meillassoux’s project: part two

In my previous post I argued that the principle of factiality is undecidable, i.e. roughly that there is no argument for or against it that is cogent. I pointed out that if I am wrong about this then the correlationist must have an anhypothetical argument against subjectalism, i.e. an argument that cannot be denied by her on pain of self-refutation. In this post I consider what this argument might be.

Hegel – who here serves as representative of subjectalism – agrees with Meillassoux that the door of the correlationist asylum ignorantiae has been left ajar, but has a different understanding of where it leads. Before saying more, let’s pause and expand the characterisation of subjectalism a bit. Subjectalism, I have said, is the view that some correlate necessarily exists. To this we now add: subjectalism rejects the thing-in-itself in some sense, without correspondingly rejecting the Absolute. In this respect it is the same as speculative materialism. In any case, this addition has to be stated carefully in order to be compatible with Deleuze’s position: we cannot say, in particular, that the subjectalist agrees with Hegel that the Absolute is knowable (at least at the limit). Better to say that belief in the reality of the Absolute, as something capable of satisfying the PSR, is rational or legitimate for the subjectalist (in some sense), even if unknowable per se.* But how does this avoid shading back into correlationism, for which (fideistic) belief in the Absolute is permissible? Here it seems to me that we need a robust distinction between transcendence and immanence: the correlationist permits belief in the unknowable transcendent Absolute, whereas subjectalism asserts the rationality of belief in the immanent Absolute, which may (Hegel) or may not (Deleuze) be knowable. On this reading, the disagreement between Meillassoux and the subjectalists is over the nature of immanence. If this is right then, if the correlationist needs an anhypothetical argument against the subjectalist in order for factiality to be decidable, this will have to be an argument for why immanence entails factiality.

*If you like, we can treat ‘knowable’ as tracking ‘finitely knowable’ or ‘observable’ and then imagine going beyond this via something like inference to the best explanation (IBE), this being in turn what ‘rationally/legitimately believable’ tracks.

For Meillassoux, facticity is necessary to close off the Hegelian path (2008: 38):

It is the irremediable facticity of the correlational forms which allows us to distinguish both claims [Hegelian and Kantian] in favour of the latter.

Reading the next sentence we come to a crucial step in the argument (pp. 38-9):

For once one has refused any possibility of demonstrating the absolute necessity of these forms, it is impossible to proscribe the possibility that there could be an in-itself that differs fundamentally from what is given to us.

My immediate reaction to this is: why? It implies the following:

If the subjectalist cannot demonstrate that p, then ◊¬p.

Suppose however that the subjectalist can know the indemonstrable necessary truth p, where says that the correlate X must exist. Or else suppose she can rationally believe that p. In either case we end up with something indemonstrable whose negation is impossible. Making this point is another way of showing how much work Meillassoux has to do to cogently argue against subjectalism.

I’ll now explore further the second part of the passage just quoted. It is virtually axiomatic for Meillassoux that, since the “ontological argument” has been “recused”, “we cannot take the idealist path” (2008: 60). Unfortunately, although this recusal is central to Meillassoux’s position, he has little to say in its defense, and what he does say is somewhat unhelpful. Let’s take a look in any case.

Meillassoux first repeats Kant’s assertion that existence is not a (determining or real) predicate, which in turn is based on the premise that it is conceivable that God (or any necessary existent) not exist, and traced to Hume (2008: 32). Specifically, there is no contradiction involved in conceiving of a determinate entity as existing or not existing, no determination of an entity “can tell us a priori whether this entity exists or not…” Meillassoux wants the moral of this to be that, a priori, every (determinate) thing exists contingently. Put differently, everything is a priori not necessary, and hence not knowably necessary a priori (since ‘knowable’ entails ‘possibly true’), meaning we can reject the subjectalist’s claim of absolute necessity (2008: 38-9).

It is symptomatic of Meillassoux’s argumentation in After Finitude that there is no explanation of how to embed a priori conceivability within de re modality. This can be broken down into two overlapping questions:

  1. How to show that I am really conceiving the contingency of p?
  2. How to show that my real conception of the contingency of corresponds to a real possibility that p? (Note that the formulation of this question is somewhat treacherous.)

