Symposium Introduction

As its title makes clear, Nathan Brown’s Rationalist Empiricism: A Theory of Speculative Critique focuses on four disparate philosophical tendencies, or four ways of “doing” philosophy, which are arranged into two seemingly incompatible dyads: rationalism and empiricism, speculation and critique. Together, they amount to an organizational principle—a mesh through which the history of philosophy will be made to pass—and a challenge, the challenge of holding these disparate tendencies together. By way of introduction, I want to say something about this book as an intervention in the history of philosophy—emphasizing in particular its critical relationship to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

First, what does it mean to articulate, after Kant, rationalism—Brown describes it as “a philosophical orientation deploying the power of reason to push thought beyond the limits of experience, to explore what has to be thought according to the internal order and consistency of ideas”—and empiricism—“a philosophical orientation claiming the genesis of ideas in experience and grounding the determination of what is the case on the consistency of thinking with experiential fact” (3)? Here, the qualification—after Kant—is crucial. For if a return to rationalism or empiricism risks inviting the charge of pre-critical naïveté, an invocation of rationalist empiricism suggests instead something like a frontal assault on the Kantian project. As students of the history of philosophy know, when Kant set his transcendental philosophy against rationalism and empiricism, he also codified rationalism and empiricism for the first time as discrete, and opposed, philosophical methods. To affirm a rationalist empiricism, then, is to accept Kant’s characterization of the history of philosophy while denying that this history should lead to the establishment of transcendental idealism. The problem with Kant, as I understand it, is not a failure to make room for “what has to be thought”; Kant allows for what he describes as “the dogmatic procedure that reason follows in its pure cognitions; for that procedure is science (and science must always be dogmatic, i.e., it must always do strict proofs from secure a priori principles)” (Bxxxv). Nor can the problem with Kant be some neglect of “what is the case,” for the real effectivity of the latter is precisely what the Transcendental Aesthetic of the first Critique is supposed to secure. The problem, rather, is with Kant’s promise to ground reason and experience in the activity of a subject, a subject that is itself simultaneously real and ideal. The challenges to Kant’s formulation of this subject are well known; Brown’s claim is that Kant’s “transcendental deduction exposed, beyond its grounding of knowledge in conditions, the unconditional groundlessness of the subject of knowledge” (2) To acknowledge this groundlessness, to acknowledge the absence of the subject that is supposed to harmonize reason and experience, is to free rationalism and empiricism from the closure of the transcendental. It is, rather, to see them encounter one another in an endless process of challenge and correction.

“The delicate task of rationalist empiricism,” Brown writes “is . . . to preserve the distinction and autonomy of its methodological poles while also submitting each to the critical interrogation of the other, acknowledging and accounting for the discrepancy of their criteria” (3). This preservation of rationalism and empiricism in a dislocative unity, this refusal to establish for them a shared criterion, enables Brown to do justice not only to these apparently opposed tendencies within philosophy but also to the relationship between philosophy and what we might call, after Alain Badiou, philosophy’s exogenous “conditions.” Thus, Brown offers rationalist-empiricist readings of contemporary episodes in the realms of politics (in the progress of the political sequence “Occupy Oakland” between October 10, 2011 and January 28, 2012), of art (in the practice of the photographer and installation artist Nicolas Baier), and of science (in the 2018 redefinition of the kilogram according to the Planck constant). What is important here is, I think, in each case, the specificity of what is the case, even as it is submitted to the necessity of what has to be thought (or done).

Secondly, what does it mean to maintain together speculation and critique? Here, again, Kant is the starting point, but a starting point of a different sort. While the articulation of rationalism and empiricism suggests a return to a moment just before Kant—say, to that moment before the transcendental deduction carried out in the first Critique—the articulation of speculation and critique suggests nothing so much as the passage beyond Kant to Hegel. And yet, this apparent symmetry risks misleading us. While Brown indeed reads Hegel as moving beyond Kant’s transcendental critique so as to institute a version of speculative critique, it is equally right to emphasize that Hegel, in passing from transcendental to speculative philosophy, in interrogating the relation of thought to itself (outside of any subjective limits), nonetheless preserves the critical exigency adumbrated by Kant. Why is this so important? As Brown notes at the very beginning of Rationalist Empiricism, “insofar as speculation is opposed to critique, it can only give rise to dogmatism” (1); and he goes on to note the unfortunate outcome of twenty-first-century philosophy’s so-called speculative turn. The latter’s “most zealous promoters, converting the venerable legacy of speculative thought into the cultural capital of ersatz theoretical movements, have merely repeated the forms of dogmatism Kant and Marx rightly delimited while pretending to move beyond these critical delimitations.”

On the one hand, the deletion of the transcendental, which provokes an ungrounded exchange between rationalism and empiricism; on the other, the preservation of the critical within the speculative so as to ward off philosophical dogmatism. Rationalist Empiricism is at the furthest remove from the facile anti-Kantianism, the naïve realism, that has for more than a decade been the stock-in-trade of post-humanist, new materialist, and object-oriented “philosophers.” While the philosophical work that Brown carries out aligns his project with the “philosophy of the concept” championed in the twentieth-century French epistemological tradition—with that philosophical sequence reaching from Bachelard and Cavaillès, to Althusser, Badiou, and Meillassoux—Rationalist Empiricism does not, finally, present its readers with a system or a method. It is instead, Brown explains,

an orientation toward philosophical problems that seeks to intervene in and unsettle the methodological unity of the tradition. It is also an orientation toward political problems that seeks to intervene in and unsettle any programmatic unity of theory and praxis. Taking up such problems through their relation to the tradition involves engaging contemporary texts, the history of philosophy, and political theory not only in terms of one’s own “position,” but in terms of certain methodological approaches that do not necessarily cohere into a position or align with a single philosophical school. (30)

Rationalist Empiricism, it seems to me, not only offers a series of interventions in particular debates in the history of philosophy—the question of structure in Plato, of separation in Marx, of temporalization in Heidegger—but also, and fundamentally, recasts the history of philosophy and the relation of philosophy to its history (to what is the case, in the latter’s most expansive sense).

What follows is a symposium dedicated to this singular book. It comprises the lightly-edited record of an exchange of ideas that occurred at Harvard University over two sessions on 14 May 2021. The responses that follow take up diverse elements of Rationalist Empiricism’s argument. Nick Nesbitt takes up the book’s discussions of Marx and Althusser so as to ask whether a materialist rationalism—a project sketched in Althusser’s work of the mid-sixties—really needs an empiricist complement. Julia Ng engages with the book’s first chapter, with its discussion of Descartes in particular, which she locates within a tradition of twentieth-century Descartes scholarship reaching from Edmund Husserl to Martial Gueroult; and she goes on to question the priority afforded to (a pre-Kantian vision of) the intellect over the imagination. Tracy McNulty considers the relationship between rationalist empiricism and psychoanalysis, asking whether a theory of the unconscious and of fantasy might shed light on a remark of Bachelard’s that serves as the book’s epigraph and returns in the last chapter: “Empiricism and rationalism are bound, in scientific thought, by a strange bond, as strong as that which unites pleasure and pain.” Finally, Alexi Kukuljevic focuses most explicitly on the ontological claims that develop over the course of Rationalist Empiricism, emphasizing in particular the question of the gap between thought’s historical occurrence and the absolute to which thought lays claim. In each case, the responses—and Brown’s responses in turn—clarify and complicate the arguments of Rationalist Empiricism, its exceptional recasting of the relationship between reason and experience.

Nick Nesbitt


Rationalist Materialism

A Response to Nathan Brown’s Rationalist Empiricism

The commanding theoretical intervention of Rationalist Empiricism is to have demonstrated, across the broad arc of post-Kantian theory, and in the context of post-Althusserian materialism in particular, the productive tension between these two categories, rationalism and empiricism, at the very limits of the thinking of ontological difference.1 There is so much I have taken from this book, from the incisive clarity of its critiques of Kant and Hegel, to the discerning development of Quentin Meillassoux’s intervention, after and in critical dissonance with speculative realism, but here I want to focus on the crucial dimension of the book of particular interest to me, its elaboration of the Althusserian reading of Marx’s Capital.

Here I wish to push back against Nathan’s repeated and repeatedly suggestive invocations of empiricism, to propose that Rationalist Empiricism, in the culminating moments of its most elaborate developments, repeats a gesture, a gesture that for me marks a hesitation, or, at least, one that invites further demonstration. By this, I wish to propose that these imposing readings, of Meillassoux, of Kant and Hegel, of Althusser, Marx, and Badiou, in each case culminate in the determination of a novel theoretical concept that the book nonetheless hesitates to name; in each case instead problematically reiterating the concept of empiricism. This reiteration of empiricism, for all its novel sophistication, marks a puzzling and persistent reappearance at these heights of theoretical sophistication: of a dualism of subject and object, of the concrete and the immaterial, of phenomenon and noumenon.2 Instead, this concept Rationalist Empiricism constructs, yet hesitates to name, I would call a Rationalist Materialism.

To be sure, Rationalist Empiricism refuses to limit the notion of empiricism to the mere definition it receives in every philosophical dictionary, as the assertion that all knowledge arises from sensuous experience, whether classically for Hume or as what Nathan rightly calls the “vulgar empiricism” of Mill or Lenin that “takes the objects of scientific practice to be pure phenomena that have not undergone a process of either ideological or theoretical transformation” (RE 14). The book does initially define empiricism along similar lines, as “a philosophical orientation claiming the genesis of ideas in experience” (RE 3). It proceeds, however, above all in its acute analysis of Meillassoux’s thesis, to develop a provocative, yet to me still-confounding, notion of empiricism delinked from any governing debt to psychological apperception. Without attending to the many subtle intricacies of this argument on Meillassoux, however, already I will pose Nathan the question delimiting my intervention: why still call Meillassoux’s position, one that asserts “the capacity of mathematics to formalize physical properties so as to subtract them from their sensory correlates” (RE 50); why still call this an empiricism, and even, a rationalist empiricism?3

I want to suggest, polemically perhaps, the theoretical incongruence of Althusser’s two positions from 1965 and 1966, positions Rationalist Empiricism crucially invokes at various points in its demonstration, those of an Althusser at the peak of his theoretical powers of insight in the pages of genius, cast with Rimbaldian clairvoyance in the Introduction to Reading Capital, versus a constitutionally weakened and theoretically ambivalent Althusser just a year later, embroiled in the debates with Garaudy and Aragon on theory and practice, under attack by the PCF for the so-called theoreticism of Reading Capital, in a minor essay in which Althusser weakly asserts the reductive conflation of a line of thought he names “rationalist empiricism” (RE 6).

While Althusser is clearly making a broadly inclusive point about the history of French epistemology, to place as he does the proper name of Jean Cavaillès next to that of Bachelard in this brief essay obscures materialist, anti-empiricist intervention that Cavaillès initiates in his call to theoretical struggle, the famous final lines of his 1942 philosophical testament, now finally translated into English, On Logic and the Theory of Science: “It is not a philosophy of consciousness but a philosophy of the concept that can yield a doctrine of science” (On Logic 84).4

In contrast to Bachelard’s experimentalist empiricism, Cavaillès initiates a philosophical orientation attentive to the historical determinations of the criteria governing adequate demonstration, in which the formal signs or marks of logic are taken to constitute a (asubjective) history of mathematics. Cavaillès thus calls for a notion of mathematics, and scientific development more generally, that follows the internal development of its concepts rather than a dualist model of the adequation of an empirical object to its mathematical formalization. Cavaillès invokes in this manner an apodictic philosophy of the concept, a dialectic that displaces the philosophy of consciousness to demonstrate the “internal necessity” determining the apodictic development of a science.5 Though Cavaillès’s debt to Spinoza is as decisive as it is elusive,6 and the object of his writings remained devoted entirely to the philosophy of mathematics (in which domain this “internal necessity” governs most evidently), Althusser will, in the introduction to Reading Capital, simultaneously bring together the thought of Spinoza and Cavaillès, while expanding their materialist propositions to encompass the non-mathematical science of Marx’s critique of political economy.7

This Spinozist materialism,8 which Althusser will argue governs Marx’s methodological introduction, refuses the dualist empiricist logic of the adequation of an object to its concept, to assert instead a single order and connection of all things (including ideas), grasped under the attributes of extension or thought (or any other).9 Following Althusser in his reading of Marx’s 1857 introduction, the materialist conclusion we must draw from this Spinozist, Cavaillèsian epistemology, is that the material thought-concrete (Gedankenkonkretum) that Marx will eventually construct, the unfinished book that is Capital, that is to say, is not analytically or inductively extracted from any supposed experimental observations of capitalism, but simply is capitalism, grasped under the attribute of thought rather than in its physical extension.

Spinoza, in the Scolium to E IIP7, goes on to refuse any empiricist notion of the adequation of the object to idea as the index of truth, and to assert instead that adequate knowledge of a thing, as knowledge, can be demonstrated only through deduction via the attribute of thought rather than in abstraction from observed empirical extension.10 Marx’s Capital, in this view, is exactly what its subtitle names, a critique of political economy: a radical reworking of the substantial ideas forged by the tradition of thought from Smith and Ricardo onward (ideas of value, of money, of labour, etc.). Althusser puts the matter decisively: “No mathematician in the world waits until physics has verified a theorem to declare it proved, although whole areas of mathematics are applied in physics; the truth of his theorem is a hundred per cent provided by criteria purely internal to the practice of mathematical proof, hence by the criterion of mathematical practice” (RCC 61, my emphasis).

Let me pause here and back up, in order to move more decisively to the ultimate object of my remarks: the apodictic, positive dialectic and logic of demonstration that determines Marx’s Capital as a materialist intervention in thought, in a dialectic otherwise than empiricist. To do so, I wish to return to the confounding ambivalence I invoked in beginning my remarks, between what I see as two conflicting moments in Rationalist Empiricism’s readings of Althusser and Marx. First, on the one hand, there is Althusser’s lucid 1965 refusal of all Hegelian, negative dialectical readings of Capital, the theoretical call to arms of Reading Capital that rightly stands as the epigraph of Nathan’s own brilliantly original reading of Capital as a logic of separation (ch. 10): “In Capital,” Althusser writes, “we find a systematic presentation, an apodictic arrangement of the concepts in the form of that type of demonstrational discourse that Marx calls analysis” (RCC 51). This is explicitly to name the Spinozist, Cavaillèsian positive dialectic that governs, Reading Capital polemically argues, Marx’s non-Hegelian methodology of synthetic demonstration.11

In contrast to the resonant, iconoclastic force of this epigraph, a resounding silence; a silence all the more surprising as it is not merely that, as Brown writes, “although Althusser deploys the term ‘rationalist materialism’ [in his 1966 essay] to characterize an entire epistemological tradition, . . . he does not often characterize his own epistemology in such terms” (RE 13). It is rather the case that in the Introduction to Reading Capital from only a year before, Althusser articulates an encompassing and unyielding critique of empiricism, in which, indeed, Althusser explicitly names as among his targets the concept that gives our book its titular concept: rationalist empiricism. Not merely content to confront the familiar, and perhaps more vulnerable, concept of a sensualist empiricism, Althusser formulates his critique of “the empiricist conception of knowledge” in novel fashion, taking the term, he writes, “in its widest sense, since it can embrace a rationalist empiricism as well as a sensualist empiricism” (RCC 34, my emphasis).

Althusser’s critical notion of empiricism is all the more surprising, since one would expect Althusser simply to have based his critique on Spinoza’s familiar claim, in the famous Appendix to Ethics Book 1, for the radical inadequacy of all thought derived from sensory impressions, in its necessary movement from observed effects backward to their imaginary, ideological causes.12 Instead, Althusser identifies an entirely different criterion that he will contrast with Marx’s materialist method in Capital. In passages as famous as they are absent from Rationalist Empiricism, Althusser claims instead that “the whole empiricist process of knowledge lies in fact in an operation of the subject called abstraction. To know is to abstract from the real object its essence, the possession of which by the subject is then called knowledge” (RCC 35). This initial formulation already casts empiricism, in all its variants, as a dualist relation of subject to object, a conception of knowledge production that Althusser will then contrast with Marx’s Spinozist “thought-concrete” that reproduces (as opposed to merely representing) the material, extensive real of the capitalist social form, capitalism itself, that is to say, in the attribute of thought (RCC 41).

Althusser then takes a further step in this general critique of empiricism, to draw a necessary implication of the empiricist extraction the essential truth from an object (RCC 36). In all empiricist operations, Althusser asserts, encompassing both its sensualist and rationalist variants, the “sole function [of knowledge] is to separate, in the object, the two parts which exist in it, the essential and the inessential, . . . the gold [from the] the dross— by special procedures whose aim is to eliminate the inessential real” (RCC 36).

Now, whatever we may make of these claims regarding the nature of all empiricism whatsoever, and I hope and fully expect that Brown will push back against the broad stroke of Althusser’s brush, in the case of Marx’s Capital, I believe Althusser makes a very compelling claim indeed. For a real distinction should be drawn between the empiricist methods of Adam Smith, for example, and Marx’s Spinozist materialism in Capital. Smith, to take a famous example, begins The Wealth of Nations with the assertion of a universal notion inductively abstracted from the observed regularities of human communities in general. Transhistorically, these constitute the basic anthropological features that need only, in this view, naturally come to flourish once the historical impediments to trade of previous social forms (agrarian, feudal, etc.) were lifted. There exists, Smith writes in the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations, “a certain propensity in human nature, . . . the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another. . . . It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals” (11).13

Althusser’s point is well-taken, since not only does Smith appear to derive this universal notion from empirical abstraction, but he furthermore deploys it to discern an essential characteristic of human behavior from other inessential qualities common to human and other animal species (“passions,” “acting in concert,” etc.). Marx, in contrast, does something significantly greater than merely demystify the illusory nature of the various phenomenal features of capitalism. These include concepts such as commodity fetishism, money, profit, the “freedom” of the wage labour contract, the illusions of a supposedly virtuous and benevolent primitive accumulation, and of the Trinity Formula of profit, land-rent, and wages, as well as many others. In every case, Marx does not simply dismiss these as inessential features of capitalism, in contrast to the more “essential” categories he discovers such as abstract labour, labour power, or surplus value. Instead, in Spinozist fashion, he rigorously demonstrates in every case the systematic necessity that governs each category of the capitalist social form, including its superficial forms of appearance.14 In addition to mere negative critique, Capital produces a positive theory of ideology and its forms of appearance.

