Reading Meillassoux's After Finitude: Initial Thoughts

I finally picked up a copy of what everyone seems to be talking about these days: After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. I’ve read the first chapter and I am itching to get some initial thoughts out there.

First, I think Meillassoux frames the realism/anti-realism controversy very nicely. Part of the reason I am so fired up about this post is because Meillassoux’s work seems get to the root of many contemporary issues and thus works nicely as a springboard for the philosophical dialectic. I like his term “correlationism”. It does seem to capture a distinct flavor of philosophy, one that I often run into in continental circles. Many phenomenologists seem to accept the correlationist strategy of putting the reciprocal co-relation of human and Earth first, understanding the phenomena as that which appears within consciousness. And of course, Heidegger’s critics have pejoratively put this label of “relationist” or “correlationist” on him in order to raise problems for his system. But I don’t really think correlationism, as described by Meillassoux, captures Heidegger. Here’s why:

Meillassoux’s understanding of correlationism is derived from an analysis of primary and secondary qualities. He says

Whether it be affective or perceptual, the sensible only exists as a relation: a relation between the world and the living creature I am. (2)

He uses the Berkeleyan examples of pain not being in the fire itself or color not being in the painting itself. This is supposed to illustrate an important fact about human existence: perceptual experience is the experience of sensible qualities, which exist only as a relation between perceiver and perceived. Accordingly, Meillassoux sets up the problem of correlationism in terms of whether you are willing to say that relational qualities are all we can possibly have access to. In other words, Meillassoux’s problem with correlationism is not the subjectivist understanding of perception in terms of sensible qualities, but rather, the limiting of human access strictly to the co-relation with the Earth  rather than the Earth as it exists apart from the sensible relation (which for Meillassoux, we can access through mathematics).

My difficulty with Meillassoux is that he never even stops to consider if there are alternative ways to conceive of the organism-Earth perceptual relationship. He would be wise to read some of J.J. Gibson’s work on ecological optics. Indeed, for Gibson (and for Heidegger), sensations have nothing to do with perception. Accordingly, relation is simply the wrong term to describe the intentional perceptual experience. For Heidegger and for Gibson, perceptual experience is not a matter of generating sensations or “having” sensations. If we examine his language, we can see that Meillassoux buys into the very object-metaphor that Heidegger critiques so vehemently in describing the sensuous process. Meillassoux always talks about “the” sensible, “the” perception, or “the” sensation, as if these things actually were things. But the sensible is precisely not something which comes into existence or is generated when a subject is alongside the Earth. To think this is to misunderstand the intentionality of perception.

Strictly speaking, the most primordial perceptual experience of an organism perceiving the Earth is not characterized by the “having” of things called “sensations”. To believe so is to fall prey to the object metaphors that Modern philosophy has corrupted the philosophy of perception with. As Heidegger says, perception is not about returning one’s “booty” of sensation back to the “cabinet” of consciousness. Instead, perception is a matter of encountering the phenomenon. And crucially, the genuine phenomenon for Heidegger is not the appearance within a consciousness, but rather, that which is known in perception, namely, the things themselves. “Phenomena are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to the light”. What lies in the light of the day? The Earth! Indeed, it is the planet Earth upon which the sun shines.

Accordingly, perception is a matter of encountering or attending to what is already presenting itself to us. As long as we are alive, we have no choice but to encounter the Earth. Understood this way, sensations are irrelevant for the achievement of perception. All that matters for the act of perception is the performance of the act. And it is only dogmatism which supposes that the act of perception involves re-presenting the phenomena in terms of sense-data. For this, there is no need. We only need to respond or react to that which is there in such a way as to maintain the unity of our bodily singularity. And of course, our entire history of responding to the Earth, from conception until death, is determinate for how we react to the phenomena. This is where circumspective interpretation and “temporalization” comes in. Every encounter with the Earth is an interpretation or “projection” based on what we bring to the phenomenon in accordance with the fundamental historicity of our factical life experience.

It is curious then that Meillassoux says that “it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant of correlationism” (5). On my reading then, Heidegger escapes correlationism because he was a naive realist (Graham Harman might be interested in this claim)! But naive isn’t the right word. “Direct realism” or “ecological realism” is better. Basically, direct realism is the thesis that perception is a comportment towards the things themselves, but that how we take those things depends on the perceiver. Moreover, with visual perception, we are not directed towards the actual object, but rather, the ambient light which nomothetically reflects off the actual objects. We sense light and in so doing we attend to the objects themselves. It has been experimentally demonstrated that receptivity towards textures of light upon the retina which result from movement through the ambient light specifies enough information about the environment so as to intelligibly navigate through it.

