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.
Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.
Staudigl, Michael (Ed.) (2014). The Phenomenologies of Violence. Leiden: Brill.
Žižek, Slavoj (2004). Plaidoyer en faveur de l’intolérance. Paris: Climats.
Perhaps the weightiest critique of a phenomenological approach belongs to rationalism, rooted in Spinoza. This is a break with Descartes, in which phenomenology finds its inspiration. Rationalism or Myth? These are our choices. Are these real choices? The first stands for Spinozism and the second phenomenology. How is it that Spinozism and phenomenology became antagonistic? The important point to notice here is not that Spinoza himself represents the contra, as the title of this book seems to suggest, but rather ‘followers’ or readers or manipulators of Spinoza have come to use him. Thus, this is a primarily historiographical, but also philosophical question— perhaps better expressed in the phrase “Spinozism contra phenomenology.” What kind of rationalism prevails over what may appear to be myth?
“This book is a history of a countervailing strand of development in which a series of French thinkers sought to salvage rationalist philosophy from its phenomenological denigration by reconfiguring it in Spinozist terms,” (4) Knox Peden writes. The series of French thinkers thus creates the narrative, and it is a particular kind of narrative. “Rationalism” as a term of art for Peden means a lot of things, and he points out how Ricoeur thought of Husserl as a kind of rationalist. The importance for the series of French figures he considers points to the fact that rationalism means that reason, “however it is conceived, supervene[s] on the spontaneous insights of lived experience” (6). At the core of this problem then is a difference between Cartesian and Spinozist rationalism, the former entailing a phenomenological outlook, the latter an anti-phenomenological and anti-Bergsonian one. But how Spinoza plays a role in Spinozism is a fraught issue, as Peden is well aware. None of the figures he considers would be called “Spinoza specialists”. What is then most fascinating about this history, and one that Peden is very keen on telling, is the fact that this division impacts disciplines such as philosophy of science as well as history of philosophy and philosophy of history. If phenomenology was seen as irrationalist, then the development of these disciplines from within philosophy could also be seen that way. The hinge of the book, and one that might be split in the middle from around 1968, concerns those thinkers before 1968 vs. those thinkers after. This is not a perfect split or hinge, of course, but how we historically situate a split – before and after or tension and resolution. But there is no resolution. Not to mention that the different senses of Spinozism are matters of emphasis rather than substance. The “disjunctive synthesis” that Deleuze attempts between Spinoza and phenomenology has not won the day. “There is a difference between understanding ideas and understanding where they came from, however much the one may illuminate the other” (13).
While it is indeed true that “few philosophers in the canon are as ahistorical as Spinoza,” it is also true that Peden tells an historical story. He appears to be a Spinozist historicist, if such a thing is possible. The story begins with Cavaillès in chapter one where
the idea of Cavaillès as a historical character will come to be expressive of the desire that there be a prescriptive or revolutionary politics of Spinozism, or if not Spinozism per se, of rationalism and a commitment to formalism and logic that is at the very least inspired by Spinoza. (20)
The danger of phenomenology for Cavaillès and the story that Peden is telling concerns the seeming danger of solipsism and irrationalism, which may be seen as the threat of Schwärmerei. Thus, in Cavaillès, the choice is between universal reason and historical negation. The way to avoid the dangers of phenomenology and neo-Kantianism, against which he is reacting, is to have a philosophy without cogito. Religiously, this opposed most Catholic thinking of the time. Cavaillès was a Calvinist who might be called a “militant Protestant” and Peden associates this with Spinozism even though
Barthian Protestantism and Spinozist rationalism seem like polar opposites—Barth’s God is wholly absent; Spinoza’s God is fully present—the theoretical effect of these positions is the same: God is nonanthropomorphic and, more important, noninterventionist in the world of human affairs (274).
This was a means for using religion against phenomenology, but even better Spinoza against the cogito. For Cavaillès, love was an experience of transcendence, and thought an experience of immanence. “Philosophy only works in the light,” he writes, “between rational clarity and the obscure night of religious life.” (30) One finds the roots of his Spinozist ontology in a letter of October 7, 1930 where he says, “I believe that, outside of rationalism, philosophy can only be self-defeating” – for Peden’s Cavaillès, being is not transcendent but rather immanent, “coexistent with existence itself.” Cavaillès thinks of Spinoza as the true Christian, unlike Leibniz. Later, Peden notes, “if there is incompatibility between Kant’s and Spinoza’s philosophies, it is not to be found in the critique but in the metaphysics that kept Kant tethered to Leibniz and Wolff.” (33) There can be no “intuitive or empirical confirmation” of the rational on this picture of Spinoza, says Peden.
