Axiomatic heresy

The non-philosophy of François Laruelle

RP 121 () / Article

There are at least two ways of evaluating philosophical originality. The most obvious is in terms of what a philosopher thinks. As well as proposing novel philosophical theses concerning the nature of being or truth or knowledge, a philosopher may produce new sorts of claim bearing on history, art, morality, politics, and so on. Another way of evaluating originality is in terms of how a philosopher thinks. There are philosophers whose most conspicuous claim to innovation resides not so much in what they think but rather in how they think. They propose a fundamental change in the way philosophy is done – a revolutionary break, a new beginning. Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Husserl are perhaps the most celebrated examples, but figures such as Frege or Russell also deserve a mention. That their putative innovation may, on closer inspection, turn out to be pseudo-revolutionary or essentially conservative is irrelevant here. What is relevant is their avowed ambition to effect a total transformation in philosophical method, to have reconfigured both the formal means and the substantive aims of philosophizing. Thus, the novelty of what they think is less important than the newness of how they think. Which is to say that any substantive claims philosophers like this make about history or nature or art or politics can only be appraised in light of the revolutionary innovation they purport to have brought about at the level of the form of philosophical thinking.

It will be objected that this is an entirely superficial distinction and that the canonical philosophers in the European tradition combine both dimensions of originality in varying proportions: their work marries a greater or lesser degree of formal inventiveness to a greater or lesser degree of substantive innovation. And of course Hegelians or Deleuzeans will be quick to point out that in Hegel or Deleuze we have formal invention and substantive innovation bound together in perfect equipoise. Heideggerians or Derrideans will be equally quick to point out that Heidegger or Derrida wed formidable abstract inventiveness to Axiomatic heresy The non-philosophy of François Laruelle detailed concrete analyses in a way that cannot be mapped back onto this clumsy form/content schema. Notwithstanding this clumsiness, however, and the ease with which exceptions and counter-examples can be summoned, this admittedly simplistic schema remains useful if only because it provides us with a basic frame in terms of which to begin gauging the originality of a thinker who has a serious claim to being the most important unknown philosopher working in Europe today: François Laruelle.1

What makes Laruelle so singular is that he may well be the first European philosopher in whose work substantive innovation has been wholeheartedly sacrificed in the name of total formal invention. This is a polite way of saying that, unlike his more illustrious peers,2 not only does Laruelle not make novel philosophical claims about being or truth or knowledge; he also has nothing much to say about history, ethics, art or politics – or at least nothing that would make any kind of sense outside the parameters of his own severely abstract theoretical apparatus. Those deliciously ʻsubstantialʼ titbits with which it is customary for the philosopher to placate the publicʼs appetite for ʻconcretion ʼ are entirely lacking in his work. ʻShow me an example of an example, and I renounce this bookʼ, Laruelle once quipped.3

The truth is that his thought operates at a level of abstraction which some will find debilitating, others exhilarating. Those who believe formal invention should be subordinated to substantive innovation will undoubtedly find Laruelleʼs work rebarbative. Those who believe that untethering formal invention from the constraints of substantive innovation – and thereby transforming the latter – remains a philosophically worthy challenge, may well find Laruelleʼs work invigorating. Regardless of the response – whether it be one of repulsion or fascination – Laruelle remains indifferent. Abstraction is a price he is more than willing to pay in exchange for a methodological innovation which promises to enlarge the possibilities of conceptual invention far beyond the resources of philosophical novelty.

Thus, Laruelleʼs importance can be encapsulated in a single claim: the claim to have discovered a new way of thinking. By ʻnewʼ, of course, Laruelle means ʻphilosophically unprecedentedʼ. But what Laruelle means by ʻphilosophically unprecedentedʼ is not what philosophical revolutionaries like Descartes, Kant, Hegel or Husserl meant by it. Laruelle prefers heresy to revolution. Where philosophical revolution involves a reformation of philosophy for the ultimate benefit of philosophy itself – and a philosophical stake in what philosophy should be doing – heresy involves a use of philosophy in the absence of any philosophically vested interest in providing a normative definition of philosophy. This is not to say that Laruelleʼs heretical use of philosophy is anchored in a refusal to define philosophy; were that the case, there would be nothing to distinguish it from cynical Rortian pragmatism. On the contrary, what makes the Laruellean heresy interesting is the way it provides a philosophically disinterested – which is to say non-normative – definition of the essence of philosophy.

