Knox Peden: Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze

Elliot Patsoura

Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze Book Cover Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze
Cultural Memory in the Present
Knox Peden
Stanford University Press
Cloth $25.95

Reviewed by: Elliot Patsoura (University of Melbourne)

Key developments in contemporary mathematics are not commonly rated among the decisive factors responsible for shaping the French reception of phenomenology. In the critical uptake of phenomenological concerns, for instance, in the works of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and others collated in the Anglosphere under the banner of ‘French Theory,’ questions concerning the nature and ontological primacy of lived experience, and the related success or otherwise of phenomenology’s attempts at self-grounding, tend to crowd out concerns with the ability of the Husserlian and Heideggerian projects to accommodate the philosophical implications of specifically new mathematical developments. This, however, was far from the case with the French philosopher and mathematician Jean Cavaillès—an attendee of both Husserl’s “Cartesian Meditations” at the Sorbonne in 1928-29, and Heidegger’s ‘Davos encounter’ with the neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer—wherein we find an early critique of phenomenology’s prospects of accommodating the philosophical implications of the “new infinite” in Georg Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers. For Cavaillès, such developments exposed the limitations of the phenomenological grounding of “the forms of the understanding in the empirical forms of experience,” insofar as “the viability of [such] mathematical objects … transgressed the structural criteria of the transcendental ego” (49). A Spinozist “disparagement of the ‘lived’” and “distrust of originary foundations” (42) would find contemporary expression in Cavaillès’ equally Spinozist defence of the immanent rather than derived nature of the rational—a point presented in Knox Peden’s Spinoza Contra Phenomenology as “a decisive moment in French intellectual history in that the fundamentals of Spinozist rationalism were for the first time posited against those of phenomenology” (61).

Peden’s outstanding intellectual history traces the aftermath of this pitting of the concept against consciousness, the deployment of a Spinozist rationalism against phenomenology, in the 30 years that followed, filling in the philosophical, political, institutional and biographical backgrounds of the better known Althusserian and Deleuzian varieties of Spinozism that the study closes with. Spinoza Contra Phenomenology offers a detailed contextualisation and nuanced explication of the projects of key figures responsible for adding meat to Cavaillès’ rationalist bone, and influencing both Althusser and Deleuze in often heretofore-undocumented ways. Peden shows a fidelity to the majority of his objects of study, neither entertaining their reduction to well-defined contextual factors, nor overstating the strength of the ‘contra’ of his title.

Seven chapters present “two moments in French Spinozism”: the epistemological deployment of Spinozist rationalism as “a question of philosophical method,” and the subsequent explication of “the full range of its ontological implications” (105). The first chapter draws attention to Cavaillès’ concerns with both Husserl and Heidegger regarding their compromising of the immanent nature of rationality, be it in Husserl’s Kantian forsaking of such immanence for that of transcendental subjectivity, or Heidegger’s forsaking of the rational in his critique of the transcendental ego (28). On Cavaillès’ reading, Husserl’s employment of the Cogito “meant that phenomenology was either spinning its wheels in Kantianism or escaping the trap only with [an unconscionable] Heideggerian recourse to irrationalism” (29).

The second chapter demonstrates how “the operative alternative between rationalism and phenomenology in Cavaillès’s project would come to be institutionally codified in France as an opposition between Spinozism and Cartesianism” (61). Peden examines the protracted debate between Ferdinand Alquié, Sorbonne professor (and instructor of Gilles Deleuze), and Martial Gueroult of the Collège de France. Alquié was responsible for the phenomenologisation of Descartes and “something of an institutionally domesticated surrogate for Heidegger’s influence in France” (195); Gueroult for “one of the most ambitious assessments of Spinoza’s rationalism anywhere in the twentieth century” (65-6). These two irreconcilable Spinozisms—a “naturalist theology” in Alquié’s case, and “a rationalist pluralism” in Gueroult’s—are shown in the following chapter to be entertained equally in Jean-Toussaint Desanti’s resumption of Cavaillès’s rationalist project. Desanti is shown “affrming Spinoza’s rationalism though hesitating to draw out the full range of its ontological implications” (105), exhibiting a tempered fidelity to Husserl while still praising “science as the supreme source of epistemological criteria” (108). Desanti’s case is thus doubly significant in that it constitutes “less of a complete break with Husserl than a recalibration of Husserl’s method into something that might allow it so speak to the experience of rationalist necessity at the heart of mathematical discourse” (92), and acts as the point of pivot for Peden between the epistemological and ontological moments of French Spinozism.

