‘Principles of Non-Philosophy’ reviewed by Stanimir Panayotov

Principles of Non-Philosophy

translated by Nikola Rubczak and Anthony Paul Smith, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, 344pp, $29.95
ISBN 9781441177568

Reviewed by Stanimir Panayotov

About the reviewer

Stanimir Panayotov is a PhD candidate in comparative gender studies at Central European University, …


Principles of Non-Philosophy is a book central to a specific trajectory of François Laruelle’s oevre. Understanding this trajectory is no easy task. The book lays out the grounds of an incendiary, yet humble way of thinking called “non-philosophy,” which took an apprenticeship within philosophy for over 20 years. To contribute to the task of understanding this very ambitious work, in this review I will focus on its impact on, and connection to, political thought and philosophy.

In approaching this work, the reader should have four considerations in mind. First of all, Principles sets the standards of a specific period of Laruelle’s life, commonly referred to as Philosophy III. Chapter 1 is an outline of the transition to Principles as the mature phase of non-philosophy. Secondly, because it is hard to label Laruelle a systematic philosopher, the book should not be read as foundational to his work as such. His current period, namely Philosophy V, which develops a so-called non-standard philosophy, is not a mere derivation; each of Laruelle’s periods has an inventive aspect. Thirdly, Laruelle’s thought is not political per se, though this should not be confused with the notion “non-political.” Instead, it is “axiomatic,” which, to Laruelle, simply means it does not relate to politics, science, and philosophy. This does not mean his thought is not politicizable, it means that it proceeds through thought procedures that precede the invention and the subsistence of the political subject. In the fourth place, this is not a book for Laruelle beginners or occasional enthusiasts in non-philosophy: I would advise the reader to approach Principles after, or along with, the work of scholars such as Anthony Paul Smith, Katerina Kolozova, John Ó Maoilearca and Alexander Galloway.

 As mentioned, the Principles is not a political work, it is non-political. This means that it is positively relational to philosophically impoverished thought, and the procedure aims at objectifying and radicalizing concepts. Laruelle’s apophatic prefix “non” is dramatized throughout the entire book in maddening detail, and we can say that the “principles” aim at explaining the prefix. To grasp it, one has to operate with the simple idea that non-philosophy is a mode of working with philosophy as “materials” for non-philosophy (3). Principles generally has the task of explaining how philosophy mutates into the working materials for non-philosophy, an axiomatic thought that begs the question about how to think thought in an unreflected manner. This is a thought without philosophical morphism. Laruelle substitutes this form of morphism for what he names “force-(of)-thought,” which he calls “a new experience of thought” (3-4). This is a universal form of its own givennes, and a self-grounding that opens the gates for Laruelle’s own democratization of thinking itself. How is this performed, and what principles render this possible?

To answer, I suggest to look at Principles as it relates to the “human.” Non-philosophy can be enacted only through a “cloning” of phenomena, i.e. acting according to the Real. There is no “sublation” of the Real, as it is unilaterally foreclosed to us. Non-philosophy does not aim to serve neither philosophy, nor itself, but the human. Yet one has to abandon all of the human to reach the human. Laruelle’s theory of the Real is radically alien to the procedures of philosophical reason. This is the sense – and the effect – of the Real’s “unilateral duality”. Only under the alien hubris of the Real to us, and it’s almost mystical non-relation and non-translatability (14), can one follow the non-philosophical project. The call for “transcendental impoverishment” of philosophical concepts denies the sublation of ideas; ideas descend to Man in the name of Man. Yet, Principles is not a plea for the (re-)humanization of the human. It is a distinctly demanding effort both to radicalize contemporary humanism and to differentiate it from its absolutist invariants, namely transhumanism as well as posthumanism. The translators testify to that by calling non-philosophy “non-humanist” theory (xv). This is why Principles should be seen as a project for human radicalism (for it is neither humanist radicalism nor radical humanism). In Laruelle’s conceptual cosmology, a maxim rules: it is not man that is made for philosophy, it is philosophy which is made for man, or, as the translators’ introduction underlines, the task is “to think and create theory for human beings” (xii). Thus, Principles presents a thought of radically human reason, driven by Laruelle’s theory of the Real. Since this is a radically human, but not humanist thought, it is immanently rather than inherently political.

Here lies the rub of non-philosophy’s immanently political consequence, which is best revealed in Chapter 2. To not think thought within the determinations of thought itself is to unearth the essence of thought as democratic. Doing this means simply to practice non-philosophy; not doing it is to exercise thought as a dialectical superiority. This is the sweeping pretension of Laruelle and his followers, namely that non-philosophy is able to demarcate and operate with the “pre-speculative” state of the world (Chapter 6 presses this point to its extreme). The question for Laruelle is to invent a thought that outstrips philosophy, but is not a “meta-philosophy” (9). Non-philosophy responds to the simple desire to know the object; it is thus not an absolutely isolated anti-philosophical enterprise, as it needs to work with the materials rather than the objects of philosophy. This chapter best represent the political consequences of non-philosophy for philosophy.

