Dorothea Olkowski: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty. The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affectiver Life, and Perception

Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception Book Cover Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception
Dorothea E. Olkowski
Indiana University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Adam Lovasz (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest)

Dorothea Olkowski’s latest book, entitled Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, is at once an invitation and a challenge. It invites us to think of ideas as „chaotic attractors.” (2) As a mathematical concept, we can call any strange attractor chaotic if iterations commencing from any two arbitrarily close alternative initial points lead to points which are arbitrarily far apart and, after various iterations, then lead to points that are arbitrarily close together, leading to a structure that is locally unstable yet globally stable. And herein lies the interesting methodological challenge of Olkowski’s project: wherein does the border lie between pure arbitrariness and stability? Indeed, is there a clear-cut difference between wholly arbitrary association and locally unstable holistic stability? Is it even the job of philosophy to produce something akin to stability? These are just a few of the questions that arise in the reader from the outset. Olkowski’s goal is not the penning of yet another introduction to the separate and, for that matter, wholly distinct philosophies of Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Rather, these three serve as the ingredients of a new theoretical hybrid, a pragmatically and phenomenologically-involved affective continuum that goes beyond such tired dualisms as mind vs. world and matter vs. idea. The judgement we must pass in the context of this review is not whether the work lives up to its own promises and goals – although that too shall be addressed. Rather, what interests us is how the author comes to terms with the fundamental issue of whether instability can be integrated into thought in a philosophically consistent manner and whether the work achieves this.

In Chapter One, entitled „Naturalism, Formalism, Phenomenology, and Semiology in Postmodern Philosophy,” the problematic of our current epoch is introduced. Alan Kirby’s influential 2006 text, „The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond” serves as Olkowski’s point of departure. (Kirby 2006) In Kirby’s view, one shared wholeheartedly by Olkowski and ourselves also, the authentically postmodern position, characterizable as the radical questioning of reality, has become all but extinct in both philosophy and the broader social Zeitgeist. (13) Instead of an uncompromising postmodernism willing to question all dogmas, we have what Kirby and Olkowski call a „pseudopostmodernism,” a position that can best be described as a harmlessly apolitical play with words, without the corresponding subversion of broadly accepted intersubjective realities. In large part, the author believes that the opacity of postmodern discourse is itself to blame for its own eclipse. As Olkowski writes, the defenders of postmodernism „have not been able to understand it well enough to translate its canonical terms into informative definitions.” (14) The backdrop of both the postmodernist movement and its subsequent relegation to the fringes of both political debate and scientific practice is characterized under the heading of scientism. Already critiqued exhaustively by, among others, Edmund Husserl, the scientistic worldview posits the ability of science to redeem humanity and the world, heralding progress through increasing the well-being of homo sapiens. On the scientistic worldview, science, while not having the answers to all of the major existential questions, is nonetheless our best bet, and we ought to give the final say in most social matters to quantified modes of knowledge, because only the latter have privileged access to „reality.” Of course, the problem with such a worldview is that it reduces the complexity of the world to the issue of representation, while also failing to account for the way reality evades any description. The complexity of the world makes it impossible for us, as finite beings, to ever produce a representation of the latter that is adequate to its real condition. Science, for Georges Cavailles, is characterized by an ever more pervasive self-referentiality. It constitutes a self-enclosed system which demonstrates truths independently of human sensation. The paradox here, as Cavailles recognizes, is that even formal systems need a corresponding ontology. (16) Differently put, self-referentiality is impossible without what systems theory has called „hetero-referentiality.” Without a world, there is no self. Without an uncoded (and uncodable) complex „outside” reality, there is no such thing as scientific knowledge. We may even say that without non-knowledge, there is no knowledge.

