Meillassoux, Naturally

MeillassouxOn Saturday I will be speaking at the Reconceiving Naturalism conference at Swinburne University, Melbourne. I originally intended to address some aspects of Quentin Meillassoux’s Métaphysique et fiction des mondes hors-science, but with only 15 minutes there isn’t long enough to get into it. Instead, I’ve decided to think through Meillassoux’s critique of naturalism in “Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition“, and relate it to the theme of anthropocentrism. I have pasted below the first draft of the paper, called “Meillassoux, Naturally”, and would welcome any online or offline comments on where it could be tightened up. There’s also a PDF version available at my academia.edu page. If you’re in Melbourne this weekend come along to the conference; there are some speakers I’m really looking forward to hearing. Many thanks to Wayne Hudson for all his work in putting it together.

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Meillassoux, Naturally

The sacred cow of anthropophobia

A constant and now predictable attack on anthropocentrism seems these days to be a speculative no-brainer.[1] Anti-anthropocentrism functions as a transcendental signified not to be spoken against in polite speculative society, and the only things worth doing with anthropocentrism are bemoaning its persistence and striving to avoid it. This speculative anthropophobia is a sacred cow, and when such a beast enters the garden of inquiry, trampling the flowers and grazing on the sprouting plants, it’s about time someone asked whether it isn’t, after all, doing more harm than good.

I want to show in this paper that anthropocentrism is not the enemy of speculative materialism, at least Meillassoux’s brand of speculative materialism. First I will sketch why Meillassoux rejects simple naturalism, and then I will argue he should reject simple anthropophobia for the same reasons.

 

Meillassoux’s rejection of naturalism

Meillassoux is no naturalist. He thinks it ‘profoundly futile’ to make our knowledge depend on the state of scientific discovery at a particular moment in time, when the one thing we do know is that today’s science will not be definitive.[2] He’s more excited by  science fiction than by scientific fact,[3] more by Isaac Asimov than Sir Isaac Newton. He is not interested in what is, but what is necessary, not what happens to be or can be, but what must be.[4]

I think that this scepticism towards the sort of methodological naturalism Meillassoux has in his sights is a strength of his position. If something existed, either actually or virtually (i.e. either existed or inexisted), that were not amenable to the historically contingent scientific methodology of a particular historical generation, could the naturalism of that generation ever know it? The answer is ‘no’. The conclusion that Meillassoux draws is that this sort of naturalism, dogmatically shackled to the scientific methodology and majority assumptions in circulation a particular calendar date, can only ever practice epistemology by fiat, at least when it comes to the absolute. Having decided to play the game of cricket, such a dogmatic naturalism concludes that it is impossible to score goals or make a hole in one. Meillassoux calls this stance arrogant,[5] and I am inclined to agree.

Even its seemingly modest claim to rule out supernatural causes is built on the crumbling foundation of a dichotomous natural-supernatural split which many so-called supernaturalists would not recognise. This sort of naturalism creates the supernaturalism that it subsequently rejects, precisely in order to reject it. This is what in the past I have elsewhere called an “ascetic” position.[6] This naturalism draws a border through the middle of its territory, calling one side “natural” and the other “supernatural”—two concepts that it has conveniently created for the purpose. It digs trenches and defends one half of the territory to the last man, vowing never to set foot across the frontier, on pain of compromise. It is always defined by—and therefore reliant on and unable to come to terms with—that which it first names and then rejects. It is always half a position, and it puts naturalism on a constant war footing.[7]

Meillassoux’s brilliance in L’Inexistence divine is that he sees and rejects the paucity of this asceticism. He fills in the trench between the natural and the supernatural, rolls up the barbed wire and drives his tanks right into the middle of what was thought to be enemy territory.

  • Believe in God because he does not exist? Well, of course.
  • Resurrection of the dead? Naturally.
  • The coming of a Child of Man who will bring redemption? What else would speculative materialism lead to?

Don’t hear this and make the mistake of thinking Meillassoux has given up on the animating concerns that drive naturalist thought, and that he has gone away to live with the fairies at the bottom of the garden: he is still in the game of seeking hard absolutes you can bite down on and that will break your teeth rather than dissolve. Meillassoux has his absolute, and in valuing it he stands shoulder to shoulder with the naturalist. It’s just that his absolute is not the naturalist’s absolute because, as far as Meillassoux is concerned, the naturalist’s absolute never was absolute in the first place.

