Peter Gratton has just published an interesting paper discussing Quentin Meillassoux’s political philosophy, in which he levels the following charge:
Speculative materialism takes its first steps beyond correlationism by arguing that the latter’s position (that we cannot know the necessity of any being, including ourselves) comes about not because it is unknowable, but because “we know,” as Ray Brassier puts it, “that only contingency necessarily exists.” Now Meillassoux may be right that through this we have “‘touched upon’ nothing less than an absolute, the only veritable one,” namely, that this relation is what he will call “factial.” But Meillassoux inflates this contingency, this literal contingency or “touching” of the real, with Being as such. We see this in After Finitude, where on one page he provides the quotation above concerning the contingent. He then discusses how this defeats idealism (the relation is not necessary), and then argues that the correlationist must either (a) deny the facticity of the relation (and become an idealist) or (b) go through “absolutizing facticity.” While this may all be true, we might wonder what it is that gives him the ability to say, just sentences and the next page after this, that “we do not maintain that a determinate entity exists, but that it is absolutely necessary that every entity might not exist.” If there is no necessary being, this does not mean that all things are as absolutely contingent as the relation of subject and world. Meillassoux provides no warrant for moving from “the only verifiable” absolute (note the singular) to “everything” (note the universal) from one page to the next, even if we take this absolute contingency to be part of what “everything” would be. In other words, as far as we can tell, he only proves what the correlationist has already known: that thinking did not need to be and that, yes, it is absolutely true. This only changes things if one depicts the correlationists as denying all reality as such, which probably was not the case.
What exactly is Gratton saying here? I confess that what strikes me as the most straightforward reading seems clearly false. In this post I present this reading and explain why I take it to be mistaken qua objection to Meillassoux. To begin with, let’s try and distil Gratton’s core argument:
- First we have the admission that Meillassoux “may be right” in asserting that, through the proposition “that only contingency necessarily exists”, we have touched upon the only veritable absolute.
- Nevertheless, Gratton tells us, Meillassoux “inflates this contingency… with Being as such.” Whatever precisely this means, it involves asserting illegitimately that “all things are as absolutely contingent as the relation of subject and world.” This shows up when we notice that Meillassoux gives no warrant for inferring ‘every entity might not exist’, which is universal, from ‘the necessity of contingency is the only verifiable absolute’, which is singular. Again, from the absence of a necessary being it does not follow that everything is “as absolutely contingent as the relation of subject and world.” I read this comparative claim as saying that some things can still be “relatively” contingent even if others are absolutely contingent and there is no necessarily existing being.
- Finally, Gratton concludes, Meillassoux only proves what the correlationist has already known: that some particular thing – namely our thinking – need not be, and that this contingency is absolute.
It is possible I have not understood Gratton’s argument. For example, it could be that he reads Meillassoux as inferring the contingency of all truth from the contingency of a being. This would indeed be invalid – but also not plausibly attributed to Meillassoux. (Note that Meillassoux says “every entity“, not “everything” as on Gratton’s paraphrase.) Perhaps there is some other reading that substantiates the charge of invalidity whilst remaining plausibly attributable to Meillassoux. But let’s suppose that I am right and that the following straightforward gloss is accurate:
The correlationist is happy to accept the absolute contingency of the human correlate (i.e. of “thinking”). But it is simply unwarranted to infer the absolute contingency of the existence of everything from this premise. Thus Meillassoux’s argument is invalid and the correlationist is under no compulsion to accept his conclusion on its basis.
If this is what Gratton is saying then I think it is mistaken. In order for it to work it would have to make sense to say that the existence of one thing could be absolutely contingent without entailing the absolute contingency of the existence of everything. Only if this makes sense, it seems, can we successfully charge Meillassoux with illegitimately inferring the latter from the former. But consider that from the former premise the falsity of the PSR follows, in which case there is no sufficient reason for the existence of anything, which is just the same as to say that the existence of everything is absolutely contingent. The simplicity of this rejoinder makes me think that I must have misunderstood what Gratton is saying. In any case, the focus of Gratton’s paper is not on the argument I have examined here, and it goes along well enough whether that argument is successful or not.
Note: for more on Gratton’s paper see this post at Noir Realism.
- Peter Gratton, ‘Meillassoux’s Speculative Politics: Time and the Divinity to Come’, Analecta Hermeneutica, No. 4 (2012).