Deleuze and Pragmatism
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Deleuze and Pragmatism

Simone Bignall, Sean Bowden, Paul Patton, Simone Bignall, Sean Bowden, Paul Patton

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eBook - ePub

Deleuze and Pragmatism

Simone Bignall, Sean Bowden, Paul Patton, Simone Bignall, Sean Bowden, Paul Patton

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This collection brings together the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and the rich tradition of American pragmatist thought, taking seriously the commitment to pluralism at the heart of both. Contributors explore in novel ways Deleuze's explicit references to pragmatism, and examine the philosophical significance of a number of points at which Deleuze's philosophy converges with, or diverges from, the work of leading pragmatists. The papers of the first part of the volume take as their focus Deleuze's philosophical relationship to classical pragmatism and the work of Peirce, James and Dewey. Particular areas of focus include theories of signs, metaphysics, perspectivism, experience, the transcendental and democracy. The papers comprising the second half of the volume are concerned with developing critical encounters between Deleuze's work and the work of contemporary pragmatists such as Rorty, Brandom, Price, Shusterman and others. Issues addressed include antirepresentationalism, constructivism, politics, objectivity, naturalism, affect, human finitude and the nature and value of philosophy itself. With contributions by internationally recognized specialists in both poststructuralist and pragmatist thought, the collection is certain to enrich Deleuze scholarship, enliven discussion in pragmatist circles, and contribute in significant ways to contemporary philosophical debate.

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Part I
Deleuze and Classical Pragmatist Thought

Infinite Pragmatics

Deleuze, Peirce, and the Habits of Things
Jeffrey A. Bell
Much of the discussion that compares the work of Deleuze and Peirce has focused upon Peirce’s theory of signs. This is understandable given the emphasis Deleuze himself places on Peirce’s typology of firstness, secondness, and thirdness in his Cinema books, as well as the importance of a theory of signs in his Proust and Signs. In the following chapter I will explore a subtler but equally significant interplay between the work of Deleuze and Peirce by showing how they both come to use a concept of habit in order to account for the emergence of individuated, determinate identities; moreover, this account of the emergence of individuated identities by way of habits (or passive syntheses, as Deleuze will argue) entails the necessary affirmation of the actual infinite, or the possibility of supertasks.1
The importance of passive synthesis as set forth in the second chapter of Difference and Repetition has been routinely discussed. What is of particular significance for our purposes is that with the notion of passive synthesis, Deleuze is able to argue for a process whereby an identity comes to be individuated in a way that does not presuppose an identity that predetermines the process—it presupposes, instead, an actual infinite or indeterminate chaos. Something comes to be the identifiable, individuated thing that it is not because it actualizes a predetermining essence but rather because the active, indeterminate, and infinite processes become contracted into a habit, and it is only then that it takes on the formal, identifiable features by which we come to identify this something as the determinate individual it is. Although this theme has been widely discussed among Deleuze scholars, it is a lesser-known theme among Peirce scholars. But the importance of habit, it will be argued, is, in precisely the Deleuzian sense just sketched, equally important for Peirce in accounting for the individuation of things. That habit is integral to Peirce’s theory of belief is well established, but its ontological and metaphysical significance, and its implications for understanding pragmatism, have not received the attention they deserve.
In the first section I will introduce the problem of supertasks and discuss the traditional response to this problem, which has been, simply put, to reject the possibility of such tasks, or, as this is more commonly known in the literature, to reject the actual infinite. The second section will turn to Kant’s First Antinomy—namely, the problem of believing whether or not the world has a beginning in time. Kant argues that neither option is tenable, and this is primarily because a belief in such a world would involve a super-task. To avoid the antinomy, Kant rejects the very notion of a world in itself and as a consequence any belief in the world. This leads us to the third section where I will argue that Peirce’s metaphysics sets out to restore a belief in the world, and belief in an infinite world. The fourth and final section shows how a key concern of Deleuze’s project was precisely to restore belief in the world, a belief that involves the supertask of affirming the actually infinite, which occurs, as mentioned above, in the processes of individuation, or in the passive synthesis and contraction of habits that are inseparable from determinate realities. It is at this point where the metaphysical implications of pragmatism come to fruition in Peirce—implications that are then taken up by Deleuze, and especially by Deleuze and Guattari in What Is Philosophy? where an instance of the affirmation of the infinite occurs with the philosophical task of creating concepts. I will call this task “infinite pragmatics.”


