Quick Thoughts on Quentin Meillassoux

For those who keeps up with contemporary philosophy, Quentin Meillassoux is probably one of the most famous rising French philosopher who belongs to the movement known as Speculative Realism / Materialism. His book, After Finitude (2006) seeks to challenge the entire post-Kantian tradition by arguing for us to think beyond “correlationism”, and into what he terms “ancestrality”. Currently, this is my third time reading this book because I admire his ambition and cleverness. But I am not entirely convinced if we can achieve such thing.

To those who are new to philosophy or is unfamiliar with its history, correlationism refers to a highly influential philosophical thought by Immanuel Kant, who argued that our conceptions of causality (such as those seen in natural sciences, or what we call “natural laws”), ethics, metaphysics, etc. are only possible through the subject’s intuition of space and time. For my avid followers (which is probably zero lol) I have, in many of my previous posts, showed how this works in layman terms. Perhaps I shall once again repeat myself in an easily digestible way.

In order for their to be any objects in the world that appears before our eyes, there has to be a conscious thinking subject. If I was never born, I would not know that the Earth existed because I am not a subject who is capable of thinking of the Earth as an object for inquiry. As of this moment, I am able to conceive of Earth as an object because I am already a thinking subject. Therefore, the moment I am a thinking subject, Earth—the world-in-itself—is instantly related to me as the subject. This is what we can simply call “correlationism”, which means that there is always a correlation between the object and the conscious subject.

Now, this object which appears before our eyes, whatever it might be, is not completely knowable to us because we are not the object in-itself (since we are thinking subjects). Kant’s famous claim is that we can never know any object in-itself—at least never in the absolute sense. By saying that X object can be explained with Y properties via mathematics is to idealize the object in-itself. This is known as “transcendental idealism”. Kant’s ideas changed the way we see the world by showing that it is our conscious minds in relationship to these objects through spacetime, which sets the limits to all knowledge. This is “true” in pretty much all of natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), along with our everyday lives and how we see perceive objects around us. In short, correlationism is everywhere since this is how “perspective” arises (i.e. a unique perspective about the world is a unique way of correlating with the world as a subject).

Meillassoux points out that, ever since Kant’s philosophy, pretty much every philosopher assumes this Kantian position (which is true—at least from what I know). From Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida; with the last two who arguably represents the summit of correlationism (and to be fair, Nietzsche was also a critic of Kant in the sense that Kant only focuses on the mind and not the body—something which Heidegger, Derrida and Merleau-Ponty picks up on). Another words, we never really found a way to think beyond the correlationism between subject and object because Kant’s argument seems undeniably true and hard to completely reject.

Essentially, Meillassoux is attempting to think of the object independent of the subject beyond correlationism. He tries to do this by arguing that there are certain properties in the object which are absolute regardless of the existence of the subject. One of the prime examples of this property is mathematics (in particular to the notion of contingency). An example Meillassoux uses is the “ancestral statement” that “the date of the origin of life on earth was 3.5 billion years ago”. For Meillassoux, mathematics allows us to know what occurred in Earth 3.5 billion years ago, even when there were no human subject to witness such event. For Meillassoux, this statement should be seen as an absolute that is independent of the subject. Whereas a correlationalist would say: you know that the origin of life began 3.5 billion years ago because you are sitting here in spacetime inquiring the knowledge from this piece of writing. Another words, while it may appear that you are recalling to the beginnings of life on Earth as you read this “ancestral statement”, you are actually just sitting here in the present moment establishing a correlation with the object (in this case, the “ancestral statement”).

Here, we can summarize the main difference between Meillassoux and correlationists as follow. For Meillassoux, if the subject did not exist, the mathematical properties of X object will remain intact to the object because these properties are independent of the subject and are absolute. For correlationists, if the conscious subject did not exist, the object will not exist because there is no thinking subject who will be able to conceive of the object as such. But even if the subject exists, the subject is correlating themselves with the object through an idealism via mathematics, which is never the absolute properties of the object in-itself. Meillassoux argues for us to think beyond correlation by conceiving of an absolute ancestral thought without a subject—to think of a “thought” that is independent of subjective thought. Yet, in the views of a correlationalist—the “thought” about this “non-thought” is still a thought conceived by the subject.

So far, I have read several responses to Meillassoux’s work. The most memorable one is by Alenka Zupancic (a Lacanian), who clearly stated that ancestral statements means nothing. I thought it was memorable because of how straight forward she was in the book (a bit like me, forward and to the point). Maybe it was because I secretly wanted to reject Meillassoux’s thoughts that I remembered her response. But since I don’t like jumping to conclusions so quickly, I will suspend my judgement until further notice. Overall, I am not sure if Meillassoux’s ideas will “work”.

I have recently been searching for other books hoping that they would offer me alternate insights on Meillassoux’s problem on Kant. One of the books I recently ordered is by Geoffrey Bennington (a renown student, translator, and scholar of Derrida) called, Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth (2017). I expect it to have lots of Kant, and the “spirit” of Derrida in it. I look forward to reading it regardless of whether it will help me determine if Meillassoux’s thoughts will work or not.