Difficult Atheism reviewed in Derrida Today

derrida-todayThe latest issue of Derrida Today includes a review of my Difficult Atheism by Christina Smerick. You can read the whole review online for free here.

Watkin’s thesis is bold and unapologetic, and shapes the path of his reading and thinking with intense focus. His main concern, bordering on a battle cry, is that the ground gained by atheism is being lost once more to a new ‘colonisation’ by theism.

Watkin proceeds systematically and with an admirable thoroughness.

Reading Meillassoux produces ‘aha!’ moments, where he turns a philosophical concept on its head (as when he advocates for radical possibility, which must be if everything is necessarily contigent); Watkin does an admirable job of waking us up from our thrall and pointing out the deep problems with such seemingly magical moves.

Watkin accomplishes a daunting task in this book, managing to summarize and explain some of the most complicated, complicating works we have from these thinkers while at the same time issuing forth his own provocative thesis, thus finding points of commonality in unlikely places.

Talk at UD Melbourne on Aug 5 – Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux

On August 5 at 11am Difficult AtheismI will have the pleasure of speaking at the Melbourne University of Divinity philosophy seminar on the subject “Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux”. The talk seeks to synthesise and develop some of the main lines of thinking from Difficult Atheism and to open the argument of the book to a wider audience.

Here is the abstract:

This paper summarises and extends the argument of my 2011 book Difficult Atheism to argue that contemporary “atheism” is an umbrella term used to describe three distinct positions. I briefly explore these three positions in the work of French philosophers Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux, showing that they seek to position themselves in relation to the theological in three mutually exclusive ways. As well as being of interest to scholars working in contemporary French thought, the talk aims to offer to a broader audience a framework for understanding and evaluating modern atheisms.

Third Derrida Podcast: Derrida, Atheism and Theology

The third of the podcasts on Derrida and Reformed theology has now been released. The first considered questions of metaphysics and the second focused on Derrida’s ethics; this final podcast discusses Derrida’s engagement with theological themes.

I begin by discussing Derrida’s cautious affirmation that “I rightly pass for an atheist”, and try to dismantle the myth that, for Derrida, God can be whatever you want him/her/it to be. I trace Derrida’s rejection of the god of onto-theology and then explain why he returns to the trope of “x without x” (religion without religion, God without God…), using the example of “messianicity without messianism” and his affirmation of a democracy to come.

I note that, while Reformed theology shares with Derrida a rejection of the God of onto-theology, absolute personality theism is nevertheless very different from both the God of metaphysics and Derrida’s own position, and that introducing absolute personality Trinitarianism into the conversation shows that ontotheology and Derrida have a number of key commitments in common. After a brief discussion of divine accommodation in Calvin I contrast messianicity without messinaism with the account of predestination in Ephesians 1, offering a note of caution with respect to Derridean openness to the other-to-come. I finish by summing up some of the principles that I have found helpful in staging an engagement between Derrida and Reformed theology.

Derrida's theology

Bookending the crisis of modernity: Latour is finishing what Nietzsche mistakenly started

Nietzsche Latour

I’m currently writing the final chapter of The Human Remains, addressing Bruno Latour’s modes of existence project and work on Gaia in relation to Serres, Malabou, Meillassoux and Badiou’s accounts of the human. It’s all hands to the pump and there is little time to expatiate on this blog, but I couldn’t resist quickly drawing attention to one striking Neitzschean resonance in Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. One passage in NM struck me as reading inescapably like a “translation” (to use that pregnant Latourian term) of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman from Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, and handily enough this resonance provides a convenient vignette of something larger at stake in Latour’s thought: Nietzsche and Latour stand as bookends to the crisis of modernity. Here are the two passages side by side, Nietzsche first…

Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.  How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?[1]

Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and Formica?  Haven’t  we  felt  sorry  enough  for  the  consumer  who  leaves  the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?![2]

Nietzsche and the other preachers of the death of God are, according to the Latour of Facing Gaia, cosy “Epicurean tourists” who offer us a meal of disenchantment and meaninglessness, the taste of which is extinguished for Latour by stronger foods, namely Gaia and the anthropocene:

But it is only now, when geostory unfolds, that we realize how cosy it was to preach the ‘death of God,’ to frighten ourselves with the ‘absurdity’ of life, and to delight in the happy task of critique and deconstruction: those who used to enjoy those games remained like epicurean tourists comfortably seated on the shore, safely protected by the ultimate certainty that Nature at least will always be there, offering them a totally indifferent but also a solid, eternal ground. ‘Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis.’ This time: ‘Shipwreck with spectators!’[3]

Latour is finishing what Nietzsche (mistakenly) started, using some of the German’s own stylistic tools to get the job done.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

[2] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)  115.

[3] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, 110.

New review of Difficult Atheism at Marx and Philosophy

Over at Marx&Philosophy, Bryan Cooke (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference) has posted a review of Difficult Atheism.

The opening paragraph gives a flavour of the review’s tone and also of Bryan’s style, which, for all the right reasons, is best left undescribed:

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.

It is clear that Bryan found the chapters on Meillassoux most engaging, and after gently questioning the way I bring in Jean-Luc Nancy to sit alongside (and against) Badiou and Meillassoux, he concludes thus:

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.

It is a very gracious and elegant review, and I am grateful to Bryan for the time and care he clearly spent considering the book’s arguments.


Of ornitheology

flightless birdsHow do we decide if a particular philosophy is covertly theological? One all-too-common response to this question boils down to little more than a theological bird-watching expedition in which we don our binoculars, pick up our guide books and descend upon an unsuspecting article or book in the hope of catching sight of a Lesser Spotted Miracle or a Great Crested Messiah in the long grass. If we are lucky—or inventive—enough to clap eyes on a theological ornithoid, we tick it off our list, conclude that the terrain definitely smells of incense, and return home contended but, ultimately, none the wiser.

Let’s call this curious practice ‘ornitheology’. Like the quarry they stalk, ornitheologians have their own distinctive calls that can be heard echoing through the philosophical canopy: such and such a concept ‘bears a striking resemblance to’, ‘has all the markings of’, is an atheistic ‘version’ of, ‘is quintessentially’, ‘repeats’, ‘imitates’ or ‘follows’ a theological ‘pattern’ or ‘paradigm’.

One of the problems with ornitheology (there are many, I fear) is that it smuggles a hidden premise under its moss-green waxed jacket, a premise that concerns the nature of imitation: If something looks like a miracle then it must be a miracle, and if it is a miracle then it must be theological. This hides a further assumption: that theology owns the intellectual copyright on everything it touches. Any motif or way of thinking deployed by theology will remain always and forever theological. But we need to be wary of this jump; perhaps it will remain forever theological, and perhaps it won’t, but it’s at least worth asking the question.

We need more sophisticated ways of thinking about God and theology in relation to philosophical writing, ways that can account a little more satisfactorily for what some contemporary philosophers are trying to achieve. Part of the problem is the tired ideology of conflict between philosophy and theology. In a piece I have coming out on Kevin Hart soon I call this the topographical model. In topographical thinking, philosophy and theology are each exhaustive in their own domain, able to say everything that is to be said, but impotent outside the confines of what are assumed to be their respective frontiers. When one discipline seeks to exert what it sees as its own sovereign right over all or part of a foreign territory, all sorts of hackles are raised by the critical border police. It is a land-grabbing paradigm that serves neither philosophy nor theology well.

3 ornithologists

One way to ask the question of the relation between philosophy and theology in a way that moves us beyond the tram-line logic of the ornitheologian (the more it looks like a miracle, the more theological it must be) is to focus not on which theological trope is imitated in a particular philosophy (here a god, there a god, everywhere a faith in god) but to think also about the complex nature of imitation itself. Might there not be ways of understanding what it means to imitate theology other than saying that imitating theology is always theological? Doesn’t that depend as much on what imitation is as on what theology is? If, for example, Western universalism or the idea of revolution or equality or deconstruction or whatever else owe much to Christianity (and there are of course arguments on both sides) it doesn’t necessarily mean that all revolutions are Christian revolutions or that all universalism is Christian universalism. Or at the very least it doesn’t mean that we should assume to know from the outset what ‘Christian’ means if we do say that all revolutions are Christian.

For one sketch of what rethinking imitation and challenging ornitheology might look like, see my post on Meillassoux as Oedipus. I hope that the line I take in that piece can begin to make sense of why Meillassoux would say, in ‘The Divine Inexistence’, that the only way to banish the religious is for the universal to be incarnated, or why in The Number and the Siren he insists that the only way that Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés… can be unique is by being Christic and imitating Christ’s glorious body and the Catholic mass. If imitation always equals complicity, as it does for the ornitheologian, then these images and moves in Meillassoux just can’t make much sense, or else they need to be done away with in an ungainly critical pirouette which sees reader trying to explain away in an puff of Orwellian pseudo-logic what nevertheless stands clear on the page: it may look like a miracle, quack like a miracle and swim like a miracle, but don’t let that fool you…

In the meantime, listen out for the distinctive calls of the ornitheologians; they are a common species in our parts.

Meillassoux’s Oedipal atheism

‘No gods anywhere now, not for me, now’: Meillassoux’s Oedipal atheism

In Difficult Atheism I left the discussion of Meillassoux’s divine inexistence after having sketched a series of arguments detailing why I think he does not succeed in demonstrating the principle of factiality in the way I think he intends. In this post I want to take these arguments a stage further and ask ‘so what?’ If, as I think is the case, Meillassoux does not pull off the grand challenge he sets himself, what then? Is it all over? Do we leave him move on? Is there nothing more to say?