Here then, in conclusion, let me try to draw together the strands of my argument thus far around the status of Marx’s Capital as, in Althusser’s words, “a systematic presentation, an apodictic arrangement of the concepts in the form of that type of demonstrational discourse that Marx calls analysis” (RCC 51). I have to say I remain unconvinced by Nathan’s assertion that the concept of separation constitutes not only a crucial category for Marx (which Rationalist Empiricism powerfully demonstrates), but, moreover, provides “an analytical method to be gleaned from the structure of capitalism [that] formalizes the dialectical logic of this double mediation” (RE 232, 236). It is still not clear to me, having read this chapter several times, exactly how separation constitutes a method for the apodictic demonstration of the nature of the capitalist social form, as Althusser’s well-chosen epigraph to the chapter implies it must. I would be glad to hear more from Nathan on this point.

In any case, I find it even more difficult to accept the claim, in this case generic to the entire, empiricist thrust of Rationalist Empiricism, that “Marx discovers his method . . . through an empirical study of what is already there . . . : the history and structure of the capitalist mode of production” (RE 232). Marx painstakingly derives his method, I would argue, not from empirical observation of markets and factories, interviews with laborers, or debates within the First International. Marx developed his method by critically inquiring into the theoretical writings of political economy and of nascent socialism, and largely did so sitting in the British Library or at his desk. There were no experimental, empiricist data for him to interpret, not even the famous parliamentary reports. These supplementary pages detail the mere quantitative fluctuations of the price of labour power amid the historical dynamic of class struggle; Engels did as much or more long before in his 1845 study of the working class. Instead, Marx asked a far more fundamental question in Capital: What is the law of the tendency and the social form governing these empirical, quantitative fluctuations? While his vast biographical experience with the world of nineteenth-century capitalism certainly informed his critical orientation as a condition of his critique, in the sense Badiou gives the term, and was of course decisive in his political writings, the empiricist dimension of the initial enquiries for Capital (the Grundrisse) and the decades of painstaking drafting and revision from 1859 to just before his death in 1883 is arguably limited to his tired eyes scouring the markings across thousands, even millions of sheets of paper.15

While there are so many more things to say about this prodigious contribution to contemporary theory, let me conclude simply by the proposition that Capital must be read, as Althusser and Macherey first maintained, as a logic; not, as Althusser quickly corrects, as “logicians [which] would have meant posing it the question of its methods of exposition and proof” (RCC 12), in other words as a mere discursive, logical positivist word game, but as the Spinozist, materialist logic of the necessary forms of appearance of things in the capitalist social form. This would mean, firstly, to remain faithful to the unfulfilled promise of Reading Capital,16 to pursue this project of discerning in Capital a positive, synthetic demonstration, a project disbanded in the wake of May ’68, and pursued only obliquely, on other terrains, above all by Macherey (via Spinoza) and Badiou (in his reconstruction of logic).17

Rationalist Empiricism brilliantly distinguishes Hegel’s Logic, both from the psychologistic assertion of the “I think” as the subject of the experience of thought (RE 78, 79), as well as from the Kantian transcendental unity of apperception (RE 79), to show however that it remains an idealist logic, such that “being cannot be thought independently of thinking, or as external to thinking” (RE 79). If then we are to think Capital as a logic, it cannot be one wedded to being in this sense; Capital is not only a materialist rejection of Hegelian idealism, it is quite simply neither a metaphysics or an ontology. Capital reproduces as a thought-concrete, in apodictic, positive dialectical form, the structural logic governing the necessary forms of appearance of things in a historically specific social form, a social form axiomatically defined, in the first sentence of Capital, as characterized by the general commodification of all socially valorized and counted things and relations.

To assert the necessity of the contingency of the laws of becoming because to assert the opposite—the contingency of contingency—would be self-contradictory, is to revert to the idealist logicism Badiou refuses as the enabling gesture of Being and Event (Meditation 3). Logic has no power to institute the existence of a specific order of being (contingency). Meillassoux’s anhypothetic principal, in this view, in rejecting an axiomatic orientation, renews this grandiose pretension of logical positivism. In its place, materialism, as the primacy of the real, requires an axiomatic position: if we suppose the existence of a particular world with its particular set of entities (for Marx, a world characterized by the general, tendential accumulation of commodities and commodified relations), then we can demonstrate the necessary consequences of the logic governing that world (the necessary forms of the appearance and relations of those things).

Logic has no power to induce the necessary existence of a world, with its particular ontological characteristics (say, a world characterized by the general necessity of contingency). No more can logic induce a materialist encounter with the outside of thought. Materialism, for Marx as for Badiou, means not the idealist hypostatization of the exteriority of Being to thought, but, more modestly and more precisely, the immanent critique of the logic of a world axiomatically presumed to exist.

When delinked in this fashion from its constitutive, Hegelian suturing to ontology, as the general science of Being, logic must be taken to constitute, as Badiou says in his refoundation and delimitation in Logics of Worlds, the science of appearance (la science de l’apparaître), of the necessary forms of appearance and relations of objects in a given world, precisely Marx’s project in Capital. And yet, neither in its six hundred pages nor anywhere else in his corpus of over two hundred books does Badiou devote even a shred of analysis to the logic governing our world, the capitalist social form. . . . This will hopefully be the book I’m writing now, under the influence of Rationalist Empiricism, on the unfinished project of Althusserianism, the Spinozist Logic of Capital. But for now, I’m just going to reread Rationalist Empiricism, for the pleasure of it.

  1. Nathan Brown, Rationalist Empiricism: A Theory of Speculative Critique (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021. Hereafter RE.)

  2. “Since knowledge of phenomena is not only knowledge of what can be observed through regularities of perception but also observation and formalization of what cannot be made accessible through regularities of perception, to know a natural law scientifically is to know it at once as phenomenon and noumenon” (RE 11).

  3. The thought of Cavaillès, legible in palimpsest, for example, in many of the most decisive passages of Althusser’s introduction to Reading Capital, emphatically cannot be reduced to the empiricist dialectic of the scientific experimental apparatus of Bachelard, a conflation Althusser weakly, in view, proposes in his 1966 lecture “The Philosophical Conjuncture and Marxist Research” from which Rationalist Empiricism draws its title. Louis Althusser et al., Reading Capital: The Complete Edition (New York: Verso 2015 [1965]). Hereafter RCC.

  4. Jean Cavaillès, On Logic and the Philosophy of Science, trans. Robin Mackay and Knox Peden. (New York: Sequence, 2021 [1942]). See also Jean Cavaillès, Oeuvres complètes de Philosophie des sciences (Paris: Hermann, 1994). “Even in the natural sciences, this increase [in the system of concepts] takes place without any input from the outside world [l’exterieur]: there is a rupture between sensation or right thinking [opinion droite] and science. Far from being an involvement in nature, the experiment is, on the contrary, the incorporation of the world into the scientific universe” (On Logic 41).

  5. Pierre Cassou-Noguès, “The Philosophy of the Concept,” available at 12. “Science,” Cavaillès writes, “is no longer considered as a mere intermediary between the human mind [esprit] and being in itself, equally dependent upon both and lacking its own reality, but rather as an object sui generis, original in its essence and autonomous in its movement” (On Logic 40).

  6. Cavaillès’s sole reference to Spinoza comes from a personal remark to Raymond Aron: “I am Spinozist. I believe in necessity. The necessity of mathematical inferences, the necessity of the history of mathematics, the necessity also of the struggle [against fascism] in which we are engaged.” Cited at Cassou-Noguès 13.

  7. While Althusser only mentions Cavaillès in passing, many of his formulations on the historicity of science should be read as direct refigurations of the latter’s positions in On Logic: “To pose this question [of the history of the theoretical] is obviously to pose the question of the form of order required at a given moment in the history of knowledge by the existing type of scientificity, or, if you prefer, by the norms of theoretical validity recognized by science, in its own practice, as scientific. . . . The essential problem presupposed by the question of the existing type of demonstrativity is the problem of the history of the production of the different forms in which theoretical practice (producing knowledges, whether ‘ideological’ or ‘scientific’) recognizes the validating norms it demands. . . . This history, the history of the theoretical as such, or the history of the production (and transformation) of what at a given moment in the history of knowledge constitutes the theoretical problematic to which are related all the existing validating criteria, and hence the forms required to give the order of theoretical discourse the force and value of a proof. This history of the theoretical, of the structures of theoreticity and of the forms of theoretical apodicticity, has yet to be constituted” (RCC 50).

  8. This is the Spinozist materialism decisively initiated in Ethics II P7S, the Scolium to which reasserts that “thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same substance, comprehended now under this attribute, now under that. . . . A circle existing in Nature and the idea of the existing circle . . . are one and the same thing, . . . one and the same order, or one and the same connection of causes.” Spinoza, Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002).

  9. “The idea of the circle, which is the object of knowledge, must not be confused with the circle, which is the real object. In the third section of the 1857 Introduction, Marx took up this principle as forcefully as possible” (RCC 40).

  10. “Theoretical practice is indeed its own criterion, and contains in itself definite protocols with which to validate the quality of its product” (RCC 61). Here is Spinoza: “The formal being of the idea of a circle can be perceived only through another mode of thinking as its proximate cause, and that mode through another, and so on ad infinitum, with the result that as long as things are considered as modes of thought, we must explicate the order of the whole of Nature, or the connection of causes, through the attribute of Thought alone; and insofar as things are considered as modes of Extension, again the order of the whole of Nature must be explicated through the attribute of Extension only” (EIIP7S). See Pierre Macherey’s meticulous, materialist explication of Proposition EIIP7 in volume 2 of his Introduction à l’Ethique de Spinoza: La réalité mentale (Paris: PUF 1997), 70–81.

  11. On Macherey’s development of a Spinozist, materialist “positive dialectic” in his writings since Reading Capital, see Nesbitt, “What Is Materialist Analysis? Pierre Macherey’s Spinozist Epistemology,” forthcoming in Warren Montag and Audrey Wasser, eds., Dislocations: Macherey and the Case of Literary Production (Northwestern University Press, 2021).

  12. Spinoza’s critique of empiricism is absolute: “Insofar as the human mind imagines an external body, to that extent it does not have an adequate knowledge of it” (quatenus mens humana corpus externum imaginatur aetenus adaequatam ejus cognitionem non habet) E IIP26C, and again, the corollary to Proposition II29, “Whenever the human mind perceives things after the common order of nature, it does not have an adequate knowledge of itself, nor of its body, nor of external bodies, but only a confused and fragmentary knowledge” (mens humana quoties ex communi naturae ordine res percipit nec sui ipsius nec sui corporis nec corporum externorum adaequatam habet cognitionem) E IIP29C. Spinoza once more: “When we gaze at the sun, we see it as some two hundred feet distant from us. The error does not consist in simply seeing the sun in this way but in the fact that while we do so we are not aware of the true distance and the cause of our seeing it so. For although we may later become aware that the sun is more than six hundred times the diameter of the earth distant from us, we shall nevertheless continue to see it as close at hand. For it is not our ignorance of its true distance that causes us to see the sun to be so near; it is that the affection of our body involves the essence of the sun only to the extent that the body is affected by it.” Spinoza, EIIP35S.

  13. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Penguin, 1999). I take this example from the brilliant analysis of Marx’s 1857 methodology by Juan Iñigo Carrera, “Method: From the Grundrisse to Capital,” in Bellofiore et al., In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 43–70.

  14. Jacques Bidet develops this Althusserian argument in Exploring Marx’s Capital: Philosophical, Economic, and Political Aspects (Chicago, Haymarket, 2009 [1985]).

  15. Althusser weakly, in my view, tries to argue along these lines at one point in his introduction: “Taking Marx as an example, we know that his most personally significant practical experiences (his experience as a polemicist of ‘the embarrassment of having to take part in discussions on so-called material interests’ in the Rheinische Zeitung; his direct experience of the earliest struggle organizations of the Paris proletariat; his revolutionary experience in the 1848 period) intervened in his theoretical practice, and in the upheaval which led him from ideological theoretical practice to scientific theoretical practice; but they intervened in his theoretical practice in the form of objects of experience, or even experiment, i.e., in the form of new thought objects, ‘ideas’ and the concepts, whose emergence contributed, in their combination (Verbindung) with other conceptual results (originating in German philosophy and English political economy), to the overthrow of the still ideological theoretical base on which he had lived (i.e., thought) until then” (RCC 63). The entire argument of an epistemological break is undermined by such a claim. Rather, the theoretical break occurs through Marx’s tireless theoretical work, in retreat from his political engagement prior to 1853.

  16. “It would be rash to go any further”; “We pose this question as one indispensable to an understanding of Marx, and one which we are not yet in a position to give an exhaustive answer” (RCC 51).

  17. See Pierre Macherey, Hegel or Spinoza (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2011 [1979]); Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds (London: Continuum, 2008.)

  • Nathan Brown

    Nathan Brown


    Response to Nick Nesbitt

    Thanks to Nick Nesbitt for this generous and challenging response to my book, which exemplifies what I think is at the core of critique as a philosophical disposition: that is, the demand for clarification, the perpetual exposure of philosophical thinking and writing to the Kantian question: quid juris? In my view it is the speculative vocation of critique which gives this question its strongest, properly philosophical form: what is the necessity according to which you say what you say? Why does this have to be said of what happens in thought? That question is the unavoidable criterion of philosophical argumentation, which—as Descartes rightly held—must be clear and distinct, even as it leads us into the most formidable challenges to common sense.

    Let me therefore try to clarify my position on the relationship between materialism and rationalist empiricism, which I take to the be the core of Nick’s intervention. From my perspective there can be no question of a distinction between rationalist materialism and rationalist empiricism. My position is that in order for post-Kantian philosophy to be materialist, it must be both rationalist and empiricist.

    There are two major divisions structuring the philosophical field:

    1. rationalism and empiricism
    2. materialism and idealism

    My position is that sustaining a methodological tension between rationalism and empiricism—a relational disjunction, dialectically coordinating rationalism and empiricism without collapsing them or synthesizing them—is the post-Kantian condition of possibility for holding materialism apart from idealism, and for sustaining a materialist position against idealism. The distinction between materialism and idealism can only be upheld by rationalist empiricism. Formulated negatively, my position is that there can be no rationalist materialism that is not a rationalist empiricism. Why? To put it as succinctly as possible, because materialism depends upon the exposure of thinking to the exteriority of being. Materialism is indeed a philosophy of “the outside,” of the encounter of thinking with that which is exterior to thought. This is the sine qua non of the distinction of materialism from both transcendental idealism and speculative idealism.

    In chapter 2 of my book, I lay out Althusser’s own criteria for a materialist position on “the effective conditions of the practice that produces knowledge.” These are:

    1. the distinction between the real and its knowledge
    2. the correspondence (adequacy) between knowledge and its object
    3. the primacy of the real over its knowledge, or the primacy of being over thought

    This is a lucid and precise articulation of conditions—above all because it defines materialism without recourse to any definition of “matter.” The primacy of being over thought (of the real over knowledge of the real) means that being is not contained by thinking nor coextensive with it. Being exceeds and is prior to thought; thinking emerges within being—it is itself the result of a material genesis which it can think about, but to which it is neither identical nor coextensive. Thus, there is a distinction between the real and knowledge of the real. Knowledge of the real is part of the real; it is not identical with it. And this distinction must be acknowledged in accordance with the key criterion of materialism: the primacy of being over thought. Yet within the terms of this distinction between the real and knowledge, and the primacy of being over thought, there must also be a correspondence between knowledge and its object: the materialist must be able to hold, at once, that thinking and being are distinct and that we can nevertheless establish an “adequate” knowledge of objects—adequate not only insofar as they correspond with the categories of our cognition, but insofar as our knowledge of properties of objects corresponds with and refers to properties of those objects understood as distinct from our categories of cognition. Knowledge must be adequate to objects without being identical to the real. Thinking must be adequate to being without an identity of thinking and being. These are Althusser’s materialist criteria, which I aim to uphold.

    Now, why must one be a rationalist empiricist in order also to be a rationalist materialist? Because there must be a distinction between knowledge and its object, and the primacy of being over thought must be upheld. Thinking and knowing encounter that which is outside of them. Empiricism is the name of the philosophical orientation toward that encounter with exteriority. And crucially, it is this commitment to the encounter of thinking and knowing with that which is exterior to them that distinguishes rationalist empiricism from transcendental idealism and from speculative idealism. Thus it also distinguishes what I call speculative critique from transcendental critique, and it distinguishes what Meillassoux calls speculative materialism from speculative idealism. In order to grasp these distinctions (and how they can be upheld) it is crucial to grasp the way in which I define empiricism without reference—as Nick points out—to a psychological subject, and as exterior to the forms of transcendental receptivity and categorial determination of objects theorized by Kant. I write: “By empiricism I refer to a philosophical orientation claiming the genesis of ideas in experience and grounding the determination of what is the case on the consistency of thinking with experiential fact.” What’s pivotal here is reference to what is the case. Reason is concerned with what must be the case, what should be the case, and what may be the case. However, rationalism on its own is unable to grapple with what is the case, with facticity, and with the determination of objects of experience. This is why Kant offers a transcendental theory of the conditions of all possible experience, of cognitive conditions for the determination of objects. And if one is not to fall back into transcendental philosophy—conceding the identity of knowledge of objects with objects of knowledge—one must be able to give an account of how knowledge may be adequate to objects of experience without dissolving the distinction between knowledge of the object and the object that is known.

