The Case for Non-Standard Philosophy

by Omar Baig

“One day, after I had completed my studies” at École normale supérieure, philosopher François Laruelle reminisces in From Decision to Heresy (2012), “I sat at my desk and I cleared away all the books of everything that had already been written” (1). On a blank sheet of paper, Laruelle resumed taking notes, except this time he scoured himself for insights. Before starting his master’s thesis, “The Absence of Being,” however, he saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s moody, atmospheric film, La Notte (1961): inspiring Laruelle to inform his legendary graduate supervisor, Paul Ricoeur, of his intent to abandon their planned exegesis of G.W.F. Hegel’s early work. After earning his doctorate, he spent the next three decades quietly pondering the materiality of philosophy and, by the 1980s, explored philosophy as the material for an art. 

A single frame from the 1961 Italian drama film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1961 Italian drama, La Notte: starring Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti (with a cameo by Umberto Eco).

Instead of pursuing so-called philosophical wisdom, Laruelle wondered if he could make art with philosophy or make poetry of thought that expresses “something poetic with concepts.” He sought to “forward some philosophical thesis” or “practice that could destroy, in a certain way, the classical usage of philosophy” (Heresy, 29). His first five books, from 1971 to 1981, offered fairly standard critiques of French and German philosophers: like Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Giles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Derrida; yet he did not probe “the destruction of philosophy” until his sixth and seventh books in 1981 and 1985. Deconstructionists, like Derrida and Ricoeur, momentarily eclipsed the then prevailing phenomenological approach of their predecessors, such as Husserl and Heidegger: “only to become precisely a repetition of Philosophy or philosophy qua philosophy” (Principles, xiv).

Even these iconoclasts, however, had ultimately protected the dignity of philosophy and bared the burden of their homage, affirming the very tradition they once rebelled against: which relies on opposing poles, or philosophical dyad—like subject vs. object, transcendental idealism, etc.—claims to “reinvent” how human’s access or translate between their subjective experiences and an external reality. Yet philosophers can neither “objectively” translate reality into definitive true or false statements nor verify its claims outside their recursive expression (i.e., by language games): which both over- and under-determine reality with each account. In short, philosophy was made for man, as “the pure and general form of the World and the World as the immanent object of philosophy,” but man was not made for philosophy (xx). Instead of philosophical homage, Laruelle integrates scientific theories and practices to life.

Post-Unfashionable Nonsense

The humanities journal, Social Text, published Alan Sokal’s article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the Spring/Summer of 1996, for their special “Science Wars” edition. Its editors, however, published his article without a formal peer-review process or even a round of editing: given Sokal’s academic credentials as a mathematician, physicist, and professor. Their decision would unwittingly flame over three decades of scientific distrust of postmodern philosophy as obscurantist sophistry. Sokal cited many post-structuralist academics that engage with scientific theories: like psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, semiotican Julia Kristeva, and sociologist Bruno Latour. “Finally, any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated,” Sokal argued, yet “no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content.” 

In quantum gravity, to use Sokal’s example, “the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality. Geometry becomes relational and contextual, as “the foundational conceptual categories of prior science—among them, existence itself—become problematized and relativized.” Sokal can see hints of a future postmodern, or liberatory science, in the nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; or in catastrophe theory’s “dialectical emphasis on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding,” alongside chaos theory. Newer branches in the tree of science, Sokal concluded, will give way to new trunks and branches: of which “we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive.” Ironically, Laruelle, would likely agree with Sokal’s tongue-in-cheek conclusion, despite being made in bad-faith. 

Since this hoax, Laruelle advanced his own quantum-inspired, non-standard philosophy, which neither dismisses nor negates external reality, like solipsism. Instead, non-philosophy tries “to think what philosophy, science, theory and practice can do for human beings,” by neither standardizing its philosophical outlook nor accepting “the common, nearly unconscious, everyday notions of what exactly a human is, does, or means” (Principles, xv). It must penetrate reality to “transcend our currently uninspired philosophy of history, politics, and science” (10-11). A unified theory of science and philosophy is both operatory and theoretical and scientific as much as philosophically identical: neither empirically justifying nor invalidating its comparison to human experience. The heart of non-philosophy, according to Dictionary of Non-Philosophy (2016), is its “dual dimension” of the World and the One (or of man). 

“The World is the Authority of Authorities,” Laruelle explains, “whereas the One defines the order of Minorities or Strangers.” “We must no longer think the People in the mesh of philosophy,” Laruelle argues in “Theses on the Philosopher Without Qualities” (1984) but as integrally determined by the People. The identity politics of Minorities may form or be taken in their exchanges with the State or by how integrated they are in a unitary economy, but the State may also be “determined by Minorities.” Philosophy is minoritarian, because there is no “philosophy of Minorities.” The generic Man-in-person’s quantum superposition with the Victim-in-person comprises the ethical modality of humans, i.e., outside the traditional dichotomy of criminal vs. victim: which perpetually lags in the recognition or support of actual victims; yet this backward-glancing modality is always-already too late to protect them from State oppression or genocide. 

