Mythology, Madness and Laughter – The Mythological Being of Reflection 1.3

I must confess that I feel somewhat unsuited to write the response to this section — I have never read Meillassoux’s After Finitude, for instance, and have no particular desire to do so. Nevertheless, I believe that this critical conclusion does make Gabriel’s intentions in the rest of the essay more clear.

As I understand it, Gabriel is arguing that contingency goes all the way down and that a self-aware mythology can do justice to this all-the-way-down contingency in a way that philosophical discourses — paradigmatically Hegel’s (because Hegel is so close to Gabriel’s position but takes one fatal step) — cannot. Indeed, even Meillassoux’s relatively minimal claim that this all-the-way-down contingency is itself necessary is saying too much, installing a non-self-aware mythology, which is to say an ideology.

The point of contact with Zizek’s ontology is clear, and in fact his final paragraph pushes the idea of the virtuality of reality much harder than anything I’ve read in Zizek:

Reflection could not have taken place. It just so happened that the world became entangled in the web of reason…. Fortunately, contingency is not a lamentable fact about our “nature,” but the proper name for the chance of expression. If it did not exist, there would not even be a world. As soon as there is a world, the simulation of determinacy takes place. It conceals the utter contingency of determinacy which is nevertheless constantly manifested in the fact that everything takes place nowhere. Because the world does not exist, it is always up to us to negotiate our various decisions as to how to overturn nothingness–as long as the evanescent flickering of semantic fields within nothingness endures. (94)

Other than this core insight, I’m only able to offer a few scattered remarks:

  • As his use of Bataille might indicate, I can see how Gabriel might enter into productive dialogue with Nancy, for instance with a quotation like this: “If God (that is to say, his representatives on earth) does not dictate politics any more, then we are left alone with the community” (92).
  • Gabriel’s way of preempting the charge that in critiquing scientism he is favoring creationism (a common tactic I have seen on display among certain people who are very concerned to get away from “correlationism”) is amusing: “Of course, creationism is a paranoid world-picture. It rests on thoroughly naive assumptions about science and on a hermeneutics of the Holy Scriptures whose stupidity has hardly ever been outmatched” (89).
  • His defense of the uniqueness of French philosophy (formerly enriched by its alliance with German philosophy, which in Gabriel’s account has essentially given up) is convincing and gets at why I have never found analytic philosophy to be a priority — it is based in what Bataille calls “uneasiness,” without which “philosophy does not exist” (87).
  • In this vein, he says, “Against scientism we should side with philosophers such as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Bataille, and Cavell who manage to verbalize contingency without disavowing it at the same time” (89), a claim that resonates for me with Agamben’s description of the task of philosophy at the end of The Sacrament of Language: “Philosophy is, in this sense, constitutively a critique of the oath: that is, it puts in question the sacramental bond that links the human being to language, without for that reason simply speaking haphazardly, falling into the vanity of speech” (sec. 29).

Dear readers, I welcome your comments on this section, particularly if there’s anyone who can give a more intelligent assessment of his critique of Meillassoux.

26 thoughts on “Mythology, Madness and Laughter – The Mythological Being of Reflection 1.3

  1. Sorry for jumping in at the end of this essay, but I only just caught up with the reading earlier today.

    For me, this section was very much a let-down. I felt like much of Gabriel’s essay was very tightly argued and challenging to my positions, so I was excited to see how all of this would culminate in his critique of Meillassoux. However, as I read, it seemed to me that his critique was largely just dismissive mockery. I mean, at one point he basically said, “Of course Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger could understand that the sun rose before humankind walked the earth, you dummy.” Elsewhere he made what I take to be a classic analytic gesture (I constantly heard it in my old school’s analytic department, anyways), saying Meillassoux could have actually engaged with some serious anti-realist arguments, but instead he just talked about this silly ancestrality thing that no serious person should care about. These two things left a bad taste in my mouth, and they made me wonder why he bothered discussing Meillassoux at all.

    Did those things bother anyone else? And whether it did or not, I’m curious to know how valuable his treatment of Meillassoux seemed to other people.