We can formulate overlapping versions of subjectalism that turn on each of these questions.

Subjectalism A: You are not really conceiving the contingency of p. Rather (A1) your concept of is incomplete, and were it to be completed, you would see that is necessary. Alternatively (A2), necessary existence is a determining or real predicate, and this is knowable a priori, hence the (modal) ontological argument is available (see e.g Van Cleve 1999: 192).

Subjectalism B: You are indeed conceiving the contingency of p, but there is a strong metaphysical necessity that invalidates the inference from this conceivability to the metaphysical possibility of p. The space of possibility is smaller than that of conceivability.

In each case we basically get the view that facticity is only for-me whereas God (or whatever plays the role of God) explains what I cannot explain. Subcan be read as saying either that I have not successfully conceived p, or that only something like ideal conceivability entails possibility. Since the distinction between ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ is itself a measure of ideality, I take it that these readings overlap. Hence Meillassoux must defend the premise that non-ideal conceivability entails possibility, which also excludes SubB. And he must do so anhypothetically. This is what everything boils down to.

Cf. Chalmers (2002) assertion that the necessary existence of God is not ideally conceivable, “especially given its conceivable nonexistence.” Note that Chalmers writes “especially”, as if God is not ideally conceivable in any case. Is there an argument for this latter, unrestricted claim? Let’s take each disambiguation of Chalmers’ assertion in turn. Firstly, the assertion of conceivable nonexistence requires that we can correctly identify God whilst abstracting away from the property of necessary existence. But that is debatable. By debating it we could come to reject the premise that God’s non-existence is conceivable, in which case we no longer need to reject the inference from (real) conceivability to possibility. Not, that is, unless there were an additional argument forcing us to make this move. Thus, secondly, how might Chalmers argue for the conceivability of God’s non-existence? The answer to this is ultimately this: much the same way he argues for the possibility of zombies. There is a point after which we only have a clash of intuitions. (What I am suggesting in this post is that there is a corresponding clash of intuitions regarding the modality of existence that Meillassoux cannot overcome.) Moreover, if we understand God to be a necessary existent, then Chalmers must argue for the conceivable non-existence of necessary existence, which looks a lot like what he accuses the theist of doing – namely reasoning meta-modally against the validity of a particular (in)conceivability inference, in this case the inference from what I cannot conceive as non-existent to what must exist. The equipollence here supports my basic point: whereas on the first disambiguation of Chalmers’ assertion commitment to meta-modal reasoning is stipulatively built in (and thus trivially requires no defense), on the second disambiguation it becomes a substantive claim, namely that the theist must proceed in this manner. What I am suggesting is that this is question-begging: a stubborn subjectalist never admits the conceivability premise to begin with, i.e. never admits that the non-existence of her favoured correlate is (really) conceivable. We are thus in a Hobbes versus Descartes situation: for Descartes we “just have” an idea of God; for Hobbes we “do not”. Although I cannot go further in this direction now, it is interesting to note that in Hobbes’ ninth objection this disagreement is made to turn on the distinction between what we can conceive/presents an idea to us, on the one hand, and what is established by reasoning, on the other. The latter resonates with my suggestion above that the subjectalist can utilise inference to the best explanation without violating immanence, and thus treat the distinction between the conceivable and the inconceivable as shifting over time, much like the distinction between the observable and the unobservable.

Let’s now see Meillassoux’s characterisation of the Hegelian project (2011: 203):

Hegelian speculation… inaugurates a gap between the divine subject capable of producing the empirical world starting from a concept alone, and the actual human subject that can only begin from its empirical surroundings in order to attain the concept.

This hints at the charge that Hegel cannot epistemically ground his own position, i.e. roughly that its epistemic grounds extend only as far as something like radical subjectivism, so that its commitments beyond the latter are unknowable/not rationally believable. The correlationist needs an argument for this, and Meillassoux needs to show that this argument requires factiality, such that overall we validate the inference from ‘not rationally believable for us’ to ‘absolutely impossible’. My gloss on this is that the correlationist needs to support the inference from finite conceivability to possibility.

