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departures from Meillassoux and Harman

by on February 20, 2013

I suppose part of my pedagogy leads me to withhold my own judgment of the texts that we are reading. I am more interested in facilitating your understanding of the text than communicating my own, in offering up a picture of the conversation around a text (at least as I am aware of it) rather than telling you what I think.

However now that we’ve been through what are almost certainly the two main figures in Speculative Realism, I think I should at least point to what I find most valuable and where I depart from their arguments.

With After Finitude I am most interested in the problem he identifies with correlationism. His discussion of arche-fossil and fideism points to a serious issue for philosophy and the humanities in general. I am also intrigued, but less convinced, by his turn toward mathematics. I do believe the humanities have stigmatized mathematics and that we need to reframe math and computation. Where Meillassoux’s argument falls apart for me though is in his refutation of what he describes as the Kantian defense of Hume, or more precisely, what he terms the “frequentialist implication.” This is the argument that because the world is not in constant flux that the physical laws that govern the world do not change frequently, and that as such there must be stable laws because otherwise they would change. Meillassoux does not deny the observable fact that the world and its rules are relatively stable. His refutation is instead based upon his claim that the argument that laws are stable because they are necessary is based upon a principle of probability. He then draws upon Cantor and transfinite sets to argue that probabilities cannot be established on a universal level and that as such necessity cannot be based upon probability. This ultimately leads him to argue 

For whoever totalizes the possible legitimates the frequential implication, and thereby the source of the belief in real necessity, the reason for which no one will ever be able to understand – thus, whoever does so must maintain both that physical laws are necessary and that no one can know why it is these laws, rather than others, which necessarily exist. But on the contrary, whoever detotalizes the possible is able to think the stability of laws without having to redouble them with an enigmatic physical necessity.

This is a convincing position, if you accept that the argument for necessity rests upon the frequential implication. However, I would look at it differently and suggest that probabilities represent an attempt to understand the relationship between a physical realm that, at least to us, appears in flux and the more causal environment we perceive on a daily basis. On the quantum level, subatomic particles are wholly unpredictable: probability does not function. Furthermore, these particles violate the law of noncontradiction, occupying contradictory states until a measurement is made. This would suggest that there is a necessity that is quasi-causal: producing causes that are not governed by probabilities.

In this way I appreciate Harman’s insistence on a fundamentally withdrawn ontology. I am not sure that I agree with the elaborate quadruple object system he develops, though I do find it interesting to think through. My departure from Harman is perhaps more in terms of emphasis. I think I am more interested in relations and processes than he is.

To me, the strange irony of both Harman and Meillassoux is that while they are arguing for a way to get past correlationism is some respect, neither ends up showing much interest in the world. Instead their interests lie in logic and abstract argumentation. Meillassoux talks about science and math but doesn’t really involve himself in the actual work of scientists or mathematicians (aside from a reference to Cantor).  Harman likewise stays in the philosophical realm. This is not really a complaint, I suppose. It shouldn’t be surprising that philosophers focus on philosophy! However, I think that is why I find some of the work we will be reading next more interesting and productive, because it is willing to engage more fully with the outdoors than we actually see in these works.

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