Comments on: Marxism and Finitude-Comments on Simon's Critchley's Remarks on Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
The TLS of February 27, 2009 has a review of an important philosophy book-- After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux-- translated from the French by Ray Brassier [i.e. "Back to the great outdoors" by Simon Critchley]. The title of the article is due to Meillassoux's desire to get directly back to nature. The following are some Marxist impressions on the philosophical issues raised by this review especially with regard to materialism and idealism in contemporary philosophy.
We are told that one of Meillassoux's targets is Kant who maintained that we have knowledge of the world as it APPEARS to us. Meillassoux wants to show that we can access "the world as it is in itself without being dependent on the existence of observers." So far so good.
It is interesting to note that Science Daily online posted an article stating that physicists have demonstrated that we can know that there is a world independent of our observation-- but it is very weird [“Scientists Say That Reality Is Real”].
The problem seems to be with the phrase, vis a vis the world, to access "the world as it is in itself" independent of the observer. Critchley explains that Kant thinks there is a real world independent of us but that it is mediated through our perceptual apparatus. "The external material objects that I experience in perception are nothing but "mere appearances" or "representations". But, perhaps Critchley goes too far, or is it Meillassoux as well?, in saying for Kant "the outside world exists but is only the correlate of the concepts and categories through which we conceive it." At least "outside" is not the right word to use for Kant since both space and time are for him the a priori preconditions for human experience-- the independent world does not exist in space or time as these are human ways of perception and we don't know how else to explain the world.
We are told that Meillassoux considers all this (i.e., The Critique of Pure Reason) a "catastrophe" because it has led to "correlationism." What it has actually led to is the thought that the world-- both physical and social-- is not necessarily 100% just as it appears to be to any of us. That creatures with different perceptual apparatus will see it differently and experience it differently. If there was a "catastrophe" it would have been due to Hume whose philosophy led to the skeptical positions regarding humanity's ability to know anything at all that drove Kant to write the Critique. But neither were "catastrophes." Both were milestones on the road of human self awareness which have contributed to the growth of our self knowledge.
Critchley tells us that Melliassoux's target is the form of correlationism associated with Husserl's phenomenology which "is based on the idea of a correlation between the intentional acts of consciousness and the objects of those acts...." What does this mean? Husserl uses the Greek term NOEMA to refer to an object as it is in-itself and NOESIS to refer to our thinking about it.
We take the natural standpoint in everyday life-- i.e., we are dealing with externally existing objects in a real world. For the purposes of phenomenology we abandon this standpoint, bracket the object, and just study the way it appears to our consciousness. OK, this doesn't deny the existence of the material world but it correlates the object in this way-- the thing- in- itself and the thing-for- us.
Husserl's student Heidegger is more subjective. For him the external object is determined by the noesis-- the human world is a by-product of consciousness-- so, as in Kant, we can't know the thing-in-itself. So what is the problem with this way of thinking?
There are two, says Critchley. First, since it keeps reason away from the things-in-themselves, it opens the door to non reasonable explanations and theories about them (i.e., irrationalism and religion) Second: "it is wrong." Well, that is being blunt!
Meillassoux thinks correlations are wrong because they can't say anything about the universe before the evolution of humans. But this is only true of the most rigid subjective idealists. Hegel (also mentioned as a correlationist) certainly believed the world to have had an objective existence before there were any people around. I can say that I think I only know the thing-in-itself indirectly by means of my perceptual apparatus and my experiences with it and yet still believe my perceptual apparatus is the product of the evolution of my species which is a recent event in the history of the universe. I neither have to "disavow" the existence of the material world nor be "an intellectual hypocrite" as Meillassoux seems to think.
So now the question is--- if we reject correlationism do we have to go back to pre-Kantian "dogmatic" metaphysics? Meillassoux proposes what he calls SPECULATIVE REALISM. Critchley says, consider the metaphysics of Leibniz. Leibniz defended THE PRINCIPLE OF SUFFICIENT REASON. For every thing that exists there must be a reason why it, rather than some other thing, exists. He ends up proving the existence of God with this [a philosopher's God, not necessarily anything anybody else would use the word "God" to describe].
This is no good, thinks Meillassoux. Speculative Reason demands an absolute notion of an independently existing reality that we can have direct knowledge of and this "God" is an untidy remnant of pre-Kantian metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Leibniz had asked, "Why is there something rather than nothing." Meillassoux dumps the principle of sufficient reason and answers "For no reason." There is no reason why there is something rather than nothing, it just is that way. Who is it now who is cutting off reason from the origin of the universe before man?