The most important point for this development within 20th century French philosophy has both historical and philosophical elements. First, Cavaillès who was the caïman from 1931-35 (before Merleau-Ponty took up the same position) has a particular role in the influence of later generations of French thinking. Second, it is to mathematics that Cavaillès believes a philosophy of the concept can overcome a philosophy of consciousness. The problem with philosophy from Descartes to Kant, and the problem with phenomenology is that it became too closely tied to consciousness. “Cavaillès’s concern is that Kantian categories are viable only for a science that remains within the domain of finite mathematics; but since ‘genuine mathematics begins with the infinite’ (73), a philosophy of consciousness that attempts to ground the forms of the understanding in the empirical forms of experience itself will be unable to make philosophical sense of the developments in mathematics and physics from Cantor to Gödel and beyond.”
Chapter 2 regards Gueroult vs. Alquié, each of whom accused the other of being an historicist, reducing philosophy to contextualism. For such a contextualist as Peden is, “The dispute in question began over Descartes in 1951, the year of Gueroult’s appointment to the Collège de France, and it ended with the publication of Alquié’s Le Rationalisme de Spinoza in 1981” (66), there is no questioning the historicism of this chapter. After Descartes, the concern became one over Spinoza, and historicism was replaced by theology. Each accused the other then of occultism, which sounds a little like the phenomenological critique of ‘onto-theology’. Gueroult was chosen instead of Koyré at College de France because they were afraid of Koyré’s historicism His predecessors had been Bergson and Gilson. Gueroult thought of them as too subjective and wanted a radical idealism as a reversal of Hegelianism: “Where Hegel had made his subjective apprehension of philosophy’s history serve as the very basis for his account, Gueroult wanted to effect an inversion, thus making ‘the reality of philosophy’s history’ the foundation for our systematic assessment of it. This method would dictate a militant fidelity to the letter of philosophical texts and a practice of reading devoid of hermeneutic intentions.” (71) Husserl was just as guilty of “subjectivism” as Bergson, according to Gueroult. The debate over Descartes occurred in 1955 in Royaumont, and then they met again in 1972 in Brussels (where Serres and Lefebvre also presented) when they still disagreed and Gueroult still distrusted phenomenology for its “inaccessible interiority” (see p. 79), Alquié thought that Descartes, Kant and Husserl were basically saying the same thing. As a chapter in French “Spinozism”, Peden is interestingly putting into historicist terms what is supposedly a philosophy of the concept. But we do not really get the concept here. Paul Ricoeur’s description of Levi-Strauss’s structuralism as a “Kantianism without a transcendental subject” is an apt description of Gueroult’s Spinozism as well. Spinozism is a method for Gueroult and that method concerns the following: “Just because God, or Substance, is ‘unknowable’ in an exhaustive sense does not mean that an ‘adequate’ comprehension of the idea of Substance is impossible. To know in the sense of savoir, which involves an abstracted and genetic understanding, is predicated on the impossibility of knowing as connaître, which involves an intimacy and familiarity, a kind of burrowing out of the object in question.” (87) From this Gueroult accuses Alquié of being occultist and Alquié accuses Gueroult of being antiphilosophical, but in the end Peden calls their views “mirror images of one another.” (91)
Chapter three furthers this philosophical-historical story with reference to Desanti, one of the most controversial figures of the French communist party (PCF) who took up the ‘debate’ between Aristotle and Galileo. Desanti utilized Spinoza to defend geometric abstraction, particularly « what he praised in Spinoza was the linking of philosophy to the exigencies of … Galilean science » (114). Already, in Desanti’s own lifetime, we see a breakdown of the pre- and post-1968 divide that this book supposedly makes when Peden writes, « This sense of permanent tension at work in Desanti’s own philosophical efforts of the 1960s and 1970s accounts for the effect they have of being at once stimulating and frustrating in their constant deferral of any sense of resolution » (98). While Desanti does follow the French thinkers Cavaillès, Gueroult, and Alquié and does interpret Spinoza in an Hegelian and Stalinist direction, his « feverish tension » between thought and action makes him an uneasy bedfellow to Spinoza contra of the title. For Peden’s story, we see him essentially as a political transitional figure to Althusser, who had him as a teacher.
