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Russell contra Meillassoux

I’ve happened upon a quotation by Bertrand Russell that feels relevant to our discussions here and here about Meillassoux, finance and access to the in-itself:

Abstraction, difficult as it is, is the source of practical power. A financier, whose dealings with the world are more abstract than those of any other ‘practical’ man, is also more powerful than any other practical man. He can deal in wheat and cotton without needing to have seem either: all he needs to know is whether they will go up or down. This is abstract mathematical knowledge, at least compared to the knowledge of the agriculturalist. Similarly the physicist, who knows nothing of matter except certain laws of its movements, nevertheless knows enough to enable him to manipulate it. After working through whole strings of equations, in which the symbols stand for things whose intrinsic nature can never be known to us, he arrives at last at a result which can be interpreted in terms of our own perceptions, and utilised to bring about desired effects in our own lives. (Russell, ABC of Relativity (1925) pp.159-60)

This is interesting in a few ways:

1. Russell seems curiously unconcerned about the ethics of abstract trading and the chrematistics of pure wealth accumulation; and he is similarly relaxed about the scientific manipulation of nature. Regarding the latter, perhaps it is just from a post-Bomb perspective that we would expect Russell’s pacifism to clash with this indifference.  More than this, Russell appears surprisingly entranced by power, and his unquestioning use of the male pronoun (as we know, still all too common in philosophy in 2012), mirrors a certain machismo in his attitude.

2. To be briefly CRMEP-specific: the linking of power, practice and abstraction is interesting in the context of the Critique, Practice, Power class; what do those who are taking it think? Here reason in the capacity of abstract knowledge is practical power: central terms from the course are combined.

3. In relation to the discussions on the blog around Meillassoux, finance and the in-itself, Russell’s statement about scientific knowledge (which he repeats throughout his book on Einstein’s relativity) sums up why I can’t buy into Meillassoux’s use of science (and this relates to the issues raised in Adam Kotsko’s recent post, and the comments, on AUFS). The knowledge that physics produces is highly abstract – at least since Newton, it is a combination of sophisticated mathematised theorisation and the checking of these theories against empirical data. Physics claims no knowledge of the essence or nature of things.  As Russell writes:

Between bodies there are occurences, such as light-waves; of the laws of these occurences we know something – just so much as can be expressed in mathematical formulae – but of their nature we know nothing. (p.157)

Feynman’s classic Lectures on Physics describe the discipline as ‘an expanding frontier of ignorance’. Physicists no doubt secretly believe or hope that they’re making some progress towards the real, through their reams of computerised data from the sensors in the LHC, for example, but no physicist I know (I do know some) would claim to be doing anything more than honing our current best hypotheses by formulating theoretical models and testing them through experiment. This is why physics, in what I know of the form in which it is taught at university, is almost completely uninterested in philosophy.

Surely physics is far from the means through which we can escape correlationism, as Meillassoux contends, but is instead the most paradigmatic form of correlationism? It is simply the ongoing report of the correlation between mathematical theory and numerical experimental data. Print-outs of numerical records of radioactive decay that allow us to give a date to the ‘arche-fossil’ are no different. This seems so self-evident that I feel I must be missing something: let me know what…

By Steve


7 comments on “Russell contra Meillassoux

  1. Troy
    December 2, 2012

    I’m not sure that Meillassoux thinks that physics in any way is able to deliver us out of correlationism (The many rejoinders of “ultra-correlationism” against Meillassoux seem to betray this point). He seems in After Finitude to be using Hume and radical skepticisms as a tool to say that nothing can be absolute at all, save non-contradiction. His absolutization of this principle, on the other hand, may fall under your critique. But I think this has little to do with the ancestral arguments of the beginning of the book. This speaks more to Badiou’s use of Cantor and the transfinite than anything directly related to physics and hypothesis-testing. Does this mean Meillassoux essentially rejects mathematical formalism? I don’t know, but that seems to me to be where the battle is being fought.

    • Steve
      December 2, 2012

      Thanks Troy. You’re right that M’s use of ancestrality doesn’t mean that he thinks that physics delivers us from correlationism. I’ve looked again at Nathan Brown’s essay in the Speculative Turn, which clarifies that the arche-fossil appears just as a problem, over which M can arrange the contrast of the correlational conception of the object with his own speculative assumption of the reality of its mathematisable properties. So the arche-fossil isn’t proof of anything, just a means through which to present the problem. But isn’t it a problem for M that modern mathematised science is itself highly correlationist? Maybe not, but it does seem to sit awkwardly with the significance of scientific dating techniques in the arche-fossil example.

      • Steve
        December 2, 2012

        And the question of how the arche-fossil relates to the use of Cantor’s transfinite in the chapter on Hume’s problem, and to the broader claims about the reality of the mathematisable properties of objects, seems problematic for M. I agree that it’s in relation to maths that interesting things in the book are happening, but I think I’d come to the opposite conclusion to yours. At the end of chap. 4 and then chap. 5, M says that what is needed is for Cantor’s transfinite to be absolutised, in order for it to be the ground for the necessity of the contingency of the possible as such. This is then how he would tie together his speculative use of ancestrality with his speculative resolution of Hume’s problem (via the rejection of aleatory reasoning etc.). I think that M recognises that ancestrality and the resolution of Hume’s problem aren’t well linked, and it seems that the book ends with this weird awaiting, something like Nietzsche’s for the ubermensch, for the derivation of an absolutised maths that would connect all this together…

      • Troy
        December 5, 2012

        Steve, I think we’re in broad agreement here. I just think the really important speculative work hinges on mathematics here, and specifically on how exactly mathematisable ontology is. I’ve heard from a number of mathematicians (specifically at a set theory seminar where I broached the Badiou topic) that this whole approach to math is just weird and nonsensical (akin to your comment about math being correlationist, I presume), so I think you’re right to expect more of a resolution here than is given.

      • Steve
        December 5, 2012

        That’s interesting, I’d like to hear working mathematicians’ views on Badiou. I don’t think he’d be too troubled if they said his thought’s nonsense though – he addresses just this issue in the intro to B&E, where he says it’s better that mathematicians are better not knowing they’re doing ontology, because then they can fully focus on doing it (or words to that effect).

        One clarification – I don’t think maths is correlationist, just that mathematised natural science is. It’s an important distinction: I’m wondering whether physics is the paradigmatic form of correlationism; and maths might be the furthest thing from correlationism (assessing this latter claim would need a lot of work on Badiou and others though).

  2. January
    December 4, 2012

    Thanks for this discussion. My interest is in Nancy and Agamben. I did study McDowell a few years back. So my question is, Is the problem with coorelationism that it is not an absolute?

    • Steve
      December 5, 2012

      Hi January – sort of: it’s more a question of whether, since Kant, thought can access the absolute/the in-itself. The Kantian prohibition of this access and the post-Kantian acceptance of said prohibition entails what M calls correlationism. I’d recommend After Finitude, it makes this argument very appealingly (and provides much to disagree with!)

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This entry was posted on December 1, 2012 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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