Intervention – “Towards a Metaphilosophy of the Urban” by Andy Merrifield

I suspect I’m not the only one thrilled by the prospect of seeing Henri Lefebvre’s great philosophical tract, Métaphilosophie, from half-a-century ago, finally make it into English. Thanks to the dedicated steady work of Stuart Elden, rapidly becoming Lefebvre’s Anglophone ambassador (I’m tempted to say an English Rémi Hess, but that wouldn’t be kind), and David Fernbach’s considerable translation skills, Metaphilosophy is due out next spring with Verso. This might well be the philosophical event of 2016. The translation has a wonderful postface essay by Marxist scholar Georges Labica, a former philo prof at Nanterre.[1] Labica says Métaphilosophie is a very important book, as important for us today as it was important for Lefebvre himself back then. Indeed, it’s perhaps Lefebvre’s most important work, says Labica, a milestone text, the most satisfactorily executed and the best organised of all his books, demarcating what he once did from what he would soon do, punctuating his own past from an emergent future. Here, we have Lefebvre ploughing the land and planting seeds for what would eventually bloom into books on space and urbanism, and a third volume of the Critique of Everyday Life (in 1981), which, remember, is subtitled “Towards a Metaphilosophy of Everyday Life”.

Labica also thinks Métaphilosophie is one of Lefebvre’s most ambitious undertakings, his towering engagement with Hegel and Marx, with Nietzsche and Heidegger, with poetics and polemics, with himself and the world he knew, the world he wanted to change. Feuerbach also has a cameo in Métaphilosophie, the man famously taken to task by Marx, the man from whom Marx took much; Lefebvre similarly wants to transform the world along with abstract, contemplative philosophy; he knows that’s the point. But Métaphilosophie is equally an accomplished book of interpretation, written by a sexagenarian philosopher-poet at the top of his game, an ancient Greek who’s also a heterodox Marxist, a Fourierian utopian who’s a Heraclitian nomad, forever flowing, never wanting to step into the same philosophical waters twice. Thus, into the Anglosphere enters Metaphilosophy, “a philosophical text”, Stuart Elden says in his contextualising intro, “that seeks to leave Philosophy behind”; it’s a study, says Elden, “of productive tensions”.

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Lefebvre was always slippery about what he meant by “metaphilosophy”. And he’s as slippery as ever in Metaphilosophy itself; rarely do we get a straight answer, rarely does he want to systematise himself, explain his thought in a way that cuts it up, that boxes it off. He seems to suggest metaphilosophy is philosophising beyond pure philosophy, a sort of free play with big concepts, with thoughts above and beyond academic philosophy, beyond the institution of philosophy, a philosophy without borders and limits, a holistic approach to social, existential and political questions, a philosophy that realises itself through political practice. He knew full well the tag would confuse, would likely perplex any interlocutor, befuddle even the initiated.

Take an instance from 1974. Dialoguing on “Evolution or Revolution” in Amsterdam’s Lutheran church with eminent political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, Lefebvre gleefully proclaimed himself something else than mere philosopher. “No,” he said, “I consider myself a metaphilosopher, that is to say, I don’t build a system. I aim to take from philosophy those ideas which are capable of arousing a critical consciousness, ideas that are destined for a higher and at the same time more profound consciousness of the world in which we live.” “Mr. Kolakowski,” mediator Fons Elders wonders, “do you agree with this idea of metaphilosophy?” “First of all,” says Kolakowski, “I don’t understand what it means exactly…this metaphilosophy?”[2] Defending himself, Lefebvre responds: “I’d like to return to the idea of metaphilosophy. First, Marx has said that the revolution, the way he thinks it, conceives it, and projects it, is not a philosophy, but the realisation of philosophy. In the course of its history, philosophy creates a certain idea of the human being, and the revolution realises this idea, but not without modifying and transforming it. Metaphilosophy is the idea that philosophy leads towards an idea or a projection of a human being, which revolution realises.”