This is why Meillassoux is mistaken when he assumes that perception of color necessarily involves a sensation or percept of color. In virtue of well-known physical laws, ambient light reflectance is determined by the chemical nature of the perceived object. Different chemical compositions on the surface of the object reflect light differently and can thus be specified by information contained within the ambient light. To perceive color then, we need only discriminate ordered  patterns of stimulus, not “generate a percept”. I thus agree wholeheartedly with Nigel Thomas when he says that:

colors (and all other experienced qualities) really exist out there in the world, just as do shape, size, and motion (or whatever properties are sanctioned by the latest physical theories). Furthermore, rather than merely mentally representing these qualities (or information about them), we are able to know or be in touch with them, as they exist outside of us, in a quite concrete sense. Qualitative experience, I am suggesting, may consist in being in contact with qualities rather than in the ‘having’ of qualia.

Accordingly, direct realism avoids the problem of correlationism because it never holds to the Kantian thesis that perception necessarily adds something to the phenomena. For direct realism, nothing is added to the phenomenon, we simply perform the act of encountering it. In this way, “Dasein remains outside” with the things themselves. This is why Heidegger is always saying things like:

To say that I am in the first place oriented towards sensations is all just pure theory. In conformity with its sense of direction, perception is directed toward a being that is extant. It intends this precisely as extant and knows nothing at all about sensations that it is apprehending.

in opposition to the subjectivist misinterpretations that perception is directed in the first instance only to something subjective, that is, to sensations, it was necessary to show that perception is directed toward the extant itself.

Nevertheless, the walls [in a lecture hall] are already present even before we think them as objects. Much else also gives itself to us before any determining of it by thought. Much else – but how? Not as a jumbled heap of things but as an environs, a surroundings, which contains within itself a closed, intelligible contexture

intraworldliness does not belong to the being of the extant, or in particular to that of nature, but only devolves upon it. Nature can also be without there being a world, without a Dasein existing…The being of beings which are not a Dasein has a richer and more complex structure and therefore goes beyond the usual characterization of that extant as a contexture of things



Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

14 responses to “Reading Meillassoux's After Finitude: Initial Thoughts

  1. Very good post. You express quite nicely some of my own concerns with Meillassoux and OOO. Would you extend this critique to OOO? I’m thinking through those issues at the moment as you can see at my own blog. Again, good post.

  2. Gary Williams

    Jeffrey, I am assuming by OOO you mean Levi Bryant’s object oriented ontology? If that is the case, then I am not sure if my critique holds. From what I understand, Levi is also skeptical about sensation-based accounts of perception but I’m not sure where he stands in respect to how I framed the issue in this post. I know Levi takes a lot of inspiration from autopoietic theory, which is fundamentally Gibsonian in nature, so I would be interested to see if he agrees with my critique of Meillassoux (although I know he hasn’t read Gibson). My guess would be yes, but I’m just not sure since he tends to avoid discussing the sorts of epistemological questions of perceptual access that I am addressing.

    Oh, and thanks for the very nice compliment! I have been reading your blog and have enjoyed the posts very much; keep up the superb work.

    • Jeffrey Bell

      Gary, I actually didn’t have Levi’s approach in mind. I very much like his autopoietic approach which I myself embraced in Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos. What motivated my question was the thought that one aspect of the OOO critique of Deleuze, for instance, is that on object is ultimately reducible to its relations. Despite his admiration for Latour, Harman’s sole objection, as he puts it, is that actants ‘are defined entirely by their relations to other things,’ whereas OOO will embrace the irreducibility of objects to their relations. I agree with this in part if objects are understood as emergent properties of dynamic systems, but I think Latour is right to define actants ‘entirely be their relations to other things’ for in this way we are better able to look under the hood, so to speak, and understand the object in its larval state as opposed to its stabilized, equilibrium state. In your discussion of perception as an encounter rather than as a matter of having sensations, it led me to wondering whether perceptual encounters are more larval than stable, and hence perhaps closer to Latour than OOO. Again, thanks for the informative post.

