French Philosophy Today paperback now shipping

I just received my copy of French Philosophy Today in paperback. You can find it on Amazon here.

Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Catherine Malabou, Michel Serres and Bruno Latour: this comparative, critical analysis shows the promises and perils of new French philosophy’s reformulation of the idea of the human.

See here for chapter summaries.

French Philosophy Today paperback now on Amazon pre-order

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

I am delighted to announce that the paperback edition of French Philosophy Today is now (finally!) available for pre-order on Amazon. The U.S. site has it at $39.95 and most European sites set the price at around €25. Curiously, amazon.co.uk has the paperback at £150, which I assume is a mistake soon to be corrected.

Here is a series of posts I wrote when the book was first published, summarising its content chapter by chapter.

What is a theological concept? Part 5: Quentin Meillassoux, reason, and hyperchaos

This is the final post summarizing some conclusions from Difficult Atheism, before this series launches out into new territory. In previous posts I have introduced the series, discussed a schema for distinguishing between different atheisms, sketched Alain Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Christmas Projection”, and reflected upon Nancy’s own idea that there is “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity” itself. I now turn to Quentin Meillassoux and ask once more, in a preliminary way, whether there might be a moment in his thought that can be considered “theological”.

Meillassoux avoids both Badiou’s assertion of the unchangeable nature of philosophy and Nancy’s recourse to a Christian notion of the archetype in his “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity”. He does this by insisting that the only starting point for his philosophy is that there is no necessity. Note that this is his starting point, not his final position. We shall see below that a certain necessity does enter Meillassoux’s thinking (the necessity of contingency, and the necessity of the law of non-contradiction), but it is made necessary, precisely, by the need for there to be no necessary being or necessary law.

The radical nature of his position becomes apparent if we consider the import of this “only”. There are no eo ipso necessary laws, either of nature or of logic, and certainly no necessary being or beings. Why does Meillassoux insist on this starting point? Because allowing any necessity into philosophy would, in fact, be opening wide the door to religion. A belief in perennial laws is religious because it makes some transcendent action necessary in order to maintain the laws over time. Without such a metaphysical intervention there is nothing to guarantee that (natural or logical) laws may not change. Concomitantly, Meillassoux warns that ‘We have removed the gods, but we have kept the belief in the divine solidity of laws’ (L’Inexistence divine[1] 4), reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”[2]

For his own part, Meillassoux insists that these constants can be abolished, for the simple reason that nothing sustains them from the outside (ID 4).  He deals at length with the obvious objections that could be raised to this adherence to the contingency of natural and logical laws, not least among which is the observation that natural laws have remained constant over a long period. We might resist Meillassoux’s notion that natural laws could change at any instant with the simple observation that they do not, in fact, change: Eppur non si muove! Meillassoux’s argument, in brief, hinges on the difference between chance (understood in terms of a finite and known number of possibilities, like a dice throw) and contingency (for which there is no known number of possible outcomes). Whereas chance presupposes a prior structure within which it operates (for example the structure of the faces of a die), contingency obeys no law and works within no such structure (ID 13). It follows, Meillassoux argues, that we cannot use probabilistic reasoning about the set of all possible worlds, because there is no set of all possible worlds (ID 36-38). Contingency is the appearance of a new universe of cases, not the appearance of any given universe (ID 16). We are therefore mistaken to refute Meillassoux’s thesis on the basis that the chance of a given law not having changed over a very long period of time (the argument that “if it can change, it would have changed by now”), because chance itself is only thinkable under a regime of the stability of physical laws, and so the objection assumes the stability it intends to prove.

Meillassoux builds his position as follows. First, there can be no real necessity, no necessary being, on pain of theology. Secondly it follows that the facticity of a thing is not itself a fact (Après la finitude 107/After Finitude 79)[3], because if facticity were itself a fact (that is to say, contingent and not necessary) there could be a necessary being, and the door would once more be open to religious fideism. So, the only necessity is contingency itself:

what is, is factical, but that what is is factical, this itself cannot be a fact. Only the facticity of what is cannot be factical. Or again, in other words: it cannot be a fact that what is is a fact… The contingency of beings, and it alone, cannot be a contingent property of that being (ID 44).

