meillassoux versus schelling

Schelling_1848I recently took the time to read Schelling’s Grounding of the Positive Philosophy, and got to thinking about how it compares with Meillassoux’s project. As Markus Gabriel observes, there is definitely an onto-theological tendency in Schelling as in Fichte and Hegel, but it is also possible, he says, to read each of these thinkers as neither succumbing to this regressive tendency nor as developing entirely sanitised proto-analytic philosophies in the vein of Brandom or McDowell. The proposed middle path is named transcendental ontology by Gabriel, and I am interested in the question of whether it is a genuinely viable tertium datur. Obviously this question can’t be adequately addressed here, so instead – at the risk of exchanging the overly wide for the overly narrow – I’ll just focus on one specific question I have. Namely, in what sense is “unprethinkable being” being? I’ll be interacting primarily with Gabriel’s book Transcendental Ontology, which is a worthwhile read.

Unprethinkable being is a paradoxical concept, and we should expect to find a variety of descriptions of it that do not straightforwardly square with one another. Thus on the one hand, it is not even nothing, since it is not identical to itself. It comes before the concept and hence before predication, which means it is indeterminate as well as that this indeterminacy is itself subject to indeterminacy. In other words, being has sense only as the senseless, it is included as the excluded.*  The other half of these paradoxical formulae is the discovery of a superior contingency, which for me seems spurious. Gabriel reads Schelling as saying not only that God isn’t necessarily the necessary being, but that the being referred to as the necessary being – i.e. unprethinkable being – isn’t necessarily the necessary being either. Modalities are predications, which are judgements, and consequently always contingent (we are told). As such, we can only predicate necessary existence contingently. Of course, by the same reasoning, it is also true that contingency can only be predicated contingently. And yet, although unprethinkable being isn’t intrinsically contingent or necessary, Gabriel nevertheless intimates that the extrinsic nature of modality itself depends upon a deeper contingency, which moreover is not merely epistemic – precisely because it indicates the point of indistinction between epistemic and metaphysical modality. However, I’m not sure I understand where this latter indistinction is supposed to come from.

*We might as well add: there is an emptiness of emptiness. All of this seems to rest on a questionable inference from ‘lacking predicates’ to ‘lacking properties’, but I ignore this for now.

In any case, it should be clear that the concept of an unprethinkable being – which is of course not being, or even Being itself in any straightforward sense – and which carries within it an irreducible contingency that grounds a philosophy of hope directed towards a god-yet-to-come, bares striking resemblances to Meillassoux’s project. Specifically, unprethinkable being can be glossed as a close sibling of Hyperchaos. The differences however are important: Meillassoux posits a possible future god, but not the possibility of necessary existence. That is, both Meillassoux and Schelling posit an auto-normalization of Chaos, but only for Meillassoux does this exclude the possibility of a necessary being. Meillassoux could even reconfigure Schelling’s own words and say: what is not now necessary cannot become so. Anyway, the manner in which Meillassoux understands the auto-normalization of Chaos illustrates in general how he purges from the absolute the paradoxes that Schelling sees in it (according to Gabriel). To be clear, I’m not convinced that Schelling really does intend to say that unprethinkable being is not intrinsically the necessary existent: he does say, after all, that to doubt something presupposes the possibility of its being otherwise, whereas necessary existence is indubitable for just this reason. But then, if judgement also always takes place against the backdrop of this presupposition (as Gabriel contends), then it would seem that necessary existence is prior to judgement, which (at least) suggests that we have as good a reason to think of unprethinkable being as necessary as we do to think of it as contingent. I’m not an expert on Schelling, however, so will leave off at this point.


  • Markus Gabriel, Transcendental Ontology: Essays in German Idealism, (Bloomsbury: 2011).
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9 Responses to meillassoux versus schelling

  1. Pingback: The Trajectories of German Idealism (2) | Naught Thought

  2. ephesianartemis says:

    The Unprethinkable being is a being only in the sense that it is ontologically as much as epistemically (or transcendentally, if you want) necessary. It’s actually an extension of Kant’s transcendental ideal; this “extension” maneuvre Schelling performs in the Grounding. He shows that the transcendental ideal is the endpoint of the negative philosophy, and the positive has to start by taking it as existing, as the real ground of things. This is because thought has to be grounded in something that is other than thought; the transcendental ideal simply cannot be just an idea, for it is the ground for all determination, and consequently all ideas. To take this the way Gabriel takes in Transcendental Ontology: the Unprethinkable is the condition of differentiating everything from everything else in judgment, therefore it is not itself capable of being differentiated from everything else – and so, is not epistemic/conceptual/an idea. Since it is a necessary condition of differentiation, and since we apparently differentiate things from others, it then has to “exist”. This is, again, the only sense in which it is being.

