Ian James, The Technique of Thought: Nancy, Laruelle, Malabou and Stiegler after Naturalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019; 247 pages. ISBN: 978-1517904302.

Reviewed by Patrick Gamez, Missouri University of Science and Technology. 

Ian James has written a dense and thought-provoking book that is as invigorating as it is frustrating. Over the last two decades, James has been an able and useful expositor of recent French philosophy, especially the work of Jean-Luc Nancy. The Technique of Thought is, on the face of it, a survey summary of primarily recent work by Jean-Luc Nancy, Francois Laruelle, Catherine Malabou, and Bernard Stiegler (hereafter NLMS). All of these thinkers were profiled previously in James’ 2012 text, The New French Philosophy (alongside Marion, Badiou, and Ranciére). In that work, James argues that these thinkers constitute a new form of “post-deconstructive” philosophy that, while sensitive to the anti-foundational thrust of the poststructuralism and deconstruction of the previous generation, nonetheless put philosophy back into contact with “the real” in new and fruitful ways. Thus, one might expect The Technique of Thought, which takes its title from the epilogue of The New French Philosophy, to be an essay in realism, or perhaps materialism (themes that have been much disputed in Continental philosophy since the rise of “speculative realism” and “New Materialism”). Yet James largely puts these movements to one side, only briefly engaging with the speculative realism of Graham Harman, via the latter’s one-sided debate with Ladyman and Ross over the superiority of realism to materialism in ontology. Though the book is subtitled “Nancy, Laruelle, Malabou, and Stiegler after Naturalism” (my emphasis), James labels the tendency shared by these thinkers a “post-Continental naturalism.” And it is naturalism, rather than realism or materialism, that is the focus of James’ text.

James notes correctly that “naturalism” is one of the many vexed terms in philosophy that changes its sense across contexts. The Aristotelian ethical naturalism of John McDowell and Philippa Foot, for example, has little (if anything) in common with the pragmatic evolutionary naturalism of John Dewey or Ruth Millikan. Ostensibly, in order to provide context for the particular French tradition that he wants to present, James brushes aside recent attempts to bridge the Analytic-Continental divide through the naturalization of phenomenology in 4e cognitive science (embodied, embedded, enacted, extended). He instead chooses to identify one particular form of naturalism in Anglo-American philosophy upon which to focus. More specifically, James argues that this tradition is characterized by four broad commitments: (i) philosophy is continuous with natural science; (ii) dualism is false; (iii) some sort of externalist epistemology is correct; and (iv) physicalism is true. (3) This set of commitments provides a sort of contrast class for NLMS. And while James denies that the thinkers he elucidates hold exactly this set of commitments, he nevertheless wants to show how they rethink or re-articulate the concerns that animate the naturalism defined by these theses (e.g., the mind-body problem or the problem of philosophical or metaphysical foundations for the natural and life sciences). 

The book begins with an introduction that situates its argument relative to the naturalism outlined above and is followed by a first chapter on the “Image of Philosophy,” which explicitly evokes Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of the traditional, representational image of thought as a process of grasping the truth about the world in terms of sameness. To the naturalistically-inclined philosopher, this argument also evokes Rorty’s dismissal of philosophy―or thought―as essentially representational, or a “mirror of nature,” as well as the direction that this anti-representational expressivism has taken, for example, in the work of Robert Brandom and Huw Price. Interestingly, however, James neither develops his argument in an obviously anti-representationalist direction, nor does he accept the Deleuzoguattarian image of philosophy as the unfettered creation of concepts. The reason for this is that Deleuze and Guattari do not reckon with the finitude of thought, or the experience thereof, which James takes to be crucial in distinguishing NLMS, and their “naturalism,” from both new realisms and materialisms and Anglo-American naturalisms. (12)

In practice, this amounts to providing in-depth summaries of work by NLMS. Yet these summaries are not all equally deep, as both Laruelle and Nancy receive their own chapters, while Malabou and Stiegler share a single chapter, the analysis of their work receiving a mere twenty pages apiece compared to the roughly sixty pages enjoyed by each of the former. One gets the sense that the heart of this book is an attempt to show the continuity and compatibility of Nancy and Laruelle’s work with contemporary science: James takes pains to show how Nancy’s ontology of “relational sense” and Laruelle’s non-philosophical articulation of the “Real” or “One” can be understood, in a broad sense, in terms of interpretations of contemporary science or philosophy of science. There is much in this discussion that is rich and compelling. Yet, frustrations arise when one tries to track the connections that would make these independent investigations cohere into a larger project. 

James begins with a substantive account of Nancy’s relational ontology of sense, that is, his view of the coming to presence of all things in terms of their sense, in relation to all other things. (63-65) This is brought into conversation with ontic structural realism (OSR), a view in contemporary philosophy of science championed by James Ladyman and Don Ross, on which ontology is scrubbed of all things (in the sense of independent objects). What there is, and all there is, are relations. James spends some time defending this view against those, like Harman, who find the idea of relations without relata unintelligible. He also wants to stress that, on this view, just as on Nancy’s view, ontology is groundless; there is nothing that grounds the existence or being of these relations of sense. 

James then attempts to interpret  “sense” in terms of information, in order to bring Nancy into conversation with Georges Canguilhem’s notion of life, informed by the nascent information and cybernetic sciences of his day, and contemporary theorizing in the life sciences. The basic idea is to articulate, in contrast to Ladyman and Ross, a naturalistic but importantly non-reductive account of life and living beings, grounded in genetic information but existing in equilibrium with a milieu or environs

The upshot of establishing a relational, non-reductive ontology of information is that James can then bring Nancy into conversation with heterodox physicists and cosmologists like Aurélien Barreau and Lee Smolin. Nancy claims that thinking of being in terms of sense means that we must conceive of the coming to presence of beings in a radically ungrounded, non-foundational way, so radical in fact that the very notion of the “universe” must itself be ungrounded, nothing more than “unicity.” (91) James interprets this to mean that even the basic laws of the universe, if there are such, cannot serve as a grounding and, thus, he wants to show, borrowing from Barreau, Smolin, and others, that reality or being is fundamentally temporala process through which difference arises. This family of philosophical views reacts to the prima facie reductiveness of the physical sciences and their naturalistic philosophical interpretations. (117-19) Overcoming this reductiveness is part and parcel of the ontological pluralism that comprises the core of Nancy’s relational ontology of sense or “being singular plural.” 

As one might surmise, this is all incredibly complicated. While James gives brief glosses on aspects of Nancy’s views and key points in physics, biology, and the philosophy of science, the book presumes at the very least a solid familiarity, if not deep knowledge, of a great deal of material. This is even more pronounced in the chapter on Laruelle, which involves an interrogation of competing interpretations of quantum mechanics. For those lacking a firm grasp of the differences between the Everett and Copenhagen interpretations, alongside contemporary French theory, this chapter will be slow going. Similar to the chapter on Nancy, the core claim of the Laruelle chapter is that reality or being is irreducibly plural, counterintuitively cashed out in terms of understanding the Real as indissolubly One. Laruelle champions a “non-philosophy” that diagnoses all philosophical thinking as “deciding” upon a split between thought and being and establishing a hierarchy of proper means of bringing thought to bear upon being. Laruelle draws on Althusser’s concept of determination-in-the-last-instance to argue that all thought is determined-in-the-last-instance by the One, or Real, and can be grasped in their non-hierarchical plurality by a non-philosophical “theory of science.” One might think that this would lead James to a naturalistic investigation of the sciences themselves. But it ultimately appears, again, that what James wants to establish is a genuinely metaphysical or ontological pluralism, underwritten by his appeals to understanding Laruelle via the Stanford School, especially Nancy Cartwright’s “metaphysical nomological pluralism” (152) and John Dupré’s “truly promiscuous realism.” (150) 

This metaphysical position is, I think, the core of the sort of “naturalism” that James wants to validate, and allegedly binds the work of NLMS together. He admits that the term might not be the most useful (225-26), insofar as it breaks with all traditional (Anglo-American) naturalism and, in place of a continuity between science and philosophy, establishes a rupture. (224) He pushes back against the idea that philosophy should be subservient to science, though not so far as to countenance the idea that philosophical speculation might produce results starkly inconsistent with the deliverances of science. What matters, here, is that each can come to the irreducible plurality of existence on its own terms. This is what gives sense, ultimately, to the title of the text; the various “techniques of thought,” elsewhere referred to as “images” (1, 52) or “languages” (4), represent the different modes by which the plural real can be disclosed. 

The book is full of rich and thought-provoking discussions. But one wonders, in the end, if their account of naturalism actually hangs together and explains what it claims to explain. Take, for example, the vagueness surrounding the central idea of a “technique” of thought. What are these various ways or means of accessing, disclosing, thinking, or knowing reality, being, the Real, or the One? We get almost no discussion of these terms, save in the case of Laruelle, for whom the technique of thought that allows access to the One (already so evocative of neoplatonism) is a “secret…gnosis.” (170) It seems unlikely, but could it be, that the objects revealed by gnosis are the same as the objects of the sciences, revealed in a different way, disclosing different modes of being? Is James’ pluralism a pluralism of method? But then how does this square with the robustly ontological or metaphysical spirit of James’ interpretation, on which it is reality itself that is irreducibly plural? 

On the other hand, one wonders how substantial any metaphysics derived from these figures could be, especially when the concepts uniting them seem more metaphorical than literal (notwithstanding the claim that, in Laruelle’s case, these connections are neither literal nor metaphorical, because they are non-representational). (170) For example, James claims that Nancy’s notion of “sense” has nothing in common with the concept of information that is invoked in OSR, or, presumably, in Canguilhem’s work or contemporary biology. (66-67) But then what is the connection that leads James to bring them into conversation? If it is neither ontological nor methodological, then is it just a commitment to broad theses like non-foundationalism? But if this is so, then why chart the painstaking connections James works to draw between them? One hopes that if James continues to develop his version of Continental naturalism, he will further elaborate on the status of these relations. 

As it stands, the work is full of useful material for graduate students and researchers interested in the featured (non)philosophers and their possible connections to the empirical sciences. In particular, readers less interested in the unity of post-Continental naturalism and more interested in the theoretical tools furnished by contemporary thinkers like Nancy and Laruelle will find fruitful material for their own thought. Further, it provides an example of the difficulty of articulating in detail a realist, pluralist, metaphysics, from within the traditions of Continental philosophy. But the impetus is valuable, insofar as it represents a different trajectory than the often resolutely non-empirical work one finds under the banner of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. In this, James’ book joins work by Karen Barad and, more recently, Adrian Johnston, who incorporate scientific discoveries in the attempt to make metaphysical sense of the cosmos and the place of humans, or agents, within it. While of course in need of critique and contextualization, empirical science remains a wildly successful epistemological enterprise, and philosophers would benefit from engaging with it more deeply and creatively. In this respect, James’ work will have made an original and timely, if not wholly unproblematic, contribution.