    Also, what of his treatment of Meillassoux as anti-correlationist in light of Graham’s belief that Meillassoux is himself a correlationist? Is this relevant to Gabriel’s (mis)treatment of After Finitude?

  2. I think some of the snarky asides were fine, to be honest, and didn’t distract from his overall point (plus, I think he’s right to make fun of people for not realizing that of course we know the sun existed before human beings, the point is that we do now exist, it is a weird ideational pastoral to try and get to some reality that we’re not enmeshed within). The criticism of Meillassoux, I think, is interesting and should be taken seriously by the SR crowd. I must admit I’ve never understood what Harman is talking about in his claim that Meillassoux himself is a correlationist, it seems to be stretching the immanent critique of correlaitonism to a bizarre conclusion, but maybe I’ve missed something.

    I think we shouldn’t get too distracted by his debate partners here, though, and should shift the discussion to the point of the piece – a kind of reclaiming of philosophy against science and religion. Does this work without a fully developed philosophy of philosophy and science/philosophy and religion? In other words, what is Gabriel’s metaphilosophy?

  3. No, I don’t think so. It would be hard to say that after reading After Finitude. His point has to do with what he calls arche-fossil, that time before the conditions of human thought even existed, but that we know existed through mathematical modeling.

  4. So hypothetically if Gabriel believes that the ancestrality argument is weak, it’s totally fair of him to say, “He could’ve gone a more convincing direction, but instead he chose this weak one,” right? As in, it would be a genuine disagreement and critique of the argument rather than a character flaw on Gabriel’s part?

  5. Yes.

    I realize this is kind of lame, but I was struck while reading this how a lot of it echoed what I first wrote about Meillassoux back in 2007. Though, obviously, his is a lot more learned, better written, etc. Still, nice to see I’m not crazy.

  6. My problem with the Meillassoux section is that it seems Gabriel has focused on a small aside in AF and taken it as what the book is about. Meillassoux does not mention politics much at all, and when he does it is the quoted bit on ideology and the remarks on creationism. But the principle of factiality is not about politics, but the ‘great outdoors’ in the sense of nature, natural laws, physics, and science. It might be extended to politics a la Badiou, but this does not happen in the book. I admit to being disappointed at what Gabriel does to Meillassoux here. I think it is far to say that the version of AF presented in this book barely resembles the content of AF whatsoever.
    He accuses Meillassoux of scientism and it is clear that Meillassoux goes to great lengths to show that his version of reality will differ radically from that of science. In fact his principle even undermines natural/physical laws. As for his mathematical edge this is sparingly employed and it is more of a promise to come than an explicit tool in his arsenal.
    It seems that what upsets Gabriel is the correlationist label and here Meillassoux is perhaps guilty of dragging all the German idealists under this label, but he does not consider Hegel a strong correlationist and the post-Kantians are his model for undermining the Kantian position.
    Regarding Graham’s claim that Meillassoux is himself a correlationist I would personally agree, but then again the label is so wide I can’t imagine anyone after Kant who could not plausibly be included as a correlationist if one were willing to make the case. As for ancestrality it is the core of the opening of the book, but it fades from view quite early. It helps Meillassoux set up the conditions for his argument, but he makes sure we know it is not meant as a refutation of correlationism per se.
    So I also feel let down about this section. I didn’t even know it would be in there when I bought the book and got pretty excited, but it is essentially an extended polemic with very little to do with Meillassoux at all (except as a useful foil).

  7. Paul,

    I disagree that it barely resembles the content of AF. This is the bit of the book that Brassier highlights in his reading of it as well, so I would say it should be accepted as pretty central.

    As to the scientism comment. I understand why this would bother some, but I took his meaning to be something like “giving philosophy over to a mythology of science” rather than anything like “using math”.

    Finally, I know you have an aversion to politics, but many people have seen a political motivation underlying Meillassoux’s project (esp. his reference to Lenin). In a way, and contra Gabriel’s fundamental insight, you are repeating the same mistake as Meillassoux when you separate out politics from “the Great Outdoors”.

  8. “I have never read Meillassoux’s After Finitude, for instance, and have no particular desire to do so.”

    How uncool you are! This is like admitting that you never heard of the awesome new band that everyone is raving about – you keep this sort of embarrassing info to yourself and just nod along.

  9. Haha. Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound like I was just sad and angry about his treatment of Meillassoux. I’m not exactly married to the guy. Perhaps part of the problem is that I often write “I feel” when what I mean is “I think”, etc. But anyways, point taken about emoting.

    There are a couple of things that are simply problematic with what Gabriel does in terms of argumentation. What I meant to suggest is that, largely, instead of overturning Meillassoux, Gabriel just performs character assassination. That’s not an argument, it’s not a reason to think Meillassoux’s wrong about ancestrality, etc. The fact that his reason for rejecting Meillassoux’s reasoning about the arche-fossil boils down to “of course Kant would understand that the sun [or arche-fossil or whatthefuckever] existed before humans” is just pathetic. There is an important difference between (1) what a philosopher wants to say and (2) what the actual implications of that philosopher’s system turn out to be, the latter of which being what Meillassoux is talking about. As far as I can tell, Gabriel doesn’t really attempt to show how (2) Meillassoux’s interpretation of correlationist (indeed, perhaps a too-wide label) philosophy is false, dismissing it rather on the basis of (1).

    So, to be clear, my disappointment lies in seeing a tightly-constructed argument uncoil.

    Though on second thought, perhaps his distinction between ontic and ontological creation does that work for him. He might have been a little more explicit about how, though.

    If I were Gabriel, I would think that it would have been much more productive to ruminate on the difference between the necessity of contingency and the contingency of necessity, since this seems, in the end, to be his real critique of Meillassoux—that is, he doesn’t go far enough.

    And how exactly do you see him reclaiming philosophy from science and religion? I recognize, of course, that he wants to navigate between their reifying forms (i.e. scientism & creationism), but not necessarily that he’s trying to completely remove them from the picture. Maybe that’s what you meant and I’m just nitpicking.

    As far as his metaphilosophy goes, isn’t that work done by his idea of mythology? It seems to me that mythology is the pre-philosophical realm that conditions how philosophy is (or, perhaps, even can be) done. It is within the domain of a constitutive mythology that philosophy can take a shape. Do you think that’s on the right track?

  10. Anthony,

    Is there more to this “mathematical modelling” point? Because it seems to be just another form of the “duh, obviously we know it existed.” It seems like you’d have to invoke a rather high epistemological view of “mathematical modeling.” I don’t want to sound like I have anything at stake here, I’m just curious if there is a more fleshed out argument that I’m missing. I’ve read as much of AF as I could manage via Amazon (maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the book), and I can’t say it really grabbed me.

  11. ”I disagree that it barely resembles the content of AF. This is the bit of the book that Brassier highlights in his reading of it as well, so I would say it should be accepted as pretty central.”

    But it is a rather short section to highlight no? – even if Brassier and Gabriel pick up on it. I have no problem with teasing out the political angle in Meillassoux (and Gabriel nicely reminds us of Meillassoux’s ties with Badiou and his project), but the book does not seem to me to be political per se. It just seems somewhat unfair to lay such a heavy accent on hislimited remarks on politics. In fact I’d probably be fine with it if Gabriel just gave a nod or two to Meillassoux’s wider project (which strikes me as pretty apolitical at this stage). As ZSDP notes his critique feels more like ‘character assassination’ than an attempt to undermine Meillassoux’s argument. It starts this way – as a rumination ‘on the difference between the necessity of contingency and the contingency of necessity’ but quickly spins into a kind of polemic against scientism and French philosophy. [I should add that the rest of the book is great which is why I was so surprised by this section]

    ‘Finally, I know you have an aversion to politics, but many people have seen a political motivation underlying Meillassoux’s project (esp. his reference to Lenin). In a way, and contra Gabriel’s fundamental insight, you are repeating the same mistake as Meillassoux when you separate out politics from “the Great Outdoors”.’