    As for its contingent necessity – since it is the condition of differentiating everything from everything else in judgment, then it is necessary for there to be thought. There is thought (apparently) in this universe, so it the Unprethinkable necessary. But, had there been no thought, there might as well have been no Unprethinkable. Since thought is contingent, so is the Unprethinkable. This is a nice instance of the consequent (thought) retroactively influencing its antecedent (the Unprethinkable) – something Iain Grant talks about a bit…

  3. JTH says:

    Thanks for your comment. When you say that unprethinkable being is not capable of being differentiated from everything else, how does this fit with the observation that, since other things can be differentiated from one another, unprethinkable being can be differentiated as that-which-cannot-be-differentiated?

    This is one way of emphasising the fact that characterising unprethinkable being as incapable of differentiation is just another judgement and hence, if we are being consistent, a contingent predication. Pointing this out allows us to grasp why Gabriel ultimately concludes that unprethinkable being is inexpressible, i.e. that our judgements about it are all irreducibly fabulative. Having said this, Schelling, it seems to me, is ambivalent towards whether, in Hägglund’s terms, the absolute should be thought apophatically, as withdrawing with at least the potential or possibility for a future revelation; or as purely negative in the sense that there cannot in principle be any such revelation. I wonder if there is any non-dogmatic way to resolve this question.

    Finally, I was intrigued by your suggestion that unprethinkable being could cease to be, or could have not existed – if there had been no thought. The question to ask here is: must unprethinkable being exist if anything does? If so, then what you have said entails that there could have been nothing – which (I say) Schelling rejects. Whereas if not then it starts to look like unprethinkable being belongs to merely regional ontology or special metaphysics.

    • ephesianartemis says:

      Gabriel answers your first concern in his book (at least he tries to) – thing is, the Unprethinkable is not so much undetermined, as not even given as object of judgment. It can be made into the object of a judgment only after it is reified, and once it is reified, it is no longer that same unprethinkable being that we were after, it is an entity already set against the background of the unprethinkable being which we are to no avail trying to grasp through this reified entity, but ultimately cannot.

      It is quite unlike Schelling to make claims about what is possible or impossible in principle, generally (because that would be precisely dogmatic), so my money would be on the absolute thought apophatically, as you say. I mean, there is all this talk about God revealing itself at some eschatological horizon in Schelling – whatever that means – it is taken to be divine Love in the Freiheitsschrift for example. Basically, just like the transcendental ideal-as-sum of all possible predicates in Kant expands, the unprehtinkable being we try to grasp and reify seems to undergo this expansion. We grab more and more of it in thought, but every time we try to grab it, we actually miss it – I think Gabriel’s book is good at conveying this, too. All our thought consitutively misses the absolute. With regard to the absolute (and the Unprethinkable is an absolute, although a local one – see below), our thought is continuously errant, but with every error it constitutes the absolute it is in error about. So, while uncovering the unprethinkable in principle possible (and actually apparently constantly happening), it is not at all something necessary – first of all, it is unclear if this is attainable, or just an asymptotic attractor, and second, because the unraveling of the final revelation could very well come to naught because of some sort of cosmic accident (I suppose. There’s freedom in the universe, after all, and we can very well nuke ourselves off the face of the earth before this happens or something?)