    Thus I follow Bachelard in emphasizing the technological and experimental constitution of scientific knowledge of objects, which distinguishes such knowledge from phenomenal immediacy by filtering out the categorial constitution of objects by subjective faculties. The importance of scientific instruments is that they do not share the forms of receptivity nor the categorial determinations of our subjective faculties, and they are thus essential for filtering phenomenal givenness out of experimental encounters with objects and relations that are indeed exterior to our cognition. Now, Bachelard’s theory of scientific knowledge is both rationalist and empiricist: he emphasizes the constant shuttling back and forth, in scientific practice, between mathematical equations, technical formalizations, and experimental procedures, such that the formalisms through which physical theory is expressed are tested against and informed by empirical irregularities and experimental results. Precise experiments are made possible, on the other hand, by the present state of physical theory, its mathematical formalization, and by the technical/historical configuration of apparatuses. Grasping this movement between rationalism and empiricism is the dialectic (at once holding these apart yet coordinating their discrepant powers) is what enables a materialist approach to science: one that acknowledges the distinction between knowledge and the object of knowledge while also thinking the adequacy of knowledge to objects.

    I would insist that such a theory cannot be provided by a rationalism that does not grapple with the empirical dimension of scientific practice: with the experimental testing of physical theory, and with the revision of scientific theory experiment makes possible. Again, scientific knowledge undergoes transformations precisely when anomalous phenomena put pressure upon equations and formalisms, and also when equations and formalisms put pressure upon what had been considered empirically self-evident. It takes both of these elements of theory and practice to make science rigorous enough to be revisable, and revisable enough to be rigorous. We can see that this is a materialist criterion by considering Nick’s appeal to Spinoza: thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same substance. Unfortunately for the Spinozist who would be a materialist, that is an idealist position. It is idealist because it denies, as every Spinozist must, the primacy of being over thinking. It denies what Althusser calls “the distinction between the real and its knowledge.” In fact, the identity of thinking and being is the ground of Spinoza’s identification of god and nature, and while this is often read as the core of his materialism, it is indeed panpsychist and makes adequate knowledge of nature conditional upon the identity of thinking and extended substance as “one and the same substance.”

    If the question is how Althusser’s materialism is to be understood, I do not think the materialist criteria outlined in his 1965 essay can be written off as an instance of theoretical weakness or compromise. They are clearly legible in the major essay I regard as his most important contribution to epistemology, “On the Materialist Dialectic,” and they are essential to the theory of scientific knowledge he lays out in “The Lecture Course for Scientists” and “Lenin and Philosophy.” These criteria cannot be met by a Spinozist position on the relation between thinking substance and extended substance, because that position does not acknowledge the priority of being to thought, and thus the exteriority of being to thinking substance (even as we think the interiority of thinking substance to being).

    Nick mentions that Cavaillès “calls for a notion of mathematics, and scientific development more generally, that follows the internal development of its concepts rather than a dualist model of the adequation of an empirical object to its mathematical formalization.” There are two problems here. First, “scientific development more generally” cannot be modeled on the development of pure mathematics. If materialists do not provide an account of the experimental practices of science, idealists will do it for them. But pure mathematics lacks this experimental dimension of scientific practice. Of course experiments are enabled and suffused with concepts, but they are also capable of delivering results that change those concepts, that enable their revision through the exposure of concepts to what is outside them, to the security of their “internal development.” Secondly, we can see then that this critique of apparent dualism is itself dualistic: in fact, the “the internal development of concepts” cannot be entirely separated from “the adequation of an empirical object to its mathematical formalization.” Scientific concepts (theoretical physics) frequently run ahead of experimental results, but they cannot be severed from them, and these results must be capable of putting pressure upon scientific knowledge and forcing its revision. Rationalist empiricism is materialist insofar as it accounts for this exposure of concepts from their outside, which is also necessary for the internal development of those concepts, in the case of the experimental sciences.

    In a different register, an encounter with that which is exterior to formalization is at the core of Alain Badiou’s theory of the event. The event is an exception insofar as it is that which is not being. It cannot be included in the theoretical field of ontology developed through mathematical set theory: thus the book is called Being and Event. Something happens, and the subject stems from fidelity to what has taken place, which is outside the norms of experience. But an event cannot be collapsed into the truth which that subject produces: a procedure intervenes between event and truth, wherein a series of encounters is decided upon according to criteria of fidelity—shuttling back and forth between the rationality of the ought and encounters with the facticity of what is, of what happens. The subject must traverse the field of these encounters in order to draw them into the field of the truth constructed from the event.

    And it is certainly true, as Nick insists, that Marx demonstrates “the systematic necessity that governs every category of the capitalist social form, including its superficial forms of appearance.” But in my chapter on Marx, I try to account for the role of the historical chapters of Das Kapital in this demonstration. Yes, Marx writes Capital sitting in the British Library rather than by carrying out field work, but he isn’t just reading theories of political economy. The critique of political economy is suffused with historical research into the development of capitalism and the transformation of the labor process and the class relation through its history. Hence the census figures, the quantification of windmills and horsepower, references to reports of inspectors of factories, to public health reports, to the children’s employment commission, to death rates in different industries, to how many employees do or do not fall within the sphere of the British Factory Act of 1861. My point is certainly not that Marx’s massive assimilation of historical facts sufficiently enables him to write Capital. Rather, my point is that Capital evidently could not be written without this material, and we need to understand why. In my account, it’s because Marx understands capitalism—from primitive accumulation to the division of labor to real subsumption to rising organic composition of capital, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and the tendential production of surplus populations—as a process of separation. He maps this process as it affects both the labor process and the valorization process. And crucially: the labor process and the valorization process must be distinguished in order to understand their relation, as Marx is the first to do. He produces an empirical account of the primitive accumulation of capital and of the division of labor as the constitution of the class relation and as the transformation of the labor process that attend, respectively, formal subsumption and real subsumption. His system of concepts allows us to understand why there must be a deepening division of labor (to expand surplus labor time) but his description of the transformation of the labor process enables us to understand how the continuing accumulation of capital is enabled by the division of labor. We cannot and should not ignore the empirical dimensions of Marx’s theory, which are just as integral to the development of his concepts as his concepts are to understanding historical phenomena. And this is how separation operates as a concept and a method gleaned from Marx’s account of the history of capital: he holds apart the labor process and the valorization process in order to show how they intersect without being identical, since value is not produced by labor but by labor time, and since we cannot understand how surplus labor time is expanded without understand the difference of the labor process from the valorization process and how each is transformed by the other. The separation of labor and value produces a “system of all-round material dependence” that is capitalism. Taken up from a critical perspective, separation is thus both historical process to be analyzed and dialectical method of analysis, which allows us to parse the separation and holding together of work and accumulation, analytical produced and theorized as the systematicity of capital’s separations. In order to separate what it also holds together—as an immanent critique of capital—that method requires both a disjunction between and coordination of the rational and the empirical.

    • Nick Nesbitt

      Nick Nesbitt


      Spinozist panpsychism, Spinozist materialism

      Thanks again Nathan for this great exchange, I’ve learned a great deal from it. I truly appreciate your clarifications on these points, which I’m only starting to think through. As I think about your comments, and while I reread Meillassoux, let me respond to your principal point, the primacy of the real over thought as the key mark of a materialism, and your consequent rejection of Spinoza’s position as idealist “panpsychism”.

      On the primacy of the real over thought as the key mark of a materialism, and your consequent critique of Spinoza as idealist “panpsychism”. I agree with this criterion of materialism that you take from Althusser, but as you state it, it remains underdetermined and demands further specification and clarification. Though we agree on the criterion as such, I think it may indicate a significant divergence in our understandings of materialism. I would frame this divergence, within the terms of our discussion on your book, as a distinction between an axiomatic understanding of this materialist criterion (Spinoza, Badiou) to which I subscribe, and Meillassoux’ demonstration of the logical necessity of the priority of the real as “ancestrality.” Meillassoux’ position (which I am not sure how far you agree with), I will argue, is ultimately a rationalist idealism and dogmatic metaphysical claim demonstrated in After Finitude as the logical necessity of ancestrality. Here let me briefly defend my understanding of Spinoza’s axiomatic materialism and offer a critique of Meillassoux in my next response, after reading your reaction.
      Specifically, you argue in your response that Spinoza’s position that “thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same substance… is idealist because it denies, as every Spinozist must, the primacy of being over thinking…. While this [position] is often read as the core of his materialism [I certainly join Macherey in doing so], it is indeed panpsychist and makes adequate knowledge of nature conditional upon the identity of thinking and extended substance as “one and the same substance.” Here we could not disagree more strongly. One might reasonably argue (though I would disagree) that Spinoza’s notion of infinite intellect [intellectus infinitus] results in what you gloss as “panpsychism,” though this seems a very Hegelian misreading of Spinoza. The point however is irrelevant to our discussion. At stake I believe is the overquick conflation your comment makes between the “identity of thinking and extended substance” and “adequate knowledge of nature,” which is to say, I believe, a conflation of infinite intellect with the various finite modes of the intellect, specifically (the primary object of the Ethics), finite human intellection and its emendation (of which what you term “adequate knowledge of nature” is presumably a category). However we may understand infinite intellect, as an aspect of being as such (the topic of E Bk I), it by definition accedes, precedes, supercedes, etc. any modal instance finite intellect, and by no means can the latter be flatly equated with it (as panpsychism). Logically (in the movement from Bk I to II), experientially, historically, in every dimension Spinoza again and again repeats the priority of being as such, of Nature/Substance/God, to finite human understanding and lived experience. As a syllogism: A. Humans think—B. Spinoza is a human—C. Thus Spinoza thinks within the limits of finite intellection as he composes the Ethics.
      This point is enough, I think to make evident that the proposition of the substantial identity of the attributes of thought and extension does not preclude but actually entails a robust materialism, but of a certain (axiomatic) kind, one in which the primacy of being or the real (including intellect as such) is affirmed even while it attends to human beings’ finite capacity to attain what you call an “adequate knowledge of nature,” acts of intellection that will always be partial, finite, and incomplete, even when they may attain real and true, if necessarily incomplete, adequacy (say, Newton’s law of gravity, F=G m1m2/r2). Spinoza does not incongruously equate situated acts of human reason, even of the third genre, with the infinite intellect as such (panpsychist or otherwise); for a human to consciously comprehend the nature of a triangle adequately is not to accede to the infinite intellection of being as such. It is just a triangle. Etc.
      We should go farther, however. When Spinoza does turn to finite human reason in Book II, after discussing the logical priority of being as such in Bk I, his initial axiom is anything but idealist. Lacan was right to identify the first modern theory of the unconscious not in Freud or Nietzsche, but Spinoza. EII axiom 2: Homo cogitat. Humans think. Within the finite, real and necessary, which is to say materialist, limitations and determinations of their singular existences, human beings do think. Spinoza expresses this axiomatically, without proof or demonstration, as the axiomatic act of any singular human being thrown into the primacy of the real that precedes her (of language, of other modes of intellection, of the infinite chain of ideas of ideas and of causality, etc.). The axiom is radically materialist, decisively anti-Cartesian. Rejecting his earlier formulation of this axiom (from the Dutch manuscript: wy weten dat wy denken, “we are aware that we think”) Spinoza strips the act of human thought of any subject of that thought, even as collective experience (“we are aware”). With only a slight torsion, Macherey argues, this axiom should rightly be translated to give it its full Rimbaldian prescience: “In human beings, ça pense.” (Macherey, Introduction II. PUF 1997: 40). There is thought, ever present and infinite in its ineluctable primacy over human consciousness, and Spinoza will go on to show in Ethics, again as Lacan clearly saw, that even in finite acts of human intellection, this primacy of being remains ever determinate: ça pense. Homo cogitat: humans do not freely engender their thoughts, which would be to take the (Cartesian) subject as a “world within a world,” with its own essential order and nature. The human being is a “particular [finite] determination of thought” (Macherey 41), one ever subject to the materialist primacy of being.
      I think you’re right that Badiou forces us to rethink Spinoza in a fundamental way. On the other hand, I think he underplays his own dependency on Spinoza, and often when he does talk about him, he oddly tends to reproduce many of the misreadings Macherey identifies in Hegel: parallelism of the attributes, counting substance as 1, the attributes as (only) 2, etc.
      Unlike Spinoza, Marx isn’t constructing an ontology or an ethics, but rather a critical logic limited to the world or social form of capitalism. Capital is materialist, I would say, in a specific and limited sense, because it begins axiomatically from the primacy of the given, from the basic social category of the commodity (constructed as the result of the inquiry). Capitalism, Marx first asks us to accept axiomatically, is simply that social form characterized by the general appearance of commodification (of things, of relations).
      I look forward to your response and turning to Meillassoux’ demonstration of the necessity of ancestrality.

    • Nathan Brown

      Nathan Brown


      the primacy of being over any intellect whatever

      I appreciate this additional response from Nick, clarifying his position on Spinoza and how he understands the relation of his philosophy to Althusser’s materialist criteria.

      Here I think my response can be brief, so as to stake out as clearly as possible our divergent understanding of the stakes of Althusser’s criteria for a materialist position on “the effective conditions of the practice that produces knowledge.” Again, these are:

      1. the distinction between the real and its knowledge
      2. the correspondence (adequacy) between knowledge and its object
      3. the primacy of the real over its knowledge, or the primacy of being over thought

      It is the third of these criteria which is primarily at stake in Nick’s response. Nick writes, “I agree with this criterion of materialism that you take from Althusser,” yet he holds that Spinoza meets this criterion by distinguishing between infinite intellect and finite human intellect. According to Nick “we may understand infinite intellect, as an aspect of being as such (the topic of E Bk I), it by definition accedes, precedes, supercedes, etc. any modal instance finite intellect, and by no means can the latter be flatly equated with it (as panpsychism).” I agree with this reading of Spinoza, prior to the parenthetical clause concerning pansychism. By “panpsychism” I do not mean to imply that “any modal instance of finite intellect” should be regarded as coextensive with “infinite intellect, as an aspect of being as such.” What I mean is simply that Spinoza does posit that *there is* infinite intellect, as an attribute of substance which “accedes, precedes, supercedes, etc any modal instance of finite intellect” and that infinite intellect is coextensive with being as such. That is what I call pansychism: i.e. the identification of being with thought (not necessarily with human thought, or finite modal thought).

      It is this positing of infinite intellect as coextensive with being that, as I claim in my initial reply, is the ground of Spinoza’s identification of God and Nature. And it is this identification that is at odds with Althusser’s third materialist criterion: “the primacy of being over thought.” A Spinozist may affirm the primacy of being over human thought, or finite modal thought. But a Spinozist, as Nick himself holds, cannot affirm the priority of being over thought per se—the primacy of being over infinite intellect.

      It is a rejection of infinite intellect as coextensive with being that a materialist must uphold in order to affirm the primacy of being over thought. And indeed, I think this is a point that Althusser never fully grapples with in his own commitment to Spinoza (I make a version of this argument in Chapter 9).

      The simple point is that materialism requires a philosophical position that makes due without an infinite intellect coextensive with being. Thinking – as such – comes into being without being identical to being or coextensive with it. This is true of thinking per se, of intellect per se; it is not only applicable to the distinction between infinite and finite intellect. To be as blunt as possible: there is no intellect prior to the emergence of finite intellect, though finite intellect may think the infinite.

    • Nick Nesbitt

      Nick Nesbitt



      Thanks for your clear and compelling response, which further clarifies our respective positions. To defend Spinoza’s notion of infinite intellect against your charge of panpsychism as you state it is more than I can take on here. Let me just quote in abbreviation EIP31Pr : “By intellect (as is self-evident) we do not understand absolute thought, but only…an attribute which expresses…the eternal and infinite essence of thought.”
      Let me instead offer in closing my critique of Meillassoux.

      Beyond Finitude Chs 1,2.
      I agree with and find original and compelling M’s affirmation of mathematical formalization in its relation to the problem of ancestrality, and especially his presentation of Kant’s refutation of dogmatic metaphysics: ‘The subject of a proposition can never impose its existence upon thought solely by virtue of its concept, for being is never part of the concept of the subject, it is never its predicate – it is added to this concept as a pure positing.’ Although as many have pointed out, it’s certainly reductive to reduce the history of philosophy since Kant to mere correlationism, I hadn’t realized how surprisingly close Kant’s critique is to Badiou’s position in EE Meditation 3, his critique of Frege’s logicism. The key difference, I think, is that Kant presumes there is a world, while Badiou’s axiomatic orientation, following the axiom of separation, does not:
      “L’axiome de séparation… n’est pas existentiel, puisqu’il n’infère une existence que de son déjà-là sous les espèces d’une multiplicité quelconque dont on suppose la présentation…. L’axiome de séparation ne permet de conclure, à lui seul, à aucune existence. Sa structure implicative revient à prononcer que s’il y a un α, alors il y a un β – qui est une partie de α – dont les éléments valident la formule λ(γ). Mais y a-t-il un α? C’est ce sur quoi l’axiome ne se prononce pas, n’étant qu’une médiation, de l’existence (supposée) à l’existence (impliquée), par le langage.” (EE, Meditation 3)
      This would be my principal point: Meillassoux reverts to a preaxiomatic position, basically the Fregian one Badiou here critiques, expanded to cosmic proportions, and dogmatically infers the existence of a world or universe governed necessarily by absolute contingency, and, moreover, infers this from a logical argument.
      Here is Meillassoux:
      “What I experience with facticity is not an objective reality, but rather the unsurpassable limits of objectivity confronted with the fact that there is a world; a world that is describable and perceptible, and structured by determinate invariants.”
      But, as Badiou says, is there a world? Or with Marx, is there capitalism? We simply proceed from the axiomatic definition of of a world, of capitalism (as the tendency of the general accumulation of commodities and commodified social relations), to develop via deductive positive demonstration without sublation, ‘apodictically’ as Althusser says, the logic governing the appearance of things (commodities and commodified social relations) in that world, the capitalist social form.

