contingencies

Yesterday on Object-Oriented Philosophy, Graham Harman made the following point about Quentin Meillassoux:

What many people still aren’t getting, and I myself didn’t quite grasp initially, is that Meillassoux is in a sense pro-correlationist, unlike the rest of us. For Meillassoux, the argument that “if you try to think a tree outside thought, you are thinking it, and it is thereby a tree inside thought” is a compelling fact for all philosophy. The attempt to get outside this circle is, for him, merely a dazzling rhetorical move or appeal to a “rich elsewhere” (he finds Latour guilty of this, and by implication me too). … Meillassoux really stands in the Badiou/Zizek/Lacan cluster, admires Hegel more than anyone else, and is not really a classic “realist.” Meillassoux simply wants to radicalize the human/world correlate into a form of absolute knowledge.

This is probably the clearest, most direct, and (it seems to me) most accurate characterization of Meillassoux’s position that I’ve come across. My reaction to his argument in After Finitude has always been that he has things backward (or upside-down?), so that the conclusions he draws from his mostly rather sharp insights tend to be the opposite of where those insights actually point. For instance, he sees “ancestrality” as a problem for “correlationism” because the ancestral datum signals a non-given existence, a time before givenness. But of course this is only a real problem if givenness has to be confined to givenness to or for the subject or thought in general, which seems to be exactly what he would want to argue against. If his initial characterization of correlationism is to be taken seriously, then it would be that position for which ancestrality is not a problem – or at most is a sort of attractive pseudo-problem. I can’t help but see it as such in After Finitude.

Now, I find his argument regarding the principle of factiality – viz., the sub-titular case for the necessity of contingency – much more engaging (if not always completely consistent). Thinking contingency as absolute is a problem to which so-called correlationism seems to be inescapably led, and one that it wouldn’t really be capable of addressing in any of its classical forms. What does bug me, though, is Meillassoux’s apparent attitude that taking the principle of factiality seriously amounts to an unstoppable critique of religion and/or theology. (This point, which is only a minor theme in After Finitude, makes me eager to get my hands on a copy of L’inexistence divine.) At least in After Finitude, Meillassoux never really engages with actual theological positions (many of which, at least in contemporary Christian theology, would be more than happy to endorse the complete contingency of every existent thing and existence itself – this is a perfectly coherent interpretation of creatio ex nihilo). Instead, he conflates belief, theology, and naïve fideism in a very facile way and then acts as if a defeat of the weakest of these amounts to a defeat of all of them.

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Posted on December 6, 2009, in Speculative Realism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Just found your blog, and thanks for the Meillassoux interaction. I have written a 3 part piece on my blog utilizing Eberhard Jungel’s account of the absolute contingency of divine ontology (following Barthian trajectory) as a theological project in line with the principle of factiality. I completely agree with you that Meillassoux’s metaphysical project is more interesting then the ancestrality stuff. Hopefully, The Divine Inexistence will fill the theological gap!

    • Troy,
      Thanks for the pointer to your piece on a theological appropriation of Meillassoux. I think you’re right on to say that the recent “turn to religion” in Continental philosophy doesn’t have that much to offer contemporary theology – in fact, I think it has a lot to learn from theology. I’m not sure how convinced I am that SR or OOP of any type really has the power to lead theology in new directions, or to bring contemporary theology and philosophy into a new kind of partnership, but it’s something I’m going to continue thinking about after reading your piece.
      I think that you have a particularly good point when you say that, if the world is not necessary for God, God is also not necessary for the world. To me, this wouldn’t be a statement about God’s existence (i.e., if God exists, God’s existence must be contingent like anything else) but about the relationship between God and the world. As Paul Tillich wrote, it’s as atheistic to affirm God’s existence as it is to deny it. But there’s a lot to be said about thinking the relationship between God (for whom existence is not ultimately the issue) and the world (which is all that does exist) as contingent. I’m not sure I’d agree that the Barthian tradition is the only contemporary theological perspective that can take up this cause, but I’ll admit it has been a while since I’ve done strictly theological work, and I’m poorly equipped right now to give you another example. I’ll be thinking about it, though!

  2. Thanks for the constructive criticism. Glad to know someone reads this stuff, eh? I definitely agree with your assertion that the Barthian tradition isn’t the only potential partner for contemporary continental philosophy – it just happens that I have that theological background. I really just want to develop a metaphysical foundation for political thought that is able to fruitfully converse with contemporary materialism, where my political sympathies lie. Its a simple project of resolving dissonance.

    Also, you’re exactly right to say that the issue of contingency is not about the actual existence or nonexistence of God, but about the nature of the ontological relationship between the two. In other words, there’s no need for a principle of ancestrality here, as it may just serve to confuse (as it seems to have for many readers of Meillassoux). Making this distinction is vital for the ongoing relevance of such a project.

    Again, thanks for the short engagement.

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