WOLFENDALE vs HARMAN: the place of mathematics

Wolfendale’s conflation of pluralism and correlationism leads him to claim

this sceptico-critical alliance of strong correlationism and radical pluralism constitutes the reigning doxa of the Continental tradition in the latter half of the twentieth century », but he continues « that is not to say that it is the only doxa (352-353).

This idea of a sceptical pluralist-correlationism (or radical relativism) as the hegemonic position within recent and contemporary Continental philosophy is simply false, it merely repeats Meillassoux’s and Harman’s fictional histories. This fiction is proclaimed to make their own interventions seem necessary, but it is promoted only at the price of forgetting or obliterating the living core of post-structural French philosophy, i.e. of more than 70 years of philosophical work.

The alternative doxa, or « counter-image » of thought, cited by Wolfendale is that of the dialogue between Deleuze and Badiou. He praises their substantial and « non-metaphorical » use of mathematics (353-354). As Wolfendale himself explicitly endorses « mathematical structuralism » (352), one may wonder whether this proposed criterion of demarcation for noncorrelationism is as objective as Wolfendale seems to think. It is not obvious why the « central and crucially non-metaphorical role played within it by mathematics » (353-354) should provide any guarantee of « non-correlationism ». Harman, on the contrary, sees such mathematical scientism as a sign of undermining, and thus of correlationism. Just positing that mathematics is a non-correlational language or discipline is not an argument.

Badiou is contradictory on this point. He poses that mathematics is ontology, and so seems committed to the stability of mathematics, if Being is to be regarded as stable. At the same time he treats the « matheme » (i.e. mathematics and the sciences) as a truth-procedure on a par with poetry, love, and politics. This would seem to open mathematics, as for the other procedures, to revolutionary paradigm change. Following Latour and Laruelle we could extend this list of truth-procedures to include religion, an extension that Badiou himself considers only to reject.

Certainly, much of mathematics is stable, or generally treated as stable. Further, it’s only a small number of specialists who change things. On the other hand, religions, even Christianity, evolve a lot. If one includes the gnostics and other heretics, there is quite a lot of axiom multiplication, variation, replacement, and destruction going on; Religion is not to be confused with its institutions, which precisely try to maintain stability. So there is no necessary primacy of mathematics in terms of « quantity » of inventivity.

As to quality or depth of invention, it is not clear how much deep change there is in maths. Michel Serres in his HERMES volumes did a periodisation of very general epistemes that included maths. There are informal paradigms that most research in a particular epoch fit into, and that are only recognised after we leave them behind. But even if maths is freer and more deterritorialised than other regional ontologies, this is no reason to anchor a new realism on them. That is, or should be, a separate argument. This freedom to make and break axioms is for Harman a sign that maths is « sensual » rather than real. So we are getting an opposition between two sensibilities in the Harman-Wolfendale dispute, and maths is part of the dispute, not the clincher criterion.

Nor do I see any reason to accept at face value that « phenomenology » is inherently correlationist. Bernard Stiegler has often remarked that the Husserl of « Origins of Geometry » introduces a new epoch in his thought, that breaks open the subject-object enclosure by making writing as tertiary retention enter essentially into the constitution of mathematics. Dreyfus and Spinosa argue convincingly that Heidegger’s thing-paradigm breaks with the potential closure and correlationism inherent in his understandings of being paradigm.

The spectre of « orthodox correlationism » as a dominant paradigm enslaving thought and paralysing action is a chimera that has no foundation if one consults the works of the major post-structuralist French thinkers. The remedies to this imaginary illness, both Harman’s OOP and Wolfendale’s universalism, represent a regression compared to these works. The two sides share much that is questionable, and disagree only over the general orientation within that common vision. I think we must reject Meillassoux’s whole scenography of subect/object, which constitutes a false problem, so his solutions to that problem are of no interest. One has only to recall Popper’s « epistemology without a knowing subject » to see the conceptual regression embodied in setting up the problem this way.

Note: I am particularly indebted to a facebook discussion with Joshua Comer for helping me gain clarity on the problematic status of mathematics in Wolfendale’s polemic with Harman.


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