Atheistic Materialism: A Cheerful Philosophy


Unlike many of our weeping philosophers of materialism today Democritus was known as the ‘laughing philosopher’, a man whose cheerfulness in the face of adversity remained the key to his philosophical outlook. We know little of his life. Yet, even Aristotle praised him as a sound philosopher whose basic principles were in accord with natural philosophy. No wonder Plato never mentioned him. Plato hated materialism, and the thought of a happy philosopher such as Democritus left him sad and full of envy. (Of course I’m just full of it! Jibe! Jibe!)

Why shouldn’t an atheistic philosophy bring cheerfulness rather than tears? I’ve been re-reading Adrian Johnston’s Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism again and discovered his basic formula for atheistic materialism:

The time has come to pronounce the true formula of atheistic materialism: there is just a weak nature, and nothing more. All that exists are heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension – and that is it. What appears to be more-than-material (especially subjectivity and everything associated with it) is, ultimately, and index or symptom of the weakness of nature, the Other-less, un-unified ground of being. The apparently more-than-material consists of phenomena flourishing in the nooks and crannies of the strife-saturated, underdetermined matrices of materiality, in the cracks, gaps, and splits of these discrepant material strata.1

Add to this a further statement clarifying his acceptance of Lacanian cosmography of an atheistic materialism in which the primordial Real is itself born out of a catastrophic brokenness do to an immanent split from within: “this self-shattered status of a disharmonious nature devoid of any One-All, being a material condition of possibility for the immanent genesis of subjectivity out of the conflict-ridden groundless ground of materiality.” (ibid. p. 37) (Think of the One-All as the mask an atheist gives to God, the Prime Mover of the Philosophers, etc. Or, as the total system of Nature as God’s replacement: as in Spinoza’s Nature-as-Substance and Total, etc.)

Before I go into teasing out just what it is that Johnston is saying in the above passages (“weakness of nature… etc.) I wonder why it makes me want to weep, fall into a depression, reach for my shotgun and blow my brains to smithereens rather than laugh out loud and be cheerful. If I read it aright it seems that Johnston is telling us that we live in a universe at war with itself, a war without terminus. I’ll get back to this.

Diogenes Laërtius reading Theophrastus discovered one day that Heraclitus did not complete some of his works because of melancholia. He has been variously judged by ancient and modern commentators to be a material monist or a process philosopher; a scientific cosmologist, a metaphysician, or a mainly religious thinker; an empiricist, a rationalist, or a mystic; a conventional thinker or a revolutionary; a developer of logic or one who denied the law of non-contradiction; the first genuine philosopher or an anti-intellectual obscurantist. Some might consider Heraclitus the father of semiotics and a believer in the One-All:

Having harkened not to me but to the Word (Logos) it is wise to agree that all things are one. (Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.))

Is Johnston a melancholic, a weeping philosopher? Obviously he is not an affirmer of the One-All but rather of the non-All – the incompleteness of the universe, rather an affirmer of its unity and he sees at the core of it a dissonance and disharmony. Why was Democritus the progenitor of atomistic materialism so cheerful, while Johnston’s credo is so full of strife and tears that one wishes to sit in the dark and gnash one’s teeth in utter abjection?

One key difference between this Lacan-Zizek-Johnston materialism and that of Democritus concerns the notion of the ‘gap’ (lack, split). Democritus the father of atomism (or, some say a continuer of Leucippus) formulated the notion that the universe was filled with these small ‘indivisible’ units. Atoms, from the Greek adjective atomos or atomon, ‘indivisible,’ are infinite in number and various in size and shape, and perfectly solid, with no internal gaps. They move about in an infinite void, repelling one another when they collide or combining into clusters by means of tiny hooks and barbs on their surfaces, which become entangled. The exact opposite is to be found in the Lacanian-Zizek-Johnston matrix: which begins with this split within things, a gap that breaks through the harmony of the universe and brings it into an asymmetrical dissonance. Of course modern physics and cosmology seems to derive the same picture of an asymmetry in the Universe that Lacan-Zizek-Johnston do. So why has materialism in two-thousand years turned from a harmonious happy view of the endless dance of atoms in the void to the opposing views of cracked and warring forces, asymmetrical and disharmonious? I’ll come back to this.