In opposition to scientism, which would reduce the whole world to quantity, several thinkers have posited the concept of „quality.” Among these philosophers, Olkowski emphasizes three in particular: Deleuze, Bergson and Merleau-Ponty. They are of key importance because they have all, in their own ways, cast doubt upon the distinction between the false opposition of qualitative „image” and quantitative „space.” (17-8) In particular, Bergson’s idea of qualitative multiplicity, as first expressed Time and Free Will, has proven immensely fruitful. In Olkowski’s view, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze can both be read as constituting elaborations upon the basic Bergsonian theme of qualitative, or „heterogeneous multiplicity.” As distinct from a quantitative multiplicity, in the case of a qualitative multiplicity one cannot distinguish the elements which compose it. For instance, when we feel an emotion, „we find ourselves confronted by a confused multiplicity of sensations and feelings.” (Bergson 1910: 87) One cannot count states of consciousness, because these are not discrete objects that can be neatly separated from one another. In essence, what Olkowski attempts to prove is that Bergson’s idea is a key influence at play in both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, even if they diverge significantly from the former in other respects. For all three French philosophers, corporeality seems to be the key to transcending the false duality of idealism and materialism. In Bergson’s cosmology, given its most systematic expression in Matter and Memory, the world is made of images, which are neither representations nor things but rather, on Olkowski’s somewhat contentious reading, „affects” which have not yet solidified into perceptions. (19) So as to avoid anthropomorphic misunderstandings, the author hastens to add that under the term „body” we must basically understand movement, pure and simple. (ibid) In Bergson’s conception of the universe, there exists nothing whatsoever apart from indivisible yet heterogeneous movement. Pure change, nothing else.

Such a reading is not inaccurate, yet it is still somewhat surprising to encounter an equation of movement with, of all things, affect, as the latter implies an element of feeling. Be that as it may, we must also not forget that the „body,” considered as a „zone of indetermination” (Bergson’s expression) is merely a point of departure, and not the primary focus of Bergsonian thought. In this regard, Bergson differs radically from phenomenologists of the body such as Merleau-Ponty and so does Deleuze. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari engage in a devastating critique of phenomenology. (43) The latter school, they claim, produces only opinion and not knowledge. Against Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenological tradition, Deleuze holds that Ideas actualize themselves in the word in a real manner, not merely through appearance. The weddedness of phenomenology to natural sensibility occludes taking the reality of change seriously enough. (21) Indeed, for Bergson and the „1980s Deleuze” of the Cinema books, duration is all there is. We do not concur with Olkowski’s remark, to the effect that in Bergson the „moment” cannot be considered as being durational. (20) Everything is duration. The late Deleuze is closer to Bergson than we would think. What Olkowski fails to address, much to our disappointment, is how, ironically, Deleuze himself, at least in earlier works such as the misleadingly-titled Bergsonism and Difference and Repetition also failed to take the reality of actualization seriously enough by privileging the concept of the „virtual” above and against the „actual.” There is a much greater distance between Deleuze’s earlier and later periods than Olkowski lets onto, which also occludes the very signifant distance between the pre-1980s „virtualist” Deleuzian philosophy and the Bergsonian view. The incompatibility of the Deleuzian „virtual” with Bergsonian duration is unfortunately not addressed in Chapter Three („Bergson and Bergsonism”) either, even though that section if the book is ostensibly dedicated to answering the question of „how Bergsonian is Deleuze’s Bergsonism?” (69)

The systems theoretical problematic of self-referentiality returns in Chapter Two („Deleuze and Guattari’s Critique of Logic”). In essence, the chapter constitutes a reconstruction of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of self-referential systems of logic in their final co-authored book, What Is Philosophy? The problem is how to deconstruct the distinction between formalism and lived experience. Ever since Immanuel Kant, the gap between mathematical and physical space has been growing, to the point wherein we cannot bring the two into anything like a balance. (26) For Deleuze and Guattari, self-referential systems of logic are deeply problematic, for such modes of thinking ignore two key truths about the world: objects are not self-subsistent entities and concepts too are extensional. (31) We cannot distinguish between unextended abstract ideas and physical entities in the Deleuzian cosmology. Because they leak out into the real world, concepts are infinitely rich realities. It is impossible to do justice to a concept by reducing it to a proposition. (32) Olkowski’s aim is to radicalize postmodern philosophy. Drawing upon the Deleuzo-Guattarian attack on self-referentiality is undoubtedly an effective way of going about this subvserive refoundation of postmodernism, and our sentiments concur with such a project. On Deleuze and Guattari’s view, the crime of the logicians, one that cannot be forgiven lightly, is the reduction of concept to function. Real problems are simply not propositional; neither are concepts. They posit that philosophical concepts are „intensional,” always tending toward reality, while never achieving a coincidence with pure differentiation in itself. Instead of reducing complexity, as self-contained systems of logic do, we must strive toward „creations of all kinds in any possible world.” (36)

