continental thought. Barely forty years old, he seems likely to emerge as one of the important names in European philosophy in the decades to come.
We should begin by situating Meillassoux among the more established contemporary thinkers. For many years, continental philosophy in the Anglophone world was dominated by Heidegger and Derrida. Neither of these figures will soon disappear from radar, and Heidegger is now celebrated as a classic for the ages even by mainstream analytic thinkers. But since the miH-1990s, the HeideggeroDerridean brand of continental thought has faced increasing competition from new trends: initially from the books of Gilles Deleuze, and more recently from the heterodox tag team of Alain Badiou and a resurgent Slavoj Zizek. While major works by these "new" authors have been available for many years, what is more recent is their increased momentum among the younger generation of continental philosophers. In terms of background and orientation, Meillassoux is not difficult to place among these currents. He was a student of Badiou, and the preface to the book is written by Badiou himself, who can barely find sufficient words to praise it-by fusing absolute logical necessity with a radical contingency of the laws of nature, Meillassoux is said to "open in the history of philosophy... a new path foreign to Kant's canonical distribution between 'dogmatism,' 'scepticism,' and 'critique.'"3 Furthermore, despite the absence of set-theory notation and other known Badiouian flourishes, there are obvious points of similarity between teacher and student: the major role for mathematics, including the anointment of Georg Cantor as a pivotal figure for philosophy; the fondness for step-by-step logical argumentation; the absence of any especial interest in Heidegger or the phenomenological tradition. Both authors also display grand systematic ambitions of a kind that seemed unthinkable in our field a short time ago.
Nonetheless, Meillassoux's vision of the world is not Badiou's, and certain aspects of the former even cut against the grain of the latter. According to published information, Meillassoux was born in 1967 in Paris, son of the economic anthropologist Claude Meillassoux (19252005), an intellectual maverick in his own right. He is a graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieure, and has been employed at that institution for the past decade. Although Apres la finitude is Quentin Meillassoux's first book, anecdotal evidence suggests that he was generally known and highly regarded in Paris well beyond Badiou's circle even before the book appeared.
The very title After Finitude will be enough to startle present-day continental thought, since human finitude has been perhaps the central credo of the field from the time of its birth. The book consists of two opening critical chapters followed by two longer and more systematic chapters, closing with a short fifth chapter that harks back to the opening critique. Since Meillassoux himself agrees that Chapters 1, 2, and 5 can be taken as a unit,4 quite apart from whether the reader accepts the philosophical standpoint outlined in Chapters 3 and 4, the present review is organized according to this schema. Beginning with Meillassoux's onslaught against the Copernican Revolution of Kant, I will move to his more challenging attempt to establish a mathematical ontology that abandons the principle of sufficient reason, before closing with a brief assessment of the book as a whole.
One of the typical features of recent continental thought is its contempt for so-called "naive realism." The human being is now firmly established as the point of entry for all serious philosophy, even if redefined as a pure ego, linguistic agent, embodied animal, subject of power-plays, or historically rooted Dasein. The notion of an objective world-in-itself seems to elude our grasp. Nonetheless, few authors have faced this predicament with full-blown absolute idealism a la Berkeley-if not quite "naive," such extreme idealism strikes most of us as gratuitous and bizarre amidst the undeniable blows of the world. This leaves philosophy in an ambiguous position, neither realist nor idealist.
The obvious roots of this ambiguity lie in the Copernican Revolution of Kant, still the basic philosophical horizon of both the analytics and the continentals. Meillassoux's book ends with the daring claim that Kant's Revolution is in fact "a Ptolemaic Counter-Revolution (163),"5 one that makes philosophy revolve around humans at the precise moment when modern science had plunged into the world itself. In the wake of Kant's genius, we are too clever to believe in direct access to things in themselves, but also too sober to construct wild solipsistic theories that reduce the world to nothing but our own production. The favored middle-ground position for philosophers has been what Meillassoux calls "correlationism" (18). The correlationist holds that we can neither conceive of humans without world, nor of world without humans, but must root all philosophy in a correlation or rapport between the two.
The term "correlationism" strikes me as a devastating summary of post-Kantian thought. On the continental side, we find Husserl pleading for objectivity against psychologism while also defending ideality against the natural sciences; we have Heidegger claiming that reality neither exists nor fails to exist in the absence of Dasein; more recently, we see Zizek describe the Real as solely a gap in the world posited by the mad human subject, even while denying that he is an idealist.
On the analytic side, there is the "as if of Blackburn's quasi-realism; the internal exile of Putnam's internal realism; and Davidson's refusal to take the realism/anti-realism dispute seriously. All these positions, and countless others, join in allegiance to what Meillassoux calls the "correlational circle" (19). As he wonderfully puts it: "we will henceforth term correlationism every current of thought that upholds the uncircumventible character of the correlation understood in this way. Thus, we can say that every philosophy that claims not to be a naive realism has become a variant of correlationism" (18). The correlationist argument, often left vague or entirely unstated, holds that any attempt to think reality-in-itself automatically turns it into something not in-itself-since, after all, we are now thinking about it (17). On this basis, there is supposedly no way to reach the world an sich, but only a global correlation of human and world. Philosophy has lost what Meillassoux calls Ie Grand Dehors, "the Great Outside." In its place, we find that "this space of the outside is hence only the space of that which faces us, of that which exists only on the basis of a vis-a-vis with our own existence.... We do not transcend very far beyond ourselves when diving into such a world: we are content to explore the two faces of something that remains a face-to-face" (21 ). This correlate need not take the form of the old subject/object dualism. Indeed, most present-day philosophers unite in heaping scorn upon the antiquated model of subject and object. But this does not prevent them from remaining locked in the modern dance-step of correlationism. In particular, Meillassoux cites Heidegger's supposedly "more originary" correlation of being and thought in Ereignis as an example of how the rejection of subject and object does not quite get us off the correlationist hook (22). As Meillassoux sees it, all postcritical philosophy is correlationism (23)-or else a relapse into metaphysics, as with Whitehead and perhaps even the vitalism of Deleuze.6 Before Kant, philosophers dueled over who had the best model of substance: was it perfect forms, individual beings, prime matter, atoms, or God? Since Kant, these "naive" disputes have been replaced by combat over who has the best model of the human-world correlate: is it subject-object, noesis-noema, Dasein-Sein, or language-referent? In Meillassoux's eyes, "co" has become the dominant particle of the philosopher's lexicon (19), just as "always already" (21 ) has become the beloved phrase of those who grant extra-human reality only when we ourselves posit it retroactively. Yes, they tell us, the world exists in itself-but only for us (26).
