meillassoux vs. hallward vs. brown

An interesting debate seems to be taking place in response to Peter Hallward’s recent review of ‘After Finitude’ which was published in this month’s issue of radical philosophy. If you don’t normally read radical philosophy, I highly recommend getting a copy from your library or local bookstore and reading this review, which is on par, and in many ways similar, to the previously mentioned review of Logics of Worlds Hallward published in last month’s New Left Review.

Over at speculative heresy they have posted a response to Hallward’s review by Nathan Brown. It’s a well thought out review that brings up many good points, but, I must say that I still side with Hallward’s review. I think his critique of Meillassoux’s use of mathematics (which is very similar to the way he critiques the use of mathematics in Badiou) is quite accurate, and poses an interesting problem for those of us working on Badiou and Meillassoux.

For a taste of Brown’s piece, towards the end he says:

“Throughout Hallward’s critique of After Finitude, the basic move is to extend the book’s arguments beyond the proper domain of their application and then to hold Meillassoux accountable for the resulting difficulties.”

I, for one, find this critique a bit problematic. Hallward brings up some important questions regarding the potential (or lack there of) present in Meillassoux’s contingent ontology to bring about political and social transformation. As much as Meillassoux doesn’t explicitly set out to make an argument of this sort in After Finitude, can’t it still be said that every ontology necessarily has political and social implications? And if Meillassoux holds a position of absolute contingency, doesn’t it leave us waiting for political novelty to happen, rather than providing a way towards developing the sort of ‘transformational materialism’ that Hallward seems to be aiming for? In a sense this critique is very similar to those levelled against Badiou, and specifically in regards to what is to be done in the pre-evental state of existence from the perspective of the potential subject. Whereas Badiou has (to an extent) clarified this in Logiques des Mondes in the sections on the commune, intensity, and evental sites; Meillassoux has yet to clarify what is to be done towards the work of transformation in a situation of absolute contingency. He could very well, and I would assume likely will, clear this up in his future work; but as it stands now, it seems as if Hallward has every right to make this critique.

The only thing I would say regarding Hallward, is that in light of his two recent reviews, I’m quite anxious to see how he attempts to solve these problems haunting contemporary French materialism in his own work. As far as I know he still seems to be working on his political will/determination project, but hopefully he takes a more constructive and original path in his future work and begins to develop this transformational materialism he seems to find lacking in both Badiou and Meillassoux.

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5 thoughts on “meillassoux vs. hallward vs. brown

  1. Nathan Brown says:

    “And if Meillassoux holds a position of absolute contingency, doesn’t it leave us waiting for political novelty to happen, rather than providing a way towards developing the sort of ‘transformational materialism’ that Hallward seems to be aiming for?”

    I have to say that I continue to find this argument hilarious. Is it really plausible that one might close After Finitude and think to oneself: “well, now that I’m convinced of absolute contingency, I’ll drop or defer any political engagements since this hyper-chaos I’ve just read about will, eventually, take care of my concerns on my behalf”? Immigration reform? Communist revolution? I’m waiting for Absolute Time to push those through.

    Isn’t this rather ludicrous?

    The argument that Peter makes, and that you second, may well apply to Badiou. But again – it has nothing whatsoever to do with After Finitude. Meillassoux does not offer a general theory of change or transformation. He forwards an argument for the general possibility of contingent transformation. The subjective consequences that you draw from that argument simply do not follow.

    Faulting Meillassoux for “failing” to offer a theory of the subject or of political transformation in AF is bit like faulting Stephen Mumford for the fact that his 2004 book, _Laws in Nature_, doesn’t offer a theory of political transformation.

  2. Yeah, it’s totally ridiculous to critique a philosophy based on its consequences. Like what Meillassoux does w/r/t correlationism. What a laugh! As is trying to think about the implications of radical contingency for causality. Philosophy? More like sma-losophy! Am I right? LMFAO.

  3. Nick says:

    Anthony, while you’re right it’s about consequences, I think where Hallward’s critique is going wrong (w/r/t to politics) is in drawing consequences from a incomplete philosophical system. Meillassoux states up front that his project is to understand how it can be that mathematics can have such a grasp on reality – e.g. how can physics be so accurate? (AF, 26) His initial steps (which is all that I take After Finitude to be) are to set the foundations for a mathematical ontology. He never, however, actually finishes the project in AF; he only breaks through a few traditional barriers to it. And if Meillassoux’s ultimate goal is to explain scientific statements, then he’s not doing away with causality or effective action. What he has to do now, though, is explain how he can get from necessary contingency to the structured situations of the phenomenal world. To be honest, I find it hard to believe that he’ll be able to do that, but I don’t think it’s valid to criticize him for it before he’s even tried.

  4. As near as I can tell no one is criticizing him in any strong sense. Hallward’s review is not entitled anything like “why we shouldn’t read Meillassoux”. People are merely pointing out that there are some rather huge unanswered questions. That’s criticism of a kind, but it’s couched in a lot of affirming statements about After Finitude. I for one think that Meillassoux’s project is flawed in that it he already loads the dice, so to speak, by giving his definition of any thing-in-itself as the thing “independently of its relation to me”; everything in his argument follows on from this presupposition. It isn’t at all clear to me that a realist ontology demands that the thing-in-itself is this non-relational thing. I think Hallward’s point here about mathematics is actually very helpful, and I would point out that a great deal of contemporary physics wouldn’t need to go that far in order to think a thing (accurately, as you say). Of course, it is a very interesting little book, and I found it helpful for convincing me I was wrong on a few things. Yet, I’m really surprised at the fury with which people get upset when people make such criticisms. After all, it’s a rather short essay! Yet Dr. Brown is quite derisive towards those that disagree with him when all that was really called for was a much quieter rebuke.

  5. Nick says:

    That’s fair enough – I don’t get the sense that anyone’s dismissing Meillassoux’s entire work either. I think my problem (which really isn’t a problem, per se) with the criticisms is that pointing out what someone hasn’t talked about yet isn’t very useful. Better (and much harder!) is to say, “OK he’s missing these aspects, now how might we resolve that?” So I think my problem is just that the criticisms have tended to be solely negative, and not constructive.

    I think you’re absolutely right that the in-itself need not be non-relational (a problem I have with Laruelle/Brassier as well). And physics is fascinating – I only wish I knew enough to speak intelligently about it. There’s some really important ontological aspects to it, I think, but I couldn’t even pretend to have an idea of how mathematics and physics are interrelated in things like string theory.

    Anyways as much as some of this is silly arguments (is it OK to criticize someone about something they haven’t written??), I think it’s also really useful in delving into Meillassoux’s constructive project. Everyone’s aware of the internal critique of correlationism now, but where does Meillassoux go from there, and can it withstand criticism? I don’t think that’s been discussed enough yet.

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