Dorothea E. Olkowski: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty

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, Hardcover $75.00, eBook, $27.99

Reviewed by: Timothy Deane-Freeman (Deakin University)

At first glance, a monograph simultaneously dedicated to the philosophies of Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze might seem an obscure, even capricious proposition. Why, after all, bring these particular thinkers into dialogue? Why instigate this particular “three body problem” (1)? The answer to this question is complex, but lies in part in the immense structural influence they succeeded one another in exerting over French philosophy. Throughout a period of over one hundred years, French thought was fundamentally coloured first by Bergsonian “vitalism,” then by existentialist phenomenology, and finally by a “post-structuralism” of which Deleuze is considered a primary, if sometimes unwilling figurehead. To trace the shifting conceptual lineages marbled throughout their work is therefore to map the very movement of 20th century French thought, such as has colonised a stubborn corner of the globe’s intellectual life. But there is more than just this profound institutional influence linking together these disparate philosophical projects. As Dorothea Olkowski argues, throughout her accomplished and intriguing study, Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The logic and pragmatics of creation, these thinkers also share a common set of problems and an overlapping conceptual vocabulary, the complexities of which she draws out across six brief, rich, yet challenging essays.

Perhaps the foremost of these problems is a familiar dualism haunting philosophy, which here emerges in several guises. Thought and extension, reality and signs, the empirical and the transcendental, formalism and its “outside”- Olkowski returns frequently to this nebulous dialectic, and makes a compelling case for its centrality in the work of each of her subjects. As she writes, evoking the terms of Deleuze’s study of Bergson in Cinema I: The Movement-Image, and establishing one of the central argumentative lines of her own book:

…each of the three is engaged in the undoing of dualism -understood as the relation between thought and movements- by slightly different means […] providing an explanation of the relation between empiricist and formalist approaches to reality (18).

This latter schism is key, emerging as it does with the existential challenge posed to modern philosophy by the immense descriptive powers of post-Enlightenment science. For Olkowski, a strict division between empiricist and formalist approaches is intimately linked to this confluence, in particular to “the view that emerged, starting in approximately the sixteenth century, that science is autonomous, that it generates its own elements, that it stands outside time and outside the lived experience of a subject” (2) -in an epistemological splitting which establishes observer and observed as radically distinct. Against this view -which is far from synonymous with the self-problematising realities of scientific practice- Olkowski excavates a threefold project to reinject questions of genesis, vitality, subjectivity and temporality into a scientistic episteme which has perhaps tended to obscure them.

Indeed in her first chapter, which recapitulates themes from 2012’s Postmodern Philosophy and the Scientific Turn, she introduces this epistemological backdrop, and the bifurcation by which we inherit “two” contemporary philosophies- an analytic approach grounded in formal logic, and a Continental tradition oriented by phenomenology and metaphysics. The former, of which a thinker like Frege is paradigmatic, seeks to “ground” the empirical findings of science through a purely formal analysis of logical relations. This approach turns to signs -to their relations and modes of reference- eschewing all discussion of ontology or the empirical, given that such discussion “violates the principles of formalist systems,” producing unfounded and speculative “nonsense” (26). And while Frege -like Russell, the logical positivists and Wittgenstein- thus seek to banish metaphysics from the philosophical enterprise, what unites Olkowski’s subjects is their determination to develop a metaphysics adequate to contemporary science, simultaneously drawing out the contingency of logic- an approach she will introduce via the French philosopher of mathematics Jean Cavaillès.

For Cavaillès, Olkowski notes, an important contemporary of her three primary subjects, “the logic of a formal system requires an ontology to complete it; in addition to the formal system, it requires reference to an exteriority, to objects, and not just to other signs in the system” (16). And this determination to think the compossibility of the empirical and its symbolisation beats at the heart of Olkowski’s text. Signs and their systems, are not, after all, “immaculate.” An ontology is implicit, indeed required, in order for us to ask questions about their affects, milieux and genesis. And one of the book’s central propositions is that these thinkers help us to understand the genesis of formal systems in and from an empirical and pre-signifying world which can only be sensed. This approach leads to a threefold philosophy of perception, and to the complex ways in which manifold sense-data becomes sensible, taking form under the aegis of a “sign,” “Idea” or “Gestalt” in an operation which is simultaneously pragmatic and creative.

