Meillassoux expresses the problem that the correlationist has with the arche-fossil via the concept of ‘the given’. For the correlationist the arche-fossil is quite straight-forwardly a self-contradictory concept because it suggests that there is a ‘givenness of being anterior to givenness’. The correlationist points out that what we should do is conceptualise the scientific quantitative facts that the arche-fossil is aimed at as modes of ‘given-ness’. For the correlationist, “being is not anterior to givenness, it gives itself as anterior to givenness” (AF:14). The presentation of this argument is close to the bizarre notion that somehow God placed dinosaur fossils in the rocks in order to ‘test our faith’, a curious convoluted manoeuvre that is blatantly designed to maintain some sort of ‘biblical consistency’ in the face of science.
In once sense the argument is curiously distorted by the idea of givenness, because if we begin by accepting that ‘the given’ is the starting point from which we know the world then we are already inside the determinative framework which leads to correlationism. Think of this in terms of the analogy with the argument about God and the dinosaur bones. If the existence of god as outlined in the Bible is already axiomatic then any empirical fact must be determined within the determinative framework of the biblical frame. If I find geological evidence of timespans that appear inconsistent with such a framework, if I find fossils that appear to be located in geological layers older than is seemingly possible within the biblical axiomatic, then the appearance must be deceptive. The axiomatic determines the range of possible solutions. This is the crux of Meillassoux’s argument – the axiomatic of the given determines the range of possible solutions available to us in terms of knowledge of the world.
Assuming that an axiomatic is not itself resultant from any question of evidence but precisely a choice made as to how to determine evidence, then in effect the given establishes a determinative framework that leads philosophy to correlationism, within which ‘the world’ slowly recedes into a ghostly appearance. The difficulty, then, is something like ‘unthought presuppositions’ that need to be brought into the light of day. We see this difficulty throughout philosophy and throughout any process of determinative thinking, that is, throughout any process of thinking that produces judgements. The resistance to such unthought presuppositions is also the core motor force of philosophical activity and the centrality of such resistance is one of philosophies more unique features. Whilst the ability to innovate, to establish new axiomatics, new determinative frameworks, new paradigms, new methods, new styles, is vital to the creative life of any discipline it is less central to the existence of the discipline itself. Most rational practices develop through refinement, reproduction and application. There is a kind of ‘core’ activity which is vivified by the degree of creative innovation of determinative framework. In philosophy the opposite is almost the case – the very practice of philosophy depends upon the capacity to resist determinative frameworks. The work of refinements, reproduction and application is precisely related not to a product (a set of solutions) but to the capacity to resist existing solution frameworks. Philosophy, in this sense, depends upon its ability to make something a problem – which in effect means to find the limits and inconsistencies of an axiomatics, to find where the way things fall apart if you stick to a rigid framework of thinking.
It is here that the role of the given is to be understood within Meillassoux as a kind of rigidity, a kind of slow death for philosophical thinking because it locks thought into an unthought determinative axiomatic which has become so prevalent as to be almost second nature. Except, of course, that it hasn’t…
I’ve mentioned already that Meillassoux takes a large measure of his examples from phenomenology, his target plainly a kind of ‘continental’ thinking, although more accurately a kind of Kantianism – more accurate because Kantianism is a mode of philosophical thinking that crosses the old boundaries of ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’. It is important to note, at this point, that there has been a lot of work addressing precisely the ‘myth of the given’ within a Kantian inspired type of work, deriving partially from people like Wilfrid Sellars but also from something like a ‘realist’ approach, although that latter term hides a multiplicity of sins. Both a new conceptualism that derives from Sellars and a new realism, that perhaps derives from– or at least traces its roots to – the Logical Positivists, are vibrant and interesting research programmes, albeit primarily within ‘analytic’ philosophy. In ‘continental’ thought there is far more acceptance of the ‘correlationist’ framework, even when it appears to explicitly distance itself from Kant. There is a sense then that Meillassoux is located in large measure within a fundamentally continental ‘background milieu’, where the problem set derives from the established modes of thinking within which ‘the given’ is simply something already accepted and the only remaining question is to work out its details – in an analogy to the way scholastic philosophers might simply take god as existent and focus only on the problems of characterisation and knowledge that followed from acceptance of such an ‘obvious existing starting point’. In this sense the ‘second nature’ correlationism that the role of the given takes within continental thought might seem a reasonable working assumption. Within analytic philosophy, however, the case is not so clear, not least because one of the key problematics has been precisely that of the ‘given’, which in turn means that because the given has been so explicitly problematised it does not operate so prevalently like a second nature, the nature of which is to be ‘natural’ only in so far as it is ‘unthought’ or unproblematised.