      Beyond Finitude Ch3
      Here is where I think Meillassoux’ abdication of Badiou’s axiomatic standpoint culminates in a dogmatic metaphysics: “We must convert facticity into the real property whereby everything and every world is without reason.” The operation of this “must” governing the necessary existence of a (One) or all worlds as a universe of contingency will then be asserted via logic:
      “There is no reason for anything to remain thus and so rather than otherwise, and this applies as much to the laws that govern the world as to the things of the world. Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws…” (AF53)
      Note the continual reversion in the text from an analysis of facticity to actual beings, trees and stars, pool balls jumping around, the order of representation itself, etc.
      “If we can succeed in demonstrating that the capacity-to-be-other of everything is the absolute presupposed by the circle itself, then we will have succeeded in demonstrating that one cannot de-absolutize contingency without incurring the self-destruction of the circle.” (AF54).
      This is the type of Fregian statement Badiou categorically rejects, turning the entire logical demonstration around the verb ‘is,’ to be, via a logical demonstration, as a logical proof that contingency, facticity is… But is it, we can ask with Badiou? This is sophistry, presuming precisely what needs to be proven, that facticity, world its singular logic of the forms of appearance (existence) of things within it, is, because logic has incurred it, instead of merely axiomatically positing that a world is and following the necessary consequences of this proposition. M’s logical demonstration (of absolute contingency) is thus claimed to incur the being of this world:
      “To uncover an absolute that would not be an absolute entity. This is precisely what we obtain by absolutizing facticity – we do not maintain that a determinate entity exists, but that it is absolutely necessary that every entity might not exist. This is indeed a speculative thesis, since we are thinking an absolute, but it is not metaphysical, since we are not thinking anything any (entity) that would be absolute.” (60).
      Here’s the key moment and claim. It is precisely a metaphysical claim that world itself is a thing. We are to think the absolute necessity of a certain world, ontologically, in its being and its beings (stars, pool balls), in its facticity and laws, as necessarily existing: i.e., a world of absolute contingency exists, is, and must exist. There is a (contingent) world, and it is forced into existence by logic. This is the dogmatic metaphysics of world demonstrated logically to exist, necessarily, Badiou’s Frege blown up to godlike dimensions. And again, the following sentence:
      ‘The absolute is the absolute impossibility of a necessary being. We are no longer upholding a variant of the principle of sufficient reason, according to which there is a necessary reason why everything is the way it is rather than otherwise, but rather the absolute truth of a principle of unreason.’
      This is to turn world into a being, not an axiom. It is logical proof as sufficient reason for a world of absolute contingency, both in its facticity and in its beings (trees and bees, stars and pool balls).
      And then, finally, the explicit statement of a neo-Fregian logicism claimed to induce the necessary existence of this world of necessary contingency:
      ‘This proof, which could be called ‘indirect’ or ‘refutational’, proceeds not by deducing the principle from some other proposition – in which we case it would no longer count as a principle – but by pointing out the inevitable inconsistency into which anyone contesting the truth of the principle is bound to fall. One establishes the principle without deducing it, by demonstrating that anyone who contests it can do so only by presupposing it to be true, thereby refuting him or herself.’
      As what Meillassoux calls ‘Inevitable inconsistency’: this is ‘a demonstration not a deduction,’ in other words, one presupposes non contradiction, using it to prove that one would fall into contradiction were we to deny absolute contingency. But the whole point is to prove the absolute contingency of factic laws including noncontradiction. Petitio principii. ‘To query its absoluteness [of contingency] is already to have presupposed the latter.’ The principle of non-contradiction forces the existence of a world. (Interestingly, Meillassoux even raises this last objection (point two, p. 68), but doesn’t actually consider it).

    • Nathan Brown

      Nathan Brown


      reasoning from the given

      This response concerning Meillassoux raises a number of complicated points which, I think, are best considered by readers according to their own engagement with Meillassoux’s work. While my own engagement with Meillassoux is an important part of my book, I don’t want to situate myself as a representative of his position, and I think the parts of my book interrogating and reconstructing that position (Introduction, Chapter 2, Chapter 4) are a better construal of the stakes of his work for my own than I will be able to produce here.

      Nevertheless, let me try to demarcate three basic elements of my thinking about his project in relation to Badiou’s:

      1) In Being and Event, Badiou indeed deploys mathematical set theory as a discourse upon being-qua-being, distinguishing sharply between being and existence, between the being of beings (which is not a being) and the relational structure of particular worlds. This is why an axiomatic method and reliance upon the formal language of set theory is appropriate for his project: they enable abstraction from any particular determination of existence, and they enable an articulation of what we might term ontological structure (rather than phenomenal presentation). However, it is necessary to recognize that Badiou’s choice of an axiom system is itself contingent, and that his thinking of being as inconsistent multiplicity (which that axiom system is chosen to uphold to a maximal degree) requires a decision. Of course, he states this clearly at the opening of Being and Event. So I note that there is a “dogmatic” element involved in the construction of his ontology: a decision, which is only justified retroactively by the effects of its consequences. Since he recognizes this and states it openly, I accept it as a methodological criterion.

      2) Meillassoux sets out quite differently, and he presents his starting point most clearly in his doctoral dissertation (rather than in After Finitude). I have translated the pertinent section of the dissertation here:

      Meillassoux takes empirical presentation as his starting point – the factical presentation of contingent beings in the phenomenal field. His question is: given that *there is* a field of presentation in which everything appears as contingent (this simply happens to be the case), in which *there are* beings without it being evident that any of them *must be,* is there anything at all that we must think? In the field of what happens to be the case, is there anything that must be the case? He positions this as a question concerning the relation between experience and reason, between the empirical and the rational, and this is why his manner of proceeding is of interest for my attempt to construct a “rationalist empiricist” orientation across the history of philosophy. Meillassoux considers rational discourse a discourse upon what *must* be the case, and thereby a discourse going beyond the ontic presentation of contingent beings. But rather than setting out from the positing of axioms that would enable formal abstraction from the givenness of beings, he sets out from that givenness and asks whether there is anything at all that must be thought as other than contingent. This is why he does not posit axioms, the choice of which would itself be contingent. Givenness is not a choice; it is a fact. We have *no choice* but to experience it.

      3) In the passage linked above in translation, he carries out his “anhypothetical” demonstration that the only thing one must think is the necessity of contingency: i.e. that there *cannot* be a necessary being. The conduct of the argument is indeed logical and depends upon the principle of non-contradiction. Non-contradiction is accepted as a requirement of rational discourse, and then it is retroactively grounded by the results of that discourse, as one of the “figures” of the principle of factiality. (As I note in Chapter 4 of my book, I think that even Hegel accepts the principle of non-contradiction as the motor of dialectical reasoning, since as soon as there is a contradiction it is sublated and one moves to another level of reflection. Until, that is, Hegel violates the epistemological warrant of this method in his thinking of the Whole, which by its very concept includes all contradictions). But there is nothing “dogmatic” here. There is no direct positing of a speculative claim or of an ontological position. There is an investigation of the determinations of thinking given 1) the field of contingent presentations, and 2) the requirement of rational reflection not to contradict itself in thought.

      Reflecting upon contingency itself – the contingency of givenness and existence – Meillassoux asks whether contingency itself can be thought as contingent. He answers that it cannot, and that *only* contingency cannot be thought as contingent, and must thus be thought as necessary. I cannot reconstruct this argument here. But the point is that thought is forced to accede to its determinations, to accept what *must* be thought of what is the case.

      What interests me about his method is that he does not simply posit a necessary claim. He sets out from givenness, interrogates rational determinations of reflection within its field, and thus draws from the relation of empirical presentation to rational reflection a principle that cannot be rejected upon pain of self-contradiction. We learn what has to be said not simply by stating it, but by finding out what we cannot say without violating reason’s obligations to itself.

      Ontology is a discourse. It cannot but confront what has to be said of what is the case. If we arrive at a determination of reflection that *must* be accepted, we cannot do otherwise than accept it without surrounding philosophical rationality itself. The question is whether or not there is such a determination of reflection — and readers of Meillassoux’s argument will have to decide from themselves concerning this point. It is not my project to defend it, but to situate its stakes and its method with respect to what I call rationalist empiricism.

Julia Ng


Cartesian Empiricism

Let me begin by citing a set of formulations from the end of chapter 1 of Nathan Brown’s Rationalist Empiricism:

Rationalist empiricism . . . is not primarily concerned with the conditions of experience. . . . It is the interruption of experience by reason, and the extrapolation of reason from and yet beyond experience, that is at issue in the rationalist methodological pole, while it is the experience of reason and also the exposure, by empirical science, of what cannot be experienced that is at issue in our empiricism. . . . [It] is oriented . . . toward the groundless manner in which reason and experience propel one another without achieving synthesis (47).

There is doubtless something paradoxical about what Nathan Brown calls in the same passage an “exteriority [that is] of an encounter which never took place, and which [therefore] has to be constructed” (46). Moreover, the paradox is of a species that, rather than leading to a mere impasse, is generative of genuinely new thought upon its very identification as a paradox. Thus Brown finds an apt description thereof in Quentin Meillassoux’s felicitous expression “the paradox of manifestation”: in Brown’s reformulation, this is a paradox “through which the given makes manifest that which is refractory to givenness, that which could never have been and has never been given to manifestation, though its very subtraction from manifestation has been made manifest” (48). In After Finitude, of course, Meillassoux writes that the possibility of making “scientific statements about a manifestation of the world which is supposed to be anterior to any human form of the relation to the world” (Meillassoux 112) is due to the historical emergence of a conception of the mathematization of nature that renders meaningful “thought’s capacity to think what there is whether thought exists or not” (Meillassoux 116). But Brown’s project raises Meillassoux’s stakes: what if we were to subtract from this world, from which the necessity of its relation to us is already subtracted, also the need for the distinction between “in itself” and “for us,” even as a heuristic principle (that makes “meaningful” the idea of a world without us)? Such that not even the stability of the referent (“in itself”) is left overturned and manifestation as such can be grasped as the form of the problem to hand? (cf. 20–21)

For those of us who work in what one might provisionally call the “mathematical humanities,” the audacity of this proposal strikes at the heart of the matter: it embraces the challenge of speaking of a world whose spatiotemporal givenness comes to be given by virtue of the contingency of the very terms of its construction. Such terms range from the “unity” of natural laws and “the horizon” to the devices, numbers and operations that take measurement and, indeed, symbolization itself. So a project that aims to dislodge “the world as such” from a forced conformity to the “limits of reason” is rich in implications for how we might rethink the relations between the “present state of things” and the reasons, rules, and other movements of intellection that organize and manipulate such states.

In short, a project that promises to transform how we think about transformation—namely, as a problem of thinking through manifestation a non-manifest world—is very much one I want to see come to fruition. As such, the remarks that follow are made in the spirit of inviting clarification and solidification of a couple of its key premises. I’ll therefore focus my attention on the first chapter, where the methodological premises are laid out by way of outlining the domain in which the promise of a “rationalist empiricism” first takes shape.

The chapter begins with a conviction arising from Alfred North Whitehead that “philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity” (30). At issue, therefore, in any philosophical system is a selectivity of interpretation that informs the determination of its concepts and schemata; concomitantly, there arises the task of “recovering the totality obscured by the selection” (Whitehead, cit. 30) and considering the “extra-systemic space” we inevitably pass through when we cross systems in entering our experience into philosophical systematicity (cf. 36–37). This task would require us to somehow return “critique” to “speculation” without also reasserting the need for the transcendental subject. In other words, it is necessary, Brown writes, to return to a “pre-Kantian” (37) understanding of the relation between concept and experience.

Hence the chapter’s pursuit, which is articulated in a series of questions—“What is a philosophical exception? . . . How are we to think the mutual exteriority of philosophical exceptions? . . . What happens when we encounter philosophical exceptions in their mutual exteriority, and when we invite them to encounter one another?” (37) This pursuit will discover its proper domain in a peculiar amalgamation of positions that after Kant are customarily treated as mutually suspicious of one another in virtue of transcendental subjectivity, namely, Humean empiricism and Cartesian rationalism.

Brown gives to this unique amalgamation the name “exemplary exception”: it “inhabits an extra-systemic yet intra-philosophical space . . . unbounded by an envelope of conceptual systematicity, yet . . . determined in its contours by the edges of those philosophical systems that . . . produce exteriorities by constituting a field of internal coherence” (37). And exemplary of these exemplary exceptions is what Brown calls “Absent Blue Wax”—an anomalous entity co-determined by, on the one hand, the hue “absent” from a spectrum of blues that, contrary to his own epistemology, Hume believes the mind is capable of filling in (39–40); and, on the other hand, the wax of the famous experiment that, in his Second Meditation, Descartes permits himself “just this once” in order that his mind “wander off” into the perception of bodies, “[un]restrained within the bounds of truth” before ultimately returning to confirm the priority of the intellect (Descartes 20; Brown 40).

What is striking, though, is that Hume and Descartes are not equally co-determinant; Descartes seems to be “more exemplary” of the “exemplary exception,” as indicated by the way Brown presents his exemplarity. “In the wax experiment,” he writes, “Descartes breaks with the order of reasons guiding his Meditations, as Martial Gueroult argues, in order to ‘deliver a verification’ of the priority of the intellect by provisionally situating it ‘in the opponent’s point of view'” (40). The experiment is, accordingly, an “anomalous empiricism” through which “we rediscover,” so Gueroult, “by another means . . . the conclusion obtained directly by following the genetic order of reasons” (cit. Brown 41). Derived initially from Gueroult’s interpretation of Descartes, “the order of reasons” is then incorporated as a principle into Brown’s own heuristic framework, for instance in the way he reconstructs After Finitude in chapter 2 (59ff., where “The Order of Reasons” constitutes its own section heading). Indeed, Brown’s choice of Gueroult’s as the interpretation of Descartes that will exemplify pre-Kantian philosophical exception seems to involve motivations that perhaps have something to do with the alignment of Gueroult with the structuralism and counter-phenomenological stance associated with his celebrants, some of whom are also important for the project of rationalist empiricism: Althusser, Deleuze . . .

Thus it is worth taking a closer look at what exactly “the order of reasons” entails and unpacking the specificity of Gueroult’s interpretation of Descartes. The “order of reasons” is, first, a method that Gueroult develops for how to read Descartes, but it also derives from what Descartes says about his own method. As Descartes writes in his address to the readers of the Meditations: “I should not advise anyone to . . . read my book, except those who intend to meditate seriously with me. But those who, without worrying much about the sequence and linkage of my reasons (rationum mearum seriem et nexum comprehendere non curantes), amuse themselves with splitting hairs on each of the parts—as many do—those, I say, will not get much profit from reading this book’” (Descartes 8; cit. Gueroult xx). Citing this in his preface to Descartes’ Philosophy Interpreted according to the Order of Reasons, Gueroult, for his part, comments that “we must therefore above all bare the order of reasons that is the sine qua non of the value of Descartes’ doctrine in his own eyes” (Gueroult xx). For “the exact restitution of this order”—this return to Descartes’s text—is what will allow us to “settle . . . the deep meaning of the doctrine” and arrive at the unabridged “historical truth,” and not the attribution of radical doubt to “inferiority complexes . . . and other psychoanalytical categories according to today’s fashion” (Gueroult xx).

For some commentators, notably Knox Peden, Gueroult’s insistence on interpreting Descartes according to “the order of reasons” should be understood in light of his altercation with Ferdinand Alquié, who had advanced his own reading of the discovery of the cogito as a result of “an absence of certainty . . . in the surrounding, existent world” (Peden 371). Reading Cartesian philosophy more geometrico (cf. Gueroult xx) and as demonstrative of its own truth, Gueroult was in this view turning Descartes into a Spinozist aligned with the “structuralism” of the 1960s (Peden 376). But what if Gueroult’s Descartes were not solely definable in terms of this altercation with Alquié and the lens of a Spinozist-rationalist tradition one is already committed to identifying in 1960s “structuralism”? According to Mogens Laerke, for instance, Gueroult called “structural analysis” a principle of philosophical history that was concerned with conditions of possibility of the discipline already in the 1920s (Laerke 583); this “dianoematics” might thus have more in common with late nineteenth-century historiography and neo-Kantianism and what Gueroult himself termed “radical idealism” (Laerke 600), a positivist affirmation of the reality and self-sufficiency of all systems based on the fact of the existence of past philosophical works.

By extension, “the order of reasons” is not Gueroult’s own invention of an a priori principle of philosophical history—a notion that his dianoematics outright rejects—but his interpretation of a unique way of understanding the Meditations as self-verifying and as established by Descartes himself. In this light a crucial dimension of Gueroult’s characterization of Descartes’s wax experiment becomes legible. Gueroult proceeds through the Second Meditation “geometrically,” according to the internal linkages between its truths: I exist as a thinking being; my nature is no other than pure thought and pure intelligence; I know myself, my existence and my essence, while my body is cancelled by the evil genius and remains unknown to me; therefore body is less easily known than soul. To overcome the lingering power of common sense definitively, however, Descartes provisionally situates the mind in the opponent’s position and examines “one of the objects that ‘appear to be outside’” in order to verify “by another means” that bodies are known “insofar as they are understood by thought” (Gueroult 75). Gueroult’s appraisal of the indirect means, though, is that “the more faculties through which I know problematically the existence of bodies, and the more faculties that allow me to know immediately and in all certainty that I exist, the more faculties I can relate to myself as its own modes. The more ways I picture myself as knowing bodies, the better I know myself” (Gueroult 77). Particularly this final sentence seems key. Gueroult emphasizes the iterative, cumulative character of the so-called synthetic order as described by Descartes. Synthetic order may be indirect, but it and the imagination it involves contribute to “better knowledge of self” which, as a consequence, is “richer and more distinct.” Certain knowledge of myself is therefore infinitely richer than uncertain knowledge of bodies. But the increasing richness of knowledge of oneself derives from the increasing ways of (problematically) knowing bodies.

Thus, however much the end affirms the priority of the intellect over the imagination, the imagination also “enriches and strengthens” (Gueroult 76) the order of reasons and is “reversed” rather than “abolished” outright (Gueroult 76), making the scenario according to Gueroult himself rather less analogous to the Kantian sublime and its “subtractive method” (Brown 41) than, perhaps, Husserl’s Second Cartesian Meditation. There, Husserl replaces the wax with a multisided die, which pictures “giv[ing the same being] continuously as an objective unity in a multiform and changeable multiplicity of manners of appearing,” “flowing away in the unity of a synthesis” so as to disclose the “facts of synthetic structure” through the temporality immanent to its modes of givenness (Husserl 41–43). Indeed, the die’s substitution for the wax itself references the wax’s substitutability as such for Husserl in the intentional object’s first, “formal-logical (formal-ontological)” sense: in this initial sense, the intentional object stands in for “the Anything Whatever” (Husserl 51), which “makes present in phantasy the potential perceptions that would make the invisible visible” and so bring “also the potential,” “implicit” and “predelineated” subjective processes “in the sense-producing intentionality of the actual ones” “into the field comprising . . . the objective sense of the cogitatum in question” (Husserl 48). It is because infinite multiplicities “always belong together,” “noetically and noematically,” “in respect of their possible synthesis” (Husserl 54), that anything fixed and abiding can be indicated about an intentional object at all. This I take to be analogous to Gueroult’s surprising concession to what he calls the “true indestructibility” of the wax that “remains the same” as a substance for us (Gueroult 70) precisely through an experience of the temporality immanent to its modes of givenness (i.e., hot, liquid, or solid).

This is important because it indicates how for Gueroult, reading Descartes “according to the order of reasons” seems to lead directly to an unexpected acknowledgment of the irreducibility of the imagination and therefore to its non-abolition. And this perhaps in spite of himself, as the first chapter of his Descartes book does not hesitate to rehearse the narrative, in currency since the end of the nineteenth century, that modern rationalism was born from a radical shift of perspective attributed to its first heroes, Descartes and Leibniz, and their shared project of a mathesis universalis. “From the beginning,” Gueroult writes, “Cartesianism was engaged in an effort to construct a complete system of certain knowledge, at once both metaphysical and scientific, a system fundamentally different from the Aristotelian one, because it is wholly immanent in the mathematical certainty embodied in the clear and distinct intellect, but no less complete, and even stricter in its need for absolute rigor” (Gueroult 4). Yet just a few pages later, Gueroult notes that Descartes warned his readers not to delve too deeply into metaphysics alone at the expense of deploying the understanding together with the imagination, which he admits is necessary for mathematics and physics—though he then also adds that Descartes is not to be taken too seriously on such statements (Gueroult 11).

Whatever else might be said about Gueroult’s ambivalence—perhaps the historian in him could not help but distinguish between “Cartesianism” and “Descartes”—this much seems certain: the “modern rationalism” associated with “universal mathematics,” typified by a mathematical practice that presents itself as innovative and associated with an “algebraization of geometry” that purportedly brought an end to the imagination, is itself a modern narrative with ties to neo-Kantian historiography.1

Were one to consider contemporaneous mathematical practice, however—and enter the empirical qua empirical that way and, indeed, precisely as Brown would like us to do in Rationalist Empiricism—one discovers that imagination plays a central role in Descartes’ mathematics—not just in a representative or “semantic” sense in respect to an algebraic expression, but as a “material” proxy onto which reason “projects and manipulates basic mathematical relations” and which can genuinely carry inferences (Rabouin 4753–54). Cartesian extension can express relations between magnitudes and thus any perceived state of affairs because of the imagination viz. phantasia and the senses and its ability to “see” mathematical proportions and ratios. Algebraic symbolization merely supplements this process by abbreviating and making manipulable more complex problems (Rabouin 4758). Similarly, one could say, the infinitely changing aspect of the wax in the account of the experiment given in the Second Meditation is too complex for the imagination to sufficiently treat in present attention, thus indexing a discordance between imagination and concept though not yet the elimination of the former. Importantly, what’s innovated here is not the supremacy of the intellect over imagination but, rather, the idea that the geometric imagination can therefore not function as a “representation” if understood as a “form of semantic relation” (Rabouin 4772–73). As David Rabouin has argued, diagrams are in certain (reductio) proofs necessarily based on impossible configurations; that is, they can serve an analytic end even when we “do not know in advance whether they represent a possible state of affair or not” (Rabouin 4773). Sometimes the work of imagination is used to show how a mathematical situation is not possible and is used because it does not represent a genuine mathematical situation. And it can do so precisely because they involve manipulating material inscriptions and thus thinking with a specific body: “they are proxies with which we reason” (Rabouin 4774) because they describe a material structure onto which meaning is projected (cf. Rabouin 4776).

Which brings me to my conclusion. Rationalist Empiricism asks that we return to a “pre-Kantian” (37) framework for constructing the relation between concept and experience as an encounter that never took place. As I have suggested, it therefore demands that we rid ourselves of the obstructive nineteenth-century narrative that attaches the birth of modern rationalism to a “discovery” of the formal at the expense of imagination that is attributed to Descartes’s “invention” of a purely formalized approach to matters geometrical. What this entails is that we distinguish between “pre-Kantian Descartes” and “twentieth-century interpretations of Descartes,” a distinction that, in turn, asks that we hold open the possibility that the wax in the experiment is a “material proxy” for the mind’s self-enrichment via a cumulative imaginative process—and that the wax experiment is neither “an empirical demonstration” per se nor “knowledge or understanding of the body” in general. What if the wax experiment were a “material proxy”—can the “immanent critique of empiricism” that Brown identifies in the Second Meditation not be undertaken by something other than “the really empirical,” such as, for instance, a “proxy” for “empiricism,” situated prior to the purported historical emergence of a mathesis universalis that is taken to render meaningful “thought’s capacity to think what there is whether thought exists or not” (Meillassoux 116)? What if rationalist empiricism were accomplished precisely by a detour through the imagination, its project of thinking through manifestation a non-manifest world achieved precisely in the proxy’s hybrid material-conceptual universe? Such a detour presents an alternative to the familiar story that philosophical and scientific modernity emerged from the “discovery” of abstraction at the cost of materiality and sense, a story that demands that the European “Scientific Revolution” be placed at its hierarchical and singular apex. By contrast, redirecting through imagination’s hybrid universe would suspend the need for the idea of a world without us to be “meaningful” for us at all—without also abdicating the possibility for the world without us to be “meaningful” without us.


Works Cited

Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 2. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Gueroult, Martial. Descartes’ Philosophy Interpreted according to the Order of Reasons. Vol. 1, The Soul and God. Translated by Roger Ariew. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Translated by Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1960.

Laerke, Mogens. “Structural Analysis and Dianoematics: The History (of the History) of Philosophy according to Martial Gueroult.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 58.3 (July 2020) 581–607.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Peden, Knox. “Descartes, Spinoza, and the Impasse of French Philosophy: Ferdinant Alquié versus Martial Gueroult.” Modern Intellectual History 8.2 (August 2011) 361–90.

Rabouin, David. “Logic of Imagination: Echoes of Cartesian Epistemology in Contemporary Philosophy of Mathematics and Beyond.” Synthese 195 (2018) 4751–83.

  1. According to this historiography, Kant himself misses the formalist turn when he takes a transcendental approach to the mathematics—imagination relation.

  • Nathan Brown

    Nathan Brown


    Response to Julia Ng

    I’m grateful to Julia Ng for this engagement with the first chapter of my book. Just as Nick’s reply pressed for clarification of the relation between rationalist empiricism and rationalist materialism, Julia’s reply requires clarification of how I understand the relationship between reason and imagination in Descartes’s wax experiment, and of how my engagement with pre-Kantian philosophers in the first chapter of my book is related to its overall project. But first, let me address the formulations quoted at the beginning of Julia’s reply and described as paradoxical, since it may also be useful to clarify the bearing of paradox upon rationalist empiricism and speculative critique.

    If paradox means “contrary to received opinion or expectation,” then what it names is essential to philosophy: the critique of doxa, and the refusal of common sense as a criterion of genuine thinking. But if paradox means “a proposition or statement that is (taken to be) actually self-contradictory, absurd, or intrinsically unreasonable,” then the term carries real critical force, since coherence is indeed an indispensable criterion of philosophy. Thus, paradox itself has a paradoxical relation to philosophy, in a rigorous sense: it is constitutive of philosophy, as that which goes beyond doxa, and it is destructive of philosophy, as that which undermines coherence. These two senses of paradox run alongside the history of philosophy, and their relation agitates its movement. Speculative thinking requires a critic of doxa, and the criterion of coherence demands a critique of merely dogmatic speculation. My claim is that it is the disjunctive relation between rationalism—untethered from transcendental grounding—that enables us to hold the imperatives of speculation and critique accountable to one another, preventing critique from falling back into common sense or speculation into incoherence.

    So let me offer an exposition of what I mean by the following statement, since doing so will bring out some key elements of different chapters of the book:

    It is the interruption of experience by reason, and the extrapolation of reason from and yet beyond experience, that is at issue in the rationalist methodological pole, while it is the experience of reason and also the exposure, by empirical science, of what cannot be experienced that is at issue in our empiricism.

    By “the experience of reason” I refer to Hegel’s methodological concept of Ehrfarung, particularly in the Science of Logic, where the taking place and the recollection of pure thinking is itself the content of experience, an experience of reason unfolding its imperatives through operations of distinction, negation, and preservation—which amount to the determinacy or actuality of thinking. This is how we can make sense of Hegel’s statement that the “true critique” of the determinations of thought must proceed “not according to the abstract form of the a priori as contrasted with the a posteriori, but in themselves according to their particular content.” Refusing the philosophical terminology of the a priori while nevertheless restricting one’s investigations to the domain of pure thinking is paradoxical in the first sense: true critique sets out from a critique of a methodological doxa, the opposition of a priori and a posteriori. But it is not paradoxical in the second sense, because Hegel shows the coherence of rejecting that opposition by traversing the experience of reason and demonstrating the rationality of its immanent critique. Hegel is taken to be (and takes himself to be) a critic of the principle of non-contradiction, but in fact his dialectic obeys it: when there is a contradiction, there is a negation, and this is the very movement of the concept—the movement of determinate negation. It is only the figure of the whole that imposes the real contradiction upon Hegel’s thought, since the very concept of the whole is the totality of contradictions. Thus the principle of non-contradiction imposes upon us a criterion for sustaining coherence of Hegel’s thought against his own program: the process of true critique requires the unbinding of truth from the whole.

    What do I mean when I say it is “the exposure, by empirical science, of what cannot be experienced that is at issue in our empiricism”? Here I refer, as Nick puts it in his response, to “a notion of empiricism delinked from any governing debt to psychological apperception.” Science determines that which is refractory to human cognition and phenomenal receptivity through instruments and experimental procedures incorporating and testing formalizations and theories under conditions of givenness constructed in a manner exterior to our experience.

    Finally, I characterize the rationalist pole of my framework in terms of “the interruption of experience by reason, and the extrapolation of reason from and yet beyond experience.” Theoretical physics, for example, constantly surpasses the availability of experimental data, yet it does so by setting out from and going beyond the history of science and its relation to mathematics. Moreover, it is often the experimental identification of anomalies or problems in the present state of physical theory that forces the speculative extrapolations of theoretical physics, leading to the revisions of theoretical frameworks themselves. But there is also an interruption of experience by reason proper to philosophical rationalism, which Quentin Meillassoux formulates as follows in his doctoral dissertation:

    The canonical paradox of rationality is thus given in this form: reason presents itself as universal discursivity, necessary and true, thus as the thought of that which is—but that which is is given as particular and contingent. If reason is not a chimera, then it must resolve this problem: how to disengage, at the heart of the factual beings given in experience, that which, adequate to those beings, is not itself contingent.

    What’s important here is that Meillassoux is not an axiomatic thinker, since he recognizes that any system of axioms is itself contingent (Spinoza’s axioms are predicated upon canonical, scholastic definitions; Badiou decides among axiomatic frameworks in set theory). Setting out from the contingency of what is the case, Meillassoux asks how we are to arrive at anything that has to be said. And what he tries to show (in a section of dissertation I’ve translated) is that the only thing that cannot be thought as contingent is contingency itself, that this redoubling of contingency is incoherent. His argument is thus that the principle of sufficient reason is itself irrational, that the ultimate ground required by that principle cannot be coherently thought. Thus the preservation of philosophical rationality requires the renunciation of the principle of sufficient reason, and this paradox—which does indeed defy rationalist doxa—not only can be rigorously thought, but also upholds the criteria of reason against the incoherence of self-contradiction.

    Let me turn now to the question of the wax experiment. As Julia rightly notes, I position the wax experiment as an empiricist exception to Descartes’s methodological suspension of reference to sense experience, and on this point I cite Martial Gueroult’s argument that Descartes thus attempts to “deliver a verification of the priority of the intellect” by provisionally taking up “the opponent’s point of view.” But my reading of the wax experiment is not at all “derived initially” from Gueroult, nor does my account ultimately correspond with his interpretation, since the conclusions I draw go far beyond his approach to this episode in the Second Meditation. My understanding of the wax experiment as a methodological exception is drawn directly from Descartes’s unambiguous description of it as exactly that: “But . . . my mind enjoys wandering off and will not yet submit to being restrained within the bounds of truth. Very well then, just this once let us give it free rein, so that after a while, when it is time to tighten the reins, it may more readily submit to being curbed.” Through my critique of Michel Henry’s reading of the wax experiment—in which he argues that the second meditation’s problematic develops entirely within an attitude of reduction—I aim to show that phenomenological reduction is exactly what is suspended, and this is what makes the experiment a methodological exception. Against Henry, I try to show that the whole point of this exception is indeed attention to a particular body (one body in particular, Descartes says), rather than simply an analysis of knowledge of bodies in general.

    Attributing my approach to Descartes to Gueroult, Julia develops an alternative interpretation of Gueroult’s interpretation—which is meant to sustain and to foreground “an unexpected acknowledgment of the irreducibility of the imagination and therefore to its non-abolition.” But what is strange here is that this is exactly the account of the wax experiment I offer in my chapter. Thus, I’m entirely in agreement with this suggestion. Tracing the temporality of Descartes’s experiment, I write that “we arrive at the insufficiency of the imagination to grasp ‘an immeasurable number of changes’ in their temporal unfolding, and we thereby accede to the power of the intellect to determine the supersensible identity of the wax”—this is an exposition of Descartes’s argument. I emphatically do not mean to minimize the role of imagination in the wax experiment or to “abolish it,” as Julia suggests. On the contrary, not only do I affirm the important role played by the imagination in the experiment, I make that role the very basis for a reinterpretation of the Cartesian subject.

    Deleuze attributes to Kant the insight that the subject can only be “my undetermined existence can be determined only within time as the existence of a phenomena, of a passive, receptive, phenomenal subject appearing within time”—and he puts this forward as a critique of the atemporal, punctual constitution of the Cartesian subject. But my argument is that “in the Cartesian wax experiment we already encounter such a subject.” Moreover, I describe the temporal unfolding of the wax experiment as “a retroactive genesis of the cogito irreducible to its initial formulation.” So while I acknowledge that the point of Descartes’s experiment is to recover the stability of the intellect from the insufficiency of the imagination (this is the parallel I draw with the Kantian sublime), the whole point of my argument is that something irreducible—and also exterior to phenomenological reduction—has taken place in the interval. This is what Descartes himself fails to foreground, “I see that without any effort I have now finally got back where I wanted,” he writes, and I counter as follows: “But in the interim, we have quietly plunged into the ‘chasm in the depths of the subject’ that Kant will explore some one hundred and forty years after Descartes, and that Deleuze will excavate nearly two hundred years after Kant.” So the point of my reading of the wax experiment is hardly to diminish the role of the imagination, understood as the faculty of temporal synthesis, in the wax experiment. But the stakes of the distinction between our perspective on the significance of this reading are probably at issue in Julia’s reference to Husserl’s second Cartesian meditation, because Husserl does, unlike Descartes, operate entirely within the attitude of reduction. And what this means is that cogito cannot undergo an ungrounding of the transcendental unity of apperception through the exteriority of the time of the object to the time of consciousness.

    Indeed, the pivotal role of the imagination in the first chapter of my book, and in my own approach to philosophy, is meant to be foregrounded by the construction of the chapter itself. The “encounter that never took place” to which Julia alludes is the “mingling of methodological exceptions” I stage between Hume’s missing shade of blue and Descartes’s wax. This is an act of philosophical imagination, whereby I try to produce a figure of methodological exteriority that is neither rationalist nor empiricist but a conjunction of the exceptions those methods produce. My effort here is more poetic than programmatic: to figure the relational disjunction of rationalism and empiricism—their extra-systemic mingling—as an imaginary object (absent blue wax), that may be held only in the mind’s eye. Julia writes that “Rationalist Empiricism asks that we return to a ‘pre-Kantian’ framework for constructing the relation between concept and experience as an encounter that never took place,” but while the first chapter of my book is dedicated primarily to pre-Kantian philosophers, the framework I develop in the rest of the book is emphatically not pre-Kantian, but rather post-Hegelian—a framework responsive to Hegel’s critique of Kant and to Heidegger’s reading of Kant, as well as to critiques of Hegel by Marx and Heidegger and Althusser and Meillassoux.



The Bond Uniting Pleasure and Pain

I would like to begin with the quotation that serves as an epigraph to your book, from Gaston Bachelard’s The Philosophy of No: “Empiricism and rationalism are bound, in scientific thought, by a strange bond, as strong as that which unites pleasure and pain” (7). This enigmatic formulation naturally piqued my interest, so I was pleased to see you return to it in the conclusion to the book, where you approach it as a “riddle” that demands a solution. You offer that the bond that unites pleasure and pain must be life (260). This passage appears in the midst of a short reading of two works by Michel Henry, The Essence of Manifestation and The Genealogy of Psychoanalysis. For Henry, “life” is synonymous with the immediacy of auto-affection; it is also the necessary condition of all thinking, since he understands every possible form of thought, representation, or perception to be conditioned by sensation (Brown 257).

Returning to the riddle of Bachelard, you then ask: what bond could be “as strong as” the bond of life itself? Your answer, of course, is technics, which enables new configurations of experience (for example recording) that “project thought outside of its synthesis with lived immediacy” (260). You write,

If rationalism and empiricism are bound, in scientific thought, by a bond as strong as this, could it be precisely that which is not life: technics? This is indeed “a strange bond,” for technics separates reason and experience, the better to enable the non-immediacy of their coordination. Yet it also embodies reason and experience: technology is the material instantiation and the record of their historical transformation, just as it becomes a condition of possibility for the historical transformation of their relationship: for what can be thought, for what can be experienced. What distinguishes “science” from “life” (technics) is what constitutes the strange bond of rationalism and empiricism in “scientific thought.” If this bond is as strong as “that which unites pleasure and pain”—life, the immediacy of auto-affection—that is because it is capable of displacing it, of propelling scientific thought beyond the determinations and indeed the existence of life. (260–61)

In the book you make clear that what you call “technics” is not limited to technology and its different iterations, but includes writing and techniques of inscription more generally—all of which underscore the exteriority of thought to life. You read the “as strong as” of Bachelard’s analogy not as a statement of equivalence, therefore, but as positing two bonds of equal strength but opposed effects.

While I’m persuaded by your reasoning here—and especially by your account of technics as effecting this unity-in-separation—I don’t buy it as a gloss of Bachelard’s evocation of the “strange bond . . . as strong as that uniting pleasure and pain.” This is because while life may indeed include pleasure and pain or involve the experience of these sensations, it does not “unite” them: at least, not in the immediacy of auto-affection. As sensations, pleasure and pain can only be experienced as opposed, if not mutually exclusive: they certainly do not constitute a unity from the vantage of immediate sensory experience. To understand them as united, as “bound,” we would at the very minimum require a theory of the unconscious and of fantasy, neither of which belong to the sphere of auto-affection.

I must admit that when I think about what unites pleasure and pain, what comes to mind for me is not “life,” but the pleasure principle—and above all its “beyond.” This association is hopefully not as gratuitous as it sounds, since it raises fundamental methodological questions that I think are not without relevance to your account of rationalist empiricism. I’m thinking in particular of Deleuze’s meditations on Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which examine the challenge it presents to any experiential or sensory investigation of pain and pleasure. He understands Freud’s account of the death drive as the “beyond of the pleasure principle” as a foray into speculative philosophy: an attempt to identify the foundation or law of the pleasure principle, the supersensual law of its sensual manifestations:

Of all the writings of Freud, the masterpiece which we know as Beyond the Pleasure Principle is perhaps the one where he engaged most directly—and how penetratingly—in specifically philosophical reflection. Philosophical reflection should be understood as “transcendental,” that is to say concerned with a particular kind of investigation of the question of principles. It soon becomes apparent in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud is not really preoccupied with exceptions to that principle; they are not what he means by the “beyond” of the title. All the apparent exceptions he considers . . . are treated by Freud as merely apparent exceptions which could still be reconciled with the pleasure principle. In other words, there are no exceptions to the principle. . . .

At this point we need to resort to philosophical reflection. What we call a principle or law is, in the first place, that which governs a particular field; it is in this sense that we speak of an empirical principle or a law. Thus we say that the pleasure principle governs life universally and without exception. But there is another and quite distinct question, namely in virtue of what is a field governed by a principle; there must be a principle of another kind, a second-order principle, which accounts for the necessary compliance of the field with the empirical principle. It is this second-order principle that we call transcendental. Pleasure is a principle insofar as it governs our psychic life. But we must still ask what is the highest authority which subjects our psychic life to the dominance of this principle. Already Hume had remarked that though psychic life clearly exhibits and distinguishes between pleasures and pains, we could never, no matter how exhaustively we examined our ideas of pain and pleasure, derive from them a principle in accordance with which we seek pleasure and avoid pain. We find Freud saying much the same: we continually encounter pleasures and pains in psychic life, but they are found scattered here and there in a free state, “unbound.” That the pleasure principle should nevertheless be so organized that we systematically seek pleasure and avoid pain makes it imperative that we should look for a higher type of explanation. In virtue of what higher connection—what “binding” power—is pleasure a principle, with the dominance that it has? Freud’s problem, we may say, is the very opposite of what it is often supposed to be, for he is concerned not with the exceptions to the principle but with its foundation. His problem is a transcendental one: a problem, as Freud puts it, for “speculation.” [The reference here is to the famous first words of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: “What follows is pure speculation.”] Freud’s answer is that the binding of excitation alone makes it “resolvable” into pleasure, that is to say makes discharge possible. . . . It is the binding process which makes pleasure as the principle of mental life possible.1

Why am I mentioning this? Because to affirm that pleasure and pain are united by the immediacy of life as auto-affection, I believe, is to dismiss as self-evident the very problem that Deleuze describes here as calling out for philosophical reflection, and as requiring precisely what you describe as a “retroaction of thought upon life” (260).

Deleuze frames the bond uniting pleasure and pain as a problem for what he calls transcendental philosophy, for what Freud calls “speculation,” and for what I will suggest could be called, following the lines of enquiry your book has opened up, a “rationalist empiricism.” The question it raises is, how do we go about investigating this “beyond”? What allows it to be thought?

Initially Freud thinks of the death drive as a drive to destruction or dissolution, whose clearest manifestation might be sadism. He posits that in addition to “the instinct to preserve living substance and to join it into ever larger units”—the province of the life drives, or Eros—“there must exist another, contrary drive seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primaeval, inorganic state”:2 the death drive. Their concurrent or mutually opposing action would then explain the phenomena of life.

Eventually, though, Freud realizes that the attempt to isolate the death drive or make manifest its operation encounters an impasse. While a “portion” of the death drive “becomes visible” in sadism, “coming to light” as a drive to aggressivity and destruction, it is perceptible only on the condition of being “pressed into the service of Eros,” and therefore presented in the already compromised form of an impure “alloy” or compound. Moreover, he now understands destructiveness not as a manifestation of the death drive, but as a form of defense against the primary processes, and thus as a mode of cathexis. The death drive as such is not an object of empirical investigation.

Freud now stresses that this substantialization of the death drive tends to obscure a more profound understanding of the drive as immaterial, not given, and therefore thinkable only in speculative terms, as a formal or mythical3 construction. In Deleuze’s gloss, “when we speak of the Death [Drive], we refer to Thanatos, the absolute negation. Thanatos as such cannot be given in psychic life, even in the unconscious; it is, as Freud pointed out in his admirable text, essentially silent. And yet we must speak of it for it is a determinable principle, the foundation and even more of psychic life” (30). What is required is an investigation of the “primary processes,” which are not themselves accessible to experience. (In Freud’s own work, one of the forms this takes is an abandonment of the earlier energetic model, and of a thermodynamic paradigm more generally, in favor of a mathematical model.)

Derrida, in “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” offers one of the most influential treatments of this problem, one that seems especially pertinent to your book’s argument inasmuch as it makes central the role of technics and inscription in exploring this “absolute negation.” He explores how Freud’s treatment of inscription, and his discussion of the “Mystic Writing-Pad” in particular, enables both a non-logocentric treatment of “writing” that unfolds outside of auto-affectivity and an exteriorization of thought. (I would be glad to hear your views on this, since I imagine this argument is at least in the background of your thought.)

But Deleuze also offers a novel contribution to this vein of thought when he proposes that disavowal is a speculative method that allows for a thinking of primary nature, and with it the death drive, precisely as ungiven. He writes,

It might seem that a disavowal is, generally speaking, much more superficial than a negation or even a partial destruction. But this is not so, for it represents an entirely different operation. Disavowal should perhaps be understood as the point of departure of an operation that consists neither in negating nor even destroying, but rather in radically contesting the validity of that which is: it suspends or neutralizes the given in such a way that a new horizon opens up beyond the given and in place of it. (31, my emphases)

What Deleuze underscores in disavowal is the problem of construction, or the real that disavowal makes available to thought beyond what it refuses or denies. This construction is not sensuous, but linked to the purely mental sphere of imagination and myth. The method of disavowal is central to masochism, which is concerned with what Deleuze calls the “divine latency”4 of the death drive, the primary processes as uncathected or unbound: a pure potential not discharged in action (destruction) or sensation (pleasure or pain). Deleuze contends that “masochism can be defined neither as erotogenic and sensuous (pleasure-pain), nor as moral and sentimental (guilt-punishment).” Instead, “masochism is above all formal and dramatic,” since “its particular pleasure-pain complex is determined by a particular kind of formalism, and its experience of guilt by a specific story” (109). It is expressed thematically by the ideal of “coldness,” which in freezing the warmth of sensuality allows the severity of primary nature to emerge.

Yet, this pursuit of the supersensual realm of primary nature depends not only on the method of disavowal, but on the technique of the fetish. Deleuze understands the function of the fetish not as a compensation for what the mother lacks, but as a support for this supersensual ideal. He proposes that the fetish, and more specifically the “freezing of time” it effects, allows for the construction and formalization of primary nature.

Freud himself describes the fetish as the support for an “idea.” He observes that the fetishist’s refusal of the mother’s castration actually involves two distinct operations: “If we wish to differentiate between what happens to the idea as distinct from the affect,” he writes, “we can restrict ‘repression’ [Verdrängung] to relate to the affect; the correct word for what happens to the idea is then ‘disavowal’ [Verleugnung].”5 Repression concerns affect—namely, the castration anxiety provoked by the sight of the female genitals. Conversely, the “idea” at stake in disavowal is not castration anxiety, or even the perception of the mother as castrated, but rather the reality of the maternal phallus. In other words, disavowal does not merely deny castration, but posits or upholds the reality of an object whose existence cannot be perceived. The point is not merely that an expected object (the penis) is found to be lacking, but rather that a new object, a non-empirical object, is forced into reality by means of the fetish as a process or thing. In other words, the mere existence of the fetish, as a man-made thing or object, attests to the realness of the maternal phallus it figures by offering itself as a plastic support for an unconscious idea.

Freud shows that the fetish both sustains and exteriorizes the unconscious idea that has been negated by the evidence of the senses. He emphasizes that the fetishist does not fail to perceive the mother’s lack of a penis, of which he is perfectly conscious. Instead, two distinct and incompatible realities come to exist side-by-side: the perceptual reality in which the child knows that the mother has no penis, and a psychic reality, upheld by the fetish, in which the maternal phallus reigns supreme.

It is not true that the child emerges from his experience of seeing the female parts with an unchanged belief in the woman having a phallus. He retains this belief but he also gives it up; during the conflict between the deadweight of the unwelcome perception and the force of the opposite wish, a compromise is constructed such as is only possible in the realm of unconscious modes of thought—the primary processes. In the world of psychic reality the woman still has a penis in spite of all, but this penis is no longer the same as it once was. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its successor, so to speak, and now absorbs all the interest which formerly belonged to the penis. (“Fetishism,” 206)

In the terms of your argument about technics, I would suggest that the fetish is an object, technology or practice that allows for the exteriorization of thought, for something that exceeds and interrupts the auto-affectivity of self-experience. It enables a “writing” of the primary processes that are inaccessible to consciousness and experience.6

Disavowal can also make use of other technologies and practices. In Deleuze’s reading, photography is one of the best examples of this technique: it freezes movement, suspends the spontaneity of secondary nature, such that the cold mother of primary nature—an ideal with no sensual existence—can be glimpsed in and through the gestures and attitudes of the real woman who becomes her fetishistic support.7

In sum, then, here are what I see as the main contributions of Deleuze’s intervention on the pleasure principle and its beyond:

  1. Freud has a speculative method, and it arises out of the difficulty of uniting pleasure and pain, which necessitates a “transcendental principle” that would explain their non-intuitive coordination.
  2. The masochist’s disavowal of secondary nature (of the sensations of pleasure and pain) is a speculative method that “opens up a new horizon beyond the given and in place of it” through a retroaction of thought upon life.
  3. The fabrication or staging of the fetish is the technics that enables the exteriorization of this thought that is inaccessible to experience or sense perception.

What is so unique about Deleuze’s way of proceeding, and in my opinion distinguishes him from virtually every other philosophical reader of Freud, is that he de-psychologizes the logic of disavowal and the practice of the fetish, extracting them from the sphere of auto-affection and isolating disavowal as a method that allows for a construction of primary nature—one he even goes so far as to associate with Platonic idealism.

What if this divided attitude, this dis-avowal, were itself the bond uniting not only pleasure and pain (inasmuch as both would be disavowed in favor of a supersensuous idea), but also, at least in some of its iterations, rationalism and empiricism? As a reading of the Bachelard quote with which I began, perhaps this would suggest that the binding force that is “as strong as” that binding pleasure and pain is not an equal and opposite force, as in your reading (where technics would supplant life), but the same (unbinding) bond: a technics that enables a retroaction of thought upon life that interrupts its spontaneity and auto-affection.

I see a number of affinities here between the questions I’m trying to raise through Deleuze and your own treatment of the “technics of prehension” in the photography of Nicolas Baier, which I find to be one of the most compelling chapters in the book. I’m thinking in particular of your discussion of Project Star (Black), the installation whose component pieces all explore in different ways the properties of an object—in this case, a meteorite—that no longer exists at the end of that process, because it is eventually ground into powder and used to paint a canvas. You show that even as that object ceases to exist, its primary properties are made manifest and shown to cohere across the different presentations of the object through the elaborate technical processes of digital scanning, 3-D printing, and manual craft that Baier employs. In a wonderful formulation, you state that “the object nowhere exists, but has become the coherence of its technical construction” (158). In one example, the sensuous object produced by 3-D printing—a massive reconstruction of the meteorite based on digital scans of its surface—actually supports or bodies forth the primary properties of the object that are apprehended rationally by a process of mathematical formalization. In another, you describe two pieces—Vanitas and Impact—that record the impact of Baier’s fist “acting like a meteorite,” rather than the impact of the meteorite itself; in your gloss, “they record an idea evoked by an object enacted by a body recorded in a substrate” (158). Finally, you state that “to encounter such an absent object, at once nowhere and everywhere present, is to recognize it as both objective and constructed: as the mediation of a real existence irreducible to a subjective correlate” (165).

When Deleuze defines disavowal as a process that consists in “neutralizing the given” such that “a new horizon opens up beyond the given and in place of it,” I think this definition actually applies very well to what you see Baier doing with piece; it seems like a fetishistic project in the best—i.e., most Deleuzian—sense of the term.8 In the terms of his analysis, I wonder whether we could describe Baier as a photographer of “primary nature,” extracting and formalizing the primary (mathematical) nature from the sensory qualities of the object.


  1. My first question concerns the place of Freud and of psychoanalysis more generally with respect to what you call Rationalist Empiricism. I realize that psychoanalysis is not central to your project, at least explicitly, but it seems to me that it’s not entirely alien, either. Could Freud, especially as Deleuze reads him here, be understood as engaging in a work of rational empiricism? Deleuze describes the beyond of the pleasure principle as a problem for “transcendental philosophy,” while Freud describes his own method as of “pure speculation.” From the vantage of your argument, however, are either of these terms really appropriate? Or do we need others?
  2. To what extent do you think that the priority that Michel Henry gives to auto-affection and to the immediacy of experience applies to psychoanalysis? Whether or not you agree with Deleuze’s analysis in these examples, do you believe that there is something akin to technics / the exteriorization of thought in psychoanalysis? Many philosophical readers of psychoanalysis ultimately align psychoanalysis with auto-affection, including some of the very best. Although I assume, as I mentioned earlier, that Derrida’s argument in “Freud and the Scene of Writing” is influential for your own thinking about writing and technics, I wonder whether you agree with his conclusion at the end of the essay, which is that Freud ultimately reabsorbs the technics of writing into auto-affectivity and self-presence. Another example might be Catherine Malabou’s claim The New Wounded that psychoanalysis is inseparable from a certain auto-affectivity inasmuch as it relies upon a personal “history.”
  3. Finally, what significance does Deleuze have, if any, for your thinking about rationalist empiricism and speculative critique? While one certainly couldn’t ask you to address a greater range of figures in the book than you already have, I’m curious as to why he is not central to your meditations given what I, at least, perceive to be his important contributions to these questions.

