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Fr. 501

April 2, 2014

Philosophers encounter considerable difficulties when it comes to juxtaposing claims from analytic philosophy with those from so-called “continental” philosophy.Rather than making blanket statements and gross generalizations, it is typically more advantageous to proceed on a case-by-case basis when comparing and contrasting claims of this kind. It is in this general frame of mind that we would like to address the question: What relation, if any, can be traced between the work of Gilles Deleuze, 20th century French philosopher, and the “school” of American pragmatism, one key strand of thought amongst others in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy?

It is important to begin by isolating certain elements common to those thinkers identifying with the pragmatist school of thought. Perhaps the foremost elements to be retained are those of semantic holism (as opposed to semantic atomism) and anti-essentialism (as opposed, unsurprisingly, to essentialism). In what precisely do these elements consist?

The first, semantic holism, requires that claims concerning meaning and epistemology be evaluated relative to the relevant context, i.e. that in and from which they issue. More simply, in order to understand a claim, it is first necessary to understand the claimant, as it were, namely: his or her background; the information available to him or her at the time; the judgments informing the claim; his or her reasons for motivations for advancing the claim. In epistemology, this is to be approach to, more broadly, coherentism and, more narrowly, contextualism, both of which emphasize evaluation of a claim in view of the various background commitments with which it is combined.

The second, anti-essentialism, is a related principle and holds simply that the person evaluating the claim is to abstain from generalization and thinking in the absolute. Notably, -isms are to avoided, as advancing broad claims about a field, theory or principle tend to exaggerate certain aspects at the expense of others all the while discouraging study of and impeding comprehension of the field, theory or principle under consideration. It is for this reason that overreaching statements concerning such domains as “theism”, “clericalism”, etc. are to be avoided by those on the left and similar statements about phenomena like “secularism”, “modernity”, etc. by those on the right. (For this precise reason, any further claims about pragmatism would themselves have to be nuanced in light of the particular context.)

The basic claims laid out, how do those advanced by Deleuze in his own work map onto those explored here?

Let’s first consider the principle of semantic holism. In his later work, particularly Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?, Deleuze approaches something rