Can We Think Democratically?
Laruelle and the ‘Arrogance’ of Non-Philosophy
‘Due to this necessary mutation, we must first change the very concept of thought, in its relations to philosophy and to other forms of knowledge. This is an inversion that concerns a reversal of old hierarchies, but through a formulation of a new type of primacy without relationships of domination; without relations in general.’
François Laruelle, ‘Is Thinking Democratic?’, in Laruelle and Non-Philosophy, eds. John Mullarkey and Anthony Paul Smith, forthcoming Edinburgh University Press, August 28, 2012
François Laruelle is not the ‘next big thing’ in Continental philosophy. His thought does not aim to correct, reduce, or supersede that of Derrida, or Deleuze, or Badiou. That old game of importing European master-thinkers into Anglophone philosophy – each new figure superseding the previous model – is over. Or rather, the next big thing could be, if we can accept the challenge, to think that there are only small things, small thoughts, everywhere and within every individual – ‘quantum thoughts’ or ‘fractal’ thinking. Truly democratic thought. For, what Laruelle offers us is a new vision of philosophy as a whole that is neither the right nor wrong representation of reality, but posits all thought, itself included, as a material part of the Real. The work of ‘non-philosophy’ is an experiment with what results in our knowledge from seeing philosophy in this way. It says, ‘think this: “all thought – including that of the ‘highest’ in philosophy – is a thing” – now what follows from that, if we take this thought as seriously as possible?’
Laruelle is identified pre-eminently with this term, ‘non-philosophy’ or, as he has called it more recently, ‘non-standard philosophy’. Non-philosophy is not, however, an anti-philosophy. Laruelle is not heralding another ‘end of philosophy’, nor the kind of internal critique of philosophy common in much post-Kantian European thought. The ‘non-’ in non-philosophy should be taken, therefore, in terms similar to the meaning of the ‘non-’ in ‘non-Euclidean’ geometry, being part of a ‘mutation’ that locates philosophy as one instance in a larger set of theoretical forms. Hence, Laruelle’s use of the term non-philosophy is neither a dialectical negation, nor even something contrary to philosophy. It simply enlarges the set of things that can count as thoughtful, a set that includes extant philosophies, but also a host of what are often presently deemed (by philosophers) to be non-philosophies and unthinking (art, technology, natural science).
It is crucial to realise that, despite its sometimes abstract and abstracted appearance, non-philosophy is a practical theory; indeed, it is a performative practice – it does things (to philosophy and to ‘Theory’ generally). This practice of non-philosophy involves taking the concepts of philosophy and extracting any transcendence from them in order to review them so that they are no longer seen as representations, but re-envisioned as parts of the Real. Thought is identified with the Real; it is immanent to it – this is Laruelle’s opening hypothesis or axiom.
And philosophy, in this view, also becomes the material of non-philosophy: it transforms the speech of philosophy into its own speech acts. On account of this apparent ventriloquism, non-philosophy will often look similar to philosophy – like simply ‘more philosophy’, be it Spinozist, Derridian, Deleuzian, Badiouian…. This impression itself is neither false nor true but simply the product of philosophical narcissism, which cannot see anything other than itself in other forms of discourse. So, for example, Laruelle’s idea that thought should think of itself as immanent to the Real, rather than as a representation that transcends it, looks like something that Gilles Deleuze might say. Yet Deleuze would say it in the name of his philosophy, with all its architectonics of virtual vs. actual, organism vs. BwO, war machines, rhizomes, etc. – hence Deleuze’s desire to explain the Real. Even though Deleuze embraces multiplicity and a variety of kinds of thought (artistic and scientific as well as philosophical); nonetheless, the highest thought, the creation of concepts, belongs to (Deleuzian) philosophy alone – he explains the Real: not Boulez, nor Artaud, nor Bacon. For Laruelle, however, there is no explaining the Real, because every thought, Deleuzian or not, philosophical or not, is as good or as bad an explanation as any other – for they are all (non-summative) material parts.
Of course, the philosopher’s perennial response to such ideas will be, ‘how does he know all this?’ ‘How does Laruelle know (or explain) that thought is a part of the Real?’ And his answer will simply be, as it must, because it is Real. He replies to an epistemological demand, a desire for a philosophical account of himself, with a non-philosophical performance. Indeed, this is the only way that Laruelle can reply without returning to philosophy, that is, to providing a sufficient reason for epistemology and so re-entering the circular game of ‘how do you that you know…?’ The question that really follows from ‘all this’, then, is whether this performance is the sign of an arrogance in his thought, or an experiment in removing arrogance, in making all thought as democratic and as universal as a thing.
