After Finitude, Chapter 2: Metaphysics, Fideism, Speculation

Originally discussed March 24, 2012

In chapter one, we saw that thinking ancestrality means thinking the world as it is apart from thought.  In order to show how this is possible, we need a way to break free of the common denominator of much philosophy from the last two hundred years: the claim that to be is to be a correlate.  In other words, in order to be knowable or have any qualities, a thing must be in a relation with thought.  Ancestrality shows us that we can know things that can exist and have qualities entirely apart from thought.

The End of Necessity

We need a new concept of the absolute in order to make sense of science. Yet we cannot turn back the clock and become dogmatic metaphysicians once again. A dogmatic metaphysician is able to claim that some kind of necessary being grounds and protects our knowledge of the outside world.  However, all currently existing defenses of the absolute are completely obsolete.  We have to see why they are obsolete, because we need a non-Cartesian defence of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

Descartes defends his version of primary qualities (what he calls extended substance) in three steps.  First, he proves God’s existence via the ontological argument.  God’s existence is inferred from the definition of God as an infinitely perfect being.  Since God is perfect, and existence is a quality of perfection, God must exist necessarily, whether I think of him or not.  Second, he points out that because God is morally perfect, he is incapable of deception.  God necessarily exists outside of my mind, and he necessarily cannot deceive me.  So when I reason correctly – that is, clearly and distinctly – I reason correctly.  Finally, I have a clear and distinct idea of things that exist outside me.  If these things did not exist outside me, that could only be because God planted this false idea in me, which is impossible because of God’s moral perfection.  The upshot is that Descartes posits God as a primary absolute, and God grounds math as the sciences of  extended things as a secondary absolute.

The first refutation of this comes from Kant.  For Descartes, the main point in his defense of the absolute is that a non-existent God is contradictory.  It is like a triangle without three sides.  Essentially, Kant refutes him by showing that there is no contradiction in saying that God does not exist.  For Kant, contradiction can only happen between an already existing object and one of its predicates.  Reject God and the problem disappears. Nothing in the definition or thinking of an entity can tell us that it exists a priori.

It is important to note that this same line of reasoning applies to any idea of a necessary being.  The core of all dogmatic metaphysics is the claim that one thing or another is necessary, what Meillassoux will call real necessity.  What always lurks behind all claims of real necessity is the ontological argument, and all such claims fail for the same reason: nothing can be shown to be necessary by definition.  No thing exists just because of what it is.

Gottfried Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason does something similar.  The principle of sufficient reason states that everything needs a reason why it is X and not Y.  Of course, Y then needs a reason why it is Y and not Z, and so on.  Finally, we need a causa sui, a being that exists necessarily without a reason other than itself.

Both the principle of sufficient reason and the ontological argument ultimately result in the conclusion that every thing is necessary.  If we admit a necessary being that kicked off the chain of causes, and if everything happens for a reason, then we end up with a kind of determinism.  Therefore to reject metaphysics is to reject all real necessity.

Speculative Thought and Metaphysics

With this refutation of necessity in hand, we must find an absolute that does not posit a necessary being.  Metaphysics uses an absolute, necessary being to found a world absolutely outside us; we must reach the same conclusion without the support of a necessary being.

Meillassoux makes a distinction between two kinds of thought.  Speculative thought is that which accesses the absolute; metaphysics accesses an absolute being.  All metaphysics is speculative, because it posits an absolute; so we must show that not all speculative thought is metaphysical.  What is at stake is the assumption that if metaphysics is obsolete, then so is every version of the absolute.  This must be refuted; only a non-metaphysical absolute can make sense of the arche-fossil.

What must be refuted, then, is the strongest and most contemporary form of correlationism.  Kant’s work is a weak correlationism – that is, it only goes halfway – because it still thinks the absolute. The thing-in-itself exists, and it cannot be contradictory.  While we cannot apply categories or space and time to the thing-in-itself, we can think it in an abstract way, since in order for something to appear, there has to be something behind it and that something must be non-contradictory.  Strong correlationism, on the other hand, does not even think the absolute.


Correlationist philosophy has two theses which prohibit the thought of the absolute.  First, “the essential inseparability of the act of thinking from its content.  All we can engage with is what is given-to-thought, never an entity subsisting by itself.”  Meillassoux calls this thesis the primacy of the correlate.

The second thesis is the absolutization of the correlation itself.  The in-itself is abolished altogether, and all that remains is the relation itself. This thesis is established in two steps: 1) Nothing can be unless it has a relation to the world. 2) #1 is an absolute statement, and is not relative to our knowledge.

While the first step in the second thesis is concerned with the correlation itself, the second is concerned with the facticity of the correlation. Kant established that everything we can know appears to us in space and time, and is categorizable in 12 ways.  For example, our minds categorize things in the world under unity or plurality, as well as inherence (the red inheres in the rose) or causality (the baseball causes the bloody nose).  For Kant, we can only describe these a priori forms of knowledge. We cannot derive the forms of thought from a principle that would make them necessary – they are “primary facts” that can only be described, not deduced.  Let’s define “forms of thought” broadly as the ways in which we form concepts and come to know the world – they are our half of the correlation of perceiver and object.  The word “facticity” refers to the idea that we cannot imagine the forms of thought being different, and that we cannot deduce them from another being.

