Started reading Deleuze's Difference and Repetition

After taking a graduate seminar on Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus with John Protevi, I decided I wanted to delve deeper into Deleuzian literature, so I picked up his epic masterpiece Difference and Repetition. The power of thinking displayed in A Thousand Plateaus really blew me away, so I was eager to get into his more classically philosophical works. I’m not sure what I will get out of Difference and Repetition just yet, but I plan on devoting a lot of blog space to thinking through this book. I like Deleuze because of his background in complex systems theory as well as modern mathematics and contemporary scientific theory.  Although he is well-known as a “philosopher’s philosopher”, and is often discussed as being a “continental philosopher”, I think he goes above and beyond the typical work being done under the label continental philosophy. For me, Deleuzian thought is fully compatible with science and should be understood in terms of it. Indeed, Deleuze says in the introduction that “Philosophy cannot be undertaken independently of science or art.”

This resonates with something I heard Pat Churchland say about the role of philosophy in  the modern scientific era. Churchland said that philosophy’s role to science is analogous to theoretical physics role to experimental physics. Theoretical physics “jumps ahead” of the known data and essentially participates in a kind of concept creation for the sake of synthetic understanding. Of course, the best theory takes into account all the data collected from the past, but it not simply an analysis of existing data sets, but rather, an attempt to synthesize previous knowledge while at the same time forging new concepts to make new predictions and correct theoretical deficiencies of the old theory. Philosophy should operate in more or less the same way. Philosophy is not restricted to using the vocabulary of established thought, but is charged with the task of creating new vocabularies to make sense of the world in light of previous knowledge, while not restricting itself to the vocabulary of previous knowledge. But the essence of philosophy is the construction of new concepts. I take this to be compatible with Deleuze’s statement that “philosophy creates and expounds its own concepts only in relation to what it can grasp of scientific functions and artistic constructions.”

As you can see, I am tremendously excited to dive into Difference and Repetition. It should offer me a new set of concepts to understand and explain natural phenomena. I even think it will be useful for my own research in the philosophy of mind. I wrote my research paper for Protevi’s seminar on Deleuzian neurophilosophy and I will probably upload it soon, as I think it was a pretty good explication of Deleuze’s relevance to cognitive science. Protevi has already done an invaluable service to the cog sci community by writing his paper “Adding Deleuze to the mix“, which I highly recommend. I hope to someday also contribute to Deleuzian scholarship, and Protevi even expressed interested in coauthoring a paper someday!

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8 responses to “Started reading Deleuze's Difference and Repetition

  1. LCN

    I’m disturbed that a Heidegger student of all people would take it for granted that philosophy should aspire to be the handmaiden of science. “Science”, meaning modern natural philosophy, cannot exist independently of philosophy because it is itself a branch of philosophy, albeit a hypertrophied and dogmatic one.

    The whole impetus of phenomenology as well as of Neo-Kantianism was to ground the dogmas of let’s call it Cartesian scientific materialism. As I assume you know Heidegger’s work on this problem led him to something far deeper than the problems of science – the meaning of truth, the question of Being, only a God can save us, etc.

    Of course one is free to simply mine Heidegger’s work for scientifically “useful” concept, as seems to be the universal practice among American Heidegger scholars. But even if one rejects Heidegger’s most important (and most dubious) insights, one must at least acknowledge that the questions at the heart of science are and always have been vitally open – what is truth, is science truth, is science good, what is good, and last but not least, WHY science?

  2. Gary Williams

    I definitely part from Heidegger when it comes to his apparent anti-naturalism, anti-science, anti-psychology, anti-materialism. This doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is when people assume that my reading of Heidegger is shallow, “pragmatic”, and proposes that philosophy should be a “handmaiden” to science. I never said that. I said that philosophy should mutually constrain science, not that it be subservient to it. I’m a philosopher after all, and definitely not a “Cartesian scientific materialist”.

    Also, I don’t read Heidegger as being some great arbiter of insight regarding being, truth, and metaphysics. I think he was a phenomenologist from beginning to end, and read his insights accordingly.