Admittedly, Laruelle can sound Kantian here (human thought cannot represent the ‘thing in itself’ but only in a mixture of its own constitution with the raw manifold of things in themselves). Yet non-philosophy is a more extreme position than that, because it is not just metaphysics that is asked to forego its supposed power to represent reality, but any philosophy that would hope to represent anything real, that believes that it can adequately think the Real through its own self-appointed powers (of questioning, wonder, deduction, induction, intuition, will to power, affective encounter, sympathy, selfless attention, and so on). Laruelle’s challenge concerns all self-styled philosophical thought especially, including the logic of inference – it is not the critique of a so-called metaphysics of knowing alone. Kantian transcendental deduction must be included in this line-up of methods in as much as it too believes that reality can be thought, or inferred, through its own philosophical method. Each method of philosophical thought, because it hopes to represent the whole exclusively, misses its target in part, because it is partial (just one method). Yet this is not to say that each and every philosophy misses it entirely. The Real is indifferent to, or resists, each attempt at representing it, because every thought (philosophical or non-philosophical) is already a part of it.
Nonetheless, there are still those post-phenomenological or non-Kantian realists who claim to bypass the general Copenicanism and representationalism of Continental philosophy (the self-styled ‘object-oriented’ or ‘speculative’ realists), yet who, all the same, unwittingly abide by a representational structure for their own thought – that is, they still believe in the power of philosophy to account for the Real. Indeed, they regard anyone who would beg to differ as wholly ‘arrogant’, misreading the non-philosophical hypothesis for a self-attribution of even greater powers than those allowed to philosophy. However, their judgment can be traced back to an inability to see a rejection of arrogance as anything other than simply more arrogance, a blindness due to the fact that they prefer to think in only one mold, that of representational thought, even as they disavow it.
For instance, in Graham Harman’s recent review of the translation of Laruelle’s early work, Philosophies of Difference, he refers to ‘the remarkable arrogance with which Laruelle’s theory is presented’ on account of it reducing the form of various different philosophies to one representational (or ‘decisional’) type, irrespective of the individual contents of each. And Laruelle is pretty much damned on this evidence alone (other than Harman saying that Laruelle writes poorly and, at 74, is ‘old’, unlike his ‘younger’ friend Quentin Meillassoux who, at 44, is young): he says nothing about the details of Laruelle’s work other than to précis the chapters of Philosophies of Difference. The phrase ‘hatchet job’ was invented for reviews like this, no matter how blunt they transpire to be. Of course, much could be said here in reply – not least the arrogance of anyone accepting to do a review despite having read next to nothing by Laruelle beyond the one text at hand – but the crucial point to be made is that this ‘arrogance’ only appears to the philosopher who either cannot accept certain aspects of Laruelle’s approach, namely its attempt to integrate the philosophical form of thinking within a consistent theory of immanence (such that its opening axiom obviously makes no sense); or, will not accept other aspects of it, such as the fact that, contra Harman’s faith in the transparent singularity and worthiness of notions such as ‘clarity’ and ‘proof’, a non-philosophical approach would contest whether their meaning is singular at all. Do we have a clear and universal concept of ‘clarity’, for example (that would avoid the obvious circularity of the question in its answer)? Harman remains insensitive to the force of such questions, seeing ‘method’ and ‘form’ as issues only concerning effectiveness (in capturing reality) and communicative facility (in convincing others of one’s mastery).
Another reason for Harman’s mostly ad hominem review stems from his faith in only specific forms of rhetoric or ‘prose style’ – ones like his own for the most part – such that Laruelle’s writing is castigated as ‘generally abominable’. The fact that Harman prefers easy-to-read, quickly consumed forms of philosophical writing – i.e., ones that he can recognize effortlessly as ‘philosophy’ – over anything that challenges these norms, could simply be put down to a parochial approach to philosophical writing, though this would be to respond with further ad hominem criticism. Alternatively, that aspects of Laruelle’s work come close to Harman’s own ideas concerning ‘object-oriented ontology’ (the latter being a fascinating mélange of quasi-Husserlian objective phenomenology and sub-Latourian actor network theory), might encourage one to read Harman’s hatchet-job as entirely strategic: a pre-emptive strike in an anticipated ‘turf-war’ of some sort (at least in his own mind). Finally, that the work of Ray Brassier – Harman’s one-time collaborator in ‘speculative realism’ but now happily estranged from that band of brothers – is also strongly influenced by Laruelle, might lead one to think of Harman’s caustic attack as a small act of revenge on Brassier by proxy. But, again, this point would be entirely ad hominem, and also a ridiculous over-statement. Indeed, this entire paragraph is a parody of Harman’s style and thereby both self-refuting and self-fulfilling (though it is probably a shame that I decided I should ‘break character’ in order to point this out).
