Adrian Johnston: Toward a New Materialism

Adrian Johnston in his new work Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism offers an immanent critique of three major masters that have influenced his own philosophical approach: Lacan, Badiou, and Meillossoux. For him each were led into certain cul-de-sacs that allowed their materialisms to founder by taking certain turns toward an earlier onto-theological tradition without ever escaping its central mystique: the sacred. By discovering in each of these fellow travelers the particular knot of problems that kept them tied to certain atavistic elements of an outworn philosophical tradition Johnston states in his Postface:

In the wake of Marx as well as Lacan, Badiou and I both endeavor to pursue the construction of a properly dialectical materialism which, as such, does full justice to the contingent but still very real autonomy of the subjects while not having to lapse regressively into the dualisms and distinctions of the subject-sustaining idealisms opposing subject-squelching pre-/nondialectical materialisms (as contemplative, deterministic, mechanistic, reductive, eliminative, etc.). In the combined shadows of Marx, Lacan, and Badiou (and Zizek as well), one can be a partisan of a really and indissolubly free subject while simultaneously and without coherence or self-contradiction remaining entirely faithful to the uncompromising atheism and immanentism of the combative materialist tradition, making no concessions whatsoever thereby to the mysteries and transcendences of obfuscating obscurantist ideologies appealing to God, Nature, or whatever big Other. (176)1

For Johnston as for these other philosophers the greatest threat to any materialism is both ‘scientism’ and ‘religious obscurantism’. Both reductionist and eliminativist forms of science tend to reinforce support for and a conjuncture with obscurantism rather than alleviating its threat. Even Lacan saw this as a dark aspect of post-Enlightenment thought as Johnston observes, saying, “this codependency [between “narrow-minded scientism” and “superstitious obscurantism”] amounts to scientism’s provoking flights toward obscurantism as themselves supplementary sources of meaningfulness, with these obscurantisms in turn making the nonsensical nihilism of scientism tolerable and sustainable” (175-176).

Johnston finds in Badiou’s return to mathematical formalism an opening of the backdoor that allows both of these darkhorses, scientism and obscurantism entrance. His immanent critique of Badiou seeks to show just where that masters rejection of the life sciences for mathematical formalism went wrong and that what is needed for any new materialism is both a rejection of scientism and religious obscurantism that would lead to a dead end. Instead what is needed – and, in this he agrees with Badiou – is a materialist step beyond such dead ends “urgently needed in a world ruled by the perverse diarchy of capitalism and fundamentalism”(177).

This move toward a new Naturalism that is neither reductive nor eliminative, etc. is for Johnston a return to the Darwinian legacy and the life sciences which have been anathema in Lacan and Badiou. At the heart of this return is formulating a new materialism that is fully Darwinian in the sense that it “is to be tethered voluntarily to the ground of an immanentist and materialist ontology in which lawless concatenations of accidental occurrences bringing into interaction contingently existing entities and events generate, through thoroughly bottom-up dynamics, law-like structures of varying complexity and longevity” (178). What interests Johnston in the Darwinian legacy is the central insight into the rupture, gap, split, etc. that brought about the human/animal dilemma and its resolving through a materialism perspective:

Transcendental materialism

1. is “transcendental” insofar as, with Lacan, if affirms the immanence to material nature of subjects nonetheless irreducible to such natural materialisms.
2. is “materialist” insofar as, against Lacan (as well as both Kant and Badiou), the dual phylo and ontogenetic levels encompassed in my approach, levels linked to both psychoanalysis and the sciences, contain components of a metatranscendental account of transcendental subjectivity.

Contra Kant’s transcendental idealism and Lacan’s and Badiou’s refusal of the life sciences and the post-Darwinian legacy Johnston believes “that thought is obligated to think the material conditions of possibility … for subjectivity as itself a matrix of dematerialized conditions of possibility” (179). What this really means is for Johnston to open up a two-way dialogue between psychoanalysis/philosophy and the experimental sciences not as enemies but as co-workers in need of each other. What he seeks is to bridge the gap between these two troubled institutions and allow for a greater breadth of interaction than has of yet been heretherto possible. All of this hangs on a new conception of a materialist naturalism that is neither reductive nor eliminative, mechanist nor deterministic but allows for a truly powerful framework in which both science and philosophy are seen as dual partners in need of each other rather than as competing entities forever barred from each others broken enclaves.

