Lecture: Meillassoux’ Speculative Reason

This was an introductory  lecture given during the colloquium of Prof. Joseph Vogl in the Humboldt University in Berlin, 2013


From 19th century on, whenever a new metaphysics – or lets say more general – a philosophy was born, it very often had a specific enemy; and very often this enemy is Immanuel Kant. We can easily find it in the thoughts of Fichte,Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Deleuze and then now to Meillassoux. Meillassoux’ philosophy, as Alain Badiou called “critique of critique” attempts to bring back the speculative reason that was rejected by Kant, as considered to be a threat to his system of epistemology – or in another name science. Already in the preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason published in 1781, Kant write “So far, then, as this criticism is occupied in confining speculative reason within its proper bounds, it is only negative; but, inasmuch as it thereby, at the same time, removes an obstacle which impedes and even threatens to destroy the use of practical reason, it possesses a positive and very important value. (17)” Kant immediately refrained the the pure practical reason from the reach of speculative reason, and promised to return to speculative reason in another treaty called “Metaphysik der Natur”, which never appeared.



In the works of Meillassoux, we can easily find a particular relation between him and Kant. On one hand Meillassoux identifies Kant as his enemy, on the other hand, Meillassoux remains a loyal reader of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In contrary to Kant, Meillassoux wants to go back to the question of the absolute, that Kant already showed fear at the very beginning of the first critique and wanted to overcome step by step (from the analytic a priori to synthetic a priori). Metaphysics, a pure speculative science in the word of Kant, has to be confined to a system of reason which is at the same time logical and scientific. Kant and his position remain the representative of what Meillassoux calls correlationism, meaning for an objective knowledge to be valid, it must correspondent to a subjective experience (thus we understand Kant’s task of showing how synthetic a priori is possible). This correlation according to Meillassoux creates the deabsolutisation in metaphysics. The project of returning to the question of the absolute, or the infinite, wants to free reason from the structures that it shackled itself, and moves towards a new terrain which no longer submits causalities to myths and superstition, but rather a new foundation for science. How far can reason reach? Can reason reach a temporality where itself ceases to be, for example in the ancestrality where humanity was yet to appear?


Though talking about the Absolute, we can find out that Meillassoux is actually closer to Kant than to Hegel. This loyalty could be observed in different places, and in particular in the method used by Meillassoux, namely antinomies. This metaphysical question of ancestrality, as Meillassoux himself suggested, can be understood in terms of an antinomy. What is an antinomy, it is two statements that seems to be contradictory to each other, but both of them are logically valid, for example lets recall the first antinomy of Kant concerning time and space, the thesis reads: “The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited as regards space” the antithesis reads “The world has no beginning, and no limits in space; it is infinite as regards both time and space”. The resolution of the antinomies could be approached in two ways, firstly each statement belongs to a different level of abstraction, and the contradiction appeared could be therefore resolved by isolating them to their own domains, for example in the first antinomy, the contradiction can be resolved by putting them in cognitive and physical levels; secondly, the separations produces a common space for both statements, which produces a non-dialectical synthesis, this method is used by the Japanese literature critic Kojin Karatani under the name “transcritique”. In the exposition of Meillassoux, Kant was sometimes positioned as realist, idealist, this we could probably resolve as an antinomy instead of contradiction. The antinomy that Meillassoux called “antinomy of ancestrality” runs like this:


Thesis: all realism is immediately destroyed by the pragmatic contradiction that it seems to include;

Antithesis: all anti-realism seems to imply an ancestral destruction of the sense of science as science allows us to discover an ancestral temporality which becomes like crazy in light of correlationism.

What do these two statements want to say? Meillassoux wants to pose the ancestrality as the limit of thoughts to metaphysics and its product modern science, namely, how can one think about the ancestrality where there was not yet human? Meillassoux summarises two main camps, namely realism and antirealism. Meillassoux refers realism mainly to thinkers from the british empiricism; and anti-realism or correlationism that are either “transcendental, phenomenological or postmodern” – which manifest in pairs such as subject – object, consciousness – given, neosis – noema (Husserl), language – reference (Lyotard). The problem of the realists, says Meillassoux, has committed to a pragmatic contradiction, since “they pretend to know a reality which is independent of thought, while the reality that they speak are exactly what is given to thinking”. The problem of anti-realism: “how to pretend to think what is there when there is no thought without seeing the contradiction arises inherent to this approach?” Simply say, if there was no human, we can follow that the object of experience didn’t exist, then how can one make sense of objects? If realism has to admit that the world existed before human and before thoughts, then it will immediately commit to the pragmatic contradiction. Anti-realism may want to suggest that the world can only be thought in terms of correlation, but then modern science – which is their product – has discover the ancestral temporality. In other word, choosing to be a realist or antirealist seems to be an impasse in its own.



We see that it is with this antinomy – the method of Kant – that Meillassoux wants to discover a post-metaphysics which fights against correlationism or rather the movement of desabsolutisation. In the thoughts of correlationism, Meillassoux found another instrustment, which he calls the archi-fact. The archi-fact could be understood as something I know it is there, but I cannot show what, how and where it is exactly. In other words, we can say it is similar to Kant’s das Ding-an-sich. The desabsolutisation of metaphysics needs to pose itself an fragility that reason cannot include but nonetheless becomes its protection. It is exactly around the question of the archi-fact, Meillassoux thinks that it distinguishes different schools of correlaitionism, for example Fichte, Schilling, Hegel, and down to Husserl, Husserl simply dismissed the thing-in-itself since for him it is not scientific. The subjectivists (Meillassoux chose to use the word subjectivists instead of idealists) wanted to approach the archi-fact through enforcing the power of thoughts, that is how thought can penetrate into the realm of the unknown. It is exactly on this point that Meillassoux distinguishes himself from Hegel, since for Hegel the absolute is the spirit, and the spirit is at the same time the mind. In this approach, the absolute becomes the ultimate expression of correlationism. For Meillassoux the absolute has to be posited outside thoughts, outside the reach of the mind, outside all causalities. In contrast to what he calls the “facticity of correlation” of the correlationist tradition, Meillassoux wanted to propose what he calls the “principle of factuality”, meaning to identify a reality or a materialism which is independent from thought. Factuality is the property of facticity of not being itself factual. It doesn’t submit itself to the necessity of causality proposed by Hume and resolved by Kant, in the contrary it relies on the necessity of contingency. That is to say, we cannot say if God exists or not, since he may exist or may not, he may appear in front of you tomorrow morning when you wake up; or you may not see him at all within the finitude of your life. I quote Meillassoux “one will call all entities, things, or events contingent, which I know that it can or it could have effectively not to be, or to be other, I know that this vase could have not existed, or could exist otherwise”.


The mission of the speculative materialism could be understood in terms of Meillassoux’ new treatment of the facticity, here I quote “we propose to make the facticity no longer the index of a limitation of thought of its incapability to discover the ultimate reason of things, but index of a capacity of a capacity of thought to discover the absolute non-reason (irraison) of all the thing.” Meillassoux wants to produce a new ontology, and this seems to me to be a very weak gesture of his entire speculative reason. In this new ontology, one can find a new category or entity called “over-chaos” (surchaos), by which he wants to distinguish from the chaos theory in mathematics. The over-chaos is “an absolute” that “escape the enterprise of desabsolutisation of correlationism”.


Like other metaphysicians, Meillassoux has to confront the last question, what distinguish the over-chaos from the pure chaos, if we understand pure chaos as one which moves towards non-experience. Otherwise we would be already at the end of the universe, and Meillassoux would be the only philosopher who cares about the problem of ancestrality. Meillassoux proposes a principle of non-tradiction which can be applied to the absolute, I quote “we have indeed discovered that it is really possible to found the absolute ontological truth of the non-contradiction, – making it a universal property of being – from the absence of reason of what it is. It is because it is necessary that the things are to be without reason and stay what they are, that they should necessarily be non-contradictory, that is to say to submit to the grasp of logic”. What then is the principle of non-contradictory, if it is different from what one learned from mathematical logic? Now we come to the last concept that Meillassoux wants to push forward in this article: the ida of derivation. I quote, “an inconsistant being – universally contradictory – is impossible, because it ceased to be able to be contingent. Indeed, what an inconsistant being cannot do, is to modify itself, become other, since what it is not, being contradictory to what is is already”.




What can we say now other than “welcome to the world of the over-chaos?”? Alain Badiou wrote in the preface to Meillassoux’s After Finitude: “Quentin Meillassoux then goes on to draw some of the consequences of his resumption of the fundamental problem (‘what can I know?’) towards two other problems: ‘what must I do?’ and ‘what can I hope?’ It is there that what lies beyond finitude is deployed for contemporary thinkers”. Alain Badiou didn’t mention the fourth question posed by Kant, “Was ist der Mensch?(the other three: Was kann ich wissen? Was soll ich tun? Was darf ich hoffen? )”. It seems that Badiou doesn’t need to write this, and he has to write this, another antinomy. He doesn’t have to wrote it, since what is called human or humanity and his relation to the world is already displaced to another model, the model of contingency. On the other hand, it seems to be the question yet to be resolved in the coming works of Meillassoux, because that is the ultimate question of Kant and probably the most difficult one for all metaphysicians.

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