 

Primo- and Deutero-Absolutizing Properties

In the paper ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’,[8] Meillassoux distinguishes two senses of the word “absolute”:

  • In the first sense, he explains, “‘absolute’ refers to a property that is necessary for every being — such a property is absolute in the speculative sense. Thus facticity, and the logical consistency derived from it, are absolutely necessary and infrangible properties of every being.”[9] This first sense he calls “primo-absolutizing properties”.
  • The second sense of the word “absolute” concerns the natural sciences and “designates properties of the world that l do not posit as absolutely necessary, but as facts which, as to their existence, are radically independent of thought.”[10] These, for Meillassoux, are “deutero-absolutizing properties”.

He explains:

To say it more clearly: the laws and constants described by the natural sciences are not, for me, necessary—like every thing, they are subject to that superior regime of Time that I call Hyperchaos. But I would like to show that these laws and constants are not, for all that, mere correlates of thought; that they are absolute in the primary sense of absolutus — separate from us, independent of the thought that we have of them.[11]

Scientific naturalism, then, deals only with deutero-absolutizing properties, with laws and constants that are independent of our thought about them, and it forgets by fiat speculative primo-absolutizing properties to which its methodology can give it no access.

 

Primo- and Deutero-Anthropocentrism

We must, I submit, make a similar distinction between two forms of anthropocentrism.

  • There is, to be sure, a naïve anthropocentrism, the deutero-anthropocentrism of a correlationism for which objects, laws and constants only exist as correlates of my thought. It is a dead end. On that point I have no quarrel with Meillassoux.
  • But there is also a second anthropocentrism, a primo-anthropocentrism that is just as inescapable as a Meillassouxian primo-absolutizing property.

To see the nature of this primo-anthropocentrism, consider Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism in terms of two steps, to which it will prove necessary to add a third:

  • Step 1: I admit, to my great correlationist chagrin, the necessary contingency of the way things appear to me (in other words: they could always be different to how I perceive them). I am forever doomed to be a prisoner to my own apprehension. This is the position of the correlationist sceptic in After Finitude, and it is what I am calling a deutero-anthropocentrism.
  • Step 2: Meillassoux disabuses the anguished correlationist of her deutero-anthropocentrism by pointing out that her realisation of the necessary contingency of every correlation is not an epistemological slapdown but an epistemological breakthrough to the bedrock of an unimpeachable necessity. It is not just that everything is necessarily CONTINGENT, but that everything is NECESSARILY contingent. This is Meillassoux’s principle of factiality, in chapter 3 of After Finitude. Meillassoux stops at step 2.
  • But we are not finished yet; there is a third step. Because Meillassoux doesn’t seem to realise that the Hyperchaos which makes the laws of nature and the laws of logic contingent along with everything else,[12] and that therefore guarantees the epistemological breakthrough of factiality, does not suddenly turn back when it reaches the shores of “necessity” and “contingency” themselves. Meillassoux assumes that, through any hyper-chaotic change, the concepts of “necessity” and “contingency” as I currently understand them (along with my current grasp of Hyperchaos) will remain constant and will continue to give me an absolute purchase on the way things are, in just the same way that the naturalist he critiques thinks that the present state of our science gives us an absolute purchase on the way things are.[13] And it won’t do to retort that any change in such fundamental notions and the laws of logic on which they rely is strictly unthinkable, because if we limited ourselves only to what is currently thinkable we wouldn’t have much of a Hyperchaos.[14] It is the mise en jeu of Meillassoux’s own thinking (and yours, and mine) that is at stake here. He can’t, Canute-like, halt the rising tide of Hyperchaos at the shores of his own reasoning, any more than the naturalist can halt it at the laboratory door.[15]

And so just as Meillassoux invites the naturalist scientist to renounce her deutero-anthropocentrism, we must counsel Meillassoux to renounce the anthropophobia of refusing to admit that his own thinking is part of the situation he describes, and to embrace the primo-anthropocentrism that he elides in vain.

So what? So should we throw After Finitude in the bin, and stop waiting eagerly for the appearing of an expanded and re-written Divine Inexistence? Not at all. What we should do is admit that there is an ineliminably primo-anthropocentric moment in Meillassoux’s thought, a banal recognition that would only come cause a scandal if we had ever naively expected that it could or should be otherwise. Meillassoux has not found an Archimedean lever on which he can lift the world. This is not the end of the world, just the end of the possibility of lifting it. It’s OK for the materialist not to be God, indeed it should positively be encouraged.