Strong correlation goes a step further than Kant.  The forms of thought are facts, but logical forms are also facts.  A logical rule like non-contradiction can only be described, not deduced; “we can only describe the logical principles in every thinkable proposition, but we cannot deduce their absolute truth.  Consequently, there is no sense in claiming to know that contradiction is absolutely impossible, for the only thing that is given to us is the fact that we cannot think anything that is self-contradictory.”  In other words, just because we cannot figure out how something could be contradictory, does not mean it is not possible.  Non-contradiction is a limit on our thought, not on possibility.

The facticity of the forms appears to be just as vital for de-absolutization as the correlation itself is.  If the forms of thought are deducible, then they become necessary and absolute; this erases the distinction between the forms of thought and the world, and we end in Hegel’s metaphysical idealism, which like all metaphysics will eventually track back to the ontological argument and the principle of sufficient reason.  Somewhere Zizek is glowering silently, but we will have to leave aside the upshot of this point until the next chapter.

There are two more important distinction to be made: the difference between facticity and contingency, and the difference between positive knowledge and a limit on knowledge.  When I say something is contingent, I express positive knowledge about it.  I know this table is contingent, as it could have not existed, and it could be smashed tomorrow.  I know that humanity itself is contingent, because I know an asteroid could wipe us all out tomorrow.

However, facticity is different.  The forms of thought are fixed – we cannot imagine them changing.   But even though they are fixed, they are facts, not deducible absolutes.  They do not exist necessarily.  Because we cannot imagine thought being otherwise, knowing the forms are not absolute is not a piece of positive knowledge.  Rather, it “just consists in not knowing why the correlational structure has to be thus.”  Our inability to imagine different forms of thought is a limit on knowledge, not a piece of knowledge.  It is the difference between saying “I know X could be different” (contingency) and “I cannot imagine or understand how X could be different” (facticity).  This distinction is enormously important for the next three chapters of the book.

Facticity pushes the critique of the principle of sufficient reason to its limits “by pointing out that not only the ontological argument is illegitimate, but also that the principle of non-contradiction itself is without reason, and that consequently it can only be the norm for what is thinkable by us, rather than for what is possible in an absolute sense.”  For strong correlationism, non-contradiction is a norm of the thinkable, not of the possible.

This is what has happened: The statement “X is thus, and therefore X must be” has been changed to “if as a matter of fact X appears as thus, then it has as its conditions to be thus.”  The deeper truth of X appearing in such an such a way is that it has as its conditions Y to appear this way.  The arche-fossil has, as its condition, the way it appears to us according to the forms of thought — its condition is not its existence before the relation between the perceiver and the world began.

Fideism: The Religious Consequences

Strong correlationism can be summed up this way: “it is unthinkable that the unthinkable be impossible.”  Any statements about the in-itself are possible, up to and including religious ones.  The Christian trinity appears to be a clear example of a formal contradiction, but why can’t God’s omnipotence allows him to dissolve the contradiction between his complete identity and complete difference with his son?  Because the end of metaphysics was a skeptical “we cannot know,” it became “rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality.”  If you can’t be sure about something, then it could be true, no matter how crazy sounding.

The skeptical end of metaphysics creates two paradoxes.  First, it “culminates in the disappearance of the pretension to think any absolutes, but not in the disappearance of absolutes.”  Because correlational reason is marked by a limitation, it “thereby legitimates all those discourses that claim to access an absolute, the only proviso being that nothing in these discourses resembles a rational justification of their validity.”  Shades of Wittgenstein here: whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.  The problem is, not everyone will remain silent.

“To put it in other words: by forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return of the religious.”  The critique of metaphysics and the end of absolutes does provide a rational critique of any religion’s claim to be rational, but it becomes impossible to critique belief.

So the door was opened to fideistic faith: belief without reason. “Having continuously upped the ante with skepticism and criticisms of the pretensions of metaphysics, we have ended up according all legitimacy in matters of veracity to professions of faith – and this no matter how extravagant their content.  As a result, the struggle against what the Enlightenment called ‘fanaticism’ has been converted into a project of moralization: the condemnation of fanaticism is carried out solely in the name of its practical (ethico-political) consequences, never in the name of the ultimate falsity of its contents.”

The second paradox is “the more thought arms itself against dogmatism, the more defenseless it becomes before fanaticism.  Even as it forces metaphysical dogmatism to retreat, sceptico-fideism reinforces religious obscurantism. . . . Contemporary fanaticism cannot simply be attributed to the resurgence of an archaism that is violently opposed to the achievements of Western critical reason; on the contrary, it is the effect of critical rationality, and this is precisely insofar as – this needs to be underlined – this rationality was effectively emancipatory; was effectively, and thankfully, successful in destroying dogmatism.”

So this is what is at stake in a critique of de-absolutization.  It goes beyond making sense of ancestral statements.  Critical reason must oppose both dogmatism and fideistic fanaticism:

“Against dogmatism, it is important that we uphold the refusal of every metaphysical absolute, but against the reasoned violence of various fanaticisms, it is important that we re-discover in thought a modicum of absoluteness – enough of it, in any case, to counter the pretensions of those who would present themselves as its privileged trustees, solely by virtue of some revelation.”


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