      Finally – see, Schelling is really not very concerned with what would happen in some hypothetical world where something exists, but no thought. So, while the question “must unprethinkable being exist if anything does?” is not one Schelling wants to answer, I would answer it for him with a rather definite no. Of course it must not exist if anything does. It’s the ground for thought – and nothing but, so nothing would necessitate its existence besides the existence of thought. Of course it might exist if nothing but, say, stars and rocks existed – but it might just have not. Despite this, I am not sure Schelling rejects that there could have been nothing – the mere fact that he asks “why is there something rather than nothing?” presupposes that he admits there being nothing as a possibility – otherwise, why ask, really? So yes, unprethinkable being belongs to merely regional ontology – and anyway, I doubt we can do any better than regional ontology insofar as our thought is itself fairly regional, it a lot of senses (materially conditioned regionality being the most important sense)!

  4. JTH says:

    Thanks for another great comment. I think your reading of Schelling is plausible, but it does sweep a couple of things under the rug!

    At any rate, I’ll just respond once more for now – perhaps we can take this up again when I understand Schelling a bit better.

    My comment has to do with Gabriel’s observation (which I mentioned in the OP above) that there is a moment of indiscernibility between epistemic and metaphysical possibility. What else could he mean by the latter if not possibility in principle? What Gabriel seems to want to say is both that an apophatic revelation is metaphysically possible, and that this possibility is not presently necessary, but only possible. I find this move *really* dissatisfying, since it is virtually second-nature for me to infer that if something is possibly impossible then it is necessarily impossible – so that when we say that something is both possibly possible and possibly impossible, the first ‘possibly’ must be taken in purely epistemic terms. Read this way, though, Schelling almost looks like a correlationist, trying to avoid making any claims about what is “possible in principle”. But we know this is not quite right: Gabriel emphasises the necessity of dogmatism in just this sense, both insofar as our judgements about the absolute are necessarily dogmatic, and insofar as we must make these judgements. This two-fold claim constitutes his defense of speculation, which I’ll postpone evaluation of for now.

    Now, clearly Meillassoux isn’t having any of this: he explicitly argues that existence – which he seems to equate with “matter in general” – necessarily exists (i.e. that it is impossible for there to be nothing*), without any hint of this necessity being conditional on the existence of thought. Somehow we have broken free from our dogmatic slumbers, rather than just waking into a new dogmatic dream. My sense is that Gabriel thinks of Meillassoux as being not only a dogmatist in spite of himself – but also dogmatic in some objectionable way that Schelling, by contrast, is not. My question is: what is this second, objectionable species of dogmatism? If dogmatism is necessary, what makes one sort of dogmatism better than another? Why is dogmatism after Kant better than dogmatism before Kant? Is it just that Schelling achieves a non-dogmatic recognition of the facticity of reason which Meillassoux, blinded by his dogmatic rationalism, believes himself able to overcome? That doesn’t seem to me to be a very significant difference…

    *(I still have my doubts that Schelling would accept this as a metaphysical possibility; his position seems too close to that of Schopenhauer, who denies it. In any case, I don’t think it follows from the fact that I pose the question of why there is something rather than nothing that I am committed to the metaphysical possibility of nothing, rather than just its epistemic possibility.)

    • ephesianartemis says:

