Is “Non” Baseless? (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

Given a book such as this, which does so much so well, to approach a response by way of summation or comprehension is to risk binding oneself to cliché or dilution. Better, perhaps, to just pick up one of the singular insights with which the book is littered. One of these insights is embedded in Smith’s analysis of Quentin Meillassoux’s critical reading of François Laruelle. Following Smith’s own incisive account, the point of this analysis is not to start another intra-philosophical war, now between Meillassoux and Laruelle. It is rather to give attention to, or to study, what it is about Laruelle’s thought that remains unthinkable by philosophy, or by the sort of work named and called for by philosophy. This is to say that Meillassoux’s misreading of Laruelle, and the critique that depends upon this misreading, can be taken as an indication of the incommensurability between standard philosophical practice and the practice of thought that is at issue under the name “Laruelle.”

The term “incommensurability” is my own, not Smith’s. And this is also true for another, connected term that I’d like to mention, “unrecognizability.” Nonetheless, the problematic addressed by incommensurability and unrecognizability is the very same problematic that Smith is taking up in his reading of Meillassoux and Laruelle. When Smith makes the point that I’ve mentioned above—that Meillassoux’s misreading and critique of Laruelle depends on a standard philosophical approach that cannot accede to Laruelle’s non-philosophy—he does so by observing the role of the “non-,” or of negation, or even more broadly of negativity. For Meillassoux, non-philosophy can exist only by way of the negation of philosophy; first there is philosophy, and then there is non-philosophy—and this must be the case because non-philosophy is a negation of philosophy. On Meillassoux’s reading, then, non-philosophy depends on philosophy. Yet as Smith rightly points out, “This is a misreading of Laruelle’s project,” for “the ‘non’ in non-philosophy is not a negation of philosophy, it is a mutation of philosophical practice, which takes its posture from a non-Euclidean geometry (which, of course, is not a negation of geometry!)” (69). It is, most definitely, a misreading. The question that emerges, then—at least for me—is that of articulating the misreading. In other words, given the misreading, how should we articulate the character of the act of misreading, and how should we articulate the character of that which is misread? Or, put otherwise, how should we articulate the habit or practice of standard philosophy (indicated by Meillassoux) and the habit or practice of non-philosophy?

This is also to ask about the articulation of the difference, or the non-relation, between these habits. I have suggested the use of the term “incommensurability.” I am intrigued by whether this term can be taken as equivalent to, a radicalization of, or a contradiction of, the phrase that Smith uses in order to describe Laruelle’s own indications: non-philosophy is a “mutation of philosophical practice.” (And I should emphasize that I take this phrasing as Smith’s description of Laruelle, rather than as something essential to Smith’s own overarching argument; while Laruelle is obviously key for this argument, the argument well exceeds Laruelle and is more precisely a use of Laruelle. In fact, all of what I write here is a question already posed by Smith’s argument: how does one use, or practice, Laruelle’s non-philosophy?)

Let me try to get more explicit about what I think may be a significant difference between incommensurability and mutation. The latter is further articulated by Smith’s observation “that non-philosophy is not a new philosophy but a new practice that uses philosophy” (69). The accuracy of this description is indicated by his citation of Laruelle, who remarks that “Non-philosophy is not the mass negation of philosophy … but another use of it” (69). Now, what I am a bit suspicious of is the notion that the enactment of the “non” can also be the enactment of a use of philosophy. Let me make clear that I agree with the claim that non-philosophy is not a negation: when Meillassoux says that non-philosophy is a negation of philosophy, he is quite wrong, and so a defense of Meillassoux’s reading is not at issue. Non-philosophy is not a negation—but what keeps it from being a negation of philosophy is its insistence on a practice that is autonomous from the practice of philosophy. If this is the case, then what is not so clear to me is the capacity of non-philosophy, as a practice autonomous from philosophical practice, to still call itself a use of philosophy (or even of philosophical material).

In other words, if non-philosophy is autonomous from philosophy, then why claim (as Laruelle does) that it is another use of philosophy? To say this, it seems to me, is to allow the assumption that non-philosophy is still, despite everything, somehow in a relation with philosophy. While Meillassoux is wrong to say that non-philosophy is a negation of philosophy, his misreading depends on that idea that, no matter what, non-philosophy must be in a relation with philosophy. (In fact, a “non” would be a negation as long as it is related to that to which it says “non.”) Hence the most powerful refusal of Meillassoux’s misreading of non-philosophy as negation—which is to say, as relation—is to articulate non-philosophy in such a manner that it refuses any suggestion of relation between non-philosophy and philosophy. What incommensurability does, I think, is articulate this refusal in a way that is more insistent than allowed by phrases such as mutation or another use of philosophy.

We might think of non-philosophy, then, as the enactment of incommensurability, or as thought that proceeds from encounters with that which is radically incommensurable with philosophical practice. In putting it this way, we would refuse in a more thoroughgoing manner any hint of analogy between, on one hand, the practice named by non-philosophy and, on the other, the practice of philosophy to which non-philosophy says “non.” This is also to say, then, that the practice of non-philosophy is one that axiomatically refuses analogy, that axiomatically insists on the priority of the “non” to every philosophy, and that in doing likewise insists on the priority of unrecognizability to every practice (or practical horizon of) recognition. In fact, we could even say that this priority of unrecognizability, or of non-recognizability, indicates an ethical axiom: the claim that what is encountered is non-recognizable is not a negation of recognition, it is rather an ethical demand that should be insisted on in its autonomy from the very need for and horizon of recognizability. Accordingly, what is ethically at stake is not an equitable distribution of recognition, but rather an encounter from, according to, and insistent upon non-recognition.

Such an ethics would not be based on recognition, recognizability, or the expansion and/or undermining of recognizability. This may already be obvious. What may be less obvious, though, is that such an ethics not only refuses the basis of recognition, it furthermore (or more radically) refuses to recognize a basis. In other words, an ethics of non-recognizability is necessarily baseless. (I have tried to express the notion of baselessness in this essay / this talk.)Accordingly, what is unethical, first of all, is the desire for a basis, the search for something on which to base ethics. And this point, I think, extends to philosophy as well: philosophy is unethical insofar as it belongs to a desire for a basis. I’ll return to this “desire for a basis,” i.e. to Meillassoux, in just a moment. Before doing so, let me just remark that I don’t think it’s odd to shift from talking about philosophy and non-philosophy to talking about ethics. This is because ethics is prior to philosophy whenever we conceive of philosophy in terms of a practice: ethics has to do with practices, whereas philosophy—and perhaps non-philosophy—is just one instance of a wider set of practices.

Or, to be a bit more blunt, we might recall that Spinoza’s central philosophical text was not named in philosophical terms, but instead: Ethics. Here, in fact, I would argue that the central concern is to articulate a practice of thought that refuses idolatry, or—put otherwise—that refuses the practice of desiring and seeking a basis. Accordingly, another question about Laruelle is this: If non-philosophy names another use of philosophy, then should this other use be understood as one according to ethics, i.e. according to an insistence on the practice of baselessness? And if so, is ethics, or baselessness, what articulates the “non” to philosophy, such that philosophy could be used without thereby becoming philosophical practice? And if this, too, is so, then would it be possible to name non-philosophy without any relation to the name of philosophy? That is, would it be possible to name non-philosophy instead as “ethics of no,” which then happens to have implications for philosophy—namely as the ethics of saying no to philosophy—but just as well has implications for all kinds of other things to which we ought to say no? … Put as simply as possible: Is the “non” about the enactment of baselessness, which can also be enacted in the neighborhood philosophy claims to possess, or is the “non“ about finding a different use for philosophy?

I ask this, among other things, because it has to do with Meillassoux and Laruelle. If non-philosophy is about finding a different use for philosophy, then it could be read—it wouldn’t have to be, but to say it again, “could” be read—as an attempt to save, to redeem, philosophy. And it seems pretty clear, at least to me, that Meillassoux is all about saving things or providing a basis for redemption, so much so that his desire to preserve some kind of hope, his language of advent, and his concern for a future God make him a speculative missionary. In fact, by saying that philosophy must be, or that it must be first, and by then saying that Laruelle’s non-philosophy cannot avoid being a negation of philosophy, Meillassoux not only defends philosophy’s anteriority—his thesis about radical contingency seems not to extend to philosophy, which survives the thesis and remains a kind of sacramental medium—he also positions all consequent negations of philosophy as attempts to make philosophy better, or (more dramatically) to save philosophy from its limits. Non-philosophy, I think, is not about such salvation. But if I’m right, then an insistence on non-philosophy’s baselessness, rather than on its alternative use of philosophy, is central.

The essence of what’s at stake boils down to Meillassoux’s account of his own thought—in his own words, cited by Smith—as “trying to understand how thought is able to access the uncorrelated” (68). For Laruelle, as Smith notes, this is not a concern. Non-philosophy’s concern is not that of access, for the Real is not something one thinks to, not something in relation to which one does the work of accessing. On the contrary, the Real is articulated via a logic of antecedence: one thinks from, or according to, the Real, rather that towards or in search of it. This difference of Meillassoux and Laruelle is, not coincidentally, the difference between orthodox Christianity and what got interpellated as “Gnosticism.” The former, like Meillassoux’s philosophy, set forth a work of accessing (through Christ) the beyond, the divinity that was, back in its day, the great outdoors. The latter, like Laruelle, insisted that there was no need for access, that knowledge is unlearned—perhaps definitionally unpossessable—and so the very call for the work of accessing redemption had to be refused from the beginning, or before it even began (hence the logic of antecedence).

Given this last, my concluding question has to do with the notion of ecology. I want to observe, in case it is not already clear, that even as Smith has written a book making use of Laruelle, he has also, and moreso, articulated a broader and more powerful argument by way of ecology. My question, then, has less to do with Laruelle as such than with how Laruelle is used in the sort of ways that Smith has used him. Bluntly put: Is it possible to articulate nature not only as perverse, but also as baseless? Or, could the ecological insistence on death be understood as an insistence on such baselessness? Such questions slide back into the sort of dilutions that thinking should refuse. But the very fact that I can think them, or articulate them in the first place, has to do with the fact that when I articulate them I am not in the “first” place—I am instead expressing an energy unthinkable apart from the book that Smith has written.