I don’t think so. So far we have tended to take Meillassoux au pied de la lettre and work on the principle that his ‘divinology’ must either succeed or fail in its own terms, with no third option, but here I want to suggest a different reading of Meillassoux, one that starts where Difficult Atheism finishes.

This reading begins with two premises. The first I have already stated: in my opinion Meillassoux fails in his explicit aim of demonstrating divine inexistence, for reasons I won’t rehearse again here. The second premise is that any reading of Meillassoux’s ‘The Divine Inexistence’ must come to terms with, and provide some sort of accounting for, why his thought imitates theological terms and theological structures as much as it does. Meillassoux’s divinology is so close to theology, not only in its motifs (think of Meillassoux’s Child of Man, the rebirth of the dead and the bringing of justice, conversion, the ex nihilo) but also in its overall structure (with its arc of a secularised creation—redemption—consummation/judgment) that any comprehensive reading of ‘The Divine Inexistence’ has to have an answer to the question of ‘why so much imitation?’ I am not saying there is only one answer to that question, but it seems to me that every reading of Meillassoux has to have something to offer in that department.

Discussion to date has centred mostly around whether one or another Meillassouxian motif still has the whiff of incense about it (Peter Hallward on the ex nihilo in his Radical Philosophy review of After Finitude is the first example that springs to mind). The reading I am proposing here does not pick through these motifs again, one by one, but seeks to understand them as a whole, not as a series of propositions but as a coherent gesture that traces itself in such a series. I want to explore not whether this or that motif is still trading on its theological capital, but what we can say about Meillassoux’s imitation of theological motifs per se, regardless of whether we end up concluding they remain theological or not.

Starting from these two premises—Meillassoux imitates a remarkably comprehensive theological structure, and he fails in his explicit aim—I offer the following reading of ‘DI’ with the intention of making sense of the imitation and not writing him off because of the failure. In other words I aim to make sense of his imitation of theological motifs and structures as a coherent gesture and not just as a set of atomisable propositions, and I also aim to make constructive sense of his failure to come good on his promise to demonstrate divine inexistence, rather than merely dismissing it, or him.

More broadly, the possibility I want to open here is that, even if ‘The Divine Inexistence’ is not successful in its own terms, that very failure can itself help us to understand what different forms post-theological thinking might take. To be clear, I am not saying we should all from now on read Meillassoux in this new way, but I am offering it as a way of broadening the debate beyond the simple (sometimes simplistic) question of whether his divinology works in its own terms or not. There is more to Meillassoux’s engagement with theology than a yes/no answer to that question.

The reading has two moments: 1) What I have elsewhere identified in the ‘split rationality critique’ can be read as a moment of Meillassouxian tragic hubris, and 2) his attempt to demonstrate divine inexistence can be read not as a proof his divinology in its success, but as a catharsis of the divine in its failure.

This reading is elaborated in conversation with themes of imitation, failure and catharsis in Hölderlin’s ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, as glossed by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in Typographies 2: l’imitation des modernes, partially translated into English as Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics. Lacoue-Labarthe’s thoughts on Hölderlin are set alongside other treatments of the theme of imitation in Western thought and literature, and they help us to approach Meillassoux with an eye not simply to whether this or that motif imitates of theological thinking, but through a consideration of the significance of imitation itself.

Lacoue-Labarthe on Hölderlin’s Oedipus

Oedipus, it is well known, describes himself in Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus after his fall as atheos, without god or abandoned by the gods: ‘No gods anywhere now, not for me, now’.[1] It is usually assumed that Oedipus’ nefas, his infringement of divine law, is the murder of his father and an incestuous relationship with his mother, but Hölderlin discerns a different cause of his downfall: an unwarranted trust in his own power to interpret. Oedipus arrogates to himself the divine role of prophecy in his interpretation of  the following oracular words:

King Phoebus in plain words commanded us,

drive out the pollution of the land, nourished on this ground,

do not nourish the unholy.[2]

This oracle need not have had anything to do with King Laius’ death, Hölderlin insists, but could simply mean that Oedipus should ‘generally create a strong and pure court and keep order among the citizens’. Oedipus’ nefas is to interpret it ‘in a priestly fashion’, in other words taking upon himself a divine role, bringing together the saying of the oracle and the story of Laius’ death. Hölderlin summarizes:

in the immediately following scene the spirit of Oedipus, knowing all, expresses, in angry premonition, the nefas itself by interpreting the general command as pertaining to the particular and then applying it to the murderer of Laius, and then casting the sin as infinite.[3]

Oedipus’ nefas, then, is to assume the prerogative of the divine and ‘interpret the statement of the oracle towards infinity’ as Hölderlin says elsewhere. He is guilty of hermeneutic hubris, according a divine certainty to his own powers of interpretation or, in Lacoue-Labarthe’s terms, ‘The tragic fault is the imitation of God’.[4] I have shown in my ‘split rationality critique’ of Meillassoux how he similarly interprets the notions of contingency and hyperchaos towards infinity, like Oedipus elevating his own reasoning above the mortal sphere of change and contingency. It is in Meillassoux’s trust in his own logic to survive any hyperchaotic change that he imitates the divine.

Oedipus at ColonusYet it is this failed imitation of the divine, Lacoue-Labarthe argues, that leads Oedipus be atheos. It is through striving, and in a measure succeeding, to imitate the gods that Oedipus is estranged from the gods. This logic, according to which Oedipus’ imitation of the divine both brings him close to the divine and estranges him from the gods, is for Lacoue-Labarthe an instance of hyperbology, the paradoxical logic of imitation he identifies in a number of Western thinkers of mimesis from Aristotle through Diderot to Nietzsche, and of course including Hölderlin himself. Oedipus’ atheistic condition is hyperbological because it is through his mimetic proximity to the infinity of the gods that he finds them most absent. The logic of hyperbology is ‘the more x, the less x’: the closer Oedipus is to the divine, the more he will find himself abandoned by the gods.

However, Oedipus atheos provokes, for Lacoue-Labarthe, a catharsis of the divine. His imitation ‘towards infinity’ of the divine oracle is not merely offset by his subsequent abandonment by the gods; the essence of the tragic is the monstrous coupling of god and man in an unlimited becoming-one that is purified (katharei) by a limitless separation.[5] Tragedy presents the necessary cathartic purification of all hubristic imitation of of the divine; it is a catharsis of desiring to imitate the divine, achieved through a hyperbolic mimesis resulting in hyperbolic abandonment.

This condition of Oedipal abandonment is, Lacoue-Labarthe insists, a turning of humankind to the earth and an opening of an a-theistic space that is unrelated in any way whatsoever to the ‘death of God’, in either its speculative-Lutheran or Nietzschean guises,[6] and therefore free of the problems of theological imitation that haunt the death of God in Western thought. The catharsis of the divine does not consist in the death of God but in a ‘categorical turning away [détournement]’ form God.[7] Détournement, it is worth pointing out, not only means ‘turning away’ but also ‘(mis)appropriation’; it is what the SItuationists did with the images of Gaullist France in May 68, and what unnamed photoshoppers did with Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘La France Forte’ poster in the 2012 French Presidential elections. The term captures the double sense of a turning-away-as-imitation and, in a way I don’t have time to elaborate more here, it opens a way to think the post-theological in the West that does not rely on the problematic notion of the death of God.

This catharsis is crucially, for Lacoue-Labarthe, not a dialectic but a paradox; it issues not in a sublation of the theological into the a-theological but in a tension maintained between infinite imitation and infinite separation. Catharsis is a paradoxical logic that maintains the contradiction of ‘the more… the less…’: ‘the more unlimited the becoming-one, the more unlimited the separation itself ’.[8] The desire to imitate the divine leads to an utter separation from the divine, with imitation and separation frozen in a non-dialectised relationship.

This atheism is not a proof of divine non-existence (understood in the terms of traditional atheism, not Meillassoux’s divine inexistence), for this would once again be a bid for the infinite. Rather Lacoue-Labarthe describes this mimetic logic in terms of a homeopathic medicine or an animal sacrifice that expels violence from the polis by the simulacrum of a spectacular transfer of the murderous desire to an animal.[9]

If Meillassoux’s nefas is his imitation ‘towards the infinite’ of his own rationality, then as in the case of Oedipus it is this imitation of the divine that leaves him without god. If Meillassoux’s claims are correct then he can legitimately expect the coming of the Child of Man and the future existence of the divine in the fourth world, as ‘The Divine Inexistence’ describes. But if he cannot then he is bereft of any such future hope, bereft of hope in the rebirth of the dead, in justice for past wrongs. Like the Oedipus of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus he suffers a state of unremitting abandonment. It is because of Meillassoux’s failed imitation of the divine that he is atheos. If Meillassoux’s system in ‘The Divine Inexistence’ paints a picture of a universe in which God is currently absent but can be hoped for and expected  in the future, then the Meillassouxian nefas brings about a double absence, taking away not only the presence of the divine but also any sanctioned hope in future divine existence.

