note on heller and cogburn’s meillassoux paper

Meillassoux’s insistence on both de-totalising the possible and simultaneously exploding correlationism is something that I am trying to preserve in my adaptation of his position. Of course I have since interpreted everything in my own way such that it is no longer fruitful (or easy) for me to articulate myself in terms of Meillassoux’s concepts and reference points. It is nevertheless great to come across work that makes real progress in doing the sort of thing I’d have to do if I were to attempt such an articulation. Thus I was happy to discover today a paper by Joshua Heller and Jon Cogburn entitled ‘Meillassoux’s Dilemma: Paradoxes of Totality After the Speculative Turn’. It is a very nice paper that seems to confirm my thinking and hunches on several points. I won’t try to cover all of the richness it includes, but I do want to comment briefly on their central thesis.

The tension between de-totalising the possible and exploding correlationism can be restated like this: we want there to be no totality of the possible, but we nevertheless want there to be a (consistent) totality of the actual. This turns out to be an extremely precarious balancing act; or, less optimistically, a dilemma. Cogburn and Heller quote the following salient passage from After Finitude:

This ignorance [of whether the possible can be totalized] suffices to expose the illegitimacy of extending aleatory reasoning beyond a totality that is already given in experience. Since we cannot decide a priori (i.e. through the use of logical-mathematical procedures alone) whether or not a totality of the possible exists, then we should restrict the claims of aleatory reasoning solely to objects of experience, rather than extending it – as Kant implicitly does in his objective deduction – to the very laws that govern our universe, as if we knew that the latter necessarily belongs to some greater Whole (Meillassoux 2008a, 105).

What is important to note here is that aleatory reasoning applies legitimately to experience for Meillassoux, which forms a totality, whereas possibility does not. Cogburn and Heller do not like this combination of attitudes: they see it as Meillassoux reverting to an oddly Kantian and correlationist attitude in his approach to modal space, and thus undermining his general critique of correlationism.

Here is a quick statement of their argument.

  1. They construe Meillassoux’s rejection of correlational finitude in terms of Graham Priest’s Domain Principle, which says that claims of the form ‘all sets are so and so’ only have determinate sense if there is a determinate totality over which the quantifier (‘all’) ranges. More explicitly: correlational finitude is defined by Cogburn and Heller as the position that we cannot coherently conceive (“self-subsistent”) totalities or absolutes. They claim that, given the Domain Principle, this view illicitly requires reference to the actual totality of spacetime, and so is self-defeating. They take the felicity of their reconstruction as evidence for concluding that Meillassoux is actually committed to the Domain Principle (or else is reasoning fallaciously in his refutation of correlationism).
  2. Commitment to the Domain Principle is, however, in tension with de-totalising possibility. Hence the dilemma. The tension comes from the fact that, given the Domain Principle, when we quantify over possibilities we therefore incur commitment to the totality of possibility. Meillassoux has to quantify over possibilities in order to formulate and express his metaphysics of contingency. Hence…

Perhaps the best feature of Cogburn and Heller’s paper is the way it tries to simplify the dialectic by reducing the number of live options on the table. Specifically, one must, in their view, choose either inconsistent totality or consistent plurality. The importance they assign to the Domain Principle also seems instructive to me. However, in trying to simplify the dialectic in this way, they have ipso facto had to lay a number of cards on the table. I am happy they have done this, and I hope the dogmatic nature of the rest of this post – where I simply list my disagreements more or less without defense – does not come off as negative or dismissive.

First, it is not clear to me that Meillassoux really wants to use the Domain Principle as part of his refutation of correlationism. I suppose this is an easy point to make, since Cogburn and Heller are explicitly offering a reconstruction rather than a straightforward interpretation of what Meillassoux really wanted to argue. Nevertheless, this Priestian offering looks to me like a Trojan Horse that is best left outside the city.

In any case, even if Meillassoux does want to use the Domain Principle, we can still argue on behalf of actual totality without having to appeal to it. Maybe in so doing we lose the ability to meet the correlationist on her own terms, but then I think we had best not try to do that anyway; better to simply resolve the paradoxes of totality. To try to generate this solution (as it were) directly  from the conditions of correlationism itself, and thus preserve a sort of neo-Cartesian, anhypothetical purity – this strikes me as a bridge too far.

I think the Domain Principle is pretty dubious. This can be guessed, I suggest, from the uses Priest puts it to. In particular, he uses it to bolster his Hegelian view that potential infinity requires actual infinity. This is an exact inversion of my own approach that is intended to rest heavily on the viability of potential infinity (which I compare with Meillassoux’s virtuality rather that his potentiality) as part of a consistent response to the paradoxes of totality. On my model, the same thing allows us to both successfully balance the explosion of correlationism (taken in the deflated sense implied above) with the de-totalization of the possible, and articulate the metaphysics of contingency: namely the finitude of actual totality. This basic gesture then informs all of my other disagreements with Cogburn and Heller. In particular, I disagree with – or would seek to interpret extremely carefully – the view that talking about possibility requires quantifying over possibilities. And I agree with Markus Gabriel that possible worlds semantics are actually a hindrance in the way of our correctly understanding the nature of modality.

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