The theory of primary and secondary qualities seems to belong to an irremediably obsolete past. It is time it was rehabilitated.
So Quentin Meillassoux begins his extended essay After Finitude (2006, English translation 2008). Briefly, a primary quality is a property of the world (e.g., the shape and size of an object); a secondary quality is the way a person subjectively experiences a property of the world (e.g., the color of an object). It’s become almost axiomatic to deny the very possibility of detecting primary qualities because all our awareness of the world is mediated by our sensations of these properties: we can detect the world only in the way we detect its presentation to us. This isn’t to say that the world doesn’t exist outside of our awareness of it: it’s just that we have no direct access to the world.
Meillassoux finds it ironic that, at the very moment in history when science began developing methods for decentring knowledge of the world from human subjectivity, philosophy began insisting that no such absolute knowledge could be attained. In its persistent linguistic turn, continental philosophy asserts that truth is a property not of the world but of statements, and that the words we use to describe the world gain their meaning not from the world but from the structural interconnections between the words. Language came to be understood as an interconnected system of meanings detached from the features of the world the words purport to signify. So the word “hot,” as well as the concept to which the applies, gains its meaning not from the features of the world but from its contrast with the word “cold” in ordinary social discourse. Meillassoux observes that this disconnect between signifiers and signifieds is dogmatically asserted by philosophers even as scientists refine the measurement systems intended to disconnect the words “hot” and “cold” from their manifestation to our senses.
[T]he Copernico-Galilean decentring carried out by modern science gave rise to a Ptolemaic counter-revolution in philosophy… While modern science discovered for the first time thought’s capacity to accede to knowledge of a world indifferent to thought’s relation to the world, philosophy reacted to this discovery by discovering the naivety of its own previous ‘dogmatism’, seeing in the ‘realism’ of pre-Critical metaphysics the paradigm of a decidedly outmoded conceptual naivety… [S]cience’s decentring of thought relative to the world led philosophy to conceive of this decentring in terms of thought’s unprecedented centrality relative to the same world. Since 1781 (the date of the 1st edition of [Kant’s] Critique of Pure Reason), to think science philosophically has been to maintain that philosophical Ptolemaism harbors the deeper meaning of scientific Copernicanism. Ultimately, philosophy maintains that the patently realist meaning of the claims of modern science is merely apparent, secondary, and derivative; the symptom of an attitude that is ‘naive’ or ‘natural. (p. 118f.)
Meillassoux regards the Ptolemaic counter-revolution in continental philosophy as a big mistake. He maintains as philosophically sound one of the fundamental premises of empirical science:
all those aspects of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully conceived as properties of the object itself. (p. 3)
He’s not very thorough in justifying mathematics’ unique status in achieving direct and absolute contact with the Real; rather, he tends toward proclamation:
it is meaningful to think (even if only on a hypothetical register) that all those aspects of the given that are mathematically describable can continue to exist regardless of whether or not we are there to convert the latter into something that is given-to or manifested-for. (p. 117)
In reading along with Meillassoux my first reaction was to minimize the distinction Meillassoux makes between language and mathematics. Isn’t mathematics, like language if not more so, a structured system of signifiers decoupled from the things in the world they signify? Doesn’t any single number or operation derive its meaning from the others in the larger system? Doesn’t advancement in scientific understanding depend in part on the human invention of new kinds of mathematics; e.g., the number zero in the 2nd century or so, the contemporary situation in physics where future advances in N-dimensional string theory depend on mathematical theory that hasn’t yet been completely thought through and formalized? Perhaps most importantly, aren’t the mathematics of scientific formulae and hypotheses mapped onto theoretical constructs that must be stated linguistically?
While I still think all that’s true, I think it’s fruitful to follow Meillassoux’s lead and extend the recision of the philosophical Ptolemaic counter-revolution from mathematics to language. Like mathematics, language is a tool for separating the world from our direct experience of it. When something “goes without saying,” it’s inextricable from subjective and intersubjective experience — this is how infants and other animals experience the world. To say something about the world is to call someone else’s attention to a particular feature of the world. To arrive at interpersonal understanding of meaning is at least in part contingent on arriving at an agreement about what the words refer to in the world. Science formalizes the process of linguistic precision by continually refining the “operational” definitions of terms. Operationalization is an intersubjective process, but the agreement refers specifically and precisely to the way in which a term describes a feature of the world that’s not dependent on the perceptions of any particular scientist. Operationalization entails a formalization of language that veers toward mathematics, further blurring the distinction between these two registers of thought.
It’s not necessary to assert that mathematics or language represent the real world, or that mathematico-linguistic structure mirrors the structure of the world. It’s also not necessary to assert a raw materialism, in which scientific knowledge entails the direct apprehension of the world as it presents itself to us. Meillassoux observes that
very few truths can be attained through immediate experience and that generally speaking, science is not based upon simple observations, but rather upon data that have already been processed and quantified by ever more elaborate measuring instruments. (p. 114)
Scientific assertions about the world aren’t just refined observations; they are, says Meillassoux, “part of a cognitive process.” It’s “only” necessary to claim that empirically-grounded cognitive processes, of which science is a particularly refined version, make it possible to describe the world in a way that’s at least partially separable from our subjective and intersubjective experiences of it.
Meillassoux acknowledges that he’s not able — yet — to demonstrate the ability of mathematics to give us access to the primary qualities of the world. Rather, he’s making an argument for pursuing a line of philosophical investigation broadly construed as “speculative realism.” He wants to reopen to serious inquiry “the most urgent question which science poses to philosophy;” namely, the possibility of arriving at true thoughts about the world that don’t depend entirely on human subjective thought processes. Meillassoux wants to answer this question through mathematical realism; I think he should extend this exploration also to linguistic realism.