The subtitle of the book is "An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency." The universe is not the result of necessity, but of a "brute contingent chaos," according to Critchley. Even though the principle of sufficient reason is not operative, human reason can explore the chaos and try to understand what is going on. But don't we need to believe in "reasons" to find out what is going on? Is it not just a dogmatic assertion to say that contingency is a necessity and fail to give a sufficient reason why this is so?
We have now arrived at the "most speculative claim of the book", says Critchley. And that is that mathematics is the only method we have to find some stability and truth within the chaotic contingency of reality. Critchley writes that "his book is essentially a defense of the project of the mathematization of nature that one can find in Galileo and Descartes." We are told this reflects the mathematical ontology of his teacher Alain Badiou. So reality is a chaotic contingency but it follows mathematical laws. Hmmmm.
Even if this may be fine for the physical sciences it will never due for the human sciences. Meillassoux is essentially a throw back to seventeenth century mechanical materialism. Human reality, history, psychology, the social sciences can only be understood by means of the hegelio-marxist dialectic which views this reality as in constant movement and change brought about by an inherent negativity which prevents its reduction to rigid mathematical formulae.
According to Critchley, Meillassoux accepts Hume's view of nature (including man) as "a brute contingency that cannot be rationally explained", so how then can he use mathematics to explain it. How can you explain what cannot be explained? When it is rationally explained you get (non-academic) Marxism. Yipes! Critchley fears that this "mathematical romance" has seduced its author to attempt doing what Hume's philosophy "perhaps rightly prohibits." It was Hume's philosophy that generated the line Kant to Hegel to Marx, so it looks like Meillassoux should be looking forward not backward for the solution to his problems.
Regardless of this caveat, Critchley finds the argument "absolutely exhilarating" as well as "brilliant." And while he finds the author "at his best when showing the complacency of contemporary Kantians and phenomenologists" I found myself wondering how widespread was the kind of "correlationism" Meillassoux objects to. All those in the Marxist tradition, Positivist tradition and Analytic tradition don't seem to be affected. He objects to an early work of Wittgenstein which Wittgenstein rejected and has now only historical interest. I think he has set up a lot of straw men to knock down.
Critchley is also impressed by Meillassoux's SPECULATIVE REALISM which upholds nature as "cold and indifferent to humans." But this idea is as old as the hills. Hume held that nature cares as much for oysters as for humans, so there is nothing new here. Meillassoux promises another book to elaborate on his ideas on Speculative Reason. I hope it doesn't have "the fine-grained logic-chopping worthy of Duns Scotus" found by Critchley in After Finitude.
Critchley himself makes three criticisms of the book. First, if we accept the view that "the world as it is in itself is the same as the world for us" and it is mathematics and science that reveals it "then philosophy becomes totally useless." Second, Meillassoux's model of science is physics which can describe the world before life, but what role is there for sciences like biology, psychology and economics"? Third, if physics reveals the world as it really is, how do we account for ethics and relative value systems? Should not the one real world be reflected in every cultural understanding?
Critchley thinks it ironic that while advanced analytic thinkers, he mentions John McDowell and Robert Brandon, are incorporating the insights of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger into an update of the Anglo-American tradition, Meillassoux is moving backwards to Cartesianism [mechanical materialism--tr].
Critchley tells a story of a 1951 meeting between A.J.. Ayer and Georges Bataille. Ayer said he thought the Sun existed before man appeared, and Bataille thought the question meaningless since he was "more versed in Hegel and phenomenology" so as a correlationist he thought that "physical objects must be perceived by an observer to be said to exist."[Which, at least, is not Hegel's view at all.] Shocked by Ayer's attitude, Bataille is quoted as saying, "There exists between French and English philosophers a sort of abyss."
The abyss, however, is between those educated in philosophy and a scientific world view and those innocent of science. Bataille's views were those of Mach and Avenarius and the Russian thinkers who Lenin criticized in his work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Marxism and the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism would certainly have sided with Ayer on this issue and seen Bataille as a representative in philosophy of an outmoded subjective idealism and the thinking of the declining bourgeoisie.
The present time, when the bourgeois world is once again in crisis and manifesting symptoms of decline and decadence, is not a world where philosophers need to spend their intellectual energy in trying to refute a moribund French philosophical culture that was effectively exposed as meaningless by Lenin as well as Marx and Engels many generations ago. But if that is what Meillassoux wants to do, carry coals to Newcastle, who is to gainsay him?
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.