Adrian Johnston: A Godless Discipline

Apart from clinical practice, what makes psychoanalysis, at the most foundational theoretical level, a Godless discipline?

Adrian Johnston, Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism

Yet it is not true that everything is packed solid and confined on every side by corporeal substance; for there is void in things.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

Atheism is the bread and butter of all materialisms. Anti-Platonic it will have no truck with either gods or Ideas, or any other transcendent entity no matter what. Yet, its greatest enemy is the false materialist, the one who would soften the blow of the atheistic stance by “passing off idealist notions as materialist concepts”.(13)1 This is not your pie-in-the-sky type of philosophy, fully fleshed out it is agonistic, virulent, rude, and seeks to weed out its enemies conceptual foundations wherever it finds them. It’s enemy is religions everywhere, no matter what guise they take. And, yet, it was Lacan himself, Adrian Johnston reminds us, who asserted “that materialism usually hovering around and informing the natural sciences – the naturalism espoused during the eighteenth century arguably continues to serve, more often than not, as … the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists – represents a disguised body of religious belief” (15).

How could such a state of affairs come about? Were not these early pioneers of materialist philosophy avid atheists and haters of religious chains? Yes and no. Yes, they disavowed God, spirituality, Catholicism, Protestantism, etc.  yet in its place they enthroned another entity – a substitute God: they made Matter itself into God. With Spinozism we remove one God for another: Matter as Nature would rule from now on. As Johnston in his reading of Lacan surmises in this new materialism of the Enlightenment  “[m]aterial being becomes something eternal, indestructible, and omnipotent”(15). Johnston commenting on Lacan’s critique of these early materialisms, continues, saying:

Lacan views the Sadian flux of nature, with its intense processes of becoming, as the basis for a monotheism-in-bad-faith resting on foundations not so different from those of the enshrined religions spurned by the ostensibly atheist literature. (15)

Ultimately in this new cosmos Nature is divinized. As Johnston comments: “God is far from dead so long as nature is reduced to being the receptacle for and receiver of his attributes and powers” (16). There is this sense that even the natural sciences that emerged during this early age and up to our time are steeped in this mythology of Nature. These natural sciences tend to accept without question “the nonempirical supposition of the ultimate cohesion the material universe as a self-consistent One-All” (16). Just here lies the “hidden theosophical nucleus”  at the core of the natural sciences we now term ‘scientism’.

Here is the dividing line of so much current philosophy and its rejection of the biological sciences in favor of mathematic formalism. Because of this distrust of scientism and the religiosity of a hidden Spinozistic God at the heart of these purported naturalistic sciences many of our contemporary philosophers have been wary of incorporating them into their philosophical stances. Johnston sees this as a mistake and seeks rectification within his own philosophical stance by reincorporating these life sciences purged of their hidden religiosity.

Against this enlarged Nature with matter enthroned as the new god Johnston proposes an alternative. He seeks a “new, fully secularized materialism” one that will be linked to the notion of “nature as the self-shattering, internally conflicted existence of a detotalized material immanence” (20). Yet, to do this we must first get our atheism right. Johnston in his quest to pin down Lacan on atheism finds three specific junctures in his career that shed light on atheism in its modern form. The first instance toward a definition comes Johnston tells us in 1963 session of the tenth seminar in which Lacan describing the power over the obsessional neurotics life by a belief in the “universal eye” – “of a virtual, godlike observer of their existences” (22). It is at this point in his seminar that Lacan states that “such is the true dimension of atheism. An atheist would be someone who has succeeded at eliminating the fantasy of the All-Powerful.”(22)

Johnston commenting on this states that Lacanian analysis can be seen as a form of “psychoanalytical ascesis” in which atheism becomes the outcome of the analytic treatment. Put briefly “traversing the fantasy of an omnipotent and omniscient big Other, whether this Other be conceived of as God, Nature, the analyst, or whatever, is an unavoidable rite of passage in concluding moments of an analysis seen through to a fitting end”(22).

The second instance comes in the sixteenth seminar purports that an atheist is one who has put into question the category of sujet supposé savoir (“subject supposed to know“). As Johnston comments: “Without letting fall and enduring the dissipation of the position of the subject supposed to know, one remains, according to Lacan, mired in idealism and theology; he equates belief in an Other-subject with belief in God”(22).

The last instance comes in the seventeenth seminar where Lacan without reservation asserts that “the pinnacle of psychoanalysis is well and truly atheism”(22-23). The change from the early to the late seminar Johnston tells us is one of tone and stance, an authoritative voice that is adamant and defiant rather than placating, one in which the “apex of the analytic experience” is seen as just this acceptance of atheism.


We must recognize that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity. (DK22B80)

War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen. (DK22B53)

– Heraclitus

“The big Other does not exist.” One wants to bronze this statement and peg it just above one’s study so that all that enter will know just where you stand. Yet, as Adrian Johnston tells us, one must supplement this statement from Lacan with another thesis: “in the absence of every version of this Other, what remains lacks any guarantee of consistency right down to the bedrock of ontological fundaments. Strife, potential or actual, reigns supreme as a negativity permeating the layers and strata of material being”(23).

I am always a little wary when older forms, metaphors, figures from another age strike up like “strife” hung out as foundational notions. One has to ask the proverbial question: Is there a god hiding behind this apparent concept? What is Strife? Shall we go back to Heraclitus? Are we swinging between the gongs of strife and necessity? Johnston in earnest tells us that it is this “positing of conflict as ubiquitous and primary” that makes psychoanalysis a Godless discipline. At the core of this discipline is the view of nature not as a big Other, but as the site of antagonisms and oppositions, nature as divided by “conflicts rendering it a fragmented, not-whole non-One,” which constitutes the central core of psychoanalysis as a metapsychology enforced by a merciless desacralization.(24)

another post to come dealing with this conflictual ontology in the making….


1. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)

1. The Tracery of a Pattern

11 thoughts on “Adrian Johnston: A Godless Discipline

  1. A couple critical points of note: It’s more than a little telling, I think, that Johnston doesn’t take the time to consider how these quasi-religious materialisms would level the very same charge against him!

    The ‘criteria’ he adduces are horribly vague to say the least. Aside from the associative assonance between ‘monotheism’ and ‘monism’ I can’t find anything that actually *warrants* the assertion that monistic materialisms are cryptotheology. On the contrary, the ‘gap’ he keeps referring to pretty clearly parallels negative theology in a number of respects, not the least of which, the way it provides a stage for rationalizing our magical emergence as something Other than mere nature.

    ‘Subjectivity’ is bandied about quite abit, but other than this, Johnston doesn’t seem to have any firm grasp on INTENTIONALITY, which is the far bigger, and far more problematic theoretical bone any ‘adequate materialism’ needs to gnaw on.

    And I hate to say it, but leaning on Malabou the way he does (even raving about her) doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. I’m really finding it difficult to understand why Continental theorists think *indeterminacy* provides any of the apologetic ontological goods they’re striving for – as opposed to more problems. How does indeterminism contravene mechanism? How does it serve intentionality? Both of these are assumed without argument, and yet, they just make them sound naive. Noise has systematic consequences that many biological systems have adapted to exploit. Natural selection is the mechanism par excellance in this regard. It’s hard not to suspect that Johnston is using a strawman conception of mechanism as his foil. He thinks indeterminacy undermines mechanism when it actually serves it, and that it licenses the possibility of subjectivity when it actually makes it even more difficult to understand.

    The problem (as Brassier once saw) is IRREFLEXIVITY, not determinism.


    • What’s interesting and to the point is that you come out of differing traditions than Continental thought, even if you might have read deeply in it, and as you say those like Johnston seem so close to those traditions that they forget that certain loaded terms like monism etc. need more explication and delineation that the cursory nod they seem to get.

      Yes, terms like Subjectivity are taken for granted rather than to be seen as problematical in their own right, although Lacan, Badiou, Ziezek, and Meillossoux have each written extensively on their own takes concerning this term and its present use in their philosophical perspectives.

      I can see that instead of a fair reading of his work you, too, have already come loaded with assumptions about his work (i.e., your acknowledgement of his association with Malabou, which he admits too in previous works with her – which by the way he critiques and disagrees with amicably). He also has a recent work Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience which might shed further grist for you mill. Johnston is doing no more in this first work than acknowledging a set of contemporary masters that he has found worthy to confront, and then discovering a path forward for himself in seeing just where they went wrong and how their blindness might add insight to his own project.

      Either way you always seem to look for the worst, for confirmation of your own stance rather than giving a fair reading of others work you come laden with your own philosophical and/or scientific prejudices.

      Brassier for me is a ‘thinker’s thinker’ a very acute student of that ancient art, and takes his time in carefully sifting through the specific traditions he deals with then diagnoses their troubled aspects with firm logic. I, too, await his new book which seems to move toward aspects of the Analytical and post Analytical thought having affirmed aspects of Wilfred Sellers program. Having moved from his early nihilistic virulence toward a more sober thought I wonder where it will tend in his future work.

