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(draft July 2012)

Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic

instead of doing quantificational logic.

Q. MEILLASSOUX, in G. Harman [2011], p.160

Abstract

In a recent series of publications on his blog1, Jon Cogburn has made a very

interesting attempt to formalize Quentin Meillassoux arguments against

correlationism in formal logic. We would like to present our own view on the

subject, and show some weaknesses of Meillassoux reflection.

Introduction

In After Finitude 2 , Quentin Meillassoux undertakes an ambitious philosophical

crusade against what he takes to be the main metaphysical background of

contemporary philosophy, which he calls correlationism: the view that reality is

essentially mind-dependent, or, in other words, that being is somehow correlated to

its thinkability3 . Meillassoux aim is to find a way out of correlationism without

falling into the so-called nave view of dogmatic realism; he intends to do so by

seeking an absolute, mind-independent truth, which he expresses in the following

way: necessarily, everything is contingent. This is the core idea of his own

metaphysical position, entitled speculative materialism. Since his argument makes

great use of modal terms in a rather inexplicit way, our purpose in the present paper

is to clarify and discuss its crucial moves by resorting to formal logic. In the first

section, we give a step-by-step reconstruction of the dialectical reasoning which

supposedly paves the way for speculative materialism, starting with the original

realist thesis successively challenged by different versions of correlationism. We show

that Meillassoux argument cannot be validly reconstructed, and that it overlooks

inevitable difficulties. In the second section, we take a look at Jon Cogburns own

formal reconstruction, and argue that it illegitimately associates correlationism with

verificationism, due to its Dummettian background. Finally, we try in the last section

to re-examine the issue of correlationism from a more classical standpoint, by

* This paper is still a draft and has not yet been submitted for publication; comments and criticisms are

welcome. Please do not quote without the authors permission.

1

URL = <http://drjon.typepad.com>

2

Meillassoux [2006/2008].

3

We shall not discuss here the validity of such a view about contemporary philosophy. However, it is

worth remarking in passing that Meillassoux dismissal of analytic philosophy as a whole as linguistic

correlationism is at best very controversial, if not simply wrong.

1

showing how Berkeleys so-called master argument, even in Graham Priests precise

and elegant reconstruction, fails to undermine the consistency of the realist thesis.

Let T be a predicate for thought by someone, such that Tx means x is thought by

someone (or more vaguely x is apprehended by a consciousness). Thus the formula

x Tx seems to be an approximate expression of the correlation of being and

thought. On the contrary, x Tx means that there is an x such that x is not

thought; this seems to be a suitable formulation of the existence of at least a thing-

in-itself (if x is the case and x is not thought by a consciousness, the being of x is

not correlated to its thinkability).

We shall be using two propositional operators:

Kp p is knowable

Cp p is conceivable (or p is thinkable, as Meillassoux often puts it)

(A2) C [what is thinkable is possible]

The basic claim of dogmatic realism is the following6:

4

The validity of (A1) is quite obvious. (A2), also known as the conceivability principle, has attracted

a lot of interest in recent years, since it is one of the core issues in the epistemology of modalities (at

least in conceivability-based accounts). According to Chalmers [2002], there is at least some plausibility

in the idea that conceivability can act as a guide to metaphysical possibility. By contrast, it is very

implausible that conceivability entails physical or natural possibility. Since we are mostly concerned

with metaphysical possibility in this paper, we shall accept it without further discussion.

5

These are, strictly speaking, axiom schemata where is a meta-variable representing any well-formed

formula; any substitution of a formula to gives an axiom.

6

One could prefer the following formalization of the realists thesis: K(x Tx) & C(x Tx). We will

not debate whether this claim is weaker or not; this has to do with the whole problem of the realists so-

called dogmatism: not only dont we know that x Tx is true, but we dont even know that its truth

is knowable.

2

This only means that there is such a thing as a thing-in-itself7, and that this very fact

is conceivable. In other words, this kind of realist sees no difficulty in believing in the

truth of the claim x Tx, and he is often called nave for this reason.

The weak correlationist challenges the aforesaid realist postulate (x Tx) on an

epistemological ground, by denying its knowability. She maintains however the

second part of the realists thesis:

This is the closest we can get to Kants position: the thing-in-itself is unknowable,

though thinkable.