Even this somewhat easy distinction, however, is not so obviously true when we look at some details. For example, the given, in Husserl, might be taken reasonably to apply both to the conception of self-evidence and of the primitiveness of meaning. Yet Heidegger begins his critique of Husserl precisely by challenging the role that the ‘givenness’ of self-evidence might play. (Being and Time; section1). Deleuze, famously, asks after the conditions of the given in his desire to analyse the ‘giving of the given’. Derrida, following Heidegger’s lead, pursues a structural problem to do with the ‘presence’ of meaning, arguing that the very structure of meaning is to be never finally given. The point here is simply to note that whilst ‘the given’ might seem at first sight a powerful and troublesome feature of modern philosophy, taking this to mean something like ‘post-Kantian’ philosophy, the reality of the work done, both in continental and analytical thought, seems to speak against this. Correlationism and the problem of the given may well be crucial features in modern thought, but this position seems to be less a result of that thought than a kind of failure in its listeners, as though modern thought has been trying to grapple with exactly this problem but those who listen continue to hear something overlaid with a crude common-sense prejudice that never quite absorbs the more interesting moments of philosophy but instead translates it back into its own average everyday language, complete with crude assumptions about distinct objects and subjects and thus centred on a problem of ‘access’ that makes no sense without this assumption.
Where, then, is this problem of correlationism truly to be found? If the core work of much analytic and continental philosophers seems to try and grapple with the problem of the given in what sense might the given be an unthought assumption? The tentative answer to this is to be found not in the concept of the ‘given’ itself but rather in one of the central positions of Kant and post-Kantian thought, that of the distinction between the transcendental and the empirical. It is here that ‘correlationism’ truly finds its form, in the power and weakness of the transcendental / empirical division, one of ‘levels’ in which the ‘everyday’ level of the empirical can happily be ‘realist’ (yes, those tables are actually there, the chairs I sit on do exist, the people I speak to are actual persons) whilst we then go on to acknowledge a ‘superior’ transcendental level in which there are ‘conditions of possibility’ that are such as to make it seem like the empirically real is actually real. These conditions limit the real within the non-empirical, that which must be ‘given prior to all experience in order for us to be able to have experience’.
The Kantian language can, of course, be rather obscure and it’s possible to rework the central idea here by focussing on the idea of a determinative framework (DF), which is closely akin to the more commonly known colloquial idea of a ‘frame of reference’ (FOR). The distinction between a DF and a FOR is that the former is productive of the latter. The DF is the rule for producing rules, whilst the FOR is the set of rules produced. So we use a FOR in our practices, for example we might make measurements within a particular FOR where the rule is given by the central quantitative concept, such as a Kelvin, a Centigrade or a Fahrenheit. On the other hand a DR is a way of producing the rules, such as the central quantitative concepts of Kelvin, Centigrade and Fahrenheit. Despite the differences between K, C and F, to the extent that they are translatable they share a DR and to the extent that they aren’t they differ in the DR. Similarly in philosophical thinking, to the extent that one set of concepts is translatable into another then a shared DR is in operation and to the extent that they cannot be so translated a different DR is in operation. Correlationism, in this sense, is a determinative framework producing a family resemblance amongst various philosophical frames of reference, central to all of which is an approach to ‘the given’ which accepts the idea that there is a split-level way of understanding (the transcendental / empirical distinction for example). The core problem that Meillassoux begins from is quite simple – is a fact only a fact within a particular frame of reference? Correlationism seems to say yes to this, because it is determined to say yes through the structure of the determinative framework it operates in. For Meillassoux he appears to want to claim that this is incompatible with the meaning of the facts science offers us, particularly those he calls the ‘ancestral’. These facts, supposedly, are facts outside of any frame of reference and so translating them into the correlationist frame distorts their central meaning. We might want to formulate this in the following way – the absolute fact is a fact outside of any frame of reference and ancestral facts are meant as absolute facts. I formulate the claim in this way because I will want to come back to the problem of frames of reference when we move on in Meillassoux’s text to the role of necessity and contingency and so for now these are just place holders, further discussion of which will be postponed until later in the notes.