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  • Philosophy’s Rarefied Air:Peden’s Spinoza Contra Phenomenology
  • Steven Swarbrick (bio)
Knox Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze. 384 pp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Paperback, $25.95 (ISBN: 9780804791342)

Claire Parnet:
What does it mean for you to be on the Left?

Gilles Deleuze:
First, it’s a matter of perception. … Not being on the Left [is] a little like a postal address, extending outward from a person: the street where you are, the city, the country, other countries farther and farther away. … Being on the Left is the opposite: … the world, the continent—let’s say Europe—France, etc., rue de Bizerte, me: it’s a phenomenon of perception, perceiving just the horizon.1

In his lectures on the history of philosophy, Hegel remarks that “thought must begin by placing itself at the standpoint of Spinozism; to be a follower of Spinoza is the essential commencement of all Philosophy.”2 Here Spinozism is figured as both a starting point and a terminus: a starting point because Spinoza thinks being as a totality; he thus inaugurates true thinking by placing thinking not in the service of the negative or transcendental reason but in the service of the infinite (“God, or Nature”). By releasing thought from its phenomenological bearings in the philosophy of finitude, be it in the form of Descartes’ cogito or Heidegger’s existential Dasein, Spinoza elevates thought to the status of true universal and lowers thought to one of the common forms of nature (Thought and Extension), thus robbing thought of its finite and anthropomorphic pretensions. According to Hegel, this is why Spinoza is also the most naïve philosopher, indeed, the most childish, since in his philosophy of substance, finitude “has no truth whatever.”3 For Hegel, Spinozism is only the beginning of philosophy, and a dangerous one at that. Because Spinoza’s substance is infinite, his philosophy cannot account for the individuality of finite modes. Spinoza’s substance, according to Hegel, is motionless:

The moment of negativity is what is lacking to this rigid motionlessness, whose single form of activity is this, to divest itself of their [the finite modes’] determination and particularity and cast them back into the one absolute substance, wherein they are simply swallowed up and all life is utterly destroyed.4

The relation of the infinite (substance) to the finite (the modes) in Spinoza’s philosophy is, in Hegel’s view, one of inertia, passivity, and death. In Hegel’s reading of the Ethics, the modes are passively acted upon by substance, leaving no room for “the moment of negativity’’ which is the engine not only of Hegel’s phenomenology but of phenomenological possibility as such. If, after Heidegger, phenomenology becomes the philosophy of the possible, that is, of what is possible for finite being to think in the absence of a unifying substance or ground, then Spinoza’s philosophy of substance represents the death of possibility, a philosophy in which, to borrow Gilles Deleuze’s anoxic formulation, “the necessary has completely replaced that of the possible … [and] from which ‘oxygen’ is lacking.”5

No doubt Hegel’s is not the only (or even the most well-known) version of Spinozism in circulation today. For those who split on the meaning of Spinoza’s definition of substance, “God, or Nature,” there is both the theological Spinoza and the secular Spinoza. There is the Spinoza of democratic liberalism on the one hand, and the vitalist Spinoza—the Spinoza of affect—on the other. Missing from these discussions, however, is the rationalist Spinoza, the Spinoza who, as Hegel rightly points out, inaugurates philosophy with the idea of being as totality. Clearly it is this version of Spinozism that informs Deleuze’s response to Claire Parnet in the epigraph above, where Deleuze says that for him “being on the Left” is first “a matter of perception,” of beginning with the outermost “horizon” and moving toward the middle, the “me.” This “me”—what Spinoza calls “finite mode”—is for Deleuze an involution of infinity, a fold within being; the “me” is never a starting point. The starting point, rather, is substance, the same naïve starting point that Hegel...

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