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.

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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