Factiality, in other words, is the non-facticity of facticity (AF 107/AfF 79). Contingency is itself necessary in order to avoid a necessary being which, after the death of God, we have no grounds to admit into our thinking. We may say that an object is de facto red, but not that it is de facto de facto (ID 46).

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

And what is necessity? Necessity consists in the impossibility of qualifying contingency as contingent (ID 47). Contingency is necessarily non-contingent, because if it were contingent then there could be a necessary being, which Meillassoux has already ruled out. In order to avoid falling back into metaphysics, Meillassoux stresses that the principle of factiality does not maintain that contingency is necessary, but that only contingency is necessary (AF 108/AfF 80), as a direct correlate of the absence of any necessary being, event or law.

It follows from the principle of factiality that a radical change in the laws of nature, what Meillassoux calls a hyperchaotic change, is quite possible. Whereas mere chaos is ‘disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything’, hyperchaos (surcontingence) is a contingency ‘so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity’, or again it is ‘the equal contingency of order and disorder, of becoming and sempiternity’ (‘Time Without Being’). Meillassoux evokes ‘a hyperchaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be impossible, not even the unthinkable’ (AF 87/AfF 64).

This hyperchaos itself issues in a residual necessity for Meillassoux because it is contingency which, unlimited and absolute, becomes its own norm (‘se norme elle-même’, ID 239 ; cf AF 90/AfF 66). Metaphysics announces ‘necessity is’, and relativism counters ‘there is no necessity’, but the principle of factiality stakes out a fresh position: there is necessity because necessity cannot be (‘il y a de la nécessité parce que la nécessité ne peut être’, ID 239 ; QM’s italics)).

 

Meillassoux’s ‘split rationality’: a theological moment?

What Meillassoux is trying to prove is his principle of factiality and the law of non-contradiction that he derives from it (a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite because then it would, after all, be necessary). In Après la finitude he makes it clear in a way that remained obscure in ‘L’Inexistence divine’ that the laws of logic are just as contingent as the laws of nature: ‘Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws’ (AfF 53). Nevertheless, non-contradiction is derived from the principle of factiality and so stands, or so Meillassoux claims, as absolute, because it must be assumed in any attempt to contradict it.

But there is a problem with this, a problem I have called the ‘split rationality critique’ of Meillassoux’s proof, namely that he acknowledges that what is thought about (trees, stars, laws) is absolutely contingent, but he exempts from hyperchaotic contingency the thinking itself. The problem for Meillassoux is that, in order to be consistent, the laws of his own thinking should be subject to the same conditions as the natural and logical laws that thinking describes. In other words, the processes by which he arrives at the notions of ‘necessity’, ‘contingency’ and ‘factiality’ must themselves be able to be replaced by other, currently unimaginable, processes, and other ways of thinking.

In order to walk through this argument a little more slowly, let us consider Meillassoux’s reconstruction of facticity. In this reconstruction, he draws a necessity out of the strong correlationist model itself, where the strong model of correlationism is summarised as ‘it is unthinkable that the unthinkable is impossible’. In this correlationist model, the ‘logicity’ of the world does not conform to the structures of logical reason, and the givenness of the world in a representation does not conform to the structures of representative reason (AF 55/AfF 40). We cannot be sure that things are not Wholly Other to how they are represented to us. This uncertainty, the canonical limit of the rational, also legitimates faith in a God who transcends the limits of the thinkable (ID 49).

This reasoning yields a ‘precise and remarkable’ consequence: ‘it becomes rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality’ (AF 56/AfF 41).[i] Let us try to reconstruct in our turn what is at stake here. There are two instances of rationality in play in this quotation. First, the ‘non-rational discourse on the absolute’ which cannot be disqualified, and secondly the ‘rational illegitimacy’ of such a disqualification. It is the second of these two instances that shall detain us, because it is this second instance that Meillassoux fails to take into account in his argument for absolute contingency. In order to know whether or not it is rationally legitimate or illegitimate to suppose p, I must have some notion of rational legitimacy. But this notion of rational legitimacy, just as much as the ‘non rational discourse’ that is its object, must be contingent. Like gravity, it may be stable enough for the moment, but it is not necessary that it remain for ever thus.

