reading note

Pointing at the Moon: Buddhism, Logic, Analytic Philosophy is a nice little collection of papers on the cross-fertilization (and mutual illumination) of Buddhist thought and analytic philosophy. In recent years I’ve been interested in the concept of emptiness and in the proper (or at least most truth-apt) interpretation of seemingly paradoxical statements like ‘the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth’ and ‘all things have a nature, i.e. no nature’. Two papers in this book focus closely on this question: the first from Priest and Garfield, which interprets these statements in dialetheic terms, as true contradictions characteristic of the limits of thought; and the second, from Tillemans, which argues against this interpretation (at least insofar as it is supposed to apply to Nāgārjuna).

My goal has been to avoid dialetheic interpretations of the emptiness of emptiness, and if possible maintain a classical interpretation tout court. According to a simplified statement of the paradoxical reading, it is true that nothing has an intrinsic nature, and also true that everything has an intrinsic nature: namely that very lack. In other words, the intrinsic nature of everything is to lack an intrinsic nature. Contradiction.

Some support for thinking this might be a genuine ontological paradox comes from the following reasoning. It seems evident that, if an intrinsic property is just the same thing as an essential property, understood as one without which a given object cannot exist, then a contradiction arises. The contradiction is just to suppose that a thing can exist in a bare state, shorn of all its properties. This is contradictory given the following inference I accept: a thing without any properties would have the property of lacking any properties. Hence, either this contradiction is true, or it is false that there can be a thing lacking any properties. This in turn suggests that the having of properties, at least, is an essential property of everything; and, if that is enough for having intrinsic properties, then it looks like Priest and Garfield are right.

As I said, I am trying to avoid true contradictions. Moreover, I am trying to do so without giving up the just stated inference. Thus I am left looking for an alternative interpretation of what the thesis of emptiness is saying, which in practice means that I want a weaker reading of that thesis. To begin with, as Tillemans notes (88), the concept of an intrinsic nature is plausibly taken to involve more than simply having an essence: specifically, it ought to be taken as involving a nature that is “independent of other things”, “always fixed”, and “non-fabricated”. These together form the real substance of the concept of an intrinsic nature. But clearly they admit of many different readings, corresponding to overlapping but divergent tendencies within the history and development of Buddhist thought. What I want to say is that these tendencies aren’t exhausted by paraconsistent readings on the one hand and (for want of a better word) correlationist readings on the other. A naturalist tendency distinct from these is also discernible.

How, then, does a thick notion of intrinsicality help render consistent the claim that the ultimate nature of everything is to lack any ultimate nature? As the above reasoning may already suggest, I want to cut this Gordian knot, and deny that there is any reason to require that it must be an intrinsic property of anything that it lack intrinsic properties. Similarly, there is no reason to require that it be an ultimate truth that there are no ultimate truths. Or rather, to put things more delicately, that things lack intrinsic natures is not an epistemic thesis to the effect that our putative knowledge of them is somehow relative or subject to antinomies/problematic underdetermination, nor is it a semantic thesis to the effect that we somehow fall short of full expressive generality in characterising them thus. The distinction between ultimate and conventional truth is misleading in this respect: truths can be as objective and absolute as you please without being either conventional or ultimate qua independent of everything (not just mind-independent)/fixed/non-fabricated. Rather, we should understand an intrinsic nature as one corresponding to a self- or necessarily existent thing or truth (by necessary existent I mean a thing the nonexistence of which is impossible, and by necessary truth I mean a proposition the non-truth of which is impossible). My interest is in developing a relational ontology of this sort.

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meillassoux and the possibility of nothing

According to Meillassoux’s second “figure” of unreason, “it is absolutely necessary that the in-itself exists, and hence that the latter cannot dissolve into nothingness.” (2008: 71, cf. 2011: 165) Meillassoux asserts that although no determinate material reality is absolute, it is nevertheless true that

contingency is nothing outside of what is contingent – it is not a ‘free floating’ principle, but always a property of determinate beings. I thus establish that something must exist – and not pure nothingness – and that this something is not necessarily a thinking thing. This something that does not necessarily think is matter in general (2012: 13).

Matter in general – which sounds a lot like a reification – necessarily exists; because (a) contingency is necessary; and (b) necessarily in rebus. It follows from this that there couldn’t have been nothing. Meillassoux writes:

[A]lthough I can think the contingency of this existing thing, I cannot think the contingency of existence as such (or of the fact that something exists in general). Thus I am perfectly incapable of thinking the abolition of existence, and so becoming-inexistent is only conceivable as the becoming of a determinate existent, not as the becoming of existence in general (2008: 75-6).

If existence as such is contingent, Meillassoux argues, then facticity is just a fact, i.e. there is a facticity of facticity – and since we’ve already ruled this out by accepting the weak interpretation of the non-facticity of facticity, we must conclude that the latter entails Meillassoux’s preferred strong interpretation, according to which existence (i.e. matter in general) is necessary.

Compare this with Gabriel’s alternative (2011: 130): according to him, for contingency to truly have the last word there can’t be any guarantee that even it is necessary. Rather, unprethinkable being – now figured ambiguously as the facticity of reason – becomes the contingency of all necessity, and hence the contingency of the necessity of contingency (2011: 134). But what can this mean if not that contingency could have failed to be? For Schelling it seems to involve – or at least tempt us towards – an eschatological regression into incomprehensible necessity.

