4. “There is contingent being independent of us, and this contingent being has no reason to be of a subjective nature”
Interview with Quentin Meillassoux 
Q1: Your debut book After Finitude ( 2008) is considered by many to be one of the fiercest attacks on the history of modern thought, critiquing its humanism, its immanent metaphysics, its anti-materialism. You rigorously develop what you refer to as speculative materialism by means of rewriting this history, or as you refer to it, by rewriting correlationalism. This term is conceptualized throughout the book and has certainly triggered many scholars—sometimes referred to as the speculative realists (see Bryant et al, eds. 2011)—to develop a new philosophy of science and a new view on how move away from Kant. Correlationism, which you refer to as “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” (Meillassoux  2008, 5) is severely critiqued by others who use this term. For you, however, the correlationist standpoint deserves great respect, which you do not just critique, but rather “radicalize from within: as an ‘inside job,’” as Harman (2011a, 25) puts it.
In this book, which is mapping what we refer to as a new materialism, we felt no need to include or exclude particular scholars, and thus we also see no reason to count you in (or out). What we do notice is that we outline a similar trajectory to your own, albeit that these trajectories are developed in very different ways. Can you give us a rough sketch of the path you have been taking, giving much attention to this most complex idea of “correlationism”?
Quentin Meillassoux: In my book I frontally oppose two positions: a) “strong correlationism” which, in my opinion, is the most rigorous form of anti-absolutism, and therefore of contemporary anti-metaphysics, and b) a metaphysics I call “subjective,” which, conversely, is nowadays the most widespread philosophy of the absolute, one which consists in posing this or that feature of the subject as essentially necessary—that is, its status as part of a correlate.
Let us specify this distinction. In chapter 1 of After Finitude, I define correlationism in general as an anti-absolutist thesis: one uses the correlate “subject-object” (broadly defined) as an instrument of refutation of all metaphysics to enforce that we would have access to a modality of the in-itself. Instead, for correlationism, we cannot access any form of the in-itself, because we are irremediably confined in our relation-to-the-world, without any means to verify whether the reality that is given to us corresponds to reality taken in itself, independently of our subjective link to it. For me, there are two main forms of correlationism: weak and strong (see chapter 2, p. 42 for the announcement of this difference and p. 48 ff. for its explanation). Weak correlationism is identified with Kant’s transcendental philosophy: it is “weak” in that it still grants too much to the speculative pretension (e.g. absolutory) of thought. Indeed, Kant claims that we know something exists in itself, and that it is thinkable (non-contradictory). “Strong” correlationism does not even admit that we can know that there is an “in-itself” and that it can be thought: for this we are radically confined in our thought, without the possibility of knowing the in-itself, not even its taking place and logicity.
I then define correlationism’s most rigorous contemporary opponent: the subjectivist metaphysician. The one who believes, unlike the strong correlationist (let’s call him simply “the correlationist” from now on), that we can actually access an absolute: that of the correlate. Instead of saying, like the correlationist, that we can not access the in-itself because we are confined to the correlate, the subjectivist metaphysician (let’s call him the “subjectivist” alone) asserts that the in-itself is the correlate itself.
Thus the “subjectivist’s” thesis, according to its various instances, absolutizes various features of subjectivity. We have seen this from Hegel’s speculative idealism, which absolutizes Reason, to the various actual variations of vitalism (along the dominant Nietzsche/Deleuze axis) that absolutize will, perception, affect, et cetera. For me, Deleuze is a metaphysical subjectivist who has absolutized a set of features of subjectivity, hypostatized as Life (or “a Life”), and has posed them as radically independent of our human and individual relationship to the world.
This distinction between strong correlationism and subjectivist metaphysics constitutes the very core of the book. Chapter 3, in fact, lays the foundation of my enterprise. Chapter 3 is entirely based on the clash between correlationism and subjectivism, and it is that confrontation that allows me to establish the absolute necessity of facticity—a point of view from which you must read all my subsequent positions.
Q2: In your view Deleuze, who has made important contributions to what we refer to as “new materialism,” is not materialist because the absolute primacy of the unseparated (“nothing can be unless it is some form of relation to the world”) in his metaphysics does not allow for the Epicurean atom “which has neither intelligence, nor will, nor life” (Meillassoux  2008, 37) to be possible. Though it should be added that the Deleuze (with and without Guattari) is important to your thinking and still demands more thinking (Meillassoux 2010). You emphasize that science and mathematics have posed questions to philosophy (questions concerning the ancestral) that demand a speculative materialism freed from the primacy of the unseparated. Yet how can you simultaneously claim to break with a transcendental statement such as: what is asubjective cannot be—and yet marry a similar approach to that of Kant concerning science or mathematics?
QM: Let’s be precise again. The statement: “what is asubjective cannot be” is the only “common point” of both anti-metaphysical correlationism and subjectivist metaphysics. But we must understand in what way and to what extent. For the correlationist, it means that I can never think the object by doing the economy of my subjective point of view. For the correlationist, the statement therefore means: the a-subjective is unthinkable for us (“it cannot be” means: “it cannot be thinkable”). For the subjectivist the statement conversely means that the a-subjective is absolutely impossible: “it cannot be” = “it cannot be in itself.” Metaphysics of Life or of Spirit, transcendental philosophy, or strong correlationism: all converge in the denunciation of “naïve realism” proper to an Epicurean type of materialism asserting that some non-subjective exists (atoms and void) and that we can know it. I really break with this anti-realist consensus, notably with any form of transcendental, and yet without going back to Epicureanism, which in its genre still remained a metaphysics (not subjective but realist) because it supported the real need for atoms and void.
But this certainly does not prevent me from maintaining the demand for an elucidation of science’s conditions of thinkability. Such a demand, in fact, has nothing transcendental in itself: it is proper to any philosophy which seeks to know what it is speaking of when using the term “science.” My thesis is that we still do not understand what this word means, since we failed to resolve the aporia of the arche-fossil: that the mathematized sciences of nature are only thinkable under the conditions of granting an absolute scope to its statements, an absolute scope that all anti-metaphysical philosophies of the era have challenged. Subjectivist metaphysics could rightly assert that they have maintained the absolute scope of thought and that they therefore do not fall under the problem of arche-fossil: however, I show that these metaphysics are effectively refuted by strong correlationism, and that consequently they are also ultimately unable to resolve this aporia.
Q3: Perhaps we should talk about why we should rewrite the history of thought. Many authors interested in developing a materialist or realist philosophy today are keen on rejecting humanism because of its (implicit) representationalist or linguisticist theorizations, claiming that in this emphasis on the copy or on language a lethal reductivism has entered thought (in philosophy and the humanities more generally, but in the sciences just as well). You, on the other hand, intend to break open correlationist thinking in order to reach out for the Absolute again. Many will agree with you that the Absolute has been excluded from thinking more and more since the coming of modernity (since the rise of Kant-inspired correlationism, to use your terms). In fact, whereas Nietzsche famously claimed at the end of the 19th century (in Also Sprach Zarathustra ([1883–1885] 1967)) that critical thinking had killed God, you claim the exact opposite: because of correlationism the Absolute has become unthinkable. Critiquing Kant through Descartes and Hume especially when it comes down to causality, you intend to push correlationism to the extreme, revealing what you refer to as the Principle of Facticity: a radically different conceptualization of nature (nature as contingent) and its relation to thinking. Radicalizing (weak) correlationism shows us that, as you put it “every world is without reason, and is thereby capable of actually becoming otherwise without reason” (Meillassoux  2008, 53; original emphasis).
QM: Let me explain this point again in a few words. The subjectivist asserts that the correlationist discovered, in spite of him, the true absolute: not a reality outside of the correlate, but the correlate as such. Indeed, the correlationist has demonstrated that we could not claim to think of a reality independent of the correlation without immediately contradicting ourselves: to think the in-itself is to think it, thus making it a correlate of our subjective activity of thought instead of making it an absolute independent of us. But this, according to the subjectivist, demonstrates that this absolute is nothing other than the correlation itself. Because, by the correlationist’s own confession, I cannot conceive the correlate’s disappearance or being-other without immediately reconducting it in its own structures, which means that in reality I cannot think the correlation otherwise than as necessary. This conclusion contradicts the correlationist’s anti-absolutist thesis. However the subjectivist nevertheless extracts it from the argument of the correlationist, thus turning correlationism against itself: the correlate, instrument of de-absolutization of realist metaphysics, is turned back into an anti-realist absolute. But the strong correlationist has not yet spoken his last word: in Chapter 3, I show that in his most contemporary forms (Heidegger or Wittgenstein) he manages to refute the subjective response by opposing the irreducible facticity to the absolutization of the correlation. I shall let you re-read how I describe this answer: the conclusion I draw upon is that strong correlationism cannot be refuted by the absolutization of the correlation as believed by the subjectivist, but rather by the absolutization of facticity (wherein resides the meaning of the principle of factuality).
Q4: Though you mention several times that speculative materialism is in search of a diachronic approach, your use of concepts does point us to a time (and place) long gone (the arche-fossil for instance). Also when you state that “[…] there is a deeper level of temporality, with which what came before the relation-to-the-world is itself but a modality of that relation-to-the-world” (ibid., 123), this depth, which comes back several times in the final chapter, should be searched for “before” thought. This reminds us once again of a Heideggerian approach which intends to take us “back” to the things themselves. Now as we’ve seen before, you are in fact quite critical of Heidegger (not only in your answer above but also for instance on ibid., 41–2, where you accuse him (together with Wittgenstein) of setting up a strong correlationism that dominated twentieth century philosophy). Though you quote mainly his later work, your critique of Heidegger focuses primarily on questions of being that were more central to his earlier work. In his Die Frage nach Technik (1954) and also in Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (1960) we can easily read a materialism that comes close to yours as he too questions relationality and is in search of a more complete and deeper meaning of things (and times) that can be found only before this relationality came into being.
Speculatively taking away the idealist and sometimes humanist dimension of Heidegger’s thinking, could we say that the phenomenological notion of going back to the things themselves, and also their interest in rewriting, as Lyotard ( 1991) would put it, ancient Greek thinking (think as well of your last chapter entitled “Ptolemy’s Revenge”) is also your interest? Or would you at least share his idea not so much of rewriting a pre-human, but rather a pre-modern or classical philosophy?
QM: In relation to Heidegger, I take care to show that he has in fact never escaped correlationism, neither in his later nor in his earlier period. That is why I quote his Identity and Difference (chapter 1, p. 41–2), which brings back Ereignis—a central notion from after the “turn” in Heidegger’s work—to a clearly correlational structure. The “return to things themselves,” which was the slogan of Husserl’s phenomenology before that of the early Heidegger, in no way corresponds to my idea of philosophy: as it only consists, by this call, in returning to the things as correlates of consciousness, Dasein, phenomenon, being, or Being. If the given were the thing in itself, then the thing would intrinsically be something given-to, but according to me, this is not the case. There is therefore no return to “things in themselves,” but rather to the in-itself seen as indifferent to what is given to us, because indifferent to our opening-the-world.
I am not involved in a return to or a rewriting of the Greeks—such an enterprise offers no determinate meaning to my approach.
Q5: Michel Foucault was the first to announce the End of Man or the second Copernican turn in The Order of Things ( 1970). His new way of writing history might not have excluded the human mind, but certainly it at least claims not to start with it. His idea of discourse for instance did not start with language, but with material forms (for instance the prison-form) which came along with expressive forms like delinquency (which is not a signifier, but part of a set of statements reciprocally presupposing the material form of the prison). To push this a bit further, it seems not too difficult to rephrase this argument without the human mind playing even a minor role in it. Think for instance of how sedimentary processes work, where pebbles are picked up by water streams (expressed through them) and are sorted in uniform layers creating the new entity of the sedimentary rock (new substances), a non-linear and ongoing process also in movement because of tectonic movements, weather conditions and much more (complicated) processes of change that in the end create movements very similar to how Foucault saw them taking place in respect to nineteenth century processes of delinquency.
In what way then is your approach different from Foucault’s? Or, where is the arche-fossil different and less dependent upon the human mind than the pebbles in the example above?
