I Wish Pragmatists and Deleuzians Would Talk More: A Note on Creativity, A History Boy, 12/01/2014

A couple of years ago, I delivered a presentation on John Dewey’s value for environmental philosophy at a conference on pragmatism at University of Oregon, a paper which was later published in expanded form in Environmental Ethics. The organization was called The Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and their conference was called the Summer Institute for American Philosophy, but damn near everyone was a scholar of pragmatism. There was a wonderful set of presentations on African-American philosophers Cornel West and W. E. B. DuBois, some other work on environmental thought, and presentations on Hispanic-American feminist thinkers. But the bulk of the conference attendees were pragmatist scholars.

Ranking my knowledge of the Big
Three Pragmatist philosophers,
Dewey comes first, then James, last
the above Peirce.
There were a slew of John Dewey scholars, a few specialists on William James, and everyone had their idiosyncratic background readings in Charles Sanders Peirce. But the general theme of most modern scholarship identifying itself as pragmatist was producing interpretive material on these three figures, the traditional triumvirate of American Pragmatism.* I made a remark to Dr. K, one of the conference organizers (and author of a nice little book on Foucault as well) that so many of the problems the pragmatists discuss are treated with much more clarity, and in some cases resolved and progressed, in the work of Gilles Deleuze. I’m still not sure how to characterize his reaction. Here’s an example of where pragmatism is a potential fellow-traveller with Deleuze’s thinking.

* And yet so few people in the discipline of philosophy give George Herbert Mead very much credit for his contributions to this movement at all. I’ve barely even read him myself.

A lot of Smith’s writing can become very mystical about Deleuze’s writing on the creative nature of thought. Henri Bergson could definitely wax poetic about how every moment of reality itself was the creation of a pure novelty, however small, pushing existence farther into unprecedented forms and expressions against the weight of its own resistance. Insert an allusion to Nietzsche’s spirit of gravity, and you have a classic cliché of Deleuzian studies. In a sub-discipline whose aim is to explain Deleuze, the recurrence of such kind of language may echo and salute the man’s influence in Bergson, but it doesn’t do much explaining.

Another admirable aspect of Deleuze is how
he could acknowledge his debts to his
influences without himself being so influenced
as to become a commentator alone.
If you want to understand what Deleuze means with this concept of thought’s creativity, you have to consider what phenomenon provokes thinking. Smith refers in “On the Becoming of Concepts” to an impersonal universal flow of thought, but he does this in reference to Spinoza, the philosopher of one single substance. Thought being an attribute of the universal substance, of course is unified under all those expressions in its modes. Spinoza emphasizes substance, and therefore unity; Deleuze emphasizes and prioritizes what for Spinoza are modes, multiplicities. That is, singular bodies themselves interacting. In attributing a universal thought flow to Deleuze, he’d be off the mark. Another instance of Smith reading Deleuze too much in terms of his influences and missing the pluralist point.

Deleuze’s central idea about the nature of thought is that most of the time, thought is banal and ordinary, a witless exchange of inanities. A philosophically creative moment comes in developing a new conceptual framework for thinking through a society’s problems. Plato sought to contain the fragile chaos of Athenian democracy by developing a means to sort rival claims to truth. Kant, at the height of the German Reformation, articulates a vision of human knowledge where a universal moral law is paramount. These philosophies don’t reduce to the social problems that brought them about, but are profound and powerful conceptual creations that these problems inspire. The same goes for an artistically creative moment in developing a new and interesting sensory experience, or a scientifically creative moment in uncovering a new and interesting relationship among phenomena.

A thinker’s encounter with a changing world produces new ideas. Deleuze writes that most of his encounters were with philosophy, literature, paintings, and cinema, rather than in real-world situations. Those, perhaps, were the fuel for Heidegger, Foucault, and Margaret Urban Walker.** Bertrand Russell, who Deleuze long admired as a philosopher, had his encounters in mathematical thinking. These encounters are very rare, and most people don’t even prime themselves to be prepared for them. They live passive lives taking most of what’s around them for granted, and by this Smith refers to people who believe everything they hear on television (or today, their favourite tumblrs and twitter feeds). 

** I do consider Walker who have articulated a novel take on moral empiricism, even though Moral Understandings was bogged down in later chapters in the tedious academic practice of replying to earlier articles objecting to her work on relatively minor grounds. 

Gilles Deleuze in an ordinary moment.
Yet the social problems of the time demand answers, and if those answers are adequate enough to the worldly challenge to change those problems somehow, then they end up being taken for granted. What were once revolutionary ideas in response to problems that a society had never faced before now become banal, trivial, obvious notions. They’ve lost their power to shock and induce thought. Indeed, sometimes these trivial, long-accepted, obvious ways of thinking about the world only get in the way of new problems that arise, for which the previous revolution laid the conditions. The solutions of today are the problems of tomorrow, we can say about Deleuze’s conception of philosophical progress in What Is Philosophy?.

Smith even identifies a pragmatist precursor to this idea, but it’s simply part of a checklist. He doesn’t devote much, at least in this essay, to showing in detail the commonalities of pragmatist philosophy and Deleuze’s. He paraphrases William James’ remark that what prevents us from discovering new truths about the world are the truths we already hold, take for granted, and which we all too often believe to be all we need. Let me elaborate on the idea. The old truths were already enough for a previous world. But the old truths going to work in the world have changed that world. In a changed world, those old truths are still true, but obsolete. The solutions of today are the problems of tomorrow, itself a central insight of John Dewey's conception of social and political progress in Experience and Nature

And that’s one way to think of how pragmatism and Deleuze are closer companions than the textbook set of philosophical divisions might have you think.

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