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Quentin Meillassoux “After Finitude”

Meillassoux, Quentin 2012. After Finitude. An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury.

(Correlationism): In short, nothing sensible – whether it be an affective or perceptual quality – can exist in the way it is given to me in the thing by itself, when it is not related to me or to any other living creature. (1)

Whether it be affective or perceptual, the sensible only exists as a relation: a relation between the world and the living creature I am. (2)

In order  to  reactivate  the  Cartesian  thesis  in  contemporary  terms, and in order to state it in the same terms in which we intend to uphold  it,  we  shall  therefore  maintain  the following:  all  those aspects  of  the  object  that  can  be  formulated  in  mathematical  terms can be meaningfully conceived as properties of the object in itself. (3)

The  thesis  we  are  defending  is  therefore  twofold:  on  the  one hand,  we  acknowledge  that  the  sensible  only  exists  as  a  subject’s relation to the world; but on the other hand, we maintain that the mathematizable  properties  of  the  object  are  exempt  from  the constraint  of  such  a  relation,  and  that  they  are  effectively  in  the object  in  the  way  in  which  I  conceive  them,  whether  I  am  in relation with this object or not. (3)

By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being,  and  never  to  either  term  considered  apart  from  the  other. We  will  henceforth  call  correlationism  any  current  of  thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined. (5)

We  will  call  ‘real  necessity’  this  ontological register of necessity which states that such and such an entity (or determinate  res)  necessarily  exists.  And  it  would  seem  that  this type  of  necessity  can  be  found  in  all  the  variants  of  dogmatic metaphysics.  For  to  be  dogmatic  is  invariably  to  maintain  that this  or  that  –  i.e.  some  determinate  entity  – must  absolutely  be, and be the way it is, whether it is Idea, pure Act, atom, indivisible soul,  harmonious  world,  perfect  God,  infinite  substance,  World-Soul,  global  history,  etc.  But  if  we  characterize  a  metaphysics minimally in terms of this kind of claim, viz., that such and such an  entity  must  absolutely  be,  we  then  begin  to  understand  how metaphysics  culminates  in  the  ontological  argument,  viz.,  in  the claim  that  this  or  that  entity  must  absolutely  be  because  it  is  the way  it  is.  The  ontological  argument  posits  a  necessary  being  ‘par excellence’ insofar as the essence of this being provides the reason for its existence – it is because God’s essence is to be perfect that He must necessarily exist. (33)

The  critique  of  ideologies,  which  ultimately  always consists  in  demonstrating  that  a  social  situation  which  is presented  as  inevitable  is  actually  contingent,  is  essentially indissociable  from  the  critique  of  metaphysics,  the  latter  being understood as the illusory manufacturing of necessary entities. (34)

Contingency expresses the fact that physical laws  remain  indifferent  as  to  whether  an  event  occurs  or  not  – they  allow  an  entity  to  emerge,  to  subsist,  or  to  perish.  But facticity, by way of contrast, pertains to those structural invariants that  supposedly  govern  the  world  –  invariants  which  may  differ from one variant of correlationism to another, but whose function in  every  case  is  to  provide  the  minimal  organization  of representation: principle of causality, forms of perception, logical laws,  etc. (39)

For  if  contingency consists  in  knowing  that  worldly  things  could  be  otherwise, facticity  just  consists  in  not  knowing  why  the  correlational structure  has  to  be  thus.  This  is  a  point  that  should  be  borne  in mind  throughout  what  follows:  in  insisting  upon  the  facticity  of correlational  forms,  the  correlationist  is  not  saying  that  these forms could actually change; he is merely claiming that we cannot think why it should be impossible for them to change, nor why a reality  wholly  other  than  the  one  that  is  given  to  us  should be proscribed a priori. (39-40)

Consequently, the  most  general  thesis  of  the  strong  model  pertains  to  the existence  of  a  regime  of  meaning  that  remains  incommensurable with  rational  meaning  because  it  does  not  pertain  to  the  facts  of the  world,  but  rather  to  the  very  fact  that  there  is  a  world. (41)

