Worthwhile philosophy is like building matchstick galleons. When Lewis says that all possible worlds are just as real as this one, or Chalmers says that a thermostat is conscious, or Parfit says that there is no persistent self, or Plantinga says that belief in God is no more unreasonable than belief in other minds, these are assertions of fantastic intellectual audacity – but only because they have been raised up out of close reasoning and incremental advancements.
In general, continental philosophers prefer to operate outside these constraints, and are therefore also denied these satisfactions. They have sex before marriage, so they don’t get a wedding night. The closest thing to audacity that continental philosophy can ever manage now is when, for instance, Žižek says something tasteless about Josef Fritzl, and even then no one is genuinely offended, because they already know and love Žižek.
But one exception has recently emerged.
‘What is it that happened 4.56 billion years ago? Did the accretion of the earth happen, yes or no?’ That shouldn’t be an electrifying question, but it is, at least in the context in which it is posed: a short book by a brilliant new philosopher who is also a practising Frenchman. Let’s assume that we respond to it with what Quentin Meillassoux would call an ancestral statement: ‘Yes, the accretion of the earth did happen. I wasn’t there myself, but it definitely happened.’ As Meillassoux writes in After Finitude, ‘What distinguishes the philosopher from the non-philosopher in this matter is that only the former is capable of being astonished… by the straightforwardly literal meaning of the ancestral statement.’ If you’re not quite sure how anyone, even a philosopher, could be astonished by ‘The accretion of the earth did happen’, then you obviously haven’t spent much time reading continental philosophy. (My warmest congratulations on your good fortune.) In continental philosophy, that statement about accretion would be regarded as naïve, obtuse, old-fashioned, meaningless, and/or fascistic. For example, here is one writer’s response. ‘Let’s pretend it’s the late 19th century and phrenology is accepted as a science. And someone like Meillassoux comes along and says: ‘So, are Negroes born criminals, yes or no?’ See the problem here?’
No. Sorry. I don’t see the problem. The answer to that question is no, just as the answer to ‘Did the accretion of the earth happen?’ is yes. But that bit of rhetoric does help to explain why Meillassoux has been received with such hysterical gratitude since the English translation of After Finitude was published last year. Imagine you’re a postgraduate philosophy student at a British or American university who likes Foucault and Derrida and Deleuze, but who also thinks that someone who makes an enquiry about the facts of cosmology is not really that similar to a bigot in a monocle oiling his callipers. Before Meillassoux, you were out of luck. You had to pick one or the other. Now, with the rise of ‘speculative materialism’ or ‘speculative realism’, you are permitted to assert in public what you probably always believed in private anyway – even if the movement, like a lot of bands from Bushwick, is still bigger on blogs than it is in real life.
It’s been several years since I set foot in a philosophy department myself, but I’d bet that the anointment of Meillassoux is being watched with some bemusement from the hills that overlook the temple. Because when Meillassoux says that philosophers are astonished by ‘Did the accretion of the earth happen, yes or no?’, he doesn’t mean all of them. The fork in the road here is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which was published in 1781. Ever since Kant, some philosophers have believed that it doesn’t make sense any more to talk as if there are actual things in the universe that objectively exist before they’re ogled and groped by human consciousness. Others, however, have incorporated Kant’s observations but nevertheless proceeded quite happily on the common-sense basis that there really is stuff out there – or at least that there might be. (Simon Critchley relates the following story in his TLS review of After Finitude: ‘A. J. Ayer met that most excessive of continental thinkers, Georges Bataille, in a Parisian bar in 1951. Apparently, Merleau-Ponty was also in attendance and the conversation lasted until three in the morning. The thesis under discussion was very simple: did the sun exist before the appearance of humans? Ayer saw no reason to doubt that it did, whereas Bataille thought the whole proposition meaningless.’)
In other words, when continental philosophers excitedly report that maybe actual things do exist after all, it’s as if one of your friends has finally consented to take an ibuprofen for a hangover after swearing by bullshit herbal remedies all their life. You’re pleased for them, but sort of embarrassed for them at the same time; it really needn’t have taken so long.
