Realism, Antirealism, and Speculative Materialism

Lucas Samaras, “Mirrored Room”, 1966 (https://twistedsifter.com/2015/08/lucas-samaras-mirrored-room-installation/)

1

In his masterwork Mind and World, John McDowell came up with a pithy metaphor for the predicament of Modern Philosophy and the problems that flow from the Subject/Object dichotomy: the idea of a sideways-on perspective on reality. In the words of Tim Thornton in his monograph on McDowell:

There is no prospect of adopting a “sideways-on” perspective (Mind and World p.34) that charts the relation of language and thought, on the one hand, and an extra-conceptual world, on the other, from outside both language/thought and the world. (Tim Thornton, John McDowell, p. 12)

McDowell’s project, in Mind and World, is to try to recover both language/thought and the extra-conceptual world without relying on a “sideways-on” view, without falling into antirealism or idealism (“a frictionless coherentism”) or metaphysical realism (“rampant Platonism”). Mind and World interpenetrate each other, and it is only through this interpenetration that they can be distinguished from each other, as correlates that are unintelligible without their opposite numbers. Mind inevitably is causally related to the natural world, since minds are part of nature, part of that world. But mind becomes rationally related to the natural world through humans acquiring a cognitive “second nature” through intentional engagement with and in the world, a world which itself is always shot-through with conceptual content. The conditions for the possibility of intentionality, the “aboutness” of thought, are established by the mutual interpenetration of the two poles of mind and world. While they are distinguishable, mind is not reducible to world, nor world to mind. But the contributions of both to knowledge and understanding are both necessary and inseparable from each other.

Quentin Meillassoux, in After Finitude, tags the sort of view expressed by McDowell in Mind and World, as “correlationism”. It is the idea that mind and world, thought and thing, subject and object, word and object, are items that can only be understood or known in relation to each other. World and mind coexist. They can be functionally distinguished from each other, but not divorced from each other.

Correlationism is Meillassoux’s bête noire. Meillassoux’s animus against correlationism, which reflects the agenda of his mentor Alain Badiou, is a moral-political one — a point to which I shall return in section 5. In effect, it signals a retreat from the grand, traditional aim of philosophy to articulate the absolute and, in withdrawing from this fray, shrinks from its vocation as a means of human emancipation.

Correlationism, argues Meillassoux, comes in weak (Kant) and strong variants (Heidegger, Wittgenstein). Kant’s weak correlationism founders on the necessity and unknowability of the noumenon, the ding-an-sich (thing-in-itself). It makes knowledge of reality independent of the knowing subject impossible, yet the thing-in-itself is required to make sense of the world that is knowable, the world of phenomena, as the latter’s ultimate reason and cause.

For the strong correlationism of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Kant’s phenomenon/noumenon distinction rests not on something knowable but something incoherent: the very idea of a noumenon is unintelligible. For Heidegger, ontology is transformed either into a “fundamental ontology” of Dasein as being-in-the-world, a thrown-project that lets the Being of beings show itself and come into Being, or a “history of Being” as it reveals itself, in different shapes, to mortals who dwell in the Being event (Ereignis) and let it be as it lets them be. World and Dasein are gleichursprünglich, or “equiprimordial”, two internally related sides of an originary relationship. Wittgenstein’s approach is similar to Heidegger’s: he oscillates between a fierce rejection of any absolute, of any aspiration to a discourse “outside language-games” (Philosophical Investigations), and a kind of secular mysticism that acknowledges an absolute — the ethical, the mystical — but drains it of any cognitive significance (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).

