After Finitude

Philosophy has always arisen as a response to big, burdening metaphysical questions like “where do we come from?” and “why do we exist?” Quentin Meillassoux, in his brief but profound book recently translated from the French by Ray Brassier, After Finitude, confidently surveys the trajectory of contemporary philosophy in meeting these obstacles and uncovers a remarkable consequence that it has entailed; viz., the resurgence of irrational religiosity.

The philosophy of finitude, represented by postmodernity, maintains that our finite experience of life is the ultimate horizon of human knowledge. There is no absolute truth, thinking the absolute is pretentious. We have no grounds for claiming that a determinate reality—whether it is this God, this society, or this ideology—must necessarily exist the way it is. The recognition that we are finite and limited beings thrown into a particular time and place discredits all discourses that claim access to ultimate truth.

More to the point, radical finitude owes its strength to what Meillassoux calls “correlationism”. Correlationism, in a word, proscribes any knowledge of the absolute. Whereas pre-critical naïve realism took it for granted that objects appeared to subjects as they actually were, the basic line of argument for correlationism is that objects are relative to the subjects perceiving them. We have no access to things-in-themselves so all knowledge is conditioned by our finite apprehension of sensible qualities.

This umbilical link between objects and subjects is all that remains. In a sense, correlationism absolutizes the correlation itself.

But if objects are unthinkable apart from how they appear to us, then it seems unjustifiable to assert that something, rather than absolute nothingness, subsists beyond our representations. Contemporary philosophy is utterly agnostic on this point.

For Meillassoux, it is clear that correlationism “culminates in the disappearance of the pretension to think any absolutes, but not in the disappearance of absolutes.” In other words, contemporary philosophy has exposed the inherent limits of thought and has left a deficient gap of knowledge in its wake. Metaphysical problems like “why is there something rather than nothing?” still occur, but philosophers now admit no solution.

The unforeseen upshot Meillassoux catches sight of in this skeptical position is a shocking return to superstition. Reason cannot answer why what is, is the way it is, so religious belief systems, including the most alarming ones, have served to posit some supreme meaning underlying all things. In perhaps his strongest chapter, “Metaphysics, Fideism, Speculation”, Meillassoux demonstrates how “correlationism itself does not maintain any irrational position” but is incapable of disqualifying “irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality.” Radical finitude can only think the limits of thought; “it makes no positive pronouncements whatsoever about the absolute.”

In trying to prevent any claims regarding the absolute, the critique of metaphysics has paradoxically fueled fanaticism and a form of ultimate truth that only fideistic piety can provide.

What seems obvious to Meillassoux, however, is that philosophy could have gone in another direction other than correlationism. The great Galilean-Copernican revolution discovered for the first time thought’s capacity to gain knowledge of the world independently of thought’s relation with it. Moreover, the very inception of empirical science replaced myths and fabulations with repeatable experiments that could test and rationally support one theory over another concerning a world unaffected by human existence or inexistence.

In the simplest possible terms: modern science indicated the autonomy of an object without recourse to a subject’s correlation with it.

Nevertheless, instead of reorienting itself in an attempt to think the revolutionary potential of science, modern philosophy carried out its own “counter-revolution”—chiefly with the transcendental idealism of Kant and Berkley—which asserted that the subject was still central to the process of knowledge; viz., correlationism.

But, conceding the stability and apparent permanence of nature’s physical laws that can be empirically studied, it is still plausible that given the same initial conditions “a hundred different events” could have resulted. While majority opinion objects that this universe could not possibly have occurred by erratic chance, scientific discourse knows that “the acausal universe is just as consistent and just as capable of accounting for our actual experience as the causal universe”. The crucial difference between the two hypotheses, however, is that an acausal universe is devoid of enigmas in need of superfluous explanation.

If, then, an extreme form of incalculable chaos underlies every aspect of empirical constancy it stands to reason that chaos itself, rather than God or even the visible world, is the only determinate absolute.

Meillassoux identifies the exigent task of philosophy today as overcoming the current deadlock between ideological dogmatism and skeptical fanaticism. He thinks that if the great schism dividing science and philosophy is resolved it may succeed “in waking us from our correlationist slumber.”

The task Meillassoux sets for himself in his unique model of “Speculative Materialism” involves some way of thinking a non-metaphysical and non-religious absolute without regressing to either naïve realism or correlationism; neither of which are viable nor desirable to resuscitate.

Meillassoux proffers that scientific knowledge of reality insists that there is no ultimate Reason governing the world. Everything springs forth from an omnipotent “hyper-Chaos.” But unlike relativist postmodernism, this speculative thesis is a “positive knowledge” without any marks of finite and limited knowledge. There is no other meaning capable of expanding our understanding of existence; especially not an inappropriate religious one.

To be clear, Meillassoux takes metaphysical problems to be genuine ones. “Why is the world thus and not otherwise?” is an excellent question and Meillassoux’s remarkable reply is “for no reason!” There really are answers. There are no mysteries after all.

It is worth asking, on the other hand, whether Meillassoux’s speculative thinking could coincide with a return to a non-anthropological metaphysics rather than abandoning it altogether. As other speculative realists have found, sometimes where the danger grows is also where the solution hides. This would, at least, curtail the ethico-political wilderness that Meillassoux is ostensibly journeying towards.

One thing is for sure, Meillassoux will wake up comatose metaphysicians and fundamentalists alike.

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