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On After Finitude: A Response to Peter Hallward In his recent review for Radical Philosophy (152) of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Peter Hallward charges Meillassoux’s work with four major flaws: 1. An equivocation regarding the relation of thinking and being, or epistemology and ontology. 2. An equivocation between metaphysical and physical or natural necessity. 3. A confusion of pure and applied mathematics. 4. An incapacity to think concrete processes of social and political change. Although Hallward expresses a certain admiration for Meillassoux’s book, these are serious objections. Since there is no space here to offer a positive defense of After Finitude on these counts through a thorough reconstruction of its arguments, nor to express my own reservations about the larger project of the book, my goal is simply to indicate, as briefly as possible, the false premises upon which I believe each of Hallward’s accusations to rest. 1. Hallward asserts that Meillassoux holds the correlationist responsible for an ontological argument regarding ancestral phenomena, despite the fact that “correlationism as Meillassoux defines it is in reality an epistemological theory.” Considered as an epistemological problem, Hallward argues, the problem of ancestrality posed by Meillassoux is no problem at all, since “there’s nothing to prevent a correlationist from thinking ancestral objects or worlds that are older than the thought that thinks them, or indeed older than thought itself.” Hallward’s statement fails, however, to account for the logic of succession inherent in such a thought, which constitutes the crux of Meillassoux’s analysis of correlationism’s approach to the problem of ancestrality. When the correlationist thinks the ancestral object qua correlate of thought, she effects a temporal retrojection of the past from the present, such that “it is necessary to proceed from the present to the past, following a logical order, rather than from the past to the present, following a chronological order.” For the correlationist, Meillassoux argues, “the deeper sense of ancestrality resides in the logical retrojection imposed upon its superficially chronological sense” (AF 16). Thus, stricto sensu, the correlationist cannot think ancestral objects as prior to the thought that thinks them. Meillassoux’s argument is simply that if we accept the priority of logical over chronological succession (the “transmutation of the dia‐ chronic past into a retrojective correlation”) we will be unable to assess scientific statements regarding ancestral phenomena without destroying the veritable meaning of those statements, which concern the chronological priority of that which came before thought, regardless of any temporal retrojection performed by thinking. What is at stake here apropos of “thinking and being” is a disagreement regarding the priority of the logical correlation between thinking and being over the chronological disjunction of thinking and being. Meillassoux’s point is that the 1
but why should we doubt that it conformed to familiar ‘laws’ of cause and effect?” Here he simply begs Hume’s question (the question at the core of Meillassoux’s project) regarding the putative “familiarity” of such laws.edu correlationist’s insistence upon the priority of the former eviscerates the proper import of the latter.” Conceding that Cantor’s “demonstration that there is an open. whereas Meillassoux’s arguments concern the possibility that precisely such processes may become entirely otherwise without reason. however. Hallward continues. 2. Perhaps Hallward’s most serious accusation is that Meillassoux flatly confuses pure and applied mathematics. since it is an assertion about the operation of evolution as we know it. but merely to formulate it as a problem. “since scientists confused ‘natural laws’ with logical or metaphysical necessities. Hallward does not engage the problem as it is formulated insofar as he ignores Meillassoux’s critique of logical retrojection altogether.” Regardless of whether or not we agree with this contention. he takes issue with Meillassoux’s use of transfinite set theory to undermine “every attempt to close or limit a denumerable set of possibilities. Any effort to undermine arguments concerning the absolute contingency of physical law tout court on the basis of any given regime or local case of physical law will obviously be unsuccessful. to ask why Meillassoux continues to rely upon the concept of “law” at all.Nathan Brown ntbrown@ucdavis. The remit of After Finitude is not to solve this problem. as he seems to do despite his argument that “the laws” may be subject to change without reason. “there was nothing necessary or predictable about this evolution. First.” My own exposure to the rhetoric of contemporary science assures me that. It might be more to the point. scientists either perform or are afflicted by precisely that confusion fairly regularly. 3. on the contrary. the evolution of aerobic vertebrate organisms. of course. but rather that Hallward arrives at this judgment through his own conflation of speculative and empirical registers.” Hallward argues that “Meillassoux needs to 2 . “It’s been a long time. But this is not what Hallward does. it has strictly nothing to do with Meillassoux’s book. Hallward contends that Meillassoux’s critique of causality and necessity—his critique of the principle of sufficient reason—blurs the distinction between metaphysical and physical or natural necessity. to reconstruct the locally effective reasons and causes that have shaped. unending series of ever larger infinite numbers clearly has decisive implications for the foundations of mathematics. And when Hallward suggests that “the only event that might qualify as contingent and without reason in [Meillassoux’s] absolute sense of the term is the emergence of the universe itself” he again addresses a speculative question concerning the possible contingency of the laws from within an empirical framework pertaining only to the laws as they currently are or have been.” writes Hallward. Hallward posits that it is “perfectly possible. It is not the case that Meillassoux equivocates between metaphysical and natural necessity. The problem with Hallward’s own formulations in this section of his review is that they are both question‐begging and irrelevant to the purview of Meillassoux’s arguments. for instance.