A General Theory of Victims 

François Laruelle resists framing humans by their existential or subjective immanence, in A General Theory of Victims (2015), which no longer forms a sector of philosophy, but instead “its usage under condition,” as the sole object of ethics (10). The loss of man’s opacity and “his dissolution in chemistry, biology, and physics, in all the possible histories and cultures,” is reduced to vanishing traces. As man withdraws into the radical non-consistency of immanence, they vanish in their own identity: by over-representing the interests of others as their own (15-6). “The first task of an ethics,” Laruelle claims, should be “the defense of humans divided up or divided against themselves.” The fusion of the victim and the thought attached to it, “as a function of a single lived wave,” reproduces “the victim and the intellectual” as an algebraic vector—which “experiences compassion experimentally and not contemplatively” (19-20). 

The media over-represents the victim as a new ethical value: “a point of condensation and effervescence, of the exacerbation of ideological conflicts” (1). Intellectuals privilege victims by their objects of testimony, “which actualized and bore witness to it.” Victims must pass an ethnic and technological threshold of racism, by “becoming interesting and visible” enough for intellectuals to take notice or for the media to quantitatively report on their victimization (3).  Embedded intellectuals do not orbit around victims, but power; their defense of victims “becomes a pretext for the exercise of the intellectual’s narcissism” (47). Western philosophy’s sideline view of imperial forgetfulness refined the gesture of “looking away” from evil and death. A principle of compassion must therefore upend classical philosophy’s sufficient conditions of pity, vengeance, and heroism.

A general theory of victims extended “the concept of the victim and its causes and dramatized it,” but as “an exception to the proper philosophical order.” Goodness places “ethics directly in man’s essence” and exposes a vicious circle of “history’s ironic, surprising, and cruel refutations” (14). Human rights form a universal and dispersed victimology with “a blank slate of eternal truths”: by “somewhat vicious ad hoc explanations,” which reductively distinguish innocent victims from their criminal victimizers, by the “stratum of political, racial, catastrophic, and humanitarian determinations” (xvii). The blind spots or aporias of victimary discourse marginalizes the man-in-the-world as “their subject, the old man” (99). Liberal or reparative justice tries to establish a legal tribunal, backed by a broad international consensus: to offer reparations to victims, reverse the unjust gains of criminals, and rebalance the scales of justice.

The non-sufficiency of reparative justice, however, “ultimately demands the victim to be persecuted a priori, but in a non-sufficient or non-necessitating way” (97). Man is fundamentally a victim, or an object of evil and is “occasionally a criminal: in a contingent and virtual way that belongs to his essence as a victim” (13-4). Quantum superposition’s procedures of interference offer an alternative or generic victim that is “irreducible to psychological or social identification” (9). Under these procedures, the hierarchy between victims and criminals breaks down into a thousand pieces: which “still make the world, but no longer make mankind” (xvii-xviii). A unilateral duality of man-in-the-world and the victim-in-person “must now become generic or futural,” as a vectorial coming that is not only human or “resistant to positive persecution,” but is prior-to-the-first-in-Person (102-3).

Non-Theology, Non-Aesthetics, and Non-Marxism 

François Laruelle develops a non-theology, in Future Christ (2010), which transcends and transgresses against religious and philosophical authority structures that “meddle with free thought.” Both ethics and religion exude an infantile hope, Laruelle continues: “a yearning for a silly beatitude and bring to light a hypocritical theodicy.” The devices-of-the-church “lull” human beings into “the system of Grand Conformity,” as their subjects-of-the-World (20). Instead of “the reciprocal or circular causality of philosophy and its limited unilateral modes,” the coming resurrection of Christ as a radical modality is marked by its determination-in-the-last-instance (xxix). Universal salvation must work through the person of Christ, as the Arisen-in-person. This has “prior primacy” over the operation of resurrection, as “the generic lived experience” is grasped as insurrection proper and made liable to “the superposition of the two rivers, of life and of death” (110-1). 

Non-aesthetics transform “philosophy in recourse to peripheral categories traditionally belonging to the artistic domain” (Dictionary, 36). Its first constant states, “any artistic act can be combined with any act of thought,” with no limit. The second forms combinations, according to a principle of generalized relativity, “like fractal-islands of thought on art,” by touching “upon the works themselves” or “constituting an equivalent poetics.” Finally, the third axiom stops non- aesthetics from “congealing into a system of sufficiency” that “again returns to a philosophical illusion” (37). Countless photographic negatives tell of the world by “speaking in clichés among themselves,” Laruelle argues in Non-Photography (2011): “constituting a vast conversation,” located nowhere (9). This non-onto-photo-logical view of photography’s essence proceeds from a viciously self-reflective approach to “its historical, technological and aesthetic conditions.”