      Alright, I suppose we should take this up again once we both understand Schelling better…he’s quite awful sometimes. Also, I will apologize in advance – my responses to your provocations (excellent ones) are going to be incomplete (and will probably stray off point…) – sorry about that!
      Now, I must confess I read Gabriel’s book a couple of years ago (when it first appeared, I suppose), or I am just being dense – but I don’t quite remember/understand Gabriel speaking of the indiscernibility between epistemic and metaphysical possibility. Also, I must confess I don’t even understand the difference between epistemic and metaphysical possibility that well – does the first mean “x is possible given our knowledge” while the second “x is possible at all”? Or is the first what Meillassoux means by possibility of ignorance (i.e., we have several possibilities, but we don’t know which one holds in the world)? In any case, the way I see it, there is an indiscernibility between the Unprethinkable’s existence as something that is merely epistemic and its existence as something independent of epistemic structures (again, given thought).
      So, when I say that Schelling tries to avoid making any claims about what is “possible in principle”, all I mean is that he avoids making any claims that are set in some kind of other “possible universe”. Schelling doesn’t do possible universes, this universe is all we have, with all the chains of antecedents and consequents that have formed it (so if you want, either all possibility is “in principle” or none of it is, depending on how strongly you want to take it). He’s not a correlationist because he still wants to talk about how things are “in principle” (so he does want to talk about metaphysical modality), but he does not want to talk about things that are necessary in principle because necessity is only belated or consequent necessity (I side with Gabriel here). So, Schelling is definitely a speculative philosopher – dogmatic depending on the meaning you attach to the term, I suppose; it can be quite nuanced.
      And Gabriel seems to want to say in Transcendental Ontology (so, through his Schelling) is that an apophatic revelation is, sure, metaphysically possible, but it is also de facto contingent as to its completion. All Gabriel wants to say is that this final revelation is not de facto necessary, i.e. not inevitable. The final revelation apparently happens through positive philosophy: “The work of positive philosophy lies, then, in the proof that groundless being is itself mediated in the idea, that it is ultimately to be as absolute self-mediation; this, however, can only occur in the eschatological future.” (p.96) and “Schelling infers from what he sees as the progressive movement of the history of being and of consciousness (from no intelligibility to progressively more intelligibility) that together they move towards an eschatological future, which cannot be anticipated by inspecting the ontological structure of the world. Thus, positive philosophy must create space for a future, a space that it itself could no longer occupy. Our being beyond the world, which in the first place allows us to determine this world, opens the horizon of an eschatological future.” (p.100) What happens here, I think, is that the final revelation of the absolute, to Gabriel, is something that is possible as long as positive philosophy brings it closer, and thus brings a future God. It can however also turn out to be impossible just as a fact – i.e., if all thinking things are wiped out off the face of the earth and the universe can no longer think itself? I might be pulling that out of my head now, but it sounds fairly plausible to me – and, after all, Gabriel does say that all necessity is a belated necessity. As a side note, I must note here that Iain Grant (and I would say Gabriel too, don’t know about Gabriel’s Schelling…) for instance, thinks that a final revelation of the absolute is possible only as an attractor, something thought will always only tend to, because once the final revelation is reached, it is “the final solution” – the universe stops, there is nothing more to reveal and in the final instance, what is revealed of the universe in its final revelation – that after which there will be nothing more – is its inexistence!

      On Meillassoux – see, I don’t like After Finitude, and I think it’s very dogmatic actually – in the sense that Meillassoux derives the existence of the hyperchaos out of thought, producing an ontological argument (and this argument is invalid too, although for reasons slightly different than the classical ontological argument for the existence of god.) This is how he is a “bad dogmatist”. A truly post-Kantian dogmatism is one that – I would think – admits that human thought has an effect on the world, i.e., makes epistemology part of its ontology, and acknowledge that ontology is only possible because of certain epistemic structures that permit us to think nature and being, I suppose.
      Re*: Again, I don’t know what you mean by metaphysical possibility as opposed to epistemic here – it is actually in this remark that I realized I am confused as to this pair of concepts (sorry! This is because I took it to be equivalent to Meillassoux’s “possibility of ignorance”, but if that’s what you mean then whenever you say that Schelling thinks that there being nothing is an epistemic possibility you mean “there might be something…or nothing…we don’t know which!”, which is not what Schelling is saying…) I’d say, again, that Schelling doesn’t think that there is necessarily something rather than nothing, just that there’s factually something rather than nothing, and we have to explore that…

      (I might want to reply to the comment you put up on Naught Thought when it appears on Naught Thought, thus benefiting from the thinking powers of its denizen and master).

      • JTH says:

        No need to apologise! There is a good deal of incommensurability between where I’m coming from and where I want to go. I must take the majority share of responsibility for miscommunications, etc.

        Let me pick out some of the things that I can productively comment on. To start with, I don’t have my copy of the Gabriel book at the moment as I’m moving house. I’m pretty sure my memory isn’t deceiving me though, re: the indiscernibility of epistemic and metaphysical possibility.

        Epistemic possibility can mean possible given what I know, or what I know that I know, or what I can know in principle, or what I am certain of, etc. Meillassoux’s possibilities of ignorance seem to be a function of what is knowable. Gabriel associates unprethinkable being with the facticity of reason, which I comprehend in terms of a dichotomy: either it involves commitment to metaphysical possibilities or to possibilities of ignorance. Now, you say towards the end of your comment that Schelling isn’t offering possibilities of ignorance, but also earlier that he wants to avoid talking about what is possible in principle. This perplexes me since, short of completely withholding judgement, these seem to exhaust the options!

