Judith Wambacq: Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 2018

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
Hardcover $95.00

What’s wrong with Phenomenology (according to Spinoza)?

Spinoza Contra Phenomenology Book Cover Spinoza Contra Phenomenology
Cultural Memory in the Present
Knox Peden
Stanford University Press
Cloth, paper, digital

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

Perhaps the weightiest critique of a phenomenological approach belongs to rationalism, rooted in Spinoza. This is a break with Descartes, in which phenomenology finds its inspiration. Rationalism or Myth? These are our choices. Are these real choices? The first stands for Spinozism and the second phenomenology. How is it that Spinozism and phenomenology became antagonistic? The important point to notice here is not that Spinoza himself represents the contra, as the title of this book seems to suggest, but rather ‘followers’ or readers or manipulators of Spinoza have come to use him. Thus, this is a primarily historiographical, but also philosophical question— perhaps better expressed in the phrase “Spinozism contra phenomenology.” What kind of rationalism prevails over what may appear to be myth?

“This book is a history of a countervailing strand of development in which a series of French thinkers sought to salvage rationalist philosophy from its phenomenological denigration by reconfiguring it in Spinozist terms,” (4) Knox Peden writes. The series of French thinkers thus creates the narrative, and it is a particular kind of narrative. “Rationalism” as a term of art for Peden means a lot of things, and he points out how Ricoeur thought of Husserl as a kind of rationalist. The importance for the series of French figures he considers points to the fact that rationalism means that reason, “however it is conceived, supervene[s] on the spontaneous insights of lived experience” (6). At the core of this problem then is a difference between Cartesian and Spinozist rationalism, the former entailing a phenomenological outlook, the latter an anti-phenomenological and anti-Bergsonian one. But how Spinoza plays a role in Spinozism is a fraught issue, as Peden is well aware. None of the figures he considers would be called “Spinoza specialists”. What is then most fascinating about this history, and one that Peden is very keen on telling, is the fact that this division impacts disciplines such as philosophy of science as well as history of philosophy and philosophy of history. If phenomenology was seen as irrationalist, then the development of these disciplines from within philosophy could also be seen that way. The hinge of the book, and one that might be split in the middle from around 1968, concerns those thinkers before 1968 vs. those thinkers after. This is not a perfect split or hinge, of course, but how we historically situate a split – before and after or tension and resolution. But there is no resolution. Not to mention that the different senses of Spinozism are matters of emphasis rather than substance. The “disjunctive synthesis” that Deleuze attempts between Spinoza and phenomenology has not won the day. “There is a difference between understanding ideas and understanding where they came from, however much the one may illuminate the other” (13).

While it is indeed true that “few philosophers in the canon are as ahistorical as Spinoza,” it is also true that Peden tells an historical story. He appears to be a Spinozist historicist, if such a thing is possible. The story begins with Cavaillès in chapter one where

the idea of Cavaillès as a historical character will come to be expressive of the desire that there be a prescriptive or revolutionary politics of Spinozism, or if not Spinozism per se, of rationalism and a commitment to formalism and logic that is at the very least inspired by Spinoza. (20)

The danger of phenomenology for Cavaillès and the story that Peden is telling concerns the seeming danger of solipsism and irrationalism, which may be seen as the threat of Schwärmerei. Thus, in Cavaillès, the choice is between universal reason and historical negation. The way to avoid the dangers of phenomenology and neo-Kantianism, against which he is reacting, is to have a philosophy without cogito. Religiously, this opposed most Catholic thinking of the time. Cavaillès was a Calvinist who might be called a “militant Protestant” and Peden associates this with Spinozism even though

Barthian Protestantism and Spinozist rationalism seem like polar opposites—Barth’s God is wholly absent; Spinoza’s God is fully present—the theoretical effect of these positions is the same: God is nonanthropomorphic and, more important, noninterventionist in the world of human affairs (274).

This was a means for using religion against phenomenology, but even better Spinoza against the cogito. For Cavaillès, love was an experience of transcendence, and thought an experience of immanence. “Philosophy only works in the light,” he writes, “between rational clarity and the obscure night of religious life.” (30) One finds the roots of his Spinozist ontology in a letter of October 7, 1930 where he says, “I believe that, outside of rationalism, philosophy can only be self-defeating” – for Peden’s Cavaillès, being is not transcendent but rather immanent, “coexistent with existence itself.” Cavaillès thinks of Spinoza as the true Christian, unlike Leibniz. Later, Peden notes, “if there is incompatibility between Kant’s and Spinoza’s philosophies, it is not to be found in the critique but in the metaphysics that kept Kant tethered to Leibniz and Wolff.” (33) There can be no “intuitive or empirical confirmation” of the rational on this picture of Spinoza, says Peden.