Non-photography is the only unitary duality that runs parallel to the World, yet is played out elsewhere, rather than “within it” (44). In Introduction to Non-Marxism (2015), Laruelle describes an impossible theory that “neither represents the Real as simply unrepresentable, nor by “a negative knowledge of the Real” (179). Yet real identity is given prior to worldly givenness, in its multiplicity, and divests “itself of all vestigial traces of representational logic.” The historical materialism of Marxism, and its “inability to embrace the full radicality of the infrastructure and superstructure,” entailed a constitutive remainder of philosophical sufficiency that “must be suspended.” Its infrastructural “base” reflected a radical immanence of the last-instance that is “foreclosed to every superstructure,” except as a symptom and as a limited model of this real base. 

Non-Marxism seeks to realize “what every philosophy, even idealist ones, believes philosophy” can do: i.e., to transform the World, “no longer through meaning and interpretation, but at last to change the world practically” (102-3). As a science of ideology, non-Marxism specifies the historical form of Marxism, while resolving its theoretical antimonies from within: i.e., as “a possible domain of available objects and properties.” This immanently lived heresy is enacted in everyone, against the capitalist World: “it is a hallucination but one which possesses a consistency or an objective reality,” as that of the World: both as thought or represented and as lived in all possible worldly identities and relations (26). Its determination-in-the-last-instance is “a causality that is simultaneously real, universal, immanent, and heterogeneous or critical,” and is not included in Aristotle’s four forms of the causality of Being (i.e., final, material, formal, efficient)” (44).

A New Ecological Science

In The Last Humanity (2020), Laruelle finally examines ecology as both a science of knowledge and a discourse on human communities or greater ecological collectives. It displaces philosophy in at least three ways: life without daily guidance, thinking without metaphysics, and rigor without positive biology. Ecology is “less biological” or empirical in a traditional sense, and more quantum or transcendental: based “on the algebra of complex or imaginary numbers, requires the creation of new terms or a regifting of meaning to old ones” (xvi). Human, animal, or plant “all pass into the rushing flux of a generalized death” that “we may call ecological” (vii). Climate change “pushes ecology as a way of thinking to the fore of human consciousness,” which discovers “how such boundaries are set” or how “communities are created through the exclusion of strangers” (x). “In-sistence” links objects for the lived to the Earth, “ex-sistence” to the World, and cloning to the Universe. 

Modalities include life without daily guidance, thinking without metaphysics, rigor without positive biology (xvii). The lived(-without-life) collapses to the surface of the living, as the lived as a horizon marginalizes the World and as the vertically lived experience of the Universe. There are two central theses: “one strictly quantum or matrix-esque,” which reduces all living things as “aleatory subjects to vectors” and another, to “the imaginary number, the specifically generic other and cloning of non-biological lived experiences.” The first views man as an animal that “makes animality human, or by extension and variation, man is a plant that humanizes plantness,” or “man is an earthly being that humanizes the earth” (5-6). Whereas, the generic cloning of the aleatory subject, by the quantum process of the infra-structure, no longer indexes the World, “but the Universe as a dimension of superposition” (8). All living beings comprise one of three ecological objects: the Earth (which is the I” of the living), the World (which is their body), and the Universe (which is their sky). 

Humans are embedded in the Earth and the Universe, which de-coordinates us or de-situates us: “one through the collapse that works it, the other through the infinite where it is lost” (12). MAP (or man, animal, or plant) entities cannot be ‘separated and/or mixed” in a rationally transcendent way: as their “non-separability is neither that of represented entities” nor entities in-themselves, “but of vectors.” Whereas, generic ecology is neither “based unilaterally on philosophy alone” nor “on biology and chemistry alone,” but by a hierarchy of infinite problems. The non-separability of human subjects differs, as an entanglement without mixture, by its “quantumly formalized conjugation, across transcendent mixtures,” i.e., as between-oneself, between-each, and between-all (141-2). Positivist ecology is “molded to itself and its sufficiency, as a consumer of philosophy,” which may exploit, at will, “philosophical or natural environments, funds, and stocks.” 

Biologism generically under-determines the subject as clone: by being “just a coat rack holding up prosthetic technologies” (145-6). The degrowth of the animal-world must protect the weakest animals from man’s philosophical sufficiency and servitude, as capital for eco-philosophers: who will further “the science of men” or human multitudes, into a unified theory of the Stranger (150). Modern and Postmodern intellectuals have appropriated the Ancient and classical relations “between man and the city, man and the logos, man and the cosmos,” while being “hooked on man as being-in-the-world or being-in-the-city, etc.” No treatise of man as real Identity, François Laruelle concludes, “has ever seen the light of day.” A unified theory of ecology and philosophy may further map the relations between human vs. non-human or World vs. Universe.