Critique and Correlationism

Just a little interruption to clear up a point I made in a comment, which Levi has rightly called me on. The statement I made was as follows:-

“One of the problems I have with the general trend of speculative realism (and one of the reasons I don’t identify as a speculative realist) is precisely its reactionary tendency to reject the major figures of philosophy (primarily Kant and Heidegger) without trying to figure out what needs to be salvaged from their work. When it comes to Kant and Heidegger, there is a great deal of worth to salvage, and much of it would prevent speculative realists from repeating some of the mistakes that Kant/Heidegger were themselves reacting to.”

Levi has rightly called my on this by pointing out that there is some engagement with figures like Heidegger (particularly by Graham Harman) and Kant (I imagine Iain Grant is a touchstone here). What is more, Levi argues (as he has on his blog here, and here), for what he calls a re-construction of the history of philosophy, in which Object-Oriented philosophers (indeed, only one of the species of speculative realist) go back through the history of philosophy and read them as if they are object-oriented metaphysicians, to liberate hidden insights of their work. These points would seem to undermine the thesis I put forward above.

Now, I still think that thesis holds, but I am forced to make it more clear and specific (a good thing!). I do not object to the kind of creative exegesis that Levi is proposing through re-construction (hell I’m a Deleuzian, who am I to argue about creative appropriation?), but I think that there is a certain bit of a whole tradition of philosophy that SR won’t touch with a ten foot barge pole. I am thinking of the methodological insights of the critical tradition (and Heidegger).

The reason for this is precisely the one thing that unites all of the sides of SR: Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism. The call for the revocation of the Copernican Revolution is most often interpreted as a call to return to pre-critical metaphysics, a time in which philosophical experimentation was rife and not bogged down by the heavy methodological apparatuses of the post-Kantian tradition (indeed, the very term ‘speculative’ is often used in opposition to ‘critical’). The reason for this is that it is thought that the kind of methodological project engaged in by critical philosophy is inseparable from correlationism, that indeed it is the motivation for the adoption of correlationism.

I would draw the history of Critique somewhat differently to most. I take the real critical tradition to run through Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Foucault. I will explain the reason for this slightly odd looking grouping shortly. However, with perhaps the exception of Nietzsche, one can see that these are (rightly or wrongly) some of the major targets of the correlationist critique. The additional figure is obviously Heidegger, who I do not take to really be a part of this critical tradition, although he does share some affinities with them. He is the other main target of correlationist scorn (along with Levinas, Derrida, Nancy, and his other post-Heideggerian spawn), justifiably in my opinion.

So, what is it that unites these critical philosophers? And why would one think that it is inseparable from correlationism?

The reason I put forward this critical tradition (Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Foucault) is that they all engage in a certain kind of project which deserves to have the name Critique. They all attempt to show how it is that the very structure of thought (be it the transcendental structures of the mind, the biological drives of man, the language games we play, or hisorical epistemes) is productive of illusions, and to identify and diffuse these illusions (how reason over-extends itself, or how we run up against the limits of language). To borrow a phrase from Bergson, they attempt to sort out those false problems which are generated by our very modes of inquiry from the genuine problems that demand solution. One need not agree with everything these thinkers actually identified as a false problem (I like Wittgenstein, but I also like Metaphysics!), to agree with the general thrust of this central project of critique.

The reason that this project is taken to be inseparable from correlationism is that all of these thinkers (precisely with the exception of Nietzsche) engage in critique prior to, and sometimes to the exclusion of, metaphysics or ontology. In the case of Wittgenstein, it leads to the abandonment of metaphysics entirely. The same thing is claimed of Foucault, although I think this is just a very poor reading of Foucault which assimilates his position to the Wittgensteinian one. With Kant it does not lead to the abandonment of metaphysics, but its delimitation. From the perspective of SR, what follows from this is that we end up with an ontological privileging of the object of critique (the subject, language games, power structures), such that it is no longer possible to think the existence and nature of the objects of thought independently of the existence and nature of thought (hence correlationism). They thus reject the idea of starting with thought at all, however it is that thought is conceived.