Let us begin with an example. I put an apple on a table, wait half a minute, and then remove the apple. I wait a quarter of a minute and put the apple back on the table, removing it after 1/8th of a minute, putting it back on after 1/16th of a minute, and so on ad infinitum. Let us assume for the sake of the argument that at the end of one minute I have completed an infinite sequence of placing and removing the apple. At the end of the minute, is the apple on the table or not?2 This question seems unanswerable and has led many to assume that such a task, often called a supertask, is impossible. Zeno, however, in his well-known paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, sought to show that if such supertasks are indeed impossible, then even the most mundane of tasks becomes impossible as well, despite all appearances to the contrary. As Aristotle recounts Zeno’s paradox, the conclusion one is led to is that “the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold the lead” (Aristotle 1984, 239b15). If the tortoise has a ten-meter lead on Achilles, and even if Achilles runs ten times faster than the tortoise, he must first reach the point where the tortoise was, and since there is an infinite series of such points, Achilles will never catch the tortoise because he must first reach an infinite number of points. But clearly Achilles will catch the tortoise. Given enough information, a simple mathematical calculation will enable us to determine at what point the two will be tied, after which Achilles will take the lead. So has Achilles performed a supertask?
The standard response to this question, beginning with Aristotle and continuing on through Peirce and beyond, is to say that of course Achilles did not actually have to do the impossible and reach an infinite number of points in the process of catching up to the tortoise. For Aristotle, what Zeno fails to recognize is that there is an important difference between the actual distance covered between any two points in a given finite amount of time and the potential for this distance or time to be subdivided to infinity. On Aristotle’s view, the actual is finite, not infinite; and the infinite is only the potential to continually divide the actual ad infinitum but without actually ever reaching the infinite. Peirce will likewise agree with Aristotle that Achilles does not actually reach an infinite number of points in catching up with the tortoise, but this is for a significantly different reason. Peirce counters Zeno’s paradox as follows:
All the arguments of Zeno depend on supposing that a continuum has ultimate parts. But a continuum is precisely that, every part of which has parts, in the same sense. Hence he makes out his contradictions only by making a self-contradictory supposition. In ordinary and mathematical language, we allow ourselves to speak of such parts—points—and whenever we are led into contradiction thereby, we have simply to express ourselves more accurately to resolve the difficulty.3
In short, we never reach points, for they are simply tropes, manners of speaking, and what we might in everyday or mathematical language speak of as a point is itself composed of parts—parts that are in turn composed of parts, and so on ad infinitum.4 Zeno’s mistake was thus twofold. First, Zeno failed to see that the continuum is irreducible to points, with points being merely abstractions from the continuum, and yet it was precisely the points reached along the way to catching the tortoise that did the heavy lifting in Zeno’s formulation of the paradox. His second mistake was to be confused by language itself. In both mathematical and ordinary language we will speak of points or parts, but in doing so Peirce claims we overlook the reality that is the continuum. If we are to avoid the contradictions that give rise to paradoxes such as Zeno’s, then for Peirce it is necessary to align our everyday and mathematical language with the ontological reality of the continuum.
Peirce is willing to draw upon the resources of pre-Kantian metaphysics, albeit while fully aware of the Kantian critical project, and as a result Peirce is much less adverse to affirm a metaphysics of the infinite than most of the philosophers who follow in his wake. Deleuze will continue in this Peircean direction as he develops his own metaphysical position, which I will call “infinite pragmatics.” For present purposes, and in order to connect Peirce to Deleuze’s understanding of philosophy as the creation of concepts, I want first to highlight the problem of the infinite that is associated with grasping the extension of a concept. To state the problem differently: does grasping a concept and its corresponding extension entail performing a supertask, and if so, does this invalidate the act itself? In what way does understanding the concept “lemur,” “banyan tree,” or even Descartes’s concept of the “cogito” entail performing a supertask? One can follow Hume from his Treatise. There Hume argues that an abstract idea is neither an idea that is abstracted from all the qualities and quantities of the particular such that it becomes the idea of nothing in particular, nor is it an abstract idea that synthesizes all the qualities and quantities of the particular that fall under it, for this would indeed imply “an infinite capacity in the mind,” (Hume 1978, 18), or a supertask that would be impossible. Hume’s solution is to reduce an abstract idea to a custom or habit that is revived each time we see a particular of a given type. Kant, on the other hand, rejects Hume’s solution, although he also rejects the notion that an idea or concept entails an infinite capacity or supertask. Kant thus moves to transcendental idealism in order to restore the viability of concepts without affirming the actual infinite. For Peirce and Deleuze, however, a concept involves a supertask, and far from invalidating the reality or possibility of such concepts, it is the actual infinite itself that is the condition for the possibility of concepts. To begin to see how this works, let us turn to Kant.


