A Brief History of the Real, or, Laruelle’s Niche: Ontological Reification

[Note: After actually reading Laruelle, I disavow everything written in this post. It completely misses Laruelle’s point, and I’m only leaving this post up to let it serve as a bad example.]

The responses by An Und Für Sich to Graham Harman’s review of Laruelle have reminded me of an old argument I had against his ‘Non-Philosophy’. My argument centres around a single aspect of Non-Philosophy―namely, the notion of ‘The One’―largely because my exposure to Laruelle has been limited to Anthony Paul Smith’s “Introduction to Non-Philosophy” (notes) and Alexander Galloway’s “François Laruelle, or The Secret.” Nevertheless, I feel that it adequately situates Laruelle within the tradition of Continental philosophy; to make it more accessible, however, I will preface it with in-depth background information.

In his Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume shows that there is no necessary connection between cause & effect, and that causal relations are merely supposed by humans, despite a complete lack of logical necessity: real life is just a bundle of unrelated perceptions that we presume to have order because of their regularity, even though such a presumption is illogical. In order to combat this, Immanuel Kant devised the notion of categories which are inherent (a priori) in the human mind and are imposed upon objects so that the mind can comprehend them (one such category being causality). Kant thus divides the world into phenomena (ostensible sensory impressions & ideas mediated by categories) and noumena (the ineffable thing that lies beyond categories). From the former division, the school of thought known as Phenomenology arose, which focused all of its thought on phenomena only. As for noumena, the definition was extended by Hegel (who emphasized that the noumenon can at times be known), and later adopted by the French Structuralists and renamed the Real―in Barthes’ definition (following Hegel), “that which is proved but not demonstrated.” (To illustrate, theoretical physics contains many theories that do not at all square with everyday perception, but they are nevertheless proven, hence they comprise part of the Real.) The Real is to be contrasted with reality, or “that which is demonstrated but not proved.” (Everyday perception, for example, cannot be ‘proved’.)

The interesting thing about Structuralism is that it takes account of ‘breaches’ of the Real into reality. Lacan’s notion of jouissance is an example of this. In its most basic manifestation, jouissance occurs when pleasure becomes so intense that it becomes painful: there is not a shift across the spectrum from pleasure to pain, but rather, jouissance is simultaneously pleasure and pain. (One need not be explicit in order to illustrate this; tickling provides a fine example.) The French word is usually left untranslated due to its numerous connotations which cannot be captured in English, but the best English approximation might be ‘ecstasy’. According to Lacan, jouissance also occurs when the Real makes itself manifest to an individual, as is the case with horror and the sublime (something which is so intense that it overcomes the limits of the mental faculties, e.g. a mountain).

Numerous theorists have, however, rejected Kant’s division between phenomena & noumena, two of the most vociferous examples being Nietzsche & Heidegger. They feel, in short, that manifest reality is not merely a categorically constructed illusion, but really exists in and of itself. To think otherwise, they say, is both illusory and dangerous, since such thinking leads to life-denying behaviour, or askesis (also: asceticism). Those thinkers who reject Kant have developed creative and intricate systems to account for the problems which Kant showed (or thought he showed) were due to ‘holes’ in logic caused by overlapping categories, and which Kant sidestepped via the noumena.

