Anthony Paul Smith, Laruelle: A Stranger Thought. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016; 224 pages. ISBN: 978-0745671239.
Reviewed by Sean Capener, University of Toronto.
The last decade has seen a steadily rising interest in the work of François Laruelle in anglophone scholarship. Early interest was – as one might expect – largely limited to a group of specialists in contemporary continental philosophy, especially those involved in discussions which took place in the early 2000’s around the theme of speculative realism. Laruelle’s work became a major point of reference in these debates, thanks in large part to Ray Brassier’s partial deployment of it in Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (2007). Since then, however, even as enthusiasm around the matter of speculative realism has begun to wane, engagement with Laruelle’s work has moved into fields ranging from religion and anthropology to critical race studies, and even economics. While far from the only name to be associated with the dissemination of Laruelle’s work beyond philosophy’s normal disciplinary confines, Anthony Paul Smith has played a key role, both as the English translator of a number of Laruelle’s texts and a major practitioner of the method – “Non-Philosophy,” or “Non-Standard Philosophy” – initiated by Laruelle. More than simply a major interpreter, Smith’s work, especially on the relations between philosophical and theological materials and the conceptual materials of scientific ecology, has been a key model of non-standard philosophy, leading this new wave of engagement by example.
Smith’s double status – both commentator and exemplar – is, in part, what makes Laruelle: A Stranger Thought such an exciting addition to the growing English secondary literature on Laruelle’s work. That status is also a bit of a synecdoche for the form of the book itself. While there have already been a number of introductory works taking on either a single work in Laruelle’s broader corpus or one of its central concepts, A Stranger Thought is the first book-length introduction in English to Laruelle’s wider thought, taking on his entire corpus up to this point, and introducing readers both to its persistent, overarching concerns and the movements or waves it has undergone over the course of a storied and still-active writing career. Smith’s decades of deep engagement and correspondence with Laruelle make such an ambitious project possible. But this double status affects more than just the breadth of the book’s content. The book itself, in fact, strategically occupies this double role (simultaneously commentary and creative extension), placing it in a strange relationship with the commentary genre in which it purportedly sits.
Indeed, for many readers, this may serve as the book’s most significant source of difficulty; A Stranger Thought frequently shuttles between a description of an element in Laruelle’s conceptual apparatus and a use of that element as material, where the use of the material is novel to Smith’s book, and not found in Laruelle himself. Attempting to separate these two elements may add confusion to the reader’s experience of the book. This kind of attempt to graft the commentator’s own novel insights into an introductory text can be a common sin of the academic introductory genre, as writers are often pressured to display a measure of expertise antithetical to the pedagogical aims of the genre. It may be tempting for a cynical reader to understand the book’s odd form as an attempt at this sort of demonstration of virtuosity. There is a pedagogical purpose to writing the book this way, however: by attempting to instruct the reader in the use of Laruelle’s non-philosophy by demonstration rather than simple description, Smith is attempting to be faithful to a central thread of that very thought.
Each chapter of the book introduces a central element of Laruelle’s non-philosophical project. The first two, grouped together under the heading, “A Generic Introduction,” introduce the two elements that will, together, condition each of the other domains or unified theories introduced throughout the rest of the book: (1) the theory of philosophical decision; and (2) what Smith refers to as the “style” of non-philosophy. Together, these lay out the aims of Laruelle’s non-philosophy in relation to philosophy in its standard disciplinary form. For the unfamiliar: Laruelle’s theory of philosophical decision is a kind of metaphilosophical theory about the form and nature of philosophical inquiry. In order for inquiry to be recognizable as philosophy, according to Laruelle, it must decide, provisionally, on a set of basic divisions (expressed, in Laruelle’s terms, as a basic division between “transcendence” and “immanence”) in terms of which the world (that which philosophy takes to be its object) can be known to philosophy. While different philosophical approaches may have internal reasons for choosing different terms to occupy these positions, the basic form of decision must remain, or else the thought in question will fail to appear as “philosophical.”
One upshot of the form philosophy takes is that philosophy’s reflections must always appear to be meta in relation to the things that philosophy considers; this meta appears in the fact that, for instance, philosophical reflection on other materials, whether scientific, artistic, moral, or otherwise, always takes the form of a philosophy of that material. While the theory of decision constitutes a kind of critique of philosophy’s pretension to meta status, this critique is not itself the main use of non-philosophical thought. Once this form has been recognized, according to Laruelle, then it becomes possible to suspend this pretension – a pretension to what Laruelle calls “sufficiency.” Suspending this sufficiency, it becomes possible to take up a different relationship to the theoretical materials offered by philosophy, one where philosophy’s materials can be placed on the same plane as other conceptual materials, rather than above or below them. This practice is what constitutes the style of non-philosophy itself, as a sort of pragmatics of the use of philosophical materials, together with the materials of other disciplines and forms of inquiry. The theoretical apparatuses that result from the combination of philosophy and some other material are called “unified theories” of philosophy, and whatever it has been conjoined with.