The work of Quentin Meillassoux is meant as a clean break with all forms of correlationism, and he approaches the task with unusual boldness. He begins by drawing up a table of actual scientific dates (known to Heideggerians as "mere ontic information"): 13.5 billion years since the Big Bang, 4.45 billion since the formation of the earth, 3.5 billion since life began on our planet, and just two million years since the appearance of homo habilis (24).
He asks us to consider the status of statements about ancient events predating the relatively recent appearance of human beings, those pampered tyrants of correlational philosophy. For those entities that exist prior to all human life, Meillassoux coins the term "archifossil," and describes them as having "ancestrality" (24-26). In his view, the correlationists will always be at a loss when trying to deal with the ancestral archifossil. Their likely maneuver is a predictable one: the correlationist will not admit that a being actually exists prior to being given to humans, but only that it is given to humans as existing prior to such givenness (32). They will say that "the physical universe is not really known to precede the existence of humans, or at least the existence of living creatures; the world has meaning only as given to a living or thinking being" (33). They will try to reduce scientific statements about ancestral stellar explosions and mudslides to the means of scientific givenness of these events, just as in positivism or verificationism. "We can therefore say that the statement is true... without naively believing that its truth results from an adequation with the actual reality of its referent (a world without givenness of world)" (ibid.).
This correlationist attitude toward science is at the same time both modest and condescending. For on the one hand it leaves nature entirely to the sciences, laying no claim to the objective world for philosophy at all. But simultaneously, it holds that there is something more in the world that science cannot grasp (cf. Heidegger's "science does not think") -- a "logical" priority of statements about the world over the "chronological" priority of ancestral events themselves (32). In so doing, correlationists play the game of pretending that they do not interfere with the content of scientific statements. Yet interfere they do. For if scientific statements about the archifossil are not taken literally, they lose meaning altogether. The statement that the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago means exactly what it says. It does mean what the correlationists claim, namely that "it is not ancestrality that precedes givenness, it is the present given that retroactively projects a past that seems ancestral" (34). For this is no longer the same statement as that of the scientists, and its supposedly agnostic attitude toward the real world cannot hide a form of crypto-idealism, since it tacitly dismisses all forms of realism as naive. Although Meillassoux's book does not openly equate correlationism with idealism, he does give an important hint along these lines: "faced with the archifossil, all idealisms converge and become equally extraordinary" (36). Insofar as Berkeley, Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida all have equally little to tell us about events on the moon fifty million years ago, they all look like extreme idealists as soon as the archifossil rears its head. Just as some creationists claim that God planted pseudo-ancient fossils in the ground to test the Biblical faith of scientists, Meillassoux suggests acidly that his notion of the archifossil may serve to "test the philosopher's faith in the correlates, even in the presence of data that indicate an abyssal gap between that which exists and that which appears" (ibid.). For this reason, the problem of ancestrality is capable of overturning everything in philosophy since Kant (37). Moreover, as Meillassoux states at the close of his book, this problem would not disappear even if humans and the world had been created simultaneously-for in this case it still might have been otherwise, and hence the archifossil could still be reflected upon as a possibility (156-57). In passing, it should be said that this reformulation is perhaps too limited. It seems to me that the correlationist circle would be threatened not just by archifossils dating to before the emergence of the human species, but equally so by "extrafossils" lying outside current human access, such as objects locked in hidden vaults or refrigerators, or unknown oil reserves trapped beneath the ocean floor. After all, events unfolding right now in the core of Alpha Centauri actually happen inside that star, and not in the core of Alpha Centauri "for us."
In any case, Meillassoux holds that correlationism and naive realism are two separate ways of dodging the question of ancestrality (38). By contrast with his detailed analysis of correlationism, his arguments against naive realism are somewhat sketchy throughout the book, though this can perhaps be explained by the limited number of naive realists practicing philosophy today. Meillassoux insists that philosophy must seek nothing less than the absolute, abandoning its fixation on the transcendental conditions of human experience (39). Nonetheless, "we can no longer be metaphysicians, we can no longer be dogmatists. On this point, we can only be the heirs of Kantianism" (40).
Interesting. That does seem close to D's messianic notions. But I'm not sure how that lines up with Kegan's work (on the unfolding of orders of meaning-making and world-negotiation), which I find more compelling than what I understand Zizek to be saying. It seems to me that Zizek is describing a particular turn, not the necessary shape of every turn.
Jim tells me he's reading After Finitude in preparation for reading Nihil Unbound by Ray Brassier (who is the one who wrote the summary I quoted above, I believe). The thesis of Nihil Unbound is a strong eliminative materialism -- not my cup of tea, but I may check it out based on Jim's recommendation.