Quentin Meillassoux - Contingency and the Absolutization of the One.

5) Two Ones Let us return now to the question of the one. The problem has thus far consisted, I want to remind you, in determining the existence of a possible procedure for justifying the realist—therefore noncorrelationist—character of a mathematical description of the world. This problem for me takes now the following form: can we derive from the principle of factiality the absolute validity of mathematical descriptions of the real? I certainly cannot resolve here this massive problem in which I still am involved. I would simply like to present the first move for this investigation, which leads precisely to the nature of the one, and in particular to the difference within the unity of a thing, and the unity of a sign: what I shall call the difference between the ontic one and a semiotic one [l'un ontique et l'un sémiotique] What relationship is there, between this question regarding two types of unities and the question of the realist capacity of mathematics? In order to resolve the problem of the absolute scope of mathematics, I began by trying to identify a minimum requirement of any formal writing—logical or mathematical—that distinguishes it from natural languages [langues naturelles]. I tried to reach a precise and determinative point of difference, capable of distinguishing a symbolic, or formal, language from a natural language. It was necessary to find a characteristic which is minimal enough to be present in all formal languages and precise enough never to be present in a natural language. Indeed, I had an idea about this characteristic, and I had the intuition that it had precisely to do with the ability of thought to access the eternity of contingency. This minimum requirement actually seems to me to consist in a remarkable usage— a systematic and precise usage—of the sign devoid of significance [dépourvu de sense] (henceforth: sign DOS). The hypothesis that I adopted, roughly, is the following: if the question of the reference [referent?] of mathematics—what does mathematics talk about?—is a piercing question, it is because mathematics consists of a sequence of operations applied to signs which, ultimately, mean nothing. Therefore, in all mathematical writing—at least in its most fundamental forms, such as Set Theory or Category Theory—there would be two kind of signs: the signs signifying operations—which I call

. in themselves. at least. because they specifically have to—in my terms—provide operational-signs with a base devoid of meaning on which to operate. I attempt to derive from the principle of factiality our ability to produce signs empty of meaning. in this axiomatic one begins from signs—a. b. don't mean anything. Translator's Note]. work out the first and necessary step of such an absolutization. and not the signs of the sets. I have so far demonstrated the absolute capability of mathematical descriptions. b. What we find in formal writings of signs without meaning is. My strategy is then as follows: I posit that the minimum requirement for the possibility of mathematical writing (I cannot show here that it is the only condition. the signs a. In short. c— which are usually called 'sets'. To put it very crudely. the base-sign. But actually. but I posit that it is at least one condition) is the possibility to conceive and thematise signs devoid of meaning. since in basic Set Theory. Set Theory never defines what a set is. or what may contain another set: a circular definition which shows that one never really defines a set. There is perhaps some strangeness in the question: how do we produce signs devoid of . but only the operations that it supports [in other words. i. A simple example is given by the so-called standard axiomatics of Set Theory. in that they are subject to an operator—the operator of belonging [l’opérateur d’appartenance]. and meaningless in and of itself. These signs.e. The question that I ask is therefore the following: how can we think of the sign devoid of meaning? And the answer that I give to this question consists in showing that the condition for the thinkability of the sign devoid of meaning is the access (whether thematized or not) to the eternal contingency of everything. but what allows for their own singularity and richness. Far from being identifiable as a nothing or a nonsense (meant as an absurdity) the sign devoid of meaning is posited as the eminent condition for mathematico-rational thought (and I think we could say the same about logic). These signs begin to 'resemble' sets. therefore. now I shall. It is this operator.operational-signs [signes-opérateurs]—and those signs on which ultimately these operations bear— which I call base-signs [signes-bases] and that have the express function of not signifying anything. not a failure of these writings. c will be called sets in that they may be subject to the operator of belonging and allow statements such as 'a belongs to b' or 'b belongs to a'. a set is uniquely defined by the elements belonging to it. therefore showing that mathematical discourse moves within a sphere of thought 'closely associated' with the absoluteness of contingency. A set is that which can belong to another set. that carries upon itself the charge of signification: thus. and thereby of avoiding any parasitism of operational meaning from another regime of meaning. the set is solely the referent of the element's property of belonging to it.

