Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Audrey Wasser reviews Knox Peden’s Spinoza Contra Phenomenology

Knox Peden. Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014. 384 pp. $25.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Audrey Wasser

Consciousness vs. the concept: thus Foucault in 1978, and echoing Jean Cavaillès, described the “dividing line” that cut through philosophical and ideological debates in postwar France, a line that ran between a “philosophy of experience, of meaning, of the subject,” on the one hand, and “a philosophy of knowledge, of rationality, and of the concept,” on the other.[1]

Peden’s remarkable book follows the path of the concept, tracing the history of a renewed rationalism in postwar French philosophy, specifically as the latter marshaled the resources of conceptual formalism against the influence of German phenomenology. Peden, who along with Peter Hallward, edited the two-volume Concept and Form (2012)a  collection of primary and secondary texts from and around the Cahiers pour l’analyse, the 1960’s journal run by Louis Althusser’s students at the ENS—here maps the filiations and divergences that gave rise to much of this work. “Spinoza” is the banner under which debates over the meaning of rationalism took place. While a comprehensive history of French Spinozism is not the goal of Peden’s book—nor a comprehensive reading of Spinoza’s oeuvre, for this historical conjuncture demands a focus on the first two books of the Ethics—any such history of Spinozism will find this book indispensible. Chapters on Jean Cavaillès, Martial Guéroult, Ferdinand Alquié, and Jean-Toussaint Desanti work to introduce these thinkers to English-speaking audiences—their biographies, and institutional histories, and political allegiances are well laid out—but these chapters are not for the philosophically faint of heart. Peden goes straight into the fray of their debates, telling, first and foremost, the story of the adventures of their concepts. Chapters on Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze reveal the full impact of these developments on the 1960’s generation of philosophers: Althusser is read as the “ne plus ultra of rationalist resistance” to philosophies of the subject, while Deleuze, conversely, is seen to effect an entente between phenomenology and rationalism, uniting Heidegger’s notion of ontological difference with a system of real necessity.

The interest of Peden’s approach is the way he positions and reads multiple thinkers together (Cavaillès against Brunschvicg, Guéroult against Alquié, Desanti between Cavaillès and Merleau-Ponty), in each case following Althusser’s (Kantian-inspired) treatment of philosophy as Kampfplatz: as a battleground where positions are taken up in relation to one another, within a particular historical and ideological conjuncture. It is not surprising, then, that the two chapters devoted to Althusser feel like the heart of this book. Here, against the majority of commentators who seek to refer Althusser’s shifting ideas to the pragmatic demands of political circumstance, Peden reveals a fundamental consistency in their commitment to Spinozist rationalism, especially through his lucid treatment of Althusser’s evolving conception of science.

I have mixed feelings about the chapters on Deleuze, however. On the one hand, they share with the best recent scholarship rigorous philosophical treatments of the 1968-69 texts (Difference and Repetition, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, and Logic of Sense) as well as offer trenchant analyses of certain lesser known but important pieces (including “Michel Tournier and the World without Others” [1967] and the “What is Grounding?” lectures of 1956-57, brilliantly using the latter to draw out Deleuze’s investment in Heidegger). On the other hand, they over-emphasize—in this reader’s opinion—the role of the virtual in Deleuze’s system (a strategy of reading Deleuze they share with Badiou’s Clamor of Being and Hallward’s Out of This World). Peden essentially argues that in turning to Heidegger, Deleuze imports an element of transcendence into his own Spinozism; and that (despite Deleuze’s claims to the contrary) Deleuze’s virtual serves as an “arrière monde” or “ontological antechamber” for real existence (241; 220). Peden attributes an ontologically creative power to Deleuze’s virtual, to “thought’s formal capacities” (221). Yet the virtual is arguably best understood, not as creative élan, but as an explanatory ground—the logical conditions under which things come to be knowable. That is, Difference and Repetition locates the engine of ontological production elsewhere: in processes of individuation that partake of existence. When he calls for a reversal of Spinozism in a system of philosophy that would “make substance turn around the modes” (a formula Peden cites prominently), Deleuze is underscoring the foundational and creative role played in his own system (as opposed to Spinoza’s) by finite, existing beings—beings decidedly of this world.

Disagreements of interpretation aside, it is exhilarating to think along with Peden. In Peden’s hands, Spinozism becomes a powerful tool for critique: it is not the Spinoza of substance monism but of an “essentially critical rationalism” that the author wields with finesse to ferret out unwarranted ontological claims, deflating arguments that would seek to derive a politics from Spinoza’s metaphysics. The question of the meaning of Spinozism, in other words, comes brilliantly alive for Peden himself. “The supreme virtue of Spinozism,” Peden argues, is its “foreclosure” of political enthusiasm; for ultimately, “neither metaphysics nor ontology can determine the content, or the agenda, of political life.” This is not Peden’s refusal of politics, but the contrary: the call for a different mode of political evaluation, one that does not decide its conclusions in advance of its practice. The same can be said of this meticulously argued book.

[1] Michel Foucault, Introduction to The Normal and The Pathological by George Canguilhem, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett with Robert S. Cohen (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 8.