The impossibility of completing a supertask is at the heart of Kant’s approach to the First Antinomy of pure reason. In addressing the question of whether the world does or does not have a beginning in time, Kant argues that if one assumes it does not, then “an eternity has elapsed, and there has passed away in the world an infinite series of successive states of things,” but since an infinite series “can never be completed through successive synthesis [it] follows that it is impossible for an infinite world series to have passed away” (Kant 1965, A428/B456). Because a supertask is impossible, the world must have a beginning in time. If, however, we assume the world has a beginning in time, then the world proceeds from a “time in which the world was not, i.e. an empty time.” An empty time, however, lacks any determinate content and thus it lacks any “distinguishing condition of existence rather than non-existence.” There is thus no way to think of a world that begins in time, for this would involve a thought without content, which for Kant is another impossible task (although not a supertask in this case, for rather than an infinite regress of content to be synthesized we have no content, and hence no thought).
Kant’s solution to the antinomy is straightforward—he rejects the very notion that the world exists in itself as either a finite or infinite totality. One cannot have a thought or belief in this world, for it does not, in the end, exist, and to claim otherwise is to suffer from an illusion—what Kant calls a transcendental illusion. Kant is clear on this point:
If we regard the two propositions, that the world is infinite in magnitude and that it is finite in magnitude, as contradictory opposites, we are assuming that the world, the complete series of appearances, is a thing in itself that remains even if I suspend the infinite regress in the series of its appearances. If, however, I reject this assumption, or rather this accompanying transcendental illusion, and deny that the world is a thing in itself, the contradictory opposition of the two assertions is converted into a merely dialectical opposition. Since the world does not exist in itself, independent of the regressive series of my representations, it exists in itself neither as an infinite whole nor as a finite whole. It exists only in the empirical regress of the series of appearances, and is not to be met with as something in itself.
(Kant 1965, A504–5/B532–3)
Kant’s argument, in essence, largely repeats Aristotle’s response to Zeno’s paradox. As we investigate the conditions of empirical phenomena, we launch upon an infinite regress in that “however far we may have advanced in the ascending series [of conditions], we must always enquire for a still higher member of the series, which may or may not become known to us through experience” (Kant 1965, A518/B546). The question, then, is whether the world is what we get at the end of an infinite series—at the end of a supertask—or whether we must remain content with an empirical regress of forever advancing through an unending series of conditions. In rejecting the possibility of supertasks, Kant rejects the existence of a world in itself and thus for Kant we do not have a regress to infinity but rather a “regress in the series of appearances, as a determination of the magnitude of the world, [that] proceeds in indefinitum” (Kant 1965, A521/B549). The regress is therefore neither an infinite regress nor a finite regress but is instead an indeterminate process of determining, in accordance with a rule, “how experience, in conformity with its object, is to be obtained and further extended” (Kant 1965, A521/B549).


We can now return to Peirce. In his 1868 essay, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” one of a series of articles written for the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (also known as the “cognition series”), Peirce examines a number of incapacities that philosophers had traditionally taken to be capacities. I will focus on the first such capacity, our ability to distinguish between an intuition that is a primitive, unquestioned given that is not determined by any previous thoughts or cognitions, such as past experiences, education, habituation, etc., and a cognition that always is, according to Peirce, determined by previous cognitions. An intuition, on this view, serves as the premise upon which a chain of thoughts and cognitions can be founded, and many would like to believe they can accurately distinguish between premises (i.e., intuitions) and the arguments that are grounded upon them. For Peirce, however, this is not a capacity we have. Peirce offers the example of eleventh-century theologian, Berengarius, to make his point. Berengarius had the audacity to suggest that “the authoritativeness of any particular authority must rest upon reason” (Peirce 2:194). Berengarius’s contemporaries thought such a suggestion was absurd and impious. The “credibility of authority,” Peirce points out, “was regarded by men of that time simply as an ultimate premise, as a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, or, in our terms, as an intuition” (194–195). The lesson Peirce draws from this example is that what we take to be intuitive today—namely, the data of sense intuition, what Peirce will call “internal authority”—may tomorrow come to be seen as cognitions rather than intuitions. Peirce thus asks, rhetorically: “Now, what if our internal authority should meet the same fate, in the history of opinions, as that external authority has met?” (195).
The next question for Peirce, and with this Peirce’s concerns dovetail with Kant’s, is whether it is even possible for there to be an intuition at all or whether all cognitions are determined by other cognitions, and so on ad infinitum. The short answer for Peirce is that it is not possible—all cognitions are determined by previous cognitions. To support this claim, Peirce relies upon the principle of sufficient reason. First, Peirce argues that it is problematic to argue “[f]or something entirely out of consciousness which may be supposed to determine it [consciousness], [but] can, as such, only be known and only adduced in the determinate cognition in question” (209). In other words, in the tradition of Berkeley, to think the condition that is outside all thought and cognition is to think this condition, and ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Preface: From Philosophy to Philosophies: Prefatory Notes on Deleuzianism and Pragmatism
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. Deleuzian Encounters with Pragmatism
  8. PART I Deleuze and Classical Pragmatist Thought
  9. PART II New Pragmatisms
  10. List of Contributors
  11. Index