Judith Wambacq: Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty

Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty
Series in Continental Thought, № 51
Judith Wambacq
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Alex de Campos Moura (University of São Paulo)

The Transcendental Project in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze

I. Introduction: The Question

Judith Wamback’s book, Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, proposes a highly original reading of two central authors from the 20th century, one that sheds new light on their most important insights.

According to the Wamback herself, she is reacting to a consensus that has been established about the relation between the two thinkers, a consensus that sees their respective works as being either alien or in opposition to each other. This reading of their relationship was championed not only by Foucault but also by Deleuze himself, in his few and mostly negative comments on Merleau-Ponty. As Wamback shows, Deleuze does not seem to recognize either in phenomenology in general or in Merleau-Ponty’s work in particular the main sources of his thought.

Against this interpretation, Wamback explicitly proposes to find a philosophical argument that legitimates bringing them into proximity. She is not, therefore, interested in reconstructing the common history of their reception or perhaps in uncovering a heretofore ignored biographical connection; on the contrary, what she seeks is to make explicit a conceptual connection between two thinkers that critics—including Deleuze himself—have become used to seeing as radically alien. This is the central motivation of this book, one that is also central in evaluating the relevance of its implications.

In order to bring this project to fruition, Wamback proposes a precise framework, which she herself describes as “metaphysically” bent, and which takes up a classical philosophical question, namely the question of the relation between being and thought. She investigates the way both thinkers understand this question, thus providing the ground for her attempted rapprochement.

Indeed, as the book progresses, this question becomes increasingly more precise, and the way Wamback frames and focuses her discussion, notable for its clarity, is one of the main strengths of the book. The debate about the status of thought is revealed as a discussion about the transcendental project behind each thinker’s work, highlighting the intrinsic relation between this project and what Wamback describes as a “philosophy of immanence.” This philosophy of immanence is, according to her, a central dimension of both philosophers’ thoughts, one that brings to the forefront the necessity of understanding the articulation between the transcendental and the immanence.

Wamback, therefore, centers her comparison on the idea that Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty both recognized an immanence between the condition and the conditioned, one that finds its privileged “place” in the notions of expression and simultaneity. This is the central thesis defended by this book, an original and unusual contribution when considered against the backdrop of most studies dedicated to this topic. Let us then examine the way Wamback organizes her book.

II. The Path

In order to accomplish her proposal, Wamback delineates five main steps, thus establishing a work method that is followed throughout the book and that structures the overall path of the investigation. First, a description of the highlighted concept as it is formulated by each of the authors. Second, a discussion about the relationship between the two topics or concepts. Third, a description of the way this articulation sheds light on each of them and, based on this, on the respective reflections in which they find themselves. Fourth, an attempt at finding an “equilibrium” or “balance” between the singularity of each work and its possible openness by way of this articulation. Fifth, the configuration of a new image of the history of philosophy to which these philosophies belong.

In fact, the fifth item is the broader horizon that frames Wamback’s discussion (5). She is not interested in creating a common narrative thread that would encompass both philosophers’ work—indeed, such a common thread may not even exist. Rather, by doing justice to the way each author relates to other thinkers, she intends to “anchor” the “resonances in their work to the history of philosophy”, thereby formulating an “alternative image of the philosophical alliances in French academia over the last two centuries” (5). Here the most ambitious facet of the project is revealed, namely to go beyond a book directed to a specialist audience by retracing kindred context or horizons, thus making explicit the way philosophy is built as a series of answers to the great questions posed by other philosophers (5). This implies the recognition of a historical dimension that is not exclusively factual—if it were possible to think of it in this way—, intrinsic to a specific philosophical debate, perhaps (in a first moment) even in a latent way, but which would even so still be affirmed in each of them. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in the fifties, this would be a kind of subterranean or indirect history, a history that is expressed in the facts without being reducible to them and without detaching itself from them.

In this sense, according to Wamback, the question about thought and being, which is as ancient as our most ancient sources on Western thought, is revealed as a privileged problematization axis, allowing her to trace out the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze pursue this classic problem in their respective philosophical reflections on the basis of their network of references and their theoretical frameworks. She is, therefore, able to uncover deeper and broader debates than those one would glean from a first reading, or even a reading that pays more attention to the schools and neglects the “secret” historicity that animates them. This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of Wamback’s work.

The book is organized around five main cores. I will first describe those cores in a general way, and then I will offer a more detailed analysis of each of them, following the way Wamback builds her argument.

