A Unified Theory (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature book event)

A unified theory — though not a theory of everything. Not philosophy of, with all its implications of dominance and omnicompetence (a philosophy of religion, of law, of fashion are all equally plausible), nor even simply philosophy and — but a unified theory of philosophy and some science. What is the status of this “theory,” this strangely undefined entity that is not a philosophy (or is it a non-philosophy?) and that seems strangely comfortable asserting the dread philosophical omnicompetence, indeed in an exaggerated form that claims not simply to account for the facts adduced by some other discipline but to provide the means precisely of unifying them?

Anthony’s book gives us a unified theory of philosophical theology (a pre-packaged combination that I won’t quibble with, given that I live it every day) and ecology. It adopts the “stance” of ecology, which is a thinking from the Real guided by the ecosystem concept. Within this unified theory, we learn that philosophies have varying degrees of biodiversity. Badiou’s particular ecosystem, for example, has room for four primary species of truth-procedures, but is dominated by mathematics. Thoughts occupy niches and respond to their environment. Sometimes the claims are very concrete and empirical, and sometimes they seem more or less metaphorical. Sometimes we are at the very physical level of needing to eat in order to think — and sometimes it turns out that the scholarly literature on given figures represent narrow niches. Yet none of these claims, we are assured, are mere metaphors. It is not a metaphor to say that books of philosophy are dead thoughts that need to be consumed to produce living thoughts, any more than it’s a metaphor to say that human thought is situated within a wider ecosystem or that the academic publishing industry produces certain over-specialized populations with narrow niches.

In a unified theory, then, we are not dealing with mere metaphor. I grant this. What I would like to ask, however, is precisely what we’re saying when we say it’s not a mere metaphor. There are two ways we could take it. One way — and I should say immediately that I don’t think Anthony is following this way, though the philosophical culture in which his book must find its niche makes this clarification necessary — would be to dismiss the merely literary realm of surface-level effects in favor of real thought. The other way — the more productive way that I believe Anthony is actually engaging with — would be the broadly Derridean refusal to ever allow metaphors to be “mere metaphors.”

But if it is the case that Derrida clears the way for the not-merely-metaphorical metaphor, then it means that the “unified theory” of non-philosophy is indebted to that ambivalent non-philosophy that we Americans call, precisely, Theory. This means first of all literary theory, which we might call a unified theory of philosophy and literature — and I believe we can see in Derrida’s own practice, at least, a rigorous refusal of the principle of sufficient philosophy, a genuine “democracy (of) thought” (look at that unpronounceable written artifact in the name itself!) that adopts the stance of literature in order to read philosophy and set its raw materials to work in a different way.

Perhaps it is only in the space of this prior de-throning of philosophy that something like the non-philosophical “unified theory” is possible — perhaps this strange space is the “where” that Marika and others have been seeking after. Perhaps the generic secular is the literary, and perhaps one might be able to detect something like this claim in Derrida’s “Literature in Secret.” For example. If this is the case, however, we should ask why the “unified theories” with which Laruelle teaches Anthony to be concerned are always unified theories of philosophy and a particular natural science.

Because one could put forward other examples of “unified theories.” One thinks immediately — at least if one is me — of political theology. One hesitates to call political theology a “democracy (of) thought,” not only because of the discipline’s fascist origins, but more fundamentally because of its emphasis on sameness, on homology. The Schmittian “sociology of concepts” (strange, this parallel phrasing) posits a fundamental homology between the legal and metaphysical-theological conceptuality of a given era — a homology that is grounded in what we might designate as the “master signifier” of each system (God or the sovereign). Other thinkers take this “sociology of concepts” further, unconstrained by Schmitt’s idiosyncratic agenda. Goux, for example, informs us of fundamental homologies between politics, theological metaphysics, linguistics (I have already made use of this homology above), economics, psychoanalysis, etc., etc. We find over and over the same structure, the same structuring principle, and the same consequences. It becomes repetitive, to be perfectly frank.

In this sense, the ecology (of) thought that Anthony proposes allows for more supple relationality — so that Badiou’s fixation on math can be hegemonic without being elevated to the level of a master signifier, for instance, a designation that would obscure the competition between math and politics in his thought. Perhaps we could view political theology as a narrow subset of potential democracies (of) thought (despite its potential for proliferation, its tendency to suck all the air out of the room). And of course, Taubes has shown us that “political theology” is itself only a narrow subset of potential political theologies, stuck within the fractal niche of catechontic thought. Anthony’s ecology (of) thought probably has a lot to teach us about how to account for the domination of this overly narrow concept of political theology, which has stamped out so much intellectual biodiversity.

I repeat, however, that this is not a metaphor. The field of philosophy is not “like” an ecosystem. We are not “comparing” them (though perhaps the Nancean notion of “compearance” is relevant). We are not raiding ecology and carrying its booty to the storehouse of philosophical concepts. Instead, we are “carrying over” the stance of scientific ecology into the philosophical field. One might even say that the ecological stance is “transposing itself” (sich versetzsen) into philosophy. It’s not an imaginative operation of wondering what it would be like for philosophy to be an ecosystem. It’s a genuine transposition — in which ecology remains ecology even in the unfamiliar terrain of philosophy.

In short, it seems like it’s exactly what Heidegger is doing with biology and zoology (and animal experience itself, he claims!) in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, a text that perhaps gets short shrift in Anthony’s account. The translators note that Heidegger’s engagement with science here is “astonishing” — certainly my students have been shocked, as we have read through this text over the last few weeks, to find Heidegger citing scientific studies, musing over bees and glow-worms and amoebae. One does not want to get bogged down in merely exegetical, pedantically scholarly concerns — and yet one would also like to register the humble suggestion that Fundamental Concepts is fundamentally different from Heidegger’s subsequent approach to science, that it represents the most promising aspects of the Being and Time project (which was always obsessed with science and indeed demonstrated profound knowledge of current debates in a range of scientific fields within its first ten pages) and begins to push beyond it.

Perhaps that is a step too far. In any case, it is an honor to respond to Anthony’s brilliant book, even if it is a challenge to do so in the wake of so many brilliant contributions to this book event.