Mates of State of Nature II: What If It Was Real? Research Time, 21/10/2014

Continued from last post . . . So what exactly is this Deleuze-on-Rousseau concept anyway? For someone who understands Deleuze’s work, it’s actually of a piece with what we all know about his philosophy already. While it’s an ordinary approach in the context of Deleuze scholarship and the wider philosophical explorations that have flowed from his work, I feel safe saying that it’s a novel or at least strange idea in the context of Anglo-American contractarian political philosophy. 

What should Rousseau's own concerns
have to do with how we understand his
writing today?
One of the cornerstone concepts of contract theory of politics is the state of nature. This is the notion of what human existence would have been like prior to society. The purpose of contract theorizing, after all, is to isolate the essential principles of social interaction and the minimal political obligations we all hold to each other. We achieve this by postulating what would have been the core issues and concerns in facilitating the agreement to begin acting socially in the first place. 

So “the state of nature” is the term for humanity’s imagined pre-social state in which the contract occurs. How a thinker imagines what the state of nature would have been like will influence the core principles of political association that he develops in his theory. Thomas Hobbes, the first social contract theorist, conceived of the state of nature as a “war of all against all,” where the strong strove to dominate the weak but the weakest was always strong enough to kill the strongest.* So Hobbes conceived of the state and political association as primarily about grounding and maintaining physical security.

* That last phrase, succinctly summarizing the key dynamic of Hobbes’ state of nature, is Deleuze’s own phrase, which I consider a bit of a cheap shot against the haters who say everything he wrote was obscure claptrap. 

The central postulate of social contract, however, was that it was always an imagined contract, a thought experiment to isolate what principles should be fundamental to political activity and philosophy. Empirically speaking, humans have always been social creatures, and no one has ever agreed to form society per se as a historical event.

Yet Deleuze: in Rousseau’s thinking, the state of nature is real, and it exists all the time.

No, not this Genesis. That's from Star Trek.
It’s humanity’s virtual being. Deleuze interprets Rousseau as conceiving of the state of nature as the potential of human social and political existence; the state of nature functions in Rousseau as the full range of all that humanity can do. In Deleuze’s words in his course notes, Rousseau’s state of nature is how humanity exists prior to action in “objective circumstances,”** which would fix our nature more concretely as we developed specific faculties to the detriment of others to deal with the situations in which we found ourselves. So we should read Rousseau in the context of the state of nature being humanity’s state of genesis. 

** Another wonderful part of studying Deleuze’s thought and writing is how he fluctuated his terms. He adapted his language to the problems that he faced, and toyed with a variety of different expressions of the same fundamental ideas. If he thought one term didn’t work so well in a recent publication, he’d change the expression in a new work. This makes hell for conventional authors of secondary philosophical material (books on philosophy, as I said yesterday), because of the tendency in that mode of writing to systematize and unify a primary author’s vocabulary, problems, and concepts. Because Deleuze is so flexible in his expression, he frustrates this intellectual desires. Good on him.

No, not this Genesis either.
Is this what Rousseau himself was an about? I have no idea, but the point of Deleuze’s alternative interpretations of philosophical figures isn’t to achieve some perfectly accurate reading of their writings. A perfectly accurate reading of an author’s writings is literally what they mean, understood in the context of the author’s individual perspective and how s/he responded to his/her own objective circumstances. 

Deleuze concentrated his writings largely on understanding this concept of genesis and differentiation. As such, he mutated Rousseau into a tool to help explain a philosophy of genesis. His brilliance as a historical reading was retroactively creating a tradition of genesis theory out of his creative interpretations of philosophy. 

It wasn’t accurate to the intended meanings of the texts he examined, but they were meticulous and insightful interpretations of these historical figures on his own terms. It’s an impressive feat of philosophical reasoning and interpretation, how a man with one lung could still put on an impressive gymnastics show, the only tightrope walking he could do. And it taught readers another angle to think about the philosophy of genesis. As long as you know precisely what he’s doing, there’s no need to take issue with it. Deleuze was a brilliant man.

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