Imagine. eight—and whose configuration (shape of the symbols + number of these symbols) could be judged as more or less accomplished. a token of the same type? To explain this difference will lead us to the heart of the question of the one. To understand this point clearly. composed by a determined number of symbols—for example. be similar). like a schoolboy would write the same letter in his notebook in order to learn how to write. similar symbols as parts of the same frieze. an inability to produce meaning. as more or less pleasurable to the eye. However. In other words. seeing in the very same pattern. he realizes that it does not contain other lines made of other characters—which would confirm his hypothesis—but a design that convinces him that the first hypothesis was correct: he was indeed dealing with a frieze rather than a line of writing. on the contrary.meaning? Because the signs devoid of meaning are mainly perceived as the manifestation of failure. In this judgment. like for example: ######## Suppose that his first reaction is to assume that this line is a frieze. a moment later. that it could be a line of writing. or again what I more generally call an effect of repetition: an effect for which the symbols cease to be the same even though they are supposed to perfectly resemble each other (I say. the number of these symbols is not indifferent: seven or five symbols could have been less pleasurable than a series of eight—or. we must make a comparison with a . during his research. he saw it as an entity susceptible to aesthetic appreciation in a broad sense: a singular decorative pattern. and as occurrences of the same sign? In both cases. The question that can be posed is therefore the following: what shift in vision occurred in our archaeologist. that an archaeologist—working among the ruins of a largely unknown civilization without knowing if it possessed writing— partially unearths. with excitement. an engraved design on the edges of the tablet. When the archaeologist saw the series as a frieze. without any concern about verisimilitude. Then. a tablet on which there is a series of symbols [motifs]. rather than as the manifestation of a capacity. respectively. more so. the frieze holds what could be called an effect of monotony. the engraved marks were seen in their singular unity and in their collective arrangement: but in what consists the difference for which the symbols have become occurrences of the same sign. What sense is there to ask how we manage to produce the insignificant? And again. what does it all have to do with the question of the one? A story will allow me to answer these two questions at once. going on digging up the tablet. he modifies his hypothesis and says.

empirically. rigorously similar. so that this time our series (########) could be extended with an 'etc. for example. There is something absolutely non-differential and therefore non-spatio-temporal. For then we have the right to say that these occurrences are absolutely identical. unlike Bergson. But here. rather than meaningful signs.. but symbols [motifs]: our archaeologist has therefore experienced a vision capable of seizing. of a pure identicality—an eternity in kind and not in meaning [du type et non du sens]. as a type. in the frieze. to historicity and context—and of its possible identity in the minds of two readers of a same text in two different epochs. i.e. a melodic effect. Thus a melody—say eight DOHs played in sequence—will produce a final DOH distinct from the initial DOH. empirically. regarding space. regardless of the number of occurrences. There is. And these signs have indeed proved to be devoid of meaning. our archaeologist had. which denotes the radical indifference of the identity of the type regarding the multiplicity of its occurrences. Why mention this? Because I believe that the monotony effect affects every vision of empirical reality: everything that is seen as one—as an empirical.melody: it is well known since Bergson that two similar notes (two phonetically indiscernible 'Dohs') are understood in different ways if they conclude distinct melodic sequences. Here the meaning of our story will emerge: it generally addresses the immaterial character of language through the question of the eventual ideality of meaning [l’idéalité éventuelle du sens]—of its resistance. this is the point that I wanted to highlight. and therefore inseparable from the specific and finite number of its symbols. with no differential effect (neither empirical nor spatio-temporal). ontic unit—unfolds itself in a space and in a time that produce differences amongst these things/ones [choses-unes] themselves that. homologous to that which is presented. within an empirical mark. that resists the differential effect of the empirical marks—and this experience of eternality is an experience of the sign and not of meaning: it is these signs devoid of meaning that prompted this experience. disappears when we see similar marks not as symbols of the same frieze but as occurrences of the same type. I think. and I say in the sign as in the sign devoid of meaning. that is found in each of its instances: and this type will never vary. here. something eternal—a mode of unification of the . as they were not really signs [signes]. are not distinguished. since the frieze is a concrete aesthetic reality. For I believe.' which would be meaningless for the frieze. repetitive. that space is as responsible for melodic differences as time is. and that our frieze affects its symbols with a differential effect that makes each of them differ from others even if they are. I believe. the experience of an eternity. An 'etc. Now the enigma. in the sign as such. something eternal. a differential effect of repetition. because the final one is charged with a melodic past that the initial one does not possess. the mystery of the sign is. that this differential effect inherent in space-time. which is an effect of monotony regarding time.'. It is absolutely the same sign.

