Book Review: A Return to the Absolute via Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude

book review after finitude After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux

The exceptional lucidity and the centrality of argument in Meillassoux’s writing should appeal to analytic as well as continental philosophers, while his critique of fideism will be of interest to anyone preoccupied by the relation between philosophy, theology and religion.

Meillassoux introduces a startlingly novel philosophical alternative to the forced choice between dogmatism and critique. After Finitude proposes a new alliance between philosophy and science and calls for an unequivocal halt to the creeping return of religiosity in contemporary philosophical discourse. (Preface, Alain Badiou)

Just when one assumed that Kant’s legacy of the Critique was ever invincible and just when one thought that Heidegger and Derrida were indisputable and impeachable in their rightful thrones in Continental philosophy, along came a startling new voice to disturb the peace that is correlationism.

In the wake of the intellectual shift ushered by the advent of a new age, the Kantian inheritance of transcendental idealism as well as the predominant strand of thought in Continental philosophy championed by the traditions of phenomenology, structuralism and post-structuralism, were jolted from its complacency by the increasing challenges brought about by the emergence of new trends in philosophy.

Situated along these new lines of thought was the highly celebrated After Finitude (2008) by Quentin Meillassoux. Alain Badiou’s commentary at the preface of the book speaks well of its impact.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Quentin Meillassoux has opened up a new path in the history of philosophy, hitherto conceived as the history of what it is to know.

Yes, there is absolute logical necessity. Yes, there is radical contingency. Yes, we can think what there is,and this thinking in no way depends upon a supposedly constituting subject. This remarkable ‘critique of Critique’ is presented here without embellishment, cutting straight to the heart of the matter in a particularly lucid and argumentative style. It allows thought to be destined towards the absolute once more.

Against naive realism which is strongly anchored on the human subject as the point of entry for all serious philosophy: a subject that is pure ego, a linguistic agent, an embodied animal, a historically-rooted Dasein, and against correlationism which is the safe middle ground for philosophers who wish not to venture into the far-flung regions of thought and are content with the convoluted provinces of either/or, Meillassoux insist that philosophy must seek nothing than the Absolute and abandon the metaphysical-phenomenological fixation on the transcendental conditions of human experience. Meillassoux vies for a philosophy that aims for the absolute: a philosophy that shoots straight into the wild, into the hyper-chaos.

What Meillasoux considers to be “the great failing of metaphysics” is its constant appeal to some particular necessary being as exemplified in the Heideggero-Derridean criticism of ontotheology wherein every ontological proof necessitates the existence of a necessary being such as the Aristotelian Primum Movens or the Medieval God, or even more so in the Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason which states the necessity of all beings.

In place of the Leibnizian principle, Meillassoux offers a new somewhat staggering principle of absolute non-reason in things. For Meillasoux, the rejection of metaphysics such as was embodied in the Continental tradition implies the rejection altogether of all necessity, real or imagined. In other words, there is no longer any appeal to the borderlines which separate thought from non-thought precisely because non-reason breaks such a borderline.

Non-reason is that which shoots past beyond the limited condition of the correlates, transcends even its own transcendence and returns into things which we have mistaken for an incapacity of thought. The absence of reason which thought encounters in search for the Absolute, is for Meillassoux, what we must understand as belonging-as-property to that which we seek, namely the Absolute. What dissolves from this assertion is precisely the limits of finitude as such limits are netted in the very fabric of the Absolute.

Finitude or facticity, for Meillassoux, must take a clean break from its concern with “the supposed structural invariants of the world—invariants that can differ from one correlationism to another, but which play in each case the role of a minimal prescriptive order for thought,” and instead turn facticity into absolute contingency.

What Meillassoux mean by absolute contingency at first seem rather bizarre and perplexing. Meillassoux, following the footsteps of Hume, goes as far as to think of a chaos-without-cause, a world of absolute non-reason. But unlike Hume, Meillassoux offers what seem at first to be something close to a collapse: events without cause, a world without reason. One might even argue via the frequentialist argument that “if laws are regarded as contingent and not necessary, how does it happen that their contingency is not manifest in the form of radical and continuous change?”

There seems to be no clear answer from After Finitude. And such an answer seem far removed from the observable phenomena around us through which the laws of nature are demonstrated, given that the world still spins in order.

One remarkable thing about Meillassoux though was that after the ruckus he has created by finger-pointing at the Continent and putting correlationism at the hot seat of his elaborate line of reasoning, he eventually stirs his logical argumentation as a radicalization of what the correlationists already presuppose, namely the possibility that there might be something —an sich— that is different from what appears to us.

Among Meillassoux’s four specific characters, it is the correlationist, who neither affirms nor dismisses absolutely the possibility of the either/or but stands on a certain agnostic ground, who plays the part of the vestibule for the arrival of the fifth and final character: that is the speculative philosopher. The speculative philosopher moves further from the correlationist either/or position by specifying that such a position reflects an absolute possibility. And from this absolute possibility arises absolute contingency.

It is the speculative philosopher’s attempt that allows for philosophy to once more stretch its limbs and take hold of the Absolute.


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