The first argument does not directly entail the other.edu demonstrate more exactly how these implications apply to the time and space of our actually existing universe. Meillassoux deploys Cantorian detotalization in order to counter resolutions of Hume’s problem that rely upon a probabalistic logic dependent upon a totality of cases. for example.” He argues that “what is mathematizable cannot be reduced to a correlate of thought. destroyed or preserved. However. It is these probabalistic arguments that apply a mathematical model to an actually existing. Second. or in a political conflict” he misunderstands or misrepresents the structure of Meillassoux’s argument. it merely opens a path to its plausible articulation by refuting an obvious counter‐argument. he then (2) proceeds to speculate that the reason we have been unable to resolve Hume’s problem is that it indexes a positive ontological fact (absence of any sufficient reason for the manifest regularity of physical law) rather than an epistemological lacunae. Meillassoux holds that those relative relations amount to revisable hypotheses that concern an absolute reality (which is not reducible to a correlate of thought): simply that. thereby attempting to undermine the validity of the anti‐Humean consequences that are drawn from it. in an ecosystem. which aims solely at the mathematical grounds of his opponent’s logic. If Meillassoux seems to hold. implicitly closed set of cases.” Again. He (1) deploys transfinite mathematics to undermine an argument against the validity of such speculation. that “the Cantorian transfinite…might underwrite speculation regarding the ‘unreason’ whereby any actually existing thing might suddenly be transformed. as Hallward writes. Meillassoux does not argue that units of measurement or mathematical descriptions of objects “might be independent of the mind. Hallward charges that Meillassoux “elides the fundamental difference between pure number and an applied measurement. On the contrary. what matters about these measurements is precisely their relative relations. eg. When Hallward writes that Meillassoux “seems to equivocate. Meillassoux’s argument from transfinite mathematics strikes at this mathematical model itself.Nathan Brown ntbrown@ucdavis. Hallward collapses the speculative register of Meillassoux’s argument into the empirical.” Hallward wonders “why an abstract. What interests Meillassoux about the science of dating is that it is capable of establishing standards of measure that specify an order of chronological succession. as if the abstract implications of Cantorian detotalisation might concern the concrete set of possibilities at issue in a specific situation. this point has force only insofar as it stretches Meillassoux’s arguments beyond the proper domain of their application—to which Meillassoux himself is careful to restrict those arguments. He does not defend the thesis that any such measure is absolute or mind independent. “the idea that the meaning of the statement ‘the universe was formed 13. 3 .” For Meillassoux (after Descartes) the mathematical descriptions of physics or cosmology index primary qualities.” Again.” he does not do so directly.5 billion years ago’ might be independent of the mind that thinks it only makes sense if you disregard the quaintly parochial unit of measurement involved. mathematized description of an object should be any less mind‐dependent or anthropocentric than a sensual or experiential description.” He then goes on to argue.