Following Deleuze’s lead, Olkowski comments on the work of the early American pragmatist philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. For non-specialists not well-versed in Peirce’s system, this makes for at times daunting reading. For our purposes, it suffices to furnish a brief summary of Peirce’s three fundamental logical-ontological categories, without claiming to do justice to Peirce’s system. Firstness refers to initial vagueness. Secondness refers to singularity, the „thisness” of something in particular. Thirdness refers to generality, defined as the connection between the first two. Interestingly, what Olkowski suggests is that a systems theoretical reading of Peirce is also possible, and Deleuze’s own commentary on Peirce also points in this direction. Firstness corresponds also to feeling, Secondness to the resistance of real objects pushing back against our feelings and Thirdness to the observation (and actually achieved synthetic connection) of the former two elements. For Deleuze, Peirce’s Thirdness makes possible the positing of thought as a real force in the world. (42) Yet thought, paradoxically, can only become such a force if it has already suffered the violence of reality. Peirce and Deleuze are in accord when they both affirm that consciousness only achieves Thirdness after it has been assailed by the uncontrollable resistance exhibited by reality against human designs. (41) As Olkowski writes, „thought begins as mis-sophia,” the „original violence” thrust upon us through involuntary changes, conditions and circumstances outside of any human control. (40) No thought without violence, no reality without prehuman resistance.

One may describe Peirce’s „Triad” in terms of the following equation:


In Peirce’s view, one that uncannily echoes Bergson’s idea of qualitative multiplicity, generality, characterized as „supermultitudinous” by Olkowski, forms a heterogeneous continuity. (46-7) As opposed to a standard continuum, where the differences between components have disappeared to the point of imperceptibility, the members of a supermultitudinous continuum retain their qualitative differences. In Olkowski’s words, a generality is „a collection so great that its constituents have no hypothetical existence except in their relations to one another.” (72) From Peirce’s generality, Olkowski, following Deleuze, draws the conclusion that „Ideas are multiplicities,” with multiplicity denoting „difference and differentiation” and „repetition” describing Thirdness (the reflection, mediation, or, to borrow a term from systems theory, the third-order observation  that synthesizes feeling with fact). (48) In all, this leaves us feeling doubtful that Deleuze has authentically escaped the grip of self-referentiality. As a description of the way mediation occludes the underlying reality of change, Deleuze’s system, as elaborated in Difference and Repetition, works well. As a process philosophy, it does not, for it does not get us back to anything like an intimate proximity with the reality of change. To say, with Deleuze, that states of affairs are merely „actualizations of virtual chaos” does not do justice to the brute reality of actualization. (49) Olkowski does not answer the following question: what, if anything, does Deleuze’s reactionary embrace of the already transcended concept of „possibility” add to philosophy after Bergson’s radical demolition of the idea of „possibility” in, among other texts, „The Possible and the Real”? (Bergson 1911: 107-126) Even accounting for the rechristening of possibility as „virtuality” or „virtual chaos” by Deleuze, we cannot on our part see why actualization ought to be fettered by such static Platonic Ideas as „possibility.”

Chapter Three, „Bergson and Bergsonism,” is dedicated to outlining the relationship between the philosophies of Bergson and Deleuze respectively. In Bergson’s ontology, there can be posited a continuity between past and present within the form of duration. (59) Against conventional readings of the Bergson-Einstein Controversy of 1922-3, Olkowski holds – and rightly so — that Bergson pushed relativity much further than Einstein. Rather than a merely phenomenological affirmation of lived, psychological time or time consciousness, Bergson argues for the relativity of all durations. Against Einstein, Bergson holds that there is no distinction between duration and content. (61) In other words, time, as the continuity of change, is a fundamental and real aspect of the material universe. Einstein’s block universe is not mobile enough for process philosophy. Time is not an illusion. The Bergsonian revolt against timelessness grounds itself upon cosmic time. While modernity promised a cosmic Aeon, even after postmodernity we are still awaiting the dawn of the cosmic era. (147) Change is not only in our minds, as Einsteinians hold: it is also located outside of consciousness as the duration of material images. If we take the continuity of change seriously, this means that duration is always active now. Hence, a dynamic presentism seems an unvoidable conclusion of Bergson’s process philosophy. (Lovasz 2021) Of the two thinkers, the philosopher was without question the more radical than the physicist. Merleau-Ponty’s description of Einstein is devastating: „Einstein himself was a classical thinker.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 193) Olkowski is in complete accord with Merleau-Ponty’s retrospective view, to the effect that Einstein simply misunderstood Bergson’s position as being a psychologizing one, rather than recognizing it as a relativism more radical and consequential than his own conservative view of reality. (67) The „classical” view of science, one that, through the mediation of scientism, is still popular today, consists of the following toxic ingredients: causal determinism; the supposed decomposition of complex realities into simples; and, finally, the spatialization of the world’s existence. (65) All three authors chosen by Olkowski struggled against this determinist view of the world. In this regard, we ourselves are allies of these three authors and their contemporary synthesizer also.