Chapter four and five thus concern Althusser. Along the lines of Desanti’s geometric abstraction, Althusser also made « positive references to Galileo and Galilean science, committed as it was to a mathematization of nature devoid of transient causes, origins, or goals » (299n83). As the chapter titles state, « recuperating science » and « redefining philosophy », Peden is telling the story of Althusser’s sources and development of Spinozism from the 1960s to the 1980s, which greatly influenced figures like Badiou and Balibar. It was to the effort of making Marxism scientific that all of his work tended. The following two passages must speak for Peden’s long and interesting story:
Althusser’s efforts in 1967– 68 to philosophically siphon the “spontaneous philosophy of the scientists” from their scientific practice were designed to articulate the distinction between scientific practice, on the one hand, and the ideologically driven interests of the scientists as members of society, on the other. But this was no mere abstract enterprise resulting from Althusser’s own fanatical embrace of scientificity. We can trace its roots to particular historical developments. (143)
Althusser’s decision to place the Spinozist conception of the true—verum index sui et falsi (the true is its own sign, and that of the false)—at the heart of his contribution to Reading Capital was a veritable rebuttal of a conception of Marxist philosophy indebted to a renovated Hegelian dialectical philosophy of history and inspired by Giambattista Vico’s verum-factum principle, the latter of which claimed that man can know his history precisely because he has made it. In this reading, history is man’s creation. (145)
According to Peden, then, it is due to historical specificity and the construction of reality through history that Althusser came when he did. As early as his 1959 book on Montesquieu, particular political events occur due to « the historical singularity of political formations ». Whether or not this is really a Spinozism contra phenomenology remains to be seen, since, according to Peden, what science does is discover and phenomenology recognize, taking up the very divide between Descartes and Spinoza with which we began, since Althusser saw Spinoza as articulating all of the problems of Descartes’ philosophy. Against Peden’s own way of writing, then,
One does not need to subscribe to a concept of politics as mainly a matter of narratives to recognize that Althusser’s own understanding of materialist philosophy as a disavowal of stories seriously compromises its bearing on political questions. (186)
The last two chapters of the book concern Deleuze. Here Peden finally uses Spinoza himself (from definition IV of Book I of the Ethics): By attribute I mean that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence. Is this a question of perceiving or conceiving? Deleuze stands at the door and knocks, playing with this very notion, this very problem at the basis of rationalism, which he calls « distinct-obscure. » And here is where much of the rationalism vs. myth comes to play, but also the return to Ptolemy instead of Copernicus (and thus Galileo).
In Deleuze’s reading, the post-Kantian “self” for Maimon and Fichte plays the same role as “Substance” in Spinoza’s philosophy, as a relational site of genesis. In his attempt to progress beyond Kantianism, Deleuze deliberately regresses to a metaphysics prior to Kantianism, with the result that what was simply a site of epistemological synthesis in Kant’s philosophy becomes formally transformed into a site of ontological genesis. (209)
Peden simply summarizes the thought of Deleuze in this simple catchy formula: Foucault’s overcoming of Heidegger was through historical epistemes, Levinas’s through ethics, and Deleuze through rationalism itself. If Deleuze is a return to Spinozist rationalism over against phenomenology, then one must avoid texts like Bergsonism or Proust and signs. Spinozist beatitude or blessedness is hostile to hermeneutics, says Peden, but music, expression that refuses resolution (255), not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself. Spinozism leads to enthusiasm for Kant:
the supreme virtue of Spinozism…is its foreclosure of Schwarmerei, a foreclosure that results from its abnegation and recourse to any discrete, extrinsic instance that might serve to obviate the responsibilities of thought and action left to their own devices. (262)
Badiou’s problem is that Spinoza doesn’t allow for politics. Althusser and Deleuze critique phenomenology for entailing politics from ontology. How ought we to live?
The Spinozism of Gilles Deleuze ends with neither a bang nor a whimper but a stutter. In this, it accomplishes a goal not unlike Althusser’s evacuation of any fixed meaning or predetermined content for philosophy in favor of a “philosophy without object” that operates through punctual, divisive interventions in a field not of its making. (257)
The rationalism vs. myth question remains and the break between Spinozism vs. phenomenology is both a real break and a mythical one. As historically derived as Peden makes it out to be in order to tell his story, the real Spinoza would have had much more friendly and consonant conversations with phenomenology if he had lived and if the story could be told, though he would not have liked everything he heard. If the story could be told.