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The World Does Not Exist: What this means and why it matters

Lecturer: Austin Hayden Smidt

Originally Taught: Summer School 2021

The world does not exist. What could it possibly mean to utter such a seemingly nonsensical phrase? And more, why does it matter? Is this just some obscure philosophical phrase that is great for old guys with tweed jackets drinking sherry and smoking pipes in the halls of prestigious universities?

In this seminar, we will explore what it means to refer to “the world.” Then we will explain how this thing, this thing we call “the world,” does not – and cannot – exist. Then we’ll investigate why it matters that we understand the non-existence of the world.

We will begin by exploring a debate between György Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre over the status of totality. That is, can we conceive of the whole? How ought we understand the relation between the parts and the whole? Can we still meaningfully talk about history and society and politics and ethics without a concept of the whole? Etc. Then we will focus on certain “postmodern” rejections of totality. In short, such approaches advocate for a radical constructivism. We will discuss post-structural constructivism, systems theory, and more. The political and social importance for these theories in rejecting totality will be our focus.

The final three sessions will be close readings of the work of Paul Livingston, Sergei Prozorov, and Markus Gabriel. Each of these figures offer a critique of totality and build their own model or theoretical system to replace it. For Livingston, it is his Paradoxico-Critical orientation; for Prozorov, it is his Badiou-inspired “void universalism”; and for Gabriel, it is his no-world view.

We will pay particular attention to the political stakes of thinking beyond totality and “the world.” Namely, that if we think from the world, then we end up with an ontotheology that leads to a dogmatic and moral image of thought (a la Deleuze’s critique of thinking from identity in Difference and Repetition). But if we are oriented via the Paradoxico-Critical, the “void,” or the no-world view then we can speculatively open ourselves up to expressions of thinking that might be able to eschew dogmatic and moralizing forms of thinking, while not giving up on the need to build strategies for global politics.

Seminar readings will be excerpts taken from select texts that will be provided by the convenor well in advance of the seminars.  

Course Schedule

Lecture 1: Totality v. Totalization

The first seminar will address a debate between Lukács and Sartre over the status of totality. Lukács is a great thinker of totality. However, for Sartre, Lukács’ theory produces an “idealist dialectics.” Why this matters for Sartre is that thinking from totality produces a serial form of thinking that forecloses the variation of the multiplicity from expressing itself in freedom. Thus, contra Lukács, Sartre proposes a theory of “totalization” that he believes allows us to still think a single meaning of History but without falling into dogmatism or bad faith.


  • Excerpts from History and Class Consciousness (Lukács)
  • Excerpts from Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1 (Sartre)
  • Excerpts from Sartre, Imagination, and Dialectical Reason: Creating Society as a Work of Art (by Austin Hayden Smidt)

Lecture 2: Rejecting Totality and Totalization

Seminar two will explore certain postmodern critiques of totality and totalization. We will spend the majority of our time examining the political and social importance for such thinkers in rejecting totality and totalization in favor of a radical constructivism. This class will be a survey of many different postmodern, post-structuralist, systems theory, etc rejections of totality.


  • TBD (will be available well in advance of the seminar)
  • But to prepare, students can consider the work of Lyotard, Foucault, Luhmann, etc.

Lecture 3: Paul Livingston and the Paradoxico-Critical Orientation

Seminar three will be a close reading of Paul Livingston’s Four Orientations between Thought and Being from his book The Politics of Logic. He demarcates four ways that philosophers have conceived of the relation between Thought and Being: ontotheological, constructivist/criteriological, Generic (Badiou), and Paradoxico-Critical. We will discuss each of these and the various thinkers that are categorized within them. Then we will present his own view as an alternative to the postmodern skepticism towards totality, while also embracing some of the critiques that postmodern thinkers offer.


  • Excerpts from The Politics of Logic (Livingston)

Lecture 4: Sergei Prozorov and Void Universalism

Seminar four will present Sergei Prozorov’s Badiou-inspired theory for World Politics. Prozorov rejects 1) false universals, that merely inflate a specific regional narrative to the status of the universal; 2) passive nihilism, that rejects that status of the universal in favor of a multiplicity of regional narratives; and 3) active nihilism, that rejects the status of the universal but relies on the active power of a will to make a decision in putative freedom or authenticity to overcome the instability of passive nihilism (cf Carl Schmitt and Nietzsche here). Instead, Prozorov offers a theory of a “void universalism” that allows for politics to have a universal ground but without falling into the traps of dogmatism that accompany most theories of totality.


  • Excerpts from Void Universalism: Ontology and World Politics (Prozorov)

Lecture 5: Markus Gabriel and the No-World View

The final seminar culminates our investigation by looking into the work of Markus Gabriel, whose no-world view will fully explain how and why the world does not, in fact, exist and why we need to think differently. We will summarize the central arguments of his no-world position and will then spend a good amount of time discussing how and in what ways this view is valuable for political and social thought and action.


  • Excerpts from Fields of Sense (Gabriel)
  • Other excerpts from Gabriels work might be provided as well.