Olkowski’s second chapter develops these themes via Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of logic, primarily as it appears in What is Philosophy? We’ve already spoken of Frege’s ambition to develop a philosophy homogenous with scientific description, moving it away from metaphysical “speculation” in favour of a systematic “science of logic” (30). At the heart of this endeavour is an idiosyncratic concept of the “concept,” inherited in part from Kant, which sees the concept become a logical function- a component of propositions which maps arguments to one of two truth vales (true or false). Thus, to use a well-known example, “is a man,” is a concept/function we can complete (or “saturate,” to use Frege’s intriguing term) by inserting the object “Socrates,” in a move which points us to the proposition’s ultimate referent- the truth-value “true.” But Deleuze and Guattari will claim that this approach, by virtue of its determination to avoid all empirical content, alongside its obliteration of particularity in positing only two possible referents for propositional sentences, gives us an empty formalism, applicable only to the most trivial and pre-determined propositions (32). What Frege gains in “perspicuity,” this argument suggests, he loses in consequence, and the possibility of meaningful philosophical engagement with the real.

Against this model, Olkowski sketches the Deleuzo-Guattarian “concept”- a concept which “belong(s) to a subject and not to a set,” constituting “a function of the lived” (33) as opposed to a purely formal abstraction. At the same time, they are eager to avoid the pitfalls of the “phenomenological concept,” which they see as rooted in the experience of a transcendental subject, and as such incompatible with a philosophy of immanence. One of Olkowski’s richest contributions, indeed, is a thorough mapping of this persistent Deleuzian critique of phenomenology- the charge that it establishes subjective, “natural” perception as a transcendent norm, elevating a particular and contingent relation to the status of a philosophical first principle. In so doing, claims Deleuze, it betrays philosophy’s task of breaking with doxa or opinion, establishing natural perception as Urdoxa, or original opinion, in a moment which is both conservative and anthropocentric. And while Olkowski is generally conciliatory, suggesting several times that Deleuze exaggerates the space between his and Merleau-Ponty’s thought, her identification of the numerous points at which their approaches diverge is a sophisticated complement to extant work by Wambacq (2018) or Reynolds and Roffe (2006).

Opposing themselves to both the Fregean (analytic) and phenomenological (transcendental-subjective) concept, Deleuze and Guattari sketch their own, intensional concepts, which Olkowski convincingly links to another key thinker threaded throughout her exegesis- the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. For Deleuze and Guattari, concepts are “intensional” inasmuch as they constitute multiplicities whose unity is effected by their components’ internal (differential) relations. In this sense, Olkowski argues, they bear a striking resemble to Peircean “consistency” or “Thirdness” -habits, laws or generalities “to which future events have a tendency to conform” (42)- and which likewise produce continuity as the effect of multiple singular elements or events. Leaving aside the intricacies of Olkowski’s exegesis, it suffices to say that she does convincing and useful work here, tracing Peirce’s influence right across Deleuze’s oeuvre, particularly as it pertains to his recurrent conception of multiplicity as simultaneously “continuous” yet composed through differential relations.

Chapter three turns to Bergson, and an explication of his thought in the form of a rebuttal of the famous criticisms made by Bertrand Russell. Russell claims that Bergson’s thought reduces both distinction and abstraction to spatial phenomena, thereby demoting logic to a lesser branch of geometry (59). Graver than this, however, is Bergson’s apparent rejection of the mathematical model according to which change is apprehended as a series of discreet states. The indivisible continuity of Bergson’s “duration,” Russell argues, eschews the rigour of mathematics and science, opening the door to an irrational and irresponsible Cartesianism- a world in which things are never in any “state” at all, and the distinctions made by the intellect hover over of an indissoluble ontological mush. Olkowski links these criticisms to those made in the fallout of Bergson’s ill-fated encounter with Albert Einstein. While the latter is dedicated, by virtue of his theories of relativity, to a space-time continuum which is arguably “timeless” -with “any temporal event […] merely a geometric point in spacetime” (60), Bergson is interested in the qualitatively evolving and radically undetermined temporality of process, an approach which causes him to hesitate before the singular and unitary time of the physicist. In both cases, as Olkowski rightly notes, critics have sought to oppose the rigour of science and mathematics to Bergson’s “fuzzy” and “irrational” vitalism, effecting a discredit so fundamental as to cause even continental thinkers to “step[…] lightly around” (58) his thought.

