After Finitude (2008)

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An essay on the necessity of contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum, 2008

After FinitudeAfter Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux

This book written by a young French philosopher has been taken up with great enthusiasm by a small group of English language philosophers -notably Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant and Ray Brassier members of the London-based “Speculative Realism” and Atlanta-based “Object-Oriented Ontology” movements. (See also Larval Subjects for an interesting discussion). Alain Badiou in his preface praises the book in glowing terms claiming that the author ‘has opened up a new path in the history of philosophy’. (p.vii) I wasn’t able to track down the French original on interlibrary loan, so I have read the book in English (a rather good translation by philosopher Ray Brassier I am happy to say).

I just wanted to make a few brief observations at this stage. Let’s begin by saying that the book is clearly written and well argued. Meillassoux appears to be arguing that there is indeed a universe out there which is independent of our existence and that science, or more precisely mathematics, is capable of having an absolute knowledge of that existence which is independent of our subjective perceptions. He then claims to solve the problem of the dogmatism that usually goes hand in hand with the claim that absolutes exist by arguing that it is not a question of a necessary absolute and that the absolute could just as easily not exist. Metaphysical arguments about the absolute usually assume that the absolutes they posit (God, truth, beauty) must necessarily exist and mould the universe in a certain direction.

I quite like some aspects of Meillassoux’s arguments – namely that things have an existence independent of our perception and that they can just as easily not exist as exist, that science is a useful form of knowledge and that the absolute cannot be identified with an entity, but I am not convinced that any of this is earth shatteringly transformative in terms of the history of thought. It is certainly an argument which removes humans from the centre of the universe and valorises other objects which again I quite like. Saying that things could just as well not exist as exist is also an interesting position which introduces a welcome element of freedom into proceedings.

But ultimately this does not prevent this line of argumentation from being a form of neo-empiricism – that is it posits a form of knowledge (mathematics) which claims to offer an absolute description of the material universe. Claiming the absolute is not essential and has an equal possibility of not existing and that scientific knowledge is always subject to Popperian falsification does not solve the problem. And the problem is – at the risk of sounding like a clicheed follower of Foucault – the problem of power relations and their role in the production of knowlege and truth. I am not arguing here for the relativity of truth or knowledge, but I am arguing that they are always the object of human struggle.

Meillassoux argues that mathematics can be used to measure things as they are in themselves. He also makes a lot of the fact that we can talk about a world that existed before humans. I suppose because I have never had any difficulty with the idea that we are simply one entity amongst other entities in the universe I find this all a bit of a non problem. The real problem, for me at least, is how we formulate our relation to other elements – through knowledge or other forms of activity – and the relations of power which inevitably accompany these interactions.

The absence of this consideration of power relations in the production of knowledge is also probably one of the reasons I find the book very male (to the exclusion of a female point of view) like much other speculative philosophy. Female readers of this style of thought cannot help but notice that such forms of knowledge operate unproblematically in a speculative void and claim a comfortable and unquestioned relation to the truth which in the process somehow reduces other practitioners and more ambiguous forms of knowledge – unintentionally or not – to complete silence and non-existence.

Although perhaps more generally sympathetic to Meillassoux’s approach than I am myself, Stuart Elden has written an interesting article which, amongst other things, draws attention to the problem of the status of mathematics in Meillassoux’s argument, noting: ‘The return of mathematical ordering – not merely in terms of a way of understanding the world, but as a suggestion that this is actually how the world is-is one that should be contested.’ (p. 2649). He also offers the useful reminder that ‘We should not take the limits of our grasp of the world as the limits of the world.’ (p.2649) [1]

[1] Stuart Elden, ‘Dialectics and the measure of the world’ Environment and Planning A volume 40, 2008, pp 2641-2651.

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