  3. LCN

    Tying philosophy to science in the manner of theoretical to experimental physics is profoundly limiting. It is to make philosophy a technical discipline for elaborating how nature can be mastered, ultimately for the material benefit of man (see Bacon, Locke, the scientific revolution). This assumes in advance that a number of philosophical questions are simply closed – whether there is an order of goods (or any goods at all), whether justice (should it exist) requires political constraints on science, whether there is an intelligible whole or merely the unintelligible yet lawful universe, et al.

    Secondly, although I did not originally have this in mind, I don’t see how you can call your treatment of Heidegger anything but shallow. For Heidegger phenomenology was merely a method for approaching the question of Being. The compulsive pursuit of science for its own sake was utterly antithetical to Heidegger’s view of what man is and should be. Science without the question of Being is simple nihilism.

    Now of course you are not obliged to agree with any if this. But what makes your reading of Heidegger shallow is that you simply ignore all that “metaphysicy stuff” without realizing that this stuff, the core of Heidegger’s project, has precisely the intent of putting your project in question.

    If you want to simply evade the questioning, fine, but then how can you presume to call yourself a philosopher rather than an ideologue of science. If you are a philosopher, what does that make Heidegger?

  4. Gary Williams

    I don’t feel obligated to defend myself against your uncharitable accusations of being a shallow philosopher or having a shallow reading of Heidegger. Thomas Sheehan also reads Heidegger as purely a phenomenologist and not a metaphysician, is he a shallow philosopher or a shallow scholar? Go read some of his papers on Heidegger and the question of being and get back to me.

    Also, I’m not interested in “mastering” Nature, I am interested in understanding it. Sure, understanding leads to mastery, but not necessarily, and I think the accusation that I am only interested in some blind conquest of raw material forces bespeaks to your misunderstanding about the role of philosophy to science, and is incredibly uncharitable and leaning towards an ad hominem. To accuse me of pursuing science blindly for its own sake is a low blow.

    I absolutely don’t ignore the “metaphysicy” stuff. I actually have a deep understanding of the relation of phenomenology to metaphysics, especially since I am writing my thesis on the issue of realism and idealism in Heidegger. My phenomenological reading is supported by textual evidence and other scholars like Sheehan do an excellent job of deflating the so-called metaphysical turn in the 30s which many Heideggerians see as a turn away from phenomenology. Sheehan and myself don’t think this is a good reading and actually ends up making Heidegger obscure and mysterian. The phenomenological reading, despite protest from other scholars, actually allows us to think metaphysically in a deep and powerful way without falling prey to either a dogmatic naive realism or a subjectivism.

    Also, I don’t appreciate being called an ideologue. I suggest keeping your discourse civil unless you want me to stop caring about what you say.

  5. LCN

    Heidegger was of course not a metaphysician. He gave Nietzsche the backhanded compliment of being himself the last great metaphysician.

    Heidegger was anti-metaphysics, because he thought metaphysics enshrined the mistaken, supposedly Platonic, understanding that being in its highest sense is eternal presence. This view leads to metaphysical structures that, though they once were authentic responses to Being and hence true or nearly true, are now false because Being in its temporal dimension has concealed their original truth and revealed new truths (such as Nazism, as Heidegger once thought and never precisely repudiated so far as I know).

    Circa Being and Time he thought a new metaphysics was possible, later he decided that it would still be inauthentic because ensnared in the old dead language of beings, so any meaningful work in “philosophy” (which would not be philosophy in the traditional sense) would require a new revelation of Being. Hence “Only a God can save us.”

    I’m not presuming you don’t know any of this (assuming you agree with the particulars), I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.

    Now first regarding whether Heidegger was “always a phenomenologist”. Yes and no. I misspoke earlier when I said phenomenology was merely a method for Heidegger. For Heidegger phenomenology = ontology = philosophy. Any philosophy that is not ultimately grounded in the phenomena is merely empty prattling about free-floating concepts. Lacking grounding in an unconcealment of beings, it is simply not true (aletheia).

    Heidegger was in this sense a phenomenologist at all times that he was in any sense doing philosophy. This is clear from his insistence on always going to the originary, phenomenal experience that lies beneath all philosophical concepts and terminology. His use of etymologies is merely a way of tracing the path back to this.

    But that’s not really the sort of phenomenology we’re discussing here, I think. I presume from your interest in cognitive science and related fields that you are interested in the “phenomenology of everyday life”, which can be pretty neatly translated as “phenomenological psychology” or even “theory of mind”.

