Quentin Meillassoux’s “After Finitude”

Quentin Meillssoux’s text “After Finitude” is an attempt to break free of the 20th century philosophical paradigm in which being is conceived neither as subject or object, but as the juncture between experience and the experienced. This paradigm, according to Badiou’s introduction, is the stomping ground of both Continental phenomenology, and Analytic linguistic idealism: (from Badiou’s introduction)

“During the twentieth century, the two principal ‘media’ of the
correlation were consciousness and language, the former bearing
phenomenology, the latter the various currents of analytic
philosophy. Francis Wolff has very accurately described
consciousness and language as ‘object-worlds’.7 They are in fact
unique objects insofar as they ‘make the world’. And if these
objects make the world, this is because from their perspective
‘everything is inside’ but at the same time ‘everything is outside
…’ (15)

While I share Meillssoux’s desire to change the question in philosophy rather than come up with better answers, I do not share his distaste for the Kantian turn. In fact, he very much desires to restore philosophy to its “pre-critical”. Badiou states in the introduction:

“The reason why this thesis is almost certain to appear
insupportable to a contemporary philosopher is because it is
resolutely pre-critical – it seems to represent a regression to the
‘naive’ stance of dogmatic metaphysics.” (11)

While Meillassoux admits that it is “impossible” to return to pre-critical philosophy, and that “we cannot but be heirs to Kantianism”, his critique of Kant’s transcendental subject situates him firmly as an anti-Kantian. I find this critique particularly interesting because he takes Kant up on the exact point which If ind strange – the sense in which the transcendental subject “doesn’t exist”:

“We are told that the transcendental does not exist because it
does not exist in the way in which objects exist. Granted, but even
if we concede that the transcendental subject does not exist in the
way in which objects exist, one still has to say that there is a
transcendental subject, rather than no subject. Moreover, nothing
prevents us from reflecting in turn on the conditions under which
there is a transcendental subject. And among these conditions we
find that there can only be a transcendental subject on condition
that such a subject takes place.” (43)

This critique echoes countless arguments between my supervisor and I concerning the existence of the point of assemblage, the pre-imaginative moment in which combination brings forth givenness. Is not this “activity” a form of existence? After all, in Aristotle energia means the same as entelechia – actuality and activity are one in the same concept. For a thing to “be” is for it to be engaged in the activity of having limits (the infinite is, for Aristotle, non-being). However, Kant is not Aristotle, and Meillassoux rightly continues his interpretation of the activity of the t-subject not as energy but as something like “event”: as “taking place”:

“What do we mean by ‘taking place’? We mean that the transcendental,
insofar as it refuses all metaphysical dogmatism,
remains indissociable from the notion of a point of view. Let us
suppose a subject without any point of view on the world – such a
subject would have access to the world as totality, without
anything escaping from its instantaneous inspection of objective
reality. But such a subject would thereby violate the essential
finitude of the transcendental subject – the world for it would no
longer be a regulatory Idea of knowledge, but rather the
transparent object of an immediately achieved and effective
knowledge.”(43-44)

So, the t-subject (who is not you – you are your empirical subject. The t-subject is the condition for your givenness to yourself as ordered and enduring through time) is conceived primarily as a finite, particular point of view. Meillssoux’s attempt to wrest free from Kant comes at this point through the asking of a very un-Kantian friendly question:

“But how do notions such as finitude, receptivity, horizon,
regulative Idea of knowledge, arise? They arise because, as we said
above, the transcendental subject is posited as a point of view on
the world, and hence as taking place at the heart of the world. ” (44)

For Kant this is an inappropriate question: the notion of “world”, whether physical or lived-experience can not be the “origin” of the t-subject. Not because the t-subject originates in God, or in Birth, but because the question of the origin of perceptivity is not an appropriate question in transcendental philosophy. The question of origin arises from our failure to think transcendentally – to assume that prospect is somehow a product of the engagement of object and subject, when truthfully the “moments” of object and subject are derivative interpretations of an originally perspectivity which is the essence of being as such. This is there implicitly in Kant, and is stated perhaps most beautifully and poignantly in Nietzsche’s late notebooks:

“Fundamental question: whether the perspectival is part of the essence, and not just a form of regarding, a relation between various beings? Do the various forces stand in relation to one another, in such a way that this relation lived to the viewpoint of perception? This would be possible if everything that is were essentially something that perceives” (5:12)

