On Meillassoux’s style

One of the things that makes Meillassoux’s After Finitude so compelling is its genuine argumentative rigor. I have in the past disputed with analytically-trained philosophers who seem to me to be overly fixated on a very narrow idea of what an “argument” is, so I should say up front that I have found a wide range of philosophical styles as compelling as Meillassoux’s. What I like about Meillassoux’s approach in specific, though, is the way it carried me along, almost made me feel like a participant — I could anticipate where he was going and felt confident in saying what was left to be done by the end of the book.

A turn toward this type of style seems to be characteristic of younger “continental” philosophers. I felt something similar in Gabriel’s essay from the book event, for example, though it was much more dense and more difficult for me to follow, and I viewed Laclau’s Populist Reason as something of a revelation due to his clear and systematic approach. (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was also revelatory; though it was much more steeped in the kind of “continental” approach of working through the tradition, etc., at the core of the book for me was a straightforward argument that the economy’s “determination in the last instance” is an incoherent concept.)

There is still something to be said for philosophers who take longer to “unpack,” and I don’t want to fetishize “argument” by drawing too sharp a line between “argument” and “all that decadent continental stuff.” In fact, I would even say that part of the value of reading more focused argumentative work that wears its intellectual heritage and commentary lightly is that it allows us to recognize more clearly where the arguments are in apparently non-argumentative philosophers.

At the same time, the case of Meillassoux in specific shows the value of always doing philosophy as the history of philosophy, because the rigor of his more formal argumentation shows how relatively weak and unsupported his reading of the history of philosophy is and how much that hampers the work. Philosophy is not only a technique or method of constructing arguments — it’s also a tradition, and philosophy at its best and most innovative is always also going to be concerned with making the tradition new.

At least for me, philosophers are always at their weakest when they’re rejecting some past figure — for instance, postwar French rejections of Hegel, or contemporary rejections of Derrida. This isn’t because I think we always need to be “nice” or “charitable” toward authority, but because it’s also necessary to learn from errors. Meillassoux points in this direction several times as he acknowledges the need to account for the fact that so much post-Kantian philosophy has been “correlationist,” rather than simply decrying it. If we don’t take seriously the appeal and convincingness of other schools of thought, we risk cutting off the possibility of genuine argument or even meaningful disagreement and making everything a matter of taste — or of border patrol.

One thought on “On Meillassoux’s style

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Let me quote some support from this analytic thinker (R. Carnap my translation): “In so doing we can carefully build, stone for stone, a secure building, where each following generation can contribute to.” (this is a small part of an excellent preface about Adam’s theme; to the 1st edition of Der logische Aufbau der Welt).

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