Terminal Abstraction and the Radically Human

What follows is a response to a point made by David Roden in the post “Against Non-Philosophical Humanism“. I am not critiquing the Post-humanist stance as such, though. I found Roden’s article intriguing as a potential new take on non-philosophy.

If the following seems overly abstract, especially in the context of our dire prospects – probable social collapse or even extinction – that is because philosophy, as it currently stands, forces the thinker into a thicket of explication that she could do without. Still, to try to do such work is valuable, if only because what will be useful to us in the coming years will not be found lying on the surface to be easily  pocketed. If we are after useful knowledge it must be more than just a matter of practicality; or rather practicality must be made to include something  other than the utilitarian. Knowledge must transcend the immediacy of our situation, no matter how dire, and include what is meaningfully useful beyond the dictates of philosophy, science and the political. There is more in the world than fits into our discourses.

That said, there is no promise of deliverance in the injunctions or methodology of non-philosophy, which is why, in one iteration at least, Laruelle calls it a victim-ology. One could just as profitably turn to Deleuze or Badiou, to name only two thinkers from the myriad we might choose to accompany us into the coming maelstrom. And even then it might not suffice.

Anyway, I would like to address Ray Brassier’s article” Laruelle and the Reality of Abstraction”( link below)  the essence of which David Roden encapsulates as follows:

Nonetheless, Laruelle and his commentators sometimes gloss this performance by claiming that the Real implies a kind of ‘unlearned knowledge’ or gnosis preceding any division between thought and object. Laruelle refers to this variously as ‘Vision-In-One’ and ‘The-Human-in-Person’. As Ray Brassier observes there is something deeply tendentious in this move from axiomatic abstraction to concretion in pre-intentional or non-thetic awareness. What was introduced as a completely empty immanence without relation becomes identified with a concrete existence of the human prior to any philosophical demarcation of the human as universal”

The are two misconceptions here:


I don’t think Laruelle ever articulates a concept of empty immanence or an immanence without relation. Empty, null or void are modes of the philosophical, say’s Laruelle, which mix immanence and transcendence by way of a decisional structure – the invariant philosophical act as such. When he talks of Immanence or the Human-in-Person, he describes a relation of unilaterality between it and the philosophically/ideologically produced World. Laruelle defines immanence as radical rather than absolute, relation-less or empty; an attempt to think immanence apart from the bifurcations of philosophy. To do this he adapts the “posture” of science which has no need of an act of transcendence of a philosophical kind that would produce an absolute correlation with its object. This “scientific” posture is turned towards philosophy as the “occasion” of a non-philosophical operation on philosophical concepts so as to rid them of their transcendent pretensions and turn them into “last instances” or minimally transcendent terms. The “theory” that results is more akin to a scientific model than a philosophical system. It is open-ended and capable of being supplemented, subtracted from, expanded or annulled, much in the way non-philosophy has evolved, in fact.

A philosophical postulate, on the other hand, is, according to Laruelle, ideally closed and sufficient by definition even when it posits emptiness or non-relation. Non-philosophy in contrast is more akin to a fiction. Laruelle has described the evolution of his thought as a series of throws of the dice, producing each time a new iteration from the ground up. The move from non-philosophy proper, thought against the horizon of the transcendental deduction, and non-standard philosophy, thought against the horizon of quantum science, is a clear example of this impulse to start anew.


Laruelle explicitly rules out an identification of the human-in-person with an empirically accessible instance of a biological or social individual, rightfully the objects of science proper, or the objects of a quasi-scientific melange made of philosophical postulates and empirical facts, synthesised under the authority of philosophy rather than science. The rightful objects of non-philosophical enquiry are philosophical concepts and systems of concepts and not empirically accessible individuals or the real conceptualised as the kantian thing-in-itself. There is an ambiguity, though, in Laruelle’s explication, not least because he wants to situate the human in a priori givens and work towards the philosophical world, as it were. He insists that we must act as if philosophy, in its endless complex and interdependent iterations, was in essence an illusion. We must not think we can evolve into philosophy on it’s own terms following a natural curiosity about the world, an impulse more appropriate to the practice of empirical science. Instead we must make an end of decision by establishing ourselves in a priori axioms which perform a cut, separating theory from decisional philosophy and allowing for the use of the resulting materials, put to the service of a project of emancipation from authorities.