The question that remains, however, is over the extent to which Meillassoux’s failed imitation may, like that of Oedipus of Typographies 2, issue in a catharsis of the divine. In answering this question we may first note that the logic of the catharsis of the divine is that it is necessary to over-reach and fail. If we read ‘The Divine Inexistence’ in terms of such a catharsis, then, it is not in the least an embarrassment that Meillassoux draws on so much theological material and such a comprehensive theological structure. It could not be any other way; it is his felix culpa. Oedipus would not be atheos had he not failed in his attempt to become like the gods by interpreting ‘to infinity’. In the same way, Meillassoux would not be without god if he had not failed in his attempt to demonstrate divine inexistence. Both Oedipus and Meillassoux are ‘without God’ as a result of their own failure.

And what about the catharsis of the divine for Meillassoux? We might say that it is because his imitation of theology is so wholesale that, when it fails, he is left nowhere to go, no hope for redemption in some as yet unexploited theological motif or structure of thought to keep alive the divine hope.  If post-theological thought merely imitates this or that theological motif then there is always more theology waiting around the corner, more hope for a theological redemption in the ideas not yet exploited, but only an attempt to incorporate and imitate the whole arc and structure of (Christian) theology as such, when it has failed, is left with nothing. Oedipus is only atheos because his imitation of the divine was so grand, so infinite. So also Meillassoux, in seeking to imitate not this or that element of theological thinking but its overall structure finds himself, when he fails, an abandoned Oedipus without hope but, also, without god.

[1] Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro (eds.), The Complete Sophocles, Volume I: The Theban Plays

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 278.

[2] Friedrich Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, in J. M. Bernstein (ed.), Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 196.

[3] Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’ 196.

[4] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Typographies 2 : L’Imitation des modernes (Paris : Galilée, 1986) 128. CW’s translation.

[5] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 128.

[6] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 198.

[7] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 198.

[8] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 128.

[9] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 208.

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Paul Ricoeur in Dialogue with Theology and Religious Studies

Flyer PRicoeur1In September I will have the great pleasure of taking part in a symposium at the University of Lund, Sweden, entitled “Paul Ricœur in Dialogue with Theology and Religious Studies.” In addition to looking forward to hearing what is set to be a fantastic array of papers, I hope to be able to contribute something to the discussion on the question of theology and philosophical systems as such. The more I look at the question of “theological” themes in contemporary thought, the more uneasy I become about the extent to which theological lingo can be fought over in quite a superficial way. What determines, for example, whether employing the term “miracle” merits a diagnosis of theological thinking, and at what point exactly does thinking become theological anyway? Just how miraculous must a miracle be before it tips over into the non-philosophical? And why do we tend to assume that the theological has to begin precisely where the philosophical stops? Flyer PRicoeur2While such questions may well be interesting I’m not convinced they are terribly fruitful–won’t a miracle always end up being just what we define a miracle to be?–and so I want to use the opportunity of the Lund symposium to explore not discrete moments or motifs within a given philosophical system but the question of the relation to theology of philosophical systems as such. My jumping-off point will be two terrific essays by Ricœur, ‘Hope and the structure of philosophical systems’ (in Figuring the Sacred), and ‘Irrationality and the plurality of philosophical systems’. The aim is to find a more robust and satisfying way of thinking about “theology” and “philosophy” than the approach which repeatedly beats the bounds between them. I hope this will also allow me to reprise a theme from my last visit to Lund, when I cast doubt on Meillassoux’s claim to have demonstrated, finally, the anhypothetical principle of philosophy. Finally, the paper will also pick up on a line of thought I developed in Difficult Atheism in relation to Jean-Luc Nancy when he claims that

There is at the heart of every great philosophy (and this could be the measure of its greatness), a mystery concerning God or the gods. This is in no way to say that this mystery is the heart of the philosophy that bears it. It certainly is not; but it is placed in that heart, even though it has no place there. (Nancy, ‘Of divine places’ 129, translation altered)

Poster PRicoeur1

Quentin Meillassoux, divine inexistence and split rationality


FinitudeWith a new issue of Analecta Hermeneutica just out there has been some discussion this past week of Peter Gratton’s article on Meillassoux’s ontology of divine inexistence (here, here and here, with some reaction on Gratton’s own blog, Philosophy in a time of error). The discussion put me in mind of a paper I gave way back in 2010 at the UK Society for French Studies conference (a paper that eventually became part of Difficult Atheism), which I reprint here. I by no means offer this as a reaction to the recent discussion (the current mountain of marking precludes any such luxury), just as a small contribution to the more general debate.

For more on Meillassoux, and specifically whether this split rationality critique need necessarily undermine his claim to post-theological thinking, see my ‘Quentin Meillassoux’s Oedipal atheism‘.

Quentin Meillassoux’s ‘L’Inexistence divine’

 Introduction: varieties of atheism

The ideas in this paper are drawn from Difficult Atheism, in which I argue 1) that French thought is seeking a new articulation of atheism, and 2) that in their different ways Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux are all attempting to find it.

