What is a theological concept? Part 5: Quentin Meillassoux, reason, and hyperchaos

This is the final post summarizing some conclusions from Difficult Atheism, before this series launches out into new territory. In previous posts I have introduced the series, discussed a schema for distinguishing between different atheisms, sketched Alain Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Christmas Projection”, and reflected upon Nancy’s own idea that there is “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity” itself. I now turn to Quentin Meillassoux and ask once more, in a preliminary way, whether there might be a moment in his thought that can be considered “theological”.

Meillassoux avoids both Badiou’s assertion of the unchangeable nature of philosophy and Nancy’s recourse to a Christian notion of the archetype in his “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity”. He does this by insisting that the only starting point for his philosophy is that there is no necessity. Note that this is his starting point, not his final position. We shall see below that a certain necessity does enter Meillassoux’s thinking (the necessity of contingency, and the necessity of the law of non-contradiction), but it is made necessary, precisely, by the need for there to be no necessary being or necessary law.

The radical nature of his position becomes apparent if we consider the import of this “only”. There are no eo ipso necessary laws, either of nature or of logic, and certainly no necessary being or beings. Why does Meillassoux insist on this starting point? Because allowing any necessity into philosophy would, in fact, be opening wide the door to religion. A belief in perennial laws is religious because it makes some transcendent action necessary in order to maintain the laws over time. Without such a metaphysical intervention there is nothing to guarantee that (natural or logical) laws may not change. Concomitantly, Meillassoux warns that ‘We have removed the gods, but we have kept the belief in the divine solidity of laws’ (L’Inexistence divine[1] 4), reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”[2]

For his own part, Meillassoux insists that these constants can be abolished, for the simple reason that nothing sustains them from the outside (ID 4).  He deals at length with the obvious objections that could be raised to this adherence to the contingency of natural and logical laws, not least among which is the observation that natural laws have remained constant over a long period. We might resist Meillassoux’s notion that natural laws could change at any instant with the simple observation that they do not, in fact, change: Eppur non si muove! Meillassoux’s argument, in brief, hinges on the difference between chance (understood in terms of a finite and known number of possibilities, like a dice throw) and contingency (for which there is no known number of possible outcomes). Whereas chance presupposes a prior structure within which it operates (for example the structure of the faces of a die), contingency obeys no law and works within no such structure (ID 13). It follows, Meillassoux argues, that we cannot use probabilistic reasoning about the set of all possible worlds, because there is no set of all possible worlds (ID 36-38). Contingency is the appearance of a new universe of cases, not the appearance of any given universe (ID 16). We are therefore mistaken to refute Meillassoux’s thesis on the basis that the chance of a given law not having changed over a very long period of time (the argument that “if it can change, it would have changed by now”), because chance itself is only thinkable under a regime of the stability of physical laws, and so the objection assumes the stability it intends to prove.

Meillassoux builds his position as follows. First, there can be no real necessity, no necessary being, on pain of theology. Secondly it follows that the facticity of a thing is not itself a fact (Après la finitude 107/After Finitude 79)[3], because if facticity were itself a fact (that is to say, contingent and not necessary) there could be a necessary being, and the door would once more be open to religious fideism. So, the only necessity is contingency itself:

what is, is factical, but that what is is factical, this itself cannot be a fact. Only the facticity of what is cannot be factical. Or again, in other words: it cannot be a fact that what is is a fact… The contingency of beings, and it alone, cannot be a contingent property of that being (ID 44).

Factiality, in other words, is the non-facticity of facticity (AF 107/AfF 79). 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).

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

And what is necessity? Necessity consists in the impossibility of qualifying contingency as contingent (ID 47). Contingency is necessarily non-contingent, because if it were contingent then there could be a necessary being, which Meillassoux has already ruled out. 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/AfF 80), as a direct correlate of the absence of any necessary being, event or law.

It follows from the principle of factiality that a radical change in the laws of nature, what Meillassoux calls a hyperchaotic change, is quite possible. Whereas mere chaos is ‘disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything’, hyperchaos (surcontingence) is a contingency ‘so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity’, or again it is ‘the equal contingency of order and disorder, of becoming and sempiternity’ (‘Time Without Being’). Meillassoux evokes ‘a hyperchaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be impossible, not even the unthinkable’ (AF 87/AfF 64).

This hyperchaos itself issues in a residual necessity for Meillassoux because it is contingency which, unlimited and absolute, becomes its own norm (‘se norme elle-même’, ID 239 ; cf AF 90/AfF 66). Metaphysics announces ‘necessity is’, and relativism counters ‘there is no necessity’, but the principle of factiality stakes out a fresh position: there is necessity because necessity cannot be (‘il y a de la nécessité parce que la nécessité ne peut être’, ID 239 ; QM’s italics)).


Meillassoux’s ‘split rationality’: a theological moment?

What Meillassoux is trying to prove is his principle of factiality and the law of non-contradiction that he derives from it (a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite because then it would, after all, be necessary). In Après la finitude he makes it clear in a way that remained obscure in ‘L’Inexistence divine’ that the laws of logic are just as contingent as the laws of nature: ‘Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws’ (AfF 53). 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 there is a problem with this, a problem I have called the ‘split rationality critique’ of Meillassoux’s proof, namely that he acknowledges that what is thought about (trees, stars, laws) is absolutely contingent, but he exempts from hyperchaotic contingency the thinking itself. The problem for Meillassoux is that, in order to be consistent, the laws of his own thinking should be subject to the same conditions as the natural and logical laws that thinking describes. 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, processes, and other ways of thinking.

In order to walk through this argument a little more slowly, let us consider Meillassoux’s reconstruction of facticity. In this reconstruction, he draws a necessity out of the strong correlationist model itself, where the strong model of correlationism is summarised as ‘it is unthinkable that the unthinkable is impossible’. In this correlationist 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/AfF 40). 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: ‘it becomes rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality’ (AF 56/AfF 41).[i] Let us 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 suppose p, I must have some notion of rational legitimacy. But this notion of rational legitimacy, just as much as the ‘non rational discourse’ that is its object, must be contingent. Like gravity, it may be stable enough for the moment, but it is not necessary that it remain for ever thus.

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 disqualify a non-rational discourse on the absolute on pretext of its irrationality. What would different norms of rationality look like? We do not know, and that’s the point. By thinking of them as “different” and as “norms” we are already projecting our current norms and our current understanding of difference onto them, domesticating hyperchaotic change.

This insertion of ‘according to the contingent norms of rationality that prevail at the moment’ is a modest proviso, perhaps, but one with the deepest consequences for Meillassoux’s principle of factiality. The very decision as to 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 fideism in the enduring necessity of rationality as it is currently understood and practised.

We cannot bootstrap rationality out of contingency, and to protect one’s own rationality from hyperchaotic contingency in this way is Meillassoux’s theological moment. Something is raised above and exempted from hyperchaotic change, namely Meillassoux’s own reasoning, and rationality is ‘split’ between, on the one hand, the object of thought (which is subject to hyperchaotic change), and the categories and reasoning of that thought, including concepts of ‘necessity’ and ‘contingency’ themselves (which appears not to be subject to that same change). Hyperchaotic change ceases at the cranium. Let Meillassoux be true and every man a liar; heaven and earth may pass away, but his words will never pass away (see Romans 3:4; Matthew 24:35).


[1] Hereafter: ID. All translations from ‘L’Inexistence divine’ are my own.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 170.

[3] Hereafter: AF/AfF.

[i] ‘it becomes rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality’ (AfF 41).

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What is a theological concept? Part 4: Jean-Luc Nancy’s “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity”

In the previous post I explored Nancy’s reading of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme as a theological moment in Badiou’s thought. But what about Nancy himself? Does his own atheism—for atheist he indeed professes to be, providing that atheism is understood in a way that avoids the Christmas projection—avoid theological concepts? In this post I want to suggest one moment in Nancy’s thought that could well be considered theological. As with Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme, my aim in these early posts in the series is not to adjudicate in any definitive way whether these philosophical moves are or are not ‘theological’; my concern here is to sketch some contours of the territory we shall be surveying in more detail in future posts, and to consider what sorts of philosophical concepts, moments and moves are liable to be called ‘theological’.