And this is the crucial test for any thought, insists Laruelle: how emancipatory it is in relation to the harassment of the human being by various authorities, philosophical, ideological etc. Brassier completely ignores this problematic, a form of borderline dishonesty which philosophers routinely indulge in by refusing to take into account the motivation which underlies a certain way of addressing philosophical questions, concerned with something more than the refinement of concepts.

In this spirit, Brassier conflates Laruelle’s foreclosure of the real with Kant’s unknowability of the thing-in-itself. According to Kant raw sense-data gives us access only to appearances, producing a manifold of intuitions which are then taken up into concepts under the determination of the a priori categories – space, time etc; and this by a cognisant subject who cannot herself appear in experience. In all of this we never get to know the thing-in-itself, although Kant insists that it’s unknowability does not preclude it grounding appearances; appearance must be an appearance of some thing, say’s Kant, otherwise we end up with a tautology – nothing appears in appearance – or there are only appearances as such, made up not of material things but of mental entities, a form of Idealism which Kant wants to avoid. As Brassier says, we are led to the conclusion that the unknowability of the thing-in-itself – that which is not – negatively determines the positives – the raw sense-data, appearances, manifold of intuitions, transcendental categories, and transcendental subjects which make up the Kantian World.

Against this horizon, Brassier constructs a parallelism between the Kantian and Laruellian concepts: foreclosure of the real and unilaterality of determination on one side and unknowability of the thing-in-itself and negative determination on the other. It seems to work, or at least there seems to be a working symmetry between the two sets of concepts, one that might produce something like a quantum collision and some new data about our situation. In fact, this is just what Laruelle intends when he says that Kant’s transcendental deduction is the occasion whereby non-philosophy will make it own revolution in thought.

Laruelle’s revolution consists in radicalising the unknowability of the thing-in-itself and the unknowability of the transcendental subject – radicalising, rather than absolutising, their foreclosure to thought. They become the transcendental subject, cloned from the Real who will go on, in philosophical fashion, to posit a philosophical world, or who will, as stranger-subject, theorise the non-philosophical axioms that situate the human in an a priori.

For Brassier, this Kantian pincer, consisting of the unknowability of the thing-in-itself, on the one hand, and the unknowable transcendental subject, on the other, is the trap from which Laruelle never manages to escape. If one were uncharitable one might conclude that the purpose of Brassier’s long introductory preamble on Kantianism just is to situate Laruelle’s concepts between this pincer to squeeze the life out of them, or at least to squeeze the non-philosophical juice out, leaving only a process of dry abstraction. At any rate, having put the pincer in place Brassier proceeds to apply the pressure, with questions that seem to preclude any wriggle room:

“But what do they name or describe (Laruelle’s first names for the real)? Immanence ‘itself’, the immanence of the Real ‘in flesh and blood’, as he likes to put it? Or the abstract reality of an absolute abstraction that positively realises the transcendental negativity of the Kantian noumenon as objectless ‘thought-entity’?”

There is the rub. Whereas Laruelle tries to articulate a purposefully crude, philosophically minimal concept of the real as material without being philosophically material-ist; or as organic without becoming a form of philosophical vitalism; or as experiential without having to do with a form of radical subjectivism, Brassier’s answer to this effort to think something new is to conflate it with the “transcendental negativity of the Kantian noumenon as objectless thought-entity”, that tired old concept of the thing-in-itself already hopelessly inscribed into a myriad of philosophical systems.

