Conclusion: The True, the Good, the Beautiful

—for Rob Lehman

First and foremost, this is a book about the relation between reason and experience. My fundamental questions have been: How does each constrain and propel the other? How do the differing claims of reason and experience expose the limits of each and open those limits to the possibility of transformation? What are the distinct domains proper to reason and experience, and how can we respect their boundaries at the same time that we respect the critique of those boundaries, lest they ossify into the very dogmatism which the delimitation of speculation was intended to overcome?

These are Kantian questions, and also questions that press us to consider the limits of Kant’s own answers. As I make clear in Chapter 3, I respect Hegel’s critique of Kant’s transcendental solution to the conflicting claims of reason and experience, and I follow Hegel’s effort to expose cognition to an immanent critique of its categories—a critique that must traverse the experience of reason’s unfolding in order to avoid taking shelter in the transcendental a priori. Hegel’s dialectic is a process of perpetual exposure and recomposition, which might best be encapsulated by his thinking of the limit as that which exposes its own outside, and thus already sublates its own delimitation. Kant’s transcendental philosophy constructs an epistemology of legislation through limits. Rationalist empiricism is concerned with the limits of legislation: with those exceptions to the rule that arise from encounters of reason and experience displacing the framework of their previous limits.


Hegel identifies the true with the whole. But the whole is the limit of that movement of thought which, through disjunctive encounters of reason and experience, opens what we know to the movement of what can become true. The whole is the limit of Hegel’s encounter with limits—those formidable encounters traversed by the stunning and beautiful movements of the Logic of Essence. The whole gathers the encounter into the totality of contradiction, by which the exteriority of the encounter to what was already there is tamed, by which its contingency is subordinated to necessity. The whole of becoming—qua whole—is that which does not become, just as the transcendental must methodologically refuse an account of its own genesis. We do traverse the genesis of the whole in the Science of Logic, which is the splendor of that book. But the becoming of the whole clears its own genesis in the Idea, and the annulment of time overturns the very engine of dialectical reflection: the power of time to perpetually transform the order the knowledge.

It is a central claim of this book that speculation and critique cannot be parceled out according to the division of reason and experience. Metaphysics, science, politics: each of these fields relies integrally upon the conflict and complementarity of reason and experience, their “epistemological polarity.”1 Yes, ontology must press the power of reason beyond the limits of experience; there is no other means of respecting the ontological difference: that the being of beings is not a being, and thus cannot be an object of experience. Yet both Heidegger’s existential analytic and Meillassoux’s factial reasoning draw ontological claims from a philosophical reckoning with facticity, from an examination of experience that presses beyond its limits through its givenness. Heidegger’s fundamental ontological claim—“temporality is the primordial ‘outside of itself’ in and for itself “—thinks the exteriority of time beyond all experience, yet this claim is forced by an analysis of the phenomenality of thrown-projection, by the hermeneutics of facticity. The enunciation of such a proposition is an assent by reason to an unsurpassable datum of experience which has been thought through: the phenomenality of my existence exposes me irremediably to the exteriority of time.

Likewise, Meillassoux’s assertion that “to be is to be a fact” is drawn from the givenness of facticity as that which presents itself, and from a rational reflection upon the contingency of facts, a reflection upon whether it is possible to apply to concept of contingency to contingency itself. It is not, and an assent to this datum of rational reflection produces an inscription of the ontological difference through the relation between necessity and contingency: being is the necessity of contingency (ontological), beings are necessarily contingent (ontic). Contingency itself, and only contingency itself, is non-contingent, is not a fact; facts are contingent, they cannot be necessary. Ontology here goes beyond fact, and therefore beyond the order of scientific law, through an encounter with what experience cannot say, though it shapes, delimits, and presses reason toward structures of reflection that draw from facticity the enunciation of its implications for metaphysics. This complex and delicate configuration of ontological reflection is common to Heidegger and to Meillassoux, despite manifest differences of method and position.

In the physical sciences, the mutual claims of “theoretical” and “experimental” science instantiate those of reason and experience. But experiment is itself saturated, in its technical affordances and empirical procedures, by the integration of reason and experience. The “transmutation of epistemological values” theorized by Bachelard, whereby rationalism and empiricism encounter each other’s imperatives in the ceaseless recomposition of scientific knowledge, traverses both theory and experiment, since experiments work within the mathematical frame of physical theory and computational affordances, while physical theory derives from and reenters the experimental field—is conditioned by the anomalies and possibilities that constitute problems of and for empirical testing. The ontic knowledge of which science is productive is thus not the empirical and critical pole on one side of an opposition to the rationalist, speculative determinations of philosophy. Just as the relational disjunction of rationalism and empiricism traverses the distinction between theory and experiment in science, it also traverses the distinction between science and philosophy.