Meillassoux thinks the holistic, strong correlationist turn of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and others is nothing short of catastrophic. If the subjective/objective dichotomy, or primary/secondary quality distinction, is rejected in favor or some more “primordial” relation of Heideggerian “being-in-the-world” and “the clearing”, or Wittgensteinian “forms of life” and “grammar”, then any kind of robust objectivity, of things being thus-and-so no matter what human beings think about them, vanishes altogether into mere intersubjectivity. This opens the way toward political irrationality by enabling a return to the religious, and religion can be trusted to morph into religious fanaticism. Objectivity “humanly speaking”, or realism “with a human face” a la Putnam, is not objectivity at all, and intersubjectivity turns truth into “what our peers will let us get away with saying” (Rorty), and rationality into arbitrary consensus. If your peers are religious reactionaries, whether beholden to Ayatollah Khamenei or Jerry Falwell Jr., “truth” becomes not only antiscientific, but antirational and fideistic, at odds with truth-minus-the-scare-quotes, and quick to shatter the pen with the sword. It heralds the dawn not only of “post-truth” but a refusal of reality itself. This is why Meillassoux’s post-Kantian, correlationist catastrophe is, at heart, a moral-political one. Any project of human emancipation through rational critique would be doomed from the start if the premises of correlationism stand. A lot hangs on “the objective” being an absolute, thoroughly independent of the human subject and that which is “given” to it in experience.

2

Meillassoux directs his initial attack on correlationism by drawing attention to what he calls “ancestral statements”, propositions about the state of things before the dawn of “givenness” — before the emergence of possible experience which correlates mind and the world that transcends it. Thought, consciousness, awareness, subjectivity — these modes of being have a natural history, emerging within physical and biological processes of nature: givenness is not ancestral since we can understand a time when givenness is not itself given.

We often have cogent beliefs about that which is the case prior to the emergence of “givenness” (e.g., the big-bang singularity), or apart from the possibility of givenness (do we survive our death as immortal souls or resurrected bodies?). Even if our beliefs are agnostic (How can we actually know that which is the case, ancestrally?) we still assert propositions with meaningful content. But such claims cannot be accounted for within the constraints of correlation since the subjective pole of that correlation does not exist in ancestral time.

Ancestral statements thus are, in a way, on all fours with the knowledge-claims Kant rejected in the Transcendental Dialectic — claims about God, freedom, immortality, the structure of the ding an sich. Yet we make these ancestral statements about “arche-fossils” all the time, thinking they are both meaningful and potentially justifiable, hence candidates for knowledge. So Kant was either wrong about the inaccessibility of the in-itself, the noumenon, alias the absolute, or its knowability. If paleontology or cosmology has any kind of rational cogency, then, correlationism is mistaken. We can think that which is inaccessible. The noumenon is thus thinkable and indeed knowable without being given to sensibility or given through the transcendental conditions of the understanding.

Meillassoux’s anti-correlationism, flowing as it does from the epistemic respectability of ancestral statements, signals in a way a return to something like the transcendental realism characterizing the natural philosophy of Descartes and Locke. For Descartes mathematics, at least, was absolute: its ideas are clear, distinct, and validated without correlation to the knowing subject. 7 + 5 = 12 whether any individual subject thinks it or not. And anything that is an object is subject to its constraints. Thus Locke, by distinguishing primary from secondary qualities, was also on the right track: independent objects in themselves are representable and thinkable in, and only in, mathematical terms. The absolute is the mathematizable. It is the antics of the “dead matter” that comprise Descartes res extensa and Locke’s “I know not what” that serve as the ultimate cause of the sensorium. Thus, anything that is not mathesis is part of the subject, hence relative, hence secondary, hence not absolute.

This project — rehabilitating the primary/secondary qualities distinction, reviving an analogue to Cartesian dualism — seems to signal a return to the kind of pre-critical, dogmatic metaphysics that the Critique of Pure Reason rejected alongside Humean skepticism. But this is not part of Meillassoux’s agenda. Lockean-Cartesian dualism points the way to a renewed acknowledgment of the absolute, but does so within the ambit of dogmatic metaphysics: their conclusions about res extensae are held to be the necessary conclusions of reason itself, or reasoning from sense experience. Despite the absolute “othering” of the mathematizable objects of the physical world, their existence and nature are secured as knowledge, despite their non-given-ness, by the principle of sufficient reason. And this places them within the Parmenidean tradition where “what is true for thinking is true for being”, a tradition that Meillassoux rejects as vehemently as does Kant.

Meillassoux’s rancor toward all things post-Kantian does not center on rejecting of Kant’s rejection of dogmatism and skepticism: it is that Kant’s philosophical counter-proposal, criticism, is even worse. Once one accepts Kant’s critical problematic, one is trapped within “the correlationist circle”, oscillating between pure thinking and pure being, never breaking free of the roundabout to an acknowledgment of the ding an sich, the absolute, objects as they are by and in themselves.

Thus Meillassoux is not a metaphysical realist or materialist: he does not break bread with, say, the Churchlands, who want to eliminate minds and reduce them to brain-physics, or with John Searle, for whom the causal powers of the brain enable intentionality and reference to physical objects as they are. The Churchlands and Searle may be materialists, but their argument relies on the implicitly metaphysical idea that philosophical analysis can yield necessary conclusions about the way things are apart from how they appear to be. Whether they’d own up to it or not, they are metaphysical materialists. But for Meillassoux, Kant was right about this much: if the realm of necessity is limited to phenomena, it therefore does not license any conclusions about beings in themselves. Does this mean that, contrary to Meillassoux’s aspirations, we are still stuck in the correlationist circle?

No. As Meillassoux’s speculative realist colleague Graham Harman put it, Meillassoux rejects both naïve and metaphysical realism: “Meillassoux holds [that] you have no choice but to run the gauntlet of the correlationist circle and come out alive on the other side.” When one does, one breaks free of the Kantian problematic altogether, and dogmatism, skepticism, and criticism are shown not to be the only options. The correlationist circle is a fact. How does one understand that fact?

Meillassoux argues the very facticity of the correlationist mind-world circle — ironically — gives us access to an absolute. The absolute is not thinkable within the correlationist circle, but the sheer contingency of the circle itself, of givenness, of all the necessities proper to thought, is something that can be thought. That something is the absolute, but decidedly not the absolute as understood by Parmenides and Plotinus, by Leibniz or Fichte or Hegel. This absolute is sheer contingency. This absolute is not kosmos but chaos. There is no necessity except logical necessity (i.e., the principle of non-contradiction). There is no such thing as metaphysical necessity — the principle of sufficient reason, a beacon for metaphysicians from Parmenides to Leibniz, is a mirage.

Thus, for Meillassoux, the facticity of the correlationist circle of mind and world is not, as Kant and the post-Kantians would have it, that which limits our knowledge of the absolute. It enables it. It does so by indicating the contingency of all inner-worldly phenomena, which gestures to the absolute contingency of the en sich that gives rise to it. The absolute that is schematized by mathematics — an absolute for us — presupposes a primary absolute, which is the absolute contingency of the in-itself sans phrase.

3

Despite the rigor of Meillassoux’s argument, and its provocative originality, there are, I think several serious problems with it, and with speculative realism generally. But each of these difficulties with speculative realism foregrounds a common Pragmatic theme — that there are no true differences that do not make a difference, either in the conduct of our lives, the consistency of our practices, our engagement with the world, or the cogency of our theories. The problem with speculative realism is not that it is realistic (a term elastic enough to cover reductive materialism and transcendental idealism alike), nor that it is speculative. It is that it is often enough merely speculative, enunciating differences that simply do not make a difference.

First: Meillassoux’s places a lot of weight on “ancestral statements” and the “arche-fossil”, and their occurrence before the emergence of the mind-world correlation. If givenness, or consciousness, or thought, has a natural history that is antedated by natural processes minus the above, given the correlationist thesis how can one justify any claim about ancestral events or archaic objects? If being and thinking are correlative, such claims are meaningless: no thinking therefore no being, and no being therefore no thinking. As Meillassoux puts it:

That it makes no sense to attribute to the ‘thing in itself’ (which is basically the ‘thing without me’) those properties which can only come about as a result of the relation between the thing and its subjective apprehension has effectively become a commonplace which few philosophers have contested. (p.2)

But the fact that we can make such statements, that they are meaningful, and can have truth-value, constitutes a reductio of correlationism, and an indirect proof of an absolute outside the realm of possible experience.