to conclude. going back to the vision of the mark-one [marque-une] as the occurrence-one [occurrence-une] of a sign-type [signe-type]. and as such not subject to the differential effect of repetition. That is. ni a fortiori la référence ou l’essence ne sont présents]. or an empirical mark. Even if this necessitarianism is illusory. What does this mean? As a thing.marks not subject to the effect of spatio-temporal repetition—starting from a single semiotic unity. its facticity: I perceive a mark.' that follows the series of occurrences. and therefore as the meaning. But the perception of the mark. in a multitude of similar marks. Now. What do I do precisely. makes its empirical determinations come into focus first. to a shock. and that did not exist for the aesthetic vision of the frieze. contingent in its being a sign. etc. and then. indefinitely reproducible. In other words. (since?) neither the reference nor the essence are—a fortiori—present. the eternal is directly present as that which differentiates the sign from the mark [différencie le signe de la marque]. I can then see. it shows that the mark-thing [marque-chose] doesn't require that its . i. Let me explain this point. et alors que le sens. I perceive this mark with its empirical determinations. and I perceive it as a fact. as such. I unify the mark around its contingency. in order to consider it as a sign? Well. On the other hand. to have access to the sign devoid of meaning as such requires access to something eternal within the occurrence. So. and not around its empirical determinations. a unity for which each mark has become a one-occurrence of an identical type and. and of its ontic unity. and moreover a factual one. that is its kind. l’éternel est présent à même ce qui différencie le signe de la marque. I can not thematize the idea of a sign—cannot think the sign as a sign—without letting the contingency of its determinations come to the fore. and it does not vary in space nor in time. a kind of eternal unity. [Autrement dit. Then I will operate a unification of the mark that is of another kind than the ontico-empirical one for which I shall precisely see the eternal contingency present in that mark. the mark can be thought as the necessary effect of a certain number of causes: possibly related to erosion. Hence the question: what is the nature of this eternity? My thesis is as follows: the eternity engaged in the grasping of the semiotic unit has its source in the grasping of the contingency of the occurrence of the sign. to a constrained human action. in second place.e. When I perceive some thing. I am making of this mark an essentially arbitrary entity. if I see the facticity of this mark as such—if I bring it to the forefront—then I know that this mark is identical in the whole of reality. It is the eternal unity of the sign-type [signe-type] that allows access to the thinkability of its unlimited iteration of the same: to the 'etc. when I see a sign as a sign: when I stop considering a mark as a thing..

or of a system of signs must be capable of being encoded—transcribed—into another.. system of signs. it seems to me that there is a possibility to derive the possibility of mathematical discourse—i. when I deal with a sign devoid of meaning. now become sign. but only to itself as a sign: to think a sign devoid of meaning is necessarily to thematize the sign as a sign. I believe. Now. I am dealing with a sign which does not refer to a sense. but the characteristic of a sign. . Here there is the first step. so to speak—at least when I grasp it as a sign. towards a possible absolutization of the mathematical descriptions of the real. a reference. by ontologically basing the difference between the ontic one and the semiotic one. one that I thematize as such. must be necessarily posited as arbitrary. since a sign has the characteristic of not having in itself any necessary determinations. Therefore even if I am a Spinozist. the same mark. and finally to let it proliferate in accordance with a succession of occurrences released from the differential effect of repetition.e. hence to think its own arbitrariness—by letting its eternal contingency come to the fore—to unify it around its contingency.contingency be thematised to be grasped. Certainly there are structural constraints in a language (the signs for distinct things must be separate). a discourse structured around the sign devoid of meaning—starting from the principle of factiality. Therefore. structurally identical. A sign therefore exhibits its contingency 'on its front line'.

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