Indeed, Meillassoux gives us a splendid model for dealing with this sort of predicament, in his critique of ascetic naturalism. Rather than digging trenches and mounting a border guard in a vain attempt to keep out the gusting wind of anthropocentrism, why not fill in the trench, stand down the patrol and send forth the tanks into the territory that used to be called “enemy”. Stop fasting and kill the sacred cow.

Anthropocentrism is not the enemy of enlightened speculation, or of an enlightened materialism for that matter. The human will remain. The danger for naturalism and for speculative materialism alike is not that we fail to eliminate anthropocentrism; the danger is we think that we have eliminated it and cease to pay attention to its (to our) ineliminable presence. There is no danger for speculative materialism from primo-anthropocentrism, because there is no danger in recognising the way things are; there is a great danger, however, in wrongly assuming that we can—or should want to—do away with anthropocentrism altogether.

 

[1] A quick skim through some representative reading matter makes the point well. For example. of the seven instances of the word in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, (ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (Melbourne: re.press, 2011)),  all seven are negatively connoted. Ian Bogost, who admits in his Alien Phenomenology, or, what it’s like to be a thing (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) that anthropocentrism is ‘unavoidable, at least for us humans’ (p. 64), speaks of anthropocentrism as ‘both a torment and a foregone conclusion’ (p. 80) and warns of the ‘risk of falling into’ it (p. 64), waxing wistful at the impossibility of ever finding out what it’s like not to be a human. In the twentieth century an ongoing game of philosophical one-upmanship was played by proclaiming one’s predecessors to be the last metaphysicians and claiming for oneself the mantle of being the first thinker truly to be free of metaphysics (or at least unprecedentedly aware of its ineliminability). It appears that the rules have stayed the same but the new aim of this old game is now to be the first thinker truly free of the anthropos (or at least more aware than one’s predecessors of the extent to which one is inextricably mired in it).

[2] Commenting on ‘a certain naturalism’ Meillassoux says that ‘such an approach seems profoundly futile to me, because it makes itself dependent, each time, upon a state of science that has no more reason to be thought definitive today than it did yesterday.’ Quentin Meillassoux, ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition: A Speculative Analysis of the Meaningless Sign’, Freie Universität, Berlin, 20 April 2012, p. 11. Available at http://oursecretblog.com/txt/QMpaperApr12.pdf‎.

[3] See Métaphysique et fiction des mondes hors-science (Paris: Aux Forges de Vulcain, 2013).

[4] ‘because I speculate upon the absolute, I prohibit myself entirely from speaking of that which is, not to mention that which could be. For that which is, is wholly contingent — and this, indeed, in a vaster sense than that of ordinary or transcendental contingency, which are restrained in various ways by physical laws or by the categories. According to me, anything whatsoever can happen — any world whatsoever can succeed any other. ’ Meillassoux, ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’ p. 12. QM’s italics.

[5] ‘I do not arrogantly base my thought on this or that contemporary state of science’. Meillassoux, ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’ p. 11.

[6] See Christopher Watkin, Difficult Atheism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012). The twin notions of ascetic and imitative atheism run through the volume.

[7] The naturalist at this point resembles an old joke told about a variety of different Protestant denominations. In this version I will leave the designation non-specific. A Protestant is shipwrecked on a desert island, surviving for twenty years in complete isolation. When he is finally spotted and picked up his rescuers notice that, in addition to his own dwelling, he had erected two further buildings on the island, both with a prominent wooden cross. When asked about these two edifices he replies: “The first is the church that I go to every Sunday. The other one? That’s the church I will never be seen dead going to.”

[8] Op. cit.

[9] Meillassoux, ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’ p. 18.

[10] Meillassoux, ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’ p. 18.

[11] Meillassoux, ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’ p. 18.

[12] Après la finitude (Paris : Editions du Seuil, 2006) 73 ; After Finitude : An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008) 53.