Picasso - Violin
Kant’s philosophy is hardly without its problems, however. One of the problems which he was able to sidestep was infinite divisibility: theoretically, we should be able to divide an object forever, but this is absurd; the other option is that there is some ‘simple substance’ that cannot be divided, but this is also absurd. Quantum physics makes a science out of this question, however, and it concludes that at its smallest, matter is merely composed of energy; some may take this as a demonstration of Kant’s correctness, but such people, it must be said, are pushing their luck. Similarly, as the reader will recall, Kant posited causality as an innate category in order to combat Hume’s proof that causal relations cannot be externally demonstrated. In quantum physics, however, events occur which have no cause; as well, not-yet-created particles are somehow able to borrow energy from the future in order to create themselves; neither of these facts can be accounted for merely by Kantian categories. In fact, the child psychologist Jean Piaget has shown that infants are not born with an innate (a priori) sense of causality, but that they acquire it in time. Another problem is that Kant posits Euclidean space as a priori (innate), but exotic tribes have been discovered by anthropologists which perceive in Non-Euclidean space; it is impossible to perceive in both Euclidean and Non-Euclidean space at once, yet both are equally valid (i.e., each can solve problems that the other can’t solve, while each is not able to solve problems that the other can solve). Thus, although Kant’s categories are appealing due to their comparative simplicity, they cannot account for all of reality, and must at the very least be extensively modified, if not abandoned entirely.

Laruelle is one of those thinkers who rejects Kantian categories, and hence the division between reality and the Real. He reconciles the two via what he calls ‘The One’. The One (which Laruelle equates with the Real) underlies The Duality (i.e. the binary), and governs The Duality via ‘Determination-in-the-Last-Instance’ (an idea taken from Marx: just as, in the last instance, social relations are governed by the economic factors of production, so in Laruelle, there may seem to be more important causal relations governing things, but in the end, all causality is governed by The One). The One should not be opposed to the Duality, then, since The One is simultaneously itself and The Duality, hence Laruelle is a monist (see fig. 1 below). The problem with monism (as opposed to pluralism―multiplicity), says Kant, is that it reflects an inherent human desire to reduce all things to one underlying substance. Kant utilizes the example of the discovery of acids & bases, and all the efforts that were made to try and find an underlying unification if the two, all of which proved futile. In a similar vein, the structural(ist) anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed that all humans in all societies have a tendency to think in terms of binary oppositions, e.g. black/white, dead/alive, good/evil. Because of this universality, Lévi-Strauss hypothesizes that the tendency toward binary thought is inherent in the human mind. In reaction to this, Poststructuralist theorists make an express effort not to think in binary opposites (by thinking in terms of a spectrum, groups of three, etc.), because as a category of thought, binary thinking contributes to the distortion of the Real.

Two diagrams by Alexander Galloway to help illustrate Laruelle’s thought

The problem about rejecting Kantian categories, however, is that these innate tendencies of thought must be ascribed to the nature of reality itself, i.e. ontologically reified. Because Laruelle rejects the notion of categories, and because humans have a tendency to look for a single substance which underlies everything, there must be something in the nature of reality that demands that we look for monism, hence there really is a ‘One’. Taking this anti-Kantian logic to its extreme in terms of binary thinking, the only thinker of whom I am aware of doing this is Maxwell Kennel, an undergraduate philosopher/blogger who is currently writing a lengthy treatise on binary metaphysics and the ‘supreme category of the binary’. Taking in mind the above, however, it is evident that Kennell cannot reconcile the notion of categories (at least in the Kantian sense) with his reification of the binary: at worst, his work is riddled with a constitutive contradiction; at best, he ought to use a different word for the metaphysical status of binary thought.

Similarly to Euclidean & Non-Euclidean geometry, then, Kantian and non-Kantian philosophy are each able to solve problems that the other can’t solve, while each cannot solve some problems that the other can solve. Contra non-Kantian philosophy, how does it account for jouissance? How does it account for horror and the sublime, including optical illusions? And, most emblematic of the Real (again, that which is proved but not demonstrated), how are mathematics & logic valid in reality? (Kant answers the latter question thus: because the mind imposes categories upon the real, when humans perform mathematical equations in their heads, they are merely re-enacting the a priori processes that their minds have already unconsciously imposed on reality.) At any rate, from what the author has heard of Laruelle, he is one of the most intelligent philosophers of our time, and has no doubt expended quite a bit of effort thinking about the previous questions. Perhaps he will allow us to break out of our dogmatic Kantian slumber.

