‘Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux’ reviewed by Bryan Cooke

Reviewed by Bryan Cooke

About the reviewer

Bryan Cooke is the Secretary of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. He has an overdue …


Christopher Watkin’s thoughtful, learned and above all deeply nuanced book about three major contemporary French philosophers brings a welcome depth, conceptual deftness and almost unprecedented sobriety to a topic (namely the relationship between philosophy, religion and politics) which more often than not is completely swallowed in a kind of bathetic tennis match between the ideological nostrums du jour.

Difficult Atheism, as its subtitle announces, is devoted to a formidable trio of contemporary French thinkers – Jean-Luc Nancy, Quentin Meillassoux and Alain Badiou, each of whom would, in everyday terms, “rightly pass as an atheist”, but who do not consider the properly philosophical task of atheism to have ended at the point a given individual has achieved skepticism about the existence of a transcendent godhead.

Rejecting the notion that atheism is as straightforward as a given individual finding the idea of God to be preposterous, unnecessary or pernicious, Watkin’s philosophers are instead selected for their assiduous pursuit of what he calls “post-theological integration”, by which term Watkin alludes to the possibility of a philosophical atheism which would neither be – in terms of the book’s ingenious opening typology – “imitative (parasitic)” nor “residual (ascetic)”. According to Watkin, ascetic (or residual) atheisms are philosophies which proceed by, firstly, excising discussion of any and all topics that might be addressed by theology as merely archaic absurdities unworthy of philosophical reflection and, second, spending inordinate amounts of time praising the courage or intellectual probity involved in making such a cut. The danger is that by forbidding philosophy any properly philosophical (i.e. rational-conceptual) discussion of the matter of religion, such an atheism potentially cedes vast swathes of human experience (and, worse, fundamental questions about reality) to a religious opponent who is more than happy to declare that she operates in an empyrean or emotional realm where stodgy, telluric reason fears to tread.

In contrast to “ascetic atheism”, Watkin sees “imitative” (or parasitic) atheism in the works of those philosophers, including Comte and Feuerbach, who claim to have dispensed with God while still retaining concepts, categories, and even the existential pathos which came from the belief in a divine creator (1-11).

Having laid out this typology in his Introduction, Watkin introduces his three philosophers. Where imitative atheism rejects God, but problematically retains structures and symbols that presupposed (and were thus grounded) in the idea of his existence; and residual or ascetic atheism attempts to cast off and burn everything that has ever been connected to religion out of what seems to be an ironically superstitious fear of contagion, each of Watkin’s three philosophers attempts, by contrast, to deal with religion by integrating some aspect of its form or content into a philosophical system that will surpass (or perhaps, better, “sublate”) religious or theological ways of thinking.

Starting with the work of Alain Badiou, Watkin focuses on the author of Being and Event’s attempt to contest philosophically what the philosopher himself (in his Briefings on Existence) calls the “god of the poets”. Badiou’s target is not so much a particular program in theology (a subject on which Badiou has had very little to say at any time in his career) but rather the philosophical tendency which he sees as at once underwriting and culminating in such theologies. Against this (broadly speaking) hermeneutic tendency, Badiou opposes his own attempt both to formalise and to trace the consequences of Lacan’s dictum that “truth is that which punches a hole in knowledge”. Central to this aspect of the philosopher’s thinking is the idea that truths are irreducible to the dimension of “sense” (best understood in the rich semantic-field terms of the French “sens”: meaning/sense/orientation) and thus to the Heideggerian thematics of concealing-revealing, donation and reception, grace and gratitude, transmission and translation. Instead, Badiou asserts that this focus on sense condemns philosophy once again to be the handmaid of a coy, sometimes covert and frequently apophatic theology while ignoring what for Badiou is the philosophy-inaugurating “interruption of the poem by the matheme”, i.e. an intimation (which Badiou thinks was first grasped by Plato) that it is possible for thought to think (or “inscribe”) the Real, or more in keeping with Badiou’s philosophy, to produce truths in a way that is not bound either to the limits of a natural language nor to the “always, already” meaningful world which the latter at once (in Heideggerian terms) discloses, conceals and, in another sense, constitutes.

In his account of these aspects of Badiou’s thought, Watkin provides a deft exegesis which somehow manages to unearth that Holy Grail of academic writing: being focused without being narrow. Alongside this account, Watkin will pose a number of acute critical questions about (among other things) the role of axioms in Badiou’s thought (103-11, 157-62, 189-92) as well as providing a terse, but devastating criticism of several of Badiou’s critics (Watkin names at different times Žižek, Simon Critchley, Daniel Bensäid, and Rancière) who mistake what Badiou himself calls his fondness for “the grand metaphors of religion” (99) as an excuse either to praise or convict him as a sort of Jesuit Manchurian Candidate in materialist clothing.

Watkin’s second thinker, Quentin Meillassoux, is best known for the work whose English title is After Finitude. However, as Watkin points out, After Finitude is itself a re-working of material from a much larger set of arguments which form the basis of Meillassoux’s (untranslated and also unpublished) doctoral thesis, L’inexistence divine . By far and away, Difficult Atheism’s best moments come from Watkin’s acute commentary on, and beautiful translations (unfortunately only in footnotes) from this extraordinary and, as yet, largely unknown philosophical masterpiece/monstrosity.

