De-coupling Intentionality

10 April 2011


Separating the Inseparable

For the Sake of the Objects Themselves

The bête noire of the recently emergent philosophical school of speculative realism (which also goes by other names, but I will make it easy on myself and employ only this formulation, whatever its inadequacies) is correlationism. What are the speculative realists rejecting? What is correlationism? Quentin Meillassoux, in his After Finitude, offers an explicit characterization:

“…the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of correlation. By ‘correlation’ we mean 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.”

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, p. 5

While Meillassoux specifically cites Kant, one feels that it is rather the Cartesian tradition that is the real target. Meillassoux is a Frenchman, and the Cartesian tradition remains institutionalized in France in a way not unlike the way in which Kantianism is institutionalized in the Germanophone world. After all, Descartes initiated philosophical modernism by asserting cogito ergo sum, which connects thinking and being in a particularly intimate and essential way.

In the twentieth century the Cartesian tradition was primarily represented by Husserl’s phenomenology, and it is impossible to read Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism without supposing that he is calling out Husserl. Husserl didn’t call his phenomenology correlationism, but rather formulated his position in terms of intentionality, but it amounts to much the same thing.

Here’s what Husserl has to say about intentionality in his classic and very condensed book (that begins by invoking Descartes in the first section of the work) Cartesian Meditations, eponymously named for Descartes himself:

“Inquiry into consciousness concerns two sides (for the present we are leaving out of consideration the question of the identical Ego); they can be characterized descriptively as belonging together inseparably. The sort of combination uniting consciousness with consciousness can be characterized as synthesis, a mode of combination exclusively peculiar to consciousness.”

Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, section 17, p. 39

Later, in section 20 of the same work, Husserl elaborates:

“Intentional analysis is guided by the fundamental cognition that, as a consciousness, every cogito is indeed (in the broadest sense) a meaning of its meant [Meinung seines Gemeinten], but that, at any moment, this something meant [dieses Vermeinte] is more something meant with something more than what is meant at that moment “explicitly”.

Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, section 20, p. 46

Throughout the Cartesian Meditations Husserl uses “correlate,” “correlates,” “correlative,” and “correlatively” quite freely to express aspects of intentionality, and there is no question that Husserl is the source of the “co-givenness, of the co-relation, of the co-originary, of co-presence, etc.” (p. 5) to which Meillassoux refers.

The explicit rejection of correlationism, then, among the speculative realists, is an explicit rejection of Husserl and the phenomenological tradition. This is interesting for us in several ways, but what I will point out at present is that it points to the continued vitality of the phenomenological tradition that it should still inspire such explicit renunciation.

I must point out here that much post-war continental philosophy — indeed, the greater part of what we now think of as “continental” philosophy — is an unambiguous rejection of Husserl and phenomenology, and these are rejections that go in different directions. Foucault was clearly reacting against phenomenology, as was Derrida, who was a very careful reader of Husserl, and very careful in his renunciation of phonocentrism (or phonologism, call it what you will, as this is also a movement that goes by many names) that he found in Husserl. But Foucault and Derrida cannot even themselves be assimilated to or reduced to a single “continental” tradition, since they went in different directions and criticized each other quite unambiguously.

The point over which Foucault and Derrida most clearly and explicitly differed is itself interesting in the present context, because it was the Cartesian cogito that was their point of difference (or, if you prefer, différance). In Foucault’s seminal work on madness he gives a brief exposition of the Cartesian conception of madness (and how it crucially differs from dreams and mere error) at the beginning of the second chapter. Derrida tore this passage from its context as exemplary, and devoted an essay to it, “Cogito and the History of Madness” (published in Writing and Difference). Foucault responded in turn with his “Reply to Derrida” (this has been published in the newly translated History of Madness). This is an oddly stilted and, in a sense, Freudian dialogue, because each speaks of Husserl by carefully avoiding him. Husserl has become the stern father, in whose absence his children have become unruly, prodigal, and profligate. And they know it. It would make an interesting project to re-formulate their dialogue in explicitly phenomenological terms.

As I see it, the speculative realists stand a little closer to Foucault (despite the Heideggerian influence that is present in common in both Derrida and speculative realism), since the anti-humanistic human science toward which Foucault was striving is also, in a sense, the object oriented ontology toward which speculative realism is working. But, as I said, while speculative realism and earlier forms of continental philosophy have in common their rejection of phenomenological intentionality, they are different reactions.

Earlier continental philosophy had as its twin fascinations Freud and Marx, and these do not play anything like the same role in speculative realism. The structuralist rejection of phenomenological subject-centered philosophy was, like positivism in the Anglo-American tradition, explicitly anti-metaphysical and scientistic. Speculative realism seems to take the scientism in a new direction, although without abandoning it, and is in no sense anti-metaphysical. Indeed, I have previously written of some speculative realists that their work constitutes an Apotheosis of Metaphysics, and their appropriation of contemporary science seems to point toward a metaphysical science, the inversion of Husserl’s aim of a scientific metaphysics (i.e., philosophy as rigorous science).

There is a sense in which it is a noble philosophical ambition to sunder thinking and being, so that each might take up the separate and equal station to which nature entitles them. Yet much of this effort seems to focus on freeing up objects to participate in an object oriented ontology, as though the Husserlian call to philosophical arms — to the things themselves! (Zu den sachen selbst!) — becomes something like, to the objects themselves! (Zu der Gegenstandes selbst!), with objects now explicitly understood as separate from thought in a way strangely parallel to the explanations that always had to be added to Husserl, such that by “things” he meant our experience of things.

Of course, the legitimacy of beings without thinking implies the equal legitimacy of thinking without being, unless one takes an explicit position of rejecting thought in itself, and indeed among the alternative formulations of speculative realism we have speculative materialism, which is how I think Meillassoux identifies his position (though I may be wrong about this; I’m not sure).

Taking objects on their own account and dispensing with thinking, as though it had no role to play in the world, is the traditional position of scientific realism. Are we to identify speculative realism with Anglo-American scientific realism? Certainly not simpliciter. But how exactly the two differ and what exactly the two have in common is an investigation that I will leave for another time.

While I certainly would not want to privilege any being or form of being on the basis of its relationship to thinking, I would equally eschew the valuation of thought based on a privileged relationship to being. If we bring thought and being together in an intentional relationship, we avoid this problem, as we avoid all the Humean problems that have bedeviled Anglo-American philosophy since Hume pointed out the difficulty of identifying any identity for the self that was not identical with some perception — that is to say, some object in the Husserlian sense. But when thought and being are sundered it is more difficult to say how this difficulty will be met.

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Footnote: In regard to what I wrote above on, “The structuralist rejection of phenomenological subject-centered philosophy,” cf. my post By indirections our directions find…

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One Response to “De-coupling Intentionality”

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