[13] Meillassoux is far from being the speculative thinker most prey to latent anthropocentrism. Indeed, in ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’ he chides the non-anthropocentric drive of some unnamed positions (it’s clear he has object oriented thought in mind) as producing precisely the opposite of what it sets out to achieve:

But the most singular form of this denial was perhaps another argument, typical of such a subjectalist hypostasis; another way in which it claimed to be anti-humanist, or counter-anthropological: It is a question, as above, of breaking (so we are told) with the derisory anthropocentrism in which man believes himself the sole depository of the subjective faculty that one intends to absolutize; of showing that man is but one particular representative, misguided by the prejudices of his consciousness, of a sensibility, of a life, that overflows him in every direction. He must, so it was insisted, go back down within himself to the infra-conscious level, to participate fully in this a-human subjectivity whose flux conveys him and transpierces [sic.: CW] him. But this refusal of anthropocentrism in fact leads only to an anthropomorphism that consists in the illusion of seeing in every reality (even inorganic reality) subjective traits the experience of which is in fact entirely human, merely varying their degree (an equally human act of imagination). Man finds in himself, whether at the conscious or infra-conscious level, only his own subjectivity — which the really inhuman Universe is in no way obliged to take over, so as to please the philosopher who hopes through this experience to escape from himself. To free oneself of man, in this strange humanism-in-denial, was simply to disseminate oneself everywhere, even into rocks and particles, and according to a whole scale of intensities. (Meillassoux, ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’, p. 5)

[14] It might be objected, as Nathan Brown objects to Peter Hallward’s review of After Finitude, that this is an unfair reading of Meillassoux. I quote Brown at length:

Hallward wonders ‘why an abstract, mathematized description of an object should be any less mind-dependent or anthropocentric than a sensual or experiential description’. He then goes on to argue, ‘the idea that the meaning of the statement ‘the universe was formed 13.5 billion years ago’ might be independent of the mind that thinks it only makes sense if you disregard the quaintly parochial unit of measurement involved’ (Hallward, ‘Anything is possible’ 56).  Again, this point has force only insofar as it stretches Meillassoux’s arguments beyond the proper domain of their application—to which Meillassoux himself is careful to restrict them. Meillassoux does not argue that units of measurement or mathematical descriptions of objects ‘might be independent of the mind’. He argues that ‘what is mathematizable cannot be reduced to a correlate of thought’ (After Finitude 117).  For Meillassoux (after Descartes) the mathematical descriptions of physics or cosmology index primary qualities. (Nathan Brown, ‘The Speculative and the Specific: On Hallward and Meillassoux’, in The Speculative Turn, op. cit., 144-5).

First, my critique is not like Hallward’s. He suggests that Meillassoux is caught out by the ‘quaintly parochial’ measurement of a year; I am arguing that the very idea of measurement as we understand it could, hyperchaotically, be up for grabs. Hallward is quibbling over a particular means of measurement; I am calling into question the very idea. Secondly, even if we take Brown’s critique as applying also to the position I am sketching, it leaves Meillassoux with an unenviable choice to make. Either he holds, as Brown suggests, that the mathematizable will remain recognizably mathematizable in terms of a recognizable mathematics whatever hyperchaotic change might eventuate, and Meillassoux finds himself joining in the naturalist’s epistemology by fiat, which elsewhere he rightly condemns. Or he might admit that Hyperchaos can tinker with our maths and our minds as well as with our measurements, and that we can’t bootstrap ourselves out of our situation, de-humanising ourselves in the same way that Meillassoux condemns when he sees it in certain object-oriented positions (see note 13). Like it or not (and for the most part, it appears, we dislike it very much), ‘vous êtes embarqués’.

[15] This quick sketch of the argument is all I have space for here. I have dealt with similar issues at greater length in chapter 4 of Difficult Atheism (‘Beyond A/theism? Quentin Meillassoux’), and in ‘Quentin Meillassoux, divine inexistence and split rationality’, available at https://christopherwatkin.com/2013/05/26/quentin-meillassoux-and-divine-inexistence/

Reconceiving Naturalism with Meillassoux’s Métaphysique et fiction des mondes hors-science

Meillassoux, MEFDMHSLater this month (26-27 April) I have been asked to contribute to a conference organised by Telos at Swinburne University in Melbourne. The conference, Reconceiving Naturalism, has been convened to explore the need for richer naturalisms.

I plan to speak on Meillassoux’s Métaphysique et fiction des mondes hors-science. This short volume had a former life as a paper given at the ENS in 2006 in a series of talks on « Métaphysique et science-fiction », recordings of which are available on the ENS site. A new version was published in 2013 by Les Éditions Aux forges de Vulcain, together with a French translation of Isaac Asimov’s ‘The billiard ball’.

Through a reflection on the modalities of science fiction Meillassoux’s little book provides a fascinating way to probe and reassess naturalistic epistemologies in a more productive way than we might think possible were we to focus exclusively on his somewhat dismissive comments about science and naturalism in L’Inexistence divine and elsewhere.