Of the three projects in question, none is more ambitious, nor more deserving of Watkin’s reference to “post-theological integration” than Meillassoux’s discussion of divine “inexistence”. In After Finitude, Meillassoux famously or infamously suggests that the bulk of twentieth century philosophy has been and remains mired in what he calls (strong) “correlationism”. By “correlationism”, Meillassoux is referring to the notion – which he sees as a kind of ur-doxa of twentieth century philosophy (allegedly at the root of phenomenology, hermeneutics and post-structuralist thought) – which takes for granted that classical metaphysical/epistemological questions about the relation between thought and reality are products of a pre-critical naïveté, because philosophical common-sense shows that we are “always, already” and inescapably within the correlate of noesisnoema, intuition and intention, subject and object, the sending (Ge-schick) of Being and its apprehension/errancy. Starting with a provocation about how such “correlationist” philosophy might make sense of scientific statements which refer to events antedating or post-dating life on earth (i.e. to that which pre- or post-date the possibility of such correlations), Meillassoux goes on to argue that correlationist philosophy, particularly in its “strong” (phenomenological-hermeneutic post-modern) form, risks either wittingly or unwittingly turning philosophy into an ally of fideism, by declaring the former’s impotence before any claims to reach the Absolute through extra-rational means. Against what he thinks of as correlationism’s dangerous sop to fideism, Meillassoux attempts to oppose a newspeculative philosophy, which, as such, affirms that the classical, rationalist thesis that the Real is thinkable even if it is not “imaginable” in sensory-intuitive terms. The startling originality of After Finitude lies in its truly remarkable attempt to link this project with the thesis that a) the very laws of the universe can “change utterly” at any moment for no reason whatsoever, and b) that, far from an outrageous hypothesis, this insight constitutes a fundamental demonstration of what can be achieved by pure (in the sense of non-empirical) unaided human reason.

In Difficult Atheism, Watkin contextualises these arguments in relation to the larger (and even more ambitious) project outlined in L’inexistence divine. The goal of the latter is to secure a speculative foothold for thought from which might follow a properly philosophical occupation of what theists and atheists alike have historically regarded as religion’s exclusive domain. In a wonderful line from the opening of L’inexistence divine, which Watkin uses as an epigraph for one of his chapters, Meillassoux explains the reason for this project by saying, in Watkin’s translation: “For the atheist, God is a matter for the priest; for the philosopher God is too serious a matter to be entrusted to priests” (164; original French, 132).

Departing from the idea at the heart of every monotheistic theology – that there exists an omnipotent and onmnibenevolent god – Meillassoux rejects the idea of God as an entity who exists (or indeed who has ever existed) while, at the same time, attempting to integrate aspects of the content of religion (including, the hope for a universal justice which would apply even to the dead) into a desire (apparently orienting political action like a regulative ideal) whose hope, and indeed intent is “to give birth to God, like matter gave birth to life and life to thought” (Watkin’s translation 234; in French, 208-9).

In outlining, but also guiding us through some of the aporiai of this project, Difficult Atheism is at its finest: sensitive, probing, insistent, but never allowing (as I suspect many will) the apparent extravagance of Meillassoux’s conclusions to count as sufficient reason to ignore the intricate tissue of arguments by which these are reached.

Alongside his accounts of the other two philosophers, the inclusion of Jean-Luc Nancy augments both the book’s complexity and its depth. Thus, while there are analogies between Badiou’s project and Meillassoux’s, Nancy’s recent attempt to produce a deconstruction of Christianity seems, in many ways, a very different creature than that of his fellow French philosophers. In particular, the paratactical, lyrical-rhapsodic expression of Nancy’s thought can sometimes make his thought sound so unlike that of the other philosophers under consideration that, at times, Difficult Atheism looks like it might be over-burdened by the task of finding common ground on which its three philosophers might be contrasted. Happily, however, Watkin manages to make this work through the bravura quality of his exegesis, and the care he takes in arranging arguments and critical commentaries. Watkin is particularly persuasive when it comes to why, despite Nancy’s unmistakable fondness for the word “finitude”, it is wrong to see the author of Being Singular Plural as simply a tragic panegyrist of the finite condition in the ways so mercilessly and effectively attacked by both Meillassoux and Badiou (73-80).

If I were to make any critical remarks about the book, it would be to say that while Watkin does an exemplary job not only of explaining Nancy’s often elusive arguments, but also of making them seem compelling and oddly beautiful, the mere juxtaposition of Nancy with Badiou and particularly Meillassoux can sometimes make it seem as if the latter authors were more open to criticism, simply because they have less frequent recourse to (what can occasionally seem like) Nancy’s habit of adding ever-more disjunctive predicates (“X is neither Y nor Z, but is Q while never being P”) to abstract substantives of his own invention. This is not, however, to fault Watkin, so much as to say that I think there are aspects of Nancy’s work that suffer from comparison with that of the other two thinkers.

Nonetheless, Difficult Atheism is a first-rate, profoundly illuminating book. Scholarly without being portentous, rigorous without being dry, it is the kind of book which retroactively renders whole shelves redundant. And while it is in no way a manifesto, nor a political tract in a conventional sense, I think that its reflections on justice and religion will be of interest to Marxists, for whom, after all – following Marx, and against 19th century positivism – atheism has always been difficult, precisely because it is tied to the project of a world where religious opiates will not be necessary.

27 February 2014

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