The text is divided into seven chapters, each of which is further divided into topics. These chapters all follow a general methodology: first Wamback presents the position of one of the philosophers being analyzed, then the position of the other, and finally compares them. This methodological option greatly contributes to the clarity of the text and to the strength of her argumentation.

The first and the second chapters focus, according to Wamback herself, in a more direct discussion between the two authors. The idea is not to pit one against the other but to discuss the way each of them approaches similar questions in a kind of textual confrontation, one that is more intimately connected to the analysis of specific works and texts.

The first chapter is dedicated to the topic of thought, focusing on what Wamback describes as “original thought”, seeking to formulate what are, for each author, its nature and conditions. The main axis of the chapter is the argument that both authors think this notion as a way of distancing themselves from the representation model and its implications. This move demands an analysis of the objective and subjective dimensions that constitute this “original thought”, which leads us to the problem of the ontology therein implicit. This question is pursued in the second chapter, which seeks to understand in what sense the way both authors formulate the question about the status of thought—and its distance from the representation model—is grounded in an understanding of being. In particular, Wamback shows how this ontology recognizes being as unitary, even if it admits—indeed, demands—difference and indetermination.

The third chapter focuses on what Wamback considers a kind of epistemological or ontological “project” or even “decision” present in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze’s philosophies, discussing the extent to which their paths (delineated by the first two chapters) are connected to an understanding of the sense of philosophical work, especially in the framing of its own field of investigation—which is connected to what Wamback describes as the “empirical”. She will here follow the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze absorb the much-debated “transcendental empiricism”, tracing out their divergences from Husserl and Kant. This absorption is, to Wamback, one of the main points of proximity between the two, a point to which I will return below.

This investigation is carried a step further by its incursion into the relationship between the condition and the conditioned, an examination that will be carried out in the fourth chapter, with its reference to Bergson. As is well known, the relation between Deleuze and Bergson is much more explicit than the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Bergson. However, more and more recent scholars have highlighted this last relation, and Wamback’s work is part of this recent trend in the scholarship, which presents a broad yet still unexplored horizon. In particular, Wamback’s reference to Bergson appears as a central element—both for Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze—in the understanding of the relation between the condition and the conditioned, especially in connection to the notion of “simultaneity”.

Chapters five and six focus then on this relation, particularly in its connection to the question of “expression”, a question central to both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze and which is organized precisely around the articulation between the “ground” and the grounded. To understand this question, the fifth chapter is dedicated to the description of its connection to literary experience—examining the reference to Proust, which is common to both and which is of undeniable relevance—, and the sixth chapter is dedicated to its connection to visual dimension—examining the also common and very important reference to Cézanne.

The seventh chapter also has recourse to a common denominator but now approaching the discussion from a different angle. According to Wamback, the previous chapters had as their goal to show, in different ways, the proximity between the two philosophers, by exploring how their common horizon is structured by the assertion of a unity between the condition and the conditioned, an inseparability of the ground and the grounded—a logic that is particularly notable in the notion of expression. The last chapter then attempts to shed new light on this logic, highlighting the way in which a differential dynamic operates inside this logic. The common denominator mentioned above is Saussure.

Wamback uses this reference to Saussure to explain how a “solid immanence requires a differential theory of how the condition generates the conditioned (which nevertheless determines it)” (7). She shows how this differential dynamic is to be found in both authors, especially in the way each of them appropriates Saussure’s thought, and how its constituting logic is marked by a tension between the condition and the conditioned.

Finally, the conclusion seeks to discuss the resonances and the divergences between the two philosophers, taking a stand on whether it is possible to establish a common horizon to them, or whether their distance from each other is so great that there would be no effective dialogue or convergence.

This finishes the general presentation of the book. Before continuing, it is still worth noting an important methodological option defended by Wamback, one responsible for the tight circumscription of her project. It is the option of not analyzing the relation between the two authors in terms of the notion of perception. According to her, the way each philosopher situates this notion is extremely different. In the case of Merleau-Ponty, the description of perception is carried out in an ontological or “epistemological” horizon, whereas Deleuze would think it as connected to an ethical discussion, conceived according to relations of force intensity. Such an observation is also helpful in understanding Wamback’s second methodological choice, which is connected to her first: the works on which she focuses. In Merleau-Ponty’s case, Wamback focuses primarily on The Visible and the Invisible, since—according to a widespread reading—his ontology would be the most developed at that point in his career. This would justify relegating The Phenomenology of Perception to the sidelines, since this work is considered by this line of interpretation to be “propaedeutic” to the ontology of his last work.

With this counterpoint as the horizon, it is possible to highlight the relevance and the originality of Wamback’s proposed framing, especially her option of discussing both authors from the point of view of their understanding of the status of thought. This point of view is the starting point of her proposed approximation and of her discussions, presenting an unusual take when considered against the backdrop of the most common studies about this relationship. Moreover, as I will discuss in the next section, this point of view culminates in a discussion about the sense that the “transcendental project” assumes in each philosopher. Wamback rests her argument especially in the recognition of “immanence” as an irresistible dimension, turning the articulation between the condition and the conditioned, between the ground and the grounded, into a central element in each author’s formulations. Let us, therefore, see in more detail how she builds her analysis.

III. The Book

Wamback bases her reading on the idea that there is, from the beginning, something in common to Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: not only the fact that both reflected on the topic of thought but also the fact that they distinguished two types of thought. On the one hand, a properly original thought, and, on the other hand, a thought without any originality or expressiveness. The second type of thought is merely an application of given concepts, whereas the first type—which is the type that really intrigues the two philosophers—is a kind of “creative” dynamic. Recalling the distinction made by Merleau-Ponty between “speaking speech” and “spoken speech”, as well as the distinction between “thought” and “knowledge” as described by Deleuze, Wamback proposes a peculiar framework, extremely revealing of her reading: the distinction between a “thinking thought” and an expressive thought. “Thinking thought” is the type of thought which is central to both authors and which is the starting point of Wamback’s investigation, demanding an understanding of the way each author conceives of it. The first piece of evidence highlighted by Wamback is the way this notion figures in both as a refusal of the modern conception of “representation”.

Starting with Merleau-Ponty’s reflection, Wamback appeals to some of the central notions of the Phenomenology of Perception to circumscribe his notion of thought. She then briefly examines the way Merleau-Ponty understands the sense of perception, with special emphasis on his criticism of the intellectualist and empiricist theories and on his notion of “field”, showing how the perceptual dynamic is grounded on the “original intertwinement of body and world” (18). From this point on, the question becomes whether his notion of thought is grounded in the same articulation, being always in relation to something. To pursue this question, Wamback examines the notions of the cogito—especially its negative dimension—, of geometrical thought, and of linguistic expression.

At this point in her analysis, Wamback introduces the notion of Fundierung, proposed in the Phenomenology of Perception as a “two-way relation”, an alternative to the classical understanding of the ground and the grounded as sundered elements, since they are now defined as relational dimensions in reciprocal determination. While this is a central notion in Merleau-Ponty’s work, Wamback uses it here only to think the relation between “thought” and “language”. She defends that, in spite of all its implications, there is still in this notion an asymmetry: the expressed still has “ontological priority” (35), preserving a difference between the terms. On her reading, this asymmetry would only be dissolved later, with Merleau-Ponty’s introduction of the notion of “institution”. Nevertheless, Wamback highlights that the Fundierung relation already contained a central idea, namely “excess” as an indication of the “immanence of the ground that transcends itself in the expression” (26). Her conclusion is that, for Merleau-Ponty, thought is not a “mediating activity”, but is, rather, “familiar with the world”, “it has direct contact” with it and is “in a certain sense shaped by it” (30).

Wamback shows that something similar takes place in Deleuze’s thought. From the beginning, Deleuze proposes to understand thought by confronting the sign, refusing the idea of a natural inclination to the truth, and recognizing it as always characterized by “the singularity of the meeting”, in which signs appear as “enigmas” (31). Here, more than with Merleau-Ponty, the spotlight falls on the differential character of sign and sense. Wamback shows how these notions are thought of in order to move away from the most characteristic presuppositions of representational thought: on the one hand, the idea of identity and unity, and, on the other hand, the notions of nature and of affinity with the truth. Deleuze recognizes, under the eight postulates of representational thought, a “confusion of empirical and transcendental features” (47) that obscures the proper sense of thought.

Wamback proposes that, in this perspective, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are extremely close, meeting in this movement that she describes as a “transcendental examination of thought”(49), a discussion about its conditions and about the human capacity to think. One consequence of this proximity is that both authors recognize that the object of thought is characterized by a “certain exteriority” (50). This means that both authors recognize—and hold it in high esteem—the “grounded” dimension of thought, focusing on the description of the relation between the ground and the grounded as intrinsic or immanent (51). It is precisely this intrinsic or immanent relation that guarantees its creative genesis: “In sum, for both authors, the creative nature of thought is due to the necessary role of thought in the grounding relation”  (51).