Like the revolutionary, the heretic refuses to accept any definition of philosophy rooted in an appeal to the authority of philosophical tradition. But unlike the revolutionary, who more often than not overturns tradition in order to reactivate philosophyʼs supposedly originary but occluded essence, the heretic proceeds on the basis of an indifference which suspends tradition and establishes a philosophically disinterested definition of philosophyʼs essence, or, as Laruelle prefers to say, identity. This disinterested identification of philosophy results in what Laruelle calls a nonphilosophical use of philosophy: a use of philosophy that remains constitutively foreign to the norms and aims governing the properly philosophical practice of philosophy. And in fact, ʻnon-philosophyʼ is Laruelleʼs name for the philosophically unprecedented or heretical practice of philosophy he has invented.

Yet despite its name, this is neither an ʻanti-philosophy ʼ nor yet another variant on the well-worn ʻend of philosophyʼ theme. It is not the latest variety of deconstruction or one more manifestation of postphilosophical pragmatism. Non-philosophy is a theoretical practice of philosophy proceeding by way of transcendental axioms and producing theorems which are philosophically uninterpretable. ʻUninterpretableʼ because Laruelle insists – and reactions to his work certainly seem to bear him out – non-philosophy is constitutively unintelligible to philosophers, in the same way that non-Euclidian geometries are constitutively unintelligible to Euclidian geometers.4 Thus, Laruelle suggests that the ʻnonʼ in the expression ʻnon-philosophy ʼ be understood as akin to the ʻnonʼ in the expression ʻnon-Euclidianʼ geometry: not as a negation or denial of philosophy, but as suspending a specific structure (the philosophical equivalent of Euclidʼs fifth axiom concerning parallels) which Laruelle sees as constitutive of the traditional practice of philosophy. New possibilities of thought become available once that structure has been suspended and non-philosophy is an index of those philosophically unenvisageable possibilities.

Consequently, if non-philosophy can be contrasted to the postmodern pragmatistʼs ʻsupermarket trolleyʼ approach to philosophy, where the philosophical consumer ʼs personal predilections provide the sole criterion for choosing between competing philosophies, and where the academy now figures as a sort of intellectual superstore, it is not as yet another theoretical novelty – the latest fad, the next big thing – but as a means of turning the practice of philosophy itself into an exercise in perpetual invention.

How is such a practice possible? Why should it be necessary? And what worth does this enlargement of possibility for thought have? These are the questions we propose to examine in what follows.

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Notes

1. Born in 1937, Laruelle is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris X–Nanterre, where he has taught since 1967.

2. For instance: Althusser, Badiou, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan, Lyotard, Serres.

3. Au-delà du principe de pouvoir, Payot, Paris, 1978, p. 7.

4. The radically heterodox character of Laruelleʼs thought, its sheer unclassifiable strangeness, has consistently managed to provoke hostility and bewilderment not only among the guardians of philosophical orthodoxy within the French academy but also among his relatively unorthodox philosophical peers. The unfortunate result, after a certain degree of intellectual notoriety among the Parisian avant-garde of the 1970s, has been a position of almost total intellectual isolation. Laruelle continues to inspire a peculiar mixture of derision and fear among his fellow philosophers. Derision, because his work is deemed utterly ʻincomprehensibleʼ. Fear, because those same philosophers, who are used to baffling the uninitiated, find their own inability to understand Laruelle unsettling. Yet, contrary to what these philosophers maintain, there is nothing obscurantist or wilfully esoteric about Laruelleʼs work. Understanding it is not a matter of initiation: it does not entail exhaustive familiarity with a corpus of sacred texts replete with all manner of lexical trickery or obscure wordplay. The difficulty presented by Laruelleʼs work is entirely objective: it is a matter of learning to think in a way that is radically unlike the way one has been trained to think if one is a philosopher. And having learnt to think non-philosophically, the point is to put this technique into practice to see what it is capable of producing. Laruelleʼs work presents the reader with an organon, an instrument which one needs to learn how to use so as to be in a position to gauge its potential, not a system or world-view whose doctrines invite assent or dissent.