Nancy himself does not see atheism as a decision that ruptures from theistic thought, but as contemporaneous with—as well as the consummation of—monotheism: monotheism is an atheism (La Déclosion[1] 27/Dis-Enclosure[2] 14). The trajectory of atheistic thought for Nancy begins as far back as Xenophanes and his tirades against the anthropomorphic gods, a rejection of immanent deity that is only accelerated by the singular theos of Plato which replaces the paradigm of gods and mortals inhabiting the same space with the ontological distance that the name ‘God’ will henceforth measure (DDC 29/DisDC 16). The invention of atheism and the invention of theism are contemporaneous and correlative, because they both rely on what Nancy calls ‘le paradigme principiel’ (DDC 29/DisDC 16), the principial paradigm, which seeks to establish, or to put into question, the principle or archē of the world, the axiological reason for what is given. Theism and atheism are bound by their complicity in this principial paradigm in a way that the assertion of atheism and the denial of theism simply reinforces. Here, theism and atheism stand or fall together; neither can survive the other.

Nancy critiques this logic of the principle, shared by theism and atheism alike, as being either inconsistent or incomplete. Its great weakness is at the moment of the positing of the principle itself, the ‘in the beginning there was (not)…’ Whether it is affirmed or denied, this originary moment can only ever collapse into its own affirmation or denial (DDC 37/DisDC 22). Either 1) a principle must make itself an exception to its own ‘principiality’ in an ever-repeated (bad infinite) gesture, or 2) it must confirm itself as an equally recurring bad infinite. It must except itself from its own ‘principiality’ in the sense that, while everything that follows it must be accounted for in its terms (in terms of ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ or ‘All is matter…’ or ‘All is history…’ etc.), no such constraint is demanded (or indeed possible) in the case of the principle itself. Or it must confirm itself infinitely in the sense of an infinite regress: it must account for its own principle, and the principle of that principle, and so on to infinity… If the principle is complete, it is not consistent, and if it is consistent, it is not complete.

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.


Nancy and the self-surpassing of religion

Nancy’s own position is framed by the need to, and impossibility of, escaping this theo-logic of parasitic imitation, as Derrida warns in On Touching: ‘This is not about being free from harm, safe, and saved, seeking one’s salvation or immunity outside of Christianity. These values would still be Christian’ (On Touching 220).

Nancy is aware of this danger of seeking to bootstrap his way to post-theological thinking, and in L’Adoration he articulates his own position not in terms of a rupture with Christianity but rather as a claim to be faithful to something in Christianity deeper than Christianity itself, for which God is only the ‘front man’ (Adoration[3] 31-2):

Whereas the Qu’ran states that God created mankind in order to be adored, modern man is ready to condemn the nullity of this vain operation, the exorbitant presumptuousness of such a Narcissus. But what if we were called upon to understand the Qu’ran’s statement altogether differently? What if it meant that “God” is only the name adopted by a pure excess—indeed vain, indeed exorbitant—of the world and existence over themselves, in themselves? Of a purely and simply infinite relationship to infinity? (ADC 20)

It is the movement of self-surpassing, of pure excess, in itself that is crucial for Nancy’s purposes, not the fact that this self-surpassing happens to be, in this instance, Christian:

It is necessary to extract from Christianity what bore us and produced us: it is necessary, if possible, to extract from a ground deeper than the ground of the religious thing [la chose religieuse] that of which religion will have been a form and a misrecognition. (ADC, 26)

 Indeed, Nancy is not interested in Christianity for itself, for any religious, moral, spiritual or salvific virtue (ADC 39), and the self-surpassing he discerns only in some currents of the Christian tradition (most prominently the Reformation, ADC 50-1) is deeper than religion itself.

The idea that we must search in religion for something deeper than the religion itself, of which religion is perhaps only a misrecognition, is a familiar enough move. It is the move of Derrida’s ‘messianicity without messinaism’ or indeed ‘religion without religion’. It is also a Kantian move, the Kant who in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone discerns in the determinate historical husk of Christian religion the kernel of the universal archetype which alone is worthy of imitation. As a trajectory, Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ can also be brought into productive conversation with Marcel Gauchet’s idea of ‘the religion of the egress from religion’ in The Disenchantment of the World, as Nancy himself notes in Dis-Enclosure.

However, Nancy’s idea of ‘something in Christianity deeper than Christianity’ can itself be considered a characteristically Christian move: a search for the animating spirit beyond the letter of the law.[4] It is the gesture of ad fontes, of semper reformanda, of circumcision of the heart rather than circumcision of the flesh (Colossians 2:11), of the reality rather than the shadow (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17), of the antitype rather than the type (Romans 5:14).

So in seeking to escape Badiou’s imitation of the theological entry of the eternal into the temporal, Nancy performs a theological gesture. There is, of course, a conversation to be had about whether this gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’ is irreducibly or contingently theological, and we shall return to this in a future post. Derrida, in On Touching, suspects that it may reveal Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity to have been ‘Christian hyperbole’, but I do not want to be too hasty either in echoing or rejecting that claim. For now, I simply note that the gesture of finding ‘something in x deeper than x’ it is both present in Nancy’s navigation of the Christian legacy and also a repeated and prominent move within the Christian tradition itself.


Raising the stakes

But this is not simply the swapping of one theological imitation for a second, equivalent imitation. In repeating the Christian gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’, Nancy has escalated the philosophical stakes. Badiou’s imitation is local: his understanding of the birth of philosophy can be viewed as a theological moment. But Nancy’s imitation, precisely because it rejects any determinate figure of self-surpassing but seeks to imitate the movement itself, is not local but limitless. Nancy’s rejection of Badiou’s theological imitation turns out to be a much more radical gesture of imitation than that which it dismisses.

Rather than avoiding the question of philosophy’s imitation of theology, Nancy has succeeded only in playing out that same question on the much broader canvas of the notion of imitation itself, and all the questions that can be asked of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme can be asked of the gesture of Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’.

Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ infinitises the gesture of imitation, performing the sublation of the example in the imitation of exemplarity. Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ is not an alternative to Badiou’s Christmas projection at all, but its hyperbolisation and its paroxysm.

[1] Hereafter: DDC.

[2] Hereafter: DisDC.

[3] Hereafter: ADC.

[4] I will develop this claim more in a future post when I engage at length with Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment.

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What is a theological concept? Part 3: Alain Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Christmas Projection”

In this third post in the “what is a theological concept?” series I focus for the first time on a specific philosophical moment: Alain Badiou’s account of the interruption of the mytheme by the matheme. I am particularly interested in Jean-Luc Nancy’s reading of this Badiouian move, for Nancy sees in the interruption of the mytheme by the matheme a quintessentially theological moment in Badiou’s thought. Our analysis of Nancy’s reading of Badiou here will provide us with the first example—and perhaps also the first model—of what it can mean to call a philosophical move “theological”.

The birth of philosophy for Badiou relies on the difference between what, in Conditions, he calls the matheme and the mytheme. The mytheme trades in opinion and narrative, in cosmogony and poetic richness. For the matheme, by contrast, it is a question not of opinion but of truth. The matheme is non-narrative, non-hermeneutic, and abstract.

The philosophical miracle of Greece, Badiou insists, is to be ascribed not to the mythic and poetic richness of that culture, nor to its poetry’s grasp of the sacred, but rather to the interruption, chiefly by Plato, of sacred cosmogonies and opinion by secularised and abstract mathematical thought (Manifeste de la philosophie 14/Manifesto of philosophy 34): ‘mathematics is the only point of rupture with doxa that is given as existent or constituted. The absolute singularity of mathematics is basically its existence’ (Conditions 102).

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

Although this Platonic interruption of the mytheme by the matheme took place within a given historico-cultural context, Badiou insists that it must not be viewed in a historicist perspective. In fact, in the essay ‘Le (re)tour de la philosophie elle-même’ (Conditions French[1] 57-78/Conditions English[2] 3-22), he expands on five propositions concerning the relation of philosophy to history, five propositions that will help us understand both his claim to be non-theological and Nancy’s counter-claim that he imitates the theological after all. The five propositions amount to an attack on what Badiou sees as the danger of inscribing philosophy within a finite historical horizon.

  1. Philosophy today is paralysed by its relation to its own history (proposition 1) because it no longer knows whether it has a place of its own, scattered and subordinated as it is in a host of disciplines including art, poetry, science, political action and psychoanalysis, with the desultory consequence that philosophy has become little more than its own museum (C 57/Con 3).
  2. It therefore becomes imperative for philosophy to break decisively with historicism (proposition 2), which means that philosophy’s self-presentation must in the first instance make no reference to its history; its concepts must be presented without having to appear before the tribunal of their historical moment, for it is philosophy which judges history, and not the reverse (C 58/Con 5).
  3. If philosophy is thus to be freed from the vicissitudes of historicism it must be defined in a historically invariable way (proposition 3),
  4. and in a way that distinguishes it from sophism (proposition 4)
  5. So philosophy as understood by Plato is both possible and necessary (proposition 5) in the face of the modern sophism of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Vattimo and Rorty.


