Thursday, March 5, 2009

Contingency and the Un-canny

In After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Quentin Meillassoux argues against the predominant philosophical view of correlationism. For Meillassoux, the correlationist claims that there is no access to the in-itself of an object but only of the for-us. In other words, for the correlationist, we can understand the hammer as a hammer for-us (what it does, how it looks, its weight, height, and color, etc.) but we can never know the hammer in-itself, or what makes the hammer a hammer – i.e., its hammer-ness.

However, Meillassoux contends that in order to counter this perspective, we must demonstrate “that the capacity-to-be-other of everything is the absolute presupposed by the [correlationist] circle itself, then we will have succeeded in demonstrating that one cannot de-absolutize contingency without incurring the self-destruction of the circle – which is another way of saying that contingency will turn out to have been immunized against the operation whereby correlationism relativizes the in-itself to the for-us” (54-5). By this, Meillassoux is calling for a form of thinking that relies heavily upon the contingency of the object – put simply, whatever is could not be, and whatever is not could be. This type of contingency, which Meillassoux names facticity, is both thinkable (as in I can think about my own death) and unthinkable (but I am not dead, so I don’t know death). Contingency can thus be a way of talking about the known and unknown existing at the same time and in one thought. For, as Meillassoux points out, this contingency is the only absolute – the only thing not contingent.

Therefore, we can understand how close the two terms, contingent and un-canny come. For on the one hand the contingent is that which allows us to think a thing’s existence and non-existence at the same time. And on the other hand we have the un-canny as that which allows us to think the knowable and unknowable at the same time. Perhaps, then the difference is one of ontology and epistemology. For, now, given both, we can talk about the being of things as well as how we know things. Perhaps, now, with both terms we can ask the question that Heidegger asked, “What is a Thing?” but perhaps now, we can understand both what a thing is and how we know it as such - the thing itself.

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