French philosopher François Laruelle is most often invoked by contemporary political theologians for his thoroughgoing criticism of ‘the world’: a structure of relation which presumes the coherence of all things, and enacts their enclosure within the categories of philosophical and theological thought.
‘The world,’ or ‘this world’ often functions as a shorthand for what is most unavoidably real; even if ‘this world’ is to be resisted or refused in favor of ‘another world,’ the grammar of our speech insists that thinking which denies the world as such is thinking which fails to face the world as it is. To be ‘worldless’—or to be ‘poor in world,’ to borrow a term from Martin Heidegger—has become a philosophical, and indeed, even a racial epithet.
The fact that worldlessness so often serves as an epithet, however, points to the ordering function of the concept of the world. Far from pointing to what is most immanent, or what is most unavoidably real, the world, according to Laruelle, is a correlate of the claim that what is real coheres. To insist that what is real takes the form of a world, in other words, is to insist that what is real can be sufficiently captured by one or another form of thought. The world, if we follow Laruelle, is a philosophical construction, or a kind of ‘transcendental illusion.’ If worldlessness functions as an epithet, it is only because the very fact of worldlessness offers an implicit rebuke to any presumption of the need for the coherence offered by the world.
Insofar as Laruelle is, first and foremost, an internal critic of European philosophy, this criticism of the world follows from his criticism of a structure of thinking he refers to as ‘philosophical decision.’ In order to be apprehended as ‘philosophical,’ Laruelle claims, thought must claim to adjudicate the status of other thought. The philosopher ‘decides’ on a set of terms which ‘cut the world at its joints’—and this decision implies the capacity to put other forms of thought ‘in their place,’ so to speak.
Laruelle sees this decisional structure as an invariant feature of philosophical thought. Immanuel Kant’s famous distinction between ‘transcendental’ and ‘empirical’ registers of thought, for instance, is mirrored in Heidegger’s claim that science, unlike philosophy, ‘does not think,’ or Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s claim that the ‘creation of concepts’ is an activity reserved for the philosopher alone. Philosophy, in other words, may not aim to replace, or even to correct, other forms of thought—including science and art, religion and politics—but, at the very least, it reserves for itself the capacity to say what it is that these other forms of thought mean.
The terms of Laruelle’s criticism of ‘the world’ thus echo those of critiques of ‘the secular’ that will be familiar to scholars of religion, and to practitioners of political theology. Indeed, the history of the terms in play immediately suggests this parallel: the English word ‘secular,’ political theologians will recall, derives from the Latin saeculum, and is often traced back to the Augustinian distinction between ‘this present age’ or ‘the age of this world’ [saeculum saeculi] and the world to come [futuro saeculo]. Just as ‘the secular’ presents itself as a kind of ‘immanent frame’ or a common space of public reason, claiming to set the terms on which ‘particular’ traditions may interact, according to critics like Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, or Charles Taylor—and, as a result, serves to buttress the universalizing pretensions of political secularism—’the world,’ likewise, presents itself as the common space of thought, and undergirds the universalizing pretensions of European philosophy and Christian theology.
This parallel between the criticism of the world, and the critique of the secular, however, implicates not only the universalizing pretensions of philosophical thought, but the relation between thought and the real presumed by traditional inquiries into political theology. Political theology, especially insofar as it continues in the legacy of Carl Schmitt, tends to presuppose a relationship of cause and effect between one form of thought—theology—and the political character of the present world. According to Schmitt’s formula, the concepts which structure the modern state are, in fact, secularized forms of prior theological concepts. Thus, there is a line of causality which runs from theology to the state: from theological concepts to political concepts, and from the concepts of state to the form of the state itself.
This structure is common to a great deal of inquiry into political theology after Schmitt, even when the categories which concern Schmitt’s own thinking are explicitly rejected. And, where this causal relationship itself is rejected, it is often only in order to re-establish this relationship in an inverted form. Even when political theologians do not structure their inquiries around an attempt to identify the theological concepts at the root of modern political structures, they are often engaged in an attempt to identify the modern political structures which generate certain forms of theological thought.
As Asad, Mahmood, and others have pointed out, the former tendency—to inquire into the theological origins of the political—often reinforces, rather than undermines, the universalizing pretensions of Christian theology. It tends toward an image of the modern world as a kind of Christian heresy: a tendency which is made explicit in the work of ‘radically orthodox’ theologians, or in the romantic criticisms of modernity offered by writers like Eugene McCarraher. But the opposing tendency—to explain contemporary theological claims and religious movements as the result of political conflict—likewise tends to reinforce the universalizing pretensions of secularism itself: it tends to position theological ideas as mere ‘effects’ of the political, economic, and social relations which precede them.
Laruelle’s proposal is, in part, to ‘suspend’ the act of decision that establishes the conceptual grammar of European philosophy. This entails, as a corollary, an insistence on the radical autonomy of the real from the terms by which thought determines or ‘decides’ upon it. In his ‘middle period’ works, like Principles of Non-Philosophy or Introduction to Non-Marxism, he characterizes this as an insistence on “unilateral duality.” From the perspective of thought, there are two things: thought and the real, where the ‘real’ is captured by terms like ‘being,’ or ‘the world.’ From the perspective of the real, however, there is only [O]ne: the real is indifferent to the difference between thinking and being, and, as a result, indifferent to the idea of a causal relationship between one and the other.
In terms more familiar to the political theologian, the idea of a causal relationship between theology and the political presumes in advance that there are two things: ‘theology’ and ‘politics.’ These two tend to stand in for other familiar divides: between ‘theory’ and ‘practice,’ for instance, or ‘ideal’ and ‘material,’ or ‘transcendence’ and ‘immanence,’ even if the roles assigned to each vary with the political-theological inquiry in question. Thus, debates in political theology tend to repeat, in new forms, old debates about the relative priority of theories or practices, ideas or concrete social relations. What Laruelle calls the political theologian’s attention toward is, in part, the way that these old debates are structured by the same grammar of ‘decision’ that animates European philosophy; and what Laruelle offers to the political theologian is a set of tools to identify and ‘suspend’ this grammar of decision.
Of interest to the political theologian, then, is the fact that this criticism drives Laruelle toward an engagement with the categories of ‘gnosticism,’ ‘mysticism,’ and ‘heresy’—categories often levied as accusations against modes of thought which refuse the coherence or the goodness of ‘this world,’ or of ‘the world’ as such. It also places him in unremarked proximity with a number of otherwise diverse theorists in Black studies—including Frank Wilderson III, Jared Sexton, and Denise Ferreira da Silva—who take Frantz Fanon’s insistence on “the end of [this] world” as one possible point of departure for a global critique of modern philosophical ontology and regimes of representation. While Laruelle has yet to explicitly address this connection himself, it has been given sustained attention by writers like Anthony Paul Smith, Daniel Colucciello Barber, and Nicholas Eppert.
Even after this global critique has been offered, however, the question remains: what is to be done with philosophy and theology? What is to be done with the world? Laruelle’s commitment to a radical immanence entails a commitment to the idea that even if these forms of thought are pretenders to the position of transcendental judgment in which they place themselves, they are still, in a certain sense, all we have to work with. The master’s tools may never dismantle the master’s house, as Audre Lorde famously claimed, but the only materials available for melting into plowshares are his swords.
Laruelle’s response to this problem is the practice of what he calls, alternately, ‘non-philosophy’ or, more recently, ‘non-standard philosophy.’ Non-standard philosophy is not a rejection of philosophy, but a means of working with philosophical concepts while suspending their claim to decide upon the real: it is a means of treating philosophies as ‘regional’ knowledges, or, to borrow language that may be more familiar to political theologians, a means of ‘provincializing’ philosophies and philosophical concepts.
A comparison might be made here to the Marxist notion of ‘real abstractions’—a term drawn from Marx’s comment in the Grundrisse that our present society is one ‘ruled by abstractions,’ and which was later developed systematically by Alfred Sohn-Rethel in Intellectual and Manual Labour. Indeed, Laruelle’s own engagement with Marx in Introduction to Non-Marxism makes a direct comparison between Marx’s methodological treatment of abstraction and Laruelle’s own practice of non-philosophy, culminating in the claim that the practice of non-philosophy makes good on a Marxian methodological promise that Marxism itself—in which “matter and thought, being and consciousness continue to reciprocally determine each other within an all-encompassing philosophy”—cannot.
Laruelle does this ‘provincializing’ work through a kind of axiomatization or formalism. Just as non-Euclidean geometries—another key point of reference for Laruelle—suspend Euclid’s parallel postulate in order to open up alternative formalizations, Laruelle’s suspension of the postulate of ‘philosophical decision’ is meant to enable a formal treatment of philosophical concepts as materials for thought, one which does not proceed on the basis of philosophy’s claim to determine the real. Instead of asking which philosophy correctly represents the real, Laruelle asks: what do—and what can—philosophical concepts do?
Readers new to Laruelle will likely find this insistence on formalization to be one of the most difficult features of Laruelle’s approach. Not only the terminology, but the very ‘syntax’ (to use his own term) of Laruelle’s engagements with the history of philosophy are idiosyncratic and difficult for new readers to parse. Whether this difficulty proves worth the effort—and whether Laruelle’s attempts to ‘democratize’ thought succeed—will remain an open question for each new reader. Further, it remains an open question whether Laruelle’s ‘global critique’ of philosophy is adequate to the more specifically racial criticisms of modern thought offered by the thinkers like Wilderson, Sexton, and Ferreira da Silva mentioned above. But in any case, Laruelle provides a fellow traveler for political theologians who are dissatisfied with political theology’s causality-based account of the theological-political relationship, and for critics of the secular who are interested in the formal commitments entailed by the rejection of the ‘common space’ of the world.
François Laruelle, Principles of Non-Philosophy, trans. Nicola Rubczak and Anthony Paul Smith (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).
While some elements of his thought have moved on in the intervening years, this book remains perhaps Laruelle’s most readable statement on the overall project and impetus of ‘non-philosophy’—or, as he has described it more recently, ‘non-standard philosophy’—available in English to date.
François Laruelle, General Theory of Victims, trans. Alex Dubilet and Jessie Hock (Malden, MA: Polity, 2015).
In part, this book is a criticism of the ‘use’ of the victim as a kind of exemplar or figure in a symbolic economy of redemption. It is one of the most forgiving points of entry for a reader new to Laruelle’s concerns, and demonstrates the implications of his global critique of philosophy for ethical thought.
François Laruelle, Christo-Fiction: The Ruins of Athens and Jerusalem, trans. Robin Mackay (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
This book is one of Laruelle’s most sustained engagements with gnostic and mystical themes, and presents the most developed version of his treatment of theological materials yet available in English translation.