Nancy, Badiou and the “Christmas projection”

Despite Badiou’s categorical professions of atheism, for some of his readers it is in the very idea of a rupture with, and interruption of, historical opinion by ahistorical truth that Badiou is imitating a theological gesture. Jean-Luc Nancy is one of those readers.

Nancy sees in Badiou’s thought what he calls the ‘Christmas projection’, which he characterises as ‘a pure and simple birth of Christianity, which one fine day comes along and changes everything’ (Dis-Enclosure 145). Like the incarnation of Christ, the Christmas projection interrupts the regular course of events with a bolt from the blue, an intervention from outside that cannot be accounted for in terms of the situation into which it intervenes and that performs a decisive break, creating a ‘before’ and ‘after’. For Nancy, it is in repeating this Christmas projection that our tradition remains Christian: ‘our whole tradition, as unchristian as it would like to be, still retains something of the “Christmas projection”: at a given moment “that” takes place, and we find ourselves thereafter in a Christmas condition’ (Dis-Enclosure 145).

Badiou’s account of philosophy’s ahistorical condition, crucial as it is for his reading of the death of God, is in Nancy’s eyes just such a Christmas projection, for it suggests that, at a given moment, the matheme interrupted the mytheme: ‘that’ takes place, philosophy comes into the world, full of light and truth. Philosophy itself may be ahistorical, but Badiou nevertheless requires it to effect a rupture with the mytheme at a particular historical moment.

So, for Nancy, Badiou’s literal and categorical understanding of the proposition that ‘God is dead’–‘I take the formula “God is dead” literally. […] God is finished. And religion is finished, too’ (Briefings on Existence 23)–re-inscribes itself into the same metaphysical, arche-teleological structure from which it is ostensibly seeking to extricate itself.

[1] Hereafter: C.

[2] Hereafter: Con.

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What is a theological concept? Part 2: A schema for distinguishing between different atheisms

In Difficult Atheism I offered a schema for understanding varieties of contemporary French philosophical atheism. In this post I want briefly to summarise that schema (adding some diagrams not included in Difficult Atheism), before going on to develop it further in the future. If you want to explore these ideas in greater length, please refer to the longer descriptions in Difficult Atheism itself.

It is a tripartite schema of imitative (or parasitic) atheism, ascetic (or residual) atheism, and theological integration.


“Imitative” or “parasitic” atheism

In DA I summarised this first variety of atheism in the following way:

‘imitative atheism’, merely replaces ‘God’ with a supposedly atheistic placeholder such as ‘Man’ or ‘Reason’, explicitly rejecting but implicitly imitating theology’s categories of thinking, changing merely the terms in which those categories are articulated. The placeholder might furnish the reason and the end – the Alpha and the Omega – of the world, provide the source of Truth or Value, or stand, god-like, outside the flux of intramundane becoming. [1]


Care, however, should be taken to distinguish imitative atheism from the casual use of religious or theological terms within an atheistic context. If a philosopher uses terms such as ‘miracle’, ‘faith’ or even ‘God’, it does not necessarily follow that her thought is imitative. An atheism is parasitic upon theology only when it deploys concepts that cannot be accounted for in exclusively atheistic terms but require assumptions proper to theology, whether or not those concepts happen to carry theological labels. This, of course, raises the question of what assumptions are proper to theology. This is a question that receives different, often contradictory answers; it will be one focus of this series of posts.

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

Camus as a bridge

The existentialism of the mid twentieth century marks a significant moment in the rejection of imitative atheism. Albert Camus struggles in the tension between the old imitation and a new refusal of parasitic thinking:

I continue to believe that the world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning, and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man and our task is to provide its justification against faith itself. [2]

Camus’s absurd holds itself in the impossible breach of imitative atheism, claiming concepts to which it knows it has no right. It is, he writes, ‘sin without God’ [3] (‘le péché sans Dieu’). His thought adumbrates the second tendency within post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that arises in part as a critique of imitative atheism.