My own disagreement with Laruelle lies in another Hegelian notion which has been incorporated into Poststructuralist methodology, namely, distrust of the validity of language & logic. The most clear explanation I have found for this can be found in the book Kierkegaard for Beginners (pg. 91):

Hegel had claimed to have discovered an error in the traditional logic that had been set forth in the third century B.C. by Aristotle. According to Hegel, Aristotle’s LAW OF IDENTITY (A=A), his LAW OF NON-CONTRADICTION (not both A and not-A) and the LAW OF THE EXCLUDED MIDDLE (either A or not-A) had all misconstrued reality. The implication of these laws, Hegel said, was that everything in reality was static and black & white. To the contrary, according to him, reality was in flux and consisted of constantly changing hues of gray. Hegel wanted to replace traditional Aristotelian logic with a new dialectical logic according to which the traditional laws of logic were subverted. The Principle of Identity was wrong because everything was always more than itself. The Principle of Non-Contradiction was wrong because everything is both itself and not itself. The Principle of the Excluded Middle was also wrong; Hegel replaces that “either/or” with a “both/and,” thereby allowing a multiplicity of possibilities that were excluded by Aristotelian logic.

This distrust of human cognition led Hegel to place his trust in the data of the natural sciences, i.e. empirical evidence (which Hegel tried his best to cognize without the use of formal logic) rather than metaphysics, the investigation of the nature of reality via the use of reason. The facts of science were taken by Hegel as ‘ultimate givens’, or that which cannot be reduced to any deeper narrative/set of principles (e.g. logical necessity), excepting that of science itself. The problem with non-Kantian philosophy is that it very highly esteems the ability of humans to cognize the Real―i.e. it encourages metaphysics. It may be said that non-Kantian philosophy is guilty of what Derrida calls ‘logocentrism’―overestimating logic―though Derrida himself, as far as I know, shows little receptivity to science. I am fully in favor of those philosophers (e.g. Deleuze, DeLanda, Serres) who make an effort to investigate the implications of contemporary scientific discoveries for the nature of reality (and the way that obsolete, yet ‘commonsensical’ thinking distorts it), but even such relatively ‘simple’ discoveries as that of ultraviolet colors or sound frequencies beyond the range of human hearing show that human faculties have their limits. In short, I accept a Hayekian epistemological view that to expect as much as non-Kantians do from metaphysics is a pretense of knowledge.



  • The philosopher David Hume showed that there is no necessary link between cause & effect.
  • To combat this, Immanuel Kant proposed that the human mind imposes categories upon the real in order to comprehend it, causality being one such category.
  • In this view, however, there is something that lies beyond all categories which cannot be understood by the human mind―the noumenon.
  • The French Structuralists, following Hegel, viewed noumena (which the former referred to as ‘the Real’) as “that which is proved but not demonstrated,” e.g. theoretical physics which do not square with everyday perception. Everyday perception (which Kant called phenomena), conversely, is referred to as ‘reality’, or “that which is demonstrated but not proved.”
  • The structuralists noted that all humans have a tendency to think in terms of binary oppositions (e.g. black/white, dead/alive, good/evil). They inferred that there is an innate mechanism in the human mind that predisposes people to think this way, distorting the Real into a manageable reality. Poststructuralist philosophers made an effort not to think in binaries, because they felt that this made their thought more closely approximate the Real.
  • Thinkers such as Nietzsche & Heidegger disagreed with the split between noumena & phenomena; they said that trying to find something ‘more real than reality’ leads to life-denying behaviour. There are also numerous philosophical problems with Kantian categories, revealed by discoveries in geometry, theoretical physics, & child psychology.
  • Hence, there is are numerous philosophers who reject Kant, and develop intricate systems to explain problems that were simple for Kant to solve (e.g. how can math that we do in our minds match external reality?). However, Kantian & non-Kantian philosophy are each able to solve problems that the other can’t solve, while each cannot solve some problems that the other can solve
  • François Laruelle is a contemporary philosopher who rejects Kantian categories. He is a monist, which means he believes that everything is determined by what he calls ‘The One’.
  • Kant noted that there is an innate human tendency to try to reduce things to a single underlying substance (monism), similar to the way that there is an innate human tendency to think of things in binaries.
  • If one rejects Kantian categories (in which monistic & binary thinking are included), one must try to find the reasons for these tendencies of thought within the nature of reality.
  • Hence, Laruelle finds his niche in trying to find ‘the One’ within the nature of reality. Similarly, a young philosopher named Maxwell Kennel has found a niche for himself by trying to find that binaries are contained within the nature of reality.
  • So far it is undecided whether it would be better to refine Kantianism or to abandon it entirely. Nonetheless, Laruelle seems to be one of the most likely candidates for developing a rigorous non-Kantian philosophy that can solve the problems that other non-Kantian philosophies hitherto could not.
  • Many poststructuralists distrust the validity of logic & language. They view these as a limit to thought as opposed to a necessary tool of thought.
  • If this is the case, then the value of empirical data (e.g. that provided by science) becomes supreme. One of the main purposes of philosophy becomes integrating revolutionary scientific discoveries into mainstream ways of perceiving reality.
  • The non-Kantians, in my opinion, expect too much from human reason, which scientific discoveries (such as the discovery of ultraviolet colors that the human eye cannot see) have proven to be grossly limited.


