Deleuze and Spinoza: An Aura of Expressionism, by Howie, Gillian (Palgrave, )

Ostensibly, Deleuze and Spinoza is a critical reading of Deleuze’s
interpretation of Spinoza in his book Expressionism in Philosophy:
Spinoza. Deleuze published two books on Spinoza, but this one, although
published two years earlier than Spinoza: Practical Philosophy,
constitutes Deleuze’s central work on Spinoza. Deleuze and Spinoza
attempts to show that Deleuze’s interpretation of Spinoza cannot save
the latter from a number of problems that have become associated with
Spinoza’s ontology and the ethical and political views he built upon it.
The aim of this critique, however, does not concern Spinoza as much as
it concerns Deleuze. Howie contends that in Expressionism in Philosophy,
Deleuze offers not simply an interpretation of Deleuze but a major
statement of his own philosophy, a philosophy that, except in certain
details, is of a piece with Spinoza’s. On this view, Deleuze’s
philosophy stands or falls with his defense of Spinoza. If Deleuze’s
Spinoza is wanting in coherence or plausibility, then so is Deleuze. The
critique, then, aims past Spinoza to Deleuze himself. It is as though
Expressionism in Philosophy contains Deleuze’s philosophy in germ or in
summary, and thus its faults will spread themselves across the entirety
of Deleuze’s corpus.
Moreover, although the book spends little time defending this (or the
previous) claim, inasmuch as Deleuze is a representative of
postmodernism in general, the failures of Expressionism in Philosophy
are failures of postmodernism. « The postmodern, » she writes, « new ageist
thirst for satisfaction, for the experience of uncoded or unlimited
intensity; indeed, for fulfillment, is quenched on the philosophy of
Gaia, of univocal Being, the One, the Whole. » (p. 9)
I will look at these conclusions, especially the one concerning the
place of Expressionism in Philosophy in Deleuze’s corpus, in a bit.
First, I would like to summarize the problems Howie finds with the
Deleuze/Spinoza she finds in the text. Near the end of the book (p.
202), she lists a number of problems for which, according to Yovel,
Hegel takes Spinoza to task. Her own critique largely follows these.
First, Deleuze/Spinoza does not give us an adequate defense of the idea
of a single substance. He has not even defended the idea that there is
any substance at all behind the modes or attributes. Second, he does not
have an adequate defense of the existence of finite modes. Third, the
parallelism between the attributes of Thought and Extension is
incoherent. Fourth, Deleuze/Spinoza’s epistemology is unconvincing.
Fifth, the ethical naturalism derived from the ontology amounts to no
more than an acceptance of the determined path of the universe. Sixth,
all of this issues out onto an untenable individualism. In short,
Deleuze/Spinoza’s philosophy combines an ontology that wavers between
implausibility and incoherence in the service of an ethics of
resignation and a politics of individualism.
It should be emphasized here that these criticisms are not simply
stated. They are defended in detail both by reference to the appropriate
texts in Spinoza and Deleuze and by considering a variety of defenses
that could be made of Deleuze/Spinoza’s position, showing why in the end
these defenses are unconvincing.
It would be beyond the scope of this review to rehearse the arguments
for Howie’s criticisms. However, as she notes, most of them converge on
a single problem, which she sites after her reference to Yovel’s
discussion of Hegel’s Spinoza. « It should be clear that these criticisms
of Spinoza are true of Deleuze and each can be traced back to the
problematic relationship of Thought and Extension. » (p. 202). Indeed,
the text seems to take this problematic relationship as a centerpiece
for criticism. For instance, part of the difficulty of the parallelism
is that whatever happens in Thought must also happen (although not in
the same way) in Extension and vice versa, without the one happening
causing the other happening. One can see the difficulties here. How will
this parallelism allow us to give an account of the « aboutness » of
mental states? In what ways does the causality between states of
Extension reflect a causality between states of Thought?
These difficulties will be familiar to those who have immersed
themselves in the study of Spinoza. If the argument of Deleuze and
Spinoza were solely this, it would be a book about a book about Spinoza,
showing how ultimately there are problems with Spinoza’s philosophy that
Deleuze’s sympathetic interpretation cannot fix. As such, it is an
interesting book.
