In the first of these notes on After Finitude the focus was on the initial move in the book, the retrieval of the concept of primary properties. Even though this is the first move it is still vital to realise that it is the starting point for a more prolonged attack on the dominant contemporary philosophical mode of thinking. This contemporary mode of thinking is what Meillassoux calls correlationism. Correlationism begins with the ‘transcendental revolution’, which finds its origin in Kant. If we have no access to the in-itself then what we are left with are different types of subjective representation. It is no longer the case, the correlationist thinks, that we distinguish between representations which are correct because they adequately represent the object and representations which are distorted by subjective influence (primary properties fulfilling the formal role and secondary properties the latter). We should now distinguish between representations that we must all agree upon and representations that do not demand universal consent. “From this point on, intersubjectivity, the consensus of the community, supplants the adequation between the representations of a solitary subject and the thing itself as the veritable criterion of objectivity, and of scientific objectivity more particularly.” (AF:4).
Correlationism is defined in its most basic sense as the idea that we have no direct access to the object itself only to the way in which we think the object, that is, “to the correlation between thinking and being” (AF:5). Meillassoux notes immediately that this means any sense of pure access to a subject is as impossible as pure access to an object. Neither thinking nor being can be isolated. This is what Meillassoux calls the ‘correlationist two-step’. Step one: remove the object; step two: remove the subject – now reconfigure the world as a complicated relation rather than a simple set of elements. Modern philosophy, it is claimed, has gone beyond a naive idea of subjects here and objects over there and instead realised that we only have subjects in so far as we also have objects they can distinguish themselves from. This realisation means, supposedly, that we should no longer talk simplistically about ‘the object’ but realise any sense of an object is entwined in the relationship between the seer and seen, the knower and known, the subject and object. This is the correlationists sophistication and modernity, the way they pose their advance over naive realism. It is important to note that when Meillassoux talks of correlationism dominating modern philosophy, he seems to be primarily drawing his examples from Continental philosophy. It is phenomenology which appears as the initial target of criticism and from which the first examples are drawn but Meillassoux will soon make it clear that analytic philosophy and phenomenology are equally at fault (AF: 6, 41).
At fault in what way? In order to understand the problem that correlationism poses Meillassoux introduces the concept of ancestrality. This is quite a simple concept and refers to a type of fact, proffered by science, which makes a claim about something before language or thinking existed. The examples offered are familiar – the dates proffered for the start of the universe, or the start of the earth as a planet or the start of life on earth or the start of the human species. We’re familiar with the idea that scientists will claim the Universe began 13.5 billion years ago, or that life on earth began 3.5 billion years ago. The fact that these dates are in some sense ‘approximate’ is not relevant is that science makes claims about things that exist before human thought existed. This might seem untroublesome for the vast majority of people, such claims being understood as locating a series of events on a timeline that goes back far into the past and far, far beyond the existence of the human species. Yet the problem is simple. How can we have access to that which comes before any access exists? ‘Ancestral’ is the term given to the type of reality that exists before the human, before access therefore and we come to know about ancestrality through ‘arche-fossils’ or ‘fossil-matter’ which simply refers to stuff which is evidence for such ancestral reality. He uses this idea of ‘arche-fossils’ to distinguish these type of materials from the common idea of fossils because fossils, in common understanding, refer only to organic life forms. ‘Arche-fossils’ include “the material support on the basis of which the experiments that yield estimates of ancestral phenomena proceed – for example, an isotope whose rate of radioactive decay we know’” (AF:10).
Let’s clarify a little by looking at a simple example. Take the following claim:
C1: The universe began 13.5 billion years ago and was initially in a super-hot state.
Someone might ask the scientist making such a claim, ‘hot for whom’? Who was there to be ‘hot’? Assuming no entity existed which could feel heat as a sensation it seems wrong to talk about ‘heat’. OK, the scientist says, remove the word hot and replace it with a measurement, the temperature at the beginning of the universe was 1032 K. So we adjust our statement to remove the possible confusion someone might have about ascribing what seems like a secondary property to the start of the universe;
C2: The universe began 13.5 billion years ago and it’s temperature at that point was 1032 K
For most of us these are straight forward quantitative (measurable) claims about the universe, claims about primary properties of the universe which we can put into mathematical form. They may be revised and corrected but if so this will simply mean new quantities will be offered. For the correlationist, however, we must not accept this statement literally. In other words, we must not say that this is a statement about the universe but rather about our understanding of the universe within a specific system of concepts and ideas. It seems like this is not a big deal, that somehow we’re just acknowledging that the quantities offered are dependent on the measuring system used or the language they’re offered in. Trivially, this might be true – in other words, if we had a different number system or a different language the sentence might look different – but would the content of the sentence be different? Put more formally, is C2 a true proposition rather simply a true sentence? For the correlationist the fundamental answer is no. C2 is not a true proposition or if you prefer, a fact, rather it must be understood that all facts are dependent on the way we understand what a fact is. For Meillasoux the correlationist would offer something like C3;
C3: The present community of scientists have objective reasons to consider the universe began 13.5 billion years ago and it’s temperature at that point was 1032 K
The claim Meillassoux makes is that any hedging of the literal meaning of the ancestral statement, any shift from something like C2 to C3, is to fall into correlationism and to give up the world, the Great Outdoors, the absolute. In order to really get to the root of this problem, however, we have to pursue in more depth the concept of ancestrality. Why, after all, does Meillassoux not simply say ‘temporal’? Why invent a new term for what looks like a simple claim about something being at an earlier point in a timeline than the origin of the human species? To understand this we will need to get a sense of quite how the correlationist conceives of our access to the world and to do that we will need to consider the concept of ‘the given’.