…the crucial Kantian insight is that we can abjure this without succumbing to the lure of absolute idealism, once we realise that the reality of appearances is grounded in the reality of what does not appear; that acknowledging the concrete reality of the phenomenon requires acknowledging the abstract reality of the noumenon; and ultimately, that sensible being is founded upon the intelligibility of that which is not. Thus the identification of the Real with ‘Man-in-person’ is the height of abstraction, for it brusquely identifies the noumenon with the phenomenon, using the divisive power of the former to secure the absolute indivisibility of the latter. The result is a terminal abstraction masquerading as the termination of abstraction.

He we can see Brassier’s parallelism put to use. Laruelle’s Real and Man-in-person are conflated with nomenon and phenomenon, where noumenon or thing-in-itself aligns with Laruelle’s foreclosed Real, and the phenomenon or appearances align with Man-in- person as an empirically accessible entity. Since the Kantian noumenon is an empty abstraction, conceptualised as necessary for the grounding of appearances but not accessible to empirical investigation, it becomes an abstraction referencing only a condition of negative determination (of the appearances).

Is this what Laruelle means by foreclosure of the real? Only if you situate it within Brassier’s arbitrary structure. Rightly, from Laruelle’s perspective, both Real and Man-in-person should be situated on the side of foreclosure as a radicalisation of Kant’s unknowability, but without its Idealist “metaphysical deduction” which produces the transcendental subject as termination of what can be thought. The right relation between the real and this transcendental subject is one of unilaterality in which the Real or Man-in-person clones the transcendental subject as stranger-subject of non-philosophy. The parallelism is, in other words, not symmetrical. Brassier wrongly conceptualised Man-in-person as an appearance.

Laruelle has hypostatised an absolute abstraction and subjected it to a premature identification with an empirical instance – the human individual ‘in flesh and blood’ – in a misguided attempt to stave off its re-idealisation in a transcendence in and of the concept. He successfully conceptualises the separation of the in-itself, but misidentifies it as an experience, refusing to recognise that no residue of experience can withstand determination by mediation. The rejoinder that the One is ‘abstract without abstraction’ begs the question, for it simply radicalises abstraction in an attempt to neutralise (‘unilateralise’) the dialectic of mediation and abstraction. The given-without-givenness is certainly a real abstraction, or the Real as abstract, and its absolute separation, or unilaterality, the reality of abstraction.

Again we have the unsymmetrical parallelism. Laruelle is praised for having conceptualised the in-itself (conflated with his notion of the foreclosed) but admonished for misidentifying it as an experience by “refusing to recognise that no residue of experience can withstand determination by mediation.”

In other words Laruelle’s misconstruel leaves him in abstraction and thus within philosophy as such. But, of course, it is Brassier’s parallelism which produces this result and not anything in Laruelle. In fact Laruelle insists that there is no conflation of his man-in-person with an empirically accessible individual, much less with Kant’s unknowable but determining thing-in-itself. The terminal abstraction belongs not to Laruelle but to Kant, and by implication, Brassier.

Brassier’s approach uncharitably baits non-philosophy by profiling it against the kantian universe, as if the kantian universe– noumenon, phenomenon, manifold of intuitions, concepts, transcendental categories, the transcendental subject – just was equivalent to the Real as conceived by Laruelle. Inscribed into this universe of postulates Laruelle’s concepts, as weak or minimally transcendent, can easily be found wanting in philosophical terms, since Laruelle refuses to play the game, preferring to situate his thought within axiomatic givens to thwart such philosophical moves.

The choice Brassier proposes between a radicalised subjectivism or an all-pervading process of mediation again inscribes Laruelle’s thought into a universe of philosophical postulates, ignoring Laruelle’s problematic, which is not to extract thinking from the philosophical by a process of rigorous abstraction but to show that we never entered into philosophy in the first place. Brassier’s insistence that we are always already inside philosophy qua the presupposition that “ no residue of experience can withstand determination by mediation” is true, says Laruelle, only on the basis of an amphibology in which concepts proliferate through mediations of mediations or doubling, producing the array of thought-systems auto-generated out of each other as philosophy. Against this idealism, Laruelle offers the concept of the transcendently given occasions of thought, philosophical, non-philosophical, scientific, aesthetic, ethical etc, unilaterally determined, in the last instance, by the Real and existing alongside each other in a philosophically unsynthesised “democracy of thought”.

