Political Philosophy’s Curiously Necessary Balancing Act, Research Time, 11/09/2013

Most of my time Tuesday was spent working on applications (or fussing over applications) and finishing the edits on the sixth chapter of the ecophilosophy project on the constitution of subjectivity as a field of physical affects generated by an organism’s movements and perceptions in relation with its environment. I read a little Sartre before bed, and thought of a curious problem political philosophy faces: the slipperyness of its domain.

Of course, ordinary political philosophy doesn’t deal with this alone. By ordinary, I mean basically interesting, but mostly interested only in small concerns. Is some particular principle in the philosophy of some political thinker — substitute John Rawls, Seyla Benhabib, Gerry Cohen, Michael Sandel, or anyone else you think is worth writing secondary material on — correct? Or compatible with some other principle? 

I’m thinking of what, in Kuhn-style language, you could call revolutionary political philosophy. The works that reconsider the basic foundations of how humans interact with each other and their institutions. The works that are remembered. A couple of passages in the chapter of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason casually aim for this kind of scope. That the aim and achievement is so casual indicates the virtuosity with which Sartre wrote this enormous book, and shows how much it deserves to be remembered.

At heart, Deleuze was a conceptual engineer, for whom
politics was never an important element of philosophy
itself. I think this is often forgotten because of where and
when he lived, Paris of the 1960s.
Here’s one example. I may write about the other one tomorrow or this weekend. Over the last few years, my friend B was working on a project on deriving political principles from the work of Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze is an important thinker for both of us, and B is very dedicated to his own political visions. But he didn’t exactly have the best time of it, and this quirky piece of Sartre’s analysis may point to why. 

The motives of politically meaningful action, says Sartre, is precariously balanced between transcendence and immanence. When motives are transcendent to an action, one’s motivations are made too abstract. One has a general political principle that makes sense in understanding, but it’s difficult for a generality like this to motivate concrete action in the world. A transcendent principle has no real affiliation with reality, and exists only in the context of pure thought.

Deleuze would have agreed with this evaluation of transcendence, just as I suspect there was a lot more in Sartre’s thinking about which he agreed. I may talk one day about the nature of Deleuze’s influence by Sartre, but for now, I’ll simply point you to an essay called “He Was My Teacher” in the Desert Islands collection of Deleuze’s essays and move on. Deleuze identified himself as a philosopher of pure immanence. His focus was understanding what it meant to be absolutely singular, how to understand a body or a concept insofar as it was a uniqueness in the universe, and how to understand the nature of that uniqueness. If transcendence was too abstract from the world, then a perspective of immanence seems like the perfect antidote, diving into the world with an eye on the singular uniqueness of everything in it. 

But if you think immanence is an inherently political concept, as far as Sartre is concerned, you’re mistaken. And I think he’s right. A major focus of the Critique of Dialectical Reason is understanding the formation of groups, and the constitution of solidarity among individuals to build groups that can move with purposeful action. Much of his analysis so far in my reading has focussed on achieving this solidarity through individuals seeing common cause with each other, usually in threats so far.* Immanence fails in this regard because it focusses so much on the singularity of bodies that notions of commonality among them never even occurs to a thinker. 

* In another tenuous link to the late medieval/modern period of political thinking, Sartre seems to have much in common with Thomas Hobbes in this regard. I’ll say no more about that. 

So Sartre concludes that political thinking must be balanced between transcendence and immanence, and we can understand the entire project of the Critique of Dialectical Reason (all 1400 pages of the thing) as an attempt to identify that perfect balance. The only way in which politically active groups of individuals can form, remain unified, and flexible enough to make for practically effective action is that their motivating principles must be immanent enough to the world to connect with the daily concerns with people, but transcendent enough from the world to permit the required gestures to universality and commonality for group solidarity to form in the first place.

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