    This is probably quite true, but this goes back to the eternal question of whether it is possible to do any kind of philosophy (or metaphysics) without being implicated in politics. Regarding the aversion to politics I am finding that harder these days. Reading Badiou is making that more difficult…I have a suspicion that Meillassoux will address politics in the future but at the moment it seems more like he is attempting to lay out his metaphysics (if we can call anything that these days). I’d be massively interested in what his take on politics is.

  12. Only time for short responses, sorry.


    G’s criticism of M does not boil down to “of course they know the sun existed before humanity”, but to the contingency of necessity (contingency all the way down). That which you’re calling character assassination takes up very little of his argument (a case where I think its relative length is comparable to its relative importance when we read it).

    You are being nitpicky, but that’s fine, I don’t mean that he wants to get rid of science and religion, but he doesn’t want philosophy to be “overcoded” by their mythology.

    Yes to the other things about metaphilosophy. Thanks for stating them so clearly for me, helped me think about them again.


    I think we just have very different readings of Meillassoux here and this probably isn’t the place to hash them out. Just a few clarifying comments: one does not have to talk about the political for their underlying project to have a political impetus, the fact that his metaphysics begins with references to Lenin suggests that there is a political ideology underlying the project. Addressing that, the fact that ideology’s often run unacknowledged beneath our critical philosophical systems, seems to me to be part of Gabriel’s metaphilosophical project, and an important part of doing philosophy in general. That isn’t character assassination, it’s philosophy. What I’m trying to do, in the rush to leave the flat to listen to Tory scum talk about Platonic scum, is say that it seems like you’re missing out on the really exciting point he’s making here, which is that the Great Outdoors is bigger than primary qualities and that philosophy is an eternal task (perhaps also science and religion, but only in their unreified forms, which holds for philosophy as well).

  13. Adam, it is maybe tangential but you underlined that there’s a reason given here why analytic philosophy is not a priority & I wonder whether the target here is analytic philosophy -or a certain image it has (just like I am wondering whether I and others do not dismiss too quickly as mystic, verbose & woolly large chunks of the continental tradition).

    I am asking because if you take away the use of words that I understand Gabriel uses, what remains of the summary is, as far as I can tell, the absence of an ultimate theory along the inescapable presence of some (progressively improving)theory – which is where I think currently analytic philosophy is at (but that’s just my view of it).

    I’m sure there is a lot of positivistic BS out there, but then – again – there is a lot of radically orthodox Lacanian New Age BS out there as well.

  14. I just can’t see myself getting into analytic philosophy for the sake of saying I’m informed on it. If someone recommends something specific that sounds like it will help me in some way, that’d be great.

    But I’m very impatient with analytic types in general, because all I ever hear from them is either that analytic philosophy is actually good (thanks for the tip!) or that I don’t really know philosophy at all unless I know analytic stuff (thanks again!). I can publish on Zizek, Agamben, Butler, Derrida, etc., and not know the field of contemporary philosopy at all in their mind. Meanwhile I’m completely disqualified to talk about their approach unless I’ve mastered the entire literature. There’s never any content to it whatsoever — it’s just border policing. To which I say — you can keep your fucking borders.

    I know that you personally are not like that, etc., but that’s what’s informing my sense that it’s just not worth digging into analytic philosophy. The people who are going to care are just going to be dicks to me still, because I won’t have done enough. I might as well stick with the stuff that I know is interesting, which is enough work just in itself.

  15. I can dig that, Adam, I sure can. As a non-professional it’s a bit how I feel on most philosophers, but specifically those of the continental tradition as there is border policing as well – and you don’t mention the most irritating sort, the one that goes on about how you haven’t probed ‘deep’ enough.

    Anyway – Quine & Davidson are close to what I gather your Gabriel is doing. The latter even makes the link to Gadamer himself. There is some mathematical stuff on continuous vs integer thinking that is also pretty much the same afaik but expressed in another fashion.

    The thing is: there should be a way to detect the BS on the both sides and retain the helpful bits, shouldn’t there?