  3. Pingback: Heidegger and the Phenomenon of Truth – A Preliminary Interpretation | Minds and Brains

  4. Joseph C Goodson

    Good post. My take on Meillassoux’s point is much more general: I don’t think he is claiming anything specific about light waves and chemical properties. He is saying, rather, that whatever properties exist in the object which stimulate the colors we see, or the pain we feel, that perception is inside of us, not in the the light wave or the chemical property of the object, which is outside of us and is genuinely encountered, I think. Obviously there are very good physical reasons why we see the particular colors that we do and not others. Meillassoux’s point seems much simpler than that: that the perception is not in what is perceived, but in us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t encounter it, we do. But the encounter of the color is on our side. The light waves can’t see itself as a color. Those chemical properties and their interaction with the light do exist quite apart from any perception of them, but that is the point: they are not the same, they are not constituted by our perception, which is quite another complex interaction added to the object and the light itself. How I read Meillassoux’s point is that the correlationist will always include the human element in that discussion, so that we can’t ever talk about precisely what you mention: the interaction between the object and the light itself. If you say that the encounter is with a world, are you also saying that the world is dependent on that encounter? To put it another way, the world does not need our encounter of it to be what it is, to have the properties and the relationships that it does (as in the case of the object and its play with light). While you may say that we don’t add anything to phenomena (I’m not sure this is always the case, though) but you have to say that the reality is not dependent on its phenomena, which is always for something else. It can exist fine without appearing to anyone, and therefore not being phenomenal at all.

    • Gary Williams

      Joseph, thanks for the insightful comment. You said that perceptions are “inside” us. On the one hand, this can simply mean that perceptions are inside the skin-bag or inside the skull, with “in” simply meaning some kind of objective, spatial relationship in respect to the world “outside” the skin-bag. On the other hand, it can mean that the perception is somehow inside an “introcosm” or interior mental “space” or “theater” where consciousness “all comes together”. This “introcosm” then stands against the objective world “external” to the mental introcosm. Accordingly, the “inside-outside” distinction refers to some kind of epistemological distinction rather than a simple spatial distinction between inside the head and outside the head. When Meillassoux says that perceptions are “inside” us he is likely talking about the latter conception of inside/outside, not the former. It is this conception of “inside-outside” that I want to critique.

      George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have done a lot of excellent work showing how this inside/outside distinction that is used by people like Meillassoux is generated by metaphorical understanding based on our experience with container-logic. Container logic sets up a logic of inside and outside that we figuratively apply to mental phenomena so as to better understand them. Accordingly, we quite naturally say that “My mind wanders” as if the mind were a person in a terrestrial environment, walking aimlessly along. We often understand ourselves as thinking “step-by-step”, linearly, with ideas and mental contents being separated in space, spatialized in time, and “in” or “on” our minds as if the mind were a storage container for thoughts, with some thoughts being “contained” in the “back” of our minds, or on the “top” of our minds (closer to the “surface” of conscious awareness). Complex ideas can go “over our head”; we can hold an idea “in” our minds as if it were being examined like a physical object, from “all sides” as it were.These spatial metaphors are structured by our interaction with everyday objects. Lakoff and Johnson show how philosophers like Meillassoux take these object-metaphors literally whenever they think that the “inside-outside” of perceptual qualia accurately describes the actual process of perception. By understanding inside/outside in terms of metaphorical understanding, we can see the way in which the assertion “perceptions are inside us” can only be true figuratively, not literally.

      • Joseph C Goodson

        Excellent point about Lakoff and Johnson, and certainly well-taken. I wonder if Meillassoux is ontologizing this metaphor, however, in the way you suggest. When I read Meillassoux saying that perceptions are “inside” us, I take it that he means that perceptions are mind-dependent, or that they are produced from “within” this particular system of consciousness or mind or whatever it might be. I completely agree that “within” and “without” is figurative — what is not figurative is Meillassoux’s problem of what is dependent on a perceiver and what is independent of that perceiver (or subject, system or object, however that might be eventually defined). In this case, I think that you have to say that, while surely perception isn’t necessarily literally inside something spatially, it is dependent on the person or thing doing the perceiving or witnessing or encountering. So when he says that the pain is in my finger, I take that to mean that pain is a production of information that is system-specific and not happening outside this system. If we frame it this way, then Meillassoux avoids any difficulty with inside-outside being taken too literally.

        I have only read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, and it was some time ago, so I imagine you know their material much better than I do, but if I recall the idea was that metaphors can only be replaced by other metaphors and that thought cannot help but be metaphoric (not just thought, either). It seems that it isn’t a question of abandoning the metaphorical element of thought, but of seeing it as alluding to a reality beyond or independent or greater than the metaphors we use, and this is how we might read Meillassoux’s thought here. In other words, in recognizing the metaphorical structure of talking about sensation being “in” the mind or in a “system,” I think we are really alluding to something real and not just the metaphor itself.

      • Joseph, I think I see where you are coming from now. In regards to the experience of pain, the question is whether or not “pain qualia” is dependent on the perceiver, which clearly seems to be the case. However, I still think that it is problematic to say that pain is strictly concerned with something going on “inside” the mind. For example, many sensation-based theorists claim that pain is simply the “experience of the firing of neural fibers” and accordingly, pain is “inside” the mind and independent of the outside world as you are suggesting.

        My problem with this view is that it fails to capture the way in which pain experience is not just the “firing of c-fibers” but a means by which to gather information about the world. Meillassoux says that pain is “in” the perceiver because it clearly isn’t “in” the fire. However, I would say that pain is the registration of information concerning the potentially damaging effects of the fire. Understood this way, it is specious to separate pain experience from the experience of painful objects. The registration of “sharpness” points to something real in the world. Pain experience cuts across both the subjective and objective. Accordingly, pain allows us to pick up objective, perceiver-independent information about the state of affairs in the world, namely, that such and such object is dangerous.

        While it is true that there would be no pain without perceivers, this fact does not mean that pain is completely subjective in the way Meillassoux and others suppose. On my view, pain is simultaneously objective and subjective because it evolved so as to communicate information about the real, perceiver-independent world. Accordingly, pain isn’t really “inside” the mind insomuch as pain is the experience of picking up body-relevant information from the real world. While this might sound like an issue of semantics, making this distinction allows us to get “outside of our heads” so to speak, and into the things-themselves while still acknowledging that the experience of pain is dependent on there being subjects of pain.

        The same thing can be applied to the experience of heat. The experience of heat isn’t simply the registration of valueless motions of molecules, but rather, the registration of the differential between your stable body temperature and the temperature of the outside world. Because empiricists like Bishop Berkelely think that heat perception is a matter of registering completely meaningless information, they conclude that the experience of meaning or significance comes from the mind imposing or subjectively coloring the meaningless molecules in terms of a computed value (a guess or inference). However, this account of perception fails to consider that the objective body-world skin differential is inherently meaningful for the subject in question. The organism doesn’t need to detect the differential and then add a value through an extra computational process, the skin differential is directly meaningful in terms of itself; the organism simply needs to detect the difference and then respond appropriately. This same principles also extends to color perception.

        Does that make sense?

  5. Joseph C Goodson

    Just one more comment: while I don’t know if we can step out of metaphor completely, I do think some metaphors are better than others as this kind of “allusion” to the real — so I agree with the limitations of the “container-logic” as Lakoff and Johnson describe it. I suppose I just condense Meillassoux’s basic idea in this way: are things independent of their being given in phenomena or appearance broadly conceived (these are all metaphors, still though)? I don’t think we need the container logic to make the point or offer a response in this case, though it is so habitual and seems difficult to avoid, so I do agree with your critique at that level. I wonder how direct realism as you frame it here avoids the idea of correlationism unless it implies that reality is not equal to its phenomena or appearance to either a human subject or any other subject or object. To put another way, I think I agree with the idea that direct realism as you describe it here avoid correlationism if the caveat is added that Dasein remains outside, but the outside isn’t dependent on Dasein, that is, the “outside” as you conceive it here: things themselves. Or are you identifying the things themselves with their direct encounter with Dasein, tout court?

    (This is a great blog, by the way, and I am going to have to visit it more often. I very much enjoy Heidegger and these Heideggerian questions.)

    • Joseph C Goodson


      I don’t think Meillassoux is saying that pain is an hallucination that has nothing to do with what is going on with the finger and the fire. But surely you can have one without the other — you can be burnt without pain, and I am sure there are situations of sense memory without the object of that memory which are just as vivid. But I am still not sure how this gets us away from the problem of the pain or sense being the problem of relation. I think Meillassoux means it in exactly the way you put it — the experience of heat requires a relation between the body and the world, or the body and something else. It doesn’t have to be conceptualized at all, of course, nor do we have to consciously create some kind of thought — it’s reflexive. But it is still relational. I agree that it is already meaningful to us.

      For that reason I am doubtful that Dasein encounters reality as it is in its totality. At the very least, there are particles and waves and types of energy around us that we have no perceptual or phenomenological access to at all, but that require inquiry and inference to discover, and then we still don’t experience them directly. They never appear, like a black hole, for instance. The black hole will never be directly experienced, and it has taken a lot of mathematical and inferential work to detect its existence. But surely it is real. How does that square with “direct realism”? The same goes for Meillassoux’s elegant ancestrality — were it not for very complex technologies and inferences and so on, their reality would be completely invisible to us, but they would still be real. But it never really enters into the appearance of the world in a phenomenological sense, does it?