By the same token, we would do well to avoid distributing the categories of knowledge and truth according to the distinction between science and philosophy. Rather than hold that science is concerned with knowledge while philosophy is concerned with truth, it would be better to think the problem of the true through the relational constitution of science and philosophy. The effort to respect the discrepant domain of each field while also working through and respecting their consequences for one another is vital to grappling not only with the question—what do we know?—but also with the question—what is true? The first is a question about the present state of our understanding; the second is a question that opens onto the problem of what has to be thought, and onto the recomposition of knowledge: What will we know, in light of what will have become true? In order to remain responsive to the historical, processual constitution of knowledge and truth, philosophy and science must remain attentive to the implications of each for the other, without thereby allowing philosophy to become the arbiter of science or science the arbiter of philosophy. This double exigency is the epistemological criterion of the capacity for the production of truth, of the capacity of both science and philosophy to go beyond what we presently know (speculation) while remaining responsive to the parameters of that knowledge (critique). Both within and between philosophy and science, the transmutation of epistemological values between rationalism and empiricism is central to sustaining an open relation between speculation and critique. Which is to sustain, as well, the openness of the true within the decompletion of the whole.


Rationalist empiricism is not a unified method, but a theory of and attunement toward methodological exteriority. This much is suggested by its characterization as “speculative critique,” an apparent oxymoron that casts supposedly opposing philosophical orientations into the complicity of mutually supportive amplification. The relation between reason and experience is not one of harmony but of contradiction: each contradicts the other, yet, in doing so, propels the other further. Their relation is in this sense dialectical, but we should understand that the dialectic itself, as a method, derives from this relation. Within the history of philosophy, Hegel’s construction of a dialectical method derives from a critique of Kant’s transcendental displacement of the opposition between rationalism and empiricism, which itself responds to Hume’s critique of both rational and empirical theories of causality. Hegel’s speculative philosophy is spurred by his critique of transcendental critique. He is a practitioner of speculative critique—doubtless the greatest such practitioner in the history of philosophy.

Marx will develop a historical materialist approach to dialectical reflection through a critique of Hegelian idealism. He will inherit the problem of how to navigate the conflicting claims of reason and experience through dialectical thinking, but he will take up this methodological problem and pursue its theoretical and practical consequences on a far more concrete level than Hegel’s historical philosophy could approach. The historical specificity of the capitalist mode of production becomes an object of analytical attention that will produce an analytical method specific to its parameters: what I call the analytic of separation. Dialectical method is thus exposed to its transformation by the exigencies of concrete history. It has to learn from its enemy (capitalism) the parameters of an immanent critique that accepts and takes up the nearly impossible labor of thinking through not only the formidable abstractions of capital but also their subsumption of our concrete activities and social relationships.

This extraordinary methodological labor—whose only parallels are Spinoza’s more geometrico, Kant’s invention of the transcendental, and Badiou’s ontological appropriation of set theory—this methodological breakthrough has the effect of displacing the relevance of “moral philosophy.” If it is not to function as ideology, moral philosophy must become the critique of capitalism, since the exigencies of capitalist competition (the exigencies of the extraction of surplus value) dominate the ethos of modernity. One might say that any “good” which is possible within the capitalist mode of production is always either compromised by or predicated upon the “evil” of exploitation and production according to profit rather than need. But the diagnosis is more harrowing yet: the terms “good” and “evil” themselves cast a moral haze over the structural ills and impasses of capitalism. Though they may be superficially relevant, moral categories applicable to actions attributable to individual agents are not rigorously applicable to the exigencies of capitalist production, which renders structurally irrelevant the intentions, for good or evil, of individual agents, so long as the latter operate within its terms. One might say that a theory of the good is thus held in suspension by Marx’s critique of political economy. What is required, in the first instance, is not a denunciation of evil or a theory of the good but, quite precisely, a critique of political economy. This is what distinguishes Marx’s mature work from utopian socialism, and his theoretical reserve is in this respect remarkable. Like others, Marx will inveigh, imagine, and propagandize, but he will also set himself to work on understanding the fundamental lineaments of that which must be displaced. Never has the Machiavellian injunction to keep your enemies closer than your friends been so consequentially and counter-intuitively obeyed.