Desanti’s valorisation of ‘science’ finds supreme expression in the work of Althusser in the following decade. Peden’s fourth and fifth chapters offer a masterful overview of Althusser’s proferring of a Spinozist rationalism as the philosophical “means through which … to recuperate science from what he viewed as its twice-over degradation in the hands of Stalinist ideology and phenomenological philosophy” (143), and the specific forms the aforementioned Spinozist disparagement of the lived and originary take in this highly influential and often divisive figure. The phases constituting Althusserian Spinozism are convincingly shown to be held together by a “progressive eradication of the contents of lived experience as a viable object of philosophical purchase of reflection” (132), and an attempt to replace the misguided approach of the origin in the eidetic reduction with science as a immanent operation irreducible to the experience of the lived—an operation realised, on Althusser’s reading, by Marx in the form of historical materialism. Althusser’s “critique of ‘origins,’ and the illusions produced by recourse to origins, was one component of a philosophical effort that viewed the insights of modern science not as problems for philosophy to circumvent but as conditions themselves for philosophical activity” (187). Importantly, this utility did not entirely extend towards that of the political, as Althusser’s attempts to put Spinozist rationalism to political use are shown by Peden to remain subservient to a fidelity to the philosophical imperative, presaging a broader problem of deducing political instruction from Spinoza’s ontology that Peden will come to present as a defining character of twenty-first century appropriations of Spinoza.

The sixth and seventh chapters, devoted to the “strange,” post-Heideggerian Spinozism of Deleuze, draws similar lessons with respect to these contemporary attempts, albeit via a drastically different approach towards the tension between Spinozist rationalism and phenomenology. Deleuze offers in Peden’s view “a fantastic attempt at a synthesis of the phenomenological and Spinozist lines of French thought” (133), where Spinozism offered “the means for working through the phenomenological tradition in order to produce philosophical conclusions that could not be reached with either Spinozism or phenomenology alone” (219-20). Deleuze’s absolute rationalism is shown to recall Desanti’s efforts (and so distinguish itself most noticeably from Althusser) in its attempt to strike a “compromise with phenomenology” (133). But, to be sure, Deleuze’s efforts do not depart from the dissatisfaction with the phenomenological recourse to origins particularly prominent in Cavaillès and Althusser, as his ontological evacuation of the category of possibility is shown to constitute an extension of Althusser’s dismissal of phenomenological reliance on the originary towards that of “phenomenological ontology” (230), wherein creation is, in good Spinozist fashion, “[n]o longer located at an origin,” but is rather “deemed coextensive with existence itself” (247).

Yet the transformative nature of Deleuze’s absolute rationalism for French Spinozism can neither be dissociated from its central Heideggerian components, to the very extent that the “contemporary political thought” directly informed by Deleuze’s Spinozism—Peden focuses on the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri here—“often draws more on the Heideggerian elements that Deleuze brings to Spinozism than on the formal, subtractive, in a word rationalist, elements of Spinozism whose critical relation to phenomenology has been explored in the preceding chapters” (197). The ultimate significance of this apprehension of the contemporary is indexed to the final picture of Spinozism that Peden’s study arrives at; ““the most valuable element of the Deleuzean legacy in its hybrid Heideggerian/Spinozistic form […] is the notion that the best a philosophical ontology can do is to seek to induce alternate and hopefully more beneficent ways of perceiving and conceiving the world. A deductive politics is out of the question” (258). The crowning achievement of Peden’s intellectual history is thus to show any “investment in what the fundamental relations of Spinoza’s formal ontology might “mean” in any given situation, political or otherwise, is a gesture that is arguably contrary to the critical essence of Spinoza’s rationalism” (260). The Althusserian and Deleuzian instances of French Spinozist rationalism are, on Peden’s reading, both thus exemplary in constituting “a critique of the attempt, widespread in the phenomenological tradition and beyond, to make politics a derivative specimen of a more foundational ontology” (262).

Peden’s clear preferences for the integrity of the concept—perhaps best encapsulated in the statement “The commitment to thought’s own insights against all the evidence of one’s lived experience … is radical in the extreme” (230)—are thus by no means hidden by the close of his study. Yet it must be emphasised that Peden maintains a welcome distance throughout from both overblown polemic and toothless intellectual contextualisation, offering considered and concise statements drawn from the clearly staged nuances of the various projects he outlines, and inviting in turn equally considered application to aspects of the period and subject matter in question that are not covered in his study (the most noticeable absence of the work of Pierre Macherey is justified early on). Spinoza Contra Phenomenology is compelling in the presentation of its engrossing content, and deeply instructive in its method. It should be necessary reading for anyone with an interest in the myriad afterlives and broader potential of the Husserlian and Heideggerian projects.

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