'Metaphilosophy' by Henri Lefebvre Henri Lefebvre
Translated by David Fernbach, Verso, New York, 2016. 384 pp., $95.00 hb
ISBN 1784782742

Reviewed by Tony Lack

About the reviewer

Tony Lack

Tony Lack is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Alamo College, San Antonio, Texas, USA.



In Metaphilosophy, which was originally published in 1965, Lefebvre set himself the task of “superseding” philosophy through a retrieval of the emancipatory potential of Marxist theory that dominant paradigms such as Althusser’s structuralist approach had excluded. Metaphilosophy also contains a general critique of the western philosophical tradition. Lefebvre's fundamental point is that the clarity and coherence of systematic philosophical thought is founded upon a destruction of its creative, emancipatory, potential. The conditions of possibility for the philosopher’s Logos is what renders it tendentious and irrelevant.  

In each chapter of Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre reveals a different aspect of this process of founding a Logos through the exclusion of what is most important about human existence. He deploys his “method of residues” to redeem philosophy’s broader function as a free and open discourse. He emphasizes the historical overlap and discontinuity among hegemonic forms, systems, and structures that coalesce in temporary and fragile social worlds which are founded upon excluded alternatives, which Lefebvre calls “residues.” It is among the “precious residues” that Lefebvre locates the emancipatory potential of new and different possible worlds which can only emerge in and through the liberation and ascendancy of the proletariat. 

What types of power are operative in the constitution of worlds? To answer, Lefebvre retrieves three ancient categories of human action: praxis, poiesis, mimesis. He analyzes how they have been reduced and discusses how they ought to be revitalized. Praxis is, “specifically social activity . . .relationships between human beings, distinguished by legitimate abstraction from relations with nature and matter… situated in history [as] a creator of history” (p. 6). Praxis is a type of historically-situated human agency that can be free or determined and its intentionality can be individual or collective. Praxis can be conformist, as in enacting a social role, or revolutionary, as in transforming that role.  

Poiesis is, “human activity insofar as it appropriates nature” (8). Here, Lefebvre is returning, via Heidegger, to the Aristotelian difference between poiesis and techne. Poiesis is a type of creative activity that allows nature or self to emerge and arrive at a boundary or limit, while techne is the imposition of a rational plan (Logos) upon nature or self. Poiesis allows what it creates to emerge and exist in novel, temporary, instantiations. Levebvre says, “not all creation is poiesis, but all poiesis is creation” (8). 

Poiesis is surely the type of creating and shaping that Heidegger associates with “letting be,” and it brings forth the emancipatory potential of the residues that techne has founded its techniques upon.  

The third term, mimesis is, “activity that proceeds according to a form . . .and adds to its form” (10). Mimesis cannot always be reduced to rote repetition and simple imitation, but in some instances it will be, such as mindlessly repeating a customer service script provided by the boss. Mimesis is a category of action “standing between repetition and overturning” (10). Mimesis always proceeds from a form, but it may involve reproducing the form, adapting it to a new situation, parodying it, or producing novelty from it.  

In Chapter Two, “The Superseding of Philosophy,” Lefebvre develops Marx’s premise that it is not our consciousness that determines our existence, but our existence that determines our consciousness. Applied to philosophy, this means that “the philosophic mind is nothing but the estranged mind of the world thinking within its self-estrangement, i.e., comprehending itself abstractly” (Marx's, Paris Manuscripts, cited in Lefebvre, p. 330) 

It follows that the superseding of philosophy requires fundamental economic and political transformation. The material conditions of the proletariat must be superseded, allowing all humans to become producers of all dimensions of human existence; our objects, systems, structures, social relationships, and self-identities, as well as our time; a world in our own image that never pretends to be the final image of the world. This will require the supersession of the state, which seeks its continued expansion in its purely abstract form, an “ideologico-juridico-politico systematization” (18).  

From the beginnings of the western philosophical tradition the philosopher king has sought refuge in the fortress of the state whose foundations he has created. In founding his Republic, the philosopher liberates the state structure from the mob, from doxa, from the passions, and from unstructured experience. Barbaric traditions are interrogated and destroyed, religious passions are subdued by reason. Doctrines are imposed on barbaric traditions. At this point, the philosopher is put in his proper place, no longer as sovereign but as as a master of logic and analysis, free to think freely within the limits of the system he helped create. The state and philosophy, constituted through their exclusions, coexist in a symbiotic coherence, comprehending themselves abstractly in-and-through their abstract representations of themselves.  

Therefore, the state has to be shattered before the residues that philosophy enabled it to suppress can be revealed and comprehended in new light. The revolutionary activity of the proletariat allows philosophy to see itself as it once was, a tradition of wisdom that is practical, technical, and creative.  

Chapter Three, “Philosophy in Crisis,” is the most substantial chapter and consists of extended investigations of eleven “aporias of philosophy,” the cul de sacs that philosophy has developed to build its houses in. Zeroing in on two of the eleven aporias, “Totality,” and “Father and Son: Masters and Disciple,” will reveal the specifically Marxist critique of the master’s house.  

