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I first read Quentin Meillassoux in a local reading group in summer 2016, and thought at first that I was largely in agreement with him. That changed in 2019 when the same group read the Kyoto School‘s Nishida Kitarō.

Nishida reminded me of the importance of subjectivity in our thought about the world – something which Meillassoux is at pains to deny. It was particularly striking to hear this from Nishida since he was a self-proclaimed Buddhist – a tradition so often thought to deny subjectivity. Nishida says:

Our subjectivity is the unifying aspect, whereas objectivity is the unified aspect; the self is always the entity that unifies reality, whereas things are the entity that is unified. (64)

Meillassoux reminds us we have to make room for a universe that predated how we think about it. But Nishida is reminding us that we only know this to be the case because we think about it. Science claims to be finding truth – but truth is a concept. And concepts only make sense to beings who have them, which is to say subjects. The idea of ancestrality, that there was a world before human subjectivity, now seems about as certainly true as anything is. But why are we so certain of it? Because humans collected evidence, like Darwin’s finches, that indicated the evolution of species and the advanced age of the earth and the stars. But the existence of Darwin’s finches, let alone the theoretical inferences drawn from them, is only evidence that we can draw on because Darwin (and others after him) perceived them, interpreted them, and shared that interpretation with others and passed them on to us. The same is true for the geological and astronomical evidence for ancestrality. Every knowledge, every idea, every acknowledgement that there was a time before us is, and must always be, filtered through us. Meillassoux gives us a metaphysics detached from epistemology, and I don’t think that’s tenable.

I don’t think these points are original to Nishida; it may just be that I read Nishida at the right time to have them click. They are already there in the works Meillassoux is responding to. The classic source for claims about subjectivity as a unifier is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which argues that claims about the object of knowledge are incomplete without the involvement of the knowing subject.

And so Meillassoux pushes back against such a view. As Graham Harman notes in his book on Meillassoux, the view I’ve just described (which Meillassoux would call correlationist) cannot give a literal interpretation of scientific statements; instead, it implies “the statement that ‘the earth was formed 4.56 billion years ago’ can be rewritten as saying that ‘the earth was formed 4.56 billion years ago for us.” But I have realized that that is a bullet I am prepared to bite. To understand the grounding of scientific claims requires that they come with an implicit caveat about the way in which they are known. Harman says that the “appeal to the ancestral” is itself “meant more in the spirit of an aporia“. And yes, absolutely, there is a paradoxical quality in saying that subjects are required for truth while also saying there was a time when there were no subjects. But I think that paradox can be addressed.

I think Śaṅkara and Augustine might help us think through it. Śaṅkara thinks that everything is the one truth, and perceived differences are simply illusion, the result of ignorance. So one of the first questions one would ask in response is: where did the ignorance come from? When did it begin? And Śaṅkara’s brilliant response is that time itself is part of the illusion. So the question of a beginning is meaningless. Likewise Augustine responds to the question “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” by saying there was no time before the creation of heaven and earth, because that creation was also the creation of time itself.

To be clear, I don’t agree with Śaṅkara’s or Augustine’s worldviews in general. But I do think that something like their views makes for a helpful response to the Meillassoux critique. That is, the status of time itself needs to be treated as one of the points in question. We can say that there was a time when we subjects were not, but our ability to say that, to know it, to have it make any sense, to have our statement be true, itself depends on subjectivity. Time itself, and therefore ancestrality, requires subjectivity in order to be thinkable. It can’t be known, or talked about, or made sense of, without that subjectivity.

Still, I accept both Meillassoux’s point that the cosmos exists before and after subjects, and Nishida’s point that subjectivity is necessary. If I’m right about both, where does this leave us?

Last year I suggested that Wilfrid Sellars’s split between manifest and scientific image, so close to the Pali Buddhist two truths, is a helpful way to think through the nature of the self. Now I suspect it might also be helpful for thinking through the nature of the world. Meillassoux is pointing us to the demands made by the scientific image; Nishida is reminding us of the essential primacy of the manifest.

There then remains the all-important question of how those images relate to each other. Here I think it is necessary to reject the view of both Meillassoux and Buddhaghosa that the atomistic, non-subject-centred image is ultimate. (Nishida makes little use of the conventional/ultimate distinction despite being a professed Buddhist, for he is aiming at unity rather than dualities.) Conventional or manifest truth is not merely needed for pedagogical reasons. Rather, I think that the nature of knowledge requires us to take a position closer to Sellars’s own, that the truly ultimate image of reality must be the corrected manifest: we keep the knowing subject, the human person, at the centre of knowledge and ethics, but all chastened by the recognition that we (including the species as well as our individual selves) will eventually die, the knowledge that we have no immortal soul, no enduring essence. All knowledge of the world (ancestral or otherwise) is knowledge held by us knowing subjects, but our subjectivity is mutable, divisible and heteronomous, and needs to be put in the context of its own eventual end.