Both the unknowable transcendental subject posited by Kantian philosophy and the stranger subject theorised by non-philosophy are equal in regard to the “content” of any thought, a content which only has significance in relation to a World into which we are already thrown or into which we are already interpellated. The “truth” of non-philosophy is a non-truth that has to be performed in relation to a world and is not a thought-correlate of that world. In this sense it is not a knowable as such but neither is it a non-thetic experience, but precedes the operations which the transcendental subject has effected on the givens of the real, as a priori or a posteriori categories. This will never satisfy philosophers of course, since it opens up the possibility of an outside of philosophy immune to decision, from which decision can be theorised. Philosophy will always try to subsume such a real under the unknowables which, surprise, philosophy can name as such, negatively determining its own posits as positively determining the real on the basis of philosophy’s operations. Now that truly is a terminal abstraction masquerading as the termination of abstraction.


Having said that I still value Brassier’s article for the way it explicates the relation between Laruelle and Kant. It is Kant’s transcendental deduction that is the occasion, essential but not determining, for Laruelle’s discoveries, at least up until the break Laruelle makes with the Kantian world-view. With Non-standard philosophy, the transcendental subject, cloned from the real and operating on the decisional structure, is replaced with a quantum process of collision and superposition in which Laruelle thinks philosophy against the horizon of quantum science. He tries to break open it’s sufficient structure, conceiving of it’s materials as shot through with quantum ambiguity, simultaneously wave and discreet particle.

This new quantum model of thought has the same relation to non-philosophy as the new quantum psychics has to the Newtonian model: it surpasses without negation. The two models lie side by side without synthesis, on different levels or at different scales, and can be used as such.

From the non-standard perspective the rigid structures of the categories and the relations between transcendental subjects and objects are collapsed, so that the model of linear causality still implicit in the structure of unilaterality is dissolved in favour of superposition and the spooky effect of causality at a distance, to stretch the quantum analogy.

All of which prompts a thought about the “actual” relation between the objects of science, Newtonian or Quantum and that Real which is foreclosed to thought but from which we think as real beings thinking real abstractions. This is after all the question Laruelle puts to himself– how to think a real foreclosed to thought. His answer is Vision-in-One: quantum thought, now particle-like concept, now wave-like performativity. If knowing is a representation of the real in the transcendental mode  – a concept of the real- the act of conceptualisation is in-itself the real in the immanent mode of representing as such, the Real real-ing itself in thought.

Like quantum science, non-standard philosophy might seem to have arrived at the terminus of thought, but that is so only at a particular level or from a particular perspective, which is, after all, the effect of the quantum. This is not Relativism but the relative radicalised in the service of human emancipation from philosophical, ideological, political, moral, ethical, and instrumental authorities, in so far as all of these discourses and practices seek to capture and imprison a human essence (not, by the way, an idealised essence) and concrete it as oppressive and dehumanising social relations and institutions.

Critical connections: Laruelle and the reality of Abstraction


One response to “Terminal Abstraction and the Radically Human

  1. I realise it’s a bit hard to respond in detail to Patrick’s paper, most of it in any case is a response to Brassier’s far more expert critique. However, there are some relevant reflections in a piece of mine that is forthcoming in the Bloomsbury Posthumanist Handbook.

    As before much of the discussion of Non-Philosophy in section 3 is strategic and distanced, though I try to be fair. I’m sympathetic to the broad project on NP but not its implementation; while its ethical project is of no interest to me. So perhaps this is an exercise in ill-informed heresy, I don’t know. But maybe that’s non-philosophy enough. Here’s the link to the academia.edu archive if that’s appropriate to pass on.


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