Now this notion of the atom and the void was revitalized by none other than Lacan himself. Zizek reminds us that Lacan’s Y a d’l’Un is the formula of the minimal libidinal fixation (on some One) constitutive of drive, as the moment of the emergence of drive from the pre-evental One-less multiplicity. As such, this One is a “sinthome,” a kind of “atom of enjoyment,” the minimal synthesis of language and enjoyment, a unit of signs permeated with enjoyment (like a tic we compulsively repeat). Are such Ones not quanta of enjoyment, its smallest, most elementary packages?2

Zizek’s reading of the sinthome as an “atom of enjoyment” seems to be on first glance very close to Democritus’s universe of happy atoms dancing in the void. No wonder Democritus was so cheerful in his outlook. Instead of a broken, strife ridden, warring universe of split atoms always full of tension and explosive nastiness we have the opposite picture of a universe of joy or jouissance. Even Zizek will tell us in his reading of Armand Zaloszyc’s view of Plato’s Parmenides, that it aligns itself to a cheerful reading of the Lacanian “Y a d’l’Un” as the formula for the pure jouissance-One, that is, a jouissance not yet mediated by the Other, the symbolic order, not yet “departmentalized,” accountable. The missing link which legitimizes us in establishing a connection between this thesis of Lacan and the first hypothesis of Plato’s Parmenides (which asserts the One totally external to Being, with no relation to or participation in Being) is provided by the Neoplatonist “mysticism” of Plotinus— recall that, for Lacan, the mystical ex-stasis is the paradigmatic example of the jouissance-One.3 Yet, Zizek will qualify this notion of the One, saying:

Insofar as, for Lacan, this One is (also) an “indivisible remainder” which makes the sexual relationship inexistent, one can understand how Y a d’l’Un is strictly correlative to il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: it is the very object-obstacle to it; it is not primarily the mystical all-encompassing One of the infamous “oceanic feeling” derided by Freud, but a “little piece of the Real,” the excremental remainder which disturbs the harmony of the Two.4

It is this notion of the excremental remainder that disturbs the harmony of things that will lead into the notion of Lacan’s jouissance. So what is jouissance? As Adrian Johnston will relate it this Lacanian concept is like Freud’s Todestrieb,  “beyond the pleasure principle”. The post-1920 Freud muses that all drives might be said to be death drives, meaning that each and every drive perhaps works, at least in certain respects at certain times, contrary to the pursuit of the pleasurable as balance, gratification, homeostasis, satisfaction, and so on. Along these same lines, the Lacanian drive extracts “enjoyment” from the thwartings and failures of desire; whereas the latter is oriented by the tantalizingly elusive telos of pleasure qua satisfaction, the former generates its jouissance-beyond-pleasure precisely through the inhibiting of desire itself. The many possible sadistic and masochistic implications of this side of the libidinal economy are not difficult to imagine.5 He will also describe this jouissance-beyond-pleasure as “that which is annihilating, inassimilable, overwhelming, traumatic, or unbearable. Similarly, jouissance, in this vein, is related to transgressive violations, the breaching of boundaries and breaking of barriers.” (ibid.) So in this sense jouissance is the principle of disharmony which brings about the very crack, gaps, breaks, and asymmetry in things. Should one stipulate and qualify it as the “principle of negativity” as such? That which brings about the very conditions for the emergence of the Hegelian Subject-as-Substance? Is our cheerfulness due to a crack in the universal fabric of time and space? A happy accident? Or a maladjustment in the universal harmony, a burp in the fabric of the timespace continuum? Are we nothing more than the fruit of an error, a dark cut in the fabric of things, the twisted fruit of a broken universe?

