Correlationism and Ideologies of Rupture

by C.S. Lammer-Heindel

The perspective considered in the previous post—namely, that all things are ontologically independent while nevertheless enjoying standing within the communion of beings—suggests that human beings do not enjoy a privileged ontological status vis-à-vis other beings. Ian Bogost expresses this point by claiming that “humans are elements, but not the sole or even primary elements, of philosophical interest” (Bogost 2012). This perspective runs up against what I, inspired by Pope Francis, will refer to as ideologies of rupture (Francis 2015, sec. 66). Such ideologies neglect or reject the notion that human beings are enmeshed within the communion of beings, supposing instead that we are ontologically opposed to or other-than the other beings of the world.

To better appreciate the tension we need to notice that to say that the various things of the world—what Levi Bryant generically refers to as “objects”—exist independent of human beings is to deny, among other things, that objects are merely representations or intentional objects for us (Bryant 2011, p. 22). This stands in opposition to the sort of ontological thought that stems from the epistemological thesis that Quentin Meillassoux has termed “correlationism.” According to Meillassoux, correlationism is “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” (Meillassoux 2010, p. 5). Correlationism thus denies “that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another” (Meillassoux 2010, p. 5). Rather, subjectivity and objectivity are inextricably defined in terms of one another; subjects are those beings to whom objects are present, and objects are those things of which subjects are aware. As Meillassoux explains,

Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object “in itself,” in isolation from its relation to the subject, but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object. (Meillassoux 2010, p. 5)

Correlationism thus conceives of the beings of the world from an anthropocentric perspective in which they are viewed as mere “vehicles for human contents, meanings, signs, or projections” (Bryant 2011, p. 22). We thus often collapse the nature of a thing—its being in the proper sense—with the uses to which it is put or, more generally, how it appears or relates to us. At the very least, this approach neglects the full reality of the beings of the world, focusing only on a unique set of relations in which those beings stand. Bryant puts the matter this way:

The problem with correlationism is not that it drew attention to the relationship between thought and being, humans and the world, but that in doing so it had a tendency to reduce other beings to what they are for us. Correlationism’s question always seems to be “what are things for us?”, “how do the beings of the world reflect us?” (Bryant 2014)

Worse yet, this perspective both expresses and reinforces a false vision of reality whereby human beings (society or culture) are viewed as radically distinct from and opposed to “nature.” Under this “two-world schema,” reality is divided into two distinct domains: the subject, culture, or society on the one hand and the object or nature on the other:

The domain of the subject and culture is treated as the world of freedom, meaning, signs, representations, language, power, and so on. The domain of nature is treated as being composed of matter governed by mechanistic causality. (Bryant 2011, p. 23)

This two-world schema should strike us as quite familiar. It receives expression in much of modern philosophy, including not only well-known dualistic theories like Descartes’s, but also Kant’s transcendental idealism and the so-called “materialist” perspectives which dominate Continental philosophical thought. It is also prevalent within much popular religious belief, where the materiality of the human person is often downplayed or even rejected.

In his encyclical on the environment, Francis can be understood as exploring the practical implications of this perspective as it manifests itself in our ordinary lives. Although we do not consciously articulate our ontological commitments, he argues that we nevertheless can be understood as operating within a subject-object dichotomy that gives rise to a “one-dimensional paradigm” in which the things of the world—objects or beings—are seen as “formless” and “completely open to manipulation” by subjects (Francis 2015, sec. 106). In other words, we largely assume that the various (non-human) things of the world lay before us ready and willing to be used as we see fit, and little or no thought is given to their independent existence or their place in the vast communion of being. Like Bryant, Francis recognizes that this paradigm “reduce[s] other beings to what they are for us” (Bryant 2014), and he sees it as a uniquely modern paradigm:

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. (Francis 2015, sec. 106)

The alternative to this one-dimensional, anthropocentric paradigm is a way of thinking and being in which we recognize that human beings (subjects) are among the beings of the world (objects) rather than ontologically other-than them. As Bryant conceives it, any adequate alternative perspective “transforms the subject into one object among many others, undermining its privileged, central, or foundational place within philosophy and ontology. Subjects are objects among objects, rather than constant points of reference related to all other objects” (Bryant 2011, p. 22). We may put a theistic gloss on this by saying that an adequate alternative perspective would recognize our co-creatureliness with all other things. It is arguably with such co-creatureliness in mind that Francis argues, “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us.” For him this is because “all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things” (Francis 2015, sec. 83). Bryant and most other object-oriented philosophers do not accept this Christian eschatological vision; however, I hope to eventually argue (in later posts) that this is not an insurmountable point of disagreement which would preclude the dialogue I’m seeking to engender.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian (2012). “Synopsis of Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.” Blog. Ian Bogost.

Bryant, Levi (2014). “Correlationism.” Blog. Larval Subjects, October 28, 2014.

——— (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press.

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Meillassoux, Quentin (2010). After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Bloomsbury Academic.