Overcoming philosophy—dépassement de la philosophie—is, accordingly, a key item in the construction of metaphilosophy. Philosophers deal in abstract thought, in rarefied concepts, often without social content; and, as people, they tend not to be too connected with an everyday public. Meanwhile, everyday people aren’t terribly smitten by philosophy, nor by philosophising. Life is just too practical, too pragmatic; big ideas seem too remote from this reality. Thus the twain rarely meets, this schism between the abstract and the concrete, between ambitious thought and courageous action, which, Lefebvre thinks, is a big problem for both constituencies, for enlightened philosophers as well as alienated people—or is that the other way around? Philosophy needs to bed itself down in everyday life, needs a creative, poetic and active impulse, really an amalgam of all three, bringing theory and practice into unity, into a transformative and creative mutation, into a productive confrontation. “It behooves metaphilosophical thought,” Lefebvre says, “to imagine and to propose new forms, or rather a new style that can construct itself practically, and realise the philosophical project by metamorphosing the everyday” (p.118).[3]

Those three impulses transpire and conspire in Métaphilosophie as praxis, poiesis and mimesis. Praxis comes from Marx, of course, and is Marxist in orientation, emphasising relations of production, relations between people, social relations, social activity, concrete practice in the sense that Marx identifies in his Theses on Feuerbach: “Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuous contemplation; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity” (5th thesis); “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice” (8th thesis).

Poiesis, for its part, is a sort of praxis as well, stemming from the Greek root “to make”. But not produce in the technical sense; more to create from ideas something beautiful, to create an oeuvre, a work of art, poetry or theatre, even a city, the spontaneous creation of social participants, of citizens united. It can also mean to fashion the self in a creative, poetic act; in his Introduction to Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger saw poiesis as the original site of the disclosure of Being. “All creation isn’t poiesis,” Lefebvre tells us (p.14), “but all poiesis is creation.” This poetic blush has us glimpse Nietzsche and Heidegger, brings poetry to bear on technology, spontaneity on rationality, freedom on necessity, Becoming on Being. The link between praxis and poiesis, says Lefebvre (p.301), is the link “between repetition and creation, between discourse and speech.”

The contradiction gets mediated, he says, by mimesis, something more than just “imitation”. We get a hint of this again from the ancient Greeks, especially from “imitative poets” like Homer, whose likes Plato wanted to banish from the city. Imitation is a form of representation; for Plato, it’s the notion that imitative poets represent people behaving immoderately. Imitation is a “copy of the truth”, Plato says, how things appear; not good: a misrepresentation of human virtue. Lefebvre flirts with this idea, but sides with Homer rather than Plato. Mimesis doesn’t directly coincide with imitation, he says, but instead can be a creative message bearer, too, a “perception and intuition” (p.16). It situates formalism, is about difference as well as repetition, a kind of habitus that enables social reproduction to unfold, to unfold as before; but it’s also something that breaks out of repetition, out of simple reproduction, permitting something else to take hold, to take form. Mimesis, in short, is inherent in both poiesis and praxis; it’s about—using the language of Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 3—“continuity and discontinuity”.

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In Métaphilosophie, Lefebvre roots for a totality without totalisation. He knows that in any totalisation like global capitalism there’s always leakiness, always ruptures, always internal contradictions that both structure and de-structure. Totalisation can never be total. When mimesis, poiesis and praxis encounter one another, weird and wonderful things emerge from the mix. Totalisation secretes willy-nilly a “residual element”, its Other, its shadow. Every totalising system, explains Lefebvre (p.309), “leaves a residue, which escapes it, which resists it.” There are always people who don’t fit into any whole, old Henri included. They’re the stuff left over after all the sums have been done, after everything has seemingly been accounted for; le reste after la somme. They’re philosophical anti-concepts, an affirmation of remainders, of marginal dregs, of the power of the ragged and irreducible.