At this point it may be suspected that Meillassoux simply assumes the validity of this inference, and thus begs the question. This suspicion is heightened by his apparent nonchalance regarding it, e.g. in the following passage (2011: 188, my italics in the last sentence):

The factial is an ontology that allows us to think immortality directly as one possibility among others, but as a real possibility (since it is non-contradictory) of advent ex nihilo. There is hardly anything more to be said about the reality of this possibility.

Let us try to confront things head-on. Is this passage not a remarkable expression of Humean naiveté?

It might be thought that the Humean position contains something special, namely an immediate access to real distinction and thus to contingency. For example we find in Deleuze’s commentary on Hume (1991: 87-88):

[E]xperience is succession, or the movement of separable ideas, insofar as they are different, and different, insofar as they are separable. We must begin with this experience because it is the experience. It does not presuppose anything else and nothing else precedes it. It is not the affection of an implicated subject, not the modification or mode of a substance.

Admittedly, it is tempting to say that I can just see things in my phenomenal experience, flickering in and out of existence (say the taste of chocolate which lingers and then passes away), and that here we have something like an immediate experience of contingency. And it could be that Meillassoux’s argument amounts to a Humean gesture of this sort: contingency is a phenomenal fact, and as a phenomenal fact underwrites the rejection of the ontological argument, whilst coming as close as anything could come to being impervious to de-absolutisation. This reading is supported by Meillassoux’s location of the Absolute in the transition between states (2008: 56), and especially in his remarkable claim (2011: 181) that the “brute facticity of quality is where the inexistence of the Whole is immediately given.”

On the other hand, whilst phenomenal contingency may come “as close as anything” to being anhypothetical, is this close enough? Consider the Hegelian response, ably summarised by Schuler (2008: 163-4):

In Hume’s account, immaculate and singular impressions can be sensed but necessary connections between them cannot. In Hegel’s phenomenology of sensing, criticism starts sooner, since pristine impressions do not occur. Sensing a single impression proves impossible… [Rather] what is directly sensed depends upon numerous mediations… Pure immediacy presupposes that subjectivity can be factored out from objectivity.

Notice the correlationist resonance at the end of this passage. Now, in assessing who emerges from this disagreement victorious, we cannot rely on the correlationist’s desire to avoid subjectalism. Thus the correlationist argument must be taken seriously enough to carry us all the way to factiality, or else it will take us nowhere useful. The mediating premise is usually taken to be that it gets us to unknowability, so that from here we can reach factiality. But that would seem to require the inference from conceivability to possibility (more accurately, the inference from the apparent conceivability of contingency to its real conceivability and thus reality), whereas it is precisely this inference that we are trying to justify. Put differently, the subjectalist rejects the premise that necessary existence violates univocity or immanence; thus, her reading of correlationism is that it secures the unknowability of the transcendent in-itself, not the irrationality of commitment to the immanent in-itself. Glossing transcendence in terms of equivocity, it instead follows, from this viewpoint, that it is contingent existence that violates univocity and immanence: things only exist to the extent that they express the Absolute. In this way it seems to me that the subjectalist is able to preserve her position as an internally consistent alternative to speculative materialism (albeit at a cost unacceptable to some subjectalists). Overall, then, we can say that Meillassoux has clarified what it is that we are choosing between, but without thereby escaping from the comprehension of Schelling’s well-known saying, which still haunts speculative materialism:

If you do not will it, leave it alone.

References

  • David Chalmers, ‘Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?’, in T. Gendler & J. Hawthorne, eds., Conceivability and Possibility, (Oxford University Press: 2002), pp. 145-200. Available online here.
  • Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature, trans. Constantin V. Boundas, (Columbia University Press: 1991).
  • Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum: 2008).
  • Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, (Edinburgh University Press: 2011).
  • Jeanne Schuler, ‘Sensing as Pure Immediacy: Hume’s Anatomy versus Hegel’s Phenomenology’, History of Philosophy Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2008), pp. 155-73.
  • James Van Cleve, Problems From Kant, (OUP: 1999).
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