“Residual” or “ascetic” atheism

Maurice Blanchot takes Camus’s absurd to task, chiding the existentialist for clinging to concepts to which he has no intellectual right and calling on him to renounce them in the name of intellectual honesty. In DA I summarise the Blanchotian position in the following terms:

This call to systematic renunciation exemplifies the second tendency in post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that we shall call ‘residual atheism’, an atheism that seeks, with a heroic or despairing asceticism, to make do with the meagre residue left over after the departure of God, Truth, Justice, Beauty and so on. Residual atheism traces its genealogy back through Heidegger’s Dasein to Nietzsche’s pronouncements of the death of God. Nietzsche’s madman in the marketplace is speaking to unbelievers, the imitative atheists who do not yet realise their continued parasitism on the God they reject. [4]

In The Gay Science Nietzsche warns of the extent to which modern thought still relies on the God it has replaced:

It is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. – But what if . . . God should prove to be our most enduring lie? [5]

It is imitative atheism’s ‘faith in Plato’ that must be challenged, the faith in the ‘heavenly place’ (topos ouranios) of Truth, Justice, and Meaning. In resisting imitative atheism, Nietzsche’s own position is deprived of the certainties and horizons of the Platonic or Judaeo-Christian suprasensory by the death of God. In addition to morality, the Christian eschatological and redemptive view of history must be jettisoned, along with the Platonic idea of truth and hypostatised Reason and Meaning, which cannot survive the washing away of the horizon that comes with the death of God: ‘“Reason” in language – oh, what an old deceptive female she is! I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.’ [6]

Even so, this asceticism does not succeed in disengaging residual atheism from the parasitism it denounces. In limiting itself to the sensory world as opposed to the suprasensory, the immanent as opposed to the transcendent, residual atheism finds itself – just like imitative atheism – defined in terms of that which it seeks to escape. This is the thrust of Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche in ‘Nietzsche’s word: God is dead’. [7] For Heidegger, the very way in which Nietzsche understands the death of God inscribes it ineluctably in terms of reference dictated by the theology of the God whose death is declared.

Glossing Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, Heidegger warns us not to forget ‘what is said at the beginning of the passage that has been elucidated: that the madman “cried incessantly: I seek God! I seek God!”’ [8] The madman’s exclamation ‘God is dead’ is not a simple cry of triumph but a lament, issuing in his requiem aeternam deo. The problem for Nietzsche, as far as Heidegger is concerned, is that ‘the terms “God” and “Christian god” in Nietzsche’s thinking are used to designate the suprasensory world in general’, [9] and Nietzsche himself parasitises that Platonic-Christian dichotomy of, on one hand, the ‘suprasensory’ or ‘true and genuinely real’ world of Ideas and Ideals, and on the other hand the sensory world which is by contrast ‘changeable, and therefore the merely apparent, unreal world’.

In seeking to wipe away the theological suprasensory, residual atheism struggles to articulate itself in terms other than as the negative residue of theology’s plenitude or a renunciation, along with theology, of truth and goodness.


Post-Theological Integration

If thinking without God is to move beyond the impasse of parasitism and asceticism it cannot simply produce – to adopt a Lyotardian idiom – a new move in atheism’s old game of the sensory and the suprasensory. It cannot simply take religion’s categories for its own, but neither can it afford to leave religion alone, merely expelling it beyond atheism’s own sensory or rational bounds. It must learn from the post-secular colonisation of atheism itself in order not to resist but to occupy theism’s territory, re-deploying theism’s notions for its own purposes, just as the post-secular co-opts atheism to do its own work of denouncing idols. Only this will allow atheism to shake its status as theology’s parasitic or ascetic poor relation. It is this project of escaping theism’s shadow, I will argue, that makes sense of French philosophy’s attempt, in the opening decades of the third millennium, to follow the death of God more rigorously than before.

As I describe it in Difficult Atheism:

The common impulse of the three post-theological philosophies we shall consider [Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux] is that they seek 1 ) to move beyond imitative and residual atheism in order fundamentally to re-think philosophy without God or the gods and without parasitising any assumptions dependent on them (hence post-theological, not merely post-theistic), while nevertheless 2 ) refusing ascetically to renounce the notions associated with such gods – namely, truth and justice – relinquished by residual atheism. A thinking radically without God is integrated with a retention of the notions otherwise associated with God. These two ideas taken together account for our characterisation of thinking after atheism as a ‘post-theological integration’. It is this integration that makes the new post-theological thought truly new: it is a turn to religion in order to turn the page on religion. [10]

Imitative atheism, residual atheism, and theological integration. These are the options for philosophies that would position themselves as a-theological. What is at stake in such a positioning is how to avoid theological parasitism without falling into atheistic asceticism. With these ideas in place we are now in a position, in future posts, to begin considering specific concepts and moves in the thought of Alain Badiou, jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux.