All of this hinges on an apparent gap/split between the life sciences and the formalist worlds of theoretical/mathematical sciences. One of the questions that has been central and troubling for Johnston and has driven his project is simply stated:

“What sort of ontology of “first nature” (i.e., the one-and-only original real[ity] of material substances) allows for the genesis of a “second nature” (i.e., minded and like-minded autonomous subjects as epistemologically inexplicable and ontologically irreducible with reference to natural material substances alone) – a second nature immanently transcending first nature and requiring theorization in a manner that avoids the mirror-image dual traps of reductive/eliminative monisms and idealist/spiritualist dualisms?”(180)

To answer this question is the point of Johnston’s second and third volumes (A Weak Nature Alone and Substance Also as Subject).  As he states it the second volume will offer an elaboration of his fundamental materialist ontology of the Subject. After rejecting along with Badiou and Meillassoux a limited deontologized epistemology he tells us that A Weak Nature Alone will programmatically integrate those conditions needed for the emergence of transcendental subjectivity out of material substance (204). These conditions are both contingent and non-sufficient, neither teleological nor exhaustively traceable within a logical schema of causality Johnston weaves aspects of both Badiou and Meillassoux’s notions filtering out those aspects that lead to the philosophical cul-de-sacs. Against Meillassoux’s hyperChaos Johnston relies on philosopher Nancy Cartwrights’s notion of nature as “spatiotemporal material being(s)” that is at once both contingent on a “plurality of irreducible levels without, for all that, being hyperchaotic à la Meillassoux” (206). Contra Meillassoux Johnston believes that the choice between necessity and hyper-Chaos is a false dilemma (206).

Johnston contra Meillassoux seeks a different path in his battle with Hume by ontologizing his epistemology so as “not so much to weaken human knowledge of natural necessity, but natural necessity in and of itself” (208). He explicates this saying:

I reject the supposition that necessities really exist in nature despite humanity’s constitutive inability to know them. … Instead, along with Meillassoux, I construe the problem of induction (plus problems of reduction in relation to the multiple branches and strata of the natural sciences) as signaling that the real spatiotemporal physical universe is permeated right down to the ground of its minimal, bare-bones being by factical contingencies (as well as ineliminable conflicts too). (208)

Yet, he rejects contra Meillassoux that this leads to the “necessity of embracing hyper-Chaos” and that haunting corollary “frequentialism”.(208) Yet, against Hume and the associationist model he seeks to transform it rather into a “load-bearing constituent of a new ontological apparatus” (208).  Ultimately Johnston’s use of the term ‘weak nature’ is a reworking of this Humean tradition and a swerve from Meillassoux:

I perceive the ontological weakening of nature as opening within being qua being an sich the possibility of a gap between, on the one hand, a detotalized, disunified plethora of material substances riddled with contingences and conflicts and, on the other hand, the bottom-up surfacing out of these substances of the recursive, self-relating structural dynamics of cognitive, affective, and motivational subjectivity – a subjectivity fully within but nonetheless free at certain levels from material nature. (209)

I remember Zizek in an essay (I need to trace this?) stating that what Continental philosophy was lacking at this moment was a Theory of the Subject. We will need to wait for Adrian Johnston’s two further volumes to see if it actually provides such a theory or not. I do hope that he broadens his spectrum to actually include a many of the advances in cognitive neurosciences beyond Catherine Malabou though. Even if there are aspects of her work that are legitimate I believe that there are a great deal of other current trends within the brain sciences that must be taken into the equation. The other problem I have so far with Johnston is the use of linguistic framework of these traditions he is working within. If he ever hopes (as my friend R. Scott Bakker has pointed) to cross the barrier and actually entertain the real world bridge with the sciences then the language will need a true transformation as well. The old transcendental lingo seems almost antiquated now, even if perfectly legit within certain Continental traditions. Scientists who do not know these traditions will come upon such a work and just figure it is all mystification and nonsense. Sorry to say it but sometimes I think many of these philosophers need to read more science and less philosophy and forge new tools of language for a new time. Will this happen? Who knows?