    This specific subset of phenomenology was of interest to Heidegger only up until B&T, and only for the instrumental purpose of reopening the question of Being. Heidegger is quite explicit about this in B&T as I recall. Getting at Being by understanding the being that must have an interest in its own Being, etc.

    But returning to the broader sense of phenomenology as authentic philosophy, can we say that Heidegger remained a phenomenologist to the end of his life? The answer is simply no. In the end Heidegger rejected philosophy (=phenomenology) itself. Not in favor of some other “method”, but in favor of meditation on (actually around) Being itself pending some fresh revelation thereof. His “Letter On Humanism” makes this very clear.

    [It may be that one can find in Heidegger’s Nachlass that he was technically still practicing phenomenology to the end, I don’t know, and I don’t think that’s relevant to issue of what he thought the status of phenomenology/philosophy was.]

    Second the issue of the essence of science. This could take us far afield, but the problem lies in your opening statement that you are interested in understanding nature rather than mastering it. You assume in advance that there is no question about what it means to understand nature – to understand nature is know *how* it works, in terms of material and efficient causation – laws of nature. (Obviously those terms sound a little creaky these days, but there’s nothing radically different in the way science is conceived today.)

    But this understanding of “understanding nature” can by no means be taken for granted. If it is self-evident, why did it take around 2000 years of philosophical history for someone to discover it, and a revolution in thought to disseminate it? Why did it require a repudiation of two of the greatest thinkers of all time? (Plato and Aristotle, though really Plato only indirectly)?

    Moderns simply assume that Aristotle was an inept scientist. He, like them, was trying to discover universal laws of nature so he could manipulate it and thereby achieve that hallowed goal of modern science – power. (I do not think I’m misrepresenting the origins of modern science here. The view you perhaps favor is a gloss of Enlightenment optimism that was questionable well before industrialism, Hiroshima, global warming, etc.)

    But this is to misread Aristotle (and Plato) as moderns. They were not ultimately interested in the how of nature, they were interested in the what of nature. They were interested in grasping the whole – an articulation of all beings in their (presumed) cosmological order. This was and is the meaning of philosophy.

    And where did philosophy originate? For Heidegger it was a response to the ineffable question of Being.

    Modern science starts with the assumption, which in our day has become so deeply dogmatic that it’s not even seen as an assumption, that there is no intelligible whole, no cosmos, and hence no ultimate good. What there is Man, who imposes meaning on meaningless nature for the sake of his highest good (avoidance of pain, pursuit of pleasure).

    I sincerely believe that your passion for science is rooted in something beyond this bleak vision of conquest. But your understanding of what science is inevitably deeply rooted in your historicity (this is one of the great Heideggerian insights). To the point that it is practically impossible for a modern (me too) to truly conceive of the arbitrariness of the modern scientific project, because the phenomenal experience that originally gave birth to science (ancient science), may no longer be attainable. Thus modern science risks being a merely compulsive nihilistic technical exercise.

    [BTW I realize Aristotelian natural science is dead wrong in many of its particulars. The point is merely to show how the scientific impulse has transformed, and arguably degenerated. There’s much more to be said about all this.]

    Finally as to the issue of Sheehan or whomever. As far as I can tell American scholars are constitutionally incapable of taking Nietzsche and Heidegger with the seriousness they deserve (if Sheehan is not American, oops). It may have to do with our lack of pre-modern history. Whatever the reason they are completely blind to the problem of nihilism, which is of paramount importance to both these thinkers. They do not understand the implications of a rejection of metaphysics, because they don’t understand how we are formed historically by metaphysics. They assume we’re all more or less decent by nature and that’s that, therefore there’s nothing particularly troubling about someone announcing that he has moved beyond good and evil, or there can be entities (including human entities) that are not beings. (This is a caricature I suppose, but it draws from a reasonable amount of experience with N and H scholars.)

    As regards any particular view of “the turn”, Heidegger’s work seems completely of a piece to me, at least starting with B&T. Thankfully I’m not a Heidegger scholar so I don’t have to think about it beyond that.

    But I do think your desire to defend Heidegger as a phenomenologist as against something more obscure and mysterious is misguided. That obscure and mysterious stuff, at the limits of reason, is all that really matters to Heidegger. The rest is mere science, and science is nihilism.

    Sorry for being rude… I have found your blog quite informative in the past and you strike me as a promising cognitive scientist. (I particularly liked your response to the Chalmers youtube video.) But it seems to me that like so many American students of Heidegger, you are blind to the fairly evident significance of Heidegger’s work as a whole. Once again you are obviously free to mine Heidegger for psychological insights, but to do that is to do science rather than philosophy because it is to close the door to the questions that are prior to science itself.

    [BTW there’s no preview function in your blog so I have no idea how well this long post hangs together.]

  6. Gary Williams

    But that’s not really the sort of phenomenology we’re discussing here, I think. I presume from your interest in cognitive science and related fields that you are interested in the “phenomenology of everyday life”, which can be pretty neatly translated as “phenomenological psychology” or even “theory of mind”.

    I am interested in both “authentic” life and “everyday life”.

    And yeah, even if I am “merely” interested in “phenomenological psychology”, so what? If that makes me a nonHeideggerian, or a scientist even, then I am perfectly happy to ditch Heidegger and side with science and psychology. But I think that is a perfectly ridiculous dichotomy between “only being interested in the issues Heidegger was always interested in” and “being a Heideggerian” or “being a true philosopher”. Sure, I read Heidegger, extract relevant insights, and then apply them in modern debates in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of consciousness? So what? If that makes me a “mere” philosopher of science, then I am happy with that label (particularly in respect to prospects for grants, job opportunities, fellowships, etc).

    But don’t assume that I don’t think about metaphysics, ontology, the problematic issues of representation and truth in science, the hermeneutic structure of our scientific discourse, the social construction of concepts, the ontology of being, authentic existence, ethics, etc. I have not neglected these topics in my studies. But I just don’t think Heidegger was the last arbiter in regards to how to even set up the discussions, or how to go about answering them: hence, my interest in reading modern thinkers, and not just the continental phenomenological tradition (I mean, have you even read the second lit on Heidegger? Talk about dry and stuffy).

    Second the issue of the essence of science. This could take us far afield, but the problem lies in your opening statement that you are interested in understanding nature rather than mastering it. You assume in advance that there is no question about what it means to understand nature – to understand nature is know *how* it works, in terms of material and efficient causation – laws of nature. (Obviously those terms sound a little creaky these days, but there’s nothing radically different in the way science is conceived today.)

    Actually, understanding nature “in terms of material and efficient causation – the laws of nature” is very far from my understanding of modern materialistic science. The science that you and other continental philosophers are critiquing is not recognizable to me. The Deleuzian philosopher Manuel DeLanda has worked out in great detail a non-lawlike ontology of complex systems through what he calls the “problematic approach”. Efficient causation is done away with and replaced by nonlinear causation, wherein the “laws” and regularities described in classic scientific models are more like emergent effects that hide the underlying chaos, which is differential and nondenumerable.

    This “problematic”, experimental approach to conceptual analysis is in contrast to what D&G call “axiomatic” or “Royal” science, which, “from a few true statements of general regularities (the axioms) we deduce a larger number of consequences (theorems) which are then compared to the results of observations in the laboratory to check for their truth or falsity” (DeLanda, 2005, p. 157). D&G’s gripe with Royal science comes from its inevitable inaccuracies when making lawful generalizations. Generalized, mechanical regularities, while applicable broadly, fail to accurately capture the actual phenomena in all their singular richness. D&G see this as a general limitation of the deductive-nomological model of causal explanation. The “problematic” or “nomadic” approach, in contrast, shies away from the pronouncement of fundamental laws and instead “[R]ejects the idea that fundamental laws express general truths and views them instead as posing correct problems” (ibid., p.169). Crucially, the problematic approach looks both at what the model is trying to explain and what the model leaves out in order to understand what D&G refer to as the rhizomatic multiplicities nested and interconnected with other multiplicities.

    So your characterization of science and what materialistic ontology stands for does not resonate with my understanding and studies. You may decry materialism as being “mere nihilism”, but I derive great meaning from understanding its beauty and simplicity, as do others. Moreover, atheistic materialism is perfectly compatible with various existential philosophies, as well as philosophies of freedom and autonomy. We need not abandon materialism when fouling cry against crude reductionisms and deductive-nomological explanations, we need only update our understanding of what matter is, and see it in all its wondrous complexity.