Are we reading a noir thriller…? Will this end badly?


I’ll stop here today and take this thread up tomorrow…

1. Adrian Johnston. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism Volume One The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. (Northwestern University Press, 2013)
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1489-1492). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1425-1430).
4. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1471-1475).
5. Johnston, Adrian, “Jacques Lacan“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Meillassoux: Fideism and the Rise of Speculative Materialism


In some ways Meillassoux’s overarching enemy is religion and fideism rather than correlationism per se, for as he states it (and I quote at length):

It now becomes possible to envisage a speculative critique of correlationism, for it becomes possible to demonstrate that the latter remains complicit with the fideist belief in the wholly-other insofar as it actually continues to remain faithful to the principle of reason. If the strong model of correlationism legitimates religious discourse in general, this is because it has failed to de-legitimate the possibility that there might be a hidden reason, an unfathomable purpose underlying the origin of our world. This reason has become unthinkable, but it has been preserved as unthinkable; sufficiently so to justify the value of its eventual unveiling in a transcendent revelation. This belief in an ultimate Reason reveals the true nature of strong correlationism – far from relinquishing the principle of reason, strong correlationism is in fact the apologia for the now irrational belief in this very principle. By way of contrast, speculation proceeds by accentuating thought’s relinquishment of the principle of reason to the point where this relinquishment is converted into a principle, which alone allows us to grasp the fact that there is absolutely no ultimate Reason, whether thinkable or unthinkable. There is nothing beneath or beyond the manifest gratuitousness of the given – nothing but the limitless and lawless power of its destruction, emergence, or persistence.(AF, KL 932-939)

Of course Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. As an atheist and speculative materialist Meillassoux seeks to destroy such notions irrefutably. Behind the trope of Reason is the hint that it has always masked the secular face of God. So that philosophy for far too long has kept its roots tied to the onto-theological religiosity of the big Other masked as Reason. This is ultimately why Meillassoux seeks to overthrow the PSR (Principle of Sufficient Reason) because it hides behind its façade the greatest enemy to an atheistic materialism: God and the fideism that supports it. Yet, as he tells us even atheism has to go, for the simple reason that “once the absolute has become unthinkable, even atheism, which also targets God’s inexistence in the manner of an absolute, is reduced to a mere belief, and hence to a religion, albeit of the nihilist kind” (AF KL 686).

Faith is pitched against faith, since what determines our fundamental choices cannot be rationally proved. In other words, the de-absolutization of thought boils down to the mobilization of a fideist argument; but a fideism that is ‘fundamenal’ rather than merely ‘historical’ in nature – that is to say, a fideism that has become thought’s defence of religiosity in general, rather than of a specific religion. (AF KL 686)

When it comes down to it his greatest enemy is both ideological dogmatism and sceptical fanaticism. For as he says:

Against dogmatism, it is important that we uphold the refusal of every metaphysical absolute, but against the reasoned violence of various fanaticisms, it is important that we re-discover in thought a modicum of absoluteness – enough of it, in any case, to counter the pretensions of those who would present themselves as its privileged trustees, solely by virtue of some revelation. (AF KL 737)

1. Meillassoux, Quentin (2014-12-10). Time without Becoming (Kindle Locations 449-451). Mimesis International. Kindle Edition.
2.  After Finitude: An Easy on the Necessity of Contingency (Kindle Locations 787-800). Kindle Edition.

Link to the essay:

Quentin Meillassoux: Hyper-Chaos and the Real


This morning I was rereading a few of the passages I’d gleaned from Quentin Meillassoux’s essays gathered in Time without Becoming. What struck me is this almost – shall I call it, Chinese quality about his sentences: the simplicity and elegance of statement that brings with it this sense of mastery and logic that is so merciless that it makes one tremble, and yet – at the same time, it awakens in one’s mind this state of meditative awareness that what one is reading is in accord with the truth.

