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.
Carbone’s most recent work, now available in English, marks a critical moment in the author’s philosophical development: the passage from an original reader and interpreter of Proust and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to a completely original contribution to the history of philosophy. In a way, this contribution has been in development at least since Carbone’s The Thinking of the Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy, but clearly, in this recent work, it reaches a new level of clarity that now operates beyond the auspices of interpretation. I would like to take the opportunity to clarify what Carbone brings to the history of philosophy. What he has found in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and Proust, which now, in Philosophy-Screens is thought beyond them, is the reversal of Platonism. In this respect, we can place Carbone’s work in this history of what Merleau-Ponty calls the history of a-philosophy, a history that includes Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche and more recently the work of Deleuze. What is the sense of Platonism here and how could such an ambitious claim be justified?
At the center of this question, which is also the center of the text, is the screen. It was already Plato who, in his famous Cave Allegory, first thought the screen, and if the history of philosophy is a history of footnotes to Plato, as Whitehead said, then philosophy has always been a rumination on the screen. The screen, on one hand, is what Lyotard has called the “specular wall in general,” a surface that has the dual role of being a window (revealing) and at the same time a curtain (concealing), which in this dual role becomes inscribed and invested with a historical and dynamic form of signification: the skin, the canvas, the cinema, the TV, the electronic device, the wall of the cave, the list goes on. It is through Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams that Carbone traces Lyotard’s specular wall to the origins of philosophy in Plato. The film documents the Chauvet Cave in France, home to the best-preserved cave paintings known to exist, dating back at least 32,000 years, making it 14,000 years older than the famed caves of Lascaux. These paintings, Carbone notes, “celebrate the enigma of images themselves, as well as the enigma of the surface that is invested with such a celebration and therefore delimited from the surrounding space.” The Chauvet cave is an instance of what Carbone calls the “arche-screen,” “understood as a transhistorical whole gathering the fundamental conditions of possibility of ‘showing’ (monstration) and concealing images on whatever surface. In our culture such a whole has been opened and experienced through the human body itself.” I will return to the significance of the human body mentioned here. For now, I want to mention that the Chauvet cave, as a “variation” of the arche-screen, serves as a vehicle for the legibility of the cave in Plato’s allegory.
The cave of the allegory, as Carbone shows, is a space organized around its functions of revealing and concealing, that is, a space constituted precisely in terms of an arche-screen. On one hand, there is the more obvious screen, the καταντικρύ, the cave wall standing in opposition to the sources of light where the shadows dance and play. This surface is ostensibly one of revealing, since it is a necessary condition for the appearance of the images (shadows). Its disclosive function, however, is inextricably bound up with another screen, the τειχίον, the “low wall” that functions to conceal the mysterious figures who constitute the spectacle as they carry the σκευαστῶν, “artificial things,” along the enclosed path. This second screen, Carbone notes, “performs the double function of concealing by offering a protection and of selecting things to be shown—which are both, actually, characteristic of the arche-screen.” The two screens operative here are, in a sense, so inextricably related to one another that it would be useless to attempt to separate or compare them, and it seems that only together is the arche-screen’s instance of the cave constituted: the concealing movement of the low wall, which selects the artifacts by occluding the puppeteers, is a moment of the disclosive, opposite wall on which the shadows are cast.
There is a second arche-screen’s instance present here, however, in which the concealing-revealing movement of the shadow play is embedded. We recall that, for Plato, while the shadow play is initially disclosive—a world is indeed made present to the prisoners—this disclosive function is simultaneously one of concealing since what are disclosed are precisely shadows—shadows that both indicate and at the same time occlude the σκευαστῶν. This is the first arche-screen described above. These “artificial things,” in their turn, however, have the same dual movement: they show themselves to the prisoner who has turned away from the shadows toward the fire but precisely here they too both indicate and conceal the things themselves that wait on the outside. This is another, second arche-screen. The prisoner eventually is dragged up a rough and steep path into the light of day where she beholds the “things themselves.” These things, now beheld in a shadowless light, are supposed to signify the είδη, the “ideas” of what is. It would seem that here we encounter a surface that reveals only and conceals nothing, and this is, therefore, not an arche-screen in the sense described but the foundational condition of possibility for the others, the ἀρχή, the origin of all other screens and arche-screens. I want to pause briefly here and note that it seems to be this moment of the allegory that becomes foundational for Western metaphysics since Plato—that philosophy henceforth will understand itself as the pursuit of this origin, seeking out that absolute surface on which it can inscribe itself but which will at the same time conceal nothing, leaving no trace of latency or depth.
But Plato seems to be very careful here, and upon further reflection it may not be obvious that we arrive in such a space on the journey out of the cave. I think that this pause is critical for understanding the significance of the arche-screen, the philosophy-screen, and Philosophy-Screens. Is the outside that Plato imagines truly a space without depth? Is it correct to say that in that space there is disclosure only and that any movement of concealment is absent? The presence of the είδη, their very legibility, is premised on their coming to light, and therefore their visibility is made possible only through an accompanying concealment: the visibility of things always rests on the invisibility of light. The prisoner encounters things illuminated by the light of the sun but precisely then the light itself remains invisible. It seems, then, that even here we encounter an arche-screen, a twofold movement of revealing and concealing, an event of what Heidegger called Unverborgenheit, “unconcealment,” which he always preferred to refer to the Greek word ἀλήθεια, “truth.” I believe that it the question of truth that stands at the center of Philosophy-Screens and that Carbone’s work should be understood as an elaboration and continuation of—rather than a commentary—on a work by Merleau-Ponty at one point titled “The Origin of Truth.”
What re-reading the cave allegory through the arche-screen teaches us is that, contrary to the historical reading of Plato that understands truth in some super-sensible beyond, that which always is and never otherwise, call it Being or ideality, is in every case implicated by and in its sensible reverse. Each event of unconcealment is coupled with concealment, every surface is both a screen and curtain, revealing and concealing: the tattooed or scarred skin both outwardly manifests its meaning and yet simultaneously conceals certain depths; the printed page both outwardly manifests its intended signification and yet always conceals an un-thought element; the speech of the other signifies her wishes and yet, as Proust understood, always conceals a person that we cannot know and who cannot know herself. It is also here that we encounter what I have described as Carbone’s reversal of Platonism: in the figure of a re-thinking of the relationship between sense and idea and the manner in which these two operate as the two poles of the arche-screen. This figure is articulated by Carbone, via Merleau-Ponty and Proust, under the rubric of the “sensible idea.” In Philosophy-Screens, he describes these as
ideas [that] are inseparable from their sensible presentation (that is, from their visual, linguistic, or musical images for instance, but even that they are instituted by these very images as their own depth. … an order of ideas that—just like aesthetic ideas for Kant—cannot be reduced to concepts, ideas that the intelligence, as such cannot grasp, because—as Merleau-Ponty emphasizes—they ‘are without intelligible sun. … the essences of certain experiences, which only similar experiences can, sometimes, fully manifest, but cannot be defined by any concept.’
Such remarks are prefigured in Carbone’s 2004 book, The Thinking of Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy:
Proust describes ‘ideas’ which do not preexist independently of their sensible presentation. Rather, they are inseparable from and simultaneous with their sensible presentation, since only the sensible presentation provides us with the ‘initiation’ to them: ideas which, ‘there, behind the sounds or between them, behind the lights or between them, recognizable through their always special, always unique manner of entrenching themselves behind them’ (VI 198/151).
The sensible idea, for Carbone, is perhaps illustrated most clearly in Proust’s descriptions of love, especially the “little phrase” that captures so essentially—and yet so indescribably—the pathos of Swann’s relationship with Odette and later the love between the narrator and the elusive Albertine. Carbone notes in The Thinking of the Sensible:
Merleau-Ponty explains that Marcel Proust characterizes melody as a ‘Platonic idea that we cannot see separately’ since ‘it is impossible to distinguish the means and the end, the essence and the existence in it’ (N 228/174). He alludes to the fact that, for the main character of those pages of the Remembrance, a peculiar idea of love is incarnated in the sound of a melody—the melody of the petite phrase of Vinteul’s sonata—to such an extent that the idea of love becomes inseparable from Vinteul’s listening.
