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Factual thought, populated thought


Been to the conference on the ontological turn in Porto Alegre organized by Rodrigo Nunes and his MaterialistS friends. Good discussions with Markus Gabriel, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Benjamim Noys, Stephen Shaviro, Eduardo Luft, Caroline Marin and many others. Here is the text of my comment of Shaviro's interesting paper called Uncorrelated Thought.

I believe one of the major attraction of Meillassoux's work lies in its diagnostic power. He makes us see the efforts of philosophy in the last centuries as fitting a general, albeit claustrophobic, pattern. Correlationism, with its two poles of inextricable dependence – thinking and being, has exerted its various charms on the efforts to relate to the world in ways that involve thought. His diagnosis is presented in broad terms: no matter how thought is conceived, no matter how being takes place. His diagnosis provokes many effects. Among them, several ways to deny its bite and several ways to wage heroic battles against the confinement of the correlationist walls. In most of these cases, Meillassoux's gestures is an invitation to speculation. As Shaviro appropriately points out, “philosophy must necessarily take the risk of engaging in some sort of speculation, if it ever hopes to approach the great outdoors. […] it must seek to evade the conditions that are imposed upon thought by the very nature of thought itself” (p. 2). The diagnosis is therefore an invite to the risk involved in speculating. My main aim in this comment is to expand a bit on Shaviro's remarks on thought, in the direction of pointing out that speculation is not only required to approach in a non-correlationist fashion the great outdoors, but also to find alternatives to correlationism in the indoor quarters – within the realms of thought.

Meillassoux's diagnosis gives rise to a geography of alternative routes and positions. We can think of his geography in terms of four poles. One pole is certainly that of correlationism – strong and weak – according to which we cannot reach beyond the correlation of thought and being (weak) and not even think beyond this pale (strong). A second pole is that of a metaphysics that ignores correlationism altogether: a position that hasn't engaged with the correlationist gambit at all and manage to proceed as if the specter of the correlation didn't loom in its shadow. A third position is what we can label the speculative factualism embraced by Meillassoux himself in his Aprés la finitude – a position according to which the correlation points in the direction of the factuality of all things. And the fourth pole, crucial for the articulation of the third, a pole that encompasses several seemingly different positions and the one that I will be primarily concerned here. This is the pole of what he labeled the metaphysics of subjectivity and lies in the roots of what he now calls subjectalism. I sometimes prefer to call this pole the metaphysics of correlation, for it starts out by an effort to focus on the correlation itself – either to make it irredeemably part of the world itself or by multiplying it by finding a plurality of correlations in the world. This fourth pole – that Meillassoux sees as the wrong way out of correlationism – involves most varieties of vitalism, of process philosophy together with varieties of absolute idealism and phenomenology. It lumps together disparate positions such as those embraced by Schelling, Hegel, Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze and Latour. It is, to be clear, a speculative attempt to escape the trap of correlationism – and as such it responds to the diagnosis in the way Meillassoux recommends. He in fact acknowledged that the metaphysics of subjectivity takes the advisable speculative flight that is nonetheless headed in the wrong direction.

Meillassoux's main problem with the metaphysics of subjectivity has to do with factuality – something that is itself central to his own preferred alternative, that of the third pole of speculative factualism. He claims that the metaphysicians of subjectivity fail to see an important part of the bite of correlationism: that the correlation is not absolute. The metaphysics of subjectivity fails to do justice to the facticity of the correlation. The correlation is a matter of fact, it is neither a structural component of things nor an inescapable dimension of subjectivity. The metaphysics of subjectivity takes the correlation to be either all that there is to be accessed – there is nothing absolute beyond the correlation as things are irreducibly for-us and not in-themselves – or the very dimension of what there is even beyond the correlation we are supposed to be confined to – and therefore there are other correlations beyond ours. The former is the metaphysics of subjectivity of Hegel or, maybe, of some varieties of the linguistic turn. The latter is the one of Whitehead and vitalism, of process philosophy and actor-network ontologies. Meillassoux's complaint concerning all those positions is that they make correlation absolute – either by stating that there is nothing beyond a correlation or by multiplying correlations so that there is nothing that is outside a correlation. Clearly, the sense of 'correlation' here has changed at least slightly: it is not about a confinement we find ourselves within but rather a structure in the world.

Now, let's consider the charge Meillassoux has against this pole. He claims correlations are factual while this pole make them absolute. But why is it important that correlations are factual? I guess it is because it is a matter of fact that something is found within the boundaries of a correlation. It so happened that we find ourselves in a correlation. This could be because we could have been intelligible intellects (as Kant considers in his third Critique) that would see things through as we can think them but it so happens that we're not. But it could also be that we are in this particular correlation, and we could have been in others. We could be in a different correlation altogether. There are two senses of factuality here. But, it seems to me, that the important bit is that we could be outside this correlation. Whether or not what there is beyond this correlation is a bunch of other correlations or something entirely different is up for speculation. Clearly, following Meillassoux's line of argument, to say that there is something beyond this correlation is to engage in a speculative flight. The predicament of correlationism is that we are locked in this correlation.

But here is the blind spot in Meillassoux's diagnosis that Shaviro begins to uncover. Thought, he claims, is not only an intentionality device. Thought is something. He envisages “[a] thought that is nonrelational, or 'autistic'.” It is, for him, a deflationary panpsychism. The uncorrelated thought is already available. I would go further in debunking the assumption that we are confined in a correlation (this correlation) when we think. For what is we? Meillassoux is hostage to an anthropological sleep. Thought is something – and as such it is made of parts, it is coupled with other things and it is, at any moment, a factual assemblage of tools, resources, continuities, granularities and, there we go, (maybe) correlations. Thought is always populated. In fact, it is a population and quite a heterogeneous one. To say that it responds basically to an “us” is already to set the stage for a single, confining correlation. The panpsychist answer could be that thought itself is full of thoughts – full of psyches. If we take the kind of metaphysics of subjectivity that multiplies subjectivity, a debunking reply to correlationism becomes then available: the plurality of subjectivities – the ecology of subjectivities – doesn't stop short of the inner quarters inside this correlation. In other words, the line available to the now-called subjectalist is to proliferate correlations. Then, there is no confinement because there are just too many correlations.

This was my comment. An image of thought that presents it as something other than an intentional unity would itself harm correlationism. Thought is full of foreign elements, of small machines, of roads, of fragments of operation systems, of small animals, of flows. Speculative psychology? Yes, as part of a speculative psychology of the universe, as Nietzsche hailed in the Genealogy. Surely, this is all speculation - just as Meillassoux's factualism. However, there is something else here. There is maybe a pointer to something like an alien phenomenology of the mind. If consciousness is a chorus of voices, we can hear all sorts of haunting voices coming from the great outdoors inside...

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