Factiality, Knowledge, and Perspective: Meillassoux, Whitehead, and Latour

Here’s more epistlary thinking [notes in brackets are later additions of mine], this time on Meillassoux, Whitehead, Latour, and how certain issues relate to my work in progress . . .

“[In regard to Meillassoux’s principle of factiality] . . . here’s my thoughts. Certainly everything is contingent! How could it not be? Or rather, isn’t this a silly point to make? I think there’s a semi-Hegelian point Meillassoux misses here: Everything always looks necessary in hindsight, but contingent in foresight, at least, that is how humans seem to experience how time plays with them.

But my take on this is somewhat more Spinozist. If we had perfect knowledge of everything, then we would see the absolute necessity of all that is, and this is god’s ‘point of view’ [Freud had a similar theory of the human mind – till a perfect neuroscience, there’s psychoanalysis, but then again, Spinoza has long been called the first psychoanalyst!]. Of  course, for Spinoza, god is the all, so the idea of having a ‘point of view’ is somewhat silly, god’s ‘understanding’ of all that is is precisely present in the ‘worlding of the world’. But my sense is that this is not conscious knowledge in the sense that humans know things, hence the need for the sort of ‘reconstructive’ effort utilized by Spinoza.

So, let us say, from the moment of the big bang, everything in hindsight can completely be understood, but in foresight? Not really! There is indeterminacy, but not randomness (and this is where I find complexity theory very helpful). [Simondon and Bergson on the virtual, the primary sources for Deleuze, are ALSO very helpful. Still, my own work on this issue separates two things that these thinkers bring together. In my work in progress, the virtual is different from potential, and this has some pretty important ramificaitons].

So is all contingent? In a sense . . . But all is also necessary. I’m not sure these terms help us very much in dealing with these issues, I guess. So I’m not sure I find Meillassoux or Brassier’s radical
finitude that radical . . .

That said, I also don’t buy into some sort of transcendent onto-theological whatever. I’m for radical immanence. And I think the tripartite aspects of networks really help us here – node, link, and yes, GROUND. Because a network ALWAYS implies, at least for me, a perspective. This does not necessarily mean a human perspective, though, and here is where the Leibnizian/Whiteheadian notion of perspective becomes very useful, for it is in fact the same notion presented by relativity theory (and the Bergsonian/Deleuzian theory that ALL is images, as presented in the Cinema books) [for more on this, see here].

This is why I’m basically a panpsychist. I believe that everything has mind, but in differing degrees of complexity, differing in degree but not in kind.

I’m not enough of a Latour scholar to know this ‘plasma’ talk (and my sense is its a recent development, no?). I’m also somewhat new to the blogging world, so I haven’t followed all of Graham and Levi’s previous posts . . .  its really hard to find past posts in a nice, simple, easy to read way!). But my sense is that this plasma is a sort of ‘ur-stuff’ out of which actants and networks arise. This is what I would call ‘ground’. I think the issue is that once you take a Whiteheadian/Leibnizian notion of perspective into account (which does require a
fractal/holographic account of the universe), this becomes a non-issue. Of course there is some sort of ‘ur-stuff’, but this is not something metaphysical. Rather, it is part and parcel of the fact that ANY network comes from a perspective on the whole, or ‘the open’.

Here’s why I don’t see this all as metaphysical. There are, I believe, limits on knowledge, not in some Kantian a-priori sense, but in much more practical terms. There would be no need for an
‘ur-stuff’, for example, if we could be in all places in the universe at once, see it from all times and spaces (this is the perfect ‘knowledge’ of Spinoza’s god). But to do that, we’d also cease having
a single spacetime location, and how then would we have a body, or a mind, both of which are requirements to ‘know’? And if we are to come up with another sense of the word ‘know’, what would it mean?

In my work-in-progress, I actually DO distinguish multiple forms of knowledge. To me, knowledge is something that inherently reifies, because it is done by bodies that necessarily reify processes into things which can be handled by neurons and perceptual schemata, all of which are influenced by the perspectives bodies take at snapshots in spacetime. [Could we manipulate objects in the world if we didn’t? I don’t think so]. This distorts the world, so that philosophy has to spend a lot of time putting things back together [Language then builds on the reification built into our ways of knowing by perspective and out bodies]. The practical effects of reified forms of knowing are invaluable, but they obscure our relation to bigger picture issues.

That’s why I feel we need other terms. I use ‘understanding’ to talk about pre-conceptual forms of ‘sync’ between bodies and the world (ie: my hand ‘understands’ the hammer, the water in a riverbed ‘understands’ the stone it moves around), while I use ‘meta-understanding’ to describe the way we supersede the limitations of reifying forms of conceptual-linguistic knowledge that is in between these two. Philosophy therefore aims to use knowledge to create meta-understanding.

My sense is that Whithead’s god is a strange creature, like Spinoza’s, and like Hegel’s concept [Begriff], in many ways. It [Whitehead’s god] is composite, for it has several aspects. It is that from which everything comes, it is all that is, and it is the creative spark that keeps dragging the world into the future, as well as its ability to be comprehensible via eternal objects/ideas. I presented a critique of Whitehead’s reliance on ‘eternal objects’ [in a recent post here] . . .

My sense is that there are aspects of this god which, like Spinoza’s, are fully immanent. But there are some senses in which to lump these things together is a bit unfair, a slight bit of transcendentism [perhaps a better term than transcendentalism, I don’t mean Emerson, afterall!], which Whitehead needs to get around the question – where do eternal objects
come from?

I spend a LOT of time in my manuscript trying to explain precisely how we can do work very similar to Whitehead today, but without the need for these objects/classes/types being eternal or transcedental. This is why lately I’ve been talking so much on my blog about the issue: where do types/classes come from, particularly once you take the human subject out of the center of the world?”

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~ by chris on May 19, 2010.

2 Responses to “Factiality, Knowledge, and Perspective: Meillassoux, Whitehead, and Latour”

  1. More and more I hear certain scepticism about the latter half of After Finitude. If one takes the lesson from Meillassoux that when we get down to it all is contingent even contingency then we simply reiterate a point driven home as far back as Nietzsche: that we exist is nothing necessary. It could have been otherwise. And it can be otherwise. No, even stronger, it will be otherwise. But I do not think Meillassoux’s posits a radical finitude (this is more Brassier). The ‘after’ finitude is a precisely the infinity of Badiou: the knowing that one uncovers with rationalism and its ultimate principle is proof of the supreme inconsistency inscribed in both mind and nature. That things can be otherwise…does this not also mean that what one sees now might crumble as if it never existed? And if this is the case then all that we are confronted with can be shown as inconsistency embodied. All bodies can be broken down. The edge of Meillassoux is a pointer of something to come: it is his cosmological description of the event (to come). In this crucial sense there are no limits. We can traverse barriers. So I think you nicely pick up on the main worries people are having. This is why I am looking forward so much to his next book. Hopefully a lot of these problems will be clarified.

  2. This is an entirely lucid post Chris. I have been struggling to get a handle on where you might situate yourself in a discussion about the “limits of knowledge” and this provides a clear indication.

    One quick question though: what’s your take on the ability (or non-ability) of scientific methods – and scientific technology and instruments more specifically – to effectively elucidate “the ground”?

    just wondering…

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