The weasel-words in Meillassoux’s case about ancestral statements are “the thing without me” and “outside”. Pragmatists and other correlationists would readily grant Meillassoux that all sorts of arche-fossils can be referred-to, theorized-about, and work as intentional content to statements that bear truth-values. The big bang singularity, dinosaurs, the ice age, the evolution of viruses from strands of RNA, and other objects are causally outside the mind-world correlation of intentional acts and intentional objects, and are what they are “without me” or, in the case of scientists, “us”. But the causal links between, say, the big-bang singularity and the intentional goings-on of the community of astrophysicists or paleontologists are there and can be traced. We can have all sorts of justified true beliefs, expressed in statements that certainly seem to be ancestral, about a plenitude of arche-fossils. This denies neither the way the world is “without me” nor the correlation between me and the world.

Modern science is a collection of disciplines which view the world in a way that abstracts from any human interests other than that of prediction and, in secondarily, potential control. In Heideggerese, one could say that science “de-worlds” the world and views it as a congeries of causally related substances, processes, and/or events, about which we can form lawlike generalizations that sustain counterfactual conditionals. (“If Planck’s constant were different, then the early history of the universe would have been different in the following ways”, etc.) They allow us to predict the future and to retrodict the ancestral past.

To the extent that these lawlike generalizations can be justified, experimentally, their straightforward truth or falsity is not a product of anything in the subjective whims of scientists, but whether or not what the affirmations of their theories actually obtain or not. Whether or not one could actually see the Big-Bang singularity or not, theoretical claims about it are true in the banal sense that Donald Davidson articulated in “In Defense of Convention-T”: “ ‘X is Y’ ,in theory/language L, is true if and only if X is Y” Whether we are justified in claiming truth for “X is Y” is a matter of reasoning within the practices and paradigms of the scientific community, but the truth or falsity of these claims is a matter of what obtains or not. Truth is non-epistemic. (It is important to note that this kind of run-of-the-mill scientific realism does not commit one to any theory of truth, correspondence or otherwise. Truth, on Davidson’s construal, is both non-epistemic and basic. Truth is the primitive, undefinable notion that is not defined but expressed in a T-sentence.)

Given the above, in what sense could a correlationist — a sound and reasonable correlationist — be able and willing to deny that what ancestral statements connote and denote is outside experience and “without me”? And if a sound and reasonable correlationism would have no basis for denying the cognitivity of ancestral statements, isn’t Meillassoux simply attacking a straw man? Scientific ancestral statements all point to the causal independence of what is affirmed vis a vis what we think about it. If this is the case, though, little sense can be made of any idealist, antirealist, Goodman-like metaphor that “we make the stars” — or the Big-Bang Singularity. We make the concepts we use to describe them, but causally speaking they are independent of us. We know a mind-independent world but we don’t know it mind independently. Why is this insufficiently objective? How is the world of stars, the Big-Bang, etc., not sufficiently “outside”? It is certainly independent and “outside” enough to do science just fine.

As Richard Rorty once put it, in a reply to John Searle, the making/finding distinction confuses the existence and features of beings causally outside our descriptions with their features being intelligible outside our descriptions, as if we could describe objects non-descriptively:

[N]othing in your practices requires you to distinguish an intrinsic from an extrinsic feature of reality. . . But you can still happily agree with common sense that there were dinosaurs and mountains long before anybody described them as dinosaurs and mountains, that thinking doesn’t make it so, and that bank accounts and gender roles are social constructions in a sense in which giraffes are not. There would have been no bank accounts or gender roles had there been no human societies, whereas there would have been giraffes. But that is not to say that giraffes are part of Reality as It Is in Itself, apart from human needs and inter­ests. . .