In Difficult Atheism I employ three categories to try to come to terms with what is currently happening in atheism. They describe tendencies, and are not mutually exclusive.

Imitative atheism

Imitative atheism, the first category, keeps a fundamentally theological structure but substitutes for God a placeholder (Humanity or Reason, for example) that provides the same functions that God would perform in theological thinking. Imitative atheism thinks it can enjoy all the fruit of theological thinking: it has access to the absolute, it can provide the principle or reason of the world and can access ‘capital T’ Truth. In this category we find Auguste Comte’s religion of humanity with man as the new Supreme Great Being, or what has been called Feuerbach’s anthropotheism, where he famously argues that ‘man is a god to man’. Much of the current Anglo-Saxon new atheism would also follow this tendency. The bottom line of imitative atheism (there is no time to unpack this claim today) is that it is parasitic on the structures of theology.

Residual atheism

The second tendency, residual atheism, recognizes that the parasitism of imitative atheism is a problem, and seeks to avoid it. Residual atheism is a retrenched atheism, careful to exclude any thinking that relies on religious or theological assumptions.

  • if a certain understanding of Truth relies on God, then we must renounce that Truth;
  • if the absolute or the unconditioned are inseparable from God, we must renounce the absolute and the unconditioned;
  • If transcendence is the domain of theology then we must restrict ourselves to immanence.
  • If God is dead, then any humanity in his image must also be dead

We can discern this tendency to different degrees in what we broadly call poststructuralist thought: Foucault, Levinas, Bataille, Derrida, Blanchot. It is summed up neatly in Lévinas’s evocation of an atheism that is not humanism:

La pensée contemporaine nous réserve la surprise d’un athéisme qui n’est pas humaniste : les dieux sont morts ou retirés du monde, l’homme concret, même raisonnable ne contient pas l’univers. (Lévinas, Sur Maurice Blanchot 10).

Residual atheism is an ‘atheism that is not x’, where x is something deemed to be parasitic.

But residual atheism has two problems.

  • First, it is suffers from a certain asceticism: the way it resists theism is by a systematic self-denial of all theism’s tasty fruits.

It preserves its purity at the cost of its potency.

  • Secondly, it has only gone half way to rejecting parasitism; it still inhabits theology’s categories, only it does so negatively.
    • immanence is what is not transcendent
    • relative is what is not absolute
    • atheism is the scraps left over once theology has eaten its fill

The besetting problem of these two atheisms is that, to the extent that an atheism seeks to avoid parasitism it risks asceticism, and to the extent that it avoids asceticism it risks parasitism.

Integrated atheism

The solution, the ‘unholy grail’ of atheism, if you like, is…

  • to avoid the asceticism of residual atheism; reclaim truth, the absolute

and also

  • to avoid the parasitism of imitative atheism: to reclaim truth and the absolute, and so on, in a way that does not merely perpetuate religious thought under another name

In my wider project I look at how Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux all attempt to secure an integrated atheism in different ways. Today, I want to sketch some brief details of Meillassoux’s attempt, and provide a brief critique of it.

Meillassoux’s proposal for an integrated atheism

Meillassoux’s attempt to secure the absolute and necessity hinges on what he calls the principle of factiality, in French le factual. Meillassoux’s factial must a) secure a notion of eternal necessity, while b) excluding any necessary being (ID 283), because any recourse to a necessary being is a religious move. Meillassoux must refuse every metaphysical absolute, yet retain ‘a little of the absolute’ (‘un peu d’absolu’ Meillassoux, AF 68).

This is how he does it. If there can be no necessary being, then it follows that the facticity of a thing – in other words its contingency, that it can be otherwise – is not itself a fact (AF 107), because if facticity were itself a fact there could be a necessary being, and we would be back with parasitism. So there is no necessity, except the necessity of contingency itself:

ce qui est, est factuel, mais que ce qui est soit factuel, voilà qui ne peut être un fait. Seule la facticité de ce qui est ne peut pas être factuelle. Ou encore, dit autrement : ce ne peut être un fait que ce qui est soit un fait. … La contingence de l’étant, et elle seule, n’est pas une propriété contingente de l’étant. (ID 44 ; QM’s italics)

Note here that le factuel refers to facticity, and le factual (with an a) to Meillassoux’s principle of factiality. Factiality is the non-facticity of facticity (AF 107), or the non-contingency of contingency. Contingency is itself necessary in order to avoid a necessary being which, after the death of God, we have no grounds to admit into our thinking.  We may say that an object is de facto red, but not that it is de facto de facto (ID 46). In order to avoid falling back into metaphysics, Meillassoux stresses that the principle of factiality does not maintain that contingency is necessary, but that only contingency is necessary (AF 108), as a direct correlate of the absence of any necessary being, event or law.

