Kicking the archefossil

It’s brave of Meillassoux to begin After Finitude with the argument from the archefossil, because it’s such a terrible argument. Indeed, Meillassoux admits that it is a terrible argument, which the correlationist will have no trouble dispatching; the reason for this, though, is that the discussion of the archefossil isn’t actually supposed to be an argument at all. When I first heard of it, it seemed to be a strange updating of Johnson refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, with the curious addition of a complicatedly constructed hypothetical stone. But that’s not really how the discussion of the archefossil is supposed to work: the archefossil isn’t supposed to present an example of brute reality and thereby disprove idealism. It is presented and refuted as such during the course of the first chapter, but this argument is really preparing the ground for the real use of the archefossil, which is not to prove something about reality, but rather to raise a question about the relationship between thought and reality.

The point of the example of the archefossil is to “raise the question of the emergence of thinking bodies in time,” which is also “the question of the temporality of the conditions of instantiation, and hence of the taking place of the transcendental as such” (25). The archefossil is an example of ancestrality, but the real problem of ancestrality is, if space and time depend on thinking beings, how would we understand the fact that thought first arose at a specific space and time? However, this is only a question at all if there was indeed a moment at which thought first arose, that is, if thought and being are fundamentally distinct. Meillassoux accepts this inasmuch as he points out that ancestrality is only a problem for the transcendental idealist, not the speculative idealist; but he does not consider that this ancestrality is, for the same reasons, not a problem for the materialist, either.

The problem of ancestrality, then, depends on an implicit Cartesianism that runs through After Finitude, an assumption that thought and being are two different things, and that the connection or not between them is thus a problem. For a position like the one Marx sketches out in The German Ideology, in which thought is simple a particular set of relations among being, the problem of how thought relates to being is no problem; their interrelation is essential to understanding thought in the first place: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is…directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life.” What’s distinctive about Marx’s position is that it sees thought as active, rather than merely reflective or contemplative. Marx charges Feuerbach with failing to really break with idealism because he still conceives the material world as something that is passively reflected in though: “Feuerbach’s conception of the sensuous world is confined on the one hand to mere contemplation of it, and on the other to mere feeling.”

This description also applies to Meillassoux, as we can see from the solution he proposes to the problem of ancestrality. Meillassoux argues that science shows us a way of thinking the unthought: mathematization. But it’s interesting what he thinks it is about mathematization that renders it independent of humans: mathematics is independent, specifically, of human sense-experience. Mathemetization provides “a world capable of autonomy” because mathematized bodies “can be described independently of their sensible qualities, such as flavor, smell, heat, etc.” (115, my emphasis). What is distinctively (and, for Meillassoux, limitingly) human is sensuous contemplation; to put it another way, Meillassoux considers the human relation to the world solely epistemologically, in terms of the kind of passive experience that Heidegger calls “present-at-hand.” Both the problem of and Meillassoux’s solution to correlationism depend on this cartesian assumption that reifies humanity, as thought, as something specific and separate from being. If one doesn’t make this assumption, is correlationism an issue at all?

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7 Responses to “Kicking the archefossil”

  1. Михаил Емельянов Says:

    “…the archefossil isn’t actually supposed to be an argument at all.”

    I tend to agree, but how do you explain the fact that every dick and harry, upon encountering this non-argument, was so excited about the “dead on” qualities of his argument? lack of history of philosophy context? or is it indicative of general preparedness of the masses out there for some kind of easy “archefossil argument” against idealism?

    P.S. Do space and time really depend on thinking beings in idealism?

  2. deontologistics Says:

    Well, there is a certain awkwardness about Kant’s account of space and time as pure forms of the faculty of sensibility in CPR. This is because Kant admits in effect that our forms of sensibility are contingent, even if he denies that this is the case for the pure concepts of the understanding. It is that contingency that gets played off of here. The forms of intuition are things which seems to emerge within time along with the particular organisation of our faculties of sensibility, and this raises the question of what ‘time’ they emerge in.

    I don’t think this undercuts transcendental philosophy as such, but I do think it indicates a certain weakness in Kant’s approach that does need remedying.

  3. Paul Ennis Says:

    ‘It’s brave of Meillassoux to begin After Finitude with the argument from the archefossil, because it’s such a terrible argument. Indeed, Meillassoux admits that it is a terrible argument, which the correlationist will have no trouble dispatching; the reason for this, though, is that the discussion of the archefossil isn’t actually supposed to be an argument at all.’

    He also notes in Time without Becoming (a neat condensed version of AF) that he raises it as an *aporia* for correlationism and not as its refutation (as Fabio Gironi has noted and as can be seen in Spectral Dilemma there is a tinge of the Derridean to Meillassoux). I always thought the reason he raised the ancestral argument was not so much to show how terribly Berekely-esque correlationism is but rather to show certain weaknesses, or precisely aporias, circling around transcendentalism when it comes to the genesis or emergence of transcendental subjectivity and I think, as Pete touches on, that there are genuine problems here concerning contingency especially if one follows a strictly Kantian picture of transcendental subjectivity as universal.