As for the principles themselves, they are “only a treatise on the non-philosophical method” (xxiv). According to the translators, whose introduction has to be read as a contribution to non-philosophy itself, what they do is to define the “mature phase” of non-philosophy, and to provide an “operating manual” for practicing non-philosophy as an exercise of democracy in thought. The aforementioned maxim offers the key to “apprehending,” rather than “understanding” these principles as a handbook for practicing a theory that is not dominating the humans.

How do these principles concern politics and notions of equality and democracy? In a section called “Introducing Democracy into Thought” (Chapter 2, 48-52), which I take as central for this review, Laruelle explains his notion of the division between philosophy and science, and how these are distributed in philosophical groupings according to Identity and Difference. In a Deleuzian version of this division, difference dominates; in a Badiousian version, difference disappears. Laruelle’s own, third way is entitled “unified theory” (of philosophy and science). By this, Laruelle describes an overcoming of the convertibility of both fields as they constitute an “epistemological difference” by excluding reciprocity. The relations of reciprocity form a “reversible antidemocracy” (69). In contrast to antidemocracy, only the force-(of)-thought could establish a democratic order of thought outside the realm of reification (213). This third option is not dependent upon its relation to Being or Difference; a relation is kept, but it is not a “blending with”. Through his “unified theory” Laruelle devises a theory for a concept of democracy which would “not already be political and so philosophical” (49). The solution of unified theory brings about not a theoretical democracy but a theory of democracy. Historically, philosophy has made itself equal or superior to science in order to be an exception from it, thereby producing itself as a “blind-spot” of epistemology. Since the task of non-philosophy is to submit philosophy to “regional knowledges,” unified theory diminishes this pretension and is offered as the egalitarian solution.

Why does Laruelle say that his concept of democracy is not political? Clearly, this must be because that would entail the introduction of a philosophical epistemological difference into the order of thinking the political from the “material”. This would form a blind-spot of thinking. Only the Real can have the supreme status of “unilateral duality”, not philosophy. “Non-philosophical democracy” is not a principle, but an effect of the levelling of philosophy and science. To call Laruelle’s non-politicalness a “relativism” is therefore misleading; the non-political is the practical effect of not exercising philosophy’s antidemocratic politics over thought. Real, pure equality would be one “which does not return to differences”, and which is of “transcendental identities” (49). It clones the behavior of the Real-One to us, that is, its indifference. Equality is non-political, as an effect of the non-political and unified democracy of philosophy and science, since equality is non-philosophical. Very boldly, in the very late pages of the book, this is conceptually generalized as “transcendental democratization” (281).

It seems that Laruelle argues for a sort of “pre-speculative democracy”. This is a project of (post-Kantian) peace; it aims to introduce peace into thought (14), and to “establish […] peace within the relations of thought” (287). If in thought, there is a problem of democracy, this is not the political democracy of identities in reconciliation and reversibility. The conceptual tool for this non-epistemological and non-political democracy is Laruelle’s notion of the force-(of)-thought, namely, a transcendental identity which is not thought itself, and which is not thinking of thinking (so that it does not render non-philosophy a meta-philosophy). Force-(of)-thought posits the equal status of philosophy and the regional knowledges, such as the arts and sciences, etc.. Thus, we could say that the task of synthesizing the principles of non-philosophy is to introduce democracy into the relations of philosophy with these knowledges (293).

As a result, Principles of Non-Philosophy constitutes a foundational supplement not only to our philosophical culture and behaviorism, but also to today’s limits of theoretical penetrability. To process the significance of the said non-politicalness proposes an even more challenging task for the political thinker and actor, even if one could stomach Laruelle’s style, which is quite orderly, and thus not all that “French”. The success of Laruelle’s project, and its impact for theoretical and political “radicalism”, has been gradually unfolding for the last 10 years or so. The biggest problem in the Principles would be that the force-(of)-thought appears to be the blind-spot of non-philosophy itself, and thus “clones” a philosophical explanatory irreducibility in itself. This, as well as the indifference of the Real, which is among his major claims, mixed with the non-political character of Principles, make it very difficult to measure Laruelle’s success in his ongoing global reception. In political and particularly Marxist terms, non-philosophy’s influence has been taken up in predictably obscure geopolitical and academic venues (though this is changing), and a rather small activist and political niche has been influenced by his other books, such as Anti-Badiou and Introduction to Non-Marxism, where he addresses consequences of the “unified theory” proposed in Principles. The political ramifications of his thought constitutes a slow process, and so far it has influenced more effectively the worlds of arts and theology rather than philosophy departments and political organizations. This is, I think, due to the tendency in his Anglo-Saxon reception to speak of his “heresy.” Those readers who would venture to read his (non-)politics with this in mind would do him disservice, as our very notion of heresy is coined by the Church Fathers, which are people Laruelle does not quite appreciate in his mystical writings. However, if Laruelle indeed is a contemporary heretic, the reader should make room on her shelf for Principles of Non-Philosophy because his philosophy is first of all a heresy of the mind, secondly of politics, and finally, a heresy for the Marxian enthusiast. The latter should be warned that her enthusiasm might radically wither away.

14 June 2016

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