Every Worthwhile Philosophical Creation Has a Purpose, Research Time, 07/01/2014

Plato was a serious man who dealt
with serious issues. Nonetheless, he
still put a lot of crude jokes in
Socrates' mouth.
Daniel Smith won me over with the first essay in his Deleuze compendium, called “The Concept of the Simulacrum: Deleuze and the Overturning of Platonism.” It was the most beautiful kind of attack on two concepts that I’ve found hideously mangled in discussions of post-modernist philosophy and Deleuze studies more particularly, the simulacrum and the reversal of Platonism. Its beauty lay in its complete avoidance of any negative critique whatsoever. He simply explained how the concept functioned in Deleuze’s reading of Plato (with Nietzsche’s help) and in Deleuze’s uptake of Nietzsche’s project of reversing Platonism.

All my discussions of Smith’s work come with the caveat that you should really just read his book your damn self for the best possible account of his writing. This essay in particular is clear, thoughtful, considerate, and, above all, creative. It’s also a wonderful introduction to Deleuze’s way of engaging with philosophical inquiry, which I’ve picked up for my own thinking about philosophical texts and projects. The usual way we’re taught to think about philosophy in our undergraduate courses is to evaluate arguments in terms of their validity and truth. These are important dimensions to any philosophical argument, but they aren’t all that matters. A more revealing question is what the philosophical project is for. In a way, you can say that this kind of interpretation politicizes philosophy, but it’s a very profound politicization. 

Deleuze understood Plato’s philosophy as motivated by a need to distinguish the validity of rival claims to truth, those who truly understand from those who are clueless from those who purposely aim to deceive. I’ve discussed this last summer in relation to Hegel’s account of the motives of Socrates and Plato in his Philosophy of History. The Platonic Idea (and its culmination in the form of the Good) is the impartial standard by which all claims to truth may be judged. A true notion expressed in the world is true insofar as it resembles some aspect of the transcendent Idea/Good. A simulacrum is an idea that does not resemble any feature of these forms. 

I think, like Foucault, I'll probably spend my entire
philosophical career explaining why an immanent concept
of morality accomplishes all that a transcendent can,
without any of the unfortunate problems of the latter.
When Deleuze develops an ontology of simulacra, (as well as what I consider his unfortunate phrase from The Logic of Sense, “the power of the false”), he is too easily interpreted as a token post-modernist for whom any question of truth is meaningless, and for whom existence has no intrinsic worth. This was an empty, if publicly effective, critique of the progressive French philosophy of the period: that a vision of the world without transcendent eternal truth, especially moral truths, is an empty nihilism that licenses all manner of horrifying activity. My colleague at Waterloo, B. S. Nelson, recently posted an old interview with Michael Foucault where he defended himself against those very charges. 

Having identified the central purpose of Plato’s philosophy, what it’s for, Smith describes how Deleuze reverses Platonism. His article lists a variety of mistaken ways to think about reversing Platonism that miss the central point. Deleuze’s goal was to build a framework to approach philosophy that didn’t focus on the question of settling rival claims to truth. Instead the focus shifts to the assembly of social and physical structures themselves. In Difference and Repetition, the book where Deleuze did most of his work developing his creative critique of Platonism, he described this assembly as the generation and play of differences, and as the repetition of creative moments. His work over the 1970s progressed this inquiry, but using the concepts of assemblage and notions from contemporary ecological science.

Deleuze wasn’t opposed to philosophies based on settling rival claims, he simply wanted to promote a different paradigm with different problems. He developed and promoted a vision of the world as a Chaosmos — systems and fluxes interacting in fields of mutual affectivity. 

This is the vision of the world I adapted to environmental moral philosophy debates in my Ecophilosophy manuscript. Moral questions are determined through the actual relations of people and the benefits and harms individual behaviour and political structures cause. The kinds of questions you ask and concepts that you use are completely different; philosophy is for the creation of entirely different ways of thinking. 

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