Meillassoux and German Idealism, with incidental thoughts on “blog philosophy”

I have finally read Meillassoux’s After Finitude, and I am deeply impressed. At the same time, I am distressed by the ways I see him being received in blog circles, because I have almost never experienced such a yawning gap between the way a thinker is presented and the way he seems to be “in himself.” It seems to me, however, that this gap is rooted in Meillassoux himself — it corresponds to the gap between his actual argumentation and his rhetorical positioning. The blog reception seems to be dominated by his more programmatic statements, which in my mind are often overblown and actually obscure what’s going on in his argumentation.

It seems to me that there is a kind of serendepity linking together the main “theoretical” works I’ve read in the last few months — the Gabriel/Zizek book, Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology, and Meillassoux’s After Finitude. Though I read them all for different reasons, all of them obviously deal with the aftermath of Kant, and despite Meillassoux’s programmatic statements, he seems to take things in a very similar direction to Rose (whose refrain that the Hegelian step beyond Kant requires the absolute to be thinkable) or Gabriel (whose inclusion of Meillassoux in a discussion of the consequences of German Idealism seems much more appropriate and even obvious after actually reading Meillassoux rather than relying on second-hand accounts).

Drawing on Rose, I would claim that Meillassoux’s “correlationism” is essentially neo-Kantianism and that Meillassoux’s own work is an attempt to go back behind neo-Kantianism and recover the “missed opportunity” encapsulated in post-Kantian Idealism. Indeed, Meillassoux essentially says that the only way out of correlationism is through, and that to find that way out/through, we need to look at what the post-Kantians did: “they turned the correlation itself, the instrument of empirco-critical de-absolutization, into the model for a new type of absolute” (52). This is exactly what I’ve characterized again and again as a “Hegelian” move, and it’s exactly the kind of thing the Meillassoux carries out so satisfyingly in the pages that follow. Obviously Meillassoux wouldn’t agree that this move really is “Hegelian” — he has a more standard reading of Hegel, which is totally defensible and fine — but on the level of the actual substance and argumentation, it’s essentially the same thing.

Meillassoux does characterize the Kantian turn as a disaster for thought, etc., but it’s clear from his actual argumentation that Kant really did render all metaphysics impossible — Meillassoux has absolutely no interest in going back to pre-critical metaphysics, though his rhetoric seems to have convinced some readers that we can be done with Kant and do the kind of thing pre-critical metaphysicians did (“skip straight to” the object without thinking our way out of the correlate, etc.). Instead, he wants to go further than Kant along the path that he initially set out, without getting caught in the cul de sac he calls correlationism and others such as Rose probably would call neo-Kantianism rather than Kantianism proper. This path seems to me to be very, very similar to the path that, for example, Zizek takes in Tarrying With the Negative and other works, where he derives the ontological non-All from the Kantian problematic.

The way he continues the Kantian revolution is really innovative and satisfying and thought-provoking, though it’s clear that a significant amount of work needs to be done — above all, actually deriving Cantorian set theory from the principle of factiality (i.e., demonstrating his key claim!). It’s so thought-provoking that it almost inclines me to work my way through Badiou, whom I had largely written off as irrelevant to my main concerns. But there’s a real discrepancy between this level where Meillassoux is innovative and seductive and great and the other level where Meillassoux is making unsupportably simplistic claims about the history of philosophy, claims that actually don’t do justice to his own argumentation.

What’s ironic to me is that this programmatic rhetoric has enabled people who are so “refreshed” by the way Meillassoux opens up new paths for us to get beyond commentary on figures and discourse directly about subject matter (for instance, Levi) to get stuck on the history of philosophy issues — we need to get rid of Kant, because Kant is bad, etc. No, it seems to me that for Meillassoux, Kant really did open up a radically new stage in philosophy by rendering metaphysics impossible, and we now need to push further. People who get stuck on the critique of correlationism — including the extremely simplistic methodological claims that referring to humanity or to anything human-relevant is a symptom of correlationism, and the obviously wrong claim that the way out of correlationism is simply to ignore the correlate rather than to work through it as Meillassoux himself effectively does (and again, yes, I’m talking about Levi here) — are in danger of getting stuck in yet another cul de sac, are in fact in danger of simply slipping back into pre-critical metaphysics.

I can forgive Meillassoux for being programmatic and hyperbolic in this “opening salvo,” and I fully expect that as he develops his project in a more systematic way, a lot of these battle lines will turn out to be much less clearly defined. I can also forgive bloggers for latching onto the more programmatic and hyperbolic aspects of his work, since that’s the stuff that seems to fit best into the blogging genre. Still, both of those elements together seriously obscure what, for me, is most valuable about Meillassoux’s work. This whole experience makes me seriously question — or, more accurately, solidify my preexisting suspicions of — the possibility of philosophy as an internet phenomenon: the things that work best as combative blog memes are taken up, whereas the core of the argument is cast aside and even directly contradicted.

26 thoughts on “Meillassoux and German Idealism, with incidental thoughts on “blog philosophy”

  1. I for one suppor this “Adam reads Badiou” project, partly because since it is after the ‘event’ of Badiou it would interesting to see your take.

  2. Thanks, Austin. That is a really helpful clarification — and it also makes me think that the OOO use of “correlationism” is extremely misleading, almost directly contrary to the use Meillassoux (who did, after all, come up with it) makes of it.

  3. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that Harman does find Meillassoux to be a correlationist. Which makes sense, right? You can both recognize that Meillassoux critiques something but doesn’t escape something (I’m not saying he is a correlationist, I am completely agnostic on this whole question, or maybe apathetic might be a better word). Anyway, here is what I remember of Harman on the issue

    As far as Levi on Meillassoux, I have no clue. Anyway, I don’t think whatever problems they have, it is because they are poor readers of Meillassoux.

  4. To clarify the last sentence, Meillassoux obviously is not an OOO person. In turn, Harman and Levi et al are not whatever Meillassoux is. Really, their only commonality is critiquing something called correlationism, which again, they don’t even necessarily agree what that term means (or, they don’t seem to as far as I can tell). So that means a lot of what is going on Meillassoux would not support/even critique OOO, but the fact that OOO doesn’t talk about those issues on their blogs aren’t, really, because they don’t know or get it.

    None of this has to do with blogging, but with who is blogging and for what reasons. As you always say about AUFS on the comment policy (which I agree to be the only sane one), they blog for themselves. I mean, it strikes me that none of this has to do with the nature of academic blogging.

  5. AND YET: it seems to me that my point about them choosing Meillassoux’s programmatic statements over his argumentation is still true, even if the implication that they misunderstood his argumentation is not fair. And if the programmatic statements can be so divorced from his actual argument that someone can claim that banner and simultaneously seem to be saying that M. himself is a correlationist, that seems to support the view that there’s not a whole lot of intrinsic connection between the programmatic stuff and the argument stuff. Cut out the blogging stuff, and the basic claims about Meillassoux and his reception might be able to remain in place.

    Or maybe not? I don’t want to be one of those bloggers who always concedes a point and then says, “But isn’t it the case that I’m actually right?”

  6. I still think Meillassoux’s reading of Hegel may potentially be ‘less-standard’ than you seem to think it is. Clearly we won’t know this until his ‘big book’ comes out next year; but he has said in interviews/conversation that he’s basically a Hegelian, and Harman posted today that he cites Hegel/Marx as his two ‘philosophical masters’.
    Also, I do think Harman get’s Meillassoux ‘right’ in regard to his own correlationism, and I don’t think Levi’s use of the term has much to do with Meillassoux. He’s basically just using his own version of the concept for the ends of OOO.
    I think that once his major work is published it will make it much more difficult for people to use a few paragraphs of a short work to justify the common mis-appropriation of his work.

  7. “I don’t want to be one of those bloggers who always concedes a point and then says, “But isn’t it the case that I’m actually right?””

    I mean, I was basically commenting on the margins, because even though I find these discussions interesting enough to read, I really am pretty apathetic/agnostic on these issues. I am just so not invested in what correlationism actually means and who is or is not really or actually a correlationist. It is somewhat like when you wished you hadn’t used the term realism to talk about Derrida.

    I do think that After Finitude was a smart, clear, and fun book. A breath of fresh air, as they say. I think it is important to point out that Harman and Levi’s blogs only give you a small and somewhat distorted view of that book. Not, again, because I think there is a misreading, but rather a reappropriation of only a small part of After Finitude. So, people who are avoiding the book because they don’t like OOO shouldn’t avoid the book, that’s just silliness. You’re right about all of that stuff, no doubt.

    And I’m pretty excited for when the big book comes out. I assume there will be lots of blogger broadcasts when that happens, too.

  8. “I think that once his major work is published it will make it much more difficult for people to use a few paragraphs of a short work to justify the common mis-appropriation of his work.”

    I seriously doubt that – the way people misread Derrida (for example) is a good indication of how even ten 800-page books by M. will not necessarily prevent an abusive selective citation about evil correlationism.

    If accusations of correlationism are a simple means to an end (OOO or otherwise), then the only reference to M. that is necessary here is the use of the term, not the actual argument behind it, as is clear from many cited occurences of such use. In a sense, M.’s work is done as far as anti-correlationists are concerned, he labeled the problem (even if it isn’t really a new problem at all, but the name is fresh and catchy), now it’s only used as a clearing device: correlationists to the right, non-correlationists to the left…

  9. I think one of the issues involving the use by Graham and Levi of the term ‘correlationism’ is that Graham started using it to replace his older term of “philosophies of access.” The latter term had a more general, almost colloquial quality in the sense that it meant not only those philosophies concerned with human access to the world (phenomenology, hermeneutics, etc) but philosophies that necessitate the human being in order to function (which I have always termed, I think more clearly, anthrocentrism or one of the varieties of philosophical humanism). After the first SR conference Graham started using ‘correlationism’ to mean both Meillassoux’s technical meaning as well as those philosophies formerly known as “philosophies of access.”

  10. The problem is still obvious: the “use” does not correspond to the actual intention in Meillassoux’s argument, therefore the use is illegitimate bogeyman use – without any real argument against correlationism (besides the irritating statements that its truth would be inconvenient for what OOO wants to do), its use is just a kind of shibboleth to distinguish between the faithful insiders (“damn those correlationists, they oppress us so much!”) and erroneous-by-definition outsiders (“you don’t get it, man, you’re a correlationist, obviously”). But it’s not likely to go away now that it serves such a great purpose – it’s a mantra, not an argument, and it will continue to be so until some smartass invents a new catchy slogan/motto.

  11. Michael, thanks for your comment, that actually clarifies a lot for me. Also, “which I have always termed, I think more clearly, anthrocentrism or one of the varieties of philosophical humanism”. Exactly, me too. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure what correlationism does for me. I guess it is suppose to be anthropocentrism and/or humanism plus… well, it seems plus a lot of baggage. Not to mention the fact that for Meillassoux, correlationism has a lot less to do with rejecting anthropocentrism.

    Adam: “I disapprove of his decision to do that. It seems like he’s hijacking the term and creating nothing but confusion.”
    I guess I can’t disagree about the creating of confusion. But hijacking terms… that seems like a sacred right of thinking. This might be, however, certainly where the problem of blogging comes in. It would be fine if one reappropriates a term for a different use, as long as one is clear to distinguish it from how it is understood. Right, so making sure you define what correlationism is for your work as opposed to Meillassoux. But this is something that can’t really be done every time you use a term in a blog post, and that certainly adds to the confusion.

  12. I would perhaps add that the way the term correlationism has been used by the OOO crowd has tended to blur the line between correlationism and idealism. This is fairly problematic, insofar as much of the value of Meillassoux’s introduction of the term is that it gives us a more nuanced map of the dialectical terrain, a virtue which is lost if we can’t adequately distinguish the various terms (realism, idealism, strong/weak correlationism).

    As an aside, I think Levi’s response to your point about the return to pre-critical metaphysics is insufficient. One doesn’t have to be Spinozan rationalist to be a pre-critical metaphysician (e.g., Locke).

    The pre-critical/critical distinction is not straightforwardly a matter of whether metaphysics can be deduced from a priori principles (indeed, what Kant thought of as ‘metaphysics’ was deduced in precisely such a way). Rather, it is a matter of whether or not one has delimited the scope of metaphysics before engaging in speculation. In this respect, being critical (or post-critical?) is not necessarily a matter of adopting Kant’s own account of metaphysics and its limits, but rather accepting the injunction that such an account is necessary.

    Interestingly enough, the claim that metaphysics cannot simply be a deductive enterprise (but must presumably be sensitive to the a posteriori results of the sciences) is one that must be demonstrated through precisely such a critique of metaphysics.

  13. It might seem to be utterly accidental, but if it is it still seems to me to be quite revealing of the intentions of the anti-correlationists (as I sense it from an admittedly very impoverished reading), but the first use of correlation in a philosophical context that I am aware of is in the posthumous work of Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism. In that book, Korrelation plays a vital and central role, and it is meant to describe the relationship that obtains between God and Human (Gott and Mensch) (see IV.16). This relationship is explicated as the condition of possibility of thinking Creation and Revelation within the framework of monotheism. Cohen argues that Being (Sein) is not a mere predicate of objects but is the unique source of Becoming, the kind of temporal being that objects have. The Korrelation between God and Creation as the non-emanationist relationship between two radically distinct kinds of Being is explicated as continuous Creation of the New, Erneuerung, that is, the Creation of Beginning (Anfang). And now we have Human as the site where Beginning reveals itself as such, as the Revelation of the Unique Being as ever-renewer of the Becoming. (This sounds very Schellingian, and there is no doubt that Cohen had read his Schelling).