The following five chapters explore different sorts of unified theories of philosophical and other materials. “Politics, or A Democracy of Thought,” for instance, explores the later Laruellian motif of a “democracy of thought” in order to show the way that the form of decision operating in philosophy also operates as a form of political closure, and to draw out the way that non-philosophical theory situates philosophical materials collaboratively with the other materials it engages. “Science, or Philosophy’s Other” turns to the frequent opposition of philosophical and scientific thought, and their perennial placement in an odd form of competition. Here, Smith extends his non-philosophical engagement with the identity of science – previously found most prominently in A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought (2013), in order to demonstrate not only the potential for a thinking of scientific and philosophical materials together without placing them in competition, but of thinking about the use of scientific materials without making any one science the meta of any others (a relation often attributed to mathematics and physics vis-à-vis other so-called “softer” sciences). (77) In this chapter, some of the central questions of earlier uses of Laruelle – questions about the identity of science, and, in particular, the reality of science’s objects – are dealt with in new and creative ways. (89)
Smith does some of his most original and creative work in “Ethics, or Universalizing the Stranger Subject,” through an extended meditation on the figure of the Stranger in Laruelle’s ethical thought and recent work on blackness in the context of black studies. (110–18) Smith makes the case for a productive thinking-together of Laruellian ethics and black studies without making black studies into simply an example of something that Laruelle’s thought might claim to possess in a more general way. It is the care with which this material is engaged that makes it such a helpful example of what it is that non-philosophy can be used for, without thereby becoming what secretly underlay black studies all along. Finally, Smith turns to chapters on fabulation and religion to explore more explicitly the relation thought takes towards itself in non-philosophical theory.
This emphasis on the use of non-philosophical theories, rather than on the philosophical decision itself, is one of the book’s most refreshing elements. The bulk of anglophone commentary work on non-philosophy has devoted itself to an explanation of the philosophical decision in its various versions and revisions, often leading to the impression that all non-philosophy can do is identify the form of decision in philosophical thought, as a sort of finger-wagging performance of criticism. This can lead to an impression of Laruelle as a sort of “end of philosophy” figure, viewing himself as the only one to have escaped some sort of trap, to which all prior philosophy remains captive. (4) It is also, however, what motivates the difficulty mentioned above. Given non-philosophy’s critique of philosophy’s meta status vis-à-vis the objects of its reflections, any introduction to Laruelle’s thought faces a pedagogical choice: either take a similar meta stance vis-à-vis Laruelle’s own theories – a stance that those theories themselves purport to eschew – or enact the form of theorizing that is being taught directly. The choice made by most prior commentary work has been the former: to explain the theory of philosophical decision, explain what the practice that follows from that theory is supposed to do, and then to leave it up to the reader to attempt to actually make the jump from what to how. To use this approach, one has, to some extent, to falsify the material under discussion in order to teach it. Much like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous example of explanation as a ladder to be kicked away once one has understood the use of a concept, the false or incomplete understanding is used as a kind of pedagogical tool, to be discarded once (and if) it has been fully understood.
Smith, however, chooses the latter approach – to teach non-philosophy by doing non-philosophy. In many ways, this approach works similarly to the way one might teach a close friend to play a game or a sport: rather than repeatedly reading the rulebook in order to attempt to impart some kind of cognitive understanding before getting underway, we often pick up games best simply by playing them. For a reader new to non-philosophy, just like a player newly initiated into a game, the initial experience is likely to be one of deep confusion. One’s first experience of A Stranger Thought will not be as intuitive as one might hope from similarly introductory material. If one continues to play Smith’s game, however, and maintains a degree of patience, one may find themselves up and running much more quickly than would have been possible if they chose another place from which to start, and may avoid some of the most common pitfalls of anglophone characterizations of Laruelle’s non-philosophy. Hence, while Laruelle: A Stranger Thought is an idiosyncratic text, whose counterintuitive approach to introduction may be initially disorienting for new readers, it is also a valuable contribution to Laruelle scholarship, one that will be of interest not only to those interested in Laruelle’s place in recent continental philosophy, but also to those interested in the use of philosophical materials in and among other practices of thought.