François Laruelle – Phénomène et Différence – Introduction [in English]

by Ed Kazarian

François Laruelle’s first book, Phénomène et Différence. Essai sur l’ontologie de Ravaisson, appeared in 1971. As he notes in the final paragraph below, the text was his thesis for the doctorat de troisième cycle. Laruelle acknowledges this academic origin, regretting that the work as it stood did not take account of some of the theoretical developments in very contemporary French thought which related to its subject matter—or that it only did so around the margins. This qualification must be added because, when Laruelle prepared Phénomène et Différence for publication, he added the introductory text which is translated here in order to position what was already, by his own characterization, a “free essay” on Ravaisson in relation to the contemporary problem of difference.

As matters now stand, that Introduction can be seen as a remarkable first statement of a number of themes that have endured in Laruelle’s thought. Indeed, in the correspondence wherein he graciously gave me permission to post this translation, Laruelle himself observed that “these three pages . . . announce a constant tendency in my thought.”

Accordingly, I am glad to be able to present the following translation. The Introduction begins in page 9 of the French edition, and I have marked the page transitions in that edition as they occur. Also, given the likelihood that many readers will have difficulty obtaining a copy of Phénomène et Différence, I have been quite free about supplying the original French in brackets where it seemed useful for clarity or where the sense of Laruelle’s text might be open to variant readings in English. Several readers, including Laruelle himself have seen this text, but none of them have checked it carefully against the French. Therefore, while I am fairly confident in its accuracy, this should be treated as an uncorrected draft translation, which may contain errors and infelicities — for which I take full responsibility and of which I invite discussion in the comments.

The translation follows after the break, or can be downloaded in .pdf form here.


Phenomenon and Difference: Essay on Ravaisson’s Ontology

François Laruelle



Phenomenon and Difference

Difference is not only the theme of this essay, not its thesis or its concept. Difference is not posed here, but sought: what is the element of difference or its original milieu [milieu d’origine]? This element is progressively drawn out [dégagé] as that which excludes not only representation (the concept) but also the empirical given: difference is only an original philosophical concept if it is inscribed in an originary milieu, on this side of the disjunction of the concept and the empirical. Parallel to this original being of difference, the manner of drawing out [dégager] cannot be that of the position, the conceptual thesis. It proceeds by sketches, in an approach to thinking similar to phenomenology and which responds to the sought for [cherché] rather than found character of difference. Difference is here the object of a quasi-poetics founded [fondée] on the review [reprise] of some Ravaissonian texts on art. It is progressively rescued [arrachée] from the phenomenon, beginning from which it is sketched as that which destroys the transcendental interpretation of the phenomenon and manifestation. The couple of difference and expression is drawn out rather than constructed as what, in the combat between the phenomenon and difference, between manifestation and expression, can be turned against transcendental subjectivity and fundamental ontology insofar as the one begins in the founding of the other.

Despite his dullness, his intolerable and hardly [si peu] modern mildness, Ravaisson is the most Nietzschean among the lineage of pre-Bergsonians. Such at least I have made use of [mis en oeuvre], seeking affirmation and positivity in the demand [revendication] of the sensible concrete, expression in the manifestation of the absolute, and even – pushing the re-interpretation beyond reasonable limits – something like the eternal return in the serpentine circularity which makes up the essence of life and grace: the eternal return of grace and beauty. . . . It was inevitable to find in Ravaisson these elements under the form of a quasi-poetics: driving therein [y conduisaient] the critique of Platonism and representation in the concept, the exclusion of [p. 10] negativity and the affirmation of the positive in each being, the definitive refusal of the dialectic, an ontology of expression and of the productive circularity of difference. But is all this modernity in Revaisson? This objection has no sense if [pour peu que] one understands what is meant by [veut dire] “being.” Being is the unique object which calls and supports violence of reinterpretation. Blessed violence: to what would thinkers be of service if they were not made to think freely? Their destiny, is it not more encouraging for us to be [plus encourageante pours nous d’être] martyrs of contemporary thought instead of relics in its museum. Ravaisson has moreover been so constantly forgotten in the history of philosophy, or so poorly treated as a simple mediation between Aristotle and Bergson, that his memory owes no debt towards history. He only appeared in thinkers (Bergson, Heidegger) who took pleasure in his discretion and his loftiness. Ravaisson is not a “link,” an intermediary in the commerce of philosophers, he is an inspiration, the perfect example [type achevé] of the philosopher-martyr who allows himself to be devoured by those who want to become his children.