Scientism can only be undone if we remain true to the present, to pure duration. In our time, the forecast has become the dominant mode of temporality. We already live in a destitute future, anxious of catastrophe, fearful of change, and haunted by the spectre of uncontrollability. Complexity has become synonymous with risk, whereas indeterminacy is also the source of liberty and opportunity. Bergsonism offers an antidote to future-centrism. Against the spectre of the post-apocalyptic future, colored black by our civilizational ecophobic anxieties, we can posit an allegiance to the flowing present. As Olkowski emphasizes, „for a being that endures, the past remains in the present.” (71) Only in the present does the past or, for that matter, the future have any presence. Any other tense is an abstraction. Against all talk of future risks and existential threats, Bergsonism gives us an almost messianic hope that we can, against all odds, return to the present. Peirce’s statement, to the effect that „we are immediately aware only of our present feelings,” is more subversive than it would seem upon first impressions. (Peirce 1931: 167) This can be read today as a much needed reminder to prioritize the present against a past which is already absent and a contingent future about which not much is known apart from its unpredictability.

Chapter Four of Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, „Duration, Motion, and Temporalization,” is dedicated to conceptualizing the relationship between movement and time. Here again, we must point out our divergence of opinion from the author. Olkowski states that „while Deleuze expresses no preference for one type of image over the other, it is clear that bergson does”, going on to venture the claim that Bergson rejects the movement-image as a „cinematographic illusion.” (82) This would apparently go against the Bergsonian doctrine, which holds movement to be synonymous with duration. Bergson’s own philosophy is just as much a movement-image as a time-image, and emphasizing the latter aspect only seems erroneous to us. The supposed difference between the late Deleuze’s affirmation of cinematography and Bergson’s rejection of the „cinematic” view of reality does not take into account the latter’s reconsideration of cinema. If we affirm, as Olkowski also does, that „duration” can be defined as „the inner becoming of things,” the late Deleuze of the Cinema books is correct to claim that this applies also to cinematographic technologies of representation as well, for the latter too are parts of the world. (84) If reality is movement, consciousness is, ironically, the relative absence of movement, an immobility which manifests in the living organism as hesitation. Commenting upon Matter and Memory, Olkowski makes the point that „for Bergson, any unconscious material point has greater perception than an entity with consciousness.” (85) The reason for this lies in the function of the latter. Consciousness is a filtering mechanism, which serves to reduce noise, allowing the organism to select information from its environs. The brain is nothing more than an „acentered image,” to use Olkowski’s evocative phrase. (87) Here we do not wish to delve into the details of the late Deleuze’s cinematic ontology. Rather, we content ourselves with pointing out that it bears a much greater resemblance to Bergsonian philosophy than Deleuze’s earlier works. There is no virtual in Bergson or, for that matter, the Cinematic Deleuze. Rather, a complete coincidence can be identified between the time-image and the movement-image.  „Each time it occurs, the time-image is completely new,” writes Olkowski. (90) Occurence is always already a movement, an emergence. No time-image without a corresponding movement-image, no memory without „the appeals of the present state.” (91) What the time-image reveals is the desubjectified time of pure movement, the momentum of the moment. Indeterminacy is freedom, possibility, the opportunity to free new elaborations into the world, the chance to create what Olkowski calls „destiny,” the „pure power of time that overflows all possible reaction.” (93) A surrender to fate that nonetheless constitutes a liberation. Amor fati.

