Four weeks ago I posted the abstract of the talk I will be giving tomorrow at the Humanities Research Centre here at ANU. That abstract was written at time when I had a vague sense of what I was going to do, but only a vague one. Were I to write the abstract now, after four weeks of sustained reading and thinking on this topic, it would look a bit different.
This talk takes its provocation from Quentin Meillassoux’s remarkable book After Finitude. For Meillassoux, post-Kantian philosophy has been characterised by correlationism – that we have no access to the world except as it exists through our relation to it. Meillassoux articulates a radical problem with this: how to understand the problem of the arche-fossil, those radioactive traces that predate any life on earth. Correlationism is flawed, Meillassoux suggests, because arche-fossils show that there is a world of which we can have objective knowledge without there being any mediation between that and the observer. Meillassoux suggests that correlationism, in all its variants, is a convenient way to avoid having to account for the world as it is, outside of human access. Meillassoux is problematic because he ends up returning to a mathematical foundation for the ontology of the world—based in large part on the work of Alain Badiou. But the arche-fossil poses an important challenge to accounts of the world and its relations.
In this talk I suggest that fossils have always presented a fundamental challenge. Schematically tracing the story of fossils and accounts of them from Aristotle to Darwin, with specific mention of Steno and Cuvier, I suggest that three philosophers of the kind criticised by Meillassoux have come to terms with the relation of fossils to the world in different ways. These figures are Leibniz in the Protogaea; Kant in his Physical Geography lectures and related writings; and Foucault in The Order of Things.
I conclude by suggesting that fossils help us to pose general questions about the age of, and our relation to, the world. Heidegger might have claimed that the stone is without world, but what has become the merely mineral has profound implications for our sense of the world.
Of course, the abstract can only touch on what I try to do. Even the talk itself is a distilled version of what has become about a 10,000 word manuscript. This will, I think, be the basis of the chapter on ‘fossils’ in The Space of the World. One key issue that remains, and it may well be the crucial point, is whether there is a qualitative difference between arche-fossils and fossils. If there is, then Meillassoux’s point would, I think, pose a greater challenge. But I’m not convinced that there is an important difference between fossils that precede human life and arche-fossils that precede any life on the earth. The pre-history and history of palaeontology seems to me to indicate that using this as an objective form of knowledge that provides a measure for philosophical accounts is not without difficulties.