The radical starting point of the absolute idealist is that the thing-in-itself is

unthinkable (thus obviously unknowable, by the contrapositive of A1):

C(x Tx)

This thesis comes from Berkeleys so-called master argument: we are not able to

conceive a body existing independent of anybody conceiving it. Meillassoux calls it a

pragmatic contradiction and attributes it to Fichte 8. Whether this argument is

correct or not is a very complex matter. Graham Priest has shown that it can be

reconstructed in formal logic and slightly modified to be valid, and that from a

dialetheist point of view it entails a true contradiction9. The argument shows how

Hylas claim that he conceives a thing which is unconceived C(x Tx) ends up

to Ta & Ta. We shall discuss later this argument at greater length (see section 3).

For now, let us accept that the absolute idealist is right to conclude that the existence

of a thing-in-itself is unthinkable.

The absolute idealist appeals to a principle (let us call it P1), which states that the

unthinkable is impossible:

7

Priest [1995] formalizes the realists claim (that is, the claim of Hylas in Berkeleys Three Dialogues) in

a very similar way: x x (where is the equivalent of our predicate T).

8

Meillassoux reflection on the status of the pragmatic contradiction in Fichte comes from Thomas-

Fogiel [2004], p.95-96. Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel argues that Fichte was the first philosopher to speak of

this kind of contradiction, which is neither purely logical nor physical, but is defined as the

contradiction between the act of saying X and what is said of X i.e. a performative contradiction

(that is, a version of Moores paradox). She further argues that Aristotles proof of the principle of non-

contradiction in Metaphysics 4 uses a rather similar notion of contradiction. However, Berkeleys

master argument, before Fichte, seems much closer to what Meillassoux has in mind.

9

Priest [1995].

3

(P1) C

(P1) is the inverse (i.e. the converse of the contrapositive) of the axiom (A2); it is of

course much stronger than (A2).

The reasoning of the absolute idealist is the following:

(2) C [P1]

(3) C [by (2)]

(4) C(x Tx) (x Tx) [(x Tx)/]

(5) x Tx [by (1) and (4)]

(6) x Tx [by (5)]

(2) What is unthinkable is impossible.

(3) What is unthinkable is necessarily not the case.

(4) If it is not thinkable that there is a thing-in-itself, then it is necessarily not

the case that there is a thing-in-itself.

(5) Thus it is necessarily not the case that there is a thing-in-itself.

(6) So the correlation is necessary.

We proved that using the principle (P1) according to which the unthinkable is

impossible, the absolute idealism can move from the thesis that the thing-in-itself is

unthinkable to the conclusion that the correlation is necessary.

The strong correlationist maintains the initial hypothesis of the absolute idealist:

C(x Tx)

However, she appeals to a principle (P2), which states that it is conceivable that (P1)

is not true. There are two problems at this stage. First, Meillassoux formulation of

(P2), though impressive, is wrong. According to him, the strong correlationist states

that it is unthinkable that the unthinkable be impossible (let us call that principle

P2*):

(P2*) C(C )

4

According to (P2*), it is unconceivable that (P1) is true. This principle is too strong

for what the strong correlationist really has to assert, that is: it is conceivable that (P1)

is not true. This idea, expressed in Meillassoux words, would be: it is thinkable that

the unthinkable be not impossible. However, this way of expressing (P2) is rather

vague and unsatisfactory. What we want (P2) to mean is the following: it is

conceivable that for some formula , (C ) is not true. In other words, we

cannot derive anymore from our hypothesis (the thing-in-itself is unthinkable) that the

correlation is necessary; we have to concede that it is conceivable that the thing-in-

itself be possible10.

How can we formalize (P2)? This is a more difficult task that it seems. Let us, for now,

express it the same way we expressed (P1) and the wrong principle (P2*), and call this

formulation (P2**). The idea is that (P2) is supposed to state: it is conceivable that

not-(P1). Thereby, it seems at first glance we only need to put C (conceivable

not) before our principle (P1). It results in the following principle:

(P2**) C(C )

We shall see later that (P2**) is wrong, and not at all equivalent to the correct

formulation of (P2); then we shall find a way to rightly express (P2). But for now we

can show how Meillassoux next step, the so-called derivation of an absolute, is not

only based on the wrong principle (P2**), but is in itself incoherent even if we grant

(P2**).