For Lefebvre, any totality, of life, world, etc., is always provisional, never fully present. A totality is only resting point in an underdetermined dialectic. Lefebvre peers under the Aristotelian teleology that structures Hegel’s dialectics comprehending every present moment through an end already in the beginning. Reducing the plenitude of everyday life, and its meaning, to a chain of means and ends, “Aristotelian metaphysics . . . ends up in facile rationalism, naive optimism, the theory of continuous progress, bourgeois materialism, linear evolutionism” (91).  

However, when the plan fails or when the end of history suddenly disappears behind a shifting horizon, revisions and excuses pile up producing confusion and cognitive dissonance, often resulting in a narrowing of minds and acceptance of structures of power and authority. Seen in this light, Marx stayed too close to Aristotle, and Hegel never really took his exhortations in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit seriously, not opening up and letting go enough to tarry with the negative. Instead, negation was employed as a prop in the dramatic unfolding of Being, serving as a sanitized nothingness that Marxist humanists understood as human potential or the realization of species-being. Forcing this path of self-realization upon humanity, setting us all on the road to freedom and human self-fulfillment, has resulted in the cruel paradox of destroying human freedoms in order to achieve Human Freedom. 

In place of this “facile rationalism” Lefebvre offers an existential dialectic, in which,“Birth and death go together. . .someone or something (always neither totally someone nor totally something) is born and dies . . .what is born loses something: being, presence . . .But it also wins something, first of all, itself (90). Lefebvre’s insight, left underdeveloped, is that there is an ever-present nihilism that structures human experience. It is not simply the threat of nihilism, which the state, the philosophers, and the priests hold in abeyance. Instead, it is the nihilism that makes identity, community, and society possible and meaningful. It is the unassimilated residue secreted by systems of power that creates the desire for meaning and presence. This nihilism is a reservoir of undefined possibility from which residues can be extracted and new worlds can be created; but not before the old worlds have achieved their decadent triumph, their victory and vital degradation.“Each form or structure conquered by history and civilization thus contains both a victory and a vital degradation . . .each of them collapses only by making itself explicit, . . .and only when it has proclaimed itself totality . . .the negativity that this world always-already contained within itself asserts itself, gives it the lie, dismantles it, shatters it. Only an accomplished totality can reveal that it is not the totality” (92-93). This is the structure and process of Lefebvre’s existential dialectic, which he also describes as a process of “mondialisation,” wherein every totality that claims universality shows itself to be partial and particular.  

The influence of Nietzsche is apparent in the eleventh aporia, “Father and Son: Master and Disciple,” where Lefebvre detects the will-to-power of the priest living inside the philosopher. “Religion took its stand on transcendence; philosophy wagered on immanence . . .either man submits to being, or he rebels . . .and condemns himself to nothingness, to defeat, to nihilism” (88). Either we submit to God’s plan, or we submit to the Logos. Both paths are sterile reifications abstracted from the depth and tragedy of human existence and extracted from the precious minutiae of everyday experience and the conditions of existence that produce them. Their abstraction is the essence of their allure, since they can be applied to any historical situation. The philosopher and the priest lead humans away from complexity and possibility. The philosopher produces meaning by reducing the complexity of human existence to a historical narrative in which even the worst nightmares have a higher significance. Detached from experience, she witnesses and chronicles events and then links them to a universal purpose, which gives them a rational and recognizable form and content, a coherent narrative. According to Lefebvre, religious and philosophical systems must die so that humans may live. “What is it that dies? . . .Along with God, there perish Truth, Beauty, Good, the three absolutes” (89). Perhaps religion and philosophy are both already dead, or, one should say, lifeless? The institutionalization and systematization of religiosity in systems of ritual and dogma has robbed them of any vitality they may have possessed. Within the complex horizon of contemporary Christianity, all attempts at re-enchantment of the spirit have to contend with a reflexive awareness of its victory and vital degradation. In philosophy, the Geist prowls around in textbooks as a set of abstract problems that can be debated while the philosopher king, posing as referee, rewards his disciples for successfully going through the motions, teaching them to think critically while preventing them from thinking freely. “The philosopher is the spiritual Father. The disciples stand between stubborn repetition of formulas learned and little understood, and contemplation of the inaccessible model: the Master, and through him the True. They stand in the full flood of mimesis” (96).  

The philosopher provides two false paths, (aporias within the aporia) logical gymnastics, exercises that qualify the disciple as a member of the team; and idolatry, worship of the master and his gnostic powers. 

In the final chapter, “Metamorphosis of Philosophy: Poiesis and Metaphilosophy,” Lefebvre employs the method of residues in his rejection of the “Manichean” structure of philosophy (301). He certainly didn’t need to invoke yet another complex metaphor (Manicheism) to depict the false structures and powers of reduction, but it is in line with his open, multivalent, approach. In place of a manichean existence, or prison house of capitalist ideology, Lefebvre encourages a “new Romanticism” that reintegrates poiesis, praxis, and mimesis with the experience of everyday life. How? Step one is revolution. The proletariat must supersede itself. Step two is negation. “Nothing has precise contours . . .Nothing is susceptible to rigorous definition . . .Nothing is completely determined” (317). Step three is creation. Experiment with the residues that emerge from the false totality. Stop imagining a poetics of everyday life and make it happen. Become a camel, then a lion, and then a child, and then begin again, until death.  

2 August 2017

Review information

Source: Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Accessed 15 September 2017
URL: https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2017/2772

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