Correlationism and Secondary Qualities

Correlationism and Secondary Qualities December 5, 2018

Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude opens with a powerful assault on what he calls “correlationism” through a defense of the distinction of primary and secondary qualities.

He explains the rationale behind the distinction of primary and secondary. On the one hand, “nothing sensible – whether it be an affective or perceptual quality – can exist in the way it is given to me in the thing by itself, when it is not related to me or to any other living creature. When one thinks about this thing ‘in itself, i.e. independently of its relation to me, it seems that none of these qualities can subsist. Remove the observer, and the world becomes devoid of these sonorous, visual, olfactory, etc., qualities, just as the flame becomes devoid of pain once the finger is removed.”

On the other hand, “one cannot maintain that the sensible is injected by me into things like some sort of perpetual and arbitrary hallucination. For there is indeed a constant link between real things and their sensations: if there were no thing capable of giving rise to the sensation of redness, there would be no perception of a red thing; if there were no real fire, there would be no sensation of burning. But it makes no sense to say that the redness or the heat can exist as qualities just as well without me as with me: without the perception of redness, there is no red thing; without the sensation of heat, there is no heat. Whether it be affective or perceptual, the sensible only exists as a relation: a relation between the world and the living creature I am.”

Thus, “the sensible is neither simply ‘in me’ in the manner of a dream, nor simply ‘in the thing’ in the manner of an intrinsic property: it is the very relation between the thing and I. These sensible qualities, which are not in the things themselves but in my subjective relation to the latter – these qualities correspond to what were traditionally called secondary qualities.”

This distinction is ridiculed by much contemporary philosophy because it’s so “resolutely pre-critical – it seems to represent a regression to the ‘naive’ stance of dogmatic metaphysics.” It seems to imply that “thought is capable of discriminating between those properties of the world which are a function of our relation to it, and those properties of the world as it is ‘in itself, subsisting indifferently of our relation to it. . . . It is an indefensible thesis because thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself to the world as it is ‘for us’, and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone.”

As a result, “the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of correlation. By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” Or, in other terms, “Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another.”

Meillassoux sees this as the “bereavement” of modern philosophy, its inability to reach the “great outdoors,” to make contact with reality. He calls this the philosophical “two-step,” which “consists in this belief in the primacy of the relation over the related terms; a belief in the constitutive power of reciprocal relation. The ‘co-‘ (of co-givenness, of co-relation, of the co- originary, of co-presence, etc.) is the grammatical particle that dominates modern philosophy, its veritable ‘chemical formula.'”

He thinks that this runs aground on scientific claims about realities that preceded the emergence of human beings: “what is it exactly that astrophysicists, geologists, or paleontologists are talking about when they discuss the age of the universe, the date of the accretion of the earth, the date of the appearance of pre- human species, or the date of the emergence of humanity itself? How are we to grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life –posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world?”

Correlationists have some answers to this question. They can add an implicit codicil to the effect that ancestral statement X is true for later humans. They can suggest that such scientific statements have a double sense – a literal sense, which is ultimately illusory, and a correlationist sense.

Meillassoux thinks these are dodges: “The retrojection which the correlationist is obliged to impose upon the ancestral statement amounts to a veritable counter-sense with respect to the latter: an ancestral statement only has sense if its literal sense is also its ultimate sense. If one divides the sense of the statement, if one invents for it a deeper sense conforming to the correlation but contrary to its realist sense, then far from deepening its sense, one has simply cancelled it. This is what we shall express in terms of the ancestral statement’s irremediable realism: either this statement has a realist sense, and only a realist sense, or it has no sense at all.” He wants the correlationist to stick to his guns and tell the scientist outright that his ancestral statements are illusory.

In short, the denial of secondary qualities ends up in contradictory nonsense. Back to Descartes! Meillassoux calls.

He concedes in passing that pre-Kantian, “naive” metaphysics has no such problem with ancestral statements: “the metaphysician who upholds the eternal- correlate can point to the existence of an ‘ancestral witness’, an attentive God, who turns every event into a phenomenon, something that is ‘given-to’, whether this event be the accretion of the earth or even the origin of the universe.” There is still the inescapable relation of subject and object – only the subject is the Creator.

And that opens up a possibility that Meillassoux himself doesn’t consider closely – a theological correlationism that is also a theological realism. Maybe, then, Back to Berkeley!

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  • I wrote a blog post on Patheos about Meillassoux and the speculative realists, but I consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool correlationist. I understand that fossils of long-extinct organisms, for instance, constitute a reality that existed before humans were here to conceptualize it. But it’s not like this phenomenon is self-evident; it depends on the conceptual tools we’ve developed to study our universe and history.

    Like it or not, we can’t access what-is except in terms of the means we’ve created to investigate it. Trying to define a reality without humans is as meaningless as trying to imagine humans without reality.

  • Drihtnes

    Back to Berkeley, and thence forward again to personalist (Borden Parker) Bowne.