It may be worth attending to some perhaps length passages from the Recherche in order to express more fully the sense of the sensible idea. These are from the scene in The Fugitive where, after Albertine’s death, the narrator gradually begins to forget and understand that he no longer loves her. The passing of this love is linked to the petite phrase, the lifespan of which has passed through the loves of Swann and Odette and through the loves of the narrator and Albertine. The phrase is both its sensible, carnal expression in the music and at the same time the very sense and meaning of a love that has now passed; that is, its essence inextricably bound to its existence:
In the Bois, I hummed a few phrases of Vinteul’s sonata. The thought that Albertine had so often played it to me no longer saddened me unduly, for almost all my memories of her had entered into that secondary chemical state in which they no longer cause an anxious oppression of the heart, but rather a certain sweetness. From time to time, in the passages which she used to play most often, when she was in the habit of making some observation which at the time I thought charming, of suggesting some reminiscence, I said to myself : ‘Poor child,’ but not sadly, merely investing the musical phrase with an additional value, as it were a historical, a curiosity value…. When the little phrase, before disappearing altogether, dissolved into its various elements in which it floated still for a moment in scattered fragments, it was not for me, as it had been for Swann, a messenger from a vanishing Albertine. It was not altogether the same association of ideas that the little phrase had aroused in me as in Swann. I had been struck most of all be the elaboration, the trial runs, the repetitions, the gradual evolution of a phrase which developed through the course of the sonata as that love had developed through the course of my life. And now, aware that, day by day, one element after another of my love was vanishing, the jealous side of it, then some other, drifting gradually back in a vague remembrance to the first tentative beginnings, it was my love that, in the scattered notes of the little phrase, I seemed to see disintegrating before my eyes.
Plato seems to have been troubled by the Heraclitean idea of change—that all things come to pass in a state of flux, the “ever-living fire, kindled in measures and extinguished in measures.” Beyond the deflagration of the sensible, Plato sought to ascend to a presence outside of time and its vicissitudes: the εἶδος. The sensible idea, precisely because it is not outside of time, emerges only insofar as it is lived, only insofar as it is experienced. Love is no doubt an ideality “expressed” by the petite phrase. But love, precisely in its ideality, is never a “love as such” extricated from those who do and have loved. Insofar as the petite phrase expresses this ideality, it expressed precisely the love of Swann toward Odette, the love of the narrator for Albertine, with all of the shades and textures of sense entailed by that love that was lived. In this way, as Proust indicates in the passaged cited, love, even its ideality, is subject to generation and decay—it lives and dies, and it was this vitality of idealities that Plato could not conceive in his desire to escape from time. It is this vitality, however, that is restored to the ideal in the sensible idea, and this is the more precise sense in which Carbone’s work, including Philosophy-Screens, seeks to reverse Platonism. Because the ideal is lived—because it is nothing other than the sedimentation and concretion of sensible experience, the manifest, τὀ αληθής, is in every case the inverse, the fold of the concealed, ἡ λήθη, what has passed into oblivion.
I would now like to turn to the figure that articulates this reversal, the screen. The screen in this context should not be construed simply a technology or an apparatus, nor should this be understood as a perhaps useless preoccupation with our historical and cultural phragmaphilia. The screen, rather, is the site of so many reversals, crossings, and intersections, a refractory point, one might even say an aleatory one. In this respect, the human body too is a screen, which can “produce images by being interposed between a luminous source and a wall … or by being decorated with inscriptions, drawings, colors, or tattoos.” The screen, then, is in a sense nothing new and has been with us as long as we have been with ourselves, that is to say, as long as there have been surfaces that conceal and reveal (the skin, the curtain, the written page, etc.). What is new—what Carbone gives us in Philosophy-Screens—is a re-configuration of this surface that opens up paths of thinking and philosophical expression heretofore un-thought: not just a screen but a philosophy-screen, philosophizing in accordance with the screen, to allow the screen itself to be the vehicle of thinking and philosophical expression, indeed, what Carbone quite perspicaciously calls, following Deleuze, “philosophy-cinema.”
Philosophy-cinema should not be conceived as making films about philosophy—this is not a question of documentary or filming philosophers speaking, lecturing, etc., nor should it be considered biography or even in terms of the more recent perpetuation of philosophy pod-casts. It is rather a new way of thinking about what it means to think and what it means to express thought. Platonism (and this history of Platonism) has given us the βίβλος, the Book: a monumental artifact in which the absolute truths of Being are inscribed, outside of time and beyond the vicissitudes of history and life. As Husserl and Derrida have shown, the history of the Book is simply a moment in the history of writing, the constitution of idealities through repeated acts of articulation and reactivation. To philosophize cinematically, to bring forth philosophy-cinema, is to think in a manner that no longer takes the form of writing and no longer presupposes or requires monumentality—it is profoundly non-graphic, that is to say, no longer rests on the necessity of γρᾰ́φω, the cutting or chiseling into stone at the beginnings of writing and from which all subsequent writing is derived. To philosophize cinematically is to allow for, even to welcome, the passage of thought in time, its coming into being but also what Nancy has described as its partance, its flight and departure. It is this temporal element that writing, in its function of constituting the ideal as such, attempts to erase—where the inscription into stone is the attempt to erase time—and it is this temporal element that cinema allows us to think again. Philosophy-cinema, then, is not the attempt to escape—to escape time, escape the cave—through the constitution of a monument that mirrors the a-temporality of “truth” but is rather the effort to allow for escape: the flight of thought into its self-concealment and oblivion, the passage of life and experience that cinema has always attempted (and perhaps always failed) to make visible.
This sentiment is expressed both at the beginning and at the end of Philosophy-Screens: the effort to think again and in a manner that allows for the temporal partance of thinking, its objects, as well as its modes of expression. Deleuze is referenced a second time in Part I of the book, “What Is a Philosophy-Cinema?,” in a quote from Difference and Repetition:
The time is coming when it will hardly be possible to write a book of philosophy as it has been done for so long: ‘Ah! The old style…’ The search for a new means of philosophical expression was begun by Nietzsche and must be pursued today in relation to the renewal of certain other arts, such as the theatre or the cinema.
In short, Deleuze found that the novelty of the cinema implied a renewal of the philosophical questions concerning to only our relationship to ourselves, to the others, to the things, and to the world, but also—and inevitably—concerning philosophy itself: that is, concerning its expressive style and, hence, the very style of its own thinking. Indeed, the question of the ‘philosophy-cinema’ does not belong to a single thinker. Rather, it involves a whole epoch, as the Preface to Difference and Repetition suggested. In this sense, it is a question regarding thinking itself.
The renewal of philosophy, of its expressive style as well as the style of its own thinking are indicated by the refractory and reflective surface of the screen. The screen is perhaps not always even a surface but rather a point at which lines, trajectories, and forces curve, displace, and integrate but only as the inverse of a disintegrative movement. The screen, then, is precisely the point of alteration in the sense that there is no longer a “one” but only the repetition of others, of differences. As Carbone says,
Such logic [of screens] inevitably ends up exceeding and hence contesting that of concepts, to which it had been claimed to be reducible, in spite of all. However, in the gaps between the fingers of our hand, squeezing in the gesture of seizing—the gesture on which the modern action of conceptualizing was shaped—we increasingly feel that sense is slipping away. Without falling into a rhetoric of the ineffable, the philosophy to be made is called upon to account for this.
The screen, in a complex of senses, makes philosophy-cinema possible; it allows for a modality of thinking freed from the βίβλος and its monumentality. Insofar as it inserts itself back into the flow and lapse of time, philosophy-cinema no longer conceptualizes itself in terms of the Begriff, that which is to be grasped and taken hold of, but allows for—perhaps even welcomes—the slippage of sense as it passes through our grasp. Must we then be content with some alternative between philosophy in its traditional self-assessment on one hand—Book, concept, grasp—and some form of irrationalism or untenable skepticism? No, because the alternative between these is a false one. We need not choose between the traditional instantiations of philosophy and nihilism, for there are modes of thinking and expressivities that are neither; these are the uncharted territories for thinking that have perhaps only been indicated. Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution takes us down such a path and opens the way for a philosophy that will perhaps be the new standard for thinkers yet to come.
 See Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Notes de Cours 1958-1959 et 1960-1961 (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 278; and Carbone, Mauro, The Thinking of the Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2004), xiii.
 Carbone, 46.
 Ibid., 65, italics Carbone.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 67.
 Published posthumously and under a later title as The Visible and the Invisible.
 Ibid., 34; 37; 69.
 Carbone, 2004, 40-41.
 Ibid., 30.
 Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. V, “The Fugitive,” 755-56.
 Heraclitus, Fragment B30.
 Carbone, Philosophy-Screens, 66.
 Ibid., 3; the reference is to Italian translation of The Logic of Sense, translated into English by Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina, ed. David Lapoujade, “Note to the Italian Edition of The Logic of Sense,” in Two Regimes of Madness (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), 66.