Nietzsche thinks Kant’s transcendental thinking farther than Kant himself was able. Whereas for Kant we always encounter others as empirical objects (although we have a duty to act as if we encountered them as free ends), Nietzsche here thinks the logical extension of being as transcendental subject, taking-place, in a perspective: encounters between beings are relations between forces of perception. Meillassoux takes Kant’s thinking in an other, and decidedly less transcendental direction:

“But how do notions such as finitude, receptivity, horizon,
regulative Idea of knowledge, arise? They arise because, as we said
above, the transcendental subject is posited as a point of view on
the world, and hence as taking place at the heart of the world. The
subject is transcendental only insofar as it is positioned in the
world, of which it can only ever discover a finite aspect, and
which it can never recollect in its totality.” (44)

It is trivially true to say the t-subject always has a world, since a world is exactly what a t-subject produces. And Heidegger’s insight called “thrown-ness” reveals the character of world – something we always already find ourselves in (i.e. we never experience the genesis of the engagement that produces our world). Meillassoux error is to equivocate from the temporal priority of the world (which, for Heidegger, is an ontological modality of dasein’s existence), to the logical priority of world ahead of the finite subject. He continues:

“But if the transcendental subject is localized among the finite objects of its world in this way, this means that it remains indissociable from its incarnation in a body; in other words, it is indissociable from a determinate object in the world. Granted, the transcendental is
the condition for knowledge of bodies, but it is necessary to add that the body is also the condition for the taking place of the transcendental.” (44-45)

It is true that the t-subject is indissociable from the incarnation of a body, and there certainly may be something “mine” about the body. For Kant, it would be in error to say the t-subject is incarnated in the body, because although my body is mine, “I” am not the t-subject (I am the empirical ego, the thing combined by the transcendental ego. I really exist after all!) For Nietzsche (and Husserl for that matter),however, I really “am” my transcendental function – this function becomes thought as a perspectival force prior to its idealization into subjects and objects. This is why for Husserl the “bracket” contains the noetic (subjective side) and noematic (object side), both within the transcendental ego – since I can always think of the things in the world as not being abstractable from my own mind. So, while for Nietzsche (and Husserl at points), it might be really necessary for me to have a “body”, it is unclear as to why this having-a-body is a “retro-transcdental condition for the subject of knowledge”(45). “Body” can simply be understood as description of the form in which the perspectival force necessarily, or even contingently, appears to us (and perhaps just in this historical epoch). This interpretation would be strengthened by the different ways in which “bodies” appear to different cultures, even different individuals, depending on what forms of explanation they choose with which to reveal their bodies. For instance, an eliminativist metaphysician like Paul Churchland must have a body to have experience, as does a dancer, or a phenomenologist. However, since the understandings of “body” differ so much between these different individuals, what do we gain by stating one must have a “body at all” in order to have experience? Similarities can be found between the three bodies, but primarily at the level of empirical description, and Meillassoux resolutely claims that having a body is a “non-empirical condition for its taking place”. Might it not be possible to infinitely vary a subjects experience of their body – to the point where the term “body” loses any specific meaning? Meillassoux attempts to address the question of the particularly of the body here:

“The fact that subjects emerged here on this earth or existed elsewhere is a
purely empirical matter. But the fact that subjects appeared ~ simply appeared- in time and space, instantiated by bodies, is a matter that pertains indissociably both to objective bodies and to transcendental subjects. And we realize that this problem simply cannot be thought from the transcendental viewpoint because it concerns the space-time in which transcendental subjects went from not-taking-place to taking-place – and hence concerns the space-time anterior to the spatio-temporal forms of representation.” (46)

Meillssoux’s argument relies on an apparent agreement between empirical and transcendental bodies. This is problematic not only because he already claimed that the body is a “non-empirical” retro-condition for experience, but because it equivocates between empirical and transcendental notions of space and time. Thought empirically, the body is prior (and a condition for) a knowledge bearing subject. And, in order for that body to empirically be, there had to already be time and space. However, for transcendental philosophy, that “empirical” time and space is but a derivative account of originally time and space, which is in some sense a form of experience of subjects. In other words, the non-empirical body of the subject has no genesis in time or space. This is why Meillassoux is able to claim that this problem “simply cannot be thought from the t-viewpoint” – and he is right. The mistake is to assume the problem is a philosophical problem at all. Meillassoux states his project on the possibility of thinking this problem as a serious philosophical problem, which he calls “the problem of ancestrally” (46-47). The engagement with this problem, and with it’s object: the “arche-fossil” (the thing we have knowledge of but precedes all human experience) is for Meillassoux the granting of a promise to achieve what has been thought impossible since the Kantian turn: “to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not.” (48)

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