      What I keep looking for is a philosopher to yank up the sciences by the bootstrap and actually use some of the knowledge base to transform the whole network of outmoded metaphors and metonyms that seem to bind philosophy to an outmoded formalism. Johnston as you state seems to be bound to older forms of thinking and traditions, and has yet to break free of this and found new metaphors for our late age. We will wait to see what he does in his other volumes of course, but I can see that this conflict ontology shifts the ground from the formalism of mathamatics to the life sciences.

      By the way, what recent books do you see as the five most important works on neuroscience in your estimation worth investigating?

      I have my own questions but as a commentator I intersperse them only here and there in the marginalia of my own private discourse. Not being a philosopher I can fit that other mode of commentary with at least some modicum of neutrality. lol


  2. As I’ve said to you before, Stephen, if you think any interpretation of mine lacks charity then I’m more than willing to listen to your alternative. The last thing I want to do is waste my time assassinating strawmen. But short of providing such counter-interpretations, it’s hard to see your charge as anything more than rhetorical.

    The threat of confirmation bias is one thing that continually drives me to find ‘the question,’ and I assure you that the questions I’m raising here are not legalistic or leading in any fashion. Quite the contrary: they’re obvious. I also think it’s obvious that the ‘materialist turn’ in Continental philosophy desperately needs to weather attacks such as mine if it’s to have any hope of becoming more than just another esoteric ingroup exercise. I know Johnston thinks theories of his ilk should to be taken seriously in the sciences, but that’ll never happen short of his ability to respond to the likes of me (who I assure, is far, far more savvy to the continental project than the vast majority in the cognitive sciences!). For all anyone knows he *really could* be mining a conceptual dead end – wasting all our time, in effect. I’m not sure how hardnosed criticism of the kind I’m offering, one entirely open to be corrected on any point of interpretation, can be construed as anything other than positive.


    • Good! Finally you step down and actually use common language in a straightforward, precise, and clear manner so that we know just exactly where you’re coming from. Most of the time I get the feeling that you assume others have the same store of knowledge that you have, and have read extensively in the literature that is your specialty. I admit that much of your writing uses jargon and terminology that is blatantly scientific rather than with common breaching terms for literary or philosophical creatures that may have differing backgrounds.

      I am trying to breach that as I read more and more in the neurosciences which obviously is not even a subject that I have more than a dozen basic introductory reads within. Ergo why I come to such as you who seem to be working within and against these formidable traditions both within neuroscience mechanist/eliminativist as well as both Analytic and Continental thought in philosophy.

      That you system is a moving target with only a few signposts here and there, but no core set of terminology (although of late I see you honing in on such a succinct set of terms) has been – at least for me, one of the difficulties. I’ve tried to overcome this for myself and my readers by covering aspects of your BBT Theory on my blog. Successful or not I’m not sure, but we try…


  3. In terms of jargon it’s all a bloody mess. Noise is actually the biggest problem out there, at the moment. The project of reverse-engineering the brain is the biggest such project in the history of human inquiry and it shows. Neuroanatomy, Theoretical Neuroscience, Neuropsychology, Neurology, Psychophysics, all the folds of the AI program, and the list goes on and on. Jargon barriers exist within, let alone between these subdisciplines! (I once asked a philosopher of neuroscience (trained as a neuroscientist) to walk me through all the distinctions and she gave up after about 20 minutes). At some point some polymath will pull something coherent out of all of this, but I assure you I am NOT that guy. Reconceptualization, and reconceptualizations of reconceptualizations seems to be all I’m good at: inventing novel ways to tackle old problems (when I’m not working on my novels).

    Re: your question from above, the biggest thing to watch for is Stanislau Dehaene’s new book out this spring. After that, for my money I would recommend Bill Bechtel’s Mental Mechanisms (I’m actually more of a Craver fan, but Bechtel’s book is far better from an introductory standpoint), Eric Schwitzgebel’s Perplexities of Consciousness (to show how strange introspection is), Shapiro’s Embodied Cognition (an outstanding overview of the extended mind field), Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (which is about as fascinating entry into dual-process theories in cognitive psychology as you’ll find), and strangely enough, Guilio Tononi’s PHI, primarily because I think you would really dig the multilevel way he *uses* phenomenality in his Dante-esque attempt to neurobiologically explain phenomenality. The best work critical of the neuro cogski enterprise I’ve encountered is Uttal’s The New Phrenology.


  4. Pingback: Adrian Johnston: A Materialist Theory of the Subject | noir realism

  5. Pingback: Adrian Johnston: Toward a New Materialism | noir realism

  6. Pingback: Life as Perpetual Motion Machine: Adrian Johnston and the Continental Credibility Crisis | Three Pound Brain

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