 Probably the most important text in this regard is Derrida’s commentary on Husserl’s text, “The Origin of Geometry.” See Derrida, Jacques, Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavy, Jr. (Licoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
 See Nancy, Jean-Luc, Noli Me Tangere: On the Raising of the Body, trans. Sarah Clift (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 28.
 Carbone, 3; Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, XXI.
 Carbone, 3.
 Carbone, 109.
In an age in which psychic and social spheres are heavily influenced by means of pervasive and inscrutable technologies, Gilbert Simondon’s ideas are progressively being recognised as crucial for the comprehension of the current relation between humans and technics.
Situated at the crossroad between philosophy of science, phenomenology and the study of social and developmental psychology, Simondon’s thought matured under the guidance of teachers of the calibre of Georges Canguilhem, Jean Hyppolite and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and deals with two main themes: the reflexion on the notion of individual, and the development of a theory of technics. With the publication of his doctoral theses L’Individu et sa Genèse Physico-Biologique (1964) and Du Mode d’Existence des Objets Techniques (1958), Simondon’s work on these topics influenced central names of the philosophical landscape of our epoch, such as Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler, and keeps fuelling the new generations of thinkers involved in a quest for the comprehension of times thanks to the generous quantity of essays and lectures that are in the process of being published for the first time, and slowly starting to be translated from French.
The processual account that Simondon develops for the notion of individual, indeed, sets off form a critique of the hylomorphic model, the Aristotelian account of beings as composed by a form and a matter, that is defined by Simondon as a technological schema derived from a cursory consideration of technics, and whose application has significant social implications. In this framework, his theory of technics, that he calls mechanology, represents an experiment at the same time theoretical and pedagogical, that is meant to fight a double problem: the general alienation of technics from the cultural debate, and the consequent unawareness regarding the material foundation of social systems, whose status and potentialities for change are always grounded on and constrained by technical forms of mediation.
Except for the article titled La perception de longue durée, appeared in the Journal de Psychologie normale et patologique in 1969, the essays collected in La Résolution des problémes were prepared as support material for psychology courses that Simondon gave between the 1974 and 1976, in the late stage of his philosophical production, and appear for the first time published in a collection.
Ranking among the many that the philosopher has produced during his intense life of work, these essays share the same emancipatory motivation underlying the thesis on the technical object, namely that the knowledge of the technician has to become the support for a theory of machines and tools, in order to shed light on the ways in which individuals relate to the world and on the relations of which social fabrics are woven. The four essays collected in this book, in fact, can be thought of as being linked by the notion of relation, declined as the one between the individual and the object, and the one between a movement and an obstacle. These two types of relations are based on the definitions of two main concepts, namely the one of object and the one of problem.
The first essay, L’homme et l’objet, is dedicated to the relations between the individual and different types of objects, and the last one, La perception de longue durée, to the character of the objet quelconque, the any-object-whatever. The remaining two essays explore the notion of problem, one from the point of view of its possible solutions (La résolution des problémes), and the other from the point of view of the intellectual resources at work behind these operations (Invention et créativité).
This book connects the concepts of object and problem through the notion of instrumentality, by which Simondon explains how, under certain circumstances, objects can become means to solve problems, and problems, in turn, represent a way for objects and techniques to evolve.
This review will focus on addressing this set of interactions, proposing a way to read the collection through a line that crosses three major relations: the one between individuals and objects, the one between oriented movements and the obstacles to their completion, and the relation established through the instrumental mediation between objects and problems. We will then conclude by addressing the definition of philosophy that can be modelled on the latter relation.
In the first essay of the collection, the concept of object is defined in relation to the individual that perceives it. Simondon’s idea of this phenomenological relation can be summarised as follows: ‘For there to be an object, motricity is not enough, a differentiated sensorium and the combination of the data of the different senses are also necessary’ (23). For the author, objects are given as results of the integration of different perceptions, that can be carried out by individuals equipped with the appropriate cognitive system, as the one developed in adults and generally present in animals provided with complex nervous systems. On this basis, Simondon claims that ‘the object is an already complex and elevated construction, which… characterizes a defined level of the structure or of the development of the living being’ (23).
The relation between individuals and objects varies then according to the age of the individuals and to their place in space and society and is configured on a case-by-case basis according to the relative size of the object, i.e., its order of magnitude. According to Simondon, it is precisely ‘according to orders of magnitude of the object that this relation has to be studied’ (12).
Infants, for example, intervene clumsily on what surrounds them because they relate to an object that is perceived as greater than them, a “complex and constant”, enduring world of objects that is somehow difficult to handle. With the growth of individuals, their relationships with people and objects change, and the world appears gradually smaller. During their growth, in fact, a new psycho-social “situation” (20), that Simondon defines as the instance of the acquisition of a system of objects (21), comes to describe the novel point of view assumed by individuals in relation to the world. From this more mature point of view, objects appear richer, as consisting of multiple dimensions and offering different possible uses. Occupying a new psycho-social situation as a novel point of view, individuals assume a new perspective on the material world and re-situate themselves in relation to it.
The development that leads to this change in perspective causes somatic and mental changes. The latter are produced not only by the individual’s biological growth, but also by the culture-induced classification of objects. The individual doesn’t change point of view and perspective exclusively because of its status of development then, but also because of the web of relations of which he is part, as an object among other objects. Once the individual reaches the psychosocial situation of the adult, the world of objects doesn’t appear as a unicum anymore, nor as a “fixed system”, but as a system composed by interconnected and mobile parts whose alteration can disclose useful energy (24).
When the individual reaches the psychosocial situation that corresponds to a renewed point of view, he assumes a new perspective over this world of objects, and the latter appears as composed of a series of objects culturally classified among which he can orient himself and on which he can intervene. The possibility of acting on the world is dependent on the proportions between the individual and the objects that surround him, that ‘varies according to the distance that separates them’ (12). The distance of which Simondon is speaking can be shortened by technology, whose mediatory character allows to access “distant” magnitudes and to intervene on the infinitesimally small or big. For this reason, the first essay will conclude by establishing the importance of technical mediation in the discourse on the relation between men and the object.
Simondon’s world of objects is then characterised a system of related magnitudes, whose relation to individuals is disciplined by cultural frameworks and alterable by the use of instruments. In his perspective, the greater the difference between the sizes of the individual and of the object, the greater is the role of tools that support the observation or the manipulation of the latter. The individual himself is an object among others whose perspective is influenced by the status of the system of relations of which it is part.
The second half of L’homme et l’objet is devoted to the consideration of the principal types of objects and to the perceptive relation with the extremely small or extremely big ones. In his classification, Simondon reserves a special place to tools, defined here as objects related to the definite actions that they allow, included the acquisition of information. With this characterization on the background, the author specifies that ‘technics are not necessarily a reconstruction of the natural through materials or different assemblages [and that] they can consist in an interweaving of natural objects of different categories’ (23). The possibility to encounter or produce couplings among different types of objects is connected to an interesting rethinking of the primacy of the solid in the general reflection on matter. On this topic, Simondon claims that objects can comport different states of matter and even include voids. Indeed, he explains, objects are not always “full”, and ‘an object may not be everywhere materialized and have real or apparent voids. The real void is a space without function in the object. The apparent void is a medium of transmission’ (23).
The discourse on transmission media and apparent voids brings about the notion of milieu, characterised as an object of a special class. According to Simondon, what he defines as “enveloping objects” have the property to influence the reciprocal relations of the objects that they contain, and can easily go unnoticed, “become invisible”, despite the importance of their effect on what they contain. The author specifies that the milieu is an object too, specifically because ‘it intervenes in the phenomenon. The position of the object is part of the object because it designates its potential energy’ (24). According to this view, the surroundings of an object not only act on the individual, influencing his perspective, but determine the state of the object itself, that “appears” because of the stability of its conditions. It is this stability, although relative because ‘situated between two orders of magnitude unstable or metastable’ (24), that makes possible to speak about objects in general. In Simondon’s account then, the milieu represents one of the most relevant parts of the coordinate reference system that shapes the relation between individuals and objects, and determines various effects of constancy, but also clichés and stereotypes, which influence the perception of objects.
