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.

John Sallis: Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus

Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus Book Cover Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus
John Sallis
Indiana University Press

Reviewed by: Colin C. Smith (University of Colorado--Boulder)

The first installment of the eleven-volume Collected Writings of John Sallis series from Indiana University Press is a new edition of Sallis’s watershed Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus. First published in 1999, the book is now well known among scholars of Plato, phenomenology, and the history of philosophy broadly. In it, Sallis offers a reading of Plato’s influential Timaeus dialogue centering around the chōra, that elusive ‘third kind’ (triton genos) that receptively mediates between being and becoming, is apprehendable only by a kind of ‘bastard reasoning,’ and always appears without ever showing itself.  The Greek word ‘chōra’ has a broad semantic range that entails notions of place and political space (compare ‘territory,’) but Sallis finds in its role in this dialogue a new and far-reaching metaphysical principle or anti-principle, a kind of ‘being beyond being’ that marks the limit of metaphysics. More than a mere Plato commentary, Sallis’s book is thus an attempt to recover lost insights into the history of metaphysics and accounts of the limits of human rationality.

What follows in this review is a discussion of Sallis’s reading and its value both to Plato studies and phenomenology. Those interested specifically in details surrounding this new volume—which, aside from its outer packaging and minor front matter, is strictly a reprinting and not an expanded edition—should skip ahead to the final paragraph of the review.

Beginning especially with the landmark Being and Logos in 1975, Sallis’s work has offered new directions for Plato research. Up until this time, there were two main interpretations of Plato developing within Anglo-American scholarship. The first was a Plato taken to be philosophically juvenile and fundamentally mistaken by the analytic philosophers. Although these readers demonstrated that then-recent developments in analytic philosophy could serve as profoundly valuable resources for unpacking the ancient texts, the understanding that emerged from this analysis was largely dismissive of the philosophical viability of Plato’s thinking. Perhaps best represented by the critical interpretations of Gregory Vlastos beginning in the 1940s, these commentators understood Plato’s dialogues to express nascent ethical and metaphysical arguments characterized by thickets of confusion that must be untangled and corrected by enlightened modern commentators.

The second was the conservative esotericist Plato of the Straussians. According to those who developed this interpretation, Plato had littered his dialogues with clues leading to a political agenda that must be untangled in a different sense, that is, through interpretive engagement with that lying just below the surface of the text in dramatic details, mythical allusions, and underdeveloped philosophical threads that point to a kind of political critique relevant both to ancient Athens and us today. In short, the analytic Plato required correction while the Straussian Plato was to correct us.

By contrast, Sallis’s Plato is a distinctly ancient Greek anticipation of the philosophical interests of continental philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, and Gadamer. For Sallis, reading Plato entails tracing a self-showing (phainesthai) of the truth (alētheia) as it makes itself manifest through the movement of the text. Similarly to the Straussians, Sallis’s key interpretative method for developing this conception of Plato is slow and careful reading, attending to the dramatic and implicit content of the dialogues as closely as the more explicitly “philosophical” stretches.  Sallis furthermore challenges and rejects many of the familiar and reigning 20th century interpretations of Plato, including that Plato wrote his dialogues in a “developmental” order that could be discovered by us or that Plato held “doctrines” of things like recollection that are spoken in the dialogues by the “mouthpiece” Socrates in some kind of straightforward manner. Indeed, one of Sallis’s aims in Chorology is to undermine the charge of simple metaphysical dualism through which readers have long understood Plato and his so-called and oft-misunderstood “doctrine of forms” by pointing to the chōra as a third kind that dissolves the very notion of the binary.

This reading served as a paradigm changer for continentally oriented philosophers interested in Plato, as the dialogues thus understood are full of philosophical riches discoverable by close and careful reading that, far from being thickets of confusion, in fact have much to offer us in our own time. But unlike him of the Straussians, Sallis’s Plato offers a programmatic for grasping the nature of the things themselves through noetic analysis that is necessarily bound up with a critique of the limits of human inquiry in general.   In short, on Sallis’s view, Plato teaches us that things show themselves to us through their look, but that this look is always partial, pointing beyond itself to that which continues to lie hidden.