Marx writes in the thick of the formation of the workers’ movement. He gives it its manifesto and then he gives it its critical theory. What I have tried to consider here are the stakes of the historical waning of that movement for the relation between theory and praxis. Théorie Communiste—in my view the authors of the most important rethinking of the relation between theory and praxis since Lenin—have made it their project to historicize and theorize anew the problem of class struggle, beyond the tendential eclipse of the workers’ movement as the dominant figure of communist politics. They link a historical analysis of this tendential decomposition to a critique of what they call “programmatism” as a political orientation toward the present. It must be emphasized, because the point is often misunderstood, that this is not a normative critique. It is not “good” that the conditions of possibility for the triumph of the workers’ movement have waned with the counter-revolutionary restructuring of the global economy; it would have been “better” if that movement had succeeded in overcoming capitalism on a global scale. But that was not to be.

What the theory of communization opens is a perspective on class struggle subsequent to the givenness of programmatism as an orientation toward politics. And that is why communization theory is so disconcerting. The ground of unity that had secured an image of working-class politics is shaken by the genuine problem of a class in contradiction with its own existence, not only at a practical but at a theoretical level. This is why I find the work of Théorie Communiste particularly open to the difficult questions posed by contemporary struggles. They do not suppose that the articulation of a political program will be adequate to the historical, geographical, and subjective specificity of particular struggles or their differential articulation at the level of global totality. They do not respond to the decompositions struggles undergo by simply crying out for a better program. Rather, they analyze, historicize, and theorize the determinations of class struggle in the present moment, and they offer a framework for confronting the problem of “the self-abolition of the proletariat” that is open to a process of communization. Because they do not ground their Marxist approach to class struggle in “working-class politics,” but rather in a conjunctural analysis of dynamic and limit amid the tendential waning of such politics, their perspective remains open to revision by critiques of traditional Marxism (of the orthodox category of “the proletariat”) by feminist and critical race theory. The critique of programmatism offers a speculative space, within Marxist and communist theory, wherein theory is genuinely open to the recomposition of class struggle by what happens in practice.

Alain Badiou has foregrounded “the idea of communism” in a manner suggesting its political displacement of the normative ideal of “the good.”2 For more than a century, the Party was the organizational bearer and practical organon of that idea; for Badiou, unlike his teacher Althusser, it is necessary to acknowledge that “the party form has had its day.” Badiou thus addresses himself to the open question of “politics without a party” and thus to the genuine problem of the composition of a “we” without a pre-given form: “how are we to move from the fraternal ‘we’ of the epic to the disparate ‘we’ of togetherness, of the set (ensemble), without ever giving up on the demand that there be a ‘we.’ I, too, exist within this question.”3 The idea of communism would orient a disparate collective toward a normative ideal in the absence of a given political form (the Party) so as to sustain the question of communism (rather than some other question) while holding that question open to the necessary and arduous recomposition of a politics without a party.

Yet, if we acknowledge that not only the Party but also the workers’ movement, as the dominant dynamic of communist struggle, has suffered a counter-revolutionary decomposition and that the historical-economic conditions of possibility are not in place for its global recomposition, then we must also open the question of how communist struggle is possible on this terrain. And it is an open question. The theory of “communist measures” as the very process of revolutionary activity—the theory of communization—attempts to open a framework within which to think and to practice that question. It is a difficult theory of class contradiction, for which “self-organization is the first act of revolution; it is then an obstacle to be overcome,” since “abolishing capital is also the self-negation of the worker, and not the worker’s self-organisation as such.”4 This manner of posing the problem of the “self-abolition of the proletariat”—not through the seizure of state power and its gradual withering away, but through the taking of communist measures that enable the reproduction of concrete individuals as something other than a capitalist class—does not forward “the idea of communism” as a regulative ideal to be struggled toward, but rather the process of communization as the concrete practice of proletarians in and as “the crisis of reproduction” of capital. Again, this theory is not a normative celebration of political immediacy, but rather an effort to grapple with, and thereby reformulate communist theory in light of, the structural conditions of the present cycle of struggles. It is an effort to engage once more, under new conditions, Marx and Engels’s difficult injunction that “communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself” but rather “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”5