Early in Métaphilosophie (pp17-18), Lefebvre tells what he means by irréductible. Totalising systems tend to “expulse” a residue, he says, which is essential in its irreducibility, in its implacability, in its refusal to sit down and comply. Philosophy “expulses” the everyday and the ludic; technocracy expulses desire and imagination; bureaucracy expulses individual deviancy and subversion; reason and rationality expulse irrationality and spontaneity. To affirm residue, says Lefebvre, is to affirm a romanticism, a revolutionary romanticism, concocted from “certain essential themes of Marxism: negativity, contestation, radical critique” (p.310). To talk about a residue is thus to talk about what another romantic, John Keats, called “negative capability”: the capacity of human beings to transcend and overcome their contexts, to live with contradictions, to resist contradictions, to innovate and blast through contradictions, to blast through social confinement, through confining totalising contexts and structures.

Actually, Lefebvre’s “method of residues” doesn’t so much draw upon as “parody” another nineteenth-century Brit, “the well known and little employed scientific method left by the empiricist philosopher John Stuart Mill” (p.311). In A System of Logic (1843), Mill said “the residue of the phenomenon is the effect of the remaining antecedents.” But “our method,” Lefebvre counters (p.311), “contains several articles: to detect residues—to wager on them—to demonstrate how they’re a precious essence, to reunite them, to organise their revolt and totalise them.” Each residue is an irreducible yearning to be pulled together. To reassemble residues is, for Lefebvre, to think revolutionary thought, “a revolutionary thought-act” (pensée-acte). Waxing lyrical and political in the important climatic sections to Métaphilosophie (p.309-333), Lefebvre reckons that throwing in your lot with residues is “to inaugurate an act of poiesis”, to declare war, to step up to the plate, to bat against mimesis, against crushing totality, to challenge it to a duel, “to toss the glove in the face of established powers.” It’s “to rise up, in grand defiance, against systems and acquired forms, and to seize from them other forms.”

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Five years on from Métaphilosophie, Lefebvre wrote his best text on the city, La révolution urbaine. Yet even here—especially here—it seems the spirit of metaphilosophy is still getting worked through, that the notion of an ontological overcoming remains vital. Only now, what’s being overcome is the city itself, a breaking of the chains of mimetic repetition; a not so romantic revolution, an urban revolution. Ambivalence is legion; the dialectic highly charged. Because just as metaphilosophy is built upon the ruins of traditional philosophy, so, too, is urban society built upon the ruins of the traditional city. “Metaphilosophy,” he says in La révolution urbaine, “freed itself from philosophy like urban society emerges from the exploding city” (p.90).[4]

Urban society, then, is itself a metaphilosophical category, a discontinuity within a continuity, a difference in repetition, a breakdown of old industrial society, with its traditional city, and its supersession—its overcoming—by a new urban form: diffusive, unbound and planetary in its reach, beyond the breach. Thus the profoundly anti-philosophical problem of metaphilosophy is displaced onto the profoundly practical plane of urban society, where it transpires as a complex theoretical and political dilemma. Otherwise put: the urban is the arena where praxis, poiesis and mimesis are brought to metaphilosophical judgment.

The metaphilosophical ambition Lefebvre sets himself in The Urban Revolution is nothing less than an attempt to forge a “new humanism” out of the “bad side” of capitalist development. For the revolution in question is a drama in which the ruling classes have played the lead role. It’s they who’ve initiated the will to totalise the productive forces, to colonise and commodify land everywhere, to valorise people and nature, to frack value from human nature. Just as they’ve fracked deep into the earth and power-drilled monetised value from nature, ruling classes have begun fracking deeply into human nature as well, power-drilling value from different aspects of our everyday life, from the public realm, from all sorts of mysterious fees and charges slapped onto things, from land and real estate. The urban process is really the progressive production of evermore frackable spatial units. It’s a process of creative destruction, of economic, political and ecological transformation; and it’s global and ongoing, bounded only by the upper limits of planet earth itself. “The urban problematic, urbanism as ideology and institution, urbanisation as a global tendency,” Lefebvre says in La révolution urbaine (p.152), “are worldwide facts. The urban revolution is a planetary phenomenon.”