The most important point for this development within 20th century French philosophy has both historical and philosophical elements. First, Cavaillès who was the caïman from 1931-35 (before Merleau-Ponty took up the same position) has a particular role in the influence of later generations of French thinking. Second, it is to mathematics that Cavaillès believes a philosophy of the concept can overcome a philosophy of consciousness. The problem with philosophy from Descartes to Kant, and the problem with phenomenology is that it became too closely tied to consciousness. “Cavaillès’s concern is that Kantian categories are viable only for a science that remains within the domain of finite mathematics; but since ‘genuine mathematics begins with the infinite’ (73), a philosophy of consciousness that attempts to ground the forms of the understanding in the empirical forms of experience itself will be unable to make philosophical sense of the developments in mathematics and physics from Cantor to Gödel and beyond.”

Chapter 2 regards Gueroult vs. Alquié, each of whom accused the other of being an historicist, reducing philosophy to contextualism. For such a contextualist as Peden is, “The dispute in question began over Descartes in 1951, the year of Gueroult’s appointment to the Collège de France, and it ended with the publication of Alquié’s Le Rationalisme de Spinoza in 1981” (66), there is no questioning the historicism of this chapter. After Descartes, the concern became one over Spinoza, and historicism was replaced by theology. Each accused the other then of occultism, which sounds a little like the phenomenological critique of ‘onto-theology’. Gueroult was chosen instead of Koyré at College de France because they were afraid of Koyré’s historicism His predecessors had been Bergson and Gilson. Gueroult thought of them as too subjective and wanted a radical idealism as a reversal of Hegelianism: “Where Hegel had made his subjective apprehension of philosophy’s history serve as the very basis for his account, Gueroult wanted to effect an inversion, thus making ‘the reality of philosophy’s history’ the foundation for our systematic assessment of it. This method would dictate a militant fidelity to the letter of philosophical texts and a practice of reading devoid of hermeneutic intentions.” (71) Husserl was just as guilty of “subjectivism” as Bergson, according to Gueroult. The debate over Descartes occurred in 1955 in Royaumont, and then they met again in 1972 in Brussels (where Serres and Lefebvre also presented) when they still disagreed and Gueroult still distrusted phenomenology for its “inaccessible interiority” (see p. 79), Alquié thought that Descartes, Kant and Husserl were basically saying the same thing. As a chapter in French “Spinozism”, Peden is interestingly putting into historicist terms what is supposedly a philosophy of the concept. But we do not really get the concept here. Paul Ricoeur’s description of Levi-Strauss’s structuralism as a “Kantianism without a transcendental subject” is an apt description of Gueroult’s Spinozism as well. Spinozism is a method for Gueroult and that method concerns the following: “Just because God, or Substance, is ‘unknowable’ in an exhaustive sense does not mean that an ‘adequate’ comprehension of the idea of Substance is impossible. To know in the sense of savoir, which involves an abstracted and genetic understanding, is predicated on the impossibility of knowing as connaître, which involves an intimacy and familiarity, a kind of burrowing out of the object in question.” (87) From this Gueroult accuses Alquié of being occultist and Alquié accuses Gueroult of being antiphilosophical, but in the end Peden calls their views “mirror images of one another.” (91)

Chapter three furthers this philosophical-historical story with reference to Desanti, one of the most controversial figures of the French communist party (PCF) who took up the ‘debate’ between Aristotle and Galileo. Desanti utilized Spinoza to defend geometric abstraction, particularly “what he praised in Spinoza was the linking of philosophy to the exigencies of … Galilean science” (114). Already, in Desanti’s own lifetime, we see a breakdown of the pre- and post-1968 divide that this book supposedly makes when Peden writes, “This sense of permanent tension at work in Desanti’s own philosophical efforts of the 1960s and 1970s accounts for the effect they have of being at once stimulating and frustrating in their constant deferral of any sense of resolution” (98). While Desanti does follow the French thinkers Cavaillès, Gueroult, and Alquié and does interpret Spinoza in an Hegelian and Stalinist direction, his “feverish tension” between thought and action makes him an uneasy bedfellow to Spinoza contra of the title. For Peden’s story, we see him essentially as a political transitional figure to Althusser, who had him as a teacher.

