Axiomatic heresy

The non-philosophy of François Laruelle

RP 121 () / Article

There are at least two ways of evaluating philosophical originality. The most obvious is in terms of what a philosopher thinks. As well as proposing novel philosophical theses concerning the nature of being or truth or knowledge, a philosopher may produce new sorts of claim bearing on history, art, morality, politics, and so on. Another way of evaluating originality is in terms of how a philosopher thinks. There are philosophers whose most conspicuous claim to innovation resides not so much in what they think but rather in how they think. They propose a fundamental change in the way philosophy is done – a revolutionary break, a new beginning. Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Husserl are perhaps the most celebrated examples, but figures such as Frege or Russell also deserve a mention. That their putative innovation may, on closer inspection, turn out to be pseudo-revolutionary or essentially conservative is irrelevant here. What is relevant is their avowed ambition to effect a total transformation in philosophical method, to have reconfigured both the formal means and the substantive aims of philosophizing. Thus, the novelty of what they think is less important than the newness of how they think. Which is to say that any substantive claims philosophers like this make about history or nature or art or politics can only be appraised in light of the revolutionary innovation they purport to have brought about at the level of the form of philosophical thinking.

It will be objected that this is an entirely superficial distinction and that the canonical philosophers in the European tradition combine both dimensions of originality in varying proportions: their work marries a greater or lesser degree of formal inventiveness to a greater or lesser degree of substantive innovation. And of course Hegelians or Deleuzeans will be quick to point out that in Hegel or Deleuze we have formal invention and substantive innovation bound together in perfect equipoise. Heideggerians or Derrideans will be equally quick to point out that Heidegger or Derrida wed formidable abstract inventiveness to Axiomatic heresy The non-philosophy of François Laruelle detailed concrete analyses in a way that cannot be mapped back onto this clumsy form/content schema. Notwithstanding this clumsiness, however, and the ease with which exceptions and counter-examples can be summoned, this admittedly simplistic schema remains useful if only because it provides us with a basic frame in terms of which to begin gauging the originality of a thinker who has a serious claim to being the most important unknown philosopher working in Europe today: François Laruelle.1

What makes Laruelle so singular is that he may well be the first European philosopher in whose work substantive innovation has been wholeheartedly sacrificed in the name of total formal invention. This is a polite way of saying that, unlike his more illustrious peers,2 not only does Laruelle not make novel philosophical claims about being or truth or knowledge; he also has nothing much to say about history, ethics, art or politics – or at least nothing that would make any kind of sense outside the parameters of his own severely abstract theoretical apparatus. Those deliciously ʻsubstantialʼ titbits with which it is customary for the philosopher to placate the publicʼs appetite for ʻconcretion ʼ are entirely lacking in his work. ʻShow me an example of an example, and I renounce this bookʼ, Laruelle once quipped.3

The truth is that his thought operates at a level of abstraction which some will find debilitating, others exhilarating. Those who believe formal invention should be subordinated to substantive innovation will undoubtedly find Laruelleʼs work rebarbative. Those who believe that untethering formal invention from the constraints of substantive innovation – and thereby transforming the latter – remains a philosophically worthy challenge, may well find Laruelleʼs work invigorating. Regardless of the response – whether it be one of repulsion or fascination – Laruelle remains indifferent. Abstraction is a price he is more than willing to pay in exchange for a methodological innovation which promises to enlarge the possibilities of conceptual invention far beyond the resources of philosophical novelty.

Thus, Laruelleʼs importance can be encapsulated in a single claim: the claim to have discovered a new way of thinking. …