The need which guides the descriptions and theories of natural scientists to talk of dinosaurs, mountains, and giraffes is the need for an impartial and impersonal account of nature, insofar as it is predictable and law-like in its behavior. Insofar as scientists are involved in the study of nature, they are guided by this paradoxically disinterested interest and a-perspectival perspective, and thus embrace a correlationist model of inquiry. But nothing in this model counts a denial of the independence of the objects of scientific inquiry. They are “things without me” because my understanding of them abstracts from any personal interests, other than that of predicting or retrodicting how that which is causally independent of me works. Dinosaurs and mountains were there long before I or anyone else described them as such and formulated justified true beliefs about them — even if the truth of “dinosaurs exist” or “mountains are made of rock” had to wait for it to emerge as a justified true belief. What kind of meaningful difference would there be to insisting that causal “outsideness” is not “outside” enough?

4

Meillassoux has anticipated this correlationist defense of objectivity. To understand his rejoinder, we must return to his case for a contingent absolute. The defect of correlationist objectivity, for Meillassoux, lives in its hidden dependency on the principle of sufficient reason.

Weak correlationists (Kant) contend that the absolute/in-itself/outside of thought is believable but not knowable. It serves as the regulative telos that grounds the empirically real by indicating the conditions of its possible givenness via the transcendental ego’s powers of receptivity and spontaneity. There is sufficient reason to believe in the noumenon — and noumenal topics like God, Freedom, and immortality — while placing it outside the bounds of possible experience and theoretical knowledge. And this is precisely why weak correlationism is weak: critical philosophy relies on an uncritical avowal of the principle of sufficient reason.

Strong correlationists (Wittgenstein, Heidegger), along with objective and absolute idealists (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel) rightly recognize this weakness to be fatal, and thus absolutize the correlationist mind-world circle itself. One re-configures the subject-object distinction as one that arises within experience, and the “thing without me” is a transcendence that is immanent within experience. The correlationist mind-world circle is, as Heidegger might put it, ontologically factical: that which is shown as part of the essence of being-in-the-world and the worldhood of the world, as they show themselves in phenomenological investigation, or “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time. Facticity deconstructs the idea of an absolute, the Ding an Sich, outside the correlationist circle.

But this too, for Meillassoux, poses a fatal dilemma for strong correlationists. Either the principle of sufficient reason goes all the way down or it goes nowhere. If the strong correlationist grasps the latter horn, then the mind-world correlation dissolves into a kind of skepticism — strong correlation is strong only insofar as mind and world can only be thought correlatively, and necessarily so. But strong mind-world correlationism is, if anything, an argument for the circle’s contingency because it is factical, groundless. If the correlationist grasps the former horn, it suggests that the mind-world correlation is not merely factical, but necessary, hence in a sense it requires an absolute — or is an absolute, in which case it is not factical.

Convoluted as Meillassoux’s argument is, it makes a clear point: as long as correlationists hold on to the principle of sufficient reason, their position is indefensible because drastically unstable. But there is a way out: to drop the principle of sufficient reason, thereby making the facticity of the circle the key to the absolute itself, since the contingent, factical mind-world correlation has no reason. The absolute is the sheer contingency, the utter gratuitousness, the primordial chaos that lurks beneath and beyond and within it.

Meillassoux puts it this way:

This belief in an ultimate Reason reveals the true nature of strong correlationism — far from relinquishing the principle of reason, strong correlationism is in fact the apologia for the now irrational belief in this very principle. By way of contrast, speculation [i.e., Meillassoux’s replacement for metaphysical dogmatism, empiricist skepticism, and critical correlationism] proceeds by accentuating thought’s relinquishment of the principle of reason to the point where this relinquishment is converted into a principle, which alone allows us to grasp the fact that there is absolutely no ultimate Reason, whether thinkable or unthinkable. There is nothing beneath or beyond the manifest gratuitousness of the given — nothing but the limitless and lawless power of its destruction, emergence, or persistence. . . We can now claim to have passed through the correlationist circle — or at least to have broken through the wall erected by the latter, which separated thought from the great outdoors, the eternal in-itself, whose being is indifferent to whether or not it is thought. We now know the location of the narrow passage through which thought is able to exit from itself — it is through facticity, and through facticity alone, that we are able to make our way towards the absolute. (pp. 63–64)