Imagery such as this has sparked lively debate in urban studies, homing in on the notion of “planetary urbanisation.”[5] Philosophers, as yet, haven’t come onboard. Metaphilosophers and metageographers appear to be taking note. Still, confusion abounds. But if we read closely what Lefebvre seems to be saying about both planetary urbanisation and metaphilosophy, we can glean productive insights from the combination, even guiding political thoughts, ideas that can transcend blind fields and help residues see the light.

Lefebvre’s allusions to “planetary urbanisation” are scattered throughout La révolution urbaine. Its most explicit reference, maybe, comes in his valedictory essay from 1989, the two-page “Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire”, published a couple of years before his death.[6] His language there is worth pondering on for a moment. Menace stalks us, Lefebvre says; not so much the menace of “planetary urbanisation” as “the planetarisation of the urban” (la planétarisation de l’urbain). The ordering of the phrase is telling. The urban doesn’t so much spread per se as it becomes a vortex for sucking in everything the planet offers: its capital, its wealth, its culture, and its people. It’s this sucking in of people and goods and capital that makes urban life so dynamic, and so menacing, because this is a totalising force that also “expulses” people, that secretes its residue. And it’s this expulsion process that makes urban space expand, that lets it push itself out. It’s an internal energy that creates outer propulsion, an exponential external expansion. The will to totalise literally expulses a residue whose ranks are swelling as we speak.

Residues are the subject matter of any metaphilosophy of the urban, of any planetarisation of the urban. Point to remember: while metaphilosophy is trying to figure out the totalisation of the urban under capitalism, it should not itself be a totalising theory. It’s a theory of residues within a vortex. Lefebvre even goes as far as to say that within this urban vortex a new humanism bases itself on “revolutionary citizenship.” He implies that this is what he really meant by “the right to the city” all along, that it’s about residues reclaiming their rights to the city they’ve been expelled from, a revolutionary citizenship that has nothing to do with a passport: citizenship here lies inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation. It doesn’t express a legal right bestowed by an institution of the bourgeois nation-state.

The method of residues is the reality of residues, the reality of all those expulsees, all those banished from the trappings of neoliberal urban reality. The residues are the disenfranchised constituency haunting the global banlieue. I like to call this residue a shadow citizenry: the remainders and irreducibles who live out the periphery, who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes this periphery is located in the core. They’re the superfluous ones, the NINJA (No Income, No Job, No Asset) generation, the 15M Indignados on the streets of Spain, occupiers denouncing unearned plenty and growing wealth inequality, Greeks who feel the brunt of the Troika, dispossessed Arab and African youth in French suburbs, Palestinians lobbing rocks at Israeli tanks, Kobane Kurds, Detroiters beholden to “Emergency Managers,” “June Days” Brazilians protesting public transport hikes, looters in London and Stockholm, occupiers in Gezi Park and kids in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, undocumented migrants, refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled, no matter where they wander. Residues are anybody and everybody who has had their homes repossessed, who has defaulted on their loans, who’re debt encumbered, whose pensions are kaput, whose immediate future is kaput.