      • Gary Williams


        The problem with Meillassoux is that he restricts the concept of relation needlessly. He thinks that we are only related to the relation whereas I argue that insofar as perception is relational we are related to reality itself, not to the relation. In other words, if we ask what thought is correlated to, the proper answer is that it is not correlated to another correlation, but rather, to reality itself. This is why “direct realism” is direct. It rejects the idea that in representing the world the representation gets represented. For Meillassoux, we can never get past the relation. For Heidegger, the relation gets us into the things themselves because we direct ourselves towards the thing themselves, not towards sensations (the relation itself). Accordingly, there is no “problem” of how we relate ourselves to the things themselves because a proper understanding of intentionality will reveal that we primarily intend towards reality, not sensations. Attending to sensations is a derivative phenomenon.

        As for your second point, there is no principled reason to suppose that the tools and technology science uses to detect electrons and blackholes are somehow epistemologically derivative. If we can only experience minute particles through the apparatus of science, is that not still a legitimate experience? The world appears differently when we look at it through a microscope. Moreover, direct realism stated in its strongest form says nothing about humans having direct access to the particles and waves. Particles and waves are meaningless for animals. We are interested in the molar or macro level of reality rather than the micro. Before we developed science, humans lived in what has been called “middle world” i.e. ecological reality. This is the level of stable objects and rigid surfaces. This is the level of reality which our metabolic systems are naturally “attuned” with. Accordingly, the “phenomenological sense” is a general category applicable to all possible experience, not just those we experience with our naked senses. Besides, one could argue that there is no such thing as a “naked” experience because every second since conception you are influenced by cultural-social forces. Language itself was the original complex technology.

      • Joseph C Goodson


        I still think the problem of correlationism is the problem of the inescapable dependence of reality on human perception, mind, experience or reality — whatever you might define it as. My question is whether “direct realism” says that some reality exists without this human relation. That seems to be the core of correlationism: not so much that we perceive reality as human but that reality is nothing but this perception or relation or that reality is dependent on this relation. If you are saying that we see things the way they are and therefore the way they would be without our seeing them, then I can see how you might avoid correlationism (though I am still not convinced that our cognition or perception isn’t much more actively involved than that).

        Secondly, there is a difference between saying that phenomenological sense is applicable to all experience and saying that phenomenological sense exhausts or is all that there is to truth or even reality. What is phenomenological about, say, set theory, for instance, or the debates as to what Number is? The relationship of our experience and the truth of those discourses seem to get very complex.

  6. I see what you are saying Joseph, but what you are you actually describing is classical ‘idealism’ non? If correlationism is only the stance that reality is nothing but our perceptions/relations of it then you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who actually believes that.

    If correlationism is also the argument that we cannot know reality in any other way than HOW we know it, then I think this might be a hrader nut to crack.


  7. Gary Williams

    Michael is right. Direct realism is naturally inclined to say that reality is *not* dependent on perception but just the reverse: without a real environment surrounding and supporting the organism there could be no organism. This is the “realism” of “direct realism”. Whereas there cannot be organisms without environments, there could be environments without organisms e.g. planets which are on the other side of the universe. Direct realism is direct because it claims that the objects of perception are real and independent of the nervous system. Now, we must be careful about defining this independence claim because there exists a concept in evolutionary theory called “niche construction”. It basically says that environments are both independent and dependent of organisms insofar as organisms shape their own worlds. For example, the physical components of this laptop I am writing on will undoubtedly outlast me, but it is at the same time dependent on me because laptop is a cultural artifact and conceptual category made by the perceiver. Same thing with man-made canals or infrastructure. To use Heidegger’s language, we can say that in this sense the laptop is dependent on us ontologically but independent from us ontically. In other words, it depends on how you look at things. Moreover, Heidegger says that this “ontological difference” between ontic being and ontological being is experienced in the back-and-forth-ness of readiness-to-hand or present-at-hand. For example, if I am touching my left hand with my right hand, the right hand disappears and the left hand becomes the object of perception and vice versa. When touching the table we can shift our attention between the feeling of our hand and how the table feels. Perception is touchlike in this sense because it is both subjective and objective. This also occurs with our clothing. We can go back-and-forth between attending to the clothing or letting it fade from conscious introspection. Same with chairs. Usually we take the feeling of sitting for granted but we can take a reflective stance on that feeling and turn it into an object of perception. This shifts the chair back-and-forth between something completely relative to me (something to support me) and something completely independent of me (a physical piece of wood with such and such properties of hardness and length).

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