[1] Christopher Watkin, Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011) 2-3.

[2] Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, ed. and trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 22.

[3] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955) 38.

[4] Watkin, Difficult Atheism 4-5.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 344.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 170.

[7] Martin Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, ed. and trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977) 53-114.

[8] Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ 111.

[9] Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ 61.

[10] Watkin, Difficult Atheism 13.

cc image courtesy of Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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What is a theological concept? Part 1: Introduction

In this new series of posts I want to ask a question that is simple enough to pose: “what is a theological concept?” The question comes out of lines of inquiry I opened up in Difficult Atheism but wasn’t able to bring to a conclusion, as well as from reflections I have been pursuing since its publication.

As I set out on this series, I understand the question “what is a theological concept” to comprise four main areas of inquiry:

  • When a given philosopher employs a term from the lexical field of theology (say “miracle” in Badiou’s work), how are we to decide whether his use of the term is theological or not? The etymology would suggest that it is; the context of Badiou’s philosophy would suggest that it isn’t. What other factors should be taken into account, in addition to etymology and context? What systematic methodology that we can bring to such instances, one that would take into account all (or nearly all) possible cases rather than approaching each case of suspected theology in a haphazard way or with bespoke criteria intended to ensure a predetermined response?
  • What is it that makes a particular term, or a particular gesture or intuition, a ‘theological’ one?
  • What is ‘theology’ anyway, for the purposes of this question? How is it to be defined and understood, such that a given concept can be qualified as ‘theological’?
  • If a given concept arose within a religious or theological context, on what basis do we assume it to be a ‘theological’ concept? Take ‘miracle’ again, for example, or creation ex nihilo. What makes those notions theological? Is it always about an appeal to an instance of transcendence? What are the exceptions to that rather sweeping rule (i.e. transcendence that is not theological, and theology that is not transcendent)? Do religion and theology hold the copyright on everything they invent?

This series of posts will introduce a set of distinctions that can help us to respond to questions like these in what I hope will be a sophisticated way: distinctions between the ‘provenance’, ‘structure’, ‘content’ and ‘gesture’ of a philosophical concept, and between ‘aping’, ‘imitating’ and ‘following’ religion. We will have to consider to what extent (Protestant Christian) theology is itself secular or secularising, and to what extent the ‘secular’ is a product of, and indebted to, this particular theological heritage.

As this series grows, you can read all the posts on one page here.

There will be further important questions to consider along the way, such as the difference between ‘religious’ and ‘theological’ concepts, and whether by ‘religious’ we really just mean Christian, and whether by Christian we really just mean Protestant. To what extent does Western modernity have theological origins? To what extent do any such origins make modernity itself theological? What implications does this have for modern Western philosophy? I also want to address head-on a question so often conspicuously absent from considerations of the relationship between philosophy and theology: so what? If a religious concept does appear in an ostensibly a-theological or atheistic system, what should we conclude, beyond the predictable trumpet-blowing and cries of ‘gotcha’ on both sides? What is at stake if a secular philosopher draws on theological capital?

My aim, as I embark on this investigation, is to take as little as I can for granted. Perhaps no concepts at all are inherently ‘theological’. Perhaps philosophy per se, regardless of its content, is ‘theological’. Perhaps theology itself is not ‘theological’.

This series is not about beating the theological and philosophical bounds, about saying what ‘belongs to’ religion and what ‘belongs to’ philosophy. Indeed, that territorialising approach is one of the paradigms that I intend to question in future posts.

The conversation I aim to initiate will primarily take place among modern and contemporary French thinkers: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, Quentin Meillassoux and others. I will draw on theologians and historians of ideas where necessary, and the conclusions I draw and frameworks I establish will, I hope, be of use beyond the contexts in which they are forged.

I have already broached questions like these in a piecemeal way in the past, and in a somewhat more systematic manner in Difficult Atheism. In the second post in this series I will begin summarising my reflections to date, before filling in the gaps and taking the investigation in new directions.

CC Image courtesy of Lloyd Morgan on Flickr.

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