    I don’t think Meillassoux is radically innovative here. Hegel also discusses this problem toward the end of the Phenomenology and, after all, one the problems he has to solve prior to the Logic is how to account for the transition of the unrealized notion into consciousness. My issue with Meillassoux in the opening chapter is that he does not make these stakes (the ‘specific time’ problem’) explicit enough to begin with. This is especially important in other works, notably Spectral Dilemma, where he discusses the emergence of life, consciousness and a few other major events as completely *ex nihilo* events.

    ‘If one doesn’t make this assumption, is correlationism an issue at all?’

    I would say no, but is this not exactly where the great divide between those that think Meillassoux is on to something and those that don’t has always emerged (albeit it is not made explicit often enough)? I think this assumption captures the fault lines perfectly because the strongest sense of bafflement for the concerns of speculative realism almost always comes from Kantians, Hegelians, and unsurprisingly, given the very SR notion that being and thought are somehow separate, Heidegger (and then into Derrida and Caputo – who has been the most prominent and vocal challenger of SR) and these are all quite Parmenidean thinkers set against the neo-rationalist Cartesianism of Meillassoux (in Time without Becoming he flatly asserts that he is a rationalist).

    But the problem with remaining here, in the early stages of AF and the ancestral argument, is that we miss the attempted reconciliation between the Cartesian and Kantian standpoints that occurs later in his work. After all the point of the book is to think ‘after finitude’ after Kant’s great insights. Meillassoux, as far as I can discern, does not think Kant was some terrible misdirection for philosophy, but rather that post-Kantian thinking became increasing non-rational leading to a relativistic, anything goes fideism centred on the noumenal realm best exhibited in postmodern theology with Vattimo’s weak thought being the biggest target.

    I could say more, but this probably violates some kind of blog post etiquette of being a bit long.

  4. Daniel Says:

    “This is because Kant admits in effect that our forms of sensibility are contingent, even if he denies that this is the case for the pure concepts of the understanding. It is that contingency that gets played off of here. The forms of intuition are things which seems to emerge within time along with the particular organisation of our faculties of sensibility, and this raises the question of what ‘time’ they emerge in.”

    This seems to slip between (in Kant’s terms) the unschematized and the schematized categories of contingency. The schematized form of contingency is existing at some time or other; the unschematized form is the conjunction of something’s logical possibility and the logical possibility of its negation. Kant attributes only the latter, unschematized, sense of contingency to our forms of intuition: there is no logical contradiction in the idea of a non-spatiotemporal form of sensible intuition, but we don’t know if other forms of intuition are really possible. Kant certainly doesn’t think that the forms of intuition come to be in time; this would be doubly absurd, since time is one of the forms of intuition, and since space and time are necessarily our forms of intuition (and so are present at all times, this being the schematized form of necessity).

  5. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    My problem with Meillassoux is that he essentially collapses thought and being together again by the end of AF. The essence of reality is mathematisable and therefore purely thinkable. The ‘conceivability’ of different possibilities of radical change is not only enough to undo the correlation, it also funds an absolute ontology of contingency. And this just strikes me as a kind of reverse ontological argument, in which being is no longer recalcitrant to it’s conceptualisation.

    This is confirmed by the argument in which Meillassoux attempts to stave off the criticism of his claim that the absolute is that anything can change in any way for no reason at all. The criticism basically objects that the world as we observe it appears to be regular and non- chaotic, but surely we would expect chaos if Meillassoux were right. He counters that set theory demonstrates that the universe is non-totalisable and therefore no calculation of probabilities can be made about it’s regularity or otherwise. I must admit this appears to rely on a sophistical jump from set theory to the way the world really is to me. But maybe these are the Badiou infested times we live in.

    The arche- fossil thus appears to be a blind- a morsel of materiality which is however dissipated into pure mathematisable contingency by the end. How this enables us to discern the resistances faced by idealism escapes me.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I found his argument against those who would say that we should expect chaos if there are no “final” physical laws to be one of the most interesting parts of the book — or at least the most clever? That and his proof that there has to at least be something.

    I’m stumbling through Benjamin’s “On Language in General and the Language of Man” as a German reading text right now, and it strikes me that one could make a connection between Benjamin’s claim that everything has a language and Meillassoux’s claim that being is totally mathematizable. And yet I don’t think I’ve read enough of the essay to really support or develop this intuition, making this comment’s value questionable at best.

  7. Towards the arche-fossil | Progressive Geographies Says:

    […] Meillassoux, these two recent posts are worth a look – from An und für sich; and from Graham Harman. The first suggests that the argument concerning the arche-fossil is […]


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