1. The Tracery of a Pattern
2. Adrian Johnston: A Godless Discipline
3. Adrian Johnston: A Materialist Theory of the Subject

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

12 thoughts on “Adrian Johnston: Toward a New Materialism

  1. I actually went hunting for the quote: “this genetic metatranscendentalism will not amount merely to compelling philosophy and psychoanalysis, in a lopsided, one-way movement, to adapt and conform to the current state of the empirical, experimental sciences, with the latter and their images of nature left unchanged in the bargain. Merging philosophy and psychoanalysis with the sciences promises to force profound changes, in a two-way movement, within the latter at least as much as within the former.” (179) For me this amounts to a promise to force a conditional surrender with words. It actually reinforces the anxieties that it sets out to allay.

    I’m genuinely surprised by how no one seems to be taking up the guantlet. Johnston mentions eliminativism in (dismissive) passing at least a dozen times (a Kindle count would be cool) through the course of the book, and here I am, a real, live eliminativist, asking to be shown the obvious error of his ways, and no one is willing to argue for a ‘combative’ Continental materialism?

    I suppose I am something of a crank, but still, you would think people would pile in to at least show *others* how misguided my questions are. As someone who spent their academic youth gorging on Continental philosophy, loving the sinewy, sensuous play of conceptuality, knocking about with ancient thoughts, ranging across all manner of aesthetic expanses, bathing in scriptural meaning day in and day out, I know I certainly would.

    Because it all feels like a trip to Wallmart anymore.


    • I do wonder at both Johnston and the lack of response on the site (other than those who have already mentioned not reading Johnston’s work). He really does not delve into his arguments against either a reductive or eliminativist materialism in depth, only in cursory perusal in his discussions of Lacan, Badiou, and Meillassoux. I’m not sure if he has covered these topics already in his previous three books or not, so will have to hold off judgment on this but hope he delves into it in his coming books of the trilogy. Otherwise it just seems a slip and slide routine. I guess we’ll see. I also hope for more in depth coverage of his actual incorporation of current cognitive neurosciences. Either way I can understand your concern.

      Obviously I try to convey things in a neutral way, but even I see that his philosophy is too homegrown and inbred with the Continental mindset and pedigree to really break through any barriers with practical working scientists let alone the American analytics and post-analytical philosophers. Something more than a weak conception of nature as a detotalized non big Other will be needed, otherwise as you’ve stated its just a spectators sport for academic philosophers to toy with rather than an actual working program for change.


      • I think I mentioned a while back that this was my worry that AJ wouldn’t pull free of the gravity of his masters (I went thru a few rounds of soapboxing a while back with the Malabou faithful over how she was abusing neuroscience, someday I’ll learn), sounds like whatever hope I had for him setting out on some new ground was in vain, it’s back to the enactivist/neurophenomenology crowd I suppose…


      • I’ll have to hold off reservations till I read his other work Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience. From the introduction it looks like he has certain criticisms of Malabou’s notions, but am not yet qualified to actually see what those might be.


      • she makes these gestures, like introducing life/bios to Derrida&co, that seem promising and than she inevitably reverts back to some logic from one of the master texts glossing over the details of (when not just wildly tangential from, plastic explosives etc) what is actually being worked out in the lab/field. With the research efforts I mentioned above those folks are more inclined (at least the ones that I follow, not the pantheisticish folks) to build bit by bit and revise their theses on the basis of what they can achieve and what resists, more like what Pickering describes in his Mangle of Practice book, not so much of the bookworm eating its own tail…


  2. Ayuh, dismissal is premature at this point. Even if he remains trapped in the old, problematic orbits up to this point, it’s entirely possible he has managed to fly off into some interesting new space. The funny thing is that he finds himself in the position I’ve been in before and find myself in now: trilogies are treacherous things! It’s so easy to make big promises at the beginning, but if you don’t follow through, the failure is magnified.

    “it’s back to the enactivist/neurophenomenology crowd I suppose”

    Varela and his intellectual progeny is something I’ve been meaning to delve into for some time, dmf. Any place I should start? Any good Shapiro-like overviews I could use to navigate?


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

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