stove’s gem and correlationism

Stove’s Gem is formulated by James Franklin (2002: p. 615) as follows:

We can know things only

  • as they are related to us
  • under our forms of perception and understanding
  • insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes

etc., hence we cannot know things as they in themselves.

This bears a passing resemblance to what Quentin Meillassoux has recently proposed as an argument for correlationism. According to the correlationist, the intrinsic properties of things cannot be distinguished from artifacts of our particular subjective mode of access to those things (2008: 3-4). This trope is broadly idealist, and a version of it is prevalent in Kant, who counts as a correlationist according to Meillassoux.

Meillassoux quotes Wolff’s gnomic formulation of correlationism (p. 6):

We are in consciousness or language as in a transparent cage. Everything is outside, yet it is impossible to get out.

Since I am sympathetic towards Meillassoux’s project, the challenge for me is to find a sympathetic interpretation of his argument, given its resemblance to Stove’s Gem.

I will say a little about this today, and then a little more tomorrow.

To begin with, we know that Meillassoux is attempting a redeployment of the Cartesian method, away from the ontological argument and towards the position that, necessarily, all existence is contingent existence. He is, in effect, attempting to demonstrate the equation metaphysics = atheology, albeit with the caveat that God – or something like God – might pop into existence at any moment.

We also know, both for this very reason – the conscious repetition of the Cartesian procedure (2008: 30) – and because of the terminology Meillassoux uses, that the sought after argument must not merely suffice for warranted belief or knowledge per se, but must rather reach some higher standard of excellence, e.g. certainty. There is, I assert, no other acceptable way to interpret all of his talk of demonstration and proof, or his claim (2008: 61) that those who deny or reject his argument refute themselves (though we can quibble over the exact nature of this higher standard and what it requires from us.)

Thus, the first thing we can say, to excuse the resemblance between correlationism and Stove’s Gem, is that since Meillassoux is asking for more than mere knowledge, the appeal to Stove’s Gem is less contentious. That is, the inference from ‘knows that p only via particular modes of perception/conceptual schemes etc.’ to ‘is uncertain that p‘ is prima facie more plausible than the inference from the former to ‘does not know p as it is in itself’, the latter implicitly requiring a stronger sceptical conclusion’.

In this way it makes sense to understand Meillassoux as engaging in what Janet Broughton, in her wonderful book Descartes’s Method of Doubt, calls “high strategy”, which is summarised in the following passage:

I ought to believe whatever I am absolutely certain about, and I ought to disbelieve whatever conflicts with these absolute certainties, even if that means disbelieving something about which I am morally certain (p. 51).

If the above is correct then we can move on to asking whether certainty is possible under these circumstances.


  • Janet Broughton, Descartes’s Method of Doubt, (Princeton: 2002).
  • James Franklin, ‘Stove’s Discovery of the Worst Argument in the World’, Philosophy, 77 (2002), pp. 615-24.
  • Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum: 2008).
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