Meillassoux: On the Road to Absolutizing Phenomenology

At a conference I presented at, held at Duquesne University, notable scholar, Adrian Johnston, stopped me in the middle of something I was saying.  ‘Whoa, whoa,’ he said (and I paraphrase), ‘but Meillassoux does away with phenomenology.’  What I had said prior is not important.  What is important are the words “phenomenology” and “Meillassoux.”  I really had no real clue what he meant.  I mean, I knew that Meillassoux threw Heidegger, a phenomenologist, in the correlationist brig with all the other correlationists (Kant, Berkeley, etc.), and I knew that I was referring to phenomenology qua assessment of phenomenal experience.  However, at that time —much has changed in a few months—, I knew absolutely nothing about phenomenology: nothing about Brentano, Meinong, Husserl, and the gang, and what their philosophies were all about.  Coming from the hard sciences, the reason I jumped on the opportunity to work with the Speculative Turn in philosophy was because it requires an extraordinary knowledge of contemporary and near-contemporary philosophy, which constituted a knowledge gap for me, and has done much to remedy that.  There’s a positive narrative to this, however, namely, that I had something in mind when I was referring to Meillassoux and phenomenology.  Whatever it was that I thought (or didn’t think) that phenomenology as a philosophical methodology was all about, my view was that Meillassoux is absolutizing phenomenology.  This has not changed, and my excursions through the literature of key phenomenologists have led me to become firm in my understanding that Meillassoux is most definitely absolutizing phenomenology.  I am currently working on a complete exposition of this position, as well as a complementary line of reasoning that asserts that Meillassoux has erroneously sided himself (too much) with Galileo rather than Aristotle.  What I will do in the following is give some superficial/preliminary supporting statements to both effects.

The first thing to point out is that Meillassoux’s issue with Heidegger (phenomenology in general) is the noetico-noematic distinction, one of the many dualistic distinctions that typify correlationism.[1]  However, there is something subtler going on within Meillassoux’s project, something that Meillassoux may or may not be realizing as he develops it.  His project is obviously a variety of realism, and, in his paper, “Subtraction and Contraction: Deleuze, Immanence, and Matter and Memory,” his development and application of Bergson’s ascesis, which is a cognitive process that is antithetical to Kant’s synthesis.  Of ascesis, Meillassoux says, ‘Perception does not connect, it disconnects.  It does not inform a content but incises an order.  It does not enrich matter, but on the contrary impoverishes it.’[2]  Between the unintentional correlationist associations in Heidegger’s and his methodology of “analytic,” which appear to contain something like the Kantian notion of synthesis, Meillassoux outs Heidegger.  However, there is quite a bit that is still very valuable in Being and Time that Meillassoux uses, though he seems to sweep it under the rug.  One need not even read Meillassoux to see what an anti-correlationist might take from Heidegger[3], given that Heidegger was revolting, even if inefficaciously, against Kant, just as Bergson had; yet, Bergson gets credit, where credit is due, but Heidegger does not.  My point is that an enormous amount of Heidegger’s thought can be saved, so as to accord with Meillassoux’s radical anti-correlationist philosophy.  The strategy in doing this, if it can be done at all, is by taking Meillassoux’s philosophy of cognition and going further with it.  I am convinced that, if taken further, what one arrives at is absolutized phenomenology that serves as a foundation for the remainder of what Meillassoux has to say about primary and secondary qualities.  I began working on something like this in a paper I posted, for those interested (click on this sentence).  “Subtraction” or, as Meillassoux and Bergson call it, ascesis, is central to this cognitive framework; but the trick, which I will not divulge until I produce my full result, is how the “non-given” can escape being classified as “noumena.”[4]  (I have been told by a fellow graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington that Aristotle had a similar notion of “subtraction,” but I have yet to explore this.  Feel free to comment, if you are familiar with this idea.  I also mention Aristotle on this point, because of what I have to say below.)  In sum, with regard to Heidegger, I hope that the reader will reserve judgment on Heidegger and his relationship to Meillassoux’s project, because I think he is mistaken, and I shall make an attempt to fully demonstrate this in a full-length exposition to come.  Onward to my thoughts on Galileo.