Objects can appear to be near or far, and be perceived as familiar, rare or extraneous. According to the author, the “proximity” of a type of object grows proportionally to its degree of circulation among individuals and causes variations in society (29-32). For Simondon, the “extraneity” of an object is directly connected to the ideology on which a society is shaped and reflects the consequence of the division of work. Indeed, the degrees of extraneity of a type of object correspond to specific modes of production and to the distance between the figures of the user, the producer and the designer. The various relations between these figures produce three cultural models, that Simondon shapes on “different degrees of extraneity”: style and tradition are the ones in which the user has a relationship only with the designer or with the producer, while consumerism is the pole of the relation in which the user doesn’t have any relation with the other two figures. The last model, representing the opposite pole on the scale, is designated as the anthropological one, in which the three figures are all related.
On the basis of this classification, Simondon describes the current situation of technology, in which the arrangement of the relations between objects is such that things are submitted to a process of premature obsolescence, and in which the possibility to intervene on the configuration of objects is being denied by design choices that favour disposables and their endless production and consumption (32-34).
Beyond all the possible configurations of this network of relations, and all the kinds of particular objects that he classifies, Simondon posits what he calls the any-object-whatever. This notion describes the most generic object, that however has a peculiar characteristic: ‘Th[is] object is, first of all and existentially, supposed to be another organism or product or announcement of an organism, or even a group of organisms’ (57).
This idea is considered more in depth in the last essay, that consists in a detailed exposition of experiments with vision that should provide evidence for this thesis through an illustration of what Simondon calls the organism-effect. Such conception is grounded on the claim that ‘the perception of the object bears on a functional real enhanced and pre-marked by a signage’ (58). This means that objects appear because the perceiver, as agent, has a functional relation with its surrounding, and that the objects that appear to him are already filtered by his own physiological needs.
Because of this filtering function, the object is perceived on a background that Simondon describes as continuous and unlimited, because not fractioned by the selective attention of the perceiver. This background, he adds, ‘has an ecological sense, it is a texture’ (58), and ‘the texture is a characteristic of the milieu… [or better still] it is the support, the milieu’ (59).
Since the triple relation between the perceiver, the morphology of the object and this texture allows the object to be grasped, Simondon defines the milieu as a “perceptive mediator” between subject and object. This texture is defined as a microstructure, a multilevel code whose internal differences provide the basis for the action that is taking place on them and exert a regulatory function on it. According to the author, form and texture are two extreme orders of magnitude coexisting on the same perceptive field, the middle term of which is the structure. Different microstructures can produce the exact same form, so that a form is said to be the global result of a texture, i.e., a level of perceptual approximation.
With the series of experiments illustrated in the last essay of the collection, La perception de longue durée, Simondon argues that perception is always biased, and that this bias characterizes the any-object-whatever as an organism.
The experiments illustrated in the article concern prolonged observations of objects and rotating surfaces projected on a screen. According to Simondon, the optic effects generated by long periods of fixation should testify that perception is modelled on organisms, be them friends, partners, prays, food or foes.
This essay, however, has at least two problems: the first is that the study focuses only on the sense of sight, when, as shown, Simondon believed that to have an object is necessary to integrate data from different senses. Moreover, this research does not appear to be scientifically rigorous because, by admission of the author himself: ‘it would be advisable to multiply the observations, to operate with the participation of various subjects, and … by involving subjects that ignore the true nature and the real movement of the object’ (289). This issue is connected to the second problem of the essay: Simondon’s formula tends to project the quality of being an organism onto the object, while the organism-effect takes place not because the any-object-whatever is an organism, but because the perceiver is. Long durations entail the prolongation of the natural intersaccadic periods of fixation, and the effects Simondon describes can be the result of ocular drift and microtremors: it is not the object that moves then, but the eye, and because of its constitution.
Besides of these issues, the idea underlying the series of tests conducted by Simondon can be summarised as follows: ‘It may be thought that, just as there are stimuli-signals, studied by ethology, there exist archetypes and types providing to perception in critical condition its hypotheses’ (334). According to Simondon then, the illusory movement of the images resulting from long periods of fixation is a manifestation of the archetypes that orient perception. As a consequence, the idea that the any-object-whatever is an organism, means that there is an inclination of perception to expect to find organisms, and this because perception serves action, as in the case of the search for food or in the attempt to avoid predators, facilitating the survival of the living being.
Problems and Solutions
Survival is the result of a constant practice of problem-solving.
In the essay that gives the name to the collection, Simondon defines problems as follows: ‘a problem exists as soon as a finalized conduct encounters an obstacle to its realization’ (61), and problems can be classified on the basis of the kind of operations required to overcome these obstacles or avoid harmful stimuli. These operations are the result of a “change of strategy” of sorts, that can be performed as the result of blind attempts in different directions, in view of a plan and recurring to some sort of mediation, be it material or symbolic.
The easiest example of the first modality of problem-solving involves a change in the original direction of a movement. The new direction can be found accidentally and chosen after a random series of unsuccessful trials that increase the chance of not encountering the obstacle again. Simondon shows that this type of conduct is already observable in organisms that are not able to perceive stimuli at a distance, that don’t possess a spatial memory, and in which the motor function is predominant on the sensory one (67).
A more complex way to solve a problem involves the production of a “plan” and requires memory and the capacity to perceive from a distance. Differentiated from the previous by the neurophysiological capacities of the individuals, the presence of acquired habits and hereditary behavioural schemes (77), this kind of conduct presupposes the perception of an actual object instead of isolated uncomfortable sensations (69). The solution of labyrinths by laboratory mice represents a good example of this second type of strategy because mice possess both the capacity to perform a cognitive synthesis of stimuli coming from different senses and the ability to memorise simple information.
The learning process of the subjects of these tests is defined as the gradual limitation of errors, which is complemented by the memorisation of specific spatial relations, and their characterisation as either useful or unattractive. What the mice learn is therefore a new pattern of relations. At this level of complexity, the “plan” is nothing more than the memory of this pattern: ‘”what the rat learns is the labyrinth itself”, that is to say spatial relationships, a topography that had to be sought … learning is not about movements, but about spatial relationships’ (79).
Other problems ‘involve the preparation of instruments’ (88), and necessitate a more complex nervous system, as it is the case of monkeys and humans.
The usage of complex tools is crucially related to their preparation and improvement, and implies the identification of non-urgent needs. Conservation and reparation of the tools derive from this capability of the users, whose activities include the search for materials and the use of other tools in order to produce the ones desired. The conservation of the means of production represents another practice that has direct social implications, because it generates what Simondon describes as the social filters that new inventions must overcome in order to see the light. This highlights the fact that the conditions of the birth of technical objects are not only environmental, but also socio-economical.
La résolution des problèmes focuses then on the consideration of the process of invention, the analysis of which can be found, with more details, also in the third essay of the collection, Invention et créativité.
An invention can be defined as the creation of a group whose elements are in a functional relation, and the sum of which results in a function or a number of functions available to the user (105). The elements of this functional unity, the “organs” of an invention, are arranged and chosen so that ‘there is not necessarily one organ per function or one function per organ’ (105), and their assemblage derives from the articulation of a ‘plurality of tensions towards the fulfilment of functions thanks to the state created by their simultaneous fulfilment’ (100).
The equilibrium between these tensions is reached through a process constituted by three phases: a syncretic phase, an analytic one and a synthetic one. The scheme theorised by Simondon applies to the most complex objects, and is exemplifiable by the invention of industrial machines, which ‘is characterised by … a syncretism, that consist in the act of amalgamating, of blending functional parts, an analysis of the functions and of the structure of the objects, and a synthesis acting as a multifunctional combination of the structures’ (160).
Indeed, the syncretic phase can be described as the act of putting together elements that may lack functional and structural separation, and whose defective assembly makes the object impossible to be industrialised and difficult to automatize. In order to overcome the drawbacks of the initial configuration of the machine, to improve its effects, and/or to produce a new effect, the device must go through an analytic phase, in which the functions of the object are considered separately, and their functions dissociated. This leads to a reshuffle of structures and functions (147) that can be performed also to solve problems belonging to the internal milieu of the object. Problems of this sort can be risen by the fact that one of the components has been transformed by evolution, and because ‘The introduction of a new element affects the way of being of the totality, but must conform to the new laws of the totality resulting’ (105).
Leaving behind ‘a new arrangement of objects or the production of a movement that wasn’t existing before’ (131), the solution of a problem trough instrumental mediation brings about something new, qualifying as a not completely reversible activity that entails a genuine progress.
Theoretical problems or obstacles that cannot be solved by resorting to a material basis to manipulate can be approached through a different “strategy”, that involves the use of symbols.
Very interestingly, part of Invention et créativité is dedicated to the consideration of the process of invention in Greek philosophy. In Simondon’s view, the monism of the primordial element selected by Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes represents the syncretic phase of the early western philosophical invention, whilst the dualistic doctrine of Plato assumes the character of an analytic phase. The synthetic moment of invention in Greek philosophy is instead represented by Aristotle’s philosophy, who, in Simondon’s view, ‘replaced the Platonic opposition between the Idea and the object with the asymmetrical coupling of form and matter, which constitutes the whole universe’ (201). According to the author then, it is possible to apply these schemes to the rest of the history of philosophy, parsing it in a dialectic taxonomy that echoes the Hegelian one.
Even more interesting than this classificatory exercise, however, is the fact that philosophy is considered as ‘a mode of thought capable of real inventions, in the manner of technical thought’ (203), and therefore essentially as a way to solve problems. This definition of the nature of philosophy can be shared or not: what is perhaps more important, is to consider it in relation to what Simondon omits. Among all the possible strategies considered by the author, in fact, solving problems through the creation of new problems has been remarkably left out. Thinking of hungry rats and mazes, for example, makes evident that all sorts of traps have been designed to solve the problem of infestation through the production of a new problem, a very difficult one to solve for the rat.
The nature of these kinds of solutions, that at the same time are also problems, forces us to re-consider Simondon’s conception of philosophy: the idea that the discipline is an inventive one is definitely acceptable, even though the condition of this invention should be debated, but the qualification of philosophy as a problem-solving technique can be quite limiting.
Unlike Simondon, Gilles Deleuze was well aware of this issue: he believed that philosophy is the art of fabricating concepts, but also that these can be created only as ‘a function of problems’ (1991, 2). According to Deleuze, problems are not simply found, they have to be posed, and raised in order to allow the invention of concepts. From this point of view, the creation of problems assumes a certain kind of primacy over their solution. This conception is explicit in a passage of Deleuze’s Bergsonism (1988), in which the philosopher quotes Bergson’s La Pensée et le Mouvant (1934), and with which is probably appropriate to conclude this review of La Résolution des Problèmes:
True Freedom lies in a power to decide, to constitute problems themselves. And this “semi-divine” power entails the disappearance of false problems as much as the creative upsurge of true ones. “The truth is that in philosophy and even elsewhere it is a question of finding the problem and consequently of positing it, even more than of solving it … its solution may remain hidden and, so to speak, covered up; The only thing left to do is to uncover it. But stating the problem is not simply uncovering, it is inventing (1988, 15).
 First part of the major theses, later published in its entirety as L’individuation à la Lumière des Notions de Forme et d’Iinformation (1989).
Phenomenology and Naturalism is a collection of original philosophical essays dealing with the complicated relationship between various strands of naturalism and Husserlian-oriented phenomenology. These essays were delivered in their inceptive form at the 2014 Johannesburg conference on the same topic. There are two types of texts here. One analyzes the relation between phenomenology and naturalistic positions. Some defend phenomenology. Texts by Dan Zahavi, David Papineau, David Cerbone and Jack Reynolds fit this description. The rest showcase some philosopher’s hidden phenomenologies or focus on correlated topics. Benedict Smith, John Sallis, Paul Patton and Bernhard Weiss fit this bill.
The volume is edited by Raphael Winkler. He introduces readers to a contemporary frame dominated by two opposing forces. On the one side, there are Anglo-American philosophers that justify the concept of nature with mathematical instruments, or by importing results from physics and biology. The main characteristics are precision and a broad focus on thinghood. On the other side, there are European philosophers that build on materialism and phenomenology. Their arguments rely on nuance and depth. The tension between these two philosophical orientations competing towards a new and innovative concept of nature takes the limelight in Phenomenology and Naturalism.
Dan Zahavi’s essay opens this volume with a defense of phenomenology against speculative realism. This direction has recently gained popularity and has attacked Husserlian phenomenology in various ways. Zahavi takes a stand in this context and shows that the problem in naturalizing phenomenology arises from naturalism’s commitment to some form of metaphysical realism. These philosophies support the idea that consciousness is a mere object in the world. Speculative realism enters the scene as the latest supporter of this idea. Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier and Tom Sparrow all reject the Kantian Revolution and its correlationism; they all reject the idea that subjectivity and objectivity cannot be understood apart from each other. Harman wants to bypass Kantianism by proposing equality in all relations. For him, consciousness must not be prioritized. Meillassoux attacks Kantianism from a different angle: he thinks the scientific statements are not taken at face value (Meillassoux 2008, 17) and correlationism is to blame for this. If they would, then the mathematical sciences will again have enough of a commanding appearance to describe the in itself and touch on what Meillassoux calls the ancestral. Another speculative realist—Brassier—stands at the nihilistic opposite of what Meillassoux hopes to find. Unlike an interest for the thing in itself, Brassier proposes the concept of extinction. “Philosophy is neither a medium of affirmation nor a source of justification, but rather the organon of extinction.” (Brassier 2007, 239) Last, Sparrow rejects Kantianism and phenomenology because they never delivered what they promised, namely “a wholehearted endorsement of realism.” (Sparrow 2014, xi)
Dan Zahavi identifies three main issues in what speculative realists try to argue. First, he considers that their account of phenomenology is superficial. Classical texts in phenomenology are highly misinterpreted by speculative realists. Zahavi then shows how philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty or Husserl hold views that are opposite to or different from what speculative realists think they are. Last, speculative realists lack novelty (p. 19). All encountered criticism was already raised in the last century by philosophers arriving from the analytic tradition, by empirical researchers or even by other phenomenologists. Zahavi’s text leaves us to wonder whether speculative realism is now able to deliver a counter-criticism or not.
David Papineau shifts focus on representationalism. He argues against the idea that sensory experience is representational and proposes his own phenomenological version of representationalism. He identifies two motivations for representationalism—cognitive science and phenomenologically inspired introspection—and claims that these two are often interconnected in representationalist writers. He is interested in focusing only on the second motivation because he explicitly takes the first for granted.
Papineau first argues that the concept of representation is broad. Representational broadness occurs when two intrinsically identical subjects have corresponding mental states with different representational contents (p. 41). On the one hand, intrinsic aspects of subjectivity are rigidly connected to mental states. On the other hand, both subjectivity and mental states are loosely connected to representational contents. Because of having a dual appearance of precision and flexibility, representation-driven arguments can be used for both sides of the story: similar individuals can view the world in the same way (same mental states and similar representations), or they can view the world in a different way (same mental states and different representations). Papineau admits that this is problematic because representation ends up as either an overdefined or an underdefined concept.
Then Papineau proposes his own version of representationalism. He forwards an analogy between typographical properties of a text and its representational content: the former are contingent to the latter. In a similar fashion, consciousness is related to representational content. The benefit of such a move, Papineau says, is that it eliminates the broadness problem. On the other hand, his phenomenologically-inspired representationalist account separates properties as part of experience from thing properties. For instance, it separates perceived redness from redness in itself. Papineau’s account almost becomes a case of phenomenological realism akin to those of the first wave of Husserl pupils from the Logical Investigations era. Unlike Husserl, Papineau denies that sensory experiences are intentional (p. 57). Papineau ends his paper with a discussion on whether his non-relationist account is worth pursuing against the double background of representationalist arguments and intuitions about consciousness.
Cerbone argues that the opposition between phenomenology and Quinean naturalism is not obvious, because naturalism’s rejection of transcendental philosophy places naturalism in a similar position. Cerbone calls this position an exile. Such an exile is prompted by the phenomenological reduction because it places the phenomenologist in a position that transcends results offered by the natural sciences. This exile is facilitated by Husserl’s distinction between phenomena and objects, between what is immanent to consciousness and what is foreign to it (p. 86). It is a transcendental exile. This contrasts with the Quinean “exile from within” that characterizes naturalized epistemology. Against Husserl, naturalized epistemology denies that fundamental epistemological questions are outside natural attitude. On the contrary, they lie at the heart of evident facts. When attempting to explain visual perception, a naturalized epistemologist would most likely make use of scientific data and try to build up a picture of how some processes work, despite those processes transcending experiential evidence (e.g. I do not see photons as such). Cerbone criticizes this position by saying that, if there are no specific data to be taken into account, the distinction between true and false belief would collapse. Such an epistemology would thus fail to explain how knowledge is possible in general.
Cerbone concludes his article with an exposition of his alternative that aims to create a phenomenology without epistemology. He relies on Merleau-Ponty. Both Quine and Husserl are committed to the idea of objective thought; both philosophers are engaged in a reconstructive effort and both are aware of two directions, explaining the subjective with objective instruments and vice versa. Merleau-Ponty rejects this design and insists that reality must be described, not constructed. Phenomenologists should not pretend they discover a constituting power within the depths of consciousness (p. 93). The focus on description would allow the phenomenologist, on Merleau-Ponty’s account, to avoid exile and remain in the homeland of thoughts, the human world.