for Hallward. Hallward would have to properly engage the structure of Meillassoux’s argument in order to undermine the latter’s efforts to resuscitate the theory of primary and secondary qualities. or law” might eventually perform just those miraculous alterations of the universe that we would deem most desirable—as though the wayward youth of the contemporary continental philosophy scene had put their faith in an obscure cosmological power that might terminate the predations of neoliberalism. While I concur with Hallward that the question of measure. an order of chronological succession that is absolute (ie. 4. “Rather like his mentor Badiou. but while accounting for Meillassoux’s intra‐systemic critique of transcendental idealism—a critique that does not rely upon the problem of ancestrality. grant rights of citizenship to the sanspapiers. within the order of physical law as we presently know it. may be a symptom of impatience with a more traditional conception of social and political change—not that we might abruptly be other than we are. 4 . the possible ways of changing such situations. “the abstract logical possibility of change (given the absence of any ultimately sufficient reason) has strictly nothing to do with any concrete process of actual change. That the correlationist purportedly acknowledges this obvious fact while interpreting it in a manner that undermines its straightforward sense is what Meillassoux finds problematic. it does not itself depend upon any unit or experience of measure relative to us). I could not agree more: Meillassoux’s book has nothing whatsoever to do with an empirical analysis of political or social situations or possible ways of transforming them. Hallward speculates that “the current fascination with [Meillassoux’s] work. with and after Marx. But the arguments put forward in After Finitude concerning the absolute contingency of any and all situations do not “deprive” Meillassoux of the means to think the possibility of change within those situations. may well constitute a problem for Meillassoux. or deliver a new constitution to Bolivia without anyone anywhere lifting a finger. considered more generally. in some quarters. and might now begin to become otherwise.” “an absolute time able to destroy and create any determined entity—event.edu the accretion of the earth occurred prior to my thought of that event. Moreover. through relative units of measure. but that we might engage with the processes whereby we have become what we are. Hallward feels that Meillassoux’s speculative affirmation of absolute contingency compromises his capacity to think concrete political situations. “to the degree that Meillassoux insists on the absolute disjunction of an event from existing situations he deprives himself of any concretely mediated means of thinking.” With this last point. (The latter is precisely the task that Meillassoux accords to science.Nathan Brown ntbrown@ucdavis. whose empirical operations his work leaves entirely unscathed). he would have to do so not simply by reasserting the dictates of transcendental idealism on this point. thing.” Here Hallward writes as though those of us who have taken an especial interest in Meillassoux’s book have done so because we think that a “hyper‐ chaos. but rather attempts to undermine transcendental idealism through the logical exigencies of its own defense against absolute idealism.” That is because. more broadly. or. The science of dating indexes.” Hallward writes.
If many of us have found Meillassoux’s volume invigorating. and the fact than “an absolute time” may abolish all “concrete” human projects without reason hardly vitiates the rationale for engaging in them. it has to be upheld by conviction and by force. and which we might care to preserve. Insofar as Hallward’s evaluation of Meillassoux’s work fails to respect that subtlety. by the work of Badiou and Deleuze. the basic move is to extend the book’s arguments beyond the proper domain of their application and then to hold Meillassoux accountable for the resulting difficulties.Nathan Brown ntbrown@ucdavis. however fragile that task may be. *** Throughout Hallward’s criticisms of After Finitude. today. Precisely because any given or constructed situation is absolutely contingent rather than necessary. A speculative demonstration that whatever‐ situation is contingent rather than necessary (despite its manifest stability) does not undermine the political urgency of working toward the contingent stability of another situation—toward new and different ways of structuring or distributing relations among the given. it misses the point. would seem to encourage rather than disable the active task of such preservation. Contingency means that stability amounts to a perpetual process of holding‐stable. that is because it opens the promise of a new relation between rationalism and empiricism—between apparently opposed traditions stemming from Descartes and Hume that are most powerfully and discrepantly represented. 5 . it only does so insofar as we grasp the subtlety with which Meillassoux’s speculative approach sustains a rigorous disjunction between the rational and the empirical precisely in order to articulate the possibility of a new way of thinking their relation. even if we cannot assure its protection against the perpetual threat of disintegration. If After Finitude might thus be taken to indicate one possible way out of a certain deadlock confronting contemporary philosophy.edu The obvious fact that After Finitude does not address possible ways of changing social and political situations does not imply that Meillassoux’s philosophy impedes or compromises our capacity to do so. An insistence upon—or a rational demonstration of— the contingency of any stable situation that we might imagine or construct.
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