Sallis’s interpretation of Plato might arguably find its fullest realization here in his monograph on Plato’s Timaeus, the riches of which demonstrate the value of this kind of orientation. In the Timaeus, we find Socrates regrouping with the old Critias, accomplished general Hermocrates, and wise Timaeus on a day following a discussion of a well-ordered polis that seems strikingly similar to that of the Republic. After short discourses on yesterday’s findings by Socrates (Tim. 17a-19b) and a mythical archaic city from Critias (Tim. 20c-27d), the bulk of the dialogue (Tim. 27d-92c) comprises Timaeus’ extended discussion of the origin and composition of the cosmos. The influence of the Timaeus in the history of philosophy is difficult to overstate, given this dialogue’s import in antiquity and the middle ages, impact on Enlightenment-era mathematics and physics, and profound influence on subsequent Platonisms, Christianity, German Idealism, and the metaphysical tradition broadly. (Sallis offers a summary of this influence at pg. 2-3, including fn. 2, and a critical engagement with it throughout the concluding Chapter 5.) The central notion of the chōra has, furthermore, been the site of serious interest from continental philosophers like Heidegger, Derrida, and Kristeva. Sallis’s reading of the dialogue thus represents an intersection of important themes taken from throughout the history of Western philosophy.

Sallis finds the chōra at the conceptual center of the dialogue, and his discussion of the chōra sits at the center of Chorology in its third of five chapters, which are augmented by a prologue, brief Greek lexicon, and indexHe begins in the prologue with a consideration of the Timaeus’ history of transmission and some reflections on interpretive principles.  In fact, the notions of beginning and its difficulties will be among several that Sallis traces in the book, a group that also includes the themes of the city, the relationship between production and procreation, the tensions between nous (meaning ‘intelligence,’ ‘understanding,’ and ‘mind’ in the sense of ‘knowing’) and necessity, and the mathematical triad.

Chapter 1, ‘Remembrance of the City,’ thus appropriately is not the beginning, which indicates the sense in which a ‘beginning’ is, for Sallis, always both a continuation and a rupture.  Using this as an interpretive principle, Sallis will find the problem of beginning thematized throughout his reading of the Timaeus.  He argues that the text is inscribed and reinscribed with new beginnings, each drawing out while also decisively cutting away from what came previously.  In the case of the Timaeus’ beginning, Sallis focuses on Socrates’ opening count, “One, two, three…” (Tim. 17a), as the first of many appearances of the triad that will reappear throughout. Among other reasons, the triad is significant here as an enactment of tripartite structure that will characterize many stretches of the text, such as the three speeches (i.e., those of Socrates, Critias, and Timaeus), the three major phases of Timaeus’ speech (those tracing nous [Tim. 29d-47e], necessity [Tim. 47e-69a], and their blend [Tim. 69a-92c]), and the very theme of blending itself at play in several threefold distinctions, e.g., that among being, becoming, and the mix of these in which the chōra will first be addressed explicitly.

Later in Chapter 1, Sallis considers Socrates’ remembrance at the Timaeus’ outset of the ‘eidetic city’ that closely but not entirely resembles the well-known Kallipolis of the Republic (Tim. 17a-19b, pgs. 12-35). Sallis cannot resolve the controversy surrounding the relationship between Socrates’ cities-in-speech (logos) in the Republic and Timaeus (though pgs. 15-19 and 21-30 contain some provocative suggestions), but nevertheless uses the occasion to reflect on Socrates’ act of production of speech to reflect on the difficult but crucial relationships among central concepts like artistry (technē), production (poiēsis), and nature (phusis).  Through the course of the text, Sallis will ultimately argue that the Timaeus occasions a shift in our understanding of nature from the model of production to that of procreation.  The chapter also includes the first of many discussions of the significance of the chōra, with reflections on its difficult semantic range that always, according to Sallis’s insistence here, indicates that which is “posed at the margin of what can be fabricated, marking the limit of controlled production” (pg. 19; see also fn. 16 for development of the point).  The chapter also includes a thorough consideration of the dialogue’s dramatic elements and characters, as well as a discussion of Critias’ story of the archaic city (Tim. 20c-27d, pgs. 36-45), that sets the stage for Timaeus’ extended discourse.

In Chapter Two, Sallis turns his attention to Timaeus’ speech concerning the ‘Production of the Cosmos’ (Tim. 27d-47e) from which the chapter receives its name.  Timaeus’ speech begins with a prelude (Tim. 27d-29d, covered in pgs. 46-56), and Sallis discusses key notions found therein such as ‘that which always is’ (ti to on aei, pg. 47), the tension between nous and necessity (anankēs, esp. pg. 50), the well-known crafter (demiourgos) of the cosmos that Timaeus identifies throughout in scant detail (pg. 50), and the eidos typically understood to relate to Plato’s theory of forms (which Sallis addresses critically at pgs. 48-49 and 50-51).  Commentators on the Timaeus must make sense of Timaeus’ repeated assertions that his account is merely a “likely story” (eikōs muthos or eikōs logos, Tim. 29b ff.), and while Sallis does not thematize the point as much as some, he discusses it with reference to the relationships between being, becoming, truth, and belief (pg. 54-56).

