Review: After Finitude and Facticality

[cross-posted at The Road to Sippy Cups]

Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude © has a very interesting discussion of Hume’s problem, Kant’s Copernican Revolution, the principle of sufficient reason and the relationship between dogmatism and fanaticism. Any one of his analyses on these topics makes the book worthwhile, but I’d like to focus on something different: the fundamental assumption of facticality.

Meillassoux has a factical view of the world, meaning that the world is made up of facts. He does not argue that facticality is a necessary position, though, but as it seems convenient for the rest of his arguments and has an impressive pedigree, he seems to feel this is good enough. He claims this pedigree stems from both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, among others.

This leads to two ways of criticizing his position: either by attacking the ground of the facticality of the world using Meillassoux’s own strategies or by using historic attacks on facticality of the world and applying them to Meillassoux’s position.

First let’s take a look at some historical arguments:

I do not know if Heidegger ever repudiated his views on this subject, but it was Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus © that propounded a factical world. Wittgenstein did repudiate this work, though it is not necessarily the factical world view that became offensive to later Wittgenstein.* However, what we do have is this quote from the Introductions (p. x) of the Philosophical Investigations ©:

For since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again, sixteen years ago, I have been forced to recognize grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book [the Tractatus]. I was helped to realize these mistakes—to a degree which I myself am hardly able to estimate—by the criticism which my ideas encountered from Frank Ramsey, with whom I discussed them in innumerable conversations during the last two years of his life.

Ramsey’s review of the Tractatus was published in October 1923 in Mind /©, and Ramsey died in 1930. Hence Ramsey’s review is five years prior to these discussions. Yet I do not know of any record of later conversations, so this Mind review remains the best source for Ramsey’s thoughts on the Tractatus. The task for me will be to show how his criticisms, which are directed at the Tractatus, can also be applied to the factical world view.

Ramsey criticized Wittgenstein’s concept of logical constants. Lighting upon 5.512

That which denies in ‘~p ‘ is not ‘~,’ but that which all signs of this notation, which deny p, have in common. Hence the common rule according to which ‘~p,’ ‘~~~p,’ ‘~p ∨ ~p,’ ‘~p & ~p,’ etc. etc. (to infinity) are constructed. And this which is common to them all mirrors denial.”

Ramsey says (p. 472)

I cannot understand how it mirrors denial. It certainly does not do so in the simple way in which the conjunction of two propositions mirrors the conjunction of their senses. This difference between conjunction and the other truth-functions can be seen in the fact that to believe p and q is to believe p and to believe q; but to believe p or q is not the same as to believe p or to believe q, nor to believe not p as not to believe p.

This criticism applies to the interpretation of logical constants within the Tractatus. Ramsey is arguing that Wittgenstein’s picture theory breaks down in its interpretation of logical constants since negation is not simply represented by a picture if pictures including negation also mirror denial. The situation for disjunction is worse, since it makes even less sense to say what a disjunction mirrors. The upshot is that there is more going on with logical constants than simply describing how facts can be broken down.

We can extend this criticism to the ontological, factical situation: In a factical world, everything can be otherwise. But if our logical constants cannot be pictured in certain ways — if our logical constants resist being viewed in certain ways since they are not strictly like other facts — then there are restrictions on our logical understanding of the world. Hence the factical world cannot be completely changeable: it is governed by the complex internal structures of logic. This means there are restrictions on what can be otherwise in terms of logic and a meta-restriction on how things can be otherwise: everything can still be otherwise, but not in every possible way.

This can be seen in another criticism of Ramsey’s. He said the Tractarian position commits one to holding, “the only necessity is that of tautology, the only impossibility that of contradiction.” (p. 473) He continues:

For example, considering between in point of time as regards my experiences; if B is between A and D and C between B and D, then C must be between A and D; but it is hard to see how this can be a formal tautology.

In terms of facticality we are dealing with absolute contingency, so everything must either be entirely contingent, or there is something necessary. But what this example shows is that if there is any sort of ordering that we can give to the world, then there are going to be necessarily existing facts about that world. So, again, everything could be different, but not in every possible way.

Worse, for QM, is that the factical position may then beg the question about what grounds for our scientific practice, since this is the sort of mathematical structure he wants to use to justify our understanding of the arche-fossil. So if there are mathematical systems built into the logical structure of facticality, then he will have to abandon his current project and start again without assuming facticality.

These two examples from Ramsey point out that the factical world is not an innocent assumption.

Now for an internal criticism of facticity.

Can facticity resist Meillassoux’s speculative move? If we can speculate on whether the world is factical or not, then must we still accept that the world is factical? I can’t see how since there is nothing about speculating on the factical world that should lead back to it; the factical world view was adopted on the principle that it worked with radical contingency. Also, seeing as Meillassoux is willing to apply speculation to his problems means that it is an available strategy to apply to his solutions. Hence we may engage in speculation before we accept facticity.

This leads to a dilemma of choosing between radical contingency and speculation: if we are speculative, then we no longer can accept the factical world and radical contingency theory based on it, but if we are radically contingent, then we accept the factical world and reject the speculative move, undermining the rest of the theory. Hence Meillassoux wielded too strong a weapon: using speculation without restriction is too dangerous for facticity, and this collapses the rest of his theory.


* Hintikka has put forward an analysis /© of Wittgenstein’s rejection of the Tractatus during 1929 based on his dated notebooks and other records, such as Vienna Circle commentary. He maintains that Wittgenstein repudiated the phenomenological view of language but not the picture view (facticality) of the world, at least at that time. See page 167.

Posted in metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, wittgenstein. Tagged with .