Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Deleuze and clarity

I have just had an interesting discussion with people who work on, or in the tradition of, Deleuze. I maintained that Deleuze, and others of that ilk, were wilfully obscure, making it impossible to tell whether there was anything of worth in their works. I also maintained that Sokal and Bricmont did the intellectual community a very great service by writing Intellectual Impostures (American title, Fashionable Nonsense). They exposed the large amount of nonsense, and the gross abuse of science, that are to be found in the work of their targets. Others in the discussion naturally disagreed with me, both on Deleuze and on Sokal and Bricmont.

Even if I am right, that would not exclude the possibility of worthwhile work in response to Deleuze and his ilk. Those who engage with Deleuze may well have worthwhile thoughts of their own, which can then be published and which may deepen our understanding in a variety of fields. Interaction with others often has that effect. Work on Deleuze and his ilk may also contribute to our understanding of intellectual history.

The discussion raised the question of standards of clarity and obscurity. I maintain that some works, such as those of Kant, those of McDowell, and texts in physics, are legitimately challenging by virtue of their subject matter. But others are obscure without good cause. Works by Hegel, Deleuze, Lacan and Derrida are like that.

Such judgements should, however, be supported by some robust and generally acceptable criteria of clarity - although it would be too much to expect that even those who agreed on the criteria, would reach the same conclusion on every difficult book that they considered. I propose two criteria. First, does each sentence make sense? (We cannot expect to get the full sense, or even the correct sense, of a sentence without paying attention to its context; but each sentence should still mean something in isolation.) Second, can I state in my own words what the author has said, listing some specific and worthwhile propositions, and be confident that I have not just invented something that I think he should have said?

The second criterion suggests something that Deleuze scholars might like to do. If they conclude that Deleuze himself said certain things and that those things were worthwhile, they should reflect on whether they have really found those things clearly in the text, or whether they have had to read their own thoughts into the text in order to extract some definite meaning. In particular, could they just have easily have extracted some other, contradictory, meaning? And could they tell when two pieces of writing in the Deleuzian style did contradict each other?


  1. A very good idea, Mr. Baron.
    These scholars could also write a Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to get students started on the difficult topic.
    Mr A.D. Smith wrote one on Husserl and he stated sometimes that he was interpreting somewhat freely certain of Husserl´s ideas. Husserl is dead and cannot agree or disagree.
    But Mr. Smith´s guidebook can be the only way to become interested in Husserl´s phenomenology for many people, who do not feel like reading the difficult text of Husserl.

    You do not necessarily find things in the text. You as a reader construct coherence while you read. Your construction can differ from someone else´s construction. The author of the original text should then act as arbiter and decide who understood him better.
    Sometimes, however, our thoughts are not so clear because we enter a new ground as pioneers and the text is a sort of first attempt to express them.

  2. One could even make an experiment:
    you choose a Deleuze passage with no meaning and
    each Deleuze scholar who says the opposite shall put down the meaning in his own words and after that a committee of arbitors should compare the results. If the paraphrases match then there was meaning in the passage in question and if they don´t then you were right.
    Und die Augenwischerei ist entlarvt.

    How many Deleuze scholars do you know and would they be willing to participate ?

  3. Yes, that would be a good experiment. But I do not know enough Deleuze scholars, and they might not wish to participate. And we could have fun arguing about who should be on the committee of arbiters.

  4. You wrote:

    "And could they tell when two pieces of writing in the Deleuzian style did contradict each other?"

    Why is contradictory writing an undermining of substantial thought and rigorous philosophy? Derrida writes, in Monolingualism of the Other, "I only have one language; it is not mine" and "We only ever speak one language. We never speak only one language."

    Nontheless, Derrida carries on a rigorous and meaningful argumentation to support these claims, and, in my opinion, fully proves their veracity (a valid and sound argument I dare to say).

    We sometimes mistake obscurity with truth. The Hegels, Deleuzes, Lacans and Derridas of this world see beyond concealment. They reach into the depths of the night and pull into the scarce light of dawn a number of beings - some of which they ever only get a glimpse of. Nevertheless, what they give us is not obscurity, but a different light setting.

    If you have ever stepped out of your house at dawn, you might have noticed that the world (streets, shops, people and every other objective thing out there) is different, if only minimally, from the world at noon.

  5. Oh!, by the way, much has been said (in both science and the analytical tradition) about the irrationality of human thinking. In this light, your claim that there is such a thing as freedom "in the exercise of our rationality" is an incomprehensible and non-substantial statement.

  6. In reply to the two comments of a few hours ago:

    I did not ask whether contradiction could be discerned in order to complain about contradiction (although I do complain about it). I asked whether contradiction could be discerned, as an indicator of definite content. If a passage has definite content, then it is possible to contradict it. If it does not, then not. So if two passages written in a given style could not possibly be seen to be contradictory, they would not have discernible content.

    The examples from Derrida require further inspection. Do the same terms have different meanings in the two halves of each claim? If so, then there is only the appearance of contradiction. If not, there is almost certainly something wrong with his argument. That would not be surprising. Even arguments in mathematics can have errors in them that are hard to spot. But the acceptance of contradiction would be a very last resort, and one to which we are not driven by Derrida.

    Maybe the authors we discuss do see new things, but indistinctly. Or maybe they only pursue le feu follet. We must weigh up the evidence. We must not be swayed by a faith that because they string together fine words and are honoured by one another, there must be something in what they say.

    Yes, we can be irrational. But we can also be rational, and we often are. We would not have the knowledge that we do, if we were not.

  7. What are the sanctions that you propose for those who malevolently refuse to meet the standards of clarity ?

    Do you suppose that the reason for the obscurity is mere laziness or negligence or is it some bad intention of creating confusion ?

  8. There should of course be no sanctions, except laughter. I suppose that these writers are motivated by a desire to appear profound, when in fact they have very little to say.

  9. Philip Bellamy, in his love story printed in the issue 47 of Philosophy Now, mentioned a paper with the title: Deriding Derrida: Construction of the Deconstruction.

    I do not know much of Derrida´s Decontruction. It sounds like a method of analysis. You deconstruct when you analize. And then you can put the things together again and know better how they hold together.

    I thought you liked analyzing things.
    Is Mr. Derrida´s contribution not good enough ?

  10. Well, no, I do not find Derrida good enough. An analysis should be at least as clear as what it analyses. It should also be clear exactly what is being analysed.

  11. I recently had the impression that Nikolai was decontructing "swan". Because it was not clear whether a black swan is still a swan the word swan did not have a meaning to him.
    I disdained my suggestion of essential and accidental qualities, which I learned from Aristotle´s writings.
    Nihilists have a tendency to deconstruct everything and to show that there is no sense anywhere.
    When I was younger I liked to construct and to deconstruct a lego tower and other things.

    I admit that I have not yet grasped what is the new element of analysis as proposed by Derrida.
    If nobody does then Derrida will be forgotten sooner or later and only those who contribute substantially will survive.

    Trying to impress by making vague allusions and by mentioning en passant a name does not work in the long run. Such an imposter will be entlarvt soon enough.
    Es ist gar nicht schwer, Spreu vom Weizen zu trennen.