If there is a political displacement of “the good” to be drawn from contemporary communist theory, it is thus not an alternative regulative ideal. It is not a state of affairs to be attained but rather an orientation toward struggle itself. The decompositions and recompositions of struggles are unpredictable, wrenching, and consequential—they are conjuncturally specific—and they require an awareness of the disorientation of those involved and the unforeseeable paths political sequences may take. A devotion to “program” is ill suited to these difficulties. There is no question that theoretical acuity is necessary to the navigate revolutionary struggle: it is necessary for resistance to reformism and for an articulation of revolutionary horizons. Yet one finds out the hard way that we must learn “each day as it comes” the impediments to and possibilities of collective political action. No program will suffice, nor will any theoretical orthodoxy. Political experience requires forms of relation to theoretical reason that are sufficiently flexible to admit modification while nevertheless remaining mediated by theory. Rationalist empiricism involves an attunement toward political theory and praxis that works toward this mutual reciprocity of political reason and political experience as the open question of, rather than the programmatic solution to, class composition.


The glory of transcendental philosophy is the theory of the beautiful. For here thought discovers what may be its strangest and most gratuitous vocation: to stumble upon a singular unity of matter, life, and thought, in the element of feeling, and to experience this feeling as the implicit inscription of a statement—“This is beautiful.” To stumble upon. Even if we have seen Boy Leading a Horse many times and walk straight to it, even if we hike up to the nearly abandoned village of Gornje Stoliv on the Bay of Kotor understanding the lineaments of the scene we are likely to encounter, the singularity of the beautiful is that it transpires as if by surprise, since it derives not directly from an object, but from “a feeling of free play of the powers of representation”—a feeling of harmony, but also of the suspension of categorical application, of lingering within the default of cognitive determination. Even if the pleasure of the beautiful requires historical knowledge and technical understanding to come into being, as in a complex case such as the final section of Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science in Imperial City; even if the circumstances a composition records lend the advent of this feeling a brutal torque, such that one may want to suppress it—as in the case of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis or Basquiat’s 50 Cent Piece—there it is nevertheless, reducing what we are to itself:

watch me vanish

watch me


watch me

watch me


Beauty is the singular genesis of singularity, the feeling of that genesis, and nothing else, regardless of its object.7 The very singularity of this feeling is that, in and of itself, it is always the same, regardless of the conditions of its coming to be. That is why it provokes such suspicion, and rightly so: the beautiful is wildly inappropriate to the historical circumstances in which we live. Yet it persists.

The transcendental is the element of the beautiful, and this is the point of highest tension in transcendental critique. The Lebensgefühl of phenomenal singularity would seem to anchor it in the body even as the dawning of a judgment (“how beautiful”) renders it irreducible to any particular corporeality: universal. The transcendental is the medium of this irreducibility, the condition of possibility for the unity of feeling (free play, harmony) and judgment. Yet, even if it differs constitutively from the agreeable or the charming, and even if the harmony of the faculties that occasions our aesthetic judgment precedes our pleasure in the beautiful, nevertheless the feeling of free play (even if among the powers of cognition) would seem to call us back to the body as that which feels, and thus to call us outside the transcendental.

For how is it that I possess this this power of feeling? How is it that my powers of cognition should produce an affective correlate? How do we account for the genesis of this capacity to feel that enables the genesis of the feeling of the beautiful? How could a scientific account of this capacity, grounded in transcendental conditions of possible experience, ever be adequate not only to the genesis of those conditions (the exteriority of that genesis to its transcendental framing), but also to the experience of feeling, the experience that feeling is? Can empiricism really be adequate to experience? That is a version of Hume’s question (how can we justify learning from experience?) which Kant aimed to answer through the invention of the transcendental. Yet it seems the transcendental returns us, relentlessly, to a modified version of the earlier question: Can the transcendental really be adequate to the possibility of experience? For if the transcendental is that condition of possibility, what is its condition? For those who learn to experience the beautiful as if fringed with the theory of that experience, the beautiful itself comes to pose this question. Grasped philosophically, the beautiful is the feeling of this question. Is not my capacity to feel the free play of powers of cognition exterior to the transcendental?