Significant exceptions, of course, are Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, and Olkowski devotes the rest of the chapter to their spirited defence of his concepts in the face of these attacks. For Merleau-Ponty, Bergson’s is a radical philosophy, one which breaks with Cartesianism by “present[ing] a being that is duration in place of an ‘I think’” (64). Further, Merleau-Ponty will argue that it is Bergson, rather than Einstein, who offers a temporality adequate to quantum physics, and a universe of indeterminacy and discontinuity ushered in by wave-particle duality (65). For Deleuze meanwhile, Bergson’s thought possesses an implicit mathematical rigour which renders it far closer to Russell than the latter himself supposes. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze will refer to Russell’s distinction between lengths and distances, the latter of which cannot be divided into homogenous and interchangeable series but rather constitute “irreducible” series “derived in some way from perception” (69). As Olkowski notes, “Bergson too defines duration as a multiplicity or divisibility that does not divide without changing its nature, and so duration begins to sound like Russell’s concept of distance” (69). Deleuze will take up this hybrid Russellian-Bergsonian multiplicity in Difference and Repetition, using it as an image of ontogenesis- a mapping of the way in which intensive differences are explicated (differenciated) as “extensity” (or distance) in the context of individuation conceived as actualisation of the virtual. Olkowski’s work here is detailed and meticulous, illuminating the often-overlooked connections between Bergson, Deleuze and Russell.

In chapter four, Olkowski turns to Deleuze’s two volumes dedicated to film, Cinema I: The Movement-Image and Cinema II: The Time-Image, which she reads in the context of her central theme- a philosophical project to overcome the dualisms of thought and extension, reality and signs. Essential here, to Olkowski as to Deleuze, is Bergson’s idiosyncratic use of the term “image” as a means of effecting a rapprochement between realist and idealist accounts of reality. Prior to adopting either one of these positions, Bergson writes, “I am in the presence of images, in the vaguest sense of the word, images perceived when my senses are opened to them, unperceived when they are closed” (2005: 17). And this first principle, far from strictly phenomenological, becomes the staging ground for an immanent metaphysics of “images,” given that, he continues, “to make of the brain the condition on which the whole image depends is, in truth, a contradiction in terms, since the brain is by hypothesis a part of this image” (2005: 19). In this way, the brain becomes one image among many, perceiving or receiving movements from the images which surround it. Its apparent singularity stems not from any unique metaphysical status, but from a capacity to create a “gap” or “interval” (écart) between these received movements and reaction. As Olkowski explains, according to this model, “the brain is neither the origin nor the centre of the universe of images; it is the centre of indetermination in the interval between reception and reaction” (87), a centre of non-action which enables the organism to draw on virtual forces and escape the determinism of pure motricity.

This approach, which serves to render thought immanent to the interacting planes of “movement-images” which compose it, is then linked to another Deleuzian adaptation of Peirce, and his claim that the cinema volumes constitute a “taxonomy” of signs in the Peircean sense. Importantly, and against a then-dominant model in continental film theory, the “signs” of cinema do not resemble a language. Rather, and in keeping with the ontology Deleuze inherits from Bergson, signs are also “images”- catalytic reflective centres, situated on the same luminous register as their affects. This section of the book, it should be said, comprises a clear and insightful explication of the key ideas animating Deleuze’s work on cinema, albeit one which doesn’t offer a great deal which can’t be found in other works.

From here Olkowski shifts into a discussion of what Deleuze will call the cinematic time-image– the source of “pure” sonic and visual signs which confound action, and as such our habitual, action-oriented modes of thought. Paradigmatic are the signs/images of Italian neorealism, which confront both character and spectator with situations which are “unthinkable” in their magnitude, horror or banality. These images see the subject stripped of its capacities for action, and as such confronted with “the pure power of time that overflows all possibility of reaction and defeats, immobilizes and petrifies figures […] condemning them to a horrendous fate…” (93). For Deleuze, in keeping with a generalised hostility to the subject conceived as an autonomous and self-identical interiority, these images are thus immensely valuable to philosophy, enacting a temporal-semiotic deterritorialization of the cogito as the source and site of agency.