Heidegger has an affinity with the critical tradition insofar as he shares just the same methodological starting point that is critiqued by SR. Although one may find some of what I have above identified as ‘critical’ philosophy in Heidegger, I didn’t include him in the tradition because it is not the main thrust of his work, and it becomes progressively less prevalent the later into his work one looks. However, in striving to formulate the question of the meaning of Being, Heidegger follows a similar methodological path (working out what it is that the structure of questioning demands) and because of it falls into correlationism (indexing Being to the peculiar kind of Being of the questioner, Dasein).

Here is the core issue though. Does a critical approach, one which starts with the structure of inquiry, and use it to delimit the constraints under which metaphysical speculation occurs, necessarily entail correlationism? I do not think so. My own project is an attempt to do just this.

One need not take just my word for it though. There is a good argument to say that the very argument against correlationism itself is a critical one. It does not proceed from metaphysical speculation, but is an attempt to work out constraints upon it by proceeding from the structure of thought itself. By this reckoning, this puts at least the smallest sliver of critique in Meillassoux himself. Perhaps even more interesting is the figure of Laruelle, who is a great influence on the Brassierian side of SR, who is a critical philosopher if anyone is. If all of this is correct, then the rhetorical cry of some proponents of SR to return to a pre-critical metaphysics is, at best, nothing more than rhetoric, and at worst, philosophically problematic.

If the equation of critique and correlationism does not go through then there is a different kind of re-construction that is possible, namely, a methodological reconstruction of the project of Critique. This is a matter of divorcing the important methodological insights of the critical tradition (plus Heidegger) from the miss-steps which imply correlationism. This methodological reconstruction is very different from the metaphysical/ontological reconstruction espoused by Levi.

All in all, I applaud the drive to speculation in speculative realism, I just don’t like the rush to speculate right away. Lets work out what the demands on metaphysical speculation are first (which is not the same as a Hegelian style deduction of the metaphysics itself), then we can speculate to our hearts content.

Note: Anyone who coins the term ‘speculative criticism’ will be shot.

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4 Responses to “Critique and Correlationism”

  1. another excellent post

    I am at a dissadvantage in these discussions precisely because I have not read Meillassoux’s and have only encountered the correlationist argument in Harman’s Latour book. In various places I have raised similar points trying to figure out what the purpose is of dismissing/arguing against correlationism. I guess I should read Meillassoux’s book.

    Whitehead talks of conceptual prehensions and processes such as appetition being an intergration of conceptual feelings, etc.

    From a Deleuzean POV the subsumption of the event to the object is exceptionally problematic. Events always exceed the object or even the ‘objectile’.

    I have written on my blog before about a grammar of the machinic to try to think about a non-human ‘sense’, because our events are not the events of the cosmos or any other thing with the capacity to fold the cosmos. Deleuze would probably say (and I am probably paraphrasing something of Deleuze that I have forgotten) ‘to ask what is non-human thought is to miss the non-human of thought’. The spoeculative realists seem to miss the ‘thought’ of the non-human whenever events are subsumed to objects.

    [fixed!]

  2. oh, bugger, I meant whenever events are subsumed to objects, can you fix that for me please:)

    had a long day here in sydney! and it is still going

  3. deontologistics Says:

    I must confess that I haven’t read After Finitude either (mainly because Alex over at conceptualpersona has had my copy for months, but I got it back yesterday!), but I have read some of his papers and some papers on him and the argument, and I am very impressed with it all.

    Over all, I must stress that I’m not arguing against Meillassoux’s criticism of correlationism, just the implications many take it to have, namely, that we can return to pre-critical philosophy and breathe easy. Critique is hard work after all.

    The whole issue of what precisely ‘thought’ ‘is’ is one which vexes SR as a whole. It’s the question which is just out of reach throughout all of Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, always visible in the background of his various critiquesof other thinkers. I suppose I find myself closer to Brassier than any other of the four main thinkers because I think (precisely because of his proximity to Laruelle) that he’s poised on the precipice of Critique proper, and all he needs is a little push to take it up explicitly.

    BTW, I will be posting a bit more of my account of Deleuze’s metaphysics today, which although it doesn’t present a worked out theory of sense, does hint at what such a theory would involve insofar as it presents Deleuze completely non-anthropocentric theory of ‘signs’.

  4. […] is making, confusing the machinic assemblage of bodies with the university. In this regard, I suspect that Deontologist would benefit from reflecting on the critical conditions of his own proj…, so that we don’t just sloppily speculate in a way that lacks rigor and that arbitrarily […]

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