Meillassoux is at great pains to stress that the necessity of contingency does not replace the ‘laws of nature’ with a meta-law of contingency itself: ‘il n’y a pas de loi du devenir, parce qu’il y a devenir des lois’ (ID 5). So although the necessity to which Meillassoux appeals is eternal, this eternity does not signify the eternity of the laws of becoming, but the eternity of the becoming of laws (ID 158). In ‘Temps et surgissement ex nihilo’ Meillassoux describes this state of affairs as an inverted Platonism: there is an illusory fixity of objects but a real contingency ‘behind’ that fixity; the intelligible is on the side of the most radical becoming, the sensible on the side of fixity.

Where, then, does the principle of factiality leave the question of God? In a position that can be adequately described neither as theistic nor as atheistic. There are four, and only four, possible ways that man can relate to God, Meillassoux argues, only three of which have hitherto been exploited (ID 388). In these four options, it is clear that Meillassoux is using ‘belief in’ not in the sense of ‘assent to the existence of’ but ‘hope in’.

  1. First option: one can not believe in God because he doesn’t exist. Meillassoux lets his attitude to this atheistic option be known by summing it up as a position that leads to sadness, luke-warmness, cynicism and ressentiment. It is, he concludes, the immanent form of despair, a form of what I am calling ascetic atheism.
  2. Secondly, one can believe in God because he exists, but this leads to the deadlocks of fanaticism, a flight from this world, and the confusions of holiness with mysticism and of God as love with God as power. It is the religious form of hope.
  3. Thirdly, one can not believe in God because he exists. This is the Luciferian posture of revolt, maintaining a haughty indifference which in effect is a mixture of animosity towards God (in which the displayed indifference is only hatred expressed in the most hurtful way) and classical atheism, whose deadlocks (namely cynicism, sarcasm towards every aspiration, and self-hatred) it exacerbates. It is the religious form of despair.
  4. The fourth way of relating man and God, and the option which has until now remained unexploited, is to believe in God because he does not exist: the immanent form of hope. This is the option with which Meillassoux identifies his philosophy:

Le divin philosophique n’est ni une religion – a-t-on déjà vu un croyant nier l’existence de Dieu ? – ni un athéisme – a-t-on déjà vu un athée croire en Dieu ? (ID 384)

But what does it mean to ‘believe in God because he does not exist’? The response is found in examining Meillassoux’s notion of divine inexistence, and the hope which he invests in it. If, as Meillassoux fiercely defends, there is no law of becoming, then becoming is capable even of God (ID 6), and every ‘miracle’ adds to the experimental proof in the inexistence of God (ID 5), because miracles demonstrate the contingency of the world, and show thereby that no divine will underwrites the so-called ‘perennial laws’ of nature.

God ‘inexists’, which is to say that he happens not to exist, but that – in accordance with the principle of factiality – his possible existence is necessary. Just as everything that exists, exists de facto, so also everything that does not exist does not exist de facto (ID 75). Inexistence, Meillassoux insists, is not more negative than existence, because the essence of a thing’s existence is that it can not exist, and the essence of a thing’s inexistence is that it can exist (ID 87). Both contingencies (existence and inexistence) are designated by ‘being’.

So this is how Meillassoux tries to secure an integrated atheism: ‘philosophy’ secures its absolute and its necessity without the help of God, and God’s own inexistence avoids the asceticism that comes from accepting religious categories. Meillassoux, it seems, is enjoying all the fruits of religion without partaking in the theological roots of religion.

A critique of Meillassoux’s proposal: ‘split rationality’

It is an audacious attempt, but I don’t think he manages it. I’ve got five reasons why, but only time for one today.

In Après la finitude, Meillassoux makes it clear in a way that remained obscure in ‘L’Inexistence divine’ that the principal of factiality demands that the laws of logic be contingent, just as are the laws of nature: ‘Tout peut très réellement s’effondrer – les arbres comme les astres, les astres comme les lois, les lois physiques comme les lois logiques’ (AF 73). Nevertheless, non-contradiction is derived from the principle of factiality and so stands, or so Meillassoux claims, as absolute, because it must be assumed in any attempt to contradict it.

But this position is prey to what I am calling a ‘split rationality critique’: Meillassoux acknowledges that what is thought about (trees, stars, laws) is absolutely contingent, but he exempts from contingency that thinking itself. The problem for Meillassoux is that, in order to be consistent, the logical laws that govern his own thinking must be up for grabs in the contingency of logical laws. In other words, the processes by which he arrives at the notions of ‘necessity’, ‘contingency’ and ‘factiality’ must themselves be able to be replaced by other, currently unimaginable, ways of thinking.