Selected Bibliography

  • Barthes, R.; Miller, R. (trans.). (1975). The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill & Wang.
  • Galloway, A. “François Laruelle, or The Secret”. cultureandcommunication.org.
  • Hegel, G.W.F.; Miller, A.V. (trans.). (1977). Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hume, D.; Selby-Bigge, L.A. (Ed.). (1960). Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. London: Oxford University Press
  • Kant, I.; Guyer, P. & Wood, A. (trans.). (1998). Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lacan, J.; Macey, D. (trans.). (2008). My Teaching. New York: Verso.
  • Lévi-Strauss, C. (2001 [1978]). Myth & Meaning. New York: Routledge Classics.
  • Lévi-Strauss, C. (1952). Race & History. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, & Cultural Organization
  • Lévi-Strauss, C.; Paul, S. & Paul, R. (trans.). (1967). The Scope of Anthropology. London: Jonathan Cape.
  • McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Nietzsche, F.; Zimmern, H. (trans.). (1997). Beyond Good & Evil. New York: Courier Dove Publications.
  • Nietzsche, F.; Levy, O. (Ed.). Common, T. (trans.). (1910). The Joyful Wisdom. New York: MacMillan.
  • Nietzsche, F.; Clive, G. (Ed.). Levy, O. (trans.). (1965). The Philosophy of Nietzsche. New York: Mentor.
  • Nietzsche, F.; Ludovici, A. (trans.). (2008). The Twilight of the Idols: Or, How To Philosophize With a Hammer. New York: Barnes & Noble.
  • Palmer, D. (1996). Kierkegaard For Beginners. New York: Writers & Readers Publishing.
  • Smith, A.P. “Introduction to Non-Philosophy”. presented at The University of Nottingham (10.03.05).
  • Stromberg, R. (1986). European Intellectual History Since 1789, 4th Ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall
  • Sullivan, E. (1967). Piaget & The School Curriculum: A Critical Appraisal. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
  • Žižek, S. (1996). How To Read Lacan. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

**Note: When I say ‘poststructuralist’ in the context of this essay, I refer to those exponents of philosophy who incorporate new elements into structuralism (e.g. the diachronic, the mutable) in order to make structuralist methodology more expansive & rigorous, while retaining the modified Kantian distinction between Real (an extended notion of the noumena) and reality (phenomena). Credit to Complete Lies for this idea.


About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on August 23, 2011, in History, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Review, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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