Chapter four and five thus concern Althusser. Along the lines of Desanti’s geometric abstraction, Althusser also made “positive references to Galileo and Galilean science, committed as it was to a mathematization of nature devoid of transient causes, origins, or goals” (299n83). As the chapter titles state, “recuperating science” and “redefining philosophy”, Peden is telling the story of Althusser’s sources and development of Spinozism from the 1960s to the 1980s, which greatly influenced figures like Badiou and Balibar. It was to the effort of making Marxism scientific that all of his work tended. The following two passages must speak for Peden’s long and interesting story:

Althusser’s efforts in 1967– 68 to philosophically siphon the “spontaneous philosophy of the scientists” from their scientific practice were designed to articulate the distinction between scientific practice, on the one hand, and the ideologically driven interests of the scientists as members of society, on the other. But this was no mere abstract enterprise resulting from Althusser’s own fanatical embrace of scientificity. We can trace its roots to particular historical developments. (143)

Althusser’s decision to place the Spinozist conception of the true—verum index sui et falsi (the true is its own sign, and that of the false)—at the heart of his contribution to Reading Capital was a veritable rebuttal of a conception of Marxist philosophy indebted to a renovated Hegelian dialectical philosophy of history and inspired by Giambattista Vico’s verum-factum principle, the latter of which claimed that man can know his history precisely because he has made it. In this reading, history is man’s creation. (145)

According to Peden, then, it is due to historical specificity and the construction of reality through history that Althusser came when he did. As early as his 1959 book on Montesquieu, particular political events occur due to “the historical singularity of political formations”. Whether or not this is really a Spinozism contra phenomenology remains to be seen, since, according to Peden, what science does is discover and phenomenology recognize, taking up the very divide between Descartes and Spinoza with which we began, since Althusser saw Spinoza as articulating all of the problems of Descartes’ philosophy. Against Peden’s own way of writing, then,

One does not need to subscribe to a concept of politics as mainly a matter of narratives to recognize that Althusser’s own understanding of materialist philosophy as a disavowal of stories seriously compromises its bearing on political questions. (186)

The last two chapters of the book concern Deleuze. Here Peden finally uses Spinoza himself (from definition IV of Book I of the Ethics): By attribute I mean that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence. Is this a question of perceiving or conceiving? Deleuze stands at the door and knocks, playing with this very notion, this very problem at the basis of rationalism, which he calls “distinct-obscure.” And here is where much of the rationalism vs. myth comes to play, but also the return to Ptolemy instead of Copernicus (and thus Galileo).

In Deleuze’s reading, the post-Kantian “self” for Maimon and Fichte plays the same role as “Substance” in Spinoza’s philosophy, as a relational site of genesis. In his attempt to progress beyond Kantianism, Deleuze deliberately regresses to a metaphysics prior to Kantianism, with the result that what was simply a site of epistemological synthesis in Kant’s philosophy becomes formally transformed into a site of ontological genesis. (209)

Peden simply summarizes the thought of Deleuze in this simple catchy formula: Foucault’s overcoming of Heidegger was through historical epistemes, Levinas’s through ethics, and Deleuze through rationalism itself. If Deleuze is a return to Spinozist rationalism over against phenomenology, then one must avoid texts like Bergsonism or Proust and signs. Spinozist beatitude or blessedness is hostile to hermeneutics, says Peden, but music, expression that refuses resolution (255), not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself. Spinozism leads to enthusiasm for Kant:

the supreme virtue of Spinozism…is its foreclosure of Schwarmerei, a foreclosure that results from its abnegation and recourse to any discrete, extrinsic instance that might serve to obviate the responsibilities of thought and action left to their own devices. (262)

Badiou’s problem is that Spinoza doesn’t allow for politics. Althusser and Deleuze critique phenomenology for entailing politics from ontology. How ought we to live?

The Spinozism of Gilles Deleuze ends with neither a bang nor a whimper but a stutter. In this, it accomplishes a goal not unlike Althusser’s evacuation of any fixed meaning or predetermined content for philosophy in favor of a “philosophy without object” that operates through punctual, divisive interventions in a field not of its making. (257)

The rationalism vs. myth question remains and the break between Spinozism vs. phenomenology is both a real break and a mythical one. As historically derived as Peden makes it out to be in order to tell his story, the real Spinoza would have had much more friendly and consonant conversations with phenomenology if he had lived and if the story could be told, though he would not have liked everything he heard. If the story could be told.