1.5.1 The derivation of an absolute truth

Its easy to prove from (P2**) that everything is possible, using the axioms (A2) and

(A3):

(2) C(C & ) [by (1)]

(3) (C & ) [by (A2) and (2)]

(4) C & [by (3)]

(5) [by (4)]

(6) [by (A3) and (5)]

10

As we shall see, since what is conceivable is possible (A2) and what is possibly possible is possible

(A3), the strong correlationist can apparently conclude that it is unthinkable but possible that there is a

thing-in-itself. Using the principle (P2) and the axioms (A2) and (A3), she seems able to move from the

unthinkability of a fact to its possibility (from C to ). But we will show why this is an illegitimate

move.

5

(1) It is conceivable that the inconceivability of something (anything) does not

entail its impossibility.

(2) It is conceivable that something is both inconceivable and possible.

(3) It is possible that something is both inconceivable and possible.

(4) It is possible that something (anything) is inconceivable and it is possible

that something (anything) is possible.

(5) It is possible that anything is possible.

(6) Anything is possible.

This is how Meillassoux gets to , that is, anything is possible. This is a theorem:

for any formula , it is true that is possible. Since is a theorem schema, is a

theorem, and consequently it is obvious that is also a theorem. We know, by the

rule of necessitation, that if is a theorem, is a theorem (if then ): if is

a theorem, then is a theorem11, and if implies , then is also a

theorem. Thus Meillassoux is able to move from to , which means for

any formula , it is necessary that isnt necessary (i.e. it is necessary that is

contingent).

This line of though is very Cartesian. Indeed, according to Descartes famous theory

of the creation of eternal truths, the omnipotence of God ensures Him the power to

create what is possible and what is not. For instance, the round square is

unconceivable, but following Descartes it is conceivable that God could have made a

round square:

I do not think that we should ever say of anything that it cannot be brought about by

God. For since every basis of truth and goodness depends on his omnipotence, I would

not dare to say that God cannot make a mountain without a valley, or bring it about

that 1 and 2 are not 3.

Descartes, For Arnauld, 29 July 1648, AT, V, p.224

close to Meillassoux own idea; its all the more surprising that the latter does not

mention his illustrious predecessor on this particular matter12.

11

This has of course nothing to do with the axiom of S5 according to which .

12

However he does discuss Descartes universal possibilism in his thesis of 1997, Linexistence divine.

One could argue that Meillassoux philosophical position is close to a kind of atheist cartesianism. Of

course, the main difference is that in Descartes viewpoint, the thesis of universal possibilism concerns

what God could have done, granted that he has done otherwise; for instance, God could have wanted

that 2+1=5, but he did create the mathematical rule according to which 2+1=3. While Meillassoux

believes theres no reason to doubt that anything could happen at any moment, Descartes reflects on a

merely counterfactual possibility. Meillassoux universal possibilism is thus tinted, so to speak, with

Humean skepticism an interesting hybridation!

6

Meillassoux next goal is to draw non-trivial consequences from this absolute, in

particular the law of non-contradiction and the necessity that there is something

rather than nothing. We shall explain briefly why we believe he has no right to make

this move, even if we accept the validity of .

According to Meillassoux, a contradictory entity is absolutely impossible, because if

an entity was contradictory, it would be necessary. There are several ways to show

the weakness of this argument. The most obvious one is certainly this trivial

reasoning from :

(1)

(2) (p & p)

might retort that the goal of the derivation of non-trivial consequences from is

precisely to limit the validity of this principle13. The authors argument is indeed

the following: a contradictory entity could never change because there would be no

alterity for it in which to become, since it would already be what it is not. Hence

the supposed necessity of such an entity, which is incompatible with the idea that

everything is contingent. There are at least two possible answers to this argument:

(a) A contradictory entity say, a round square is perfectly capable of

change: it could acquire a new property, for instance being red, or swap

one of its properties (e.g. by becoming a triangular square).

(b) Even an entity that would possess, per impossibile, every possible

properties, could still be submitted to change by losing one of its

properties. One could further argue that losing the property of being F and

acquiring (or keeping) the property of being non-F are not equivalent.

Why is there something rather than nothing ?. This answer is developed in detail

in Meillassoux [2007], but already appears in After Finitude, where the author claims

that it is necessary that there be something rather than nothing because it is

necessarily contingent that there is something rather than something else.

