“AM I A PHILOSOPHER?”: Zizek, Althusser, and Laruelle

At the beginning of his paper entitled “Am I a Philosopher?“, Slavoj Zizek cites a series of critiques that seek to deny him the very status of philosopher. The three main claims are that

1) Zizek has no philosophy, no system, but only proposes and exemplifies a method, he is a “reader of philosophy” rather than a real philosopher.

2) Zizek has no status as a philosopher inside of the academy, he is anxious over “being excluded from prestigi­ous insti­tu­tional appar­at­uses and depart­ments of philo­sophy”.

3) Zizek is an excitable hysteric rather than a Stoical master.

In short, Zizek has no legitimacy as a philosopher.

A primitive psychological explanation accompanies this diagnosis: Zizek’s nervousness, anxiety, and bodily tics are so many subjectivations and somatisations of his intellectual and social situation, psychosomatic reactions to his lack of legitimacy.

One is reminded here of Deleuze’s response to intellectual and personal criticism in his text “I have nothing to admit”. Zizek too refuses to admit to a set of imputed personal failings, and chooses to raise the discussion from this trivial level to a more philosophical one. Like Deleuze before him, Zizek diagnoses a dogmatic image of thought (in Lacanese, the discourse of the master) underlying his detractors’ accusations.

Zizek replies to accusations (1) and (3) above, but not to (2), remarking simply that there is no psycho-social interpretation to be given of his nervosity and tics, as they are purely physical manifestations of an organic disease. As for the two other complaints, he finds them to be based on dichotomies that he does not accept.

1) Method versus system: Zizek indicates that his work is not purely methodological or “deconstructive”, but that it contains also a constructive element, a “kind” of ontology, or “quasi-ontology”, outlining some sort of “structure of reality”.

3) Hysteric versus master: Zizek’s reply on this point is that philosophy after Kant and Hegel does not conform to the dogmatic image of the master’s discourse. Philosophy is deconstructive and reflexive, but it is not purely destructive. This is because the impasses to thought and the obstacles to knowledge that the deconstruction discovers are not just epistemological failures, they have ontological import and weight.

To deepen his analysis Zizek refers to two posthumously published book manuscripts by Althusser: Ini­ti­ation a la philo­sophie pour les non-philo­sophes and Etre marx­iste en philo­sophie. Zizek finds that beneath the surface of their renunciation of the “theoreticism”, and also of the scientism, that characterised Althusser’s earlier work (for example in FOR MARX) a certain number of scientistic presuppositions remain.

In particular, Althusser’s naive opposition of science and ideology persists in the idea that philosophy originates in a reaction to the rise of science, and that it tries to reinscribe the results of science within the same sort of universe of meaning as religion. Zizek, while acknowledging a certain degree of truth to this idea, argues that the deeper opposition is not between philosophy and science (which is only conjunctural, varying according to the historical situation and the state of various struggles) but rather that between philosophy and the Sophists.

Zizek contrasts what he calls, in a way reminiscent of Laruelle, the “standard situation”, where philosophy’s task is “to contain the subversive potential of the sciences” with another, call it “non-standard“, situation where philosophy and science provide us with arms on the terrains of class struggle. Zizek clearly rejects the whole model of standard philosophy, but he denies that the only alternative is purely negative deconstruction.

Something is wrong with Althusser’s principle of demarcation and the resulting historical narrative that ensues from it. Zizek claims that if we see philosophy in rivality with Sophistry we will no longer be caught in a simple dualism. Sophistry makes a real discovery, that standard philosophy tries to cover over. This discovery is that of the impossibility to fixate meaning within a universal unchanging system, resting on a synchronic ontology.

What non-standard philosophy adds to this discovery, so as to avoid falling into the trap of total scepticism or of facile relativism, is a new ontological idea. This failure to obtain univocity, totality, and stability is not just a negative trait preventing us from obtaining absolute knowledge, but rather it is also a positive feature giving us ontological knowledge of a different sort, “non-standard” philosophy, if you will. This is what Zizek calls “quasi-ontology” and that I have discussed under the name of “diachronic ontology“.

Note: Zizek’s critique of Althusser’s “simplicity” and “arrogance” can justly be transposed onto Laruelle. As does Althusser, Laruelle puts forth “brutally simplified” statements about the universal stucture of philosophy, and Laruelle’s enunciations also exhibit a performative contradiction between a “modest” content (the critique of philosophical pretention) and an arrogant form.The source is the same for both Althusser and Laruelle: a naive and dogmatic principle of demarcation, a simplified and univocal terminology, and an undue degree of certitude and arrogance in the form of the enunciation.

How­ever, what Althusser effect­ively does when talk­ing about philo­sophy, his “pro­cess of enun­ci­ation,” his approach to philo­sophy, we can eas­ily dis­cern in it the exact oppos­ite of what he char­ac­ter­izes as a mater­i­al­ist approach: bru­tally sim­pli­fied uni­ver­sal state­ments which pre­tend to define the uni­ver­sal key fea­tures of philo­sophy, with no mod­est pro­visos (Zizek, “Am I a Philosopher”).


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10 Responses to “AM I A PHILOSOPHER?”: Zizek, Althusser, and Laruelle

  1. Sometime I would die to know what you have to say about McLuhan. A close reading of him would send me to heaven. I have been rereading him and am very much under his influence now.


  2. ‘Sophistry makes a real discovery, that standard philosophy tries to cover over. This discovery is that of the impossibility to fixate meaning within a universal unchanging system, resting on a synchronic ontology.’

    This is a profound statement. I often find myself wondering about this concept as it relates to how science can be so fatalistic, even though we would think that the endless boundaries of possibilities and probabilities lay the groundwork for the scientific method. If possibilities are finite, then what is the purpose of questioning nature? Examination and classification, which I consider two of the main tenets of science, both require a questioning of nature. This could make a thinking person question science, effectively removing the legitimacy of the discipline.

    Regarding Sophists versus ‘standard’ philosophers – the battle between the two sides shows us just how possibilities can be endless. There is always the potential for new criticism, literally and theoretically, that can make the difference in the authority held by either side. If I had to make a quick generalization of the conflict, I would say that Sophists work with lesser integrity than standard philosophers; standard philosophers have a genuine appreciation for rhetoric, but Sophists hide the true spirit of argument behind a facade designed with the intention of leading anywhere but to the truth (not necessarily Truth, but more like describing reality universally and at the same time maintaining a level of intelligence over ignorance.)

    I think that maybe we have reached a synchronic ontology, and we are on a pathway to ‘fixate meaning within a universal unchanging system.’ I just think this way very simply with the cliche ‘It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!’ Somewhere at all times people are being themselves at the most fundamental level. If nothing else, we are all breathing. Those who are not breathing, or the dead, are not being. So for beings, in order to be, we must all breathe. I think that barring any catastrophic wars or calamities, it is only a matter of time until the entire planet will become conscious and start seeing the world as an endless state of oppression which cannot be overcome, except by ingenuity and cooperation between cultures and ethnicities. It might have been the wish of the Enlightenment scientists to answer the question of a universal unchanging system by creating the scientific method. However, methodology might surprise us by not actually being compatible with the true nature of language and communication. Can human beings communicate using language without engaging in the scientific method? I think I find myself doing this from time to time, mostly as a result of being alone with my thoughts for too long. Free association is a difficult trait to have; dealing with it is not difficult, I think, as long as the one who has developed it can control the flow, making it start and stop. This is why I think we will eventually find a universal unchanging system. Because there is the possibility that one day, we will all be engaged in free association at the same time.


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