Reynolds writes about the compatibility between a minimal phenomenology and the ontology in naturalism. His account of a minimal phenomenology is not compatible with scientific naturalism. Reynolds’ first claim is that transcendental phenomenology’s autonomy regarding the natural sciences is insufficiently justified. His second claim is that a neutral scientific method discarding the first-person perspective is also an insufficiently justified idea. Reynolds hopes to find a middle solution between these two problems. He admits this is hard to achieve because Husserl’s principle of principles, which states that every intuition is a legitimate source of cognition, flies in the face of empirical science and its way of investigating nature. The separation between transcendental phenomenology and science prohibits the former to be able to learn from the latter. A sort of quarantine (an exile) is self-imposed by rigorous phenomenology. Reynolds reminds us that even Zahavi and Gallagher, who generally work towards a truce between phenomenology and science, will proceed and distinguish between transcendental phenomenology and phenomenological psychology. The first will remain intact, Husserlian, proper; the latter will safely mingle with naturalism. Reynolds thinks otherwise.
He devises a three-pronged argument: the first is historical and appeals to authority, the second deconstructs the phenomenological quarantine, and the third shows the downsides of the present separation. Merleau-Ponty’s idea that the phenomenological reduction is by definition incomplete opens Reynolds’ main move: to deconstruct the purity of method that phenomenology promotes. He asks himself whether phenomenology can accept itself without its presuppositionless character. He argues that phenomenology should appreciate the ground that the natural attitude provides for phenomenological endeavors. Then, Reynolds says that transcendental arguments use a category of first-person experiences, such as shame, to spell out the conditions for that category to arise altogether. But if pathological cases deny the original phenomenological account, then the phenomenologist should be prepared to revise. Transcendental phenomenology does not benefit from resting on itself only. Reynolds thus proposes a minimal phenomenology that abandons the transcendental self-sufficiency (p. 118). This minimal phenomenology appears to be compatible with a liberal naturalism. It rejects scientific naturalism but respects the findings and methods of science. Such a compromise on sides highlight that phenomenology and naturalism actually need each other (p. 125).
Zahavi, Papineau, Cerbone and Reynolds have defended or adapted phenomenology in relation to naturalism. The other four texts proceed differently. They unearth phenomenological ideas from well-known philosophers. Or, they use some of the concepts pertaining to the phenomenology vs. naturalism debate for proving something else.
Benedict Smith shows that Hume’s concept of science of man is closer to phenomenology than it is to naturalism. Hume’s interpersonal aspect of experience is a fundamental and irreducible element of his science of man. Smith argues that the interpersonal concept can be linked to the Husserlian concept of intersubjectivity. Hume further claims that he can rely on the only solid ground he has: experience. Therefore, Hume’s aspiration is not to formulate a disenchanted version of the world, as if he were a metaphysician whose worldview is conclusive. Instead, he looks for essences in interpersonal experience.
In the second part of the chapter, Smith illustrates Todes’ reading of Hume. Todes thinks that Hume is a disembodied visualist philosopher when thinking about human experience, because he dissects experience into instances. Smith defends the phenomenological Hume by saying that Todes primarily views Hume as a skeptic who has metaphysical aspirations. This appears to be a straw man for Smith. Let’s have an example. Phenomenologists usually criticize metaphysicians by default. Todes takes himself to be a phenomenologist. Therefore, Todes criticizes a metaphysical Hume he forges with his own reading. This strategy is shared by Smith. Nevertheless, Smith works in opposition to Todes. Smith’s overall position promotes a David Hume without metaphysical commitments and defends a study of human nature that relies on a continuous input from human experience.
Patton’s text explores the reasons why Deleuze’s philosophy is incompatible with scientific naturalism. He focuses on Deleuze’s concept of pure event and shows that it is more inclined to work in a more pluralist –so to say, a more philosophical—naturalistic frame. Patton traces Deleuze’s position all the way back to Lucretius’ philosophy and to Epicurean naturalism. Their main trait, according to Deleuze and his Nietzschean reading, is to banish negativity from investigations pertaining to Nature and grasp the affirmation that dwells at its heart (Deleuze 1990, 279). This idea is reflected in Deleuze’s pragmatic conception about what philosophy is: the invention of concepts. The concept of doing is more important to Deleuze that the concept of givenness. Yet, philosophy is a special kind of doing. While science produces mathematical or propositional functions, philosophy deals with the production of concepts. Both are affirmative, yet they take different paths of affirmation: the role of concepts is to describe pure, non-empirical events. Deleuze’s position, Patton claims, is reinforced by the concept of pure event which relies on the distinction between being and becoming. Philosophy, in Deleuze’s signature naturalism, is conceived as a process, a becoming, rather than substance or being. As process, philosophy should address pure events that are either finished or envisioned and conceptualize their core meaning. This idea paves the way for Deleuze’s naturalist ethics. Action should be coherent with the succession of events that leads to it. The will to coherent action takes form as the philosophical activity of concept production. Patton’s conclusion suggests that Deleuze’s conception about philosophy is complementary to science.
John Sallis reviews the most important philosophers that have supported the call of returning to nature. He begins with Chrysippus’ idea that choice should be exercised in accordance with nature. This includes the choice of seeing nature as an end and not only as a means. This idea infiltrates Rousseau’s project about the original nature of man: the state of nature. Rousseau promotes the return to nature because this return enriches any theoretical description of the initial conditions that led to human civilization. Rousseau’s project is genealogical. Kant’s transcendental project, on the other hand, is concerned with the conditions that lie in the cognizing subject. Kant’s own return to nature, Sallis explains, takes the form of contemplating the beauty of natural things and provokes an attunement to moral feelings. The Kantian return to nature is not methodological or epistemological, but related to moral subjectivity. Thoreau fully embraces this connection between nature and morality and underlines its existential character. He supports the idea that one should practice a life surrounded by nature because the confrontation with nature is the primary way of knowing oneself. Nietzsche expands on this by promoting the concept of life-affirming values. The most important sensibility a human can develop is a sensibility for nature. The will to power is a will to harvest one’s own inclination towards nature. Sallis’ text ultimately suggests that the philosophical problem about the concept of nature transcends the phenomenology-naturalism debate.
Weiss’ text is connected to the book’s topic because of using the concept of representation. He starts by distinguishing between two facets of belief. Belief is a reaction to evidence; but beliefs represent the world. One facet is directed from the world to the subject. The other proceeds in reverse. The former is called the Threshold view, while the latter the Representational view. They are opposites. Weiss argues for the Representationalist view because it defuses what Weiss refers to as the Preface Paradox. The Preface Paradox is that even though a person has a set of beliefs, not all facts can be believed to the same of degree of intensity and still maintain Logical Coherence. In light of this, the advantage of Representationalism over Thresholdism is that Representationalism endorses Logical Coherence, while Thresholdism does not. The Thresholdist resolves the Paradox by saying that it depends on the threshold of beliefs that is taken into consideration, so the paradox does not necessarily appear. Weiss criticizes this position by saying that levels of credence shaped by thresholds are too broad. The introduction of levels of credence does not develop any visible relation to coherence. Thus, any level of coherence can claim to be coherent by default. Thresholdists can always argue that coherence exists because of threshold’s design. Weiss argues for the existence of three ways to deal with the Paradox without becoming a Thresholdist: (1) is to find fault in the inferential steps that lead to the paradox, (2) is to absolve the subject from committing to one of the sentences that leads to the paradox and (3) is to accept a paradoxical appearance of an otherwise plausible situation. Weiss goes for (3). He supports Representationalism via Logical Coherence by thinking that the Preface Paradox is not actually a Paradox from the viewpoint of its relation to Coherence.
The volume is an important step for the discussion about adapting phenomenology to naturalism, or vice-versa. It joins another Phenomenology and Naturalism (2013) volume that was edited by Havi Carel and Darian Meacham. The book should be of interest to anyone who studies embodiment, the philosophical aspects of empirical science, but also to phenomenologists and epistemologists. The book’s strongest point arrives from the novelty its texts bring; the weakest, a partially disparate character. The volume now provokes discussions about the irreconcilable relation between Husserlian phenomenology and scientific naturalism. The problem in bringing transcendental philosophy and empiricism together does not appear to have a convincing resolution in some compromise-driven middle ground between the two.
