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From the Stellar Void to the Space of Reasons: how to read Ray Brassier

Lecturer: Emma Black

Originally Taught: Summer School 2019

In pursuing a problem, the philosopher inevitably comes up against the limits of a particular philosophical framework to deal with that problem. At this juncture, she may either abandon the problem in the interests of the framework or abandon the framework in the interests of the problem. The former constitutes intellectual myopia. The latter constitutes thinking.

In fearlessly and relentlessly pursuing philosophical problems, Ray Brassier not only transcends academic enclaves, he problematises the commodification of philosophy as a finished product to be marketed and exchanged. Above and beyond what he thinks, Brassier’s contemporary significance consists in how—or rather, that—he thinks. This course will explore the philosophical and political implications of both. Renowned as Speculative Realism’s unwitting founder, Ray Brassier is a philosopher in constant movement. Over the past twenty years, he has been synthesising New French Philosophers such as François Laruelle, Alain Badiou, and Quentin Meillassoux with the Anglo-American traditions of cognitive science (Paul Churchland) naturalism (Wilfrid Sellars) and inferentialism (Robert Brandom). While these anomalous exercises in conceptual subversion are often brilliantly disorientating, Brassier’s infidelity to any particular philosophical tradition betrays a profound fidelity to particular philosophical problems. This course will take up the three major philosophical problems pre-occupying Brassier: the problem of nihilism, the problem of naturalism, and the problem of normativity. Although they remain inextricable from one another, each problem becomes the focus of his work at a different point in time. Thus, it is possible to distinguish between Brassier’s nihilistic phase (extending from his earliest articles up until the publication of Nihil Unbound in 2007); his naturalistic phase (consisting of a sustained engagement with Wilfrid Sellars between 2008 until 2013); and his normative phase (indexing an increasing interest, since 2014, in Anglo-American Hegelianism and Marxism).

Course Schedule

Week 1: “The intelligence of the real adopts reason solely as a provisional skin.”

Ray Brassier’s earliest writings seek to mobilise the non-individual, the impersonal, the real nothing, against defenders of reason (critical, legislative, normative); elders of sense (phenomenological, pragmatic, propositional); and partisans of Life (auto-affective or an-organic) alike. This instrumental unleashing of the void is enacted in accordance with the writings of heretical non-philosopher Francois Laurelle. Our first lecture will provide an instruction manual for Laruelle’s complicated theoretical machinery in order to understand its influence on Brassier’s intellectual emergence.

Key Readings:

  • Ray Brassier (2001). “Alien Theory: The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter” (PhD). University of Warwick, Warwick, U.K.
  • Ray Brassier. (2003). “Axiomatic Heresy: The non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle.” Radical Philosophy, 121(September/October), 24–35.

Other Recommended Readings:

  • Francois Laruelle. (2010). Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction to Non-Philosophy (R. Gangle, Trans.). London: Continuum.
  • Ray Brassier. (2012). “Laruelle and the Reality of Abstraction.” In J. Mullarkey & A. P. Smith (Eds.), Laruelle and Non-Philosophy (pp. 100–122). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Week 2: “Nihilism is not an existential quandary, but a speculative opportunity.” An assault on the sensibilities of twentieth century Continental philosophy, Brassier’s Nihil Unbound seeks to exacerbate—rather than attenuate—the disenchantment of the world wrought by

the Enlightenment’s shattering of the great chain of being. As well as analysing key sections of the text, our second lecture will draw out its unifying themes and anticipate Brassier’s turn toward transcendental naturalism as a way of addressing arising tensions.

Key Readings:

  • Ray Brassier. (2007). Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. London: Palgrave Macmillan - key extracts.

Other recommended Readings:

  • Quentin Meillassoux. (2008). After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (R. Brassier, Trans.). London: Continuum.

Week 3: “I am a nihilist precisely because I still believe in truth.” While Brassier’s “turn” to Anglo-American pragmatism may at first appear perplexing, our third lecture will show how Wilfrid Sellars’ critical or transcendental naturalism furnishes Brassier with the conceptual tools he needs to carry out a non-Nietzschean overcoming of nihilism. Together, we will explore how a thoroughgoing commitment to nihilism need not entail sacrificing truth to an arena of empowering and disempowering fictions.

Key Readings:

  • Ray Brassier. (2014). “Nominalism, Naturalism, Materialism: Sellars’s Critical Ontology.” In B. Bashour & H. D. Muller (Eds.), Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and Its Implications (pp. 101–114). New York: Routledge.
  • Wilfrid Sellars. (1963). “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.” In Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (pp. 1–40). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Other recommended Readings:

  • Ray Brassier. (2011). “The View From Nowhere.” Journal for Politics, Gender, and Culture, 8(2), 7–23.
  • Ray Brassier. (2011). “Concepts and Objects.” In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (pp. 47–65). Melbourne:
  • Ray Brassier interviewed by Marcin Rychter. (2011). “I am a Nihilist Because I Still Believe in Truth.”

Week 4: “My conviction is that only reason is entitled to fix the limits of reason.” If Sellars inaugurates the Kantian turn in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, then Robert Brandom (Sellars’ student) ushers it from its Kantian to its Hegelian stage. Our fourth lecture will explore how Brassier’s engagement with Brandom’s inferentialism consolidates his critique of both Enlightenment optimism and postmodern pessimism. While reason is conditioned by history, history is the condition for reason’s advancement.

Key Readings:

Other recommended readings:

  • Robert Brandom. (2019). A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Week 5: “We have to defend the normative status of the claim that things are not as they should be, and that things ought to be understood and reorganised.”

Our final lecture will explore the political implications of Brassier’s philosophical edifice, with a focus on his ambivalence toward accelerationism, his engagement with Marxism, and his commitment to the reinstantiation of communism as a Promethean project.

Key Readings:

  • Ray Brassier. (2014). “Prometheanism and Its Critics.” In R. Mackay & A. Avanessian (Eds.), #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader (pp. 467–489). Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic.
  • Ray Brassier. (2018). “Concrete-in-Thought, Concrete-in-Act: Marx, Materialism, and the Exchange Abstraction.” Crisis & Critique, 5(1), 111–129.

Other recommended readings:

  • Ray Brassier. (2014). “Wandering Abstraction.” Mute. Retrieved from