In order to walk through this argument in more detail, I want to consider Meillassoux’s reconstruction of facticity in terms of what he calls correlationism. In this reconstruction, Meillassoux draws a necessity out of the strong correlationist model itself, where the strong model of correlationism  is summarized as ‘it is unthinkable that the unthinkable is impossible’. In this model, the ‘logicity’ of the world does not conform to the structures of logical reason, and the givenness of the world in a representation does not conform to the structures of representative reason (AF 55). We cannot be sure that things are not Wholly Other to how they are represented to us. This uncertainty, the canonical limit of the rational, also legitimates faith in a God who transcends the limits of the thinkable (ID 49).

This reasoning yields a ‘precise and remarkable’ consequence: ‘il devient ration­nellement illégitime de disqualifier un discours non rationnel sur l’absolu sous prétexte de son irrationalité’ (AF 56 ; QM’s emphasis). Let’s try to reconstruct in our turn what is at stake here. There are two instances of rationality in play in this quotation. First, the ‘non-rational discourse on the absolute’ which cannot be disqualified, and secondly the ‘rational illegitimacy’ of such a disqualification. It is the second of these two instances that shall detain us, because it is this second instance that Meillassoux fails to take into account in his argument for absolute contingency. In order to know whether or not it is rationally legitimate or illegitimate to do x, I must have some notion of rational legitimacy. But this notion of legitimacy, just as much as the ‘non rational discourse’ that is being reasoned about, must be contingent.

So, to rephrase Meillassoux’s reconstruction of strong correlationism with this proviso inserted: It is rationally illegitimate, according to the contingent norms of rationality that prevail at the moment, to disqulify a non-rational discourse on the absolute on pretext of its irrationality. A modest proviso, perhaps, but one with the deepest consequences for Meillassoux’s principle of factiality. The very judgment by which it is decided what may or may not be ‘rationally legitimate’ must not be unaccountably exempted from a possible future contingent rationality that in the present remains radically unforeseeable, on pain once more of a theological fideism in the enduring necessity of rationality as it is currently understood and practiced. Crudely : you can’t bootstrap rationality out of contingency.

It follows that what Meillassoux calls his ‘Cartesian proof’ has failed:

Nous avions dit que l’absolutisation des mathématiques devrait prendre la forme de son modèle cartésien: trouver un absolu premier (l’analogue de Dieu), dont serait dérivable un absolu second, c’est-à-dire un absolu mathématique (l’analogue de la substance étendue). Nous avons bien un absolu premier (le Chaos) (AF 87)

Meillassoux has done no such thing, not because Chaos is not absolute, but because the ‘absolute’ of Chaos is only ‘necessary’ providing that the meaning of ‘necessary’ is guaranteed by our current understanding of the laws of logic. Perhaps something can be neither necessary nor contingent in a way as yet radically unforeseeable, and perhaps the categories of ‘necessity’ and ‘contingency’ will prove themselves to be neither necessary nor contingent but something else entirely, once more in a way as yet unforeseeable (ways that render even the idea of ‘foreseeability’ or the notion of the ‘radical’ defunct). The difference between Meillassoux’s and Descartes’ ‘proofs’ is that Descartes has a benevolent God who will not, it is supposed, trick the hapless philosopher into self-deception. Meillassoux has no equivalent guarantee that he will not be cheated out of the laws of logic and plunged into a situation where his notions of ‘necessity’ and ‘contingency’ do not, for whatever currently unforeseeable reason, continue to demonstrate the principle of factiality that, presently, they do with such elegance. Whether God can or cannot deceive Descartes, the ‘laws of logic’ certainly can deceive Meillassoux.

Just to be clear, this argument does not fall into the trap of trying to contradict the logical law of contradiction. I am suggesting something more radical : that if, as we understand things now, the only necessity is contingency, there might arise a change in the laws of logic that leads not simply to the conclusion that contingency is not necessary, but that operates wholly otherwise to the notions of ‘contingency’, ‘necessity’ and ‘logic’ as we understand them now. The only way Meillassoux can avoid this is to make an exception to the position that everything can change, and that exception is his own thinking.

If the assumption of an unprovable necessity is a mark of religious thinking (as Meillassoux in his discussion of metaphysics argues it is, because only a God can guarantee or constitute such a necessity) then the principle of factiality in Après la finitude and ‘L’Inexistence divine’ rests on a fideistic idolatry of (current norms of) rationality in thinking the following:

  • ‘contingency’ as it is currently understood is, and will always be, necessarily ‘absolute’ (as ‘absolute’ is currently understood).

Meillassoux splits the instances of rationality upon which his principle of factiality relies in a way that reduces factiality to a parasitic atheism.



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