QM: Concerning Foucault I will simply answer as follows. His investigation focuses on past dispositives of knowledge-power, and eventually on dispositives that are contemporary to him. He can bring us nothing in regards to the disqualification of strong correlationism, because the disqualification is situated at a level that his research does not address, but rather presupposes. Indeed, I examine how correlationism, from its point of departure in the Cogito, has come to dominate all of modern thought, including the most resolutely anti-Cartesian: the “great confinement” was not that of the fools in the asylum, but that of the philosophers in the Correlate—and this also applies to Foucault. Indeed, Foucault does not say anything that would embarrass a correlationist, as all his comments can easily be considered as a discourse-correlated-to-the-point-of-view-of-our-time, and rigorously dependent on it. This is a typical thesis of some correlationist relativism: we are trapped in our time, not in Hegelian terms, but rather in a Heideggerian fashion—that is to say in the modality of knowledge-power that always already dominates us. His thesis on the “disappearance of man” is about man understood as an object of “human sciences,” not about the correlate as I conceive it.
I am not at all hostile to Foucault’s thesis, even though in my view he thinks within a historicist ontology that remains unthought in its deep nature—even in his magnificent course entitled “Society Must be Defended” (Foucault 2003).
Q6: The central question of your book was: How is thought able to think what there can be when there is no thought? (Meillassoux  2008, 36) A lot of scholars in the humanities, though sympathetic to your re-reading of Kant and Hume, might not see the urgency of this question. Feminism for instance might be interested in thinking beyond the male-female dichotomy and contemporary feminist theory would also definitely not start its analysis from the human (female) mind, but the urgency of thinking a place without thought would probably be considered the pointless question par excellence, as you already phrased it (ibid., 121). How would you suggest convincing them?
QM: That the question of what there is when there is no thought is considered by many—and not only by feminists—as devoid of meaning or interest is indeed likely. As you recall, I specifically say: the problem is to understand how the most urgent question has come to be regarded as the most idle one. The question is not about convincing anyone to think otherwise, because it is a very strong feature of our era that we cannot fight in a few sentences.
If I had to say something to shake actual certainties, I would formulate it in a provocative fashion, but basically this is what I think: I assert that anyone who refuses to deal with this question simply does not know what he is saying when he utters the words “science,” “mathematics,” “absolute,” “metaphysics,” “non-metaphysics,” and other words of equal significance. What I say in my book and in the lines above suffice to explain what allows me to say that.
That is why the question of sexual difference cannot be foreign to this interrogation. For instance, Lacan’s entire work is crossed by the question of the scientificity or non-scientificity of psychoanalysis, and finds one of its points of culmination in the notion of the “matheme.” Well, I argue for any Lacanian discourse—which is admittedly related to the question of the difference between “man/woman” or “male/female”—to be unable to grasp the meaning of its most crucial concepts until it will not have treated as its necessary prerequisite the question of the non-correlational in science. The same also applies to any feminist theory that incorporates in its discourse one of the terms quoted above.
Q7: You shift strong correlationism by revolutionizing Kant and Hume, thus by demonstrating how a radical anti-anthropocentrism fulfills the Copernican revolution. Central to this radical anti-anthropocentrism by which you re-absolutize thought is mathematics (ibid., 101, 103, 113, 126): “what is mathematizable cannot be reduced to a correlate of thought” (ibid., 117). This entails a definite move away from thinking science philosophically, because this is what has obfuscated “science’s non-correlational mode of knowing, in other words, its eminently speculative character” (ibid., 119; original emphasis). What you state is that of the statement “thought can think that event X can actually have occurred prior to all thought, and indifferently to it,” “no variety of correlationism […] can admit that that statement’s literal meaning is also its deepest meaning” (ibid., 122; original emphasis). In line with the argument it makes sense to link this eternal truth that we find in mathematics to a “realism” (albeit speculative), but how could we call it a materialism? Is the morphogenetic dynamics of mathematics equal to matter?
QM: I intend to demonstrate–note here that this is still not done in After Finitude—that what is mathematizable is absolutizable. You ask me if this is a materialist thesis rather than a merely “realist” one. It is difficult to discuss the relevance of my thesis if we omit the whole discussion of the problem of the arche-fossil found in Chapter 1. I will nevertheless answer as follows: for me, materialism holds in two key statements: 1. Being is separate and independent of thought (understood in the broad sense of subjectivity), 2. Thought can think Being. Thesis number 1 is opposed to any anthropomorphism which seeks to extend subjective attributes to Being: materialism is not a form of animism, spiritualism, vitalism, etcetera. It asserts that non-thinking actually precedes, or at least may in right precede thought, and exists outside of it, following the example of Epicurean atoms, devoid of any subjectivity, and independent of our relationship to the world. Thesis number 2 affirms that materialism is rationalism (again broadly defined as there are different definitions of reason) in that it is always an enterprise that, through skepticism, opposes an activity of knowledge and criticism to religious appeal, to mystery, or to the limitation of our knowledge.