Residues exist in the realm where social exclusion meets spatial marginality. They’re a minority that’s increasingly a majority, a new majority: if anything, residues are the new norm, the new planetary default position. So many people have been pushed off-limits that it’s extended the limit of limits, created an even larger social space for the concept of citizenship, for a revolutionary citizenship denied, or else one yet to be invented. The task of a metaphilosophy of the urban is quite simply—or quite complicatedly—to help reassemble and unite this disparate mass of planetary residue; it’s not to cosy up to institutional power, to placate the rich while pleading for the poor. Neither is “planetary urbanisation” about creating abstract, systematised theory, since all that seems alien to Lefebvre’s tastes and contrary to his opinions. He was, after all, the arch-anti-systematiser, a man of the margins, of the periphery. A metaphilosophy of the urban isn’t to formalise theory, isn’t to produce “nice” urban theory so far removed, so disembodied from critical reality, that everybody is happy with its formulation, especially the donors and funders. Wasn’t this precisely Lefebvre’s beef with philosophy: that it had become an institutional discourse associated with a university and a state?

Today, the institutionalisation that menaces planetary urbanisation mimics the institutionalisation that Lefebvre said menaced structuralism in the 1960s: the reign of structuralism, he said, chimed nicely with the state’s structuration of urban reality. Structuralism’s preoccupation with “system” and “systematisation,” he said, “dehydrates the lived” and ended up as an ideological apologia for the bureaucracy it sought to critique. Now, though, the discourse of planetary urbanisation is menaced by another form of institutionalisation: its big-scale reach, its will to systematise, to formalise holistically, attracts its big-scale namesakes; not so much states as planetary institutions—the UN-Habitats, the LSEs, the Harvards of this world, the off-shore university franchises, the big grant-givers and big data-drivers, the smart city initiatives and creative classes, the urban futures labs and urban age programmes, etc, etc.—the list goes on and on, inevitably following the money and flourishing the career. The hashtag is mimetic rather than poetic; rarely do residues get a look in, except as audiences.

Therein, too, professional urbanists confer, the new Lefebvrian cybernathropes. These guys (and gals) have so many university Chairs around the world that they’re now caricatures of the old Woody Allen gag (from Annie Hall): soon they’ll be able to assemble complete dining sets. Indeed, they have plenty of chairs and dining sets already, enough to furnish a large amphitheatre, for one of their TED talks. Professional urbanists lurch towards technocracy not metaphilosophy: They’re antithetical to all metaphilosophy stands for, to all Lefebvre stood for, all he desired, all we should desire. “Metaphilosophy does away with this servitude,” he insisted, half-a-century ago. The sentence somehow jars in our times. It expresses my biggest fear with the coming of Metaphilosophy: that we’ve lost the will to overcome it.


[1] Labica, who died in 2009, was a different generation to Lefebvre’s, some thirty-year the latter’s junior. His essay on Lefebvre’s Métaphilosophie, “Marxisme et poésie”, originally written in 1997, now cues Editions Syllepse’s more recent reissue of Lefebvre’s book. It is downloadable at:

[2] Leszek Kolakowski and Henri Lefebvre (1974) Evolution or revolution. In F Elders (ed) Reflexive Water: The Basic Concerns of Mankind. London: Condor.

[3] Henri Lefebvre (1965) Métaphilosophie. Paris: Editions de Minuit. All citations henceforth refer to this first edition, with my own translations.

[4] Henri Lefebvre (1970) La révolution urbaine. Paris: Gallimard

[5] See Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the urban. City 15(2/3):151-182 and Richard Walker (2015) Building a better theory of the urban: A response to “Towards a new epistemology of the urban”. City 15(2/3):183-191

[6] Henri Lefebvre (1989) Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire. Le monde dipolomatique May:16-17 (last accessed 4 December 2015). For an English translation, see Laurent Corroyer, Marianne Potvin and Neil Brenner (2014) Dissolving city, planetary metamorphosis. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32(2):203-205

Andy Merrifield; an independent scholar, an amateur urbanist, a residue ([email protected])


  1. geography

    Hi Andy. I liked the last three paragraphs. Residue. Don’t know Lefevre. Surprise no discussion. But this site, like virtually all print and e-print sites are so full of stuff, nobody can take the time to read it.
    Still wonder about you and Bunge Memorial at AAG Boston 2017. Did you get the call?