Meillassoux is beholden to Galileo, it seems, as a result of his intellectual heritage handed to him Badiou, whose mathematical ontology provided Meillassoux with fertile ground for his argument that the only ‘necessity is contingency.’  The mathematical ontology is not the issue so much as it is that Meillassoux identifies Galileo as the flag bearer of this movement.  His remarks from After Finitude[5] and his essay on the “Derivation of Galileanism” (appended here; I am not sure if this was presented at the same time as the Berlin lecture, but they have been made available in English in the same document, so far as I have seen) make this evident.  However, as much as Meillassoux is crazed about Galileo, I have to point out some amount of irony, here, a point in which a bit of history of science and philosophy of science may come in handy.  Meillassoux is quite emphatic about reintroducing the primary and secondary qualities, yet he doesn’t really pay homage to the fact that the philosophers that developed the distinction to dispatch with certain kinds of knowledge.  That is, those instrumental in establishing the distinction were precisely those who were sought to bring to the fore that a particular kind of knowledge, that epistemic category to be identified as “secondary qualities,” were those who wished to also do away with the distinction: it’s like epistemic garbage, in the sense that you want to identify it in order to get rid of it.  The difference is that, with material garbage, you keep producing it, so the contrast class never goes away, but, once the epistemic garbage is noted, isolated, and pitched for it epistemic impotence, the contrast class disappears.  No one is guiltier of this than Galileo.  Just read the Assayer.  Galileo was after universal, necessary, and certain knowledge.  He produced, even if not in name, the primary-and-secondary-quality distinction to eliminate a particular kind of experience.  Comparing this with the seemingly holistic project of Meillassoux, I think it is a mistake for him to side so strongly with Galileo.  Certainly, Meillassoux wants to embrace Galileanism from his realist standpoint.  However, the holism espoused by contemporary Aristotelians (or philosophers of an Aristotelian flavor, let’s say) seem to have much more in common with Meillassoux than Galileo.[6]  Nothing has persuaded my opinion on this matter than Steve Clarke’s discussion of Galileanism as a turn away from Scholasticism qua neo-Aristotelian mode of thought (see the cited, which happens to be chapter 5 of the volume).  Monism is a problem for Meillassoux, if he seeks to maintain the aforementioned cognitive framework whose modus operandi for acquiring mental contents is provided by a process of ascesis.  Monism is about synthesis, and so one needs to look nowhere else than Kant’s discussion of extensive magnitudes in the Critique of Pure Reason, which is the veritable Golden Age of monism.  No, I do not see how this can obtain.  Instead, Meillassoux has to move toward some kind of Aristotelian-Humean holism, something like the thinking featured in Cartwright and van Fraassen’s work (of course, van Fraassen is a scientific anti-realist, and not entirely clear on Cartwright with respect to Hume, but, hopefully, these names give a sense of the change in direction I am pushing for).  When I mentioned to Adrian Johnston that I think Cartwright and Meillassoux have quite a bit in common, without further explaining myself, he screwed his eyes up at me, not entirely sure what to think; which is understandable.  What I am proposing is certainly very much outside of what Meillassoux currently thinks; but I maintain that it brings greater consistency to his project.  I endeavor to show this in the future.

[1] Meillassoux, Quentin. “After Finitude.” Translated by Ray Brassier. New York City: Continuum, 2011. p. 2

[2] Meillassoux, Quentin. “Subtraction and Contraction: Deleuze, Immanence, and Matter and Memory.” Collapse III (November 2007): 63-107. p. 75

[4] This is, indeed, a bear of a problem, and one upon which Speculative Realism depends, if this sort of cognitive framework is correct.  I will be presenting the result at a meeting of the International Scholar Society for Philosophers in August 2013, where I will talk on the Harman-Latour debate and its relationship to absolutizing phenomenology.

[5] Meillassoux, Quentin. “After Finitude.” Translated by Ray Brassier. New York City: Continuum, 2011. p.113, 136

[6] Clarke, Steve. Metaphysics and the Disunity of Scientific Knowledge. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1998. p. 89-108



Filed under Epistemology, Kantian Philosophy, Philosophy, Pure Philosophy, Speculative Realism

2 responses to “Meillassoux: On the Road to Absolutizing Phenomenology

  1. In some ways I think you would be better served by Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology and Graham Harman’s work in following such a “absolutized phenomenology”… OOO is more down that path than Meillassoux’s materialist elisions… just my opinion of course. Either way, you’ve produced some interesting thoughts… thanks!

  2. Pingback: Ray Brassier on the future and what it means to orient oneself toward it (video) | Senselogi©

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