The fifth Chapter, „Phenomenology and the Event,” deals with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and its relationship with science, as well as Merleau-Ponty’s critique of scientism. For Merleau-Ponty, not unlike Deleuze and Bergson, reality is free and open. Against the primacy of quantified scientific observation and the natural (preperceptive) attitude, Merleau-Ponty posits the primacy of perception. (110) Far from being an anti-scientific move, this allows the phenomenologist to critique dominant modes of knowledge without falling back into any preperceptive, prereflective or prephilosophical condition. Perception is what synthesizes physical reality and behavior, being the bridge which links us to a world. Movement, for Merleau-Ponty, is based upon pre-objective experience. In other words, the present is made from sensation. Here again, we encounter a vibrant presentism, although one that is more phenomenological than Bergsonian ontology because of its grounding upon affect. Our duration, it should be added, is never ours alone. The heterogeneous continuity of qualitatively different durations also entails the mutual inseparability of different temporalities. As Olkowski states, „a living present is open not merely to the past and future but to temporalities outside of lived experience, including those of a social horizon.” (114-5) Outside of the present, none of these have relevance, yet when they coincide with a vibrant present, attentiveness is achieved. The challenge for Merleau-Ponty and Olkowski alike is to remain true to our perception, while distancing ourselves from alienating cognitive constructs. Our contemporary society is replete with forms of opinion that masquerade as knowledge. In a radical vein, Olkowski lists several of these at an earlier point in the book, highlighting computer science, sociology, marketing, design and advertising in particular as forms of opinion camouflaged as knowledge. (93) Aligning ourselves with perception, in the vein of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, we can mount a direct challenge to any and all alienating exteriorizations of cognition. We have grown accustomed to observing real processes through the lens of quantifiable data. Perhaps the time has come for us to see things differently. (Al-Saji 2009: 375-399). Against alienation, the Event, as conceptualized by Deleuze, is a direct attack on the computationalized human nervous system. (119) Olkowski’s book can be read as a sabotage of regularized modes of perception.

Chapter Six, entitled „The Philosophy of the Event,” is in many ways a Conclusion for the text as a whole. Olkowski affirms the Deleuzian view of philosophy. Instead of consensus-building, the job of philosophy is to sow discord and controversy. (131) The Deleuzian „dark precursor” is what systems theory calls the „blind spot,” an element that has escaped observation, in turn observing its would-be observers. Olkowski repeats the Deleuzian gestures of subversion in a refreshingly new way. Instead of clarity, the goal here coincides with the „disharmony of all the faculties.” (132) The creation of thought is the „rendering consistent” of chaos. (135) But has Olkowski succeeded in this task? Yes and no. The internal consistency of the book hinges upon its choice of authors. The subtitle refers explicitly to pragmatism, yet the connection between the key concepts of the work are at times tenuous. On our part, we would have been more satisfied had the pragmatism of Peirce been brought into a more direct correspondence with the views of Bergson, William James, John Dewey and Rosiah Royce, to name a few of the early 20th century’s most influential philosophers who were characterized as „pragmatists” by their contemporaries. A broader reflection upon pragmatism would, in our view, have been warranted. The final chapter functions well as an aesthetic and political reiteration of the fundamentally chaotizing Deleuzian project of absolute deterritorialization, yet it also raises questions regarding the positionality of the author. When all is said and done, Olkowski is a Deleuzian philosopher through-and-through, and this circumstance impacts the interpretation of Bergson and Merleau-Ponty. At key junctures, we find that Deleuze has the final say in most matters, while other perspectives and philosophical schools are mostly relegated to a supporting role at best. The endgoal of Deleuzian philosophy is absolute deterritorialization, the blowing apart of all semiotic systems. (142) If this truly is the case, then we are almost duty-bound as consistent Deleuzians to undermine our own systems of thought also on a constant basis. It would seem that Olkowski does not make enough of an effort to demolish Deleuzian philosophy from within. We ourselves must become abstract machines that cut across all significations, the doctrine of Deleuzianism included. Fealty to the constancy of change demands the undertaking of the risky philosophical task of permanent subversion. In the 21st century, it is very much the case that real thought begins where uncritical allegiance to scientism ends. Without the discord of philosophy, we shall remain entrapped within increasingly intolerant structures tending toward the scientistic regularization of life on this planet.


Al-Saji, Alia. 2009. „A Phenomenology of Critical-Ethical Vision. Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, and the Question of Seeing Differently.” Chiasmi International 11: 375-399.

Bergson, Henri. 1910. Time and Free Will. An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Trans. F. L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Bergson, Henri. 1911. „The Possible and the Real.” In: Bergson, Henri (1946) The Creative Mind. Trans. Mabelle L. Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, 107-126.

Kirby, Allan. 2006. „The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond.”

Lovasz, Adam. 2021. Updating Bergson. A Philosophy of the Enduring Present. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. „Albert Einstein and the Crisis of Reason.” In: Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964) Signs. Trans. Richard C. McCleary. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Olkowski, Dorothea E. 2021. Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty. The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1931. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Volume I. Ed. Charles Harshorne, Paul Weiss and Arthur Burks. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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