Meillassoux argument is again very unsatisfactory: why would universal

quantification involve existential commitment? It may be true that necessarily

everything is contingent even is there is nothing. Meillassoux error comes from the

fact that he takes x is contingent to mean x can be and can not be; from this he

argues that if everything is contingent, something has to exist in order to be

13

We shall explain later why such limitation is problematic, since is not a principle but a theorem.

7

authentically able to perish. But this argument is obviously wrong: saying that

everything is contingent does not imply that necessarily, some contingent being

exists. If we translate the theorem by the expression anything is possible, it

becomes clear that it does not entail any positive answer to Leibniz question: it may

be true that anything is possible even if nothing is actual. The real issue on this

matter is the debate over the consistence of an empty possible world14, but of course

Meillassoux doesnt address this question.

There is a general lesson to be drawn from the flimsy derivation of these figures:

Meillassoux first argues that is an absolute truth let us call it A or, as we

prefer to say, a theorem, provable from (P2**), (A2) and (A3). According to A,

everything is possible, and consequently it is necessary that everything is contingent.

Then he examines a particular proposition p (such as there is a contradictory entity,

or nothing exists), and claims that p is absolutely impossible. However, A entails

p. Meillassoux thinks he can limit the application of his absolute principle

necessarily, everything is possible by showing that some proposition p has

unacceptable consequences, and thus must be held impossible. But he has only two

real alternatives: either p is possible and A is valid, or p is impossible and A is

invalid15. It seems that Meillassoux doesnt see the contradiction between A and the

affirmation that some p is impossible, because he doesnt have a clear conception of

the modalities he uses: by systematically expressing A by everything is contingent,

he misses why the impossibility of some proposition contradicts A: this contradiction

is indeed clearer if one formulates A by everything is possible. Yet we know that

p is equivalent to p, so the impossibility of some p obviously contradicts the

theorem .

Meillassoux seems to think that his argument for the universal necessity of

contingency is absolutely irrefutable; indeed, we pointed out that the theorem

could be proved using the principle (P2**). But this principle, as we shall now argue,

is an illegitimate formulation of the correct principle (P2).

Why is a correlationist not committed to this universal possibilism? In other terms:

what is wrong with the argument reconstructed in 1.5? We will show that the flaw

14

See in particular Lowe & Van Inwagen [1996].

15

There seems to be another problem: in both cases of there is a contradictory entity and nothing

exists, Meillassoux ultimately claims that these propositions contradict A. Thus there is a paradox: A

states that any proposition is possible, and Meillassoux finds a proposition that is apparently

incompatible with A but must be held possible according to A. The only good solution to this paradox

would be the rejection of A. However we showed that both the existence of a contradictory entity and

the possibility that nothing existed are compatible with A, despite what Meillassoux claims to prove.

Consequently, even if we grant the validity of the theorem (we shall return to this in the next

section), Meillassoux is not entitled to derive his figures.

8

lies in the way the principle (P2) which characterizes strong correlationism is

understood and formalized.

We have seen that the absolute idealist accepts the principle (P1) stating that what

is unthinkable is impossible, and the strong correlationist on the contrary accepts the

principle (P2) stating that it is thinkable that (P1) does not hold.

Since (P1) is naturally expressed by this axiom:

(P1) C

that not) before (P1):

(P2**) C(C )

The problem is that the principle (P1) is not a proper formula but a schema.

Therefore what is really meant by (P1) is the following:

C

So, if one wants to formulate (P2) by adding it is conceivable that not before (P1),

the result is not (P2**) but the following:

(P2) It is conceivable that is not the case that for any substitution of a

formula for , the following is a principle:

C

(P2) is not a schema like (P1) and there is no way to express it as a schema. In fact

(P2) should not be considered as a principle: it only states that we have no reason to

accept (P1) among our principles. (We could say that it is a sort of meta-principle: a

principle about which kind of principle we should accept or not in our theory.)

So, the simplest way to formalize strong correlationism is simply to endorse that

things-in-themselves are unthinkable

without adding (P1) among our principles. (It is the only contribution of (P2) to the

theory.) It is as simple as that. What is noticeable is that if we make the assumption

that there is a thing-in-itself:

(2) x Tx

9

there is no way to derive a contradiction from it. We would need (1) and (P1) to do

it, but a strong correlationist rejects the latter. Therefore, for a strong correlationist,

things-in-themselves are in a certain way possible; but we must be careful about the

way we use possible here: it only means that supposing the existence of a thing-in-

itself does not entail a contradiction in our theory. We will come back on this point

later.

One could object that it is just too easy to get rid of (P1) without even trying to

express (P2). Why not formalizing (P2) as well? The problem is that we need

quantification over propositions if we want to express it more rigorously. And even if

we formalize it, (P2) does not interfere in any interesting way with the rest of the

theory. We will however formalize (P2) too for the sake of clarity: this will at least

show clearly the difference between the principle (P2) as we understand it, and the

principle (P2**) we earlier attributed to the speculative materialist.

In order to correctly express (P2) we need to quantify over propositions. A schema

like (P1) holds for every proposition. Therefore, using p as a variable for propositions,

we can express (P1) as:

(P1) p (Cp p)

(P2) Cp (Cp p)

quantification over propositions:

(P2**) p C(Cp p)

The only formal difference between (P2) and (P2**) is the position of the quantifier.

But those two formulas are very different. Indeed, (P2) entails:

(Notice that the negation of the universal claim in (P1) leads to an existential claim.)

On the other hand, (P2**) entails:

Less formally, (P2) entails: it is thinkable that there is an unthinkable and possible

proposition, while (P2**) entails: for every proposition it is thinkable that this

10

proposition is unthinkable and possible. It seems clear that one who denies that

unthinkability entails impossibility must accept (P2) and not (P2**). If I deny that

what is unthinkable is impossible, I do not mean to assert that everything that is

unthinkable is possible, I only mean to assert that at least something unthinkable is

possible.

(P2**) is obviously too strong: for every proposition, even the simplest proposition

like The sky is blue, it is thinkable that this proposition is unthinkable. It does not

make any sense! The argument in 1.5 lies on a clearly false premise, which did not

seem absurd at first glance because of a misunderstanding about quantification.

Thereby, we can formalize more completely the strong correlationist view as the

following. She endorses that things-in-themselves are unthinkable:

And she endorses (P2), which entails that it is thinkable that there is an unthinkable

possible proposition:

And nothing more. Now, if we make the supposition that there is a thing-in-itself:

(2) x Tx

we are in the same situation as before: we cannot derive any contradiction from those

three formula.

Meillassoux insists on the fact that the strong correlationist must conclude that the

things-in-themselves are possible. As we said before, it is not incorrect to say that if

by possible we mean strictly: it is not contradictory with the principles of the theory.

This point may be the source of another last misunderstanding.

Properly speaking, we should not accept to say that the strong correlationist

conclude that (2) is possible, because, by saying that, one could think that she

concludes in fact:

(5) x Tx

It is absolutely not the case. We only meant that the principles of his theory do not

allow him to derive the negation of (2). In other term: (2) is coherent with the

theory, it is not contradictory with the rest of the theory. This fact is quite different

from (5), and it does not entail (5). (If a formula is not a theorem it certainly does

not entail that is a theorem; those are two very different things.)

11

Maybe one could think that the principle (P2) could be used in order to derive (5).

Roughly speaking, the argument would go like this: the things-in-themselves are

unthinkable, but it is thinkable that the unthinkable be possible, therefore it is

thinkable that the things-in-themselves be possible. This argument may be seductive

but it makes no sense as soon as we look closer.

Lets start from (3) or even a stronger claim which is arguably entailed by (3):

(3) asserts that there is at least one proposition which may be unthinkable and

possible. A strong correlationist endorses that thing-in-themselves exist is an

unthinkable proposition. This unthinkable proposition may be one of those

unthinkable possible propositions whose possible existence is asserted by (3), or it

may be not. How could we know? (3) does not say that every unthinkable

proposition is possible, it only asserts the possibility that at least one proposition is

unthinkable and possible (without specifying anything about which proposition it

would be). We have no reason to conclude that possibility of (2) from its

unthinkability.

In conclusion, the strong correlationist cannot prove that (2) is possible. She can only

observe that it does not contradict her principles. The source of Meillassoux thesis of

radical contingency may be this error: from his point of view, the strong

correlationist concludes to the possibility of the things-in-themselves from its

unthinkability. In other terms, unthinkability becomes a sufficient condition for

possibility as well as thinkability. Therefore, thinkable or unthinkable, everything is

possible! But Meillassoux analysis is incorrect: strong correlationism is a coherent

position, which does not entail that every unthinkable proposition is possible.

According to Jon Cogburn, one of Meillassouxs key arguments is formalizable in

modal logic and valid. This argument is supposed to show that strong correlationism

is committed to the following thesis: if the impossibility of is unknowable then is

possible. In a more formal way:

We believe that the flaw in Cogburns argument lies on the assumption that

correlationism in general (and strong correlationism in particular) is committed to a

thesis he calls verificationism which asserts that every true proposition is knowable:

(V) K

12

It is only by using this principle that Cogburn is able to derive (T). His argument is

perfectly valid but irrelevant since the premise is false: a correlationist (and especially

a strong correlationist) is not committed to (V).

Correlationism in general is a spectrum of positions (to use Harmans expression)

mainly characterized by the acknowledgment that we cannot have access to things-

in-themselves. In particular we cannot know things-in-themselves. It is a mystery how

this claim must entail that every true proposition is knowable, especially if we

consider propositions about things-in-themselves. And it is not getting clearer when

we consider more closely the different sorts of correlationism.

For a weak correlationist, it is very clear: the thing-in-themselves exists and they are

unknowable (though they are thinkable). Therefore, the proposition the thing-in-

themselves exists is true but unknowable. Hence a weak correlationist must deny

(V) without question.

The absolute idealism is the only kind of correlationism in which the principle (V)

could arguably hold, but it would not be satisfying for Cogburns purpose: his idea is

to show that strong correlationist is committed to (T) because it endorses (V).

Thus, there remains the most complicated case: strong correlationism. For a strong

correlationist, the thing-in-themselves are unknowable and unthinkable, but it is

thinkable for an unthinkable proposition to be possibly true. We baptized earlier this

crucial principle (P2). Since an unthinkable proposition is obviously unknowable, a

strong correlationist must also agree that it is thinkable for an unknowable

proposition to be possibly true. We will show that this principle makes thinkable a

situation where (V) does not hold.

(P2) entails that it is thinkable for a proposition p to be unthinkable and possibly

true. More formally, it is a situation where:

(1) Cp & p

There are different ways to show that this situation entails a violation of (V). The

simplest depends on the reasonable assumption that if a proposition p is unthinkable,

then the possibility of p must be unthinkable too. It would seem absurd that one

cannot conceive something but can conceive its possibility. Conceiving something is

not different from conceiving it as possible. If we accept this assumption, then we

must admit that (1) entails:

(2) Cp & p

entails:

(3) Kp & p

13

Thus (P2) entails that the following situation is thinkable: a situation where it is true

that p is possible and this truth is unknowable (and even unthinkable). Therefore,

(P2) entails that it is thinkable that (V) is violated. And by (A2) the violation of (V)

is not only thinkable but also possible.

If this argument is correct, it is clear that (V) is not a thesis a strong correlationist is

committed to endorse. On the contrary, (V) is a thesis a strong correlationist is

committed to deny as a principle, since its violation is possible.

Surprisingly, Cogburn does not justify in any way why correlationism is assumed to

be committed to verificationism. A possible source of this assumption may be related

to the strong influence of Dummetts paper Realism on the realism/anti-realism

debate in analytic philosophy 16 . Indeed, according to his view, anti-realism is

characterized by a commitment to a certain kind of verificationism. But Dummett is

certainly not thinking about anti-realisms of the kind of weak and strong

correlationisms. There remains on Cogburns shoulder the burden to prove positively

that strong correlationism endorses the verificationism thesis. We believe it is now

clear that this is far from obvious.

Moreover, it is worth noticing an interesting fact about this principle (V): it entails

that if a proposition is unknowable then its negation is not only true but also

knowable.

(1) Kp [hyp]

(2) p Kp [by V]

(3) Kp p [by (2)]

(4) p [by (1) and (3)]

(5) p Kp [by V]

(6) Kp [by (4) and (5)]

For a strong correlationist, the propositions the things-in-themselves exist and the

things-in-themselves do not exist are both unknowable. Therefore, by this reasoning,

it is provable that a strong correlationist knows that the things-in-themselves exists

and knows that the things-in-themselves do not exist. Since what is known is true,

that implies a contradiction.

In conclusion, Cogburn seems to be wrong in supposing that strong correlationism is

committed to verificationism, and therefore his proof for (T) is based on a false

premise. We may now venture, as a third way between dogmatism and unbridled

speculation, a more reasonable position about realism.