    So, if Korrelation is the enemy, and if Cohen’s use of this term can at least illuminate what is at stake, the we can say: anti-correlationism seeks not only to remove Human (Mensch) from the picture, at least as the Subject/subject of philosophy, it aims at removing God as understood in monotheism, as Self-Revealer. What then is left? Well, Cohen thought that what would be left is either Parmenides (the sole truth of Being) or Heraclitus (only Becoming), with no connection between the two other than emanation (a “mythological” category according to Cohen). We are back at the Battle of the Giants that Plato describes in the Sophist. I wonder if this is much of an advance in philosophy? When Heidegger returned to the Pre-Socratics it was precisely to rediscover Being as Revelation (aletheia), in other words, to find a way back to monotheism before monotheism. Rosenzweig sensed as much when he heard about Heidegger and Cassirer’s (Cohen’s pupil) debate at Davos. He said that Cassirer was wrong, and that Heidegger was actually on the side of Cohen, at least the posthumous Cohen in Religion of Reason (published first in 1919, so before Sein und Zeit). What is gained, then, by returning to either of two giants (Parmenides or Heraklitus) as if the categories of monotheism (Creation, Revelation) had been a false move in thought? The great irony is that these categories were the very ones that were used in the 1920s (Cohen, Rosenzweig, Heidegger) to dismantle neo-Kantian orthodoxy, and now they are targeted as standing in the way of restoring philosophy to its true orientation. Isn’t this just going to start the cycle of philosophy versus Revelation all over again?

  14. Even if the use of the same term is coincidental, the idea of a cyclical battle between philosophy and revelation might capture the dynamic here — Meillassoux believes that the initial (salutary!) clearing away of metaphysics in critical philosophy has now reached a dead end where it has no means of combatting “religion” in the sense of extra-rational revelation. One almost gets the sense that the “religious turn” in phenomenology (which in his terms would be the pinnacle of correlationism, it seems) was the last straw for him, showing that philosophy had been drained of its critical power. (In one passage, he basically accuses contemporary philosophy of having what I call an “at least it’s an ethos” approach to competing belief claims.)

  15. ‘’So, if Korrelation is the enemy, and if Cohen’s use of this term can at least illuminate what is at stake, the we can say: anti-correlationism seeks not only to remove Human (Mensch) from the picture, at least as the Subject/subject of philosophy, it aims at removing God as understood in monotheism, as Self-Revealer.’’

    The term crops up in much neo-Kantianism and its progeny too. Husserl uses it quite often and at crucial points (right into the Krisis). It is less conspicuous in Heidegger. I think you hit the mark here without knowing it since Meillassoux’s book can be read as a tract aimed at removing God (not the human since intellectual intuition enters the picture later). Or more precisely Meillassoux brackets God for the time being in order to access, to focus on the early sections, the mathametical data contained in arche-fossils. God is free to enter the picture elsewhere as when a ‘God-to-come’ (essentially justice) appears on the horizon to help us think premature deaths (Spectral Dilemma).

    ‘What is gained, then, by returning to either of two giants (Parmenides or Heraklitus) as if the categories of monotheism (Creation, Revelation) had been a false move in thought?’

    I am not sure Meillassoux would want either. Parmenides is the correlationist par excellence no? He critiques Heraclitus in ‘Time without Becoming’ but in the online translation there seems to have been some confusing. There is a little editors pointing out some confusion in the translation but one gathers that it is a critique of sorts.

    I would add that in the latter half of AF Meillassoux comes down on the side of allowing for both – a division of labour hinging on a distinction between demonstration and description (intellectual intuition and phenomenology respectively). He makes some interesting remarks on that to Harman in the proceedings from the SR conference. Incidentally regarding Harman’s ‘misuse’ I think that is a pretty wrong-headed. Meillassoux thanks Harman for providing the term ‘philosophies of access’ for correlationism in the ‘Time without Becoming’ paper. Meillassoux might make a different use of correlationism but they are mostly on the same page as far as I can see when it comes to the problem of access. Gratton is instructive on the division of labour thesis in Meillassoux so worth checking out his Pli article.

    As for Heidegger and Meillassoux…I could say a few things but I’d end up writing pages on that matter – the treatment of Heidegger in AF is pretty sparse sadly.

    Also I thought I was the only person in the world with an interest in neo-K until I found this blog!

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