  16. Part of detecting the BS, though, has to be the recognition that the two sides don’t have to be symmetrical. Sure, everyone in every discipline pulls the “but you have to read even more” trick. But continental types are not nearly as concerned with border policing — above all because they tend to be spread among so many different disciplines.

    Continental types tend to see the figures they’re discussing as addressing the “big questions” that have always been associated with philosophy — analytic types tend to think that members of their guild have found the privileged methods for answering ever-smaller philosophical questions (for instance, only they are able to put together “arguments” properly-so-called).

    Complaining that analytic philosophy tends to be too narrow is almost tautological. The analytic answer is of course that you need to be narrow to have rigor — and obviously the continental types don’t think that the broad view continental philosophy provides is worth sacrificing to that particular vision of rigor. If you call the continental approach “border-policing” in this regard, it’s a weird kind of border policing, certainly different in kind from the analytic style of border policing.

  17. Hi everyone.

    Can I say firstly that I’m really pleased that this reading group has taken place because continental philosophy was massively sneered at throughout my philosophical training, yet it’s the area that I find the most satisfying and interesting. I feel safe knowing that I can read through this material with people who are enlightened in these areas. More of these groups please!

    Anyway, I’m glad people have moved onto the analytic vs continental debate. I agree with Adam that analytic philosophy is a lot more willing to just sever connections with entire fields of philosophy without trying to see their merit, whereas the continental tradition is keen to engage with many different philosophical strands. Look at Deleuze: in his own perverse way, he was willing to engage with Hume, Spinoza and Leibniz as Russell did (yet Russell did little more that throw Nietzsche’s book across the room and dismiss Heidegger as wordy nonsense….which is a little unfair). I think continental philosophy wants to engage with whatever is there and try and figure something out, whatever it may be. I always found it difficult to engage with the analytic fans at uni when discussing religion. They took a flat “It’s true or it isn’t-in fact, it isn’t- the end” approach, whereas there is more to be said about religion than whether the propositions are true or not. I’m not saying all analytic philosophy takes this form, but it lends itself to that way of thinking. I particularly like Marcuse on this in “One Dimensional Man”. His criticism of the ordinary language philosophers is particularly scathing, entertaining, but very worthwhile.

    However, I do agree that continental philosophy is prone to poetic sounding but largely empty whaffle. Prone to, but not entirely made up of. However, at its best it makes us engage with issues that analytic philosophy really doesn’t. On a personal note, I kind of feel a bit dead inside when I read analytic philosophy. It’s like the world becomes a little more grey and bit more Radio 4 friendly. There’s no lack of integrity in having a little fire in your belly.

    I know I haven’t added much, but thanks for the group. I’m really enjoying it. I’ll try to write something more when I’m in a more comfortable position.

  18. Well, as said, I’m a non-professional so I don’t know where the pettiest individuals lurk – although I suspect they’ll be a part of tha majority. What I think I can say is that you can’t treat of analytic philosophy as if it possesed human type of character traits.

    The reason why I am here is that I do think that on analytic side there is a tendency to pick nits – and loose the over-all picture – or get drawn in quasi-kabbalistic mumbo-jumbo – & get all Auguste Comte-scientistic on you. I think there is the possibility though of connecting and that there is something that can be gained on either side: precision of formulation & aspiration to solve the great questions, to be precise.

    When I read Carnap I was struck by the ambition of it – and it would be a shame if some bunch of pricks would stand in the way of this ambition going stale. Anyway, all the ones I refer to on my old and new site had the ambition to give an ethical stance.

    Anyway, none of this matters much, what does matter is – if I’m right – that Gabriel’s thinking can gain legs if exposed to an analytical treatment.

  19. Fair enough. As I said, I’m sure there is stuff of great value in the analytic tradition, but I’m unlikely to delve into it without a specific reason driven by my own research agenda. And I didn’t go into this intending to let the thread devolve into an analytic-continental smackdown (my bad, really) — so hopefully everyone can be content that both sides have had some say and continue with the more specific discussion of Gabriel, if there’s more discussion to be had.

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