Against this fundamentally inhuman temporality -a time which fractures and problematises the subject- Olkowski will then contrast the approach of Merleau-Ponty, for whom “time and the subject communicate […] in virtue of an inner, interior necessity” (97). For Merleau-Ponty, Olkowski explains, both subjectivity and perception are fundamentally temporal, the persistence of bodies in space is “an expression of the network of temporal relations of a subject…” (97), and the subject is itself a “temporal wave that moves, particle to particle, through the matter of the world” (96). This approach, in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s existentialist leanings, establishes the centrality of choice and engaged action as constitutive of a subject’s world- a vocabulary which is thoughtfully juxtaposed against Deleuze’s fundamentally “inhuman” time-image.

The book’s two final chapters continue in this comparative mode, embarking on a protracted discussion of the concept of the “Event,” as it appears in both phenomenology and Deleuze and Guattari, and as it pertains to the notion of freedom. For Merleau-Ponty, as we’ve seen, subjectivity is fundamentally temporal, simultaneously linked to a subject’s capacity to perceive spatial relations through time and to the way in which it is able to “inhabit” these relations. In this context, freedom is also temporal, given that “the stimulations an organism receives are possible only because its preceding movements have culminated in exposing the organism to these external influences,” such that, “the organism chooses the stimuli in the physical world to which it will be sensitive” (114). And while this suggests a rather limited remit of free action in the case of non-human organisms, integral is Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that “we are not simply a material plenum” (115)- that subjectivity exists across the fields of physical, physiological and mental “forms,” and as such is irreducible to simple “causal events” on any particular register.

Olkowski then returns to Deleuze, and to his critique of phenomenology in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Here, Deleuze will suggest that while phenomenology remains wedded to the forms of a particular “lived body,” his own (or rather Artaud’s) concept of the “body without organs,” “arises at the very limit of the lived body” (118), as a process which renders life unliveable– impelling it towards traumatic processes of (re)formation. For Deleuze, as we have seen, phenomenology thus embraces the affective and perceptual clichés of a particular lived experience, reifying them as philosophy. The task of philosophy, however, is that of breaking with these clichés (doxa)- a task the “anexact” concept of the BwO is designed to help us realise.

This vocabulary of perceptual and affective clichés also implicates art, and the aleatory methods Deleuze’s Bacon deploys in his diagrammatic “battle” against painterly cliché. Indeed, in the context of their cleft approach to “natural perception,” both Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty turn to painting, in particular to Cézanne, such that Olkowski rightly notes that “it is secretly Cézanne’s paintings that are the battlefield upon which the contest between the philosophy of the Event and phenomenology takes place” (121). For Deleuze, Cézanne “renders visible” the vital power of the body without organs -the pure, formless chaos which arrives as the Event- that which overturns all previous organisation. For Merleau-Ponty meanwhile, Cézanne’s canvasses capture organisation itself, the hesitant process of “matter taking on form and manifesting the birth of order…” (121), in a model Olkowski thoughtfully contrasts with Deleuze’s.

After appearing to hesitate for a moment between these two alternatives, or perhaps to think their compossibility, Olkowski’s final chapter renders her Deleuzo-Guattarian allegiances clear- particularly in its final pages, which see her embrace their ambiguous injunction that we need to open thought onto the deterritiorializing forces of the “Cosmos” (148). Whereas Merleau-Ponty, indeed, remains dedicated to a familiar concept of “freedom” as the remit of human subjectivity, Olkowski will follow Deleuze and Guattari in locating this problem in the “Cosmic” sphere, asking, and then answering: “Can the Earth become cosmic, and can the people of the Earth also become cosmic people? To the extent that this is possible, it is what takes the place of the old concept of freedom” (148).