16

Dummett [1982].

14

Rather than focusing on Meillassoux way of discussing the idealism/realism

controversy, we may clarify our ideas by looking back to Berkeleys classic master

argument. The gist of the argument, as we have seen, is that one cannot conceive an

unconceived thing without falling into a contradiction. There is an important

literature about the interpretation and the validity of this argument, which we cant

recall in length in this paper17.

Graham Priests reconstruction of the argument is the following18 (with a predicate

Tx for x is conceivable and a propositional operator C for it is conceivable that

):

(1) x Tx [Premise 1]

(2) x Tx T(x Tx) [Instance, Hilbert Scheme]

(3) T(x Tx) [Modus Ponens, (1), (2)]

(4) Cx Tx [Premise 2]

(5) Cx Tx CT(x Tx) [Rule of Conception, (2)]

(6) CT(x Tx) [Modus Ponens, (4), (5)]

(7) CT(x Tx) T(x Tx) [Conception Scheme Instance]

(8) T(x Tx) [Modus Ponens, (6), (7)]

(9) T(x Tx) & T(x Tx) [& intro, (3), (8)]

conceivable.

C(x) Tx

Rule of Conception: If it is provable that implies , then it is provable that

the conceivability of implies the conceivability of .

If , then C C

Hilbert Scheme: If there exists something such that (x), then (x) holds of

an-x-such-that-(x).

x (x(x))

Let us grant that C(Ta) is false : it is not conceivable without contradiction that an

individual a, e.g. this particular tree, is unconceived. The argument aims to prove

that C(x Tx) also entails a contradiction, but we believe this is an illegitimate

move. Indeed, Priest uses the Hilbert Scheme to substitute an indefinite description

to the existential claim; however, this maneuver makes the Conception Scheme very

questionable, because it shouldnt be applied to arbitrary objects. It may be perfectly

17

On the contemporary interpretations of the master argument, see in particular Saidel [1993].

18

Cf. Priest [1995]. We use the similar version given in Zalta [2004].

15

conceivable that some arbitrary objet is unconceivable, but this does not mean in any

way that such an objet is conceivable. The Conception Scheme only works with a

definite, non-arbitrary individual: if it is conceivable that this particular tree is

(supposedly) unconceivable, then this particular tree is conceivable 19 . Philonous

reduction ad absurdum of the realist thesis is entirely based on this move, which

legitimacy has to be restricted to individuals, not arbitrary objects20 . As Edward

Zalta puts it:

Moreover, it seems reasonable to claim that if one accepts the Hilbert Scheme, one

shouldnt accept the Conception Scheme. If the Hilbert Scheme legitimizes the inference

from an existential claim to a claim involving a defined (but not necessarily well-

defined) singular term for an arbitrary object satisfying the existential claim, then why

think it follows from the de dicto conceivability of an existential claim that the thing

denoted by the singular term is conceivable de re?21

Thus there is no way to derive a contradiction from C(x Tx), as one can do with

C(Ta). I can conceive that something is not conceived, as long as I dot not think of

a particular thing that is allegedly not conceived. If this is true, we have a very

simple argument in favor of realism:

(2) (x Tx) [by (A2)]

Is this argument too nave? We do not think so, since the burden of proof falls on the

idealist: if she can show that C(x Tx) entails a contradiction, then the argument

fails but there is no evidence that she can come up with such a refutation.

Or course, the opponent of realism can maintain her claim that K(x Tx): we will

never be able to know if there is anything like an unconceived entity. But we do

have, at least, a good reason to think that the existence of such an entity is a genuine

possibility, as long as we grant the so-called conceivability principle (A2). This is

much more than a mere appeal to common sense: the argument does not draw on the

fact that most people believe that there exists a thing-in-itself. It is just a

19

Moreover, the problem is the following: if I think, say, to the arbitrary horse, by the Conception

Scheme this would mean that the arbitrary horse has the property of being thought. However the

properties of an arbitrary x are the properties that every x has. Thus, thinking to the arbitrary horse

would imply that every individual horse is thought, which is absurd.

20

We may go so far as to say that Philonous tricks Hylas into thinking of a particular object, in order to

proceed to his reductio: indeed, he invites him to think of a tree or a house!

21

Zalta [2004], p.10.