His concept of Hyper-Chaos seems to be one of these facets or figures, a trope that acts as an attractor gathering into itself the causal nexus of ideas from which all things arise.

…the notion of Hyper-Chaos is the idea of a time so completely liberated from metaphysical necessity that nothing constrains it: neither becoming, nor the substratum. This hyper-chaotic time is able to create and destroy even becoming, producing without reason fixity or movement, repetition or creation.1

He explains how he came to such a notion through the logic of time: temporality itself demanded it. In most conceptions time there is both fixity and becoming, synchronic and diachronic, Chronos and Aeon. Kant would internalize time and space as categories in the mind. Meillassoux needed an absolute concept that would treat reality on its own terms, a concept that would transform our understanding of time itself as both underpinning our conceptions of Being and Becoming as well as instigating a conception of time that was not-All; a non-totalistic time before time: an absolute time of pure supercontingency. As he states it chaos as a concept entails disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything. Such a concept could not explain contingency, or even what he now terms “supercontingency”. No, “these properties are not properties of Hyper-Chaos: its contingency is so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity” (ibid. KL 288). He came upon this concept in trying to define what he implied by his other concept “facticity”: What is facticity once it is considered as an absolute rather than as a limit? The answer is time. Facticity as absolute must be considered as time, but a very special time: “hyper-chaos”. (ibid. 284)

So hyper-chaos is a special type of time, a time that includes both fixity and change, being and becoming; yet, it does not meld these into some formless soup, instead it allows them to oscillate within a void of pure negativity. As I was thinking about this and trying to visualize such a notion I remembered the Taoist symbol of yin and yang, of the male and female rotation of light folded in darkness, and darkness folded in light. In explaining facticity Meillassoux will tell us:

If the facticity of the correlation can be conceived of, if it is a notion that we can effectively conceive of … then it is a notion that we can think as an absolute: the absolute absence of reason for any reality, in other words, the effective ability for every determined entity, whether it is an event, a thing, or a law, to appear and disappear with no reason for its being or non-being. Unreason becomes the attribute of an absolute time capable of destroying or creating any determinate entity without any reason for its creation or destruction. (ibid. KL 258)

This notion of an absolute Time that is capable of destruction and creation without any grounding or foundation in reason, a groundless ground of unreason almost seems a throwback to certain notions in F.W.J. Schelling. In his 1809 essay on human freedom Schelling will state:

…following the eternal act of self-revelation, the world as we now behold it, is all rule, order and form; but the unruly lies ever in the depths as though it might again break through, and order and form nowhere appear to have been original, but it seems as though what had initially been unruly had been brought to order. This is the incomprehensible basis of reality in things, the irreducible remainder which cannot be resolved into reason by the greatest exertion but always remains in the depths. Out of this which is unreasonable, reason in the true sense is born. Without this preceding gloom, creation would have no reality; darkness is its necessary heritage. (Schelling 1936, 34)

What stood out in this passage was this notion that the most fundamental basis of reality, the “irreducible remainder which cannot be resolved into reason by the greatest exertion but always remains in the depths” is the very figure of Meillassoux’s hyper-chaos, of a special time before time as we know it; or linear, subjective time. And, secondly, the idea that reason arises our of this unreasonable foretime of the abyss: this irreducible remainder. Lao Tzu’s short book would hint at such a notion as well:

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.2

The whole point of this exercise for Meillassoux was to refute the anti-realist tradition of Kant and his progeny up to and including the phenomenologists. What he discovered in this tradition of anti-realism was a “performative contradiction”: the absolutization of facticity. As he states:

Everything can be conceived of as contingent, depending on human tropism, everything except contingency itself. Contingency, and only contingency, is absolutely necessary: facticity, and only facticity, is not factual, but eternal. Facticity is not a fact, it is not one more fact in the world. And this is based upon a precise argument: I can’t be skeptical towards the operator for every skepticism. (ibid. KL 272)