This question attains its most lucid formulation in the radical phenomenology of Michel Henry.8 In his major work, The Essence of Manifestation, and in his brilliant reconstruction of modern philosophy, The Genealogy of Psychoanalysis, Henry relentlessly demonstrates that every form of thought, representation, perception, ek-statis—each and every possible access to exteriority—is based on and conditioned by sensation. He shows that “the crux of Kantian thought and its aporia” is the impossibility of producing any representation whatever (given the emptiness of concepts and the pure formalism of intuition) without the fundamental capacity for receptivity called sensation. “The fact that sensation is representation’s other and that representation is incapable of production,” he argues, “means the being of sensation, the being of impression, is not, nor can it be, reduced to representivity as such.”9 On this basis Henry asks, “What, then, is the being of impression as irreducible to representivity if not the original self-impression in which every impression impresses itself and is thus possible as what it is, if not life’s radically immanent essence, exclusive of all ek-stasis.”10 For Henry this is the “aporia” of Kantian thought because sensation, within the structure of Kant’s transcendental critique, must be intuited by the inner sense, yet the very capacity for sensation would seem to go beyond the formalism of space and time, such that affectivity would be the a priori condition of receptivity per se. As Henry puts it in The Essence of Manifestation, “auto-affection is the constitutive structure of the original essence of receptivity.”11 The working out of this argument vis-à vis Kant’s First Critique is complex, and readers may pursue it in Henry’s chapter, “Empty Subjectivity and Life Lost.”12 But for our purposes its import is that, despite its “extraordinary analytical apparatus” and its “conceptual splendor,” transcendental critique may be un-grounded as a theory of the unity of self-consciousness by referring it to its prior condition: life conceived as primordial auto-affectivity. With rare analytical precision, Henry pursues this prior condition of thinking, intentionality, and temporality through engagements with the Cartesian cogito,13 Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology of consciousness,14 and Heidegger’s existential analytic.15 We might say that Henry turns the Third Critique back upon the First; he theorizes Lebensgefühl as the condition of possibility for intuitive receptivity. The singularity, universality, and necessity of the feeling of pleasure attending a judgment of the beautiful returns us to the immanence of this condition at the core of all reception.

Some may dismiss Henry as a Christian phenomenologist,16 but such dismissals will not change the fact that he has developed one of the most coherent and meticulously articulated philosophical concepts of life in the tradition. This concept of life—the immanence of auto-affection—cannot be grasped by science, because its phenomenality is irreducible to physical organization. In modified Kantian fashion, Henry would also argue that life is the a priori condition of possibility for any empirical analysis of phenomena, since it is the condition of possibility for any access to exteriority whatever. On these grounds, Henry goes so far—throughout his oeuvre, but most insistently in The Essence of Manifestation—to think the immanence of auto-affection as being-qua-being, since it is the ground of all ontological reflection. According to Henry, auto-affection is not only “the unique ontological dimension by which to approach and grasp the original reality of the essence, namely of Being itself,”17 it is Being itself, because “ontological reality is not dissociable from the form it which it shows itself, since it is itself this form as such.”18 If Kant holds that being cannot be cognized as independent of thought, and if Hegel identifies thinking and being, Henry identifies life and being. He does so not in the mode of vitalist metaphysics, but in the mode of a new transcendental philosophy: being-qua-being is not dissociable from the condition of its manifestation, and the essence of manifestation is life, the immanence of auto-affection.

Although Quentin Meillassoux does not engage with Henry, we see from this perspective why a philosophical treatment of the “paradox of manifestation” is important. If life is the condition of possibility for thought, and if what thought thinks is not dissociable from its manifestation to thought, then life will be the ground and the essence of all that we think. It will subsume the thinking of being so thoroughly that being will be identified with life. Henry’s radical phenomenology may be the strictest, and perhaps the most profound, form of correlationist epistemology. He shows that if thought cannot think what is outside the condition of its opening upon exteriority, it will have to ground not only thinking but also what it thinks in feeling, and this is the case even for Kant’s transcendental idealism. Thus, if modern philosophy is not to give way to the identity of life and being, then thought must be able to think that which is prior to manifestation. We must be able to think, within manifestation, a world without manifestation. Henry’s boundless hostility to modern science19 is no doubt predicated upon its enmity to his philosophical position on this point. Henry displaces the ek-stasis of temporality from the eternity of auto-affection’s pure immanence, situating all scientific chronology on the ground of this phenomenal eternity, just as Heidegger situated all scientific chronology upon the ground of ek-statical temporalization. Meanwhile, science demonstrates more and more rigorously our capacity to empirically determine the irreducibility of time to phenomenality and to situate the genesis of phenomenality in time. Science thus demands the unbinding of thought from manifestation, and it suggests the ground of this unbinding is our capacity to understand the exteriority of time. That is the speculative import of modern science.