Howie, however, is emphatic that this is not the goal of the book. The
book is not simply a critique of an interpretation of Spinoza; it is a
critique of Deleuze. One strategy for making this critique stick would
be to investigate the other works of Deleuze, particularly from
Difference and Repetition forward, to show how the criticized elements
of the Spinoza book are woven into the later philosophy. Howie, however,
does not choose this tack. Instead she identifies Deleuze as a Spinozist
tout court and thus holds that her critiques of Spinoza hold without
emendation for Deleuze. In doing so, she does not shy away from the
implications of her position. She holds, for instance, that « by
stressing the immanence of God and his identity with the whole of
reality, Deleuze distances himself from Nietzsche’s atheism. » (p. 192)
Contrary to what appears in many of the later texts, then, Deleuze is,
among other things, a theist of sorts.
Is Deleuze’s interpretation of Spinoza at the same time a statement of
his own philosophy? Specifically, do the problems that plague Spinoza
and that converge on the parallelism of attributes carry over without
remainder into Deleuze’s work? It is surely the case that Deleuze finds
much to appreciate in Spinoza, especially with regards to the concepts
of immanence, expression, and the univocity of Being. In his late text
with Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, Deleuze goes so far as to call
Spinoza the Christ of philosophers. But is Deleuze a Spinozist lock,
stock, and barrel?
I confess that I do not recognize the Deleuze Howie finds in
Expressionism in Philosophy, and in particular I do not find an embrace
of the problematic relationship of the attributes. In Difference and
Repetition (tr. Paul Patton, Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 40),
published the same year as Expressionism in Philosophy, Deleuze writes:
Spinoza’s substance appears independent of the modes, while the modes
are dependent on substance.Substance must itself be said of the modes
and only of the modes. Such a condition can be satisfied only at the
price of a more general categorical reversal according to which being is
said of becoming, identity of that which is different, the one of the
multiple, etc.
There are two points worth noting about this passage. First, it does not
endorse Spinoza’s view uncritically; second, it does not even refer to
the attributes.
That Deleuze retains Spinoza’s idea of the univocity and immanence of
being is beyond doubt. However, his own thought, as he begins to lay it
out in Difference and Repetition, contains nothing of the attributes. If
we look further along in Deleuze’s corpus, we see the same silence on
attributes in the later collaborations with Felix Guattari. Their
reflections on Spinoza in . Thousand Plateaus have no equivalent concept
of attributes, although substance and modes do make an appearance.
In this area, Deleuze’s thought is characterized not by the tripartite
division into substance, attributes, and modes, but into the bipartite
division into the virtual and the actual (a division Howie notes only in
passing), where the former is akin to substance and the latter to modes.
One might want to raise here the question Howie raises to
Deleuze/Spinoza of how the unfolding of the virtual into the actual
(immanent causality) allows for causal relations among elements of the
actual (transitive causality). That is a fair question, one that goes to
the relationship of Deleuze’s ontology and science. Manuel de Landa’s
recent Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (Continuum, 2002) offers
an account of that relationship, trying to show, among other things, how
transversal causality would work in such an ontology. However, absent
the commitment to attributes, the difficulty Deleuze faces is not the
one Spinoza faces and that Howie would like to saddle Deleuze with.
The example I have discussed here is only one indication that
Expressionism in Philosophy is not a statement of Deleuze’s philosophy
but rather an attempt to read Spinoza as sympathetically as possible.
Another one, I should note in passing, is that, unlike Spinoza, Deleuze
is not committed to predeterminism or, as Howie terms it,
« necessitarianism. » His discussion of the dice throw in Nietzsche and
Philosophy as well as his embrace of the scientific work of Jacques
Monod and Ilya Prigogine demonstrate that chance plays a role in
Deleuze’s ontology that has no equivalent in Spinoza. In the end, then,
it is impossible to offer an assessment of Deleuze’s thought through
this single work, or through any single work of Deleuze’s (although
admittedly certain texts, Difference and Repetition among them, are more
crucial to that task).
Regarding the most general claim that Deleuze/Spinoza’s commitments are
founding for postmodernism in general, there is little discussion in
Deleuze and Spinoza as to what the vexed term « postmodernism » means, and
therefore which strain of postmodernism Deleuze/Spinoza is said to
contribute to.
A final note. There is an unfortunate tone of cynicism in Deleuze and
Spinoza regarding not only Deleuze’s project but also his philosophical
motives. At one point, Howie accuses Deleuze of a « lack of sincerity »
(p. 170). One might disagree with a philosopher’s views, but to attack a
philosopher’s integrity is another matter altogether. In light of the
fact that no evidence is brought forward to justify such an accusation,
attacks such as these can only serve to diminish philosophical
discussion and disagreement.