Brassier, R. (2007). Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, Palgrave Macmillan.
Deleuze, G. (1990). The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale, (ed.) Constantin Boundas, New York: Columbia University Press.
Harman, G. (2005). Guerilla Metaphysics: phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Chicago: Open Court.
Meillassoux, Q. (2008). After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, London: Continuum.
Sparrow, T. (2014). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Beyond Technicity: On Violence and Otherness
For two decades — and certainly since the bloody attacks in London, Paris, and Brussels, among others — on the old continent and elsewhere, people have the impression that violence has increased worldwide. Even though leading scientists claim that humankind is constantly improving (life expectancy has increased, environmental awareness ameliorates, etc.), it seems that there is more violence than there was roughly two centuries ago. However, the question is whether this impression is justified or not.
According to some, including linguist Steven Pinker (2012) and historian Ian Morris (2014), it is in fact not the case that violence is on the rise. It may be that we believe ourselves to be living in the cruelest of times, yet that impression lacks solid ground. Moreover, according to both Pinker and Morris, the fact that there is such an impression has everything to do with the fact that there are fewer and fewer acts of violence. It is precisely because our living environment has become safer that we have become more sensitive to everything that relates to violence, whether it actually ‘is’ violence or not. This is what has ultimately led to the misconception that violence is on the rise. Although this explanation seems plausible, it nevertheless raises many (especially methodological) questions. Is it possible, for example, to make scientifically reliable statements on this subject, given that we know that acts of violence are now being recorded more frequently than in the past?
Although there is great disagreement among scientists concerning the question of whether violence has increased or decreased, there is no doubt that the scientific interest in violence has increased considerably in recent years. This is not only the case in disciplines such as history, sociology, and psychology, but also in philosophy. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, and specifically since the pioneering work of, among others, Walter Benjamin and Georges Sorel, thinking about violence has a firm footing in philosophy. This increase in the philosophy of violence applies to different domains within philosophy. For example, in analytical philosophy, Robert Audi focuses on analyzing the concept of violence, whereas in normative ethics, thinkers such as Michael Walzer work within the ancient tradition of Just War Theory. And with regards to the tradition of continental philosophy, it is clear that, for example, (post)structuralists reflect upon the relationship between power and violence, and that phenomenologists focus on the experience of violence.
If we zoom in on the phenomenological tradition, we see that violence has also become an important topic there. In this context, we are, of course, thinking primarily of the works by Jacques Derrida and Jan Patočka, but more recent authors within that tradition are also considering this subject matter. Take, for example, the volume The Phenomenologies of Violence (2014) by Michael Staudigl and two studies by James Dodd: Phenomenology and Violence (2009) and Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach (2017). Within this line of thought we must also situate the last study of Leonard Lawlor (Edwin Earle Sparks Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University): From Violence to Speaking Out. Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze, in a beautiful edition published by Edinburgh University Press.
It would come as no surprise if, in the future, this study was to become one of the most influential philosophical contributions on violence. There are several reasons for this: not only because the author’s profound knowledge of the subject is evident, but also because of his original approach. The point of departure of Lawlors’ study are two phenomena that, at first sight, have little to do with each other but which, it is argued, have the same ground structure. The first phenomenon is the contemporary late-modern variant of capitalism, namely neoliberalism. Lawlor argues that neoliberalism is primarily characterised by the fact that all subjects and all objects acquire a kind of value in order to be exchangeable. The author emphasizes not so much the economic logic behind this, but the regime that lies behind that logic: everything is comparable to each other, so everything falls under the name of the One. This logic is not limited to the West alone, however, but spreads to all corners of the world. Capitalism oppresses all local lifestyles and rituals, making them a commodity on the global free market. Today’s capitalism can therefore be described, following Lawlor, as the globalisation of commodification.
The second phenomenon from which the author begins his study is likewise a form of violence that, however, takes place on a more individual level and is always physical. In this category, Lawlor primarily gives the example of hate crimes committed by Einzalgängers, whereby an individual indiscriminately kills passing civilians in a public space, and finally kills himself (in an act of murder-suicide). Of course, the countless (often religiously inspired) suicide attacks in which a perpetrator inflates himself with the aim of killing as many innocent people as possible, also fits into this category. The logic behind these murders is crystal clear, according to Lawlor: anyone who has a different way of thinking from the murderer (usually atheists or other believers) must disappear from the globe. This form of violence is characterised by globalisation. The shootings and suicide attacks do not only occur in the West and North, but also in the East and South; they are furthermore not only carried out in the name of Christianity or Islam, as we know, there are also Jewish or Buddhist inspired terrorist attacks. In short, just as neoliberalism is all-encompassing, physical violence is both total and limitless.
Many scholars believe that there is a causal link between the two phenomena. The physical violence, such as religiously inspired suicide terrorists, is a reaction to the violence of neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the same scholars also stress that although these two phenomena are causally linked, they differ fundamentally in ontological terms. Lawlor distinguishes himself from these scholars, first of all because he does not make any statements about a possible causal connection. This is actually not particularly surprising, since making such empirically verifiable claims is not the task of the philosopher, but of the social scientist. More importantly (and philosophically more relevant) is that Lawlor argues that the ground structure of both phenomena is clearly the same. Broadly speaking, one can argue that both fall under the primacy of the One, which means that, in both cases, the other is radically ignored, or worse still: destroyed. Or to put it in Heidegger’s jargon (which is virtually absent from Lawlor’s study, although traces of the German philosopher’s ideas can be clearly sensed therein): both neoliberalism and physical violence are the cruel expression of (a platonic-inspired) onto-theology. However, on the other hand and following Lawlor, we must not lose sight of the differences between the two kinds of violence that suppress the other. While capitalism is displacing the other by expressing everything in economic value and thus making it interchangeable, suicide bombers will kill anyone who does not like their dogmatic view of the world.
Both phenomena are referred to by Lawlor, after Derrida’s famous expression, as examples of “the problem of the worst violence”. Before we expand upon this topic, I first reflect on Lawlor’s understanding of globalisation. Globalisation, in its common use, connotes a certain levelling of intercultural differences. The author shares this deeply rooted belief, but never explains why we should accept it. This assumption is striking, not only because it is the starting point of the study, but also, and above all, because it is not at all certain that this claim is as justified as it appears to be. Slavoi Žižek (2004), for example, argues convincingly that globalisation is characterised by the opposite; namely by the opening-up of the Other. But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that Lawlor is correct. In that case, is it justifiable to state, as Lawlor does, that the neoliberal hegemony is nothing other than violence? Indeed, the author believes that the failure to respect the otherness of the other — of the face, to employ Lévinas’ term — also means that violence is done to this other. If Lawlor does not understand ‘violence’ here in a metaphorical sense — and that is something we can take for granted, given the structure of the study — then the author allows the meaning of ‘violence’ in this context to fit in with the etymology of the word. One of the original meanings of the Latin violare was “crossing a moral border”. This assimilation of violence and violation is not further justified by the author. This is also striking, because violence and violation do not necessarily encapsulate each other. For example, it is clear that most but not all forms of violence imply the transgression of a moral border. A building company can destroy a building by means of explosives in order that the construction of a new building may begin in its place. Likewise, it is common in various fight sports to “play hard”, to tackle or kick, for example, a member of the opposite team in order to win. In both cases, we speak of violence without exceeding the limit of what is permissible. Conversely, of course, it is not the case that “violation” means that an act of violence was committed. Lying, for example, is usually interpreted as an act that is morally reprehensible, while we do not typically understand it is a form of violence.
After emphasizing the ontological similarity between neoliberalism and physical violence (shootings, religious terror, etc.), Lawlor makes a new step in his line of argument. With this step, the author addresses the transcendental level, in the Kantian sense of the word. After all, Lawlor aims to explore the conditions of possibility of experience, more specifically, the experience that a subject has of himself and of the way that subject experiences the other. Lawlor explains that the two phenomena mentioned earlier (neoliberalism and physical violence) are both a reaction to the transcendental structure he exposes. This is, at the very least, a surprising statement especially as most researchers look primarily at psychological and socio-economic factors to explain violence. Let us therefore focus on the transcendental part of the study, a part with which the author, who previously published intriguing studies such as The Implication of Immanence and This is not Sufficient, once again demonstrates why he is one of the most prominent scholars in continental philosophy.
The starting point of Lawlor’s transcendental research, about which the author is explicit, coincides with the phenomenological reduction, which breaks down into two steps. First, the scientific attitude, and second, the natural attitude is replaced, meaning that any belief in the existence of the world that exists independently of experience is given up. When all external assumptions are suspended, phenomenology ultimately collides with consciousness; that is to say, we end up with the most fundamental level of auto-affection and internal monologue. More importantly, however — Lawlor clearly indicates that he owes much to countless phenomenological and Bergsonian thinkers — this auto-affection is not absolute. The reason is that it is marked by the movement of time. How should we understand this?
When we state that Lawlor’s study is based on earlier research, we mean that the author is very clearly on the Derridean trail². More specifically, he refers to the ingenious analysis of time consciousness in La Voix et le phénomène from 1967. This earlier study highlights the two following aspects of time consciousnesses: On the one hand, this analysis shows that experience in the present always differs from the past. There is a gap between the present and the past and we clash with alteration. This means, according to Lawlor, that the movement of time can be described as an event (here, Lawlor employs fashionable terminology, it seems, somewhat indiscriminately). Lawlor’s remark about “events” is all the more compelling since his study does not seek any connection with recent work on “the event”, and also because he uses “event” here in a very broad sense: not every alteration has an eventful character. On the other hand, we also know that the present can be remembered and thus be repeated, so that it installs the expectation that the same will also take place in the future. In short, besides difference there is always also repetition, to speak with Deleuze. Or, in the vocabulary of Lévinas (who, incidentally, is as good as absent in Lawlor’s study): the movement of time must be understood in terms of le même and l’autre.
This double structure is the ontological foundation for both the experience that the subject has of himself and for the experience that the same subject has of another person. First, looking at self-experience, we must ask ourselves whether we really hear ourselves talking when we speak to ourselves. According to a long tradition in phenomenological research, we must answer this question negatively, which means that every auto-affect is less pure than one usually assumes and is always hetero-affective. Lawlor endorses these findings, as we read in the following passage (which illustrates the clear and sometimes evocative style of Lawlor): “In other words, we must unlearn how to hear badly, hearing only oneself, and learn to hear better, so that we hear those others inside of us. The essential fact that the sphere of interior life is not strictly my own implies, positively, that there are others within me.” (282) This ambivalence between sameness and otherness also characterizes interpersonal relationships. On the one hand, I am involved in a performance that is inextricably linked to the signifier “man”, which I employ every time I meet a member of the species of man, whereby I immediately recognize living beings that are human beings as such. It is precisely this representation that gives the interpersonal relationship a repetitive character, and thus also ensures continuity. Lacan, with whom Lawlor himself does not enter into discussion, would argue that the relationship with the other has an imaginary meaning in this context, and is the result of an identification with the overall image of the other. On the other hand, the relationship with the other can never be completely homogenised, so that the other never fully merges into the image we have of the other, and so that the other inevitability is permeated by strangeness and otherness. In this context, Lacan would speak of le réel; Lévinas has taken that dimension into account when he talks about the distinction between le visage on the one hand and la face on the other.
The fact that the homogeneity of the other is always partially cancelled by heterogenization is violent, according to Lawlor. More specifically, he refers in this context to ‘transcendental violence’. Once again, we can raise the question that we have already asked (especially because Lawlor himself remains completely silent on this): why, precisely, is the heterogenization of homogeneity a form of violence? Although it may be the case that the abolition of equality is regrettable, it does not necessarily mean that it is violent. There are, in fact, many things that we would prefer to see continue to exist, without describing them as violence. Moreover, Lawlor seems to forget that ‘violence’ is a normative concept. It brings together deeds that may not all appear to be unjustified at second glance (because of utilitarian considerations) but, at the very least, those deeds are prima facie morally wrong because they stem from the intention to inflict harm. However, my question to Lawlor is this: how can we describe a transcendental given (the heterogenization of the homogeneous) as violent given that it inevitably occurs and, more importantly, since such heterogenization does not result from an intention? This transcendental violence, in addition to the two forms of ‘worst violence’, is the third violence that Lawlor distinguishes. Apart from the fact that he never explains why he understands these things as violence, he also never explicitly indicates his definition of transcendental violence, and what exactly the differences and similarities are between the three forms of violence. These lacunae are extremely puzzling for a philosophical book, the title of which suggests that it is primarily about violence.
This critical note to Lawlor, however, does not change the author’s original position in the debate on violence, especially in the philosophical debate. The central thesis of his book is that both forms of violence must be understood as reactive phenomena, a position that runs counter to the thinking of a number of prominent thinkers. Freud, for example, in his writings on war and violence (think of the famous correspondence with Einstein, published as “Why war?”) argues that the propensity for violence is in human nature, which means that it regularly comes to the surface and must then be satisfied. Such a view, which can also be found in Georges Bataille, among others, is interesting because violence is understood as the expression of a force, and therefore as an active fact. Lawlor goes against this by claiming that the violence to which he refers is rather an answer to another prior fact. More specifically, he defends the proposition that the two forms of violence are a reaction to fundamental violence. Or better formulated: both forms of violence are a reaction to the inability to deal with transcendental violence, more specifically the fact that the self-experience and experience of the other person are not only a matter of repetition and togetherness, but also of difference and otherness. However, Lawlor rightly emphasises that we must not lose sight of the differences in the way in which both forms of violence specifically deal with this inability. For example, if we look first at the hate crimes and religious terror, according to Lawlor, this is based on the fact that the subject’s identity has always been marked by differences. Terror, understood here as the radical destruction of any radical other thing, is an attempt to destroy the other person who has always been part of me. Second, if we focus on the violence of neoliberalism, on the other hand, we see that this violence is trying to reduce the other’s ‘differentness’, to homogenise the other. In Lacan’s vocabulary: neoliberalism brings the other into the register of the imaginary.
That Lawlor understands violence as a reactive phenomenon implies that his study is less distant from other non-philosophical studies on the same subject than might be expected. Indeed, the author claims that the violence is a consequence of the subject’s inability to deal with the fundamental element of difference. This means that Lawlor tries to understand violence from a causative, and therefore scientific, point of view: the inability is the cause of the violence because without it there would be no violence. The formal structure of this reasoning is identical to what researchers in scientific disciplines such as psychology, sociology or anthropology claim: X (think of a mental disorder or socio-economic situation) is the cause of violence because without X there, would be no violence. Moreover, can we not speak of a similarity in terms of content? For while the inability does have to do with a transcendental given, that inability is of course a psychological fact, so that Lawlor is not at all far away from, for example, psychologists who claim that certain forms of violence are related to an unprocessed past or a somewhat untenable mental situation. For these similarities alone, it is quite striking that Lawlor makes no reference in his study to other scientific research on violence.
Yet even if the author had made such references, the reader could nonetheless raise at least two interrelated questions. First, what exactly is the gap in the existing debate that Lawlor wants to fill with his study? Secondly, and more importantly, it is not clear why precisely the statement proposed by Lawlor is plausible. Although he may claim that the violence, namely the homogenisation of the other, is a reaction to the inability to deal with the other, nowhere is there any detailed argument as to why we should adopt this explanation. For the author, it seems sufficient that there is a similarity between the two facts (physical violence and neoliberalism on the one hand, and transcendental violence, on the other hand) to conclude that there is also a causal connection. This is not enough, however, because there are many things that chronologically follow each other, without a causal connection.
If, however, Lawlor’s thesis proves to be true, it is not at all surprising that a particular solution is linked to the problem of violence. If violence does indeed intend to deal with difference, then Lawlor’s cognitive solution could signal a shift in philosophical thought since his is a solution that indicates a paradigmatic shift in a Kuhnian sense (with the help, according to Lawlor, of Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida). Lawlor explains: “If we want to reduce the impulses that drive the hate criminal, the suicide bombers and the hegemony of the economic genre, we need a new way of thinking, or, more precisely, a new way of writing and speaking.” (3) This solution, which one could say can be formulated in Heideggerian terms as ‘a thinking beyond technicity’, sounds particularly attractive. But, as mentioned above, the effectiveness depends entirely on the accuracy of the explanation behind it. As a reader, it is precisely at this point that we are simultaneously slightly disappointed and yet still looking forward to Lawlors’ new study; perhaps even more so, since it is quite possible that the validity of the author’s thesis may well emerge in that new book, which, as outlined in the book’s introduction, will be about peace.
Derrida, Jacques (1967). La voix et le phénomène. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Dodd, James (2009). Phenomenology and Violence. New York; Routledge.
Dood, James (2017). Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach. New York: Routledge.
Morris, Ian (2014). War! What Is Is Good For?. London: Profile Books.
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