The Unconscious and the Critique of Correlationism

(The following is a small [edited] section from a recent paper I’ve written on Meillassoux’ critique of correlationism as it pertains largely to Schelling, though I hope to expand it to include other “thinkers of the unconscious” as much of my research relates to the history of the unconsciouss. This paper will likely find its way into the second half of my thesis.)

The fundamental question to be asked when attempting to determine whether a thinker is a correlationist seems to be the following:

Is there or can there be being without thought? If so, can we know it or speak of it?

There are two correlationist positions on the matter: First, there is the weak position which claims that there are things-in-themselves but that we cannot know them, and second, the strong correlationist position claims that there are no things-in-themselves at all, as the very idea is unsupported speculation. I would like to put forward the suggestion that a certain strain of thought associated with the concept of the unconscious should be thought of as a “third way” on the matter of things-in-themselves. Both Schelling and Schopenhauer for example pose a difficult problem for this dichotomy, as they both claim allegiance to the Kantian legacy of transcendentalism and yet both criticize Kant for his agnosticism on the subject of things-in-themselves. What is crucial in understanding the problem these thinkers pose to Meillassoux’ dichotomy is that while they both claim there are things-in-themselves, they also both claim human beings have knowledge of them. For Schopenhauer, this is Will, while for the early Schelling, this is Nature as productive (Natura naturans). The distinction Meillassoux makes between weak and strong correlationism seems to fall apart in light of such thinkers, as they prove the possibility of a position not accounted for, not a realism in the sense Meillassoux insists upon (what he calls ‘speculative materialism’), but not a Kantian idealism with an unknown X lurking in the background, nor a true speculative idealism whereby the possibility of being without thought proves impossible.

These two thinkers prove there can be a position which accepts Kantian things-in-themselves, but eliminates the mystery often associated with them. How is this done? It is with the concept of the unconscious. For Schelling for example, Nature is not inanimate matter, but nor is it quasi-divine mystery, it is unconscious spirit, unknowingly free (it images freedom). The distinction is not one of things-as-appearances and things-in-themselves, but rather, one of things as conscious (subjects), and things as unconscious (objects). There can then be being without thought, because this is simply the state of the natural world, that is to say, entirely unconscious. In other words, metaphysical thinkers of the unconscious are entirely free of the correlationist circle as they accept a universe free of human beings as a possibility, the ancestral statement need not be put through the filter of the correlation in the present, as natural history has a place in a system like Schelling’s whereby natural science studies precisely those instances of spirit older and other than the human being. Again, there are things-in-themselves, but they are not unknown, they are like us, they simply don’t know it. Both thinkers allow for there to be existents without human thought attached to them, and therefore do not fit his correlationist criteria. We should say then that there are more options available to contemporary metaphysics than simply correlationism or Meillassoux’ speculative materialism. Indeed, there is a whole other historical lineage available to contemporary realism, it simply needs to be brought to light.

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