So, to rephrase Meillassoux’s reconstruction of strong correlationism with this proviso inserted: it is rationally illegitimate, according to the contingent norms of rationality that prevail at the moment, to disqualify a non-rational discourse on the absolute on pretext of its irrationality. What would different norms of rationality look like? We do not know, and that’s the point. By thinking of them as “different” and as “norms” we are already projecting our current norms and our current understanding of difference onto them, domesticating hyperchaotic change.

This insertion of ‘according to the contingent norms of rationality that prevail at the moment’ is a modest proviso, perhaps, but one with the deepest consequences for Meillassoux’s principle of factiality. The very decision as to what may or may not be ‘rationally legitimate’ must not be unaccountably exempted from a possible future contingent rationality that in the present remains radically unforeseeable, on pain once more of fideism in the enduring necessity of rationality as it is currently understood and practised.

We cannot bootstrap rationality out of contingency, and to protect one’s own rationality from hyperchaotic contingency in this way is Meillassoux’s theological moment. Something is raised above and exempted from hyperchaotic change, namely Meillassoux’s own reasoning, and rationality is ‘split’ between, on the one hand, the object of thought (which is subject to hyperchaotic change), and the categories and reasoning of that thought, including concepts of ‘necessity’ and ‘contingency’ themselves (which appears not to be subject to that same change). Hyperchaotic change ceases at the cranium. Let Meillassoux be true and every man a liar; heaven and earth may pass away, but his words will never pass away (see Romans 3:4; Matthew 24:35).

 

[1] Hereafter: ID. All translations from ‘L’Inexistence divine’ are my own.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 170.

[3] Hereafter: AF/AfF.

[i] ‘it becomes rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality’ (AfF 41).

cc image courtesy of Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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French Philosophy Today reviewed at NDPR

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

French Philosophy Today has just been reviewed over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Here are some highlights:

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s famously defined philosophical production as concept creation. If they are correct, then Watkin’s work is not just a scholarly commentary of philosophy but also itself an inventive philosophical work.

If Alain Badiou, the first French thinker analyzed in the book, is to be believed, then philosophers are his country’s greatest export. Certainly those who want to keep abreast about what is happening in France today in regards to this export should pick up Watkin’s book.

This book is relevant to anyone who is interested in the scholarly methodology and creative enterprise of syntopically reading multiple philosophical oeuvres together. Watkin’s bibliographic thoroughness and analytic meticulousness is impressive. It appears that he has read almost anything of relevance to the topic. The texts he references include not just philosophical works from various eras, schools and geographies but also works from theology, the humanities, social science, natural sciences and mathematics.

Watkin’s formulations are rigorous and precise. Through his careful reading and evaluation of the texts by the five French philosophers, Watkin introduces an arsenal of new conceptual technologies and divisional schemas for understanding the question of the human.

See here for chapter summaries of the book.

Talk at UD Melbourne on Aug 5 – Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux

On August 5 at 11am Difficult AtheismI will have the pleasure of speaking at the Melbourne University of Divinity philosophy seminar on the subject “Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux”. The talk seeks to synthesise and develop some of the main lines of thinking from Difficult Atheism and to open the argument of the book to a wider audience.

Here is the abstract:

This paper summarises and extends the argument of my 2011 book Difficult Atheism to argue that contemporary “atheism” is an umbrella term used to describe three distinct positions. I briefly explore these three positions in the work of French philosophers Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux, showing that they seek to position themselves in relation to the theological in three mutually exclusive ways. As well as being of interest to scholars working in contemporary French thought, the talk aims to offer to a broader audience a framework for understanding and evaluating modern atheisms.

French Philosophy Today: Summary of Chapter 2 – Meillassoux

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and LatourThis is the second in a series of posts providing short summaries of the chapters in my latest book, French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. For further chapter summaries, please see here.

Chapter 2 continues exploring the contemporary permutations of the host capacity account of humanity with a close reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s transformation of the human. The place of the human in Meillassoux’s thought is complex. On the one hand, he maintains a strong and consistent rhetoric of anti-anthropocentrism, and his fundamental philosophical project can be summarised as an attempt to break free from what he sees as the anthropocentric straitjacket of Kantian and post- Kantian ‘correlationist’ thought. On the other hand, however, Meillassoux evinces (especially in his work subsequent to After Finitude and nowhere more strikingly than in ‘The Divine Inexistence’) a very high view of the human indeed, not hesitating to call his philosophy a ‘humanism’ and asserting the value of the human as ultimate.

I seek to show, in the first half of the chapter, that Meillassoux’s humanism is less humanist than he thinks and, in the second part, that his attempt to disengage from anthropocentrism is more anthropocentric than he thinks.

As in the case of Badiou, it is Meillassoux’s insistence on tethering the value of humanity to its capacity for thought that lies at the root of many of the problems of his anthropology. This leads me to move beyond the host capacity approach as I turn, in Chapter 3, to the thought of Catherine Malabou.

A table showing who is part of the new materialism, and an argument as to why it is not a “turn”

I’m currently writing the introduction to The Human Remains, discussing the figure of the human in the new materialism. I thought I would share the table I drew up of all the thinkers identified as part of the new materialism in different monographs and collected volumes. I have excluded individual journal articles from the list below in order to keep it under a page, and the table also excludes occasional references to the term “new materialism” by writers in the list (Catherine Malabou, for example, uses the term on a number of occasions).

Some of these texts employ the “new materialism” tag explicitly, while others have been included because the themes they identify in contemporary thought overlap substantially with at least some of the main concerns of NM. I was inspired by the table drawn up by Joe Hughes in his review of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy for NDPR.

If you think I’ve missed any important entries, let me know and I’ll update the table. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, but it does attempt to include all the main book-length treatments of the new materialism. The full bibliographical references are given below the table.

new materialist thinkers, ordered alphabetically

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: re.press, 2011.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Crockett, Clayton, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. London: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Galloway, Alexander R. Les Nouveaux Réalistes. Paris: Editions Léo Scheer, 2012.

Gratton, Peter. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Hallward, Peter. “The One and the Other: French Philosophy Today.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003).

James, Ian. The New French Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Johnston, Adrian. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

Mullarkey, John. Post-Continental Philosophy. Transversals. edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson London: Continuum, 2006.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. London: Routledge, 2015.

 

Here is a passage from the introduction to The Human Remains, sketching why I think it misleading to refer to the new materialism as a “turn”. The extract jumps in towards the end of a reading of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy:

In the final paragraph of the introduction to The New French Philosophy, James makes a brief but very telling remark: “these philoso­phers seek to renew the way in which they think, to transform the manner in which they come to write philosophy itself” (James 2012: 16). In his conclusion James returns to this idea in order to establish a three-fold chain of influence which accounts for the emergence of the new materialism, a chain which leads from a demand, through a technique, to a philosophy. The new materialism, he argues, has heeded a new demand and generated in response to that demand a new technique or techniques, which have in turn produced the philosophy that we now call “new materialism”. The demand is issued by the real:

it can be argued that a transformation in philosophical practice or technique has occurred in response to the necessity of rethinking the real outside of the linguistic paradigm and in response to the necessity of repo­sitioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques or technicity of thought. […] The task of thought which these philosophers take up, and the demand of thought to which they respond, is one of thinking material immanence and worldly, shared existence. They do so by way of techniques which affirm themselves as resolutely mate­rial. (James 2012: 187,8)

What I find compelling about James’s analysis at this point is that, with the emergence in French thought of what is coming to be called the “new materialism”, we are dealing not only with a new set of thoughts but with a new way of thinking, not just of new philosophy but at least new “technique”, and perhaps a little more as well. There are parallels to be drawn here with the emergence of “postmodernism”, however unwieldy we consider that term to be.