Far  from abolishing the value of the absolute, the process that continues to be  referred  to  today  as  ‘the  end  of  absolutes’  grants  the  latter  an unprecedented  licence  -philosophers  seem  to  ask  only  one  thing of these absolutes: that they be devoid of the slightest pretension to  rationality. (45)

[…]facticity will be revealed to be a knowledge of the absolute because we are going to put back into the thing itself what we mistakenly took to be an incapacity in thought. In other words, instead of construing the absence  of  reason  inherent  in  everything  as  a  limit  that  thought encounters  in  its  search  for  the  ultimate  reason,  we  must understand  that  this  absence  of  reason  is,  and  can  only  be  the ultimate property of the entity. We must convert facticity into the real  property  whereby  everything  and  every  world  is  without reason,  and  is  thereby  capable  of  actually  becoming  otherwise without  reason.  We  must  grasp  how  the  ultimate  absence  of reason,  which  we  will  refer  to  as  ‘unreason’,  is  an  absolute ontological  property,  and  not  the  mark  of  the  finitude  of  our knowledge.  From  this  perspective,  the  failure  of  the  principle  of reason  follows,  quite  simply,  from  the  falsity  (and  even  from  the absolute falsity) of such a principle – for the truth is that there is no reason for anything to be or to remain thus and so rather than otherwise,  and  this  applies  as  much  to  the  laws  that  govern  the world  as  to  the  things  of  the  world.  Everything  could  actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to  logical  laws;  and  this  not  by  virtue  of  some  superior  law whereby  everything  is  destined  to  perish,  but  by  virtue  of  the absence  of  any  superior  law  capable  of  preserving  anything,  no matter what, from perishing. (53)

By  way  of  contrast,  speculation  proceeds  by accentuating  thought’s  relinquishment  of  the  principle  of  reason to  the  point  where  this  relinquishment  is  converted  into  a principle,  which  alone  allows  us  to  grasp  the  fact  that  there  is absolutely no ultimate Reason, whether thinkable or unthinkable. There  is  nothing  beneath  or  beyond  the  manifest  gratuitousness of  the  given  –  nothing  but  the  limitless  and  lawless  power  of  its destruction, emergence, or persistence. (63)

This is to say that in order to be contingent and un-necessary,  the  entity  must  conform  to  certain  determinate conditions,  which  can  then  be  construed  as  so  many  absolute properties  of  what  is.  We  then  begin  to  understand  what  the rational  discourse  about  unreason  –  an  unreason  which  is  not irrational  –  would  consist  in:  it  would  be  discourse  that  aims  to establish the constraints to which the entity must submit in order to exercise its capacity-not-to-be and its capacity-to-be-other. (66)

Consequently,  we  know  by  the  principle  of  unreason  why non-contradiction  is  an  absolute  ontological  truth:  because  it  is necessary  that  what  is  be  determined  in  such  a  way  as  to  be capable  of  becoming,  and  of  being  subsequently  determined  in some  other  way.  It  is  necessary  that  this  be  this  and  not  that,  or anything else whatsoever, precisely in order to ensure that this can become that or anything else whatsoever. Accordingly, it becomes apparent  that  the  ontological  meaning  of  the  principle  of  non-contradiction,  far  from  designating  any  sort  of  fixed  essence,  is that  of  the  necessity  of  contingency,  or  in  other  words,  of  the omnipotence of chaos. (71)

The weak interpretation of the principle can be formulated as follows:  to  say  that  contingency  is  necessary  is  to  say  that  if something  is,  then  it  must  be  contingent.  The  strong interpretation, by way of contrast, maintains the following: to say that  contingency  is  necessary,  is  to  say  both  that  things  must  be contingent  and  that  there  must  be  contingent  things.  The  weak interpretation  claims  that  it  is  not  just  a  fact  –  one  more  fact alongside  others  –  that  existing  things  are  factual,  as  opposed  to necessary; but the strong interpretation also claims that neither is it a fact – one more fact alongside others – that factual things exist, as opposed to not existing. (73)

Thus  the  solution  to  the  problem  is  as  follows:  it  is  necessary that  there  be  something  rather  than  nothing  because  it  is  necessarily contingent  that  there  is  something  rather  than  something  else.  The necessity  of  the  contingency  of  the  entity  imposes  the  necessary existence of the contingent entity. (76)