After examining these conditions for the investigation of thought in each author—and the presence of a certain undeniable immanence—, Wamback focuses on describing their respective ontologies. As mentioned above, she holds that the way they understand thought, particularly their conception of thought as sustained by this intertwinement of immanence and transcendence, demands a description of the ontological ground therein implicit.

In Merleau-Ponty’s case, as described in the Introduction, Wamback focuses on the ontology of his last texts, notably The Visible and the Invisible. She emphasizes there the differential character that is central in his formulation, particularly through his notion of flesh—described by him in its originally dissonant and, simultaneously, unitary character (58), from which Wamback detaches the notion of “style” or “typicality” (59). She insists that it is not a matter of identity, but of a differential unity, which is connected to the notions of openness and constitution.

In Deleuze’s case, on the other hand, Wamback defends that the same dimensions present in Merleau-Ponty’s proposition can be found in the former’s ontology. The two authors supplant the distinction between the abstract and the concrete by reporting being to another level, which, in the case of Deleuze, is thought of as the virtual: like Merleau-Ponty’s flesh, the virtual is characterized by a nonidentical unity that cannot be divided into an inside and an outside; also like the flesh, the virtual is characterized by a fundamental openness, being also the condition of concrete things (65).

On the other hand, concerning the differences between them, Wamback holds that Deleuze devoted more time to the task of showing that unity and difference are not in opposition, that indetermination does not imply undifferentiation and that the constitutive nature of the virtual does not detach it from the things and concepts that are conditioned by it (65). In spite of this difference, she concludes that, for both, the object of thought—the flesh and the virtual—is not an identity: “The flesh and the virtual are disguised (VI, 150; DR, 133), displaced with respect to themselves” (79). The two notions combine unity and difference, acting as the condition of concepts and things, be they living or non-living (80). These dimensions are responsible for the individuation and crystallization processes, situated in the articulation between, on the one hand, the visible and the actual, and, on the other hand, the virtual and the invisible flesh, acting in the region between conservation and creation.

Supported by this discussion about the two philosophers’ ontologies—in their closeness and in their distance—, Wamback proceeds to study that which she describes as their “transcendental project”, seeking to situate their proposed investigation about the nature of thought in a broader framework:

“What is at stake, philosophically, when they refuse a representational account of thought, and prefer instead to situate the origin of thinking not in the thinking subject, but in the encounter with an exterior sign (Deleuze), or in the participation in a wild being (Merleau-Ponty)? Why do they both attack the representational account of thought?” (85).

She defends that they are brought close together by their affirmation of the non-exteriority between subject and object, between the one who thinks and what is thought—an affirmation that, according to her, is at the basis of what the two of them recognize as philosophically being “immanence” (85). Wamback defends that immanence is articulated with the idea of “difference”, even with all the distance that separates their respective ontologies.

Deleuze’s transcendental project is carefully presented by a confrontation with the Kantian project and by a discussion of a series of thinkers that heavily influenced him, especially Spinoza, Maimon, Leibniz, and Husserl. Merleau-Ponty’s project, in its turn, is presented through its confrontation with Husserl and, more generally speaking, with phenomenology, a relation characterized simultaneously by connection and distance. Wamback highlights that, beyond their idiosyncrasies, they have a common inspiration in their criticism of Husserl and his proposal of a return “to the things themselves”:

“A transcendental philosophy should look not for the conditions of possibility of experience but for its conditions of reality. For Merleau-Ponty as much as for Deleuze, this implies that the transcendental ground is to be situated in the empirical. The ground must be immanent to the grounded and thus possess a certain historicity that cannot be reconciled with the invariability of transcendent essences. Philosophy’s task, then, is defined as the explanation of how the empirical, the grounded, can be produced immanently. For both thinkers, philosophy is to be a philosophy of genesis.” (121)

There is also a resonance in what they reject from Husserl, especially his notion of a transcendental subject (122). According to Wamback, they both see in this notion an obstacle to a consistent transcendental project, since it prevents it from “becoming an immanent ontology” (123) and weakens its differential dimension.

After this more general perspective, it is now possible to return to what Wamback calls the dimension of “immanence”, present in the two authors’ respective transcendental project. To analyze this notion, it is worthwhile to focus especially on its differential dynamic—something that Wamback has worked on from the beginning by way of the relation between the ground and the grounded, the main axis that articulates her analyses.