Yet the “eternal in-itself” of Meillassoux’s “speculative realism” secures an odd kind of realism, one that shuts the real off not only from knowledge and understanding but from human access. The notion that subject and object must be thought in utterly non-correlationist terms winds up isolating objects as they show themselves, phenomenally, from the “thing itself.” The truth about the real is not, as Heidegger might have put, it a matter of every event of alētheia or truth-as-unconcealment or the un-veiling of Being also an event of concealment. It is a matter of the real being concealed all the time, intelligible only as the ultimately unintelligible and unknowable absolute contingency that is. It is a realism that cannot construe subject and object as related in any way — either externally (metaphysical realism), or internally (correlationism). It is an absolute that does not simply withdraw but it withdrawn, withdrawn in toto. It is a realism that undercuts any pretension to articulable truth and knowledge about the absolute, while insisting on the absolute itself — the absolute necessity that there is absolute contingency. It is hard to be a realist about the absolute when, as absolute contingency, it never stands still long enough for us to figure it out. This realism comes at a high cost — a realism without access, a realism that gestures toward but is never actually involved in the real.

(Aside: As a fellow speculative realist, Graham Harman, noted: it’s no accident that the four chief exponents of the movement (Harman, Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, and Iain Hamilton Grant) are all devotees of the “weird fiction” horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Meillassoux’s absolute is deeply Lovecraftian: reality is ultimately unfathomable by us poor, clever animals (Nietzsche), and if we do catch glimpses of it from time to time, it reveals the unintelligible, the pointless, the monstrous. We can either flee from it or go mad.)

Does such a realism make a difference? I am not sure it doesn’t. One can see why Meillassoux thinks so. But those who embrace the speculative materialist agenda must be prepared to acknowledge what kind of difference this difference makes. It is a realism that is quite antagonistic to the agendas of contemporary realists, whether analytic (Searle, Kripke, Lewis) or continental (early, Logical Investigations era Husserl and his epigones). These realists wish to bridge the gap between Subject and Object, while affirming that the gap itself exists. They affirm the gap between mind and world by showing how the gap is bridged. Meillassoux, on the other hand, demolishes not just any bridge, but the possibility of any bridge. This might be a difference that makes a difference, but whether this difference is worth the price paid for affirming it is another story.

But I am not sure speculative realism does make a difference either. It does not make a difference to, say, sound scientific practice, even when — especially when — it trades in ancestral statements about arche-fossils. As Arthur Fine put it in The Shaky Game, realism/antirealism disputes in the philosophy of science are largely irrelevant to the scientists who build their theories and place them in systematic jeopardy through experimental testing. Both realists and antirealists share a “core position” insofar as their statements about objects, whether scientific or “ordinary”, are true or false in a straightforward way, hook up with sense experience in determining their truth or falsity, and assert that in some sense these objects exist or are real. Disagreements between realists and antirealists revolve around more recondite philosophical construals of the meaning of “exists”, “is real”, and “is true or false.” Antirealists parse through these terms by talking of “the pragmatic…[or] instrumentalist…[or] conventionalist conceptions of truth…[or] idealism, constructivism, phenomenalism [or] empiricism.” Realists counter that none of this matters without “correspondence with the world”, where the microstructure of the correspondence-relation explains how true statements are made true. Antirealists will complain that realist correspondence and “truth-makers” are inherently obscure; realists will counter that antirealists reduce truth to justification, and cannot explain how true statements track reality, and so on round and round the philosophical merry-go-round.

