Meillassoux: Divine Inexistence

This is the reading for Saturday, May 27th.  You can get all the details at our meetup.com page.

Imagine rolling dice and coming up with six.  Some might say this outcome was determined, and others might insist it was pure chance, and still others might say it was a mix of the two.  What they would agree on is that the faces of the dice had the appropriate numbers which could have produced a six—and importantly, this means that chance requires a set of pre-existing possibilities to work on.  We can think of any situation this way, as the actualization of pre-existing possibilities, governed by laws, chance, or a mix of the two.

Quentin Meillassoux’s work is dedicated to working out a single core idea: that the absolute truth of all existence is contingency.  Every single thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently.  What this means for our dice is that the ratio of chance and determinism governing their tumbling can be sidestepped entirely: Meillassoux’s thesis is the the faces of the dice can change, and can change for no reason, and importantly, it means this process does not answer to any possible account of probability.  Entirely new sets of possibilities can appear in the world, possibilities that had absolutely no antecedent.  He quite literally believes anything is possible.

His term for the appearance of new possibilities, or new dice, is the advent ex nihilo of a new world because they emerge from nothing and for no reason.  He says there have been three new worlds: the emergence of matter, the emergence of life, and the emergence of thought.  Life appeared in the context of matter, and thought appeared in the context of life.  Divine Inexistence is about the possibility of a fourth advent ex nihilo in the context of thought: the world of justice, a world of resurrected humans.  The goal is the final vanquishing of the division between being and value, otherwise known as the famous is/ought distinction.

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Political Theology

This will be the reading for Saturday, January 16.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and a printable copy is here.

Political Theology was published in 1922, just before the Weimar Republic began its decade-long descent into madness.  The book consists of four related essays, though we will focus on the first three.  The first chapter, “Definition of Sovereignty”, argues that sovereignty, the highest power in a political system, is defined as the ability to decide on an exception; that is, to decide when the rules no longer apply.  The second, “The Problem of Sovereignty”, is a criticism of (mostly Neo-Kantian) attempts to describe a state founded entirely on rule-based procedures.  Finally, “Political Theology” argues that political concepts are secularized theological concepts, and that a given time’s or culture’s theory of the state tracks with its theology.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: Religion

At the end of the chapter on the moral worldview, we saw a final conflict reminiscent of the original conflict that inaugurated self-consciousness; two self-consciousness each convinced they held the moral high ground, a conflict that could only be reconciled via acts of forgiveness.  As we shall see, this community of forgiveness is necessarily a religious one, and it marks the final transition to absolute spirit.

Religion has two aspects: cultic rituals and faith.  The rituals are the actual practices, while faith is the “theory” underlying these acts.  Hegel argues that religion is essentially about an attempted reconciliation between the particular and the universal; to see how this works, we will be retracing our steps through the entirety of the Phenomenology.

The conflict between the particular and the universal has taken several forms.  It was born in the initial master/slave conflict, but first took recognizable form in the ethical world, in which the universal was expressed in the dread of the underworld.  Antigone forced the appearance of something like individual conscience into this world, and the universal was transformed into reasonable culture.  Culture soon found that the new form of individuality was entirely unruly, and gave way to modern conscience, which eventually necessitated acts of forgiveness.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Enlightenment’s Struggle With Superstition

This will be the reading for Saturday, September 27th’s meeting.

The world of culture was generated by the self-alienation of language, and once it became aware of this, a new form of skepticism appeared.  Culture was revealed to be vain, and only the individual’s own thoughts held any authority.  Tradition and authority were attacked on one side by the Enlightenment philosophers, and on the other side by various new versions of Christianity broadly springing from the Reformation, such as the Pietists in Germany and the Wesleyans in England. (Pinkard, 166)

These attacks on tradition and authority led to a recognizably modern conflict between Enlightenment reason and faith.  Hegel tracks the conflict across several moments, revealing the two sides to have more in common than they might wish to admit.  The three areas of conflict are the nature of God (Hegel uses the term absolute Being), the knowledge of God (or the mediation of self-consciousness), and the actions of worship and self-sacrifice.

Reason, as a form of negativity or skepticism, misunderstands faith, yet has a genuine edge on it.  Faith has two sides, and reason continually conflates the two.  The recognizable positive content of faith is drawn from the world – that is, images and representations of a world beyond.  These representations are finite, and reason is keen to point this out; so far as reason is concerned, faith worships stone idols and/or an anthropomorphic old man in the sky.  However, faith has another, more negative side, which attempts to go beyond these finite representations, and it is from this more negative side that Enlightenment reason will eventually draw its sole positive contents: a mix of empiricism, deism, and utilitarianism.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: Culture and Pure Insight

This will be the reading for September 13th’s meeting. We will be meeting later than usual, at 5:00. Let’s try and arrive by 4:30 so we can start on time, as we are beginning late and this is a longer essay than usual.

Previously, we saw how the inherent tension between family and community led to the development of the (Roman) legal order, in which a person’s traits and culture were inessential – only their empty legal status mattered. We are about to see how the individual gains content: through culture, or in what amounts to the same thing, alienation.

The individual, through self-cultivation, leaves behind their original nature, thus alienating themselves. It is this alienation that creates both individuality and culture. To be an individual, one requires recognition from others, and this recognition comes in the form of language; in a world of aristocrats, there must be a highest aristocrat who can provide recognition for all, so an absolute monarch is raised. The state gains actuality when supported by the speech acts of individuals – specifically, the nobility, whose “flattery” creates the absolute monarch.

The problem is that the state’s power comes from language, and a particular empty form of it: flattery. The aristocrats surround the throne and continually tell the king who he is. This form of speech is quickly found out as vain, and all culture is quickly recognized as vanity. It is this recognition of vanity that gives the sphere of faith, or pure insight, its actuality: when the world falls into vanity, only the pure “I” is left, the ‘I’ of pure insight.

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Is Belief in God Properly Basic?

We will discuss this on Saturday, April 20.

Popular discussions about the existence of God tend to revolve around whether or not there is sufficient evidence to believe God exists.  Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher, argues that this is the wrong question.  He points out that there are many beliefs which we all accept without evidence, such as the existence of other people’s minds and the general reliability of our own memories.  These beliefs that we accept without evidence are basic beliefs; the question is, can God be included as a properly basic belief?

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Divine Inexistence & “Spectral Dilemma”

Originally discussed on May 5, 2012

Meillassoux’s first principle is factiality: contingency is the eternal and absolute truth of all things.  Any and every thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently, and all things can change from one of these states to another for no reason.  The principle of factiality stands in sharp opposition to contemporary philosophy’s fiercely feigned indifference towards the questions of absoluteness and a world outside human thought.

In the essay “Spectral Dilemma” and some released excerpts from his still unpublished book Divine Inexistence, Meillassoux opposes factiality to feigned indifference towards another topic: the capital-G Good.  For some time now, philosophy – so far as it refuses the religious answers of a Levinas – has been attempting to describe an ethics that would not be beholden to an absolute Good.  Meillassoux seeks to end this refusal.

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