Deleuze and Guattari take the concept of the Cosmos from Paul Klee, from whom they likewise borrow a model of art as that which does not “render the visible,” but rather “render[s] visible” (2003: 56). What it renders visible, Deleuze, Guattari and Olkowski claim, are the invisible forces of the Cosmos, the formless, imageless and non-thinkable “open” which is the condition likewise for science and philosophy. But how, exactly, does it do this? Here, Olkowski evokes the semiotic processes Deleuze and Guattari call “refrains” (ritournelles) -rhythmic, expressive repetitions which work to organise chaos as habitat. A little child sings in the dark to reassure herself; the colours of a bird’s plumage vibrate to communicate its territory:

In each case, milieus, blocks of space-time, are created by the rhythm, the vibration, the periodic repetition that holds back the intrusion of chaos, the milieu of all milieus. This means that the milieus are coded, and each serve as the basis for another coding and transcoding as one milieu passes continuously into another through the chaosmos, the rhythm-chaos (145).

Importantly, Olkowski draws out the fact that this process of rhythmic territorialization establishes not just a sheltering “inside,” but a simultaneous “outside” we might now venture out and begin to explore. This amounts to a semiotic transformation of the chaotic into the Cosmic, the “plane” upon which philosophy, art and science conduct their experiments. In this context, Olkowski explains, in a model of thought as free conceptual creation, “the philosopher […] makes thought into pragmatics, asking what a concept can do, enabling a force of the Cosmos that travels” (147).

The refrain, indeed, brings us back to the problem(s) with which the book began, that of the individuation of signs, ideas, or forms and of the ontogenetic conditions which enable it. Across the many models Olkowski treats, and of which I have selected only a handful, she creates a philosophical assemblage dedicated to logics of perception, affection and creativity which allow us to think across the apparently irrevocable empiricist/formalist division. This approach problematises traditional dualisms of observer and observed, signifier and signified, in an immanent pragmatics which reinstates the necessity of both semiotics and metaphysics.

In keeping with this approach, Olkowski is not content to lapse into an apparently “neutral” exposition, as though the reconstruction of these three projects might somehow avoid a similarly interested perception. Indeed, perhaps the richest aspect of the book is her attention to this often repressed “stylistic” dimension of exegesis, and the way in which explication is itself creation. Her numerous additions and digressions -through contemporary literature, science, and cinema- accentuate this fact, and renew her subjects’ thought as living bodies. At the same time, the author is herself implicated by this process -an “authority” which cannot but be problematic, as Olkowski herself acknowledges:

I have examined the relationship between the creation of ideas and their actualization in relation to semiology, logic, and the cosmos in the philosophies of Deleuze, Bergson, and Merleau-Ponty. It is not a linear path. It is more a question of periodic orbits following strange and unrepeated trajectories that have been generally unpredictable. In other words, in spite of what I think I know or understand, I have, at every instance, sought to remain attentive to alternatives to my former views in order to consider ideas, concepts, orientations, problems, and solutions that could unexpectedly erupt and so alter the orientation of my own thinking within the context of the problem I have set out (2).

And this brief precis proves instructive, given that the book is ultimately comprised less of clearly demarcated, linear arguments than a series of interwoven and recurrent conceptual refrains which, while generally compelling, can also feel occasionally disorienting.

Indeed readers looking for close, methodical explication and clearly identified lines of scholarly argumentation may want to look elsewhere, as Olkowski’s book constitutes more an image of thought-in-motion, which is occasionally unwieldy and often unpredictable. There are points at which her readings of each thinker are heterodox, and there is a tendency to overlook periodisation of their oeuvres in favour of a more thematic, and as such perhaps selective exegesis, which runs very different works together. I do not intend these remarks as “critical” in the non-philosophical sense. Olkowski herself gestures towards the ethic which I take to animate this approach in her final chapter, when she asks: “Can philosophers envisage a diagram for philosophy such that it is no longer philosophy as we now conceptualize or imagine it?” (149). Olkowski rightly notes that this is the challenge Deleuze and Guattari lay down with their own work. Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty is a book which is both difficult and worthy because it takes this challenge seriously.

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. 2005. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone Books.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel Smith. London: Continuum.

Reynolds, Jack & Roffe, Jon. 2006. “Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: Immanence, Univocity and Phenomenology.” In Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology. Vol. 37, No.3. 229-225.

Wambacq, Judith. 2018. Thinking Between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

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.

Dorothea E. Olkowski: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Indiana University Press, 2021

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