This leads, finally, to the beginning of Timaeus’ discourse (Tim. 29d ff.), and Sallis notes that Timaeus begins with the goodness of the crafter before reflecting on the important notion of nous, which guides Timaeus in his first account.  Timaeus describes the cosmos with the image of a living being, made wisely with an eye to the paradigm of that being that always is and the ‘fairest’ of ‘mediating bonds’ (pgs. 60-61) and precise mathematical ratios (which Sallis unpacks through several geometric diagrams: pgs. 61, 71-72).  Sallis offers extended discussion of the controversy surrounding the proper interpretation of the passage concerning the production of soul (esp. Tim. 34b-37c), an ambiguous stretch of text yielding competing interpretations from early Academic philosophers to Nietzsche and 20th century commentators (pgs. 65-70).  Among the competing interpretations, in each instance what is at issue is an account of blending, i.e., of the mediation of two opposites by a third acting as a principle of mixture, as in (taking the example of the third interpretation) the blending of (1) being and (2) the generated that results in (3) their mixture.  Sallis takes these to be decisive in the development of the text as a ‘chorology,’ indicating as they do a kind of “double bind,” for “to preserve the distinction between selfsame being and the generated, there must be duplication of being; and yet, duplication of being has the effect of violating the very sense of selfsame being, its determination as such, thus eroding the very distinction that was preserved;” this calls for a ‘third’ outside of being and the generated that comes from “outside the twofold in a manner that disrupts it abysmally” (pg. 70).  In addition to this consideration of the preparation for the chōra, the chapter also includes discussion of key concepts in this stretch of the Timaeus like time (Tim. 37c-39e, pgs. 73 and 77-85, with Sallis here heavily engaging with the work of Rémi Brague), and the genealogy of gods and mortals leading to an account of causes and the embodied (Tim. 39e-47e, pg. 85-90).

In Chapter 3, Sallis turns attention to the central and titular notion of ‘The Chōra.’ The chōra arises at the point in which Timaeus breaks his discourse off from the works of nous and begins to address those of necessity (Tim. 47e ff.)  Sallis therefore understands the chōra with close reference to necessity in the senses both of ‘wandering’ and ‘errancy’ that are introduced precisely when Timaeus must account for the material conditions of the cosmos (pgs. 91-98).  Sallis discusses at length problems with the traditional understanding of the chōra and the textual ambiguities of these passages (pgs. 98-104).  He ties in these problems and ambiguities closely to Timaeus’ identification of the ‘difficulty’ and ‘danger’ (chalepon) of bringing this third kind to discourse, and the numerous (and occasionally contradictory) names and images that Timaeus uses to attempt to capture this fugitive third kind.  These include the gold, the matrix, the wax, and the perfume liquid that receive shape or scent while all the while remaining self-same and never fully taking on the received form (Tim. 48e-53b, pgs. 107-109).  These images have led readers beginning with Aristotle, and falsely on Sallis’s view, to associate the chōra with matter (hulē; see Chapter 5 discussion below).  Sallis further considers the shift in emphasis from production to procreation in the text when Timaeus begins to describe the third kind with reference to nature (phusis) and the “in-which” (en hō[i]) and “from-which” (to hothen) that which is generated is begotten (Tim. 49a-50b, pg. 109).  This set of images has led readers, again falsely on Sallis’s view, to associate the chōra with place (topos, also addressed in the Chapter 5 discussion below).  Instead of understandings rooted in matter or place, we should on Sallis’s reading understand the third kind with closer reference to pure receptivity that, so far as we can think of it at all, possesses a double character: it entails both the nurturing mother (mētēr, 50d and 51a) and that which always appears but never as itself and flees precisely as nous approaches it (pgs. 109-113).  This dual character of nurturer and fugitive is central in Sallis’s account and the perplexity of the chōra to which Sallis draws attention.

