The inauguration of correlationism begins, of course, with Kant (though arguably already with Protagoras) who argued that objects conform to the mind rather than the mind to objects. For Kant the transcendental subject takes the matter of intuition (sensations) and gives them form and structure by organizing them in terms of the a priori categories of the understanding and the forms of intuition. As everyone knows, Kant is compelled to make this move in order to respond to Hume’s scepticism which had shown that we cannot establish that causal relations are necessary relations if all of our knowledge arises from sensation. However, if, as Kant argues,
- 1) it is not mind that conforms to objects via the agency of sensations or impressions, and
- 2) the structures of transcendental subjective (the categories and forms of intuition) are universal and invariant for all rational subjects such as ourselves,
then science can be saved for the structure of appearances will thereby be invariant. Kant is able to save necessity, and therefore the sciences, at the price of the conclusion that we only ever know objects as they appear to us and not as they are in themselves. With the inauguration of correlationism we get a battle of the correlationists. Which relation, the correlationist asks, is the genuine correlation? Which relation is the genuine relation that governs the production of the given for the subject?
- Thus Kant locates the genuine correlation in the relation between transcendental subjectivity and the matter of intuition conditioned by the categories of the understanding and the pure forms of intuition imposed by mind.
- The phenomenologist locates the correlation in the sense-bestowing activity of transcendental subjectivity in lived experience.
- Wittgenstein finds the correlation in language games constituting the world. Habermas in the universals of communicative action.
- For Foucault the correlation is to be found in the dynamics of power and discourse.
- The cultural Marxist discerns the correlation in the socio-economic structures of history.
- The hermeneut argues that the correlative structures are to be found in historically informed linguistic consciousness.
- The sociologist and anthropologist locate the correlational relation in social, communicativve, and cultural categories belonging to a particular group.
And so on. All of these orientations agree in the basic claim that the object is only an object for a subject and the subject is only a subject for the object, and that we never know an object as it is in-itself independent of the structures that condition appearances. Philosophical debate thus becomes a debate as to whether there are universal correlative structures shared by all of humanity (Kant, Husserl, Habermas, etc), or whether we have a generalized relative wherein there are many incommensurate correlative structure that are irreducible to one another (late Wittgenstein, Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, perhaps Marx, etc).
Although Meillassoux does not point this out, insofar as each of these frameworks is self-referential or auto-performative (we are unable to appeal to the in-itself, but only the immanent criteria of the framework of givenness belonging to mind, the subject, society, language, or history), we are left without the means of deciding among these alternatives. At best we choose among these alternatives through a sovereign gesture that cannot itself be grounded or justified. What, for example, leads me to articulate the framework of givenness in terms of Wittgenstein or Derrida rather than phenomenology or Marx or Freud or Lacan or Gadamer or Levi-Strauss or Bourdieu?
Like a fly trapped in a bottle, I shuttle back and forth between these alternatives, finding all equally plausible as ways of accounting for givenness while simultaneously finding none plausible. I make the argument that lived intentional consciousness is the ground of givenness, only to then recognize that I can only articulate this lived experience through the framework of language, only to then recognize that I only ever encounter lived experience through the framework of the social characterized by power relations and discursive relations, only to then discover that every thought and practice I engage in is conditioned by a history not of my own making. Each of these frameworks appears equally compelling and equally contingent. We are presented with critique after critique, each one calling for a hyper-self-reflexive analysis of the conditions for our relation to the object; this critique Kantian, that Husserlian, this one Heideggerian, that one Merleau-Pontyian, this one linguistic, that one Foucaulto-Bourdieauian analyzing power, practice, and discourse, this one Marxist analyzing our historical and socio-economic conditioning, that one Freudo-Lacanian analyzing the unconscious and desire...
As Badiou has observed, accompanying all of this is a general disappearance of philosophy. Admittedly, this might be progress if, in fact, philosophy is akin to alchemy. As correlationism becomes more refined and developed, philosophy comes to be replaced by linguistics, economics, sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, cognitive science, and so on. In the language of cybernetics, each of these discourses are second-order cybernetic discourses that observe how observers observe the world while remaining agnostic about the truth-values of these first-order cybernetic discourses. From the perspective of the correlationism in the social sciences, the world of the Pentacostal fundamentalist is every bit as legitimate as that of the quantum physicist. Both are correlative structures that posit their own objects and produce their own givenness. How could we decide between either? There is thus a general “textualization” of the world, where the correlationist does not speak directly of the world– to do so would be to fall into naive realism –but where one talks about talk about the world. This, perhaps, is the reason that philosophy as practiced in philosophy departments consists in commentary over texts.
One of the central ambitions of Kant’s correlationist project, of course, was to overcome dogmatic metaphysics characterized by the belief that we can directly talk about things as they are in themselves (sans the Protagorean dictum) and, for example, demonstrate the existence of God. This is one of the central reasons that all the heirs of correlationism has proven so attractive. [Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency]