Guy Lardreau, Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction (1988)

A number of Franocphone philosophers have written interestingly on Anglo-American, or English lanugage, science fiction (henceforth sf). Isabelle Stengers discusses sf briefly yet penetratingly, in an interview here that has greatly influenced my own work. Jean-Clet Martin has written an excellent, and large and capacious, book reading Golden Age sf through the framework of Hegel’s Science of Logic: Logique de la science-fiction. And David Lapoujade has written a concise but rich and detailed book about the philosophical implications of Philip K Dick’s writings: L’Altération des mondes.

But the book I want to concentrate upon here is Guy Lardreau’s Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction, from 1988. Lardreau (1947-2008) was a French philosopher who started out as a Maoist militant and ended up as a kind of transcendental pessimist; his rejection of Maoism in favor of universalist ethics must be distinguished, however, from that of his contemporaries the so-called nouveaux philosophes, who movied all too easily from supposed Maoism to center-right pontification. Peter Hallward (see next paragraph) notes that Lardreau “Lardreau was always careful to distance himself from la nouvelle philosophie as an apparently ‘collective’ project, and still more as a media phenomenon.”

There is not much English-language writing on Lardreau; the most extensive overview of his thought and career comes in two articles by Peter Hallward, available here and here. I haven’t read any other of Lardreau’s writing aside from his book on science fiction; I will concentrate here, less on giving any form of meta-critique, than just on trying to get his arguments right. I read French almost-fluently, but I find it harder to reproduce the sense of what I have read in French, compared to things I read in English; my main purpose here is just to get straight in my own mind the overall structure and sense of Lardreau’s arguments. My account inevitably involes a certain number of misstatements and misunderstandings, but hopefully it will be not too misleading. But in any case, my reading of Lardreau was very helpful for me. I am trying to think through my ideas about the potentiality that is represented and expressed in science fictionality, and also why I have come to embrace a Leibnizian approach to science fiction (as opposed to the ultimately Spinozian approach favored by Fredric Jameson and people influenced by him).

Lardreau’s book begins with a “Retroduction” (instead of an Introduction), and ends with an “Introclusion” (instead of a Conclusion). I think he does this in order to emphasize the circular (or better, labyrinthine) structure of his overall argument, which does not proceed to an uncovering of truth, but rather insists that truth can only remain intertwined with fiction, and that science fiction is the form of literature that best communicates with philosophy’s own need to resort to fiction. The Retroduction states that the whole book arose out of Lardreau’s noting an “astonishing homology” between the fictions deployed by Leibniz in order to explain his ideas about possible worlds, and the way that science fiction imagines parallel worlds. Science fiction develops conjectures that are grounded in science, but that touch on areas that science cannot reach.

After this, the first major chapter is about “fiction as a philosophical experience.” Lardreau starts with some dilemmas in early modern philosophy, involving questions about the nature of experience, and the adequacy, or inadequacy, of empirical sensations for understanding the nature of reality. Thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries proposed thought experiments. Molyneux asked if somebody blind from birth, suddenly given the power of sight, would be able to correlate what they saw with what they had previously only felt. Condillac imagined a statue suddenly brought to life, but with only one sensory impression at a time, and asked whether this being would be able to comprehend the world in its full multi-dimensionality. Such fictions, Lardreau argues, construct imaginary objects, or entire imaginary worlds, in such a way as to “constrain a philosophical doctrine” to acknowledge all its presuppositions, and thereby to demonstrate its “coherence” and “the extent of its validitty”. By varying the conditions given in the fiction, one can see how well the doctrine performs in different circumstances. (I myself compare philosophical thought experiments to science fiction narratives, in the first chapter of my book Discognition. I am exploring this further in a current manuscript in progress. So I particularly welcome Lardreau’s focus on this).

Variation is thus the central principle of philosophical fictions — and of science fiction. Everything can be varied imaginatively, and thus made the subject of a fiction, as long as the fiction does not involve logical contradiction. But the avoidance of logical contradiction is a very low bar; some fictions are better than others, more powerful than others, more reasonabe than others, more plausible than others: in short, some fictions are more possessed of vraisemblance than others. This insistence on Lardreau’s part seems to me to be vitally important (it relates to my attempts, in my work in progress, to distingish meaningful potentiality from mere logical possibility, with the help of both Whitehead and Deleuze Lardreau is a valuable ally in this attempt).

We can put the matter this way. Both American analytic philosophers, and a number of continental ones — most notably Quentin Meillassoux — insist that anything not logically contradictory is therefore possible. But this is an extremely impoverished definition of possibility. Unless you believe (as both Meillassoux and David Lewis apparently do) that no point in spacetime is related in any positive way to any other point, so that every punctual state of affairs is unrelated to any other, then actually-existing connections and disconnections constrain potentiality much more strongly than the mere criterion of logical non-contradiction allows. To use Leibniz’s language (as Lardreau does later in his book, albeit not here), it is not enough that something is possible; it must also be compossible with other things and circumstances. This is what Lardreau is getting at with his insistence that some philosophical fictions are more plausible or meaningful than others.

Lardreau goes on from considering these various early modern philosophical fictions to look in depth at the most far-reaching of these: Descartes’ hypothesis of the Evil Demon. It is only by proposing this fiction that Descartes can get beyond the doubt with which he begins, and establish the cogito and the existence of God. This is because it is only by means of such an extravagant fiction, that Descartes is able to break from the presuppositions of “common sense” that he otherwise would unwittingly continue to take for granted. This fiction is necessary in order to transform Descartes’ doubt from a merely psychological condition into a properly ontological one. In this sense, fiction-making is a necessary condition of possibility for philosophy itself. Moreover, Lardreau argues, such fiction-making is not merely imaginative; by disrupting the way that imagination merely recombines and plays with previous sensory impressions (i.e. previously given images), Descartes’ procedure of fictionalizing pushes thought beyond imagination to the more abstract level of understanding.

This leads further to one of Lardreau’s main themes throughout the book, one that he places within the framework of the history of Western philosophy. Even though Descartes wishes to deduce everything about the world a priori, from first principles, he also discovers that such an ideal is impossible for us to attain. Only God could successfully make such a deduction; in actual human practice, we need empirical observation as well as logic, and fictionalizing is necessary in order to bridge the gap between empirical particulars and first principles. In terms that get repeated throughout the book, Lardreau claims that one of the most essential dividing lines in Western philosophy is the question of whether the Real is Rational, or whether the Real always exceeds the Rational. Descartes insists on the latter, even though he seems to start out with the former. Lardreau never mentions Levinas, but this seems to me to resonate with Levinas’ reading of the idea of infinity in Descartes, which always exceeds the subject.

More generally, according to Lardreau, philosophers who proclaim the ultimate coincidence of the Real and the Rational include, not only Hegel, but also Spinoza (both in his geometric method, and since he posits the third kind of reason as able to know everything from first principles) and Bergson (because he sees the power of intuition as able to surpass the limitations of scientific rationality and of the pragmatic basis of natural perception). For thinkers who claim that the Real coincides with the Rational, fictions can have no place (and it is for this reason that Spinoza denounces the falsity of the power of imagination). But if the Real exceeds the Rational — as Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant all maintain — then fiction is necessary to philosophical reflection. Even as such philosophy tries to move from imagination to the surer process of understanding, it cannot eliminate imagination, and in fact needs to rely upon it. If the Real exceeds Reason or Rationality, this means that fiction is necessary. For Spinoza, since the Real and the Rational ultimately coincide, fiction has no place. But for Descartes, since Real and Rational do not coincide, this means that (echoing Lacan) “truth is not all” (la vérité n’est pas toute), and therefore fiction becomes a necessary tool of the understanding. Lardreau goes on to restate this explicitly in terms of Lacan’s three orders: Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. The Real exceeds the Symbolic, and is not reducible to it.