Thus, one must submit the essence of manifestation to speculative critique. Henry disdains science because it banishes phenomenality, but this should be recognized and lauded as its specific power. In bracketing phenomenality, science does not bracket manifestation, but rather the essence of manifestation (receptivity as auto-affection). It does so through the relay between technologi cal apparatuses and mathematical formalization, in a manner we have already theorized and illustrated. And this peculiar power of science—its negation of immediacy—is the historical and indexical trace of a crucial difference between thought and life: the former is enabled by technics. As Bernard Stiegler shows most powerfully in the first volume of Technics and Time, the coordination of reason and experience we might feasibly call “thought” coevolves with technology, such that thought and technics are indissociable. Yet this indissociability (“the de-fault of origin”) does not render being indissociable from either thought or technics. On the contrary, the integral relation between thought and technics becomes the organon by which we may think the dissociation of being from thought. For just as reason and technics are bound up in their development, so too does the new form of experience called “science” develop through their binding, and one of the most profound historical tendencies of science—made possible by coordinating reason, experience, and technics in the negation of immediacy—is to throw us outside of ourselves, to expose us to that which is prior to our origin and subsequent to our extinction. Indeed, to expose us, through a mode of demonstration irreducible to phenomenality, to that which is exterior to manifestation.

There is a retroaction of thought upon life which is bound up with thought’s coevolution with technology. The new configurations of experience technology enables—through recording, for example—project thought outside of its synthesis with lived immediacy. This is what allows reason to think the dissociation of being from life and from thought. This capacity of reason is not only rational but also empirical, just as new modes of empirical investigation rely for their efficacy and their speculative sense upon reason.

This binding of reason and experience, through their mutual bond with technology … does the answer to Bachelard’s riddle lie herein? “Empiricism and rationalism are bound, in scientific thought, by a strange bond, as strong as that which unites pleasure and pain.” That which unites pleasure and pain: Is this not life? If rationalism and empiricism are bound, in scientific thought, by a bond as strong as this, could it be precisely that which is not life: technics? This is indeed “a strange bond,” for technics separates reason and experience, the better to enable the non-immediacy of their coordination. Yet it also embodies reason and experience: technology is the material instantiation and the record of their historical transformation, just as it becomes a condition of possibility for the historical transformation of their relationship: for what can be thought, for what can be experienced. What distinguishes “science” from “life” (technics) is what constitutes the strange bond of rationalism and empiricism in “scientific thought.” If this bond is as strong as “that which unites pleasure and pain”—life, the immediacy of auto-affection—that is because it is capable of displacing it, of propelling scientific thought beyond the determinations and indeed the existence of life.

As a philosophical theory of life, Henry’s radical phenomenology is unparalleled. As a theory of being, it is immensely impoverished. It does not account for the power of the retroaction of thought upon life, the ungrounding of thought from life through its technical constitution, which enables the relational disjunction of reason and experience to defy their enframing by auto-affection. Yet the access to exteriority granted by science is also insufficient to enable a thinking of being irreducible not only to life but to thought itself. For that, one requires a mode of speculation that can think the consequences of the paradox of manifestation beyond that which makes this paradox manifest (science). One requires a speculative mode of rationality that can extrapolate from the exteriorizing force of science, without being reducible to its forms of experience. That is what Meillassoux introduces through his “factial” mode of reasoning. This reasoning is intimately bound up with the conceptual problems we have outlined above, because it extends the exteriorizing force of science through the thought of exteriority par excellence: the necessity of contingency. This is the thought of exteriority because what it thinks is the possible being-otherwise of each and every being, and also of the laws of ontic becoming. It thinks becoming per se, outside of every determination other than itself, as the exteriority of everything to itself—the impossibility of grounding any essence in what anything is, rather than what may be. And what Meillassoux aims to show is that this is not simply a speculative hypothesis concerning being, but rather that it has to be thought. If the speculative scope of this thinking must indeed be indifferent to the ontic determinations of science, that is not because it is indifferent to science: it is because it obeys the exteriorizing force of science, which, in pushing us to think beyond the limits of thought itself, also pushes us to think beyond the limits of scientific thought. As the techne of exteriority, science exteriorizes even itself by pushing reason to think exteriority in a manner exterior to science, just as it forces us to confront what is before and after the existence of reason.

It is in this sense that rationalist empiricism is at once the speculative critique of philosophy (science) and the speculative critique of science (philosophy). Rationalist empiricism is an orientation toward the outside of experience and the outside of thought, and it unfolds on the outside of method.

It is thus bound up with the beautiful. For if the advent of the beautiful is indeed a feeling resulting from our finitude, it is also the sense of that which is beyond our finitude: of encountering what is singular within a particular world where we may think the universal, yet in which there is no sufficient reason for us to exist, and in which nothing must be as it is. How strange it is to be anything at all.


I want to thank the two teachers with whom I first read Descartes and Hume, Rachel Fern and Deborah Knight. Working carefully through the Meditations and the Enquiry under their instruction oriented me, incipiently, toward the philosophical problems pursued here. I also want to thank Kenneth Reinhard, whose efforts to sustain a productive tension between speculative and critical philosophy in the context of the American academy have been an inspiration.

This book has its genesis in a series of conferences organized by the Theory Reading Group of Cornell University that I attended from 2008 to 2010. Those events were marked by what now seems a rare unity of intellectual commitment: a collective effort to determine the stakes of the relationship between contemporary French thought and post-Kantian German philosophy. I hope these pages contribute to that effort. I am grateful to Audrey Wasser, Robert Lehman, and Aaron Hodges for convening those occasions and for many subsequent conversations. Likewise, discussions with Knox Peden were essential to the development of my ideas about epistemology and method. When I first presented a paper on what I called “rationalist empiricism,” it was Knox who pointed me to Althusser’s use of the same term, of which I had been unaware. The subsequent task of understanding that usage in relation to the problems I had in mind spurred me to conceive my project on the scale of a book.

I am indebted to many friends and interlocutors who have encouraged and challenged me, including Vera Bühlmann, Martin Hägglund, Peter Hallward, Adrian Johnston, Anna Kornbluh, Kate Marshall, Brian Rajski, Marty Rayburn, Daniel Sacilotto, Aaron Schuster, Jason Smith, Stephanie Wakefield, Joshua Wiebe, and Evan Calder Williams. Nora Collen Fulton, Devin Wangert, Audrey Wasser, Tom Eyers, and Manish Sharma read and commented on the entire manuscript, contributing to the clarity of my prose and the coherence of my arguments. At Fordham University Press, I am grateful for the support and editorial intelligence of Jacques Lezra, Paul North, and Tom Lay.

I have been able to test many of these ideas, and encounter many others, through symposia at MaMa Multimedia Center in Zagreb that I have been co-organizing with its directors since 2009. My thanks to those who work to keep MaMa alive as an independent hub of theoretical, artistic, and political activity, against all odds, twenty years after it was founded: Tomislav Medak, Petar Milat, Marcell Mars, Tomislav Domes, Marjana Riminić, Igor Marković, Igor Čolić, Ante Jerić, Ivana Pejić, Lina Gonin, and Tihana Pupuvac. My engagement with the philosophical tradition has also been sustained through a series of seminars on major works, offered annually at UC Davis and Concordia University since 2009. My thanks to all of the students who participated in these; their commitment and their insights have enriched my thinking.

Metrologists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology generously gave me a tour of their laboratories and discussed their work on the redefinition of the kilogram. Nicolas Baier was kind enough to host me for a studio visit after I first encountered an exhibition of his photography in 2008. I have appreciated his openness to subsequent conversations about the technical details and conceptual background of his practice.

My work on this book has proceeded alongside the growth of my friendship and intellectual engagement with Alexi Kukuljevic, whose inimitable style of ontological questioning marks and accompanies my disposition toward philosophy. Annual reading groups by the Adriatic and constant discussion with Alexi, Amanda Holmes, and Cynthia Mitchell have become the core of my intellectual life, indispensible to the sharpening of reason and the deepening of experience. Amanda’s incisive readings of Kant, Freud, and Lacan have been an inspiration. Cynthia’s deep intelligence and singular wit make our daily conversations about psychoanalysis, art, politics, and philosophy a perpetual incitement to think anew. Her love and support have carried me through so much, including the doubts and difficulties of writing.

This book is dedicated to Petar Milat, a “former philosopher” whose friendship, generosity, and brilliance have kept me moving forward. The sincerity of his commitment to everything that lies outside of method demonstrates that inhabiting such exteriority is not only a matter of philosophy, it is also a form of life.

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