Accordingly, the principle of factiality can be stated as follows: only facticity is not factual – viz., only the contingency of what is, is not  itself  contingent.  But  it  is  important  to  bear  in  mind  the following:  the  principle  of  factiality  does  not  claim  that contingency  is  necessary;  its  precise  claim  is  that  contingency alone  is  necessary  –  and  only  this  prevents  it  from  being metaphysical.  For  the  statement  ‘contingency  is  necessary’  is  in fact  entirely  compatible  with  metaphysics. (80)

So long as we believe that there must be a reason why what is, is the way it is, we will continue to fuel superstition, which is to say,  the  belief  that  there  is  an  ineffable  reason  underlying  all things. Since we will never be able to discover or understand such a reason, all we can do is believe in it, or aspire to believe in it. (82)

And indeed, one unavoidable consequence of the principle of factiality  is  that  it  asserts  the  actual  contingency  of  the  laws  of nature. (83)

This  reformulation  can  be  stated  as  follows: instead  of  asking  how  we  might  demonstrate  the  supposedly genuine  necessity  of  physical  laws,  we  must  ask  how  we  are  to explain the manifest stability of physical laws given that we take these to  be  contingent.  Once  reformulated,  Hume’s  question  is  in  fact the one we raised earlier: if laws are contingent, and not necessary, then  how  is  it  that  their  contingency  does  not  manifest  itself  in sudden and continual transformations? How could laws for which there is no permanent foundation give rise to a stable world? Our wager is that this formulation of the problem, unlike its canonical version,  allows  of  a  satisfactory  solution  which  requires  nolimitation of the capacities of rationality. (91-92)

To  sum  up:  the  Humean-Kantian  inference  is  an  instance  of probabilistic  reasoning  applied  not  to  an  event  in  our  universe, but rather to our universe itself considered as merely one among a totality of possible universes. The nub of the argument consists in registering the immense numerical gap between those possibilities that  are  conceivable  and  those  that  are  actually  experienced,  in such  a  way  as  to  derive  from  this  gap  the  following  probabilistic aberration  (which  provides  the  source  for  the  frequentialist implication): if physical laws could actually change for no reason, it would  be  extraordinarily  improbable  if  they  did  not  change frequently,  not  to  say  frenetically.  Indeed,  they  would  change  so frequently  that  we  would  have  to  say  –  and  here  we  move  from Hume  to  Kant  –  not  just  that  we  would  have  noticed  it  already, but  that  we  would  never  have  been  here  to  notice  it  in  the  first place, since the ensuing chaos would have precluded the minimal degree  of  order  and  continuity  required  for  the  correlation between consciousness and world. Thus, necessity is proven by a fact  of  immensely  improbable  stability,  viz.,  the  permanence  of the  laws  of  nature,  and  by  the  subjective  obverse  of  this permanence,  which  is  the  consciousness  of  a  subject  capable  of science. Such is the logic of the necessitarian argument, and more particularly, of the frequentialist implication that underlies it. (98)

We will retain the following translation of Cantor’s transfinite:  the  (quantifiable)  totality  of  the  thinkable  is unthinkable. (104)

What the set-theoretical axiomatic demonstrates is at the very least a fundamental uncertainty regarding the totalizability of the possible.  But  this  uncertainty  alone  enables  us  to  carry  out  a decisive  critique  of  the  necessitarian  inference  by  destroying  one of  the  latter’s  fundamental  postulates:  we  can  only  move immediately from the stability of laws to their necessity so long as we  do  not  question  the  notion  that  the  possible  is  a  priori totalizable. (105)

But  what  is  most  fundamental  in  all  this  –  and  this  was already  one  of  the  guiding  intuitions  of  Being  and  Event  –  is  the idea  that  the  most  powerful  conception  of  the  incalculable  and unpredictable event is provided by a thinking that continues to be mathematical  –  rather  than  one  which  is  artistic,  poetic,  or religious. It is by way of mathematics that we will finally succeed in thinking that which, through its power and beauty, vanquishes quantities and sounds the end of play. (108)