This is why it is misleading to speak of a “turn to the material”. The genus “turn” comes in two prepositional species: the “turn in” and the “turn to”. Perhaps the classic example of the first variant is the “theological turn in French phenomenology”. He we have a relatively consistent (though contested) theoretical framework, namely phenomenology, deployed to investigate new sets of phenomena, namely theological ones. This “turn” is a relatively modest change, and that is why it has courted such controversy. If the theological phenomenologists were claiming to be doing something completely new, departing radically from phenomenology, then the non-theological phenomenologists would not feel the need to enter the lists against them. This sort of “turn in” is an extension of a way of thinking that already exists. Turns “to” cover much the same ground. A technique of thinking that already exists turns to redirect its critical and analytic gaze onto a new subject matter or a new problem. A cursory Google search turns up “the turn to technology in social studies of science”, “the affective turn in philosophy”, the turn to religion in early modern English studies“ and “the turn to community in the arts”. To describe the new materialism in these terms would misunderstand what it is. As James rightly points out, it is not just that something new is being thought about, but that thinking is happening in a new way, with a new technique and a new style.

I would, however, nuance and develop James’s helpful account in two ways. First, the influence of the demand on the technique and the technique on the philosophy should not be thought to be unidirectional. Secondly, I would question the extent to which we can differentiate between a new demand and a new capacity or predisposition to apprehend and respond to a demand. I want to re-frame James’s new demand as what I will call a new “disposition”. Disposition is to technique as technique is to the content of philosophy.

A philosophical disposition includes, to be sure, a new fundamental set of assumptions about the nature of reality, but it articulates and deploys those assumptions as part of a new way of holding oneself in the world and new style of writing which are just as fundamental as the assumptions that take root in their soil. Such a new disposition informs and engenders not only a new set of concepts and ideas, and not just a new set of philosophical questions, themes, and areas of investigation but also, along with them, new rhythms of language and of engagement with the world, along with a demand for a new way and rhythm of reading.

[…at this point in the introduction I work through the notion of “disposition” systematically. I’ll cut to the concluding paragraph…]

What is captured by evoking a new disposition but missed when we refer merely to a new “turn”, “event” or “technique” is that the change we are witnessing with the rise of the new materialism implies and predisposes not only to a way of thinking and writing but to away of holding oneself in the world, and that this in turn brings forth a new world, where “world” is understood as the objects, concerns and ideas that appear to a particular philosophical disposition, and that appear important. It is not only that certain things appear more important than before (that would be a “turn”), nor that certain things appear simpliciter, in the sense that they are now written about when previously they were not considered at all (that would be an “event”), but that a new way of holding oneself in the world brings forth a new set of concerns, objects and ideas that also in turn form and inform that same emerging disposition.

I then go on in the introduction to relate my notion of “disposition” to ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy and other thinkers.

 

Next week I plan to press on with re-drafting the first chapter, which deals with Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricœur’s respective readings of Spinoza in What Makes us Think? and elsewhere.

New review of Difficult Atheism at Marx and Philosophy

Over at Marx&Philosophy, Bryan Cooke (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference) has posted a review of Difficult Atheism.

The opening paragraph gives a flavour of the review’s tone and also of Bryan’s style, which, for all the right reasons, is best left undescribed:

Christopher Watkin’s thoughtful, learned and above all deeply nuanced book about three major contemporary French philosophers brings a welcome depth, conceptual deftness and almost unprecedented sobriety to a topic (namely the relationship between philosophy, religion and politics) which more often than not is completely swallowed in a kind of bathetic tennis match between the ideological nostrums du jour.

It is clear that Bryan found the chapters on Meillassoux most engaging, and after gently questioning the way I bring in Jean-Luc Nancy to sit alongside (and against) Badiou and Meillassoux, he concludes thus:

Difficult Atheism is a first-rate, profoundly illuminating book. Scholarly without being portentous, rigorous without being dry, it is the kind of book which retroactively renders whole shelves redundant. And while it is in no way a manifesto, nor a political tract in a conventional sense, I think that its reflections on justice and religion will be of interest to Marxists, for whom, after all – following Marx, and against 19th century positivism – atheism has always been difficult, precisely because it is tied to the project of a world where religious opiates will not be necessary.

It is a very gracious and elegant review, and I am grateful to Bryan for the time and care he clearly spent considering the book’s arguments.

 

Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

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.

lever

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/