In his essay on David Foster Wallace’s Pale King – a book with a lot to say about the value of pedantry – the novelist Tom McCarthy remarked that ‘the world of analytical philosophy appears to me as so much bean-counting.’ Presumably here he was thinking of questions such as: is time an illusion? would God allow evil? could computers ever be conscious? what is justice? You know – bean-counting! This argument about which side is the most tiresome and masturbatory and impractical may never end. Analytic philosophers think continental philosophers are impractical because they refuse to admit that the sun existed before humans did. Continental philosophers think analytic philosophers are impractical because they refuse to discuss tyranny or suffering except under the narrow headings of ‘ethics’ or ‘political philosophy’.
But Meillassoux, the Chosen One, does seem to appease both tendencies. Much derided in After Finitude is the postmodern insistence ‘that the correlations which determine ‘our’ world will be identified with a situation anchored in a determinate era of the history of being, or in a form of life harbouring its own language-games, or in a determinate cultural and interpretative community.’ Meillassoux compares this to Creationist doctrine that the world is only six thousand years old – not an easy analogy to live down. But he also makes those drunken swerves from abstraction into punditry that are so characteristic of his peers. ‘Contemporary fanaticism,’ he writes, ‘cannot… simply be attributed to the resurgence of an archaism that is violently opposed to the achievements of Western critical reason; on the contrary, it is the effect of critical rationality.’ We are to conclude that part of the reason we have Al-Qaeda is that Kant refuted dogmatic metaphysics. Well, the guy teaches at the École Normale Supérieure. You have to forgive him the occasional insight like that.
Still, even if you feel inclined to dismiss every single one of Meillassoux’s arguments, After Finitude throws down a second gauntlet in its 129 pages. And that second gauntlet is its style. Even in translation, Meillassoux is exceptionally easy to read. This is reassuring for me, because it suggests if I can’t understand most other continental philosophers, it’s not necessarily because I’m stupid. After all, Meillassoux’s ideas are no less complex than his colleagues’. The only difference is the way they write.
There are two main reasons, as far as I know, why continental philosophers write as if they detest their readers. One is loyalty to their inheritance. Kant and Hegel and Heidegger are difficult, so why be any easier? The other is a deliberate tactic going back at least to Theodor Adorno. Lucidity puts us to sleep, Adorno believed, but confusing use of language can shake us out of our complacency. Well, if that was ever going to work, it should have worked by now. The Dialectic of Enlightenment is now more than sixty years old. Since then, we have been shaken and shaken and shaken, like one of those giant industrial sieving machines, until the will to live has been thoroughly sifted out of us. I don’t want to be shaken any more. And Meillassoux, thank God, doesn’t particularly want to shake me.
This is not to say that, like the some great analytic philosophers, Meillassoux gets by without any jargon at all. (‘Where the weak model of correlationism de-absolutized the principle of sufficient reason by disqualifying every proof of unconditional necessity, the strong model pushes this disqualification of the principle of sufficient reason still further, and de-absolutizes the principle of non-contradiction by re-inscribing every representation within the bounds of the correlationist circle.’) But compared to, say, Deleuze, he sounds like Alistair Cooke. And he’s been praised for this, but not quite as much as you might think. The problem is, for students of continental philosophy to admit what a relief it is to bounce through prose like Meillassoux’s, they’d consequently also have to admit that the other stuff they read is sometimes less than a total joy, which they are not really willing to do, because when style is in league with method, an attack on style is an attack on the whole enterprise.
Write clearly – most people like it. Believe in science – most people do. The simple innovations with which Meillassoux has brightened up his field look a lot like the principles on which analytic philosophy is founded. Gloating aside, does this mean that in ten years’ time, all the rest of continental philosophy will have begun to imitate its rival? Probably not – the obfuscators will soon strike back. But in any case, let’s hope that by then, analytic philosophy has produced its own Quentin Meillassoux to meet its own failings: an affable traitor, a wondrous albino, playful instead of staid, literary instead of technical, compassionate instead of disinterested – and, most importantly, like Meillassoux, clever enough to get away with it all.