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After Certitude: On Meillassoux Logical Flaws*

Thibaut Giraud & Raphal Millire


(draft July 2012)

I spent my whole first year reading Hegels


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 Please do not quote without the authors permission.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.

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showing how Berkeleys so-called master argument, even in Graham Priests precise
and elegant reconstruction, fails to undermine the consistency of the realist thesis.

1. A (not so) simple formalization of Meillassoux argument


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)

There are two rather uncontroversial4 axioms5 in Meillassoux analysis:

(A1) K C [what is knowable is thinkable]


(A2) C [what is thinkable is possible]

Finally we shall appeal to a basic axiom of S4:

(A3) [what is possibly possible is possible]

1.1 Dogmatic realism


The basic claim of dogmatic realism is the following6:

x Tx & C(x Tx)

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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.

1.2 Weak correlationism


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:

K(x Tx) & C(x Tx)

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

1.3 Absolute idealism


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].

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(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:

(1) C(x Tx) [hypothesis]


(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)]

Here is a non-formal version:

(1) It is not thinkable that there is a thing-in-itself.


(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.

1.4 Strong correlationism


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 )

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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 Speculative materialism


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):

(1) C(C ) [P2**]


(2) C(C & ) [by (1)]
(3) (C & ) [by (A2) and (2)]
(4) C & [by (3)]
(5) [by (4)]
(6) [by (A3) and (5)]

Here is the non-formal version:

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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.

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(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

This thesis, sometimes called by commentators universal possibilism, seems very


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!

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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 .

1.5.2 On Meillassoux figures


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)

If everything is possible, any contradiction is possible. A Meillassouxian philosopher


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.

The other result of Meillassoux analysis is an answer to Leibniz canonical question,


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.

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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).

1.6 Making it right


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.

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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

It seemed natural at first glance to express (P2) by adding C (for it is thinkable


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:

(P1) For any substitution of a formula for , the following is a principle:


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

(1) C(x Tx)

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

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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)

Now we have a proper way to express (P2) as conceivable that not-(P1):

(P2) Cp (Cp p)

On the contrary, (P2**) is to be understood (like P1) as involving universal


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:

(3) C(p (Cp & p))

(Notice that the negation of the universal claim in (P1) leads to an existential claim.)
On the other hand, (P2**) entails:

(4) p C(Cp & p)

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

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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:

(1) C(x Tx)

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

(3) C(p (Cp & p))

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.)

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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) p (Cp & p)

(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.

2. Jon Cogburns formalization. Correlationism is not Verificationism


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:

(T) K [where K means knowable, not known]

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

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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

And since an unthinkable proposition is unknowable (by contraposition of (A1)), (2)


entails:

(3) Kp & p

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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.

3. Towards a de-absolutized, non-speculative 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)]

This reconstruction uses three principles:

Conception Scheme: If it is conceivable that holds of x, then x is


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:

(1) C(x Tx)22 [hypothesis]


(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:

To philosophize is always to develop an idea whose elaboration and defense require a


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.

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23
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18
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19