The Return of Religion, Kettle Logic, and the Secular Dilemma

lambert-return-statementsAt this year’s Australasian Society of Continental Philosophy conference I had the pleasure of responding to Gregg Lambert’s new book Return Statements: The Return of Religion in Contemporary PhilosophyI chose to focus on the very idea of the “return of religion”, its multiple senses, and their potential conflicts. The paper is downloadable from and

Here is the abstract:

There are at least three distinct senses of the “return of religion” in recent Continental thought. Taken together, they obey a sort of kettle logic, and they leave the secularist with a dilemma about how to avoid returning to religion in the very attempt to escape it. The paper discusses Gregg Lambert’s Return Statements, and engages mainly with Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy, touching briefly on Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Quentin Meillassoux.

French Philosophy Today reviewed at NDPR

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

French Philosophy Today has just been reviewed over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Here are some highlights:

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s famously defined philosophical production as concept creation. If they are correct, then Watkin’s work is not just a scholarly commentary of philosophy but also itself an inventive philosophical work.

If Alain Badiou, the first French thinker analyzed in the book, is to be believed, then philosophers are his country’s greatest export. Certainly those who want to keep abreast about what is happening in France today in regards to this export should pick up Watkin’s book.

This book is relevant to anyone who is interested in the scholarly methodology and creative enterprise of syntopically reading multiple philosophical oeuvres together. Watkin’s bibliographic thoroughness and analytic meticulousness is impressive. It appears that he has read almost anything of relevance to the topic. The texts he references include not just philosophical works from various eras, schools and geographies but also works from theology, the humanities, social science, natural sciences and mathematics.

Watkin’s formulations are rigorous and precise. Through his careful reading and evaluation of the texts by the five French philosophers, Watkin introduces an arsenal of new conceptual technologies and divisional schemas for understanding the question of the human.

See here for chapter summaries of the book.

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.

French Philosophy Today: Summary of Chapter 1 – Badiou

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourOver the coming days I will be posting brief summaries of the argument of French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour, chapter by chapter. Here is the main argument of Chapter 1, on Badiou.

This first chapter probes the limits of Badiou’s “formalised inhumanism”. It argues that it is wrong to characterise the figure of the human that emerges in Badiou’s thought as radically new, and traces its similarities with other figures which Badiou rejects. For both Badiou and his antagonists, the human is irreducibly composite: it cannot be what it is without a constitutive relation to an instance of inhumanity or non-humanity outside itself. Badiou’s split anthropology of the “human animal” and the “immortal” faces one major structural and ethical problem, which arises from the way in which he seeks to understand the relation between the animal and immortal: he makes fidelity to a truth, and therefore humanity in its full sense, contingent upon an individual’s possession of what he calls “the one and only uniquely human capacity” (Métapolitique111/ Metapolitics 97-8), namely the capacity for affirmative thought. Such thought functions for Badiou as a “host capacity”, a boundary marker or a gatekeeper of the uniqueness of humanity among animal, organic and non-organic entities. Despite exploring several creative ways to overcome the problems caused by Badiou’s “host capacity” account of humanity, I conclude that it remains a thorn in the flesh of his claim that “several times in its brief existence, every human animal is granted the chance to incorporate itself into the subjective present of a truth” (Logiques des mondes 536 n11/Logics of Worlds 514 n11).

Modernism Unit: Alain Badiou on Krapp’s Last Tape and “the space that lies between French and English”

To accompany the lecture on Beckett in the modernism unit, here is a lecture by Alain Badiou on Krapp’s Last Tape, in which he also reflects on “the space that lies between French and English”, a space he describes as “a perpetual torment”. He provides a commentary not only upon the play, but also on the negotiation of working in and between multiple languages, which is of course also an important consideration for us in this international unit.

Working across languages is a irreducibly ethical undertaking of hospitality and welcome that implicates the reader both as host and guest. To read across languages is to welcome the foreigner, to welcome difference, to permit linguistic and cultural immigration, and it lays upon the shoulders of the reader the ethico-political responsibility that inevitably comes with the double possibility of welcome and rejection. To read across languages is also to set out on a voyage, to emigrate, to make oneself vulnerable, to be exposed as (and to) the foreigner, to risk incomprehension, and to become beholden to the hospitality of another way of thinking and writing. It is an existential voyage that brings about a change in the voyager, creating a “before” and “after” that is only ever the effect of a genuine encounter. There is something both beautiful and visceral about this privilege and responsibility of reading what has come to be called “world literature”: it is not to be taken lightly.

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.


Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

Current Research: The Human Remains

Leonardo skullI am currently working on a book provisionally entitled The Human Remains: French Philosophy in the Image of God. The first part of the book looks at the ways in which the imago dei motif is explicitly taken up in contemporary French thought. The second, longer part takes debates from the philosophical reception of the imago dei motif and uses them to provide a fresh comparative reading of contemporary French philosophical anthropology in its humanist, post-humanist, neuroscientific and ecological guises. Chapters discuss Catherine Malabou, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Pierre Changeux, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Luc Marion and Michel Serres. The book’s thesis is that the human persists in contemporary thought, however radically altered its trace might be from traditional philosophical understandings. In order to argue that point it shows how reading contemporary thought through the lens of the imago dei motif helps us see how very different accounts of the human can be made to talk to and critique one another.

Thinking Equality Today: Badiou, Rancière, Nancy

French Studies

My article ‘Thinking Equality Today: Badiou, Rancière, Nancy’ has just been published in French Studies. You can click through to a PDF version from this page.

The article is part of the project on humanism and anti-humanism I am working on at the moment. I argue that Badiou and Rancière both end up, despite themselves, with problematic understandings of equality because they both hitch their understanding of the human being to the wagon of a particular determinate capacity. Nancy, on the other hand, in seeking to decouple the human from any determinate capacity or capacities, has to address a different set of problems in relation to equality. In the article I conclude with a preference for Nancy’s set of problems, but the wider question raised by the article’s analysis, and that I deal with in the broader project, is whether it is possible to understand the human neither as hostage to determinate capacities nor as detached from capacities altogether, and so avoid both sets of problems laid out in this French Studies article. I think you can, but I don’t think that Badiou, Rancière or Nancy give us the tools to do it.

Abstract: Recent work on Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière has rightly identified equality both as a central theme in their own thinking and as the key notion in contemporary radical political thought more broadly, but a focus on the differences between their respective accounts of equality has failed to clarify a major problem that they share. The problem is that human equality is said to rest on a particular human capacity, leaving Badiou’s axiomatic equality and Rancière’s assumed equality vulnerable to the charge of having a blind spot for some of society’s most vulnerable. This article introduces an alternative understanding of equality drawn from the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy, an equality that does not rely on a human capacity to guarantee or verify it but rests on Nancy’s notion of sense. The article explores the advantages of Nancy’s account of equality in relation to sense over and against an alternative reading that focuses on Nancy’s evocation of the suffering human body, before addressing, in conclusion, the problems with which Nancy’s idea of equality will have to grapple, and why, despite these problems, it is still preferable to the Badiouian and Rancièrian approaches.