Tag Archives: Meillassoux

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