The book’s second chapter is about “fiction as experience of philosophy.” Lardreau works through what today we might call the dilemma of correlationism (though that term hadn’t been invented yet in 1988). In its most obvious terms, this is the problem posed by Hume: how do I know that an object that disappears from view (because I close my eyes, or look in a different direction, or simply walk away) is still there, and will be in the same place when I return to it? Lardreau sees this as another instance of the non-coincidence of the Rational with the Real — nothing in the former can guarantee the persistence of the latter. Lardreau develops this in Lacanian terms. Even as language allows us to designate real things, it also sets up a “wall” or a barrier beyond which the Real is sequestered. Our everyday reality cannot be equated with the Real, because it is structured by language (the Symbolic) and by images (the Imaginary). In Lacan’s terms, we are stuck in these registers, just as in Kant’s terms we only experience phenomena, not things in themselves. Lardreau adds that Philip K. Dick explores the same dilemma in his late novels (he refers specifically to The Divine Invasion). The Real remains radically Other, radically out of reach, radically irreducible to representation.

Lardreau also explores this in terms of an opposition he sets up between philosophy and science. By “science”, Lardreau seems to mean both physics and other physical sciences, and social sciences like that of historical materialism. (Here I sense echoes of Althusser’s discussion of how we can never step out of ideology, and of how science can only exist to the extent that it is radically asubjective. But Lardreau does not mention Althusser — this is unsuprising since Althusser is radically Spinozian, and Lardreau is rather Leibnizian). Where philosophy sees a wall separating us from the Real, which remains radically Other, science both denies that the wall exists, and tries to account for how the ideological illusion that such a wall exists is produced nonetheless. I am not sure that I am getting this quite right, but I think Lardreau’s point is that where philosophy sees the Real as radically Other, science dissolves this otherness, and in the course of doing so also dissolves ourselves as subjects (since we are no different, for science, than other natural phenomena). Where philosophy insists that at least some sort of opacity exists, science denies this opacity. Science “demands that every shadow, every obscurity can be dissipated, every incomprehensibility expelled, that there is absolute intelligibilty.” In this way, science is aligned with philosophies of totaland evidently Deleuze’s as well, though Deleuze, like Althusser, is never mentioned by Lardreau). Lardreau maintains the Lacanian distinction between reality and the Real; whereas for science as for the philosophies of immanence, there is no radical Otherness, and hence no Real (but only the small-r “reality).

As a semi-Deleuzian, I find this disturbing; my more Deleuzian friends will no doubt throw up their hands and reject Lardreau altogether at this point. But I think there is something worthwhile in continuing to pursue the argument further. Lardreau concedes that science has chipped away at philosophy, indeed parochialized philosophy to the point where philosophy cannot contest science any longer. Instead, philosophy can do one of two things. Either, in a positive sense, philosophy can accompany science, rescue it from the dangers of positivism by organizing and synthesizing its findings. Or else, in a negative sense, which is the one that Lardreau himself favors and practices, philosophy can perform the task of reminding science of the not-all. For Lardreau, science is true (vrai). but it is not The Truth (la verité). Science does not, and cannot, encompass everything; thereby, philosophy can maintain “the insistence of the Real” beyond the limits of science, or at least in the margins of the territory that science has imperialistically annexed.

All this means that, while philosophers can strive either to clarify science or to limit it, in either case they “no longer know how to make worlds” (faire des mondes). And this is where Lardreau comes to science fiction. Given the weakness of philosophy with regard to science, it is now science fiction that navigates between them, science fiction that “takes up the double task of adjusting our vision of the world to the advances of science, and of making us still feel the weight of the Real.” Philosophy can no longer negate the findings of science, but sf can probe the Beyond that science has not yet reached, and never will. If classical philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant deployed fiction to bridge the gap between the Rational and the Real, then sf at once indicates, widens, and bridges the very gap that science claims to have already filled in.

This reminds me — to refer to a text that comes several decades later than Lardreau’s — of Quentin Meillassoux’s reference to the “Great Outdoors” (or great outside — le grand dehors). Meillassoux argues that physical science alone is able to describe this outside. Lardreau would reject this, since he argues that science fails to grasp the outside, precisely by turning it into an inside. Where metaphysics insists that there is a wall, and that therefore there is both an inside (dedans) and an outside (dehors), in contrast “science is the discourse that says that the outside is actually, for whomever understands, the inside (la science est ce discours qui dit que le dehors est, pour qui sait voir, le dedans.).

