The Task of Philosophy

Hegel gives an apt description of this salient difference between ancient and contemporary approaches to philosophical study. It basically goes like this. Under the weight of several centuries of tradition, philosophical study today finds ready-made theories and answers everywhere, a plethora of prefab homes for thinking. Whereas ancient philosophers learned to let a theory grow out of their concrete existence, the task today is the opposite: to free ourselves from our prefabricated principles and to impart to theory once again the enactive and enthusiastic energies of existence.

Here is the relevant passage:

The manner of study [Die Art des Studiums] in ancient times differed from that of the modern age in that the former was the proper and complete formation [Durchbildung] of the natural consciousness. Putting itself to the test at every point of its existence, and philosophizing about everything it came across, it made itself into a universality that was active through and through. In modern times [neuern Zeit], however, the individual finds the abstract form ready-made [vorbereitet]; the effort to grasp and appropriate it is more the direct driving-forth [Hervortreiben] of what is within and the truncated generation of the universal than it is the emergence [Hervorgehen] of the latter from the concrete variety of existence. Hence the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is an object of thought that thinks, but rather in just the opposite, in freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality [zu verwirklichen] to the universal and impart to it spiritual life [zu begeisten].

G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford University Press, 1977), 19-20. Phänomenologie des Gesistes (1806), ed. J. Hoffmeister (6th ed.; Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1952), 30.



Atheism = philosophy of religion

One of Deleuze’s greatest (and most frequently cited) questions: “Why is philosophy so compromised with God?”   The question comes from a course on Spinoza in 1980.

Throughout most of its history, philosophy has been so involved with discussions of God that the philosophy-theology boundary seems extremely vague.  Why do philosophers focus so extensively on God and God-talk?  He responds to the question through an analogy with the prevalence of God in modern painting.

Why is there so much focus on God in modern painting?  One way of thinking about it is this: the artistic activity of painting wells up out of religious feeling, such that painting inevitably expresses some religious dependence on or devotion to divinity.  In that case, religion is an inevitable constraint on art: the necessary dependence of art on human-divine relationships.  Deleuze isn’t interested in that way of thinking about it.  He risks another hypothesis.

For modern painters, God is not a necessary constraint, but is a site of “maximum emancipation.”  With God, the painter can do things that can’t be done with humans or other creatures.  With God, painting finds “a kind of freedom for itself that it would never have found otherwise.” This means that a pious and impious painter “are not opposed to each other because the way painting invests the divine is a way which is nothing but pictorial,” which is to say, nothing but artistic conditions for the “racial emancipation” of the painter and of the lines, colors, and forms of the world.

“With God, everything is permitted.”  God allows the painter to break with the paradigm of representation: “to achieve a liberation of forms, to push the forms to the point where the forms have nothing to do with an illustration. […] the lines and colors lose all necessity to be verisimilar […] to resemble something. It’s the great enfranchisement of lines and colors […].”  This liberation from representation means that the use of God also liberates painting from religion, theology…and God.  “So much so that, in a sense, atheism has never been external to religion: atheism is the artistic power [puissance] at work on [travaille] religion.”

Just as painters used God to liberate percepts and affects, philosophers are so compromised with God because they are using God to liberate concepts from representation (thus liberating concepts from any representation of God and, mutatis mutandis, having done with the judgments of God).  Atheism is the conceptual puissance at work on religion. Spinoza’s pantheistic atheism is a case in point.

This is not postsecular or postmodern theology cleverly defining itself as atheism.  In this Spinoza course, Deleuze is explicitly affirming atheism, secularism, and modernity for their subordination of God to the demands of speculative philosophical invention.  Atheism is the philosophy of religion.

An Animist Revival? Madness.

  “Normality” in the light of délire, technical logic in the light of Freudian primary processes—a pas de deux towards chaos in the attempt to delineate a subjectivity far from dominant equilibria, to capture its virtual lines of singularity, emergence and renewal—eternal Dionysian return or paradoxical Copernican inversion to be prolonged by an animist revival?  At the very least an originary fantasm of a modernity constantly under scrutiny and without hope of postmodern remission.  It’s always the same aporia: madness enclosed in its strangeness, reified in alterity beyond return, nevertheless inhabits our ordinary, bland apprehension of the world.  But we must go further: chaotic vertigo, which finds one of its privileged expressions in madness, is constitutive of the foundational intentionality of the subject-object relation.  Psychosis starkly reveals an essential source of being-in-the-world. 

Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Indiana, 1995), p. 77.