Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Meillassoux, Kant and Absolute Contingency

I would like to put forward a subject for debate on this site. This is something that arises out of the Speculative Realism movement and that challenges Transcendental Philosophy. In chapter 4 of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude we find a critique of arguments from probability. The basis for this is the rejection of the notion that we can totalise reality and then argue on the basis of probability or chance. This opens the way for making contingency ‘absolute’ because we don’t have to secure either a metaphysical absolute (such as God) or transcendental conditions (such as Kant’s Table of Categories) to make experience possible. We do not have to shore up experience in the face of the balance of probability, the probability that conditions of experience that are contingent will not arise or will not endure if they do arise. It is only if we totalise reality that we can consider the probability that there will be constant change if conditions of experience are contingent. For Meillassoux, as for Alain Badiou, the contingent event is ‘absolute’ in its freedom from arguments from probability. Without totalisation there is nothing to rule out events that are contingent but secure reality in singular and enduring ways.

This leads to the question of the number and frequency of events or absolute contingencies. Is there one ‘world event’ that must improbably provide conditions for a reality where human life can be pursued and consciousness is possible? In fact there are multiple events for both Meillassoux and Badiou, something that would seem even less probable if probability was applicable to this reality. It is a contingent fact that multiple events extend conscious life rather than ending it. Yet the absoluteness of contingency means that its events are not undermined by probability. It can therefore provide the basis for an enduring reality.

Transcendental Arguments seem to be doomed in this universe insofar as they seek to establish certain conditions of possibility for experience. If we cannot totalise we cannot argue from the improbability of conditions of experience arising by chance. Their contingency is now the basis for their role as conditions, for their enduring and explanatory role in experience. Meillassoux argues that for Kant contingency is ruled out because if it held it would 'show itself', it would be obvious because it would make reality unstable and undermine possible experience as such (p. 94-5). Meillassoux seeks to reverse Kant’s identification of experience or sensation with contingency and the a priori with necessity (p. 95). He argues in favour of making the a priori structures of reality, which happen to support conscious life at present, contingent on the basis that probability or chance is no longer the measure of these structures. Contingency is now able to support the conditions that it provides. It is now experience or sensation that provides us with necessities because it leads us to maintain certain habits of thought. It actualises contingencies in determinate and stable ways (this leads into Meillassoux’s reading of Hume).

An alternative reading of Kant’s method of arguing can, I believe, be found in his Metaphysical Deduction in the Critique of Pure Reason. Here we do not find Kant arguing in the way Meillassoux suggests in chapter four of After Finitude. There is a sense in which Kant embraces an event in this short and under-appreciated section of the first Critique. This argument can be understood as a response to the absolute contingency of a set of conditions presented in a Table of Categories. The architectonic of the Critique of Pure Reason can be understood as a wager, as a form of fidelity, to this event. It is intended as a self-supporting argument, one that embraces an event that then unfolds in the text the proceeds it. Indeed those who argue that the Metaphysical Deduction must be supported by other parts of the text, where the ‘real’ argument allegedly goes on, neglect this wager. They seek to replace or supplement the Metaphysical Deduction with the first and second edition Transcendental Deductions and Analytic of Principles that follow it in the Transcendental Analytic. They are extremely puzzled by Kant’s fidelity to the Table of Categories.

Can we relate Kant’s framework for accounting for experience to Meillassoux’s understanding of a non-totalisable reality? Was Kant’s Metaphysical Deduction a reaction or an active response to the chaos in which he saw the sceptic wandering (the sceptic is portrayed as nomadic by Kant)? Does it respond to an unfathomable chaos in the way that Meillassoux’s concern with contingent events responds to the absoluteness of contingency? The Metaphysical Deduction puzzles many readers of Kant because it seems to have no reasoning behind it, to be trivial, artificial and underdeveloped. Could the Metaphysical Deduction be a creative response to contingency and not a retreat in the face of chance? We do not have to absolutise the twelve categories of Kant’s table to take this deduction seriously but we can absolutise the event that the Metaphysical Deduction represents. As an argument it would then embrace a series of events which are contingent but structure experience if we make a wager on them. The a priori would be a wager on an event. Rather than warding of chaos these events would be its realisation. The capture or realisation of chaos would be represented in the structuring of the account of experience given in the Critique of Pure Reason.

These are merely some thoughts I wanted to put forward. I think that the challenge represented by Speculative Realism is both formidable and stimulating. It seems to bring out much neglected sides of Transcendental Philosophy. The originality and force of Speculative Realism calls for a renewed and invigorated Transcendental Philosophy.


Blogger sfauthor said...

Nice blog. Do you know about these philosophy books?


12:43 am  
Blogger Yale said...

Hi, great blog!!!

I approach the notion of absolute contingency by using the union of complementary opposites notion of Heraclitus, Cusanus, Leibniz, Bohr, et al. Even worse, I write about that in a kook book-style, ala Northrop Frye. That said, I am hoping you and/or some of your readers will find what I have written entertaining and to some extent even thought-provoking. And I am sure you all will. Maybe. -)

Regards and hoping to hear back from you per what is found via familycology.org. Yale

12:55 pm  

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