These considerations, finally, allow Sallis to begin the chorology (pgs. 113-124).  In the last section of the third chapter, he addresses Timaeus’ explicit discussion of the chōra directly.  This “kind beyond kind,” or “being beyond being” (pg. 113), derives its final and best-known name from this difficult-to-translate word, chōra (used explicitly at 52b1 and 52d3). He uses this occasion again to address its difficulty with regard to its uses elsewhere in Plato, and especially the Laws, Sophist, and Republic (pgs. 113-118).  Sallis summarizes that

The chōra is said to be everlasting, perpetual, always (aei), not admitting destruction, that is, ruin, corruption, passing away (phthora).  This corresponds to its being rigorously distinguished from the generated: it is that in which that which is generated comes to be and from which that which is destroyed passes away, departs.  It is presupposed by all generation and destruction and thus is not itself subject to generation and destruction” (pg. 119).

While Timaeus has given us several images (e.g., gold) through which the chōra can be partially disclosed, Sallis argues that we must now imagine the chōra as the very grounds through which images are imaged, or that which receives the images and, through itself, allows the images to show themselves.  The strangeness and wonder that such showing occasions is, for Sallis, the central issue of the dialogue.

In Chapter 4, ‘Traces of the Chōra,’ Sallis focuses mainly on the theme of the third kind and the mathematical triad as it reappears throughout the remainder of the dialogue (Tim. 52d-92c).  These include some reflections on several perplexing aspects of Timaeus’ account, including the triangle as the most basic unit of materiality (Tim. 53b ff.) and the relationship of the four material elements of earth, fire, air, and water (Tim. 55d ff., pgs. 128-130).  While Sallis does not address in much detail the lengthy third discourse on the blended with which the dialogue concludes (Tim. 69a-92c), he does challenge Aristotle’s complaint that Timaeus loses sight of the chōra (On Generation and Corruption 329a; pg. 131) by tracing some senses in which it remains at play in the discourse (pgs. 132-136).  Sallis furthermore offers some reflections on Timaeus’ third account with an eye to the roles of comedy, sex, and gender that mark this stretch of the dialogue as a kind of “downward discourse” (pgs. 136-138).  Chapter 4 concludes with Sallis’s consideration of the political frame of the dialogue that had begun with an account of the well-ordered city through comparative discussions of Republic Book 2 (pgs. 138-143) and the fragmentary Critias dialogue that follows the Timaeus dramatically (pgs. 143-145).

Finally, in Chapter 5 Sallis considers the ‘Reinscriptions’ of the dialogue in some of its many significant contexts in the subsequent history of philosophy.  Here he is most interested in tracing the forgetting of what he takes to be the originary sense of the chōra and its displacement through understandings rooted in notions of matter (hulē) and space (topos).  He discusses the view in antiquity that Plato had forged the dialogue (pg. 147) and the actual forgery, On the Nature of the Cosmos and the Soul, falsely attributed to a Timaeus of Locri and taken to be genuine by many Neoplatonists though almost surely written several centuries after Plato’s death (pgs. 148-149).  Sallis argues that this true forgery is one of many subsequent interpretations of the chōra that misses Plato’s most profound insights, and critically addresses the history of misunderstanding the chōra by overcommitting it to notions related to matter and space through Plutarch, Plotinus, and Aristotle (pgs. 150-154), footnoting related points concerning the interpretations of Irigaray (pg. 151 fn. 9) and Heidegger (pg. 154 fn. 12) along the way.  After a brief discussion of Kant (pgs. 154-155), the remainder of the chapter (pgs. 155-167) comprises an extended consideration of Schelling’s reception of the Timaeus and particularly the chōra.  Sallis finds in Schelling the tracing of his own understanding of the chōra, albeit one that begins to be conflated with the notion of matter as Schelling’s thinking develops.  Sallis addresses the role of the chōra in Schelling’s transcendental schematism, its appearance in Schelling’s notebooks, and the shifting understanding of it between Schelling’s own Timaeus commentary (c. 1794) and Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie (1801).  Sallis identifies a tension that develops in Schelling’s understanding of the chōra between the mere notion of matter and an “irrational principle that resists the understanding, or unity and order” (pg. 164).  Sallis interprets this both as a reawakening of tension between nous and necessity developed in the Timaeus and that which points beyond this distinction to what underlies it and remains hidden.

The depth and power of Sallis’s interpretation of the Timaeus clearly indicate the value of this approach to reading Plato.  I do stop short of suggesting that this ‘third kind’ of Plato reading has entirely mediated between the analytics and the Straussians in precisely the manner in which the chōra mediates between being and becoming.  (To be sure, Sallis certainly never suggests that this is the goal, though his pluralistic bibliography might point in this direction.)  If nothing else, it surely indicates an important set of philosophical issues that lies buried beneath the now-traditional divide in 20th century Plato scholarship and philosophy more broadly.