  1. Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty, in Masochism, trans. Jean McNeil (New York: Zone, 1989), 111–13. Subsequent citations from the same text will be given as page numbers in parentheses.

  2. Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 77. Here Freud is recapitulating his earlier argument from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which he is about to revise.

  3. “The theory of the drives is so to speak our mythology. The drives are mythical entities, magnificent in their indefiniteness.” New Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1965), 95.

  4. “Masochistic coldness represents the freezing point, the point of dialectical transmutation, a divine latency corresponding to the catastrophe of the Ice Age. But under the cold remains a supersensual sentimentality buried under the ice and protected by fur; this sentimentality radiates in turn through the ice as the generative principle of new order, a specific wrath and a specific cruelty. The coldness is both protective milieu and medium, cocoon and vehicle: it protects supersensual sentimentality as inner life, and expresses it as external order, as wrath and severity” (Coldness and Cruelty, 52).

  5. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, 205, Standard Edition, vol. XXI, 153.

  6. In the clinic of perversion we could also think about this in terms of the “staging in the real” that is so crucial to the perverse demonstration, where the idea of the phallic mother is produced through a particular staging or practice of inscription.

  7. Think about how this intersects with Rosalind Krauss’s reading of surrealist photography, which argues that despite its association with representational realism and with the sensory appearances of things, the medium of photography is actually the ultimate portal to the sur-reality of the supersensible because it denatures nature and presses concrete objects into the service of the idea (L’Amour fou). Like Deleuze, she explores this function of photography in relation to the fetish and fetishism (for example in the photography of Man Ray). Each author finds in the fetish a potent resource for the investigation of a real whose ideality must be explored by means of a material or technical process.

  8. It would be interesting to think about the possible pertinence of this connection to your work might contrast with other treatments of the relationship between fabrication, facticity, and fetishism. I’m thinking in particular of Bruno Latour’s 1996 book On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, which draws a parallel between certain developments in modern science and fetishistic belief. His argument doesn’t simply disparage the fetishistic gesture, but denounces what he calls the “belief in naïve belief” that is promulgated by the suggestion that fetishes—objects invested with mythical powers—are fabricated, while facts are not. Against this view, Latour uses the notion of “factishes” to explore a way of respecting both the objectivity of facts and the power of fetishes without forgetting that both are fabricated. For Latour, the fetish has one major advantage over scientific factishes. For while the fetish-worshipper is perfectly aware that fetishes are man-made, the “modern icon-breaker”—the scientist—inevitably erects new icons, but without sensing the contradiction at the core of their work. While Latour’s notion of the “factish” in some ways elevates or renews the interest of the fetish, it also implicitly demeans the fabrication at stake in scientific practice by aligning it an idolatrous meaning-making that disavows both the finitude that impinges on all facticity and its own spiritualist or theological refusal of that finitude. In contrast, I think you give to the fabrication implicit in facticity of the speculative empiricist projects you examine a much more dignified and affirmative reading. This is true in the chapter on measure, but especially in your reading of Baier.

  • Nathan Brown

    Nathan Brown


    Response to Tracy McNulty

    First of all I want to say that I find Tracy McNulty’s approach to Bachelard’s formulation very interesting and productive, all the more so because Tracy has pushed it far beyond the level of attention I devote to it in the book. And I can say that it took awhile before I really took seriously the specificity of Bachelard’s analogy at all. Initially I approached it as a casual remark that seemed useful as a slogan for my project, and what I liked about it was Bachelard’s recognition of the strangeness of the bond between rationalism and empiricism. So what I focused on at first was that strangeness as the key to the analogy, and I think Tracy’s response nicely draws out the importance of defamiliarizing the bond between pleasure and pain while also giving a technical, conceptually rigorous sense to that defamiliarization. It was only when I drew near the end of my work on the book, when I was writing the conclusion, that it occurred to me to force the issue of what exactly the bond between pleasure and pain is. That occurred to me, as Tracy notes, because I had returned to thinking through the relation of Michel Henry’s work to my project, which was also at issue right at the beginning of my research, when I was writing the first chapter on Descartes and Hume. So, returning to what I then started thinking of as “Bachelard’s riddle” was a way to formulate a pithy answer to that question: that life constitutes the bond between pleasure and pain—as the condition of all affectivity whatever—while technics (which is not life) enables an exteriorization of thinking, as well as capacities of receptivity exterior to life, such that technics might be understood as a “strange bond” between rationalism and empiricism as strong as that between pleasure and pain.

    Two points in reply, then, concerning the two sides of this strange analogy. First, by positing life as an answer to the implicit question posed by Bachelard’s formulation—what is the bond that unites pleasure and pain?—I don’t mean to suggest that life thus makes it possible to identify pleasure and pain. Rather, what I mean to suggest is that, conceptualized as the condition of possibility for all affectivity—and indeed as auto-affection itself—life constitutes the ground for the very existence of pleasure and pain. Pleasure and pain are not identical, though they may enter into complex relations of codetermination, but they are “united” in the more fundamental sense that they are affects at all, and indeed the sense in which they are opposing affects may be conceptualized as determining certain limits or boundaries or polarities of affectivity. So what I mean is that the existence of life constitutes the common field wherein pleasure or pain become manifest at all, and the unity one may think in that respect is that of a common ground of their differential experience, or of the complex relations into which they enter. Considered from that perspective, which one might call “transcendental,” we are close to the passage you cite in Deleuze on Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where “a principle or law is that which governs a common field.”

    A second point then would be that technics, as that which is exterior to life and—in Stiegler’s account—co-constitutive of the emergence of the Dasein, of ekstatical temporalization, and thereby of what I call the retroaction of thought upon life and the casting of thinking being beyond the field of living being—that technics considered in this sense is intimately bound up with what Freud calls the death drive. Technics occupies a strange position in the relation between matter, life, and thought. We can say that the existence of matter is a condition of possibility for the existence of life, and that the existence of life is a condition of possibility for the emergence of thought. But the coevolution of thinking and technics suggests the intimacy of what Stiegler calls “organized inorganic matter” to the development of the relation between life and thought, casting the psyche back, as it were, toward its origins in inorganic matter just as it is also cast forward into emergence of a new modality of existence, thinking being. Formulating the death drive, Freud writes: “If we are to take as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and, looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones.” But the coevolution of the human and of technics complicates the commonality of all life by intervening a division of living beings attendant upon the emergence, within the history of life, of the strange creature that we are, the human animal. Technics casts life at once ahead of and behind itself—this is the substance of Stiegler’s argument defining technics as the essence of Dasein.

    In Lacanian terms, the strangeness of the human animal, as speaking being, or parle-être, is that insofar as we are animals we should simply be living beings, situated at the level of the imaginary. Insofar as we are thinking beings and speaking beings, we should be situated on the level of the symbolic. And the problem is we cannot simply be both living and thinking beings as if these could enter into harmony with one another, as if the relation between life and thought did not occasion a certain dissonance, discomfiture, and indeed the infinite ungrounding of the propriety of either life or thought that is called the unconscious. And this ungrounding is thus constitutively related to technics, as that which intervenes within life as its exteriorization, producing an exteriority of thought to life in the very instance of its genesis. Technics is situated in the position of the real. And that is precisely the site of the “strange bond between rationalism and empiricism,” between reason and experience, the symbolic and the imaginary.

    This is why I think Tracy’s suggestion that the fetish comes to occupy this place as what she calls “a technology of exteriorization” is quite precise, and having read Tracy’s work on libertinism and the relation between philosophical rationalism and Deleuze’s book on masochism, it is fascinating to see that work intersect with my own project in this way, while also modifying it—particularly through Tracy’s claim that disavowal might be positioned as a bond not only between pleasure and pain but also rationalism and empiricism.

    More briefly, let me try to reply to Tracy’s three questions as directly as possible.

    1) What is the place of Freud and psychoanalysis with respect to rationalist empiricism? This is a question I would have loved to take up in the book and had to leave aside, though I would like to take it up in the future. For now, I can say that psychoanalysis, like historical materialism, seems to me a perfect example of the kind of disjunctive relation between reason and experience I try to theorize. Consider the fact that Lacan constantly refers, on the one hand, to “our experience,” specifying analytic practice as a unique field of experience constituted by the relation between analyst and analysand. And on the other hand, Lacan can declare: “formalization—that is our goal, our ideal.” The collective pronoun “our” designates, in both cases, the collective dimension of the psychoanalytic movement, of the Freudian field, and the very essence of that movement is an unpredictable relation between theory and practice. Like Marxism, psychoanalysis requires the systematic articulation of concepts put in place by Freud and developed by Lacan (in particular) in order not to collapse into ego psychology. But the initial development of those concepts and their successive waves of revision also rely upon a constant shuttling back and forth between reason and experience, between the formalization of concepts, the pressure of analytic experience upon those analytic concepts, and the determination of the field of analytic experience itself by conceptual formalizations. Beyond the Pleasure Principle is, of course, a key text for thinking about this dialectic of theory and praxis. And it is particularly telling that it is really only analysts who can contribute to the revision of psychoanalytic theory. Of course, all kinds of theoretical contributions enter into the field of those revisions, but they are driven by the relay between theory and praxis that requires analytic experience as one of its poles.

    2) To what extent does the priority of auto-affection and the immediacy of experience apply to psychoanalysis? I would say not much. The primary value of Henry’s work, for me, is that he gives us an extremely rigorous philosophical definition of life. But psychoanalysis is bound up with the uncanny relation between the imaginary and the symbolic, and I don’t think that Lacan’s topology—which I view as essential to analytic theory—can be sustained by a theoretical construction like Henry’s. More broadly, any reference to the immediacy of experience as the ground of psychoanalytic practice obviously has to be submitted to serious critique, since the analytic practice of construction and the phenomenon of transference are essential to sustaining a Freudian orientation.

    3) What significance does Deleuze have to my project? Deleuze is an extremely important thinker for me, and the theory of the encounter developed in Difference and Repetition is crucial for my thinking about the rupture of experience understood as the synthesis of the past and the future. But Deleuze is a transcendental philosopher; what he calls “transcendental empiricism” involves the transformation of Kant’s theory of the conditions of all possible experience into a theory of the conditions of real experience. The construction of that theory is immensely complicated and I can’t possibly do it justice, but I can refer to the section of chapter 1 where I argue that Deleuze’s theory of “asymmetrical synthesis” produces a concept of disparity as sufficient reason, and of the Urground as a groundless ground that undoes the principle of non-contradiction. But it is precisely a non-transcendental, dialectical account of the relation between reason and experience that I’m interested in developing—after Hegel—and in the precise sense that the dialectic sustains the principle of non-contradiction through the movement of negation produced by contradictions.

Alexi Kukuljevic


The Foregoing of Ground

On Brown’s Speculative Critique

Rationalist Empiricism attests to the “lived practice” of what it means to philosophize. In a banal sense, this is perhaps true of every book of philosophy. However, this book sets itself apart by foregrounding the dissonance, the noise, that is all too often silenced as one’s “experience of the world enters into philosophical systematicity.”1 The book ends on a beautiful note in which we are left suspended between wonder and the uncanny: “How strange it is to be anything at all” (262). Rationalist empiricism is itself an effort to sustain the strangeness of being by attending to the force of philosophical estrangement that dissipates as one becomes comfortable with the conceptual machinery of a philosophical system. The book proposes to amplify the experience of discomfort by marshalling the gap between philosophical systems: between rationalism and empiricism, and, more fundamentally, between idealism and materialism. Rationalist empiricism is an operation of philosophical estrangement that highlights the requisite violence of the concept as a force of exteriorization that ruptures “the demands and standards of common sense.”2

As the young Hegel himself suggested in “Über das Wesen der philosophischen Kritik überhaupt” [On the Essence of Philosophical Critique As Such]:

Philosophy by its very nature is esoteric; for itself it is neither made for the masses nor is it susceptible of being cooked up for them. It is philosophy only because it goes exactly contrary to the understanding and thus even more so to “sound common sense,” the so-called healthy human understanding, which actually means the local and temporary vision of some limited generation of human beings. To that generation the world of philosophy is in and for itself a topsy-turvy world, an inverted world.3

Rationalist empiricism is an effort to forestall the naturalization of this inversion by unsettling “the methodological unity of the tradition” (30). By constructing a framework, what Brown terms “a strange topology” (35), in which incompatible systems enter into “communication,” the practice of thought itself comes to be defined by an internal disruption in which its own exteriority is encountered in and through the exceptions produced by an encounter with the outside. To come to terms with the world in which we live, it does not suffice to simply interpret the world through a particular philosophical system, for thinking occurs only at the seams of the systems themselves and the impossible place of the thinking subject summoned to sustain their dissonant relation. “What is the world that we pass through, at the crux of concept and experience, when we do so? Where is the extra-systematic space of philosophical reflection, or of thought, in which we think the compossibility or communication of philosophical systems? Where, and what, is the world we recompose as we do so?” (37). Such questions haunt the book as a whole and can only be sustained by a philosophical approach that shifts the problem of philosophy away from a desire for either methodological unity or systematicity in order to attend to what Brown calls “the methodological gap between rationalism and empiricism” (30).

This gap which is itself produced by the theoretical practice of rationalist empiricism is the concern of speculative critique. The production of this gap between systems enables the determination of a gap in the real that thwarts systematicity itself. Reason interrupts experience through conceptual determination but it is in turn interrupted by an encounter with that which is exterior both to thought and experience. This exteriority is neither empirical nor rational and can only be thought through the determination of what is non-empirical in the empirical (the rationalist empiricism of scientific practice) and what is non-rational in reason (the rationalist empiricism of philosophical practice). “Rationalist empiricism,” Brown writes, “is an orientation toward the outside of experience and the outside of thought, and it unfolds on the outside of method” (261). Philosophy is as Hegel insists esoteric by its very nature. But nothing less is required if one is to think, with Brown, the rationality of the real (Wirklich: of the actual) without positing that the real is rational. It is the theory of the interruption of speculative identity that is at issue in speculative critique.

For the rationalist empiricist, the real is without reason because it is absolutely contingent. The determination of the absolute restores reason’s speculative vocation but the speculative proposition thus generated necessitates division not unification. Contingency itself is doubtless the central concept of the book. It traverses Brown’s treatment of politics (“Adequate knowledge of capital is precisely knowledge of its historical contingency” [208]), the aesthetic (“to stumble upon a singular unity of matter, life, and thought, in the element of feeling, and to experience this feeling as the implicit inscription of a statement—‘This is beautiful’” [256]), science (“the qualitative particularity of experimental procedures remains ineradicable” [138]), and ontology. Brown argues that to think in the wake of finitude, following the work of Quentin Meillassoux, requires the reformulation of the problem of the ontological difference where the being of beings is thought as absolute contingency.

Rationalist Empiricism thus implies a critique of Kant’s critical effort, and by extension transcendental philosophy tout court, to save necessity from the contingent vicissitudes of the empirical. The book is in large part inspired by Meillassoux’s intervention whose philosophical practice, for Brown, is itself an exemplary model of the methodological unorthodoxy of rationalist empiricism. Whereas the reception of Meillassoux’s work has been determined by his critique of correlationism, Brown emphasizes that this critique by no means gives license to hawk the resurrection of metaphysics. On the contrary, Brown positions Meillassoux as the inheritor of Hegel’s immanent critique of Kant, Althusser’s immanent critique of Marx, and Heidegger’s immanent critique of Hegel. To borrow Deleuze’s formula for Nietzsche’s relation to Kant, we can say that for Brown Meillassoux’s critique of transcendental philosophy is the “realization” of the very project of immanent critique inaugurated by the Critique of Pure Reason. The import of Meillassoux for Brown lies in his “critique of the subordination of science to philosophy” (112) and by extension his critique of the problem of ground and the principle of sufficient reason. Reason need not limit its scope methodologically in advance, restricting itself to the field of possible experience, since the encounter with contingency of the actual engenders reason through the very act in which it determines its absolute necessity. The rationalist empiricist draws “the rational from the empirical” (23). Kant’s critical exit from the battleground of metaphysics leaps over the problem of contingency, the facticity of being. Rationalist empiricism returns to the battleground not in order to reinstall thought within the element of pre-critical naivete, but to restore Critique itself to the fundamental antagonism that engendered its image of thought.