Within all forms of correlationism, weak and strong, he found their reliance on this absolutization of facticity. So that through his principle of factuality (“Factiality is not facticity, but the necessity of facticity, the essence of facticity.”) he thinks it possible to enable a speculative materialism that can clearly and without doubt refute correlationism. At the heart of correlationism is this notion that there are no objects, no events, no laws, no beings which are not always already correlated with a point of view, with a subjective access. This “philosophy of access” (Harman) is what many term the anti-realist tradition. And it is against this that Meillassoux seeks to overcome through his use of mathematics:

Now, my project is to solve a problem that I did not resolve in After Finitude, it is a very difficult problem, one that I can’t rigorously set out here, but that I can sum up in this simple question: would it be possible to derive, to draw from the principle of factiality, the ability of the natural sciences to know, by way of mathematical discourse, reality in itself, by which I mean our world, the factual world as it is actually produced by Hyper-chaos, and which exists independently of our subjectivity? To answer this very difficult problem is a condition for a real resolution of the problem of ancestrality, and this constitutes the theoretical finality of my present work. (ibid. KL 354-359)

The point of this is to think X independent of any thinking, and Meillassoux realized that within the very conceptual tools of his enemy – the anti-realist correlationists, and their fight against the absolute – he found a path forward, a way out of the circle. The principle of factiality unveils the ontological truth hidden beneath the radical skepticism of modern philosophy, to be is not to be a correlate, but to be a fact, to be is to be factual, and this is not a fact. (ibid. KL 278-282) So this strange logic of unreason at the core of reason breaks us out of the circle of correlationism that has bound us to the tradition of finitude and the limits of reason since Kant. His proposal to use mathematics as a tool independent of the observer and the empirical reach of consciousness or intentionality is the quest he undertakes to demonstrate his thesis.  We await his demonstration.

1. Meillassoux, Quentin (2014-12-10). Time without Becoming (Kindle Locations 312-314). Mimesis International. Kindle Edition.
2. Mitchell, Stephen (2009-10-13). Tao Te Ching (Perennial Classics) (p. 3). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Quentin Meillassoux: Peut-être – The Number and the Siren


As I was reading Tom Sparrow’s new work on Speculative Realism, End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism, I enjoyed his chapter on Quentin Meillassoux. I want go back over the full gamut of Meillassoux’s conceptions of correlationism and the principle of facticity which are central to his argument in After Finitude. Tom does a superb job of summarizing this aspect of the anti-realist tradition and Meillassoux’s proposed way of overcoming it. What I did do was reread a couple of essays that Meillassoux wrote after the Goldsmith event in which he clarified the reasoning behind his philosophical concepts and approach within After Finitude.

One of the statements in these essays struck me. He wrote a work on Stéphane Mallarmé Un Coup de Dés: The Number and the Siren. I kept wondering why he was so interested in this work in particular. I discovered my answer in the essays compiled in Time without Becoming, where he tells us that

…ultimately the matter of philosophy is not being or becoming, representation or reality, but a very special possibility, which is not a formal possible, but a real and dense possible, which I call the “peut-être”, the “may-be”. In French, I would say: “l’affaire de la philosophie n’est pas l’être, mais le peut-être”. Philosophy’s main concern is not with being but with the may-be. This peut-être, I believe, but it would be too complex to demonstrate this here, is very close to the final peut-être of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés.1

This notion of “may-be” is something I had not come across before in his work. This intrigued me. So I’ve begun reading his The Number and the Siren and will follow up on just exactly what this special possibility that is so real and dense might entail.

(see my intro to Tom Sparrow’s work: here)

1. Meillassoux, Quentin (2014-12-10). Time without Becoming (Kindle Locations 314-319). Mimesis International. Kindle Edition.