Furthermore, in the time since Sallis’s work began, readings like this ‘third kind’ have helped to blur the distinction altogether.  No longer can commentators from one tradition ignore the others, and those (for example) working on Plato from within the analytic tradition must consider Sallis’s contributions in Chorology to several 20th century analytic discussions.  This is perhaps most notable in his contributions to the ‘this’-‘such’ interpretive debate concerning Tim. 49c7-50a4 (pgs. 101-108), a storied debate among Timaeus commentators since the 1950s to which Sallis has some valuable insights on offer.

And of course, those looking for contemporary continental insights in an ancient register will be served well by this encounter with the chōra. Readers will recognize a set of Derridean insights underlying Sallis’s reading of Platonic metaphysics, and indeed ones that exceed the explicit connections that Derrida himself recognized in his own discussion of the chōra. (Sallis engages directly with Derrida, in terms both related and unrelated to Derrida’s own chorology, in several footnotes: pgs. 99 fn. 8, 111 fns. 21 and 22, and 113-114 fn. 23.)  And while Sallis counts Heidegger among those who have misunderstood the meaning of chōra in their own work (see pg. 154 fn. 12), he finds in Plato many anticipations of Heideggerian themes, such as the sense of truth as a kind of unconcealment of that which lies hidden that Heidegger develops at length.

Perhaps most of all, Chorology is of note to those interested in the account of the ‘end of metaphysics’ developed in 20th century continental philosophy.  The chōra, perhaps ultimately, marks the limit of the knowing of being in Sallis’s interpretation.  Sallis speaks to this directly as follows:

If one were to take metaphysics to be constituted precisely by the governance of the twofold, then the chorology could be said to bring both the founding of metaphysics and its displacement, both at once. Originating metaphysics would have been exposing it to the abyss, to the abysmal chōra, which is both origin and abyss, both at the same time. Then one could say—with the requisite reservations—that the beginning of metaphysics will have been already the end of metaphysics (pg. 123).

In other words, while many have taken Plato to be an originator of metaphysical dualism through simplistic readings of the so-called “doctrine of forms,” Sallis aims to show that Plato ends the metaphysical project already at its inception by pointing to the chōra, that ‘being beyond being’ that indicates the limit of nous, here in the Timaeus.  The chōra then replaces the traditional notions of dogmatic metaphysical rationalism with a principle of radical errancy, one possessing the double-character of mother and fugitive, and one in force “as hindering, diverting, leading astray the work of nous, as installing indeterminacy into what nous would otherwise render determinate” (pg. 132).

Sallis’s writing throughout Chorology is clear, crisp, and clean.  The book truly blurs the line between primary and secondary source, possessing value both as a Timaeus commentary and as an original piece of philosophy.  On rare occasion, the writing supporting Sallis’s creative and bold reading enters into the realm of self-indulgence.  For example, on 93: “Thus, another beginning is to be made, an other beginning, a different beginning, different from the beginning with which Timaeus began his first discourse.”  Aside from issues surrounding these occasional instances of excess, Sallis’ writing is a model of lucidity, and this text demonstrates that good philosophy can be as smooth and satisfying as good literature.  I won’t hazard to address the question of whether Sallis ultimately gets Plato right on my own view.  In any case, I do insist that readers of Plato from all philosophical traditions should learn from Sallis’s interpretation and, if they see fit, respond to, rather than ignore, its many provocations.

This new edition of Chorology is packaged nicely, designed as it is to sit on the shelf beside future editions of The Collected Writings of John Sallis series. The next generation of readers will be served well by this printing.  It is important to note, however, that aside from the outer packaging and minor front matter, this new printing contains no additions and no textual alterations to previous volumes.  The contents and pagination are, so far as I tracked through a comparative analysis, exactly the same as the previous edition.  This is hardly a complaint, as I found the text of both editions to be free of typos entirely; but it nevertheless bears noting in case any readers were, like me, hoping that this volume would offer some fresh insights from Sallis into the Timaeus.

Jörg Kreienbrock: Sich im Weltall orientieren: Philosophieren im Kosmos 1950-1970, Turia + Kant Verlag, 2020

Sich im Weltall orientieren: Philosophieren im Kosmos 1950-1970 Book Cover Sich im Weltall orientieren: Philosophieren im Kosmos 1950-1970
IFK lectures & translations
Jörg Kreienbrock. Hg. von Thomas Macho
Turia + Kant Verlag
Paperback 20.00 €

John Sallis: Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus, Indiana University Press, 2020

Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus Book Cover Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus
John Sallis
Indiana University Press
Hardback $60.00