        Following up on this, I don’t think I grasp your association of what is possible in principle with what is possible in another possible universe. This must be a terminological issue – as, to my mind, if you say in this context that “this universe is all we have”, then this means that there is only one possible world, i.e. Spinozism. By contrast, all this time I’ve been treating metaphysical contingency as given, which I take to mean that there is more than one possible world. Now, it is possible to read subjectalists like Schelling as denying-in-the-last-instance the reality of contingency in this sense – but neither of us is currently entertaining such a reading. A better one, I think, is that they accept contingency but deny the PSR in the Leibnizian sense. The Leibnizian PSR, as Meillassoux reminds us, makes everything metaphysically necessary – but that the PSR must be Leibnizian is rejected, prominently, by contemporary variants of process and open theism.

        Related to what I just said, I’m struggling a bit with the compatibility between ‘Schelling doesn’t want to talk about what is possible in principle’ and ‘Schelling does want to talk about how things are in principle’. This makes it sound as if Schelling is an anti-realist regarding modal predication of unprethinkable being, i.e. that the way things are in principle is somehow more basic or fundamental than the way they are modally, and we can talk about the former without incurring any commitments regarding the latter. My problem at this point is that I just can’t make sense of how this distinction is supposed to work. Also, if Schelling doesn’t want to talk about what is possible in principle, then for me he cannot go on and say that an apophatic revelation is metaphysically possible – because what is possible in principle – insofar as it is not merely a possibility of ignorance – *just is* what is metaphysically possible.

  5. JTH says:

    Here is the comment I put up at Naught Thought, which is still under moderation there.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether Meillassoux’s project is non-dogmatic in any interesting sense. Certainly it conceives itself as such – as is clear from Meillassoux’s emphatic renunciation of the possibility of returning to pre-critical or dogmatic metaphysics, and in particular his rejection of ancient materialism. And remember that Badiou wrote in the preface to After Finitude that Meillassoux had opened up a new path beyond Kant’s distinction between scepticism, dogmatism and critique.

    By contrast, Iain Hamilton Grant has a good paper sympathetically exploring the prospects for dogmatism after Kant, and it is clear to me at least that the sort of thing he is doing with Schelling – although it would perhaps be derided by Meillassoux as “hyper-physics” (recall that Meillassoux classifies Schelling and Grant as “subjectalists”, i.e. as the enemy) – does nevertheless bear a close resemblance, at least in certain key respects, to speculative materialism.* In other words, although it may superficially seem that Grant is more sanguine towards dogmatism than Meillassoux, the actual content of their positions tells a different story.

    *Regarding the resemblance between Meillassoux and Schelling, I think Gabriel’s rendition of the latter’s theory of judgement/predication is a pretty good gloss on the idea that all absolute necessity is only absolute necessity for us, and hence not absolute – which is the central correlationist trope Meillassoux mobilizes against the subjectalist (and keep in mind that Schelling took seriously the need to escape from the Fichtean circle of consciousness, this being the main historical referent of this trope). But it does lead to some (perhaps thick-headed) puzzles, especially this: if being is contingency, then how can it be that there is necessarily something rather than nothing, as both Schelling and Meillassoux assert? You might try reminding me that it doesn’t follow, from the premise that every individual thing exists contingently, that everything taken together also exists contingently. In response I say: it ought to worry you that this line originally derives from Aristotle, at least insofar as you are worried about violating univocity. For if contingency is what is common to the being of every individual thing, then everything taken together must either have being or not. In the former case it must have contingent being, unless being is equivocal. In the latter case it does not have being, hence does not have necessary being, hence is not a counterexample to the position that being is contingent.

    Without going into any further detail on this point, I will just record my suspicion that if we are truly faithful to the logic of correlationism as deployed by both Schelling and Meillassoux, then the ontology we will end up with is going to look something like that which Hägglund finds in Derrida, for which the absolute is absolute nothingness, or the possibility thereof. This would roughly correspond to an ontologisation of strong correlationism. Although I disagree with your claim that the strong correlationist denies the existence of the thing in itself (which is also Brassier’s reading), I agree that if you ontologise the epistemology of the strong correlationist, then the in itself turns out to be nothing – but in a specific sense: nothing as the possibility of complete annihilation. To reiterate, I deny that the strong correlationist wishes to ontologise her epistemology in this manner, but rather that she wants to fideistically recuperate a positive or ontologically generous absolute beyond the limits of her epistemology of reason or (rational) knowledge.