22

We may want this formula to mean it is conceivable that there exists an unconceived thing rather

that it is conceivable that there exists an unconceivable thing. Since an unconceivable thing is a

fortiori unconceived, we can substitute the former to the latter, and restitute the original meaning of our

predicate Tx : x is unconceived.

16

rectification of Hylas reasoning in order to dismiss Philonous conclusion: I am able

to think that there may well be a thing-in-itself, and no contradiction arises from this

thought, therefore it is metaphysically possible that there is a thing-in-itself even if

it is unknowable. In other words, this argument grants the possibility of the truth of

realism, but at the same time prevents the realists position to be considered as an

absolute. I cannot claim that x Tx is true without being dogmatic; but I cannot

claim either that x Tx is true without being just as dogmatic.

Thus the only true conclusion of strong correlationism if this expression is still

suitable for such a position is agnosticism: realism and idealism are equally

conceivable, therefore equally possible. We believe that there is no possible

overcoming of this kind of moderated skepticism, if one wants to avoid dogmatism as

Meillassoux does. If we are right, we are committed to give up the absolute again.

But it may not be, after all, as bad as it sounds: better accept reasonable finitude

than believe in false certitude!

Conclusion

Let us quote a very symptomatic sentence of Meillassoux:

novel kind of argumentation, the model for which lies neither in positive science not

even in logic nor in some supposedly innate faculty for proper reasoning.

Are we wrong from the beginning to strive, like paltry logicians, to formulate some

grandiose thinking into an inappropriate formal language? There are two different

issues at stake here: firstly, is it possible in general to proceed to such formalization

without systematically misrepresenting the original argument and, secondly, how

can we be certain that our interpretation of the argument is correct? To answer the

second question, we heartily acknowledge the limits of any formalization: we can

never be sure that our understanding of the text perfectly fits the authors reasoning

all we can do is accept a principle of charity which consists in postulating the

validity of the argument we have to formalize. That being said, we can nonetheless

answer positively the first question: we do believe that Meillassoux reflection

shouldnt be exempted of some logical clarification, and that far from weakening the

demonstration, such treatment increases its strength (if, of course, it proves to be

valid, which is not exactly the case). Meillassoux errors, if we are right, mostly come

from the vagueness of natural language when he uses words like possible,

contingent, necessary, thinkable, absolute. The key stages of his reasoning

are based, whether he wants it or not, on implicit logical developments, and these

developments themselves appeal to questionable principles. It is easy to see that his

use of natural language is imprecise about quantifiers and propositional operators,

17

and that he is somehow misguided by his notable taste for grand formulas (such as

it is unthinkable that the unthinkable be impossible).

The whole controversy about the use of logic obviously has to do with the

analytic/continental divide, but not in a constructive perspective. Rather than

allowing a debate between the two traditions, it perpetuates its inexistence, by

shifting the core of any discussion from philosophical matters to sterile polemics.

Refusing to relinquish ones own neologisms and idiosyncratic formulations for the

benefit of clarity is the best way to artificially increase the gap between so-called

analytic and continental philosophers. It is true that Meillassoux prose is clearer

than most of his peers, and has nothing to do with postmodern nonsense; this is, in

part, why he has attracted so much interest. But we hope to have shown that, on

such complex matters as modalities and conceivability, he is not clear enough. A

reasonable use of logic can avoid much of these troubles, and neednt be diabolized.

To conclude with a bit of humorous history, let us recall the pleasant but thoughtful

sally of Leibniz in his Theodicy against Descartes universal possibilism: A slight

change in the meaning of terms has caused all this commotion23.

Bibliography

D. CHALMERS, 2002. Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?, in J. Hawthorne & T.

Gendler (eds.), Conceivability and Possibility, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.

145200.

University Press

E. J. LOWE & P. VAN INWAGEN, 1996. Why Is There Anything at All?, Aristotelian

Society, Supplementary Volume, 70, 95-120.

Finitude, Continuum, 2008.

Quarterly, 10 (4): 325339.

23

Leibniz, Theodicy, 186: Un petit changement de la signification des termes a caus tout ce fracas.

18

E. ZALTA, 2004. In Defense of the Law of Noncontradiction, in G. Priest, J.C. Beall,

B. Armour-Garb (eds), The Law of Noncontradiction: New Philosophical Essays,

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

19

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