Fine suggests that this circular motion is a pointless rut, and that we should just jump off:

It seems to me that when we contrast the realist and the antirealist in terms of what they each want to add to the core position, a third alternative emerges — and an attractive one at that. It is the core position itself, and all by itself . . . [At] heart, the grip of realism only extends to the homely connection of everyday truths with scientific truths, and that good sense dictates our acceptance of the one on the same basis as our acceptance of the other, then the homely line makes the core position, all by itself, a compelling one. (The Shaky Game, pp. 129–30, italics Fine’s)

This core position beyond realism and antirealism, which Fine dubs “the natural ontological attitude (NOA)” is congenial to Peirce’s and James’s pragmatist oppositions to “differences that make no difference.” It can be viewed as a realism of sorts, but one with no ontological purchase beyond the humdrum realism of sound linguistic practice. When we talk about electrons and gluons and quantum fields, we take our claims to be true (or false), and the objects that exist to be real, in a sense proper to the field of discourse or “regional ontology”. To insist on realism above and beyond everyday (Heidegger), ordinary (Wittgenstein), humdrum realism is to engage in a kind of “table banging realism” — to insist that “X is not just real” but “really really real.” For the pragmatist this is simple histrionics, and distracts from the matter at hand, whether that be Eddington’s scientific table, which is just empty space, or his commonsense table, which we can set and eat upon.

5

To brush off Meillassoux’s speculative realism as mere histrionics and table-banging, however, would be too rash. He does connect the speculative absolute with an ethical-political ideal that matters very much to him: the threat that correlationism brings, in its wake, a kind of irrational fideism and return of the religious:

Contemporary fanaticism cannot therefore 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 precisely insofar as — this needs to be underlined — this rationality was effectively emancipatory; was effectively, and thankfully, successful in destroying dogmatism. It is thanks to the critical power of correlationism that dogmatism was effectively vanquished in philosophy, and it is because of correlationism that philosophy finds itself incapable of fundamentally distinguishing itself from fanaticism. The victorious critique of ideologies has been transformed into a renewed argument for blind faith. (p. 49)

The irony that the emancipatory power of correlationism, in abolishing philosophical dogmatism, unleashed a global license toward irrational fideism, is countered by a speculative account of the absolute:

It now becomes possible to envisage a speculative critique of correlationism, for it becomes possible to demonstrate that the latter remains complicit with the fideist belief in the wholly-other insofar as it actually continues to remain faithful to the principle of reason. If the strong model of correlationism legitimates religious discourse in general, this is because it has failed to de-legitimate the possibility that there might be a hidden reason, an unfathomable purpose underlying the origin of our world. This reason has become unthinkable, but it has been preserved as unthinkable; sufficiently so to justify the value of its eventual unveiling in a transcendent revelation. (p. 63)

But Meillassoux’s moral-political fears of a re-enchanted cosmos as a roadblock to emancipation rest on a confusion between enchantment as a kind of haunted magic, where spirits benign and malign intervene in and interfere with the natural and human worlds, and enchantment as a sense of wonderment at the world, not as it is in itself, whatever that might mean, but as it is disclosed in and to the humans who dwell therein. Enchantment-as-magic lends itself to the dogmatism and fanaticism Meillassoux, along with his mentor Badiou, fears. It is suspect not because it stands refuted by any outside, philosophical argument, but rather because it fails by the theological lights of living religious traditions. The magic-besotted world is an enchanted world filled with dread and fear, which elicits the sort of “transactional” view of sacred powers that Plato lampooned in the Euthyphro, and which pops up frequently in the likes of Islamic State, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the Heaven’s Gate cult. But this is not the only option.

Aristotle spoke of to thaumazein, the sense of wonder in which all philosophy begins and by which it thrives. It is a sense characterized by joy and gratitude. It is a sense that is often enough absent from many contemporary religious traditions. It accepts the world as contingent, but understands this contingency as a gift, and not a messy horror. It stands as a hopeful alternative to the Lovecraftian horror that seems — to me at least — to haunt Meillassoux’s absolute and the human world that mathematically confronts it without success.

Meillassoux may be right about the withdrawn reality that liberates us from a magical, ghost-haunted human world, and he is certainly right to reject the latter as both tragedy and farce. But it is not the only way of articulating the sacred and sublime, and the possibility of a nature that is also grace — a grace that is also abundant in nature — also beckons us to a different kind of wonder. I know which one I opt for.

(Many thanks to Michael Stevenson and students in his Brooklyn Institute of Social Research class on Speculative Realism for their keen insights and spirited discussion.)

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Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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