    Regarding Meillassoux and Gabriel once more, although Meillassoux does not classify his work as transcendental, it does utilise anhypothetical reasoning that can be compared with transcendental argumentation (hence the comparison he draws with Descartes’ procedure, which he claims to recuperate in modified form), and adopts the pretence of having produced an escape from dogmatism, or at least from certain forms of dogmatism. Moreover, like most transcendental projects, speculative materialism seems to involve a bait and switch: presenting itself as refuting scepticism and yet at the crucial moment simply declaring allegiance to some unshakeable axiom or other (in Meillassoux’s case, trust in reason), and letting the questioning end there. Given this, my worry is that speculative materialism is only trivially or uninterestingly distinct from other forms of dogmatism.

    I say the same thing about Gabriel (and indeed about Hägglund – perhaps I’ve been reading Three Pound Brain too much…), who thinks that German idealism gives us the resources to outwit the sceptic on her own terms, and not merely to accept, in Kripkenstein’s terminology, a sceptical solution to scepticism. One explanation for why transcendental philosophers, and Meillassoux, may feel like they’ve uncovered an important strand of non-dogmatism, focuses on the way the German idealists read Kant as an implicit ontologist. The idea is that, if Kant needs some ontology in order to underwrite his critique, then the very overcoming of dogmatism and scepticism immunizes that ontology against regressing into the former even as it avoids the latter. But this raises the immediate question: can we agree on what the ontological commitments of critique actually are? The disagreements here had better not end up being as stubborn as those between e.g. empiricism and rationalism, otherwise the choice between putatively non-dogmatic positions will itself have to be dogmatic. Questions of a similar vein that arise here include: why think that so-called weak ontologies are any less dogmatic, any less underdetermined or ruined in advance by antimonial considerations, than strong ontologies? And: why think that replacing substance with process or event etc. really accomplishes anything viz. mitigating the unacceptability of dogmatism?

  6. ephesianartemis says:

    Yeah, I got myself into a fantastic modality mess up there, so I suppose you’re right.

    First, about that time when I said that Schelling wants to avoid talking about what is possible in principle – I absolutely have to modify that. All I meant that he would avoid to delimit somehow as though a priori the empirical possibility of things like the final revelation of the absolute. This is precisely because of how contingent the universe and happenings in it are for Schelling. So Schelling would be concerned with something’s possibility in principle (and it would be far more ontological for him than for a lot of philosophers, insofar as possibility for him is inherent in what is, i.e., it is there in the potencies that constitute the world according to his late ontology…)
    Another thing I was trying to convey though, with my misplaced usage of “in principle” was that I read Schelling’s emphasis on contingency as saying that “things could have been otherwise”, and not really like Meillassoux’s hyperchaos. So, basically, there is no necessitation for things to have happened thus and not otherwise, except that they did actually happen in some definite way X, and this definite way X has now has effects and ramifications. It’s there, it has influenced the world, it has influenced thought – and there is no way to go back in time, as it were, and try to think our way around X. So, yeah, in a sense, this universe is all we have, although there also is metaphysical contingency. The universe is all we have because it is there – it is a fact, and as the devil once said in a Russian novel, “facts are the most stubborn thing in the world”, but also this world that we have out there has been produced as a result of contingent natural processes.

    So yeah – I am most definitely wrong when I say that Schelling doesn’t want to talk about what things are possible in principle (this is when he talks about potency), but this keeps Schelling interested in modality in a very specific way – as the being’s potency to become anything whatsoever until restricted (I guess?). So he doesn’t really engage modality in the same way in which a lot of people do, and at no point is he seriously concerned with wondering, say, whether a world of less evil would have *really* been possible (because given the world we have, such a wondering is kind of not-very-productive) or something like that.

    But yeah – because of all the potency-talk, I can’t say I myself understand Schelling on modality too well, so I think I should apologize!

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