Here one should mention a central element both for the two philosophers and for Wamback’s argument, namely the notion of expression, precisely as a way of understanding this articulation between the condition and the conditioned. The following chapters focus, each in their own way, on this notion, circumscribing it through diverse and correlate points of view: through its relation to the notion of simultaneity, through its connection to literary expression, and, finally, by discussing its visual dimension. In a word: by their relations to Bergson, Proust, and Cézanne.

The first step is their common reference to Bergson, which is circumscribed by Wamback through the notion of simultaneity. She seeks to understand how the appeal to Bergson helps Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze to build, each in their own way, a transcendental project that attempts to situate the transcendental in the empirical, the basis for what she considers the “philosophy of immanence” that is characteristic of both (125).

Wamback argues that Merleau-Ponty’s initial reading of Bergson, particularly in the Phenomenology of Perception, is “essentially unfair” (132), since he accuses Bergson of “not considering other kinds of spatiality in order to think time” (ibid). This diagnosis would be partially revised in The Visible and the Invisible, especially through the notion of “partial coincidence” and through his discussion of depth—both topics that are also to be found in Deleuze’s reading. Here the two meet each other again, since the two of them recognize depth not as a spatial but as a temporal dimension, connected to the idea of simultaneity—explicitly as a refusal of a notion of succession, recognizing the present as a “contraction of the past” (142). This formulation would lead them to similar consequences, especially the affirmation of an impossibility of directly accessing the past.

“These ressonances between Merleau-Ponty’s and Deleuze’s references to Bergson also reveals resonances at the most general level of their conception of the relation between the ground and the grounded. Both appeal to Bergson’s idea that the passing of time must be explained through the simultaneity of future, present, and past, because that offers a possible solution if your goal is to avoid referring, in the explanation, to an exterior or transcendent element. In other words, Bergson’s notion of simultaneity is a very good illustration of how one can keep the relation between the ground and the grounded immanent.” (143)

Wamback emphasizes the notion of simultaneity as a central element in their philosophies, a kind of “field” that articulates transcendence and immanence. The study about expression—about the way this relationship is realized and is inscribed in their respective transcendental projects—continues through an analysis of Proust and Cézanne.

The careful chapter devoted to Proust shows, on the one hand, that both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze find in the writer inspiration to understand an achronological, original time, composed of dimensions and not divided into successive moments, configured around a “centre of envelopment” (163). On the other hand, Wamback sustains that their respective readings diverge to the extent that, beyond this direct reference to time, Proust also contributed to Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the body, something that did not occur with Deleuze.

The following chapter continues the discussion about the notion of expression, focusing now on its visual dimension and finding support in Cézanne’s presence, also common to the two philosophers. Wamback shows how both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze insist on the nonrepresentational character of art, which leads them both in the direction of a “nonimitative resemblance” (170). The guiding thread is the understanding—that brings them very close to each other—of the painting process and its nature (178).

Finally, the seventh chapter is devoted to a description of how Saussure figures in each author’s work. In the previous chapters, recall, Wamback strove to make explicit the way they tried to “ensure the immanence of their transcendental projects by characterizing the relationship between the ground and the grounded as one of simultaneity (chapter 4) and expression (chapters 5 and 6)” (189). Now, in the last chapter, she explores another central element of these transcendental projects, namely the idea of difference. Wamback argues that, in spite of some differences, both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are interested in the same ideas from Saussure, especially “his discovery of the genetic power of difference” (211).

After briefly retracing Wamback’s path, it is now possible to summarize, in a few lines, her main proposal. It seems to me that the central—and strongest—of her claims is her proposal of a convergence between the transcendental projects of Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, especially due to the intrinsic relation between such projects and the field of immanence. According to Wamback, this immanence is an original articulation between the condition and the conditioned, formulated by the two authors through the notions of simultaneity and expression. Such a “philosophy of immanence” is on the horizon thanks to which a new sense of the transcendental could appear, bring the philosophers close together.

Such a similarity, however, does not erase their differences. Indeed, it illuminates these differences from a new perspective. This is what allows Wamback to finally conclude, without losing sight of their respective singularities, that there is still a “unity” among them, as a new horizon that does not reject dissonance, putting it into a new context and proposing it a new meaning. As she had proposed in the beginning, one of the main goals of her project was to retrace philosophical relations, to rethink more subterranean contexts, to reconfigure lines of influence and of exchange in a more general sense.

It is, therefore, a highly original proposal, resulting in an uncommon work among the current scholarship, one that is pursued with admirable care, clarity, and cohesion.

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