Lardreau expands this line of thought, by saying that, just as philosophy can no longer keep up with science, so also it can no longer keep up with what he designates by various names, including religion, theology, spirituality, and ethics. The only form in which philosophy subsists today is as Philosophy of History; but such philosophy is unequal to face the horrors of the modern world, like Nazi concentration camps and the killing fields of Cambodia. If there can be, to paraphrase and extend Adorno, both no poetry and no philosophy after Auschwitz, then here science fiction can take up the task that philosophy is no longer capable of performing (la science­ fiction relève la philosophie). Here Lardeau cites, in particular, Thomas Disch’s The Genocides and Camp Concentration.

The book’s third (and longest) chapter is called “Two Preliminary Studies, in the Form of Applications”. The first of these two studies is focused on Leibniz, and the second on Frank Herbert’s Dune saga (Lardreau includes all six volumes written and published by Herbert, not just the first). These both have a lot to say about science fiction, drawing upon the formulations developed in the prior chapters.

Lardreau sees Leibniz as the most pleasurable philosopher to read, as well as the most science fictional. This is because Leibniz displays “the marvelous richness, the mad generosity, the entire liberty of a thought that does not refuse itself any object, that does not reject any question, that does not judge any reference to be valueless or any knowledge to be unworthy (indigne). A thought without exclusivity, without principle of authority…” Lardreau insists that this is radically different from the way that Hegel incorporates and integrates everything into a totalizing framework. “There is no ‘dialectic’ in Leibniz, no labor of the negative, no Aufhebung“. Rather, for Leibniz, “it is in what it affirms, in what it offers purely positively, that every thought can be welcomed as a particular case or particular development.” Indeed, I could quote Lardreau on the greatness of Leibniz at much greater length; the rhapsody goes on for pages. The insistence on positivity and affirmation has a Deleuzian ring to it; but once again Lardreau does not mention Deleuze, probably because Deleuze applies this sense of affirmation to thinkers Lardreau rejects (i.e. Spinoza, Bergson, and Nietzsche). Instead, Lardreau cites Deleuze’s friend Michel Serres on Leibniz. In his joyous pursuit of affirmation, Lardreau continues, Leibniz develops “strange narrative machines, ‘possible fictions’ that he often develops, not without a sort of literary obligingness/indulgence (complaisance, a word that does not have negative connotations in this context), in which science fiction fans may discover the original mold (le moule originel) of many of the topoi that delight them.” And Lardreau quotes Leibniz himself on this matter; in his New Essays on Human Understanding, after pondering such weird, proto-science-fictional matters as how we would treat a person who came from the Moon, Leibniz wonderfully writes: “still these bizarre fictions have their uses in abstract studies, as aids to a better grasp of the nature of our ideas” (3.6.22) (It should be noted that Leibniz’s original French, quoted directly by Lardreau, uses the word spéculation for what is translated into English here as “abstract studies”).

Lardreau here returns to his earlier claims that fictions are crucial to philosophy, because the Real and the Rational do not coincide, or because there is “a separation between the Real and our power to apprehend it, no matter what one calls this power.” For Leibniz, the sort of intuition upon which Descartes relied is inadequate; it is only through fictioning that we can approach the truth. Projecting a Kantian vocabulary back on Leibniz, Lardreau writes that “there are objects that we are unable to not think about, but that we cannot think about otherwise than in the mode of fiction (no matter how imperfect and insufficient fiction might be compared to other forms of truth).” Fiction, in Leibniz’s sense (which we today understand as science fiction) is not only metaphysically legitimate, but even metaphysically indispensible. The only way to consider and judge between multiple possibilities is to fictionalize each possibility as a possible world. We need to project these fictions, because of “the finitude of human reason”; unlike God, we cannot comprehend all the truth directly and intuitively. Yet at the same time, finite human reason “stubbornly refuses to accept as true anything that it cannot explain and verify through its own powers.” This is what makes science fiction not only legitimate, but metaphysically necessary.

