Realism, contingency, and the powers of nature

Quentin Meillassoux has set two requirements for realist philosophy: the rationalist requirement and the materialist requirement (Brassier, pp. 49-50). The former requires “that reality be perfectly amenable to conceptual comprehension”, while the latter requires “that being, though perfectly intelligible, remain irreducible to thought”. For a realist, conceptual thought cannot be essentially relative (to a transcendental subject, to a form of life, etc.); it must be possible for it to be absolute. But at the same time, thought must not be necessary to the being of the world; a world devoid of intelligent life, and therefore of thought, is perfectly comprehensible: thought is contingent. I will hereafter refer to these requirements as the absoluteness and contingency requirements, respectively, since the terms ‘rationalist’ and ‘materialist’ have a number of other meanings irrelevant to the subject.

Meillassoux offers the “principle of factuality”, or the necessity of contingency (Meillassoux p. 120) as a foundation for a form of realism that meets these two requirements. He starts from the principle of the contingency of thought (and everything else), then argues that this principle is itself absolute (Meillassoux pp. 90-98); he then hopes to derive from this absolute principle other propositions concerning the nature of the in-itself (pp. 100 ff.). There are several reasons to be dissatisfied with this strategy, but the most important is its sterility: Meillassoux is not able to derive the possibility of an absolute scientific thought (i.e. the discovery of “arche-fossils”, phenomena that pre-date the existence of thought) from the principle of factuality as he had set out to do, and can only offer the hope that someone will be able to do so (p. 187).

There is another possible strategy that Meillassoux mentions, but drops after only a cursory examination (pp. 93-94). He identifies an “intimate seam in the correlational circle”: the fact that only one of the two constitutive principles of the circle can be “de-absolutized” at a time. If we oppose absolute idealism by insisting on the facticity of the shared structure of thought and the world, we thereby rely on the absoluteness of the principle of facticity; this is Meillassoux’s strategy. Conversely, if we oppose Meillassoux’s speculative materialism by denying the absoluteness of the principle of factuality, we thereby rely on the absoluteness of the correlate. Meillassoux dismisses this second option on the grounds that it makes a certain being or type of being (eg. “Spirit, Will, Life”) necessary. Absolute idealism cannot coherently think, for example, the mortality of the subject, because it makes the subject necessary to the existence of the world. (Indeed, Fichte argues that the impossibility for the I of abstracting from itself demonstrates its immortality.) But Meillassoux does not consider the possibility that his strategy, described in the previous paragraph, can be reversed by absolute idealism: to start from a principle of the absoluteness of thought, and derive its contingency from its absoluteness.

The details of this derivation are not entirely clear to me yet but it will involve three currents of thought in analytical philosophy:

  1. scientific realism, including its development into Ladyman and Ross’s ontic structural realism, and the Churchlands’ eliminative materialism. I feel that the combination of these two developments results in something like Andy Clark’s active externalism;
  2. scientific essentialism, and in particular the metaphysics of powers developed primarily by Mumford and Molnar;
  3. analytical idealism, or the appropriation of German Idealism by analytical philosophers like McDowell and Brandom.

As in absolute idealism, rather than starting from the subject and asking how it can acquire knowledge of the object, we start from knowledge, and derive an understanding of the subject and object. A very rough outline of the strategy:

  1. If we can know the world in-itelf, then it must be composed of pure modal structure (power);
  2. if we can know knowledge in-itself (and not just the appearance of knowledge, knowledge-for-us, ie. normativity), then knowledge must also be a modal structure (a power);
  3. yet if there is nothing but powers, then there must either be an ungrounded power or an infinite regress of grounds which is itself ungrounded — in either case, “reasons come to an end”.
  4. so if knowledge is a power (2) and powers are essentially contingent (3) then knowledge is contingent.

I’m quite aware of how unsatisfactory the argument is in this form and I hope to flesh out each of the stages in a way using the three traditions in analytical philosophy mentioned above.

I also hope that this project will shed some light on Deleuze. Peter Wolfendale has pointed out the importance of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) to Deleuze’s thought (here and here) and I think this shows how we can understand Deleuze better by opposing him to Meillassoux. The promised third part of Wolfendale’s study has never appear though, so the difficult reconciliation of Deleuze’s affirmation of chance and chaos on the one hand, with his acceptance of the PSR, on the other, is left unfinished. I think it will be possible to interpret Deleuze as pursuing the strategy I described above of deriving the contingency of thought from its absoluteness.

References

Brassier, Ray “The enigma of realism”, Collapse III

Meillassoux, Quentin Après la finitude (my translations)

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2 thoughts on “Realism, contingency, and the powers of nature

  1. Non-manifestation . . . thanks again for interacting with my recent piece over at AUFS.

    I am very interested in this problem of modality in relation to the kind of realism you’re working on.

    I have a paper on a critique of Meillassoux on modality (I think there is a crucial ambiguity in his conception of contingency) that I think you would like. It’s coming out in Angelaki in a couple months but I am happy to share it with you. Find me on facebook (Joshua Ramey) and let me know and I will send it along. Joshua

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