Now, dialectically it may prove difficult to dislodge Schelling from his ambivalent perch, but it seems to me that Meillassoux’s position is a little more exposed. The question I want to pose is whether Meillassoux’s argument against the possibility of nothing subtly begs the question against an ontologisation of strong correlationism, i.e. against the sort of view Martin Hägglund finds in Derrida. In the quote above Meillassoux relies heavily upon the claimed unthinkability of the abolition of existence, which we can grant arguendo. Recall that he wants to say that the strong correlationist is wrong to believe that, by thinking the possibility of the unthinkable via the unreason of the real, she is thereby able to deny the absoluteness of facticity. This is supposed to legitimise the inference from unthinkability to impossibility. My question is: what if the strong correlationist wants to assert the absoluteness of facticity by applying it to itself? This is to make facticity more, and not less, absolute than Meillassoux contends.

To keep his position coherent, Meillassoux must not treat contingency as a substrate or as a (metaphysical) subject of predication, since it would then be determinately necessary – even if it does not determine contingent beings in any way. (Necessary existence is a determination of the absolute insofar as contingent existence is possible.) This potential difficulty can be avoided by holding that contingency is neither relative to the necessity of correlation nor itself the necessity that something-or-other exist, but instead relative to the possibility of nothingness that confirms it whilst excluding all necessary existence.* As a slogan: contingency is necessary because it is contingent.

The picture that emerges from this is that of an ontology/metaphysica generalis of contingent being – of the contingency common to all beings – corresponding to an atheology/metaphysica specialis of divine inexistence qua possibility of nothing.

*Cf. Thacker’s description of Schopenhauer (2011: 18-19): “Instead of asserting an Absolute Life (grounded by its own principle of sufficiency, and driven by an ontology of overpresence), Schopenhauer will drop the bottom out of the ontology of generosity. What remains is, quite simply, nothing. No overflowing life force, no pantheistic becoming, no immanent principle of life running throughout all of Creation. Just nothing.” Of course, Thacker immediately goes on to say that this nothing is a “paradoxical and enigmatic something.” Nevertheless, he does acknowledge that attempting to think the in-itself as some sort of life requires a “minimal equivocity” with regard to phenomenal life (ibid).


  • Markus Gabriel, Transcendental Ontology: Essays in German Idealism, (Bloomsbury: 2011).
  • Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, (Edinburgh University Press: 2011)
  • Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum: 2008).
  • Quentin Meillassoux, “Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition: A Speculative Analysis of the Meaningless Sign”, trans. Robin Mackay, (2012).
  • Eugene Thacker, ‘Dark Life: Negation, Nothingness and the Will-To-Life in Schopenhauer’, Parrhesia, 12 (2011), pp. 12-27.
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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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quote of the day

Nothing contains all things. It is more precious than gold, without beginning and end, more joyous than the perception of bountiful light, more noble than the blood of kings, comparable to the heavens, higher than the stars, more powerful than a stroke of lightening, perfect and blessed in every way. Nothing always inspires. Where Nothing is, there ceases the jurisdiction of all kings. Nothing is without any mischief. According to Job the earth is suspended over Nothing. Nothing is outside the world. Nothing is everywhere.

Otto von Guericke, Experimenta nova (ut vocantur) Magdeburgica de vacuo spatio, 1672; quoted in Heil (2013: 167).

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new meillassoux book

An expanded version of Meillassoux’s 2012 Berlin lecture appears to be forthcoming in book form.


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is a possibility a thing?

There is at least one sort of nothingness which is impossible. Take the set of all possible worlds, including the actual world (supposing there is such a set). Now imagine that instead of that, there were nothing. Or again, imagine that every possible world were empty. Then nothingness would be necessary and the existence of anything at all impossible. Given that there actually is something, this sort of nothingness is evidently impossible.

Are other sorts of nothingness also impossible? It is often thought that the impossibility just described entails that it is necessary that something exist, even if no single thing exists necessarily. A common argument to this effect focuses on possibilities. It goes like this: if there were nothing at world w, then at no proposition would be true or false, hence nothing would be possible or impossible. But e.g. it is possible at that I exist, since I actually do. Hence it is false that there is nothing at w. 

This is an argument about truthmakers – things which make propositions true. Thus there are several options for responding to it. First of all, we could try denying that truths need to have truthmakers at allOf course, we needn’t go this far. A weaker variant would deny only that possible truths require their own truthmakers. This too seems like strong medicine. Yet weaker, and more palatable, is the following: even if possible truths require truthmakers of some sort, it remains doubtful whether, if it is possibly true at that I exist, there must be something in which is the truthmaker supporting that possibility. The alternative, which is prima facie viable, is to let possibilities at w be supported by truthmakers at other possible worlds.

A different sort of strategy for using possibilities against the possibility of nothing is this: regardless of whether a possible truth needs a truthmaker, if it is possibly true at that I exist, then this truth, this proposition, must itself be something, i.e. it must exist in w. This strategy focuses on the truthbearers rather than the truthmakers of propositions. The proponent of this argument could accept (arguendo) that the truthmaker of the proposition that I could exist needn’t exist in w, but she denies that this gets the nihilist – the defender of the possibility of nothingness – off the hook. The reason, she says, is that the truthbearer of that proposition must exist in w.

How ought we to respond to this? Supposing we want to keep believing that there are various things that are true at the empty world w, it follows that we must deny that a proposition must exist in in order to be true there. This is the distinction between truth at a world and truth in a world. The idea is that various things are true at the empty world, but nothing is true in the empty world. If this distinction works then neither the objection from truthmakers nor from truthbearers will pose a problem for the nihilist.

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williamson interview

Timothy Williamson is interviewed about his new book Modal Logic as Metaphysics at 3:AM here.

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