Skepticism and faith converge in the thesis of our finitude, making us available to any belief: conversely, materialism grants the human being the capacity to think by his own means the truth of both his environment and condition. Under the enemy of reason, he always knows how to detect the priest. He also knows that no one has more desire to be right—without allowing one to argue against him—than the opponent of reason.
I follow these two theses because I argue and demonstrate—strictly through argumentation—that there is contingent being independent of us, and furthermore, that this contingent being has no reason to be of a subjective nature. I also try to found a scientific rationalism based on the use of mathematics to describe non-human and inorganic reality. This is not to “Pythagorize,” or to assert that Being is inherently mathematical: it is rather to explain how it is that a formal language manages to capture, from contingent-Being, properties that a vernacular language fails at restituting. My thesis on mathematics is a thesis on the scope of formal languages, not a thesis on Being. I do not posit it by whim or “scientist” tropism, but because I showed with the problem of arche-fossil that there one had no choice: if the sciences have meaning, then mathematics has an absolute scope. Yet sciences have meaning, and hence sciences rest via their mathematized formulations on a reality that is radically independent of our humanity. This contrasts with the ‘qualitative’ judgments of ordinary perception, which can safely be thought for their part as correlated to the sensible relation we have with the world, and as having no existence outside of this relation. The absolute scope of mathematics must therefore be established, and our only way to do this is, I think, is to pass through the derivative scope of the principle of factuality. This is the problem left out in After Finitude: a problem that simultaneously traces the program of a consequent speculative materialism.
Q8: In your conceptualization of potentiality vs. virtuality you note that potentiality comes with a determined world, conforming to the laws of nature. Superchaos, on the other hand, comes with virtuality. How is thinking the virtual linked to speculation, and what role is there for matter (and nature)? We ask the latter sub-question, because we noticed that whereas on page 11 you speak of matter, life, thought and justice, on page 14 you only speak of the latter three. We introduced the concept of nature in reference to your apparent affinity with Spinoza’s physics (not with his metaphysics).
Finally, then, the vectorial subject to be developed in speculative materialism does not emancipate but rather anticipates the unforeseen, though in keeping with the law of non-contradiction. Doing away with idealism, it would be most interesting to see how this emancipation “does not yet exist,” especially in relation to how it then affirms or critiques the great French feminists like Cixous and even de Beauvoir, when they emphasize not so much a final emancipation but rather the willingness to write or think femininity.
QM: For me, matter is not identifiable with “nature.” Nature is a world order determined by specific constants, and that determines within itself this set of possibles that I call “potentialities.” In return, matter is a primordial ontological order: it is the fact that there must be something and not nothing—contingent beings as such. One can imagine an infinity and more of material worlds governed by different laws: they would be different “natures,” although equally material. Matter’s second characteristic is negative: it designates contingent non-living and non-thinking beings. In our world, life and thought are constituted on a background of inorganic matter to which they return. One could perhaps imagine a nature entirely alive or spiritual in which case “matter” would be pushed out—but it would remain an essential and eternal possibility of Superchaos because every nature can be destroyed by it, but not the contingent being in a state of pure-material.
Concerning the theory of the materialist subject, I am indeed interested in challenging the identification of action with its pure present deployment, while simultaneously repeating the criticism of the former revolutionary model of future emancipation. However, I think that the present is intimately constituted by the “projection” of the subject to this not-yet-present. Here I am not saying anything original: Heidegger as well as Sartre has insisted on this constitutive dimension of the future in the constitution of the subjective present. However, I add a very different dimension to this projection: a dimension which is not only devoid of religious transcendence, but also inaccessible to the subject’s action—an articulation that I believe effective of radical egalitarian justice (of the living and of the dead) and the eternal return as proof of return (a resurrection intensely deceptive). What interests me is the feedback effect of this expectation on the present of action and on the concrete transformation of the subject.