Put differently, rationalist empiricism extracts the problem of critique from its Kantian, transcendental solution. To this purpose, Brown forcefully returns us to the primal scene of critical philosophy: to Kant’s encounter with the thought of that “acute man,” David Hume. By bringing the full pressure of the empiria to bear on the concept of causality—what Kant in the Prolegommena to Any Future Metaphysics terms the “crux metaphysicorum” (§29)—Hume exposes that the dream of metaphysics, i.e., the a priori determination of being, has indeed been nothing but a dream, a “dogmatic slumber.” By imperiling the concept of causal necessity, Hume’s problem of induction threatens the very edifice of reason itself, since it calls into question its very foundation, its fundamental ground. If metaphysics consists “wholly and completely” of a priori statements and the a priori has no relation to and thus no bearing on experience, then metaphysics and by extension science as such is merely fictious: a game that may operate with logical consistency but that is in principle untouched by the real and whose provenance owes more to the imagination, to what Hume terms fancy, than to the logos. The problem with dogmatism is not a matter of its inconsistency. A dogma may indeed be logically valid, fully compliant with the principle of non-contradiction, but nonetheless be without ground. Hume’s “problematic concept of cause” forces a rupture at the heart of metaphysics and thus of reason between the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of ground (first formulated explicitly by Leibniz). Kantian Critique is the registration of this event in thought. The principle of ground (der Satz vom Grund) also known as the principle of sufficient reason states that nothing is without reason (nihil est sine ratione). Empiricism precisely because it claims that something is without reason exposes a fundamental division within reason itself between the demand of logical consistency (logical grounds) and what Kant on one occasion termed the problem of “real ground”4 and what will become the problem of the a priori condition of possible experience. Hume exposes a gap in the logos itself between its operation and its meaning or sense. And it is this gap that Kantian Critique attempts to close by attempting to ground logical judgement. The practice of rationalist empiricism entails reopening this gap.

The issue is not a matter of becoming Humean, since Hume does not make of the problem of induction what he ought. But one can think what remains unthought in Hume by attending to the shudder it doubtless induced in the thought of Kant. To do so requires that we at once recognize that Kant thought what he thought he must in order to preserve the real ground of reason from the contingency of the empiria, while discerning that he need not have. Although undertaken in the name of science, the effort to render congruent scientific objectivity with perceptual objectivity, betrays a lingering commitment to sound common sense, to the healthy human understanding. This is perhaps most strikingly evident in Kant’s treatment of “The Synthesis of Reproduction in the Imagination” from A edition of “The Deduction of the Pure Concepts of the Understanding.” Kant argues that without a law proscribing the necessary connection between appearances the empirical imagination would be without rule and its very capacity for representation (Vorstellung) would be dead and unknown to us, a capacity buried and hidden in recess of the mind.

If cinnabar were now red, now black, now light, now heavy, if a human being were now changed into this animal shape, now into that one, if on the longest day the land were covered now with fruits, now with ice and snow, then my empirical imagination would never even get the opportunity to think of heavy cinnabar on the occasion of the representation of the color red; or if a certain word were attributed now to this thing, now to that, or if one and the same thing were sometimes called this, sometimes that, without the governance of a certain rule to which the appearances are already subjected in themselves, then no empirical synthesis of reproduction could take place.5

Such a situation seems to Kant unimaginable. If these are the consequences of a truly consistent empiricism, this is more than enough for Kant to render it dangerously absurd. Yet, thought need not take its guide from such human all too human imperatives. “That is, we do not have to think what Kant says we must think.” Brown writes, “In fact, there is no reason to think it” (27).

To think the fact that Kant “need not” have thought what he thought he must is to lodge contingency at the heart of thought and of its history; and thus to restore the import of Hume as the figure who forces reason to come to grips with the contingency not only of the objects of thought but of thought’s own occurrence. Reason is not thwarted by this encounter but engendered by the demand to think contingency. There is no reason to think it. If it so happens that it is thought, this itself is contingent. What is not contingent, according to Meillassoux and Brown, however, is contingency itself. Contingency is the sole necessity. Meillassoux terms this the principle of factiality. The principle is established on the basis of the peculiarity of this singular judgement. For to say that contingency is contingent is in fact to say the same thing as the assertion of its opposite: contingency is not contingent, which is to say, necessary. The obliteration of its sense is its sole sense. It asserts an indifference to its own negation. Interestingly, the negation does not call into question its identity but truly expresses it. It is the very thing it is not. Here we have a speculative proposition that is truly without ground, for it separates what it says (contingency is) from sense (contingency is not contingent) in its very saying (contingency is necessary). The determination of contingency absolves it from its sense. It is absolute and I am tempted to say, thinking with Brown, that it says its own non-sense. Meillassoux himself speaks of the impossibility of its sense being redoubled: “‘This non-redoubling reveals the origin of every necessary statement: a necessary statement has as its object not a being, but the contingency of beings’” (100).

Now the very fact that it has been thought does not entail the necessity of its having been thought. The determination of the necessity of contingency does not imply necessity of thinking. “‘The contingency of thought cannot depend upon the thought of contingency’” (103). To think it requires the exteriorization of what is thought—the necessity of contingency—from the contingent act of its being thought. Its necessity implies no necessity except that of its contingency. The in-itself that is here rationally determined, Brown stresses, does not imply that we can “think anything like appearance of the word as it would be without the phenomenal determinations of thinking and sensing beings. He claims that thinking the non-contingency of contingency forces a determination of the in-itself with no bearing whatsoever upon the appearance of the world or our existence within it: the very contingency of our own thought must be conceived as a determination of being and not only a determination thinking” (104). The given is thought as contingent only in the determining act that separates the given from any givenness. The in-itself, being, is non-manifest. Thinking is at once adequate to what is being thought—the being of beings—and this adequation includes the non-identity of being and thought. Being is not the ground of appearance. Nor is thought. Rather being is thought as the separation of being from sense, meaning. Thinking is the separation of being and appearance as Plato had proposed long ago. But what is thought as separate is becoming in itself, infinite because unconstrained by any law other than the necessity of the contingency of law as such.

Rationalist empiricism provides us a new image of what it means to overturn Platonism. It carries out this inversion of Plato through recasting Heidegger’s thought of the ontological difference. For Brown the question of being cannot, however, be posed in the manner Heidegger proposed: what is the meaning of being? What does being signify? Being thought as absolute contingency, “unsubordinated contingency,” does not make possible and hence ground meaning or sense of beings. Its event rather serves to separate being from all sense. Brown thus highlights a crucial tension in Heidegger’s Being and Time in which Heidegger determines the temporality of time not in terms of Dasein’s own ecstasis but as “the primordial “outside of itself” in and for itself.” I sadly cannot develop here the significance of Brown’s interpretation of Heidegger, the latter’s relation to Meillassoux, and their respective relations to Hegel. This is perhaps the most dense and rich part of an incredibly dense and rich book. However, I want to simply highlight that Brown here has marked in the fabric of Being and Time a certain exception that exceeds the limits of its framework and that forces us to call into question the very integrity of the book’s otherwise pristine methodological coherence. It is something that a thinker stumbles upon “as a punctual, a-successive rupture breaking with the existing order of succession, with the previous rule of succession” (119).

The question of the contingency or necessity of succession—Hume’s question—is, in my view, the fundamental question of Rationalist Empiricism: “Is there a reason the future should continue to resemble the past?” (52). The rationalist empiricist answers “No” and the book is an elegant and rigorous effort to dignify this negation. This negation is only dignified if it is not affirmed at the cost of onto-logy, i.e., at the cost of the logos. “Insofar as ontology is a rational discourse it is constrained, conditioned, by what has to be said of being. It cannot say just anything. And insofar as it is not a dogmatic discourse, but rather immanently critical, ontology has to unfold across the reflexive experience of what happens in thought” (89).

The book would itself be a farce if Brown himself did not say what he thought he must. And yet the reader cannot do justice to the book without registering what happened in the course of this thought and thus consigning it to its irreparable contingency. And it is a sign of the coherence of its methodological a-systematicity that Brown does not attempt a synthesis and thus to ground the relation between the contingency of thought’s historical occurrence and the ontological determination of the absolute. Only be leaving this gap open can Brown conceive of history as necessarily contingent and thus open to contestation. The book as a whole suggests that only by bringing the full force of reason to bear on the contingent are we able to see the truly contingent. And as the methodological reflections of the book make clear this is not to ensure that thought proceeds without stumbling. This is no discourse on method. Rather it hopes to provide a means of differentiating between a genuine trip and mere prat fall. The book ends with a certain encomium to Kant’s treatment of the beautiful and this is no doubt fitting. For it is here that Kant in his final effort to provide some ground for the unity of reason introduces perhaps his most stellar exception. A judgment whose singularity is defined by its very exception, by the exposure of reason to the rule of the contingent.

  1. Nathan Brown, Rationalist Empiricism: A Theory of Speculative Critique (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021), 37. Subsequent citations are parenthetical.

  2. The phrase is that of Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1982), 14.

  3. As cited by Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, 14.

  4. See Immanuel Kant, Attempt to Introduce Negative Magnitudes in Philosophy in Theoretical Philosophy, 1755–1770, translated and edited by David Walford, in collaboration with Ralf Meerbote (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  5. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), A100–101.

  • Nathan Brown

    Nathan Brown


    Response to Alexi Kukuljevic

    I’m grateful to Alexi Kukuljevic for a very insightful reading of my book, which allows me to address a key question: how does my reading of the history of philosophy and the relation between philosophical systems motivate my engagement with the philosophical problem of the relation between contingency and necessity?

    When we situate ourselves in relation to the history of philosophy, we inevitably do so through the mediation of the proper name. If this is inescapable, it is also unfortunate insofar as it tends to obscure the more fundamental dimension of philosophical problems that traverse and are transformed by the philosophical systems of particular thinkers, and that create those systems as much as they are produced by their authors. If I distinguish between being and beings in terms of the ontological difference, this may be described as a “Heideggerian” position, as if the thinking of the ontological difference were reducible to allegiance to a particular thinker, and as if “Heidegger” were unambiguously the agent of the thinking that bears his name. The self-evidence of such common sense is exactly what philosophy should undo—and has in fact undone. Even if we can hardly avoid reference to proper names, the point of philosophical labor is not to terminate its unfolding by endorsing once and for all a system sutured to a proper name, but rather to grasp the movement of thought as it passes through the development of conceptual problems, to clarify and elaborate the stakes of that movement in our own time so as to understand its contours and grapple with its unrealized potential.

    Kant’s Proustian testimony suggests the involuntary nature of philosophical interpellation: “I openly confess that my remembering of David Hume was the very thing which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a quite new direction.” Kant describes that new direction as “the working out of Hume’s problem in its widest extent (namely, my Critique of Pure Reason).” This is as much as to say that Hume’s problem not only awakens Kant but also works itself out through him, as his book, as the theory of synthetic a priori judgments and the deduction of those categories which condition all possible experience. The remembrance of Hume’s problem awakens Kant, like a disturbing dream or a bump in the night, and the working out of that problem becomes the substance of his waking labor. It is interiorized and then possessed as “my” Critique of Pure Reason, such that Kant can say, “as soon as I had succeeded in solving Hume’s problem . . . I could proceed safely, though slowly, to determine the whole sphere of pure reason completely and from universal principles, in its boundaries as well as its contents.” Hume’s problem takes possession of Kant, yet the solution to that problem is Kant’s own. This inversion, taking possession of the alterity of the problem by solving it, enables him to philosophize in his own name. Kant is the name of this inversion.

    Yet at the end of his critical labor, in the Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgment, Hume’s problem returns as if it did not quite recognize itself in Kant’s solution, or as if that solution were itself a kind of sleep—indeed, I would say, a forgetting of being—from which the problem was just now reawakening. Here Kant argues that, in addition to the universal laws of nature determined by the categories, we must think a unified order of particular laws of nature beyond the determinations of the understanding, and that we must think these laws as necessary, even if we can never cognize them as such. For Kant, the necessary unity and harmony of laws beyond the determinations of the understanding is a merely reflective judgment, a subjective principle, through which we must proceed in reflections on the objects of nature. He writes,

    The understanding is of course in possession a priori of universal laws of nature, without which nature could not be an object of experience at all; but still it requires in addition a certain order of nature in its particular laws, which can only be known to it empirically and which from its point of view are contingent. These rules, without which there would be no progress from the general analogy of a possible experience in general to the particular, it must think as laws (i.e., as necessary), because otherwise they would not constitute an order of nature, even though it does not and never can cognize their necessity.

    The deduction of the categories of the understanding was supposed to solve Hume’s problem by providing universal conditions of possible experience (e.g., the concept of causality), to which any and all objects of experience must conform. But here we see that, in addition to such universal conditions, we must also assume the necessary unity of particular laws that make such conformity possible, from the general to the particular, since otherwise there could be no order of nature.

    Kant presents this as the deduction of a subjective principle, but it is in fact a disguised induction: since there has been an order of nature, we must think the necessity of such rules in order for there to be an order of nature. But this is flagrantly question-begging with respect to Hume’s problem, which demands to know: by what right do we infer that the order of nature which has persisted in the past will continue to persist in the future? What is it that allows us to infer the continuity of an order of nature between the past and the future? In response to this question—the question posed by Hume’s problem—Kant concludes his critical system by announcing a reflective principle amounting to a specimen of subjective dogmatism: we must think on the necessity of particular laws of nature beyond the determining power of our faculties because that is necessary for there to be an order of nature. But it was exactly the justification for such a principle that Hume had asked after in the first place.

    What interests me here is not any supposed “failure” of Kant’s critical system. Just as the remembrance of Hume gave Kant’s investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a quite new direction, Kant reroutes the trajectory of modern philosophy in a manner that clarifies every major problem in the philosophical field. The evidence of this is that he remains the single most importance point of reference for such different thinkers as Hegel, Heidegger, and Deleuze. Thus it is all the more significant that Quentin Meillassoux, in the wake of all these thinkers, should recognize that “Hume’s problem” remains the name of that reconfiguration of modern philosophy, a fact affirmed by Kant himself in his own description of his project as “the working out of Hume’s problem in its widest extent (namely, my Critique of Pure Reason).” Meillassoux’s insight is that Kant’s solution does not address Hume’s problem “in its widest extent,” since Kant assumes (as did Hume) that we must think the necessity of particular natural laws. It is Badiou’s critique of the concept of the concept of nature itself—through transfinite set theory—that enables Meillassoux to reopen Hume’s problem by refuting its probabilistic resolution, and by thereby demonstrating that we do not have to think the necessity of natural laws in order to understand that there may be an order of nature without such necessity—yet an order which is indeed exposed to the contingency of becoming. In his doctoral dissertation, Meillassoux’s precise question is whether we must think a becoming of laws in excess of the laws of becoming. His complex argument for the absolute status of contingency amounts to an argument for the absolute status becoming: the stability of the laws of becoming is subject to a becoming of laws. Thus he delivers a subtractive concept of the ontological difference. Beings are contingent, the being of beings (which is not itself a being) is the necessity of contingency. Contingency is ontic; the necessity of contingency is ontological. Meillassoux shows us what we do not have to think: that the laws of nature must be thought as necessary. And he shows us what we do have to think: that the contingency of beings must be thought as necessary, that there cannot be a necessary being, that contingency itself cannot be thought as contingent.

    To position this as a thinking of the ontological difference—as Meillassoux does in his dissertation—is to suture Badiou’s transfinite deconstitution of the whole (of “nature”) with Heidegger’s thinking of being-qua-being as the pure exteriority of time, of temporality as “the primordial ‘outside of itself,’ in and for itself.” The excess of becoming over the laws of becoming is the concept of the pure exteriority of time: a time of becoming unsubordinated to any given order of being, and a time exterior to the lawlike synthesis of phenomenal presentation. Returning to Heidegger’s thinking of the ontological difference through Badiou’s deconstitution of the whole, Meillassoux turns his concept of the unsubordinated contingency of absolute time against Hegel’s double annulment of time at the end of the Phenomenology and the Logic—an annulment which depends, Meillassoux argues, on the alignment of the true with the whole. Moreover, through this complex operation upon and within the history of philosophy, Meillassoux returns us to the source of the problem of becoming in pre-Socratic thought. While Heraclitus thinks the eternal laws of becoming, becoming as diké, it is Anaximander who thinks the concept of becoming as “without law,” as “an adikia from which nothing that is escapes.”

    I cannot do justice to the density of these conceptual relationships in this brief exposition. But what I am trying to draw out is the transformation of a philosophical problem by the complex determinations of the history of philosophy—which one could trace in far greater detail with more time (for example, through Althusser’s underground current of the materialism of the encounter, or through the importance of Jean-René Vernes’s work for Meillassoux’s relation to both Descartes and Hume). We do not choose how to orient ourselves in thinking. That orientation is itself produced through encounters with mentors, with friends, and with a history of philosophy that is learned neither all at once nor in sequential order. Insofar as we are attuned to philosophy at all, we are captured by problems, possessed by questions, awoken by that which disturbs the dream of subjective autonomy, by that which suddenly illuminates the benighted slumber of self-sufficiency. Kant remembers Hume; his remembrance of Hume befalls him and gives his investigations quite a new direction. And Meillassoux can revive that problem, can show that it still agitates contemporary philosophy, because of Badiou’s demonstration of the ontological significance of transfinite mathematics. And this demonstration can then be turned back upon Heidegger, upon Hegel, upon Kant, upon Heraclitus and Anaximander in a manner both in keeping and quite at odds with the direction of Badiou’s own thought.

    For my part, as I write in the introduction of my book, it was my obsession as a student with the problem of the induction and its relation to the theory of primary qualities that attuned me to the questions I would later encounter in After Finitude, and that would lead me to try to theorize the disjunctive relation between rationalism and empiricism reopened by critiques of phenomenology and transcendental philosophy stemming from philosophical circles in which I found myself situated. Any such formation, which every thinker must undergo, involves a complex relation between what has to be said of what happens in thought: a dialectical determination of the relation between rational constraint and empirical circumstance. The task and the chance of philosophy, as I understand it, is to awaken to the imperatives of that determination, to take seriously the problems it imposes, and to navigate their contours without giving way on either the risks or speculation or the rigors of critique.