The more helpful inference one can make from Harman’s review, therefore, is that it shows the general tendency of philosophies to take representationalist form despite their best, or worst, intentions – to mediate everything through themselves, and so to be blind to the mystery of how they, or any one else, should be able to have complete ‘insight’ into reality – to explain. In contrast to the verdict that condemns Laruelle’s ‘arrogance’, therefore, there is the option to seen his approach as what it hypothesises itself to be, a thought that is part of the Real. He invites us into this view in order to allow us to experiment with the effects that follow from this knowledge. This is his hypothesis or axiom. This axiom itself, of course, can be taken as simply one more philosophical stratagem: such is the philosopher’s prerogative and even essential trait.
One might even say that Laruelle is not offering us a new theory at all (nor a meta-theory), but an alternative ‘stance’ or ‘posture’, a new way of seeing theory: for philosophy to think of itself as immanent to the Real is merely to simplify itself, to see its own practices under the axiom/stance of a consistent materialism that thereby implicates is own enunciation. Philosophy can choose not to do this, as it normally does, but non-philosophy simply is this shift in self-perception. Let me illustrate this a little further. I described non-philosophy above as a ‘ventriloquism’ of the other (one that plays dumb so that it can re-enact the speech of philosophy) – this was a way of understanding what Laruelle means when he says that non-philosophy ‘clones’ philosophy. But perhaps a better analogy for this ‘cloning’ is in the game of charades. There are three basic approaches to playing charades that can be compared with philosophy and non-philosophy. The first two, and most common methods involve one player analyzing the name of a film, book, play, etc., into its component parts – either words or, at a finer level of analysis, syllables. Then, those words or syllables are mimed to the other players; that is, an attempt is made to show what those individual words refer to in the world so that the players might guess the name correctly. The problem with this method is that, all too often, the player who guesses correctly does so on account of already knowing the relationship between the mime and the word’s being mimed (frequently because he or she knows the person miming quite well and the way that his or her mind works, that is, the associations he or she habitually makes in ‘their world’). The method is circular: they have arrived at the name by miming a world already shared with others, not by miming the film or book or play itself. The second most common strategy is to take the words or syllables and convey them by analogy with other words (‘sounds like’) that are easier to mime, perhaps because they are terms coming from biology or physics – something concrete. This would be a reductive approach, though, that only gains its success by making the verbal analogy an end in itself – miming a physical phenomenon, say, rather than a film.
Laruelle, however, takes the third, least common and most ‘abstract’ approach, and tries to mime the film, book, or play in one gesture, in itself and as a whole (not via its name). If philosophy as a whole were the chosen object, then non-philosophy mimes philosophy ‘in-one’ go, that is, in one gesture, and as part of the ‘Real’ (which he also calls the ‘One’). Philosophy is not broken down into its component terms (Aristotelian wonder, Cartesian doubt, Hegelian dialectics, Heideggerian questioning, or whatever else) as though one of those terms could stand for the whole of philosophy. This would only work for those who already believed that all philosophy is, in essence – i.e. when good, when true, etc. – Heideggerian, or Hegelian, or some such thing. Nor is it conveyed by reducing it to another domain such as physics, neuroscience, or linguistics. That, again, would simply assume that this reductive domain already is identifiable with philosophy, a move begging the question as to what philosophy is (which was the whole point of the charade in the first place – to mime philosophy as a whole, universally). Laruelle, instead, takes the charade seriously both because he wishes to convey the identity of all extant philosophies equally – not just of one of its parishes to its own devotees – but also because it is a mime that respects the whole of philosophy, while at the same time (re)viewing it in a new light.
Certainly, then, Laruelle’s is a strange thought, but its strangeness partly stems from its attempt to be utterly consistent. What for some appears to be a reductio ad absurdum, is for Laruelle embraced as the rigorous conclusion that any thought of absolute immanence should accept, were it to be consistent (though whether the concept of consistency, or rigour, can itself be taken as a given, is another matter). Does all of this make Laruelle special, or utterly ordinary? Or might such an ordinariness, a call to the ordinary, make Laruelle’s ideas special, when so many are looking for the recognizably ‘extraordinary’, ‘radical’, ‘transgressive’, and so on? If so, it is a special status that is open to all, because what it says is that philosophy – the discipline that appropriates for itself the exclusive right to think at the highest levels of thought – does not have a monopoly on these powers. Being ordinary, seeing philosophy in ordinary practices is not, despite the term’s associations, easy or simple. It involves a huge effort to reverse, or ‘invert’ our intellectual habits, to perform the democracy of thought, and refuse to try and explain the Real, and to ‘dominate’ other forms of knowledge. Non-philosophy is not ‘a “model” or “system” closed in on itself’, he says: it is ‘a practice of – and in – thought’ and is thereby open to all the mutations and corruptions that come with such practice (which, contra the proverbial opinion, never ‘makes perfect’ but always remains open).
Extract from ‘The Non-Philosophical Inversion: Laruelle’s Knowledge Without Domination’ – introduction to Laruelle and Non-Philosophy, eds. John Mullarkey and Anthony Paul Smith, forthcoming Edinburgh University Press, August 28, 2012