Our project can in fact be formulated as follows:  our  aim  is  to  supplant  the  contemporary  dissolution  of metaphysical problems by a non-metaphysical precipitation of these same  problems. (108)

Instead  of  laughing  or  smiling  at  questions  like  ‘Where  do  we come  from?’,  ‘Why  do  we  exist?’,  we  should  ponder  instead  the remarkable fact that the replies ‘From nothing. For nothing’ really are  answers,  thereby  realizing  that  these  really  were  questions  – and  excellent  ones  at  that.  There  is  no  longer  a  mystery,  not because  there  is  no  longer  a  problem,  but  because  there  is  no longer a reason. (110)

It is the  discourse  of  empirical  science  which,  for  the  first  time,  gives meaning to the idea of a rational debate about what did or did not exist prior to the emergence of humankind, as well as about what might  eventually  succeed  humanity.  Theories  can  always  be improved  and  amended,  but  the  very  fact  that  there  can  be  such dia-chronic  theories  is  the  remarkable  feature  made  possible  by modern  knowledge.  It  was  science  that  made  it  meaningful  to disagree about what there might have been when we did not exist, and  what  there  might  be  when  we  no  longer  exist  –  just  as  it  is science  that  provides  us  with  the  means  to  rationally  favour  one hypothesis over another concerning the nature of a world without us. (114)

It  is  this  capacity  whereby  mathematized  science  is  able  to deploy  a  world  that  is  separable  from  man  –  a  capacity  that Descartes  theorized  in  all  its  power  –  that  rendered  possible  the essential  alliance  between  the  Galilean  and  Copernican revolutions. In speaking of ‘the Copernican revolution’, what we have  in  mind  is  not  so  much  the  astronomical  discovery  of  the decentring of the terrestrial observer within the solar system, but rather  the  much  more  fundamental  decentring  which  presided over the mathematization of nature, viz., the decentring of thought relative to the world within the process of knowledge. (115)

Thus,  the  decentring  inherent  in  the  Copernican-Galilean revolution  proceeds  by  way  of  a  Cartesian  thesis,  viz.,  that whatever is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible. But it is important  to  note  that  the  absolute  here  is  not  understood  in terms of the capacity of mathematics to designate a referent that is assumed  to  be  necessary  or  intrinsically  ideal  –  rather,  the absoluteness  at  issue  here  expresses  the  following  idea:  it  is meaningful  to  think  (even  if  only  in  a  hypothetical  register)  that all  those  aspects  of  the  given  that  are  mathematically  describable can continue to exist regardless of whether or not we are there to convert  the  latter  into  something  that  is  given-to  or  manifested-for. Consequently, this dia-chronic referent may be considered to be contingent while simultaneously being considered to be absolute: it can be construed as an event, an object, or a processual stability, that need not be shown to be unconditionally necessary, since this would be contrary to our ontology. On the other hand, however, the  meaning  of  the  diachronic  statement  about  a  radioactive decay  older  than  all  terrestrial  life  is  only  conceivable  if  it  is construed  as  absolutely  indifferent  to  the  thought  that  envisages it. Accordingly, the absoluteness of that which is mathematizable means:  the  possibility  of  factial  existence  outside  thought  –  and not:  the  necessity  of  existence  outside  thought. (117)

We  will  henceforth refer  to  this  ‘reversal  of  the  reversal’  as  the  ‘schism’  of  modern philosophy, which expresses the following paradox: it is only since philosophy  has  attempted  to  think  rigorously  the  revolution  in the  realm  of  knowledge  brought  about  by  the  advent  of  modern science  that  philosophy  has  renounced  the  very  thing  that constituted the essence of this revolution; that is to say, science’s non-correlational mode of knowing, in other words, its eminently speculative character. (119)

Thus,  philosophy’s  message  to  science  was:  ‘it  is  you (and  not  speculative  metaphysics)  that  holds  the  reins  of knowledge,  but  the  underlying  nature  of  this  knowledge  is  the very  opposite  of  what  it  seems  to  you.’  In  other  words,  in providing the impetus for philosophy’s destruction of speculative metaphysics,  science  also  destroyed  any  possibility  of  a philosophical understanding of its own essence. (120)

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