Henri Lefebvre’s Metaphilosophy – First Notes by Ralph Dumain


The critiques of his fellow French wastrels are interesting, as well as of other thinkers whom he partially credits while criticizing, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, but the overall theme of the book is the consequences that follow from Marx’s notion of abolishing and realizing philosophy, argued in a way that just doesn’t work for me. I also don’t think that Marx’s idea is very useful beyond the limitations of the period in which he wrote it, i.e. in the critique of Hegelian philosophy. Lefebvre also ties his analysis into his now fashionable studies of urbanism and social space. His themes also include praxis and poeisis. It’s a bizarre combination, apparently more sophisticated than the French Marxism, structuralism, existentialism, phenomenology, surrealism, philosophy of science, as of 1965 criticized in the book, but a rather odd take on the notion of the supersession of philosophy.

Lefebvre analyzes the way various philosophers remain stuck in ‘philosophy’ and their failure to properly integrate the subjective and objective dimensions of human existence. The concept of the ‘everyday’ is central to his concerns. He gives limited credence to Heidegger and others while criticizing them for obscuring the historical and social. His bête noire seems to be structuralism, which he eventually diagnoses as positivist and technocratic as well as ahistorical. He criticizes all his fellow Frenchmen: Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Gaston-Gilles Granger. I’m not sure what he makes of Pierre Naville, but I have to look up the relevant references.

The unexpected payoff for me comes in Chapter 6—Mimesis and Praxis—which is about cybernetics and artificial intelligence (with some references to science fiction). What serendipity!  This is directly pertinent to my current projects. It is fascinating and not least because one doesn’t find this sort of analysis in the anglophone literature. Cybernetics was formulated in the 1940s and its public profile peaked in the '50s and '60s. Its offshoot artificial intelligence has enjoyed various waves of public profiling and is currently enjoying the most insufferable upsurge in its history. Now people in the humanities—perhaps sniffing where the money is—are also hyping AI—even to the extent of advocating computer-generated literature.* I’ve been working on an essay in opposition to this trend. It is quite revealing though to see how critical theorists in Germany and France were on to this in the 1960s and whose critiques are more relevant today than ever. Note that even Adorno commented on the ideology of artificial intelligence:

Adorno on Philosophy, Formalism, & Artificial Intelligence (1964/65)

Lefebrve’s analysis is unique. Among other things, he argues that philosophy’s attempt to defend itself and the uniqueness of living human intelligence fails at every turn. He also notes the adoption of cybernetics in the USSR after its initial stillborn resistance, and parallel developments by Marxist thinkers in western countries. (Naville may be one of these.) Philosophy cannot resist the march of science, conquering the last refuges of the human. Lefebvre explores this in detail, and here his use of the concept of mimesis enters in. The robotic simulation of the human involves the implications of mimesis. Lefebvre notes, as others have, that humans themselves are being roboticized. Lefebvre also indicts structuralism in this connection as being positivist, technocratic ... and ahistorical. Cybernetics (along with structuralism) obliterates history.

Now I’ve hit the jackpot, for this ties directly into my analysis of the Hungarian utopian novelists Frigyes Karinthy and Sándor Szathmári!

* Peter Swirski: From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution. Montreal; Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.


I'm still reading Chapter 6—Mimesis and Praxis. It is incredibly rich; I could quote from it forever. However, my eyes glaze over at some point. Lefebvre mixes his analysis of philosophies in with his analysis of urban formations, and here is where I zone out or get lost. Late in the chapter, he connects Plato and Aristotle with political geography, as his does with the circular layout of cities and the Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans. He seems to validate Plato and devalue Aristotle, but I don’t have a clear notion of what this is about.  It's how he relates philosophy to the totality of social existence, en route to the supersession of philosophy, which never succeeds in realizing its aims. This doesn't do much for me, but before he gets to ancient Greece, there is gold for me in practically every paragraph. I am not quite half-way through the book.

There are two essential books for engaging Lefebvre’s overall philosophy, both from Continuum:

Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible by Stuart Elden

Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings

I need to read more about interwar French Marxism. I have had some interest in Paul Nizan, and I recall Pierre Naville from surrealism. I vaguely remember Politzer. There are books in English on this subject. Lefebvre’s engagement with Hegel did not come through Kojeve. He seems to be the most interesting of French Marxist thinkers. Althusser is even more of a waste of time when one engages Lefebvre.


Lefebvre keywords: mimesis, structure vs history, ars combinatoria, Leibniz, simulation, residue, eternal present, elimination of time.

In addition to main quotes from chapter 6, there are other themes: Marx on machinery, problem of values.

REFERENCE:  Lefebvre, Henri. Metaphilosophy (Métaphilosophie, 1965), translated by David Fernbach, edited with an introduction by Stuart Elden. London; New York: Verso, 2016.

Ars combinatoria, cybernetics, mimesis & praxis
by Henri Lefebvre

Is philosophical creativity combinatorial?
by Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre on Leibniz & Ars Combinatoria
by Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre on Marx, Religion, Philosophy, Ideology & Politics

Henri Lefebvre on Praxis

On Charlie Chaplin by Henri Lefebvre

Logique formelle, logique dialectique: Préface a la 3e édition
par Henri Lefebvre

La conscience mystifiée (table des matières)
par Norbert Guterman & Henri Lefebvre

On Guterman & Lefebvre’s La conscience mystifiée (1936)
by Riki Scanlan

On Trends in the Status of Dialectical Logic: A Brief Study of Lefebvre, Ilyenkov and Wald
by Claude M. J. Braun

Badiou and the Bankruptcy of Fashionable French Philosophy
by R. Dumain

Ars Combinatoria Study Guide

Cybernetics & Artificial Intelligence: Ideology Critique

Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy:
Selected Bibliography

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


“I am not a good Communist” –
Henri Lefebvre’s Autobiography from 1957

translated by David Fernbach

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Uploaded 26 October 2019

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