The thought sketched beginning from some of his texts on the expression of the absolute in art is an onto-theo-phany rather than an onto-theo-logy.  The transcendental conception of manifestation is there replaced by what we have called the “immediate givens of manifestation.” This immediate is that of difference, this manifestation is identical to expression.  But difference can only be drawn out though [degage en] a double combat, both on the front of the phenomenological interpretation of appearance and on the front of an empiricist philosophy of difference. Difference is released [relève] from the element of the concrete, from the original synthesis underlying [en-deçà] every disjunction proper to the history of metaphysics: difference is without a doubt excluded by Platonism, but also by the antiplatonism which does not get out of [ne fait pas sortir de] the split between the concept and the empirical [l’empirie], so unfavorable to a thought of difference. This is why it is sought on the side of the phenomenon rather than of the simulacra, but of a phenomenon which is no longer conceived from phenomenology: in the measure where the latter [celle-ci] envelops despite itself dialectical movements foreign to a thought of expression. Difference as “ambiguity” possesses a polemical value regarding dialectical difference conceived from Identity, and regarding ontico-ontological difference which has not succeeded in overcoming [surmonter] its origin in the transcendental, in the dialectical element of thought and in negativity.  The polemical function of ambiguity and of expression must be drawn out [dégageé], isolated from the breast of Ravaissonian mildness, and elevated to the level of a principle of critique against all ontology to [à] subjective and transcendental foundations [fondements]. This critical value of difference is without a doubt a permanent trait in the philosophical tradition. But the object which is subjected to [qui subit]  the shock and the passion of difference is new, no longer the cogito, but being-there and the [p. 11] transcendental interpretation of Being, or again the original ego and the immanent ontological subjectivity of the philosophy of “the essence of manifestation.” This critique does not respond directly, at least in its ends, to subjective intentions: it is rather a critique of subjectivity which was [fût-elle] elevated to the dignity of a pure subjectivity. The thought of difference responds to the design [visée] of an empiricism – but of that “superior empiricism” sought by Schelling and which still animates the thought of Ravaisson, above all when it is turned against Schelling. The superior empiricism of difference refutes phenomenology and transcendental ontology as secretly dialectical, and it refutes as abstract the empiricism which defines itself primarily by anti-Platonism and opposition to the concept. Against the implicit rationalism of the first and the abstract empiricism of the second, he seeks by means of [par le viais de] difference this philosophy of contingency without end restarted [remise en chantier] after the “Critique of Judgment” and which is nothing other than the authentically philosophical empiricism, that which is still sought without being given in the metaphysical tradition. This is why difference is here grasped first in its critical power, as instrument of combat against the phenomenon interpreted on transcendental bases: “Phenomenon and difference,” it is not a solution, it is the program of an Idea. This idea is here only sketched beginning from Ravisonnian material, which is then never considered for itself or in the perspective of a historical examination.

This free essay, formulated with regard to rather than on the subject of Ravaisson, was written and submitted as a doctoral dissertation [these de troisième cycle] before I had become aware of the remarkable work that has been done [que l’on sait] on the concept of difference . It was not then possible to profit from it in the main portions of the work [dans son principe], but only in some of its developments (Introduction, etc. . . .) which were added to the initial text or differently accented. This work of adjustment was imposed insofar as the difference in question here distinguished itself from every “empiricist” conception of difference and rebuilt [relevait] from what could be called an “onto-theo-phany.” “Phenomenon and difference” is only another version of the original title: “The immediate givens of manifestation” and of its content: the critique of the transcendental ontology by means of a thought of expression and difference founded on art.

—Translated by Edward Kazarian