    Modern science starts with the assumption, which in our day has become so deeply dogmatic that it’s not even seen as an assumption, that there is no intelligible whole, no cosmos, and hence no ultimate good.

    Modern science certainly does no such thing. Nihilism does not follow from materialistic philosophy. Materialism only says that there is no supernatural events occurring, and even if they did occur, we couldn’t meaningfully know it. And why should we associate “intelligible wholes” and “ultimate goods” with only those systems that posit supernatural ontologies? I find that it is usually an ignorance of the complexity of brain matter that leads people to think that moral reasoning or sublime intellectuals truths must be seen as metaphysically incompatible with materialistic philosophy.

    What there is Man, who imposes meaning on meaningless nature for the sake of his highest good (avoidance of pain, pursuit of pleasure).

    I don’t assume that what’s “out there” is meaningless, and I certainly don’t think that crude utilitarian moral philosophy follows necessarily from a naturalistic way of thought.

    Thus modern science risks being a merely compulsive nihilistic technical exercise.

    That’s a risk I am willing to take, but one I think can be overcome. Steady doses of philosophy usually help. Sure, there are a lot of scientistic people out there, and they are certainly annoying, but this does not speak against the scientific way of thinking, it only speaks against the ignorance and bigotry widespread in society, by both scientist and nonscientist types alike.

    show how the scientific impulse has transformed, and arguably degenerated.

    The fact the humans are now actually exploring the cosmos more thoroughly than we ever have before surely is a testament to the strength of the scientific impulse in modern society, not its weakness. I mean, have you ever seen the Hubble telescopes images? Those have done more to change how humans understand the cosmos than almost any book on metaphysics. We have robots on Mars! I don’t understand why science needs to be denigrated by continental philosophers into some immature quest for conquest, when it’s most humble and charitable spirit is that of discovery, exploration, and curiosity.

    As far as I can tell American scholars are constitutionally incapable of taking Nietzsche and Heidegger with the seriousness they deserve (if Sheehan is not American, oops).

    wow, that’s a hasty generalization if I have ever seen one. Logically wrong and arrogant too! Also, insulting someone’s scholarship before you have even read it is real classy. Sheehan is one of the more respected Heidegger scholars in the world.

  7. LCN

    Your understanding of what a cosmos is is thoroughly modern (there is in fact no cosmos for the modern mind, only a universe), and hence you don’t appreciate how radical and how questionable is the transformation in thinking effected by modern science (really modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes), and why it is more or less a straight line from there to political and metaphysical nihilism (once revealed religion falters that is).

    The fact that you would immediately assume “belief” in an intelligible whole requires supernatural ontologies reveals your modern prejudice that there is in fact nothing but unformed matter (or super-strings, etc.) and universal laws (or complex systems, etc.). It is this very prejudice and the theoretical incoherences that result from it (viz. where do the laws come from?) that phenomenology was originally designed to combat.

    The foundational problem of science then is this: what is nature? The answer to this question will direct us to how best to study it, as well as perhaps shedding light on why we seek to understand nature in the first place (a radical thought indeed).

    If you learn anything from Heidegger it should be how radically historical your very being in the world is. Thus you cannot take for granted that it is obvious what nature is or how one should study it (incidentally the word “nature” never occurs in the Hebrew Bible, I hear). If such a question is seriously to be asked one must trace the question back to its origins with the Greeks. What is the phenomenal origin of “science”?

    Once you understand the ancient origins of science you have a standpoint from which to judge its modern transformation, and to judge whether that transformation represents a simple progression toward truth or something more problematic.

    (Although in fact the true Heideggerian view is that such a judgment is impossible, as we can never transcend our historicity or reopen the Greek revelation of Being.)

  8. I like Deleuze because of his background in complex systems theory as well as modern mathematics and contemporary scientific theory.

    But does he do a reasonable job of dealing with science and math? I’ve not read Deleuze, so I don’t know. But I’ve read Levi Bryant, who is something of a Deleuzian, and he’s deeply confused about complex dynamics, though he claims to have integrated it into his thinking.

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