These metaphysical considerations bring us, in a somewhat surprising way, to the heart of Lardreau’s understanding of science fiction. Lardreau says that the ultimate vocation of sf is to be anti-utopian. In other words, Lardreau’s thesis seems to be the exact opposite of the most common understanding of English-language sf scholarship, which is — following Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson — to identify science fiction as a utopian discourse par excellence. This difference can be explained, in part, by Lardreau’s intellectual history. Like other French intellectuals of his generation, Lardreau started out as an ultra-leftist. But his disillusionment with the failures of the Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s led him to adopt, instead, a kind of tragic view of history (expressed in its most extreme terms, supposedly, in the 1976 book L’Ange that he co-wrote with Christian Jambet, which I have not read). In the current volume, Lardreau phrases this by saying that, while negative attempts to fight and resist oppression are always praiseworthy, positive attempts to create a better world most of the time (le plus souvent) end up making things worse. But Lardreau still says this with a different inflection than that adopted by his better known contemporaries, the nouveaux philosophes such as Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann. Where the latter leverage their new-found anti-communism to become prominent spokespeople for colonialism and imperialism, as well as other sorts of fatuous stupidity, Lardreau instead maintains what Hallward calls a kind of “ascetic withdrawal” from politics. This is combined with continued fidelity to the pseudo-Maoist dictum of the French Left in 1968, that “it is always right to rebel” (on a toujours raison de se révolter).

Though I do not wish to defend Lardreau’s ant-leftist political quietism, I think that I can understand his anti-utopianism, and indeed justify it to some extent, by returning to Leibniz. In his novel Candide, Voltaire famously mocks Leibniz in the figure of Doctor Pangloss, who continually proclaims, in the face of unspeakable horrors, that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Lardreau responds to this portrayal by noting that Leibniz is anything but sanguine in the face of catastrophe. Rather, it is precisely by “facing the desolating spectacle of the world, confronting it, and not at all by turning away from it, that Leibniz pronounces that all is for the best.” Lardreau proposes that we should understand Leibniz to be saying, not that the world is marvelous, but rather that it is, under the circumstances, “the least bad of possible worlds.” We can always imagine something even worse, though we lack God’s power of envisioning all the possible alternatives. I am reminded here, at least to some extent, of Karen Lord’s excellent (and insufficiently recognized) science fiction novel The Best of All Possible Worlds, a space opera that begins with the horror of a nearly total genocide, but nonetheless manages, not only to continue on in the face of such catastrophe, but even to transform itself into a romance novel with a happy ending.

Lardreau’s explanation of Leibniz’ optimism also reminds me Alfred North Whitehead’s discussions of Leibniz in Process and Reality. At one point, Whitehead remarks that “the Leibnizian theory of the ‘best of possible worlds’ is an audacious fudge produced in order to save the face of a Creator constructed by contemporary, and antecedent, theologians’ (47). Later in the text, however, Whitehead enunciates an oracular formulation that is quite Leibnizian in spirit:

This function of God [in providing the “initial aim” for every actual occasion] is analogous to the working of things in Greek and in Buddhist thought. The initial aim is the best for that im­passe. But if the best be bad, then the ruthlessness of God can be personified as Atè, the goddess of mischief. The chaff is burnt. What is inexorable in God, is valuation as an aim towards ‘order’; and ‘order’ means ‘society permissive of actualities with patterned intensity of feeling arising from adjusted contrasts.’ (244)

Both Lardreau and Whitehead seem to be making the point that, far from proclaiming that things are perfect, Leibniz takes pain and suffering quite seriously. Whitehead’s God seeks to increase, as much as possible, the quantity and quality of “actualities with patterned intensity of feeling.” Leibniz’s God, the philosopher’s “audacious fudge” aside, similarly operates according to what Lardreau calls “the law of maximum and minimum… the production of the maximum of worlds (and not only of the maxiumum of effects in each world), following from the minimum of principles.” This is an aesthetic principle no less than it is an ethical one; Leibniz, Lardreau, and Whitehead all refuse to belittle either the ethical or the aesthetic by separating them from one another. (It is only be means of such a separation that there can be anything like the fascist “aestheticization of politics” decried by Walter Benjamin). Lardreau drives this point home by quoting a maxim of Leibniz’s that is too delightful for me not to repeat it here:

My great principle, as regards natural things, is that of Harlequin, Emperor of the Moon, … that it is always and everywhere in all things just like here. That is, that nature is fundamentally uniform, although it varies as to more and less and in degrees of perfection. This results in the simplest and most intelligible philosophy in the world.

The point of these formulations about the maximum and the minimum, and about the ruthlessness and inexorability of God, is that change always happens, but it is never simple. We must reject the idealist theory according to which evil and oppression can be eliminated just by changes in personal attitude — which amounts to believing that you can eliminate bad things in reality by the simple expedient of thinking them away. Things in the world are intricately inteconnected; and even if we could change any one thing, this change would have ramifying effects upon everything else. This vision leads Lardreau to reject what he sees as a facile utopianism. But it equally leads him to reject, and to warn us against, what he calls the “lazy” and cynical underside of such utopianism: the idea, popular among the nouveaux philosophes and other conservatives, that “we must never change anything, for fear that this will cause everything to collapse, without warning, into horror.” For Lardreau, revolutionary utopianism and anti-revolutionary Burkean conservativism are bad ways of understanding what Leibniz tells us.

So when Lardreau says that science fiction is anti-utopian, he does not mean this in anything like the Burkean sense. Rather, he finds in science fiction the Leibnizian virtues of variation and compossiblity. Science fictional speculation seeks to explore — or better, to express — as many and as various worlds as it can. In this way, it works to expand possibility. But the possibilities of science fictional world building cannot just be abstract logical possibilities. That they are non-contradictory, and therefore not logically impossible, is not enough. The changes envisioned by a science fiction narrative must not only be possible in themselves, but compossible with other circumstances. If you make worlds by introducing particular changes (if you introduce a novum, as Suvin would say), then you need to work on as wide a scope as you can, in working out how this one change also changes other things. What other developments are compossible with the novum?

I won’t discuss Lardreau’s reading of Herbert’s Dune cycle at any length. It is an interesting and powerful reading, but it doesn’t add much, for my purposes, to what Lardreau says in the earlier portions of the book. The central argument is that Dune considers, in fictionalizing mode, the ultimately theological question of predestination versus contingency, or of fate versus free will. The discussion includes digressions on Kierkegaard and St. Augustine, and especially on the question of Manichaeanism and Augustine’s conversion from that to Christian orthodoxy. It also spends several pages on the significance of the Mule in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series — another prime science ficitonal example of how contingency disrupts the apparent laws of history.

Finally, the “Introclusion” to Lardreau’s book returns to the question of the Real, and how it exceeds all measures of intelligibility. This leads Lardreau back to the way that his insistence upon a negative philosophy makes for a necessary counterpart to the positivity of Leibnizian and science fictional invention. Late modern philosophy seems incapable of making grand conjectures any longer. The power of science fiction is that it generates and explores metaphysical conjectures more powerfully than any other discourse. Lardreau differentiates between science fiction and fantasy, and he seems to dislike the latter as much as Darko Suvin does, albeit for entirely different reasons. Lardreau suggests that world building in fantasy works to shut down conjectures and speculations, in contrast to science fiction that opens them up. (I have to confess that I am largely in accord with Lardreau about this, even though there are plenty of individual works of fantasy that I love, including those by Mirrlees, Peake, Mieville, Le Guin, and even — despite the ridicule I often receive from my Marxist friends for this — Tolkien). In any case, Lardreau celebrates the capacity of science fiction to open up conjectures, rather than shutting them down; this is why he says that sf is anti-utopian, and why he hopes that sf can be a stimulus to some future philosophy, whose task would be to transform (science fictional) imagination into (philsophical) understanding.