The Overpowering Reach of the Will to Judge, Research Time, 13/01/2014

Daniel Smith’s interpretations of Gilles Deleuze’s ideas are interesting, and gives me a lot to reflect upon. However, I also disagree with a significant portion of it, particularly how he relates Deleuze’s influence from Kant. The most interesting philosophical writers always have complicated relations with their influences. 

I’ve read claims that Deleuze is a Spinozist and a Bergsonian; none of them hold up. He mashes ideas together, relates intuitively unconnected domains of thought and science using detailed historical and conceptual arguments. Like Smith says, he doesn’t write about his favourite philosophers as much as he collaborates with them from beyond the grave. To say that he accepts anything he has read as a simple dogmatic principle is laughable at best and an insult at worst. In this, Deleuze should be a model for us all.

One's engagement with any philosopher,
Kant included, should never be set in
stone, but there are limits to productive
interpretation and thinking.
Yet there remains this recurring idea in many of Smith’s essays in this compendium: that Deleuze’s entirely immanent ontology was intended to complete the work of Immanuel Kant. I can’t understand why he’d make this claim. The argument appears in more and less detailed forms in essays first published from the mid-1990s to the current decade. It isn’t even always the major point of Smith’s discussion of how Deleuze and Kant relate (though it is too often for my liking). And I’m not entirely sure how his interpretations of Deleuze’s work benefit from this recurring image as a mutant Kantian.

Here’s how the argument goes. I’ve read it enough times in enough different forms by now that I have it down fairly solidly. A central motivation of Deleuze in developing his philosophy is to build an entirely immanent conception of existence in general and human life; a philosophy that is entirely opposed to explaining anything with reference to a level of being transcendent to our own, determining or otherwise having power over our existences without itself existing on our plane of reality. Kant had a similar project in The Critique of Pure Reason, developing a way to justify our claims to worldly knowledge that did not rely on any transcendent concepts such as God and the Soul. 

While Kant’s project in the justification of knowledge had this effect, however, that wasn’t the goal. The motive of The Critique of Pure Reason was to create a system of judging among knowledge claims by appeal to the grounds of their justifications. Another central goal of Deleuze’s thinking was to create an approach to philosophy that would be free of any act of judgment. Judgment was a moral activity that evaluates whether a subject can justify its actions, and Deleuze was most interested in creating an ethical philosophy by which bodies were evaluated only in terms of how they could achieve their potential, how they could articulate their fullest capacities.

In the context of knowledge claims, Kant’s focus on justification produced an immanent standard of judgment: a claim is justified by reference to a subject’s history and worldly powers to achieve what he claims. All the transcendent concepts that Kant junked in the context of knowledge claims return in the context of the moral law in The Critique of Practical Reason, as the completion of the Kantian critical edifice still reaches its pinnacle in moral judgment. The universal imperative to limit one’s powers, bow down before a transcendent standard by which your material existence is to be judged, is the crown of the Kantian system.* His other writings of the 1780s (The Metaphysics of Morals most definitely, but also Perpetual Peace) express in different contexts this inherently moral idea that in order for human society to hold itself together in peace, we must submit ourselves to the authority of transcendent concepts/imperatives whose existence we must postulate.

* The Critique of Judgment is a total anomaly in this context, which I’ve thought since I first discovered it. Smith identifies a source for this shift in Kant’s late-period thought: his encounter with the criticisms of Salomon Maimon, who apparently did make these very points about the continual reliance on the transcendent in his thought. This may have shown that Kant’s initial motive actually did involve making philosophical thinking totally immanent, but it doesn’t stop the most remarkable Kantian achievement, the only work truly worthy of being called THE Kantian System, from being the conceptual edifice with judgment and justification at its centre. The Critique of Judgment is a fascinating new development that Kant was too old to follow through in detail, a minor stream in his corpus that arrived too late to gather force. I find it telling, however, that his last major book after The Critique of Judgment was The Conflict of the Faculties, an exploration of how disciplinary knowledge worked. 

I don’t have a particularly profound argument beyond this. I don’t have the time or inclination to put enough effort into writing a formal academic article disputing Smith’s claim on this. I’d rather finish my Ecophilosophy manuscript edits and proposal over this winter, and release a more creative, significant, and practically remarkable work of philosophy than a pedantic argument against one of Smith’s interpretations of Deleuze. Pedantic, whining arguments are for blogs. Philosophy would get a lot more progressive work done if we left our petty disagreements in spaces like these and put our individual creative efforts into more far-reaching inquiries and arguments. 

Because focussing on Kant’s immanentism just to draw a line of resemblance to Deleuze doesn’t gain us anything. It creates confusion about the place of Kant in the history of philosophy, and even about the place of Kant in Deleuze’s own thought. Because this notion of judgment is central to Deleuze’s own explicit reading of Kant. You can make parallels and connections if you want because Deleuze’s writing is subtle and complicated enough that you can find those parallels. And you can emphasize them if you want to make Deleuze seem like a mutated Kantian. It can be an entertaining and interesting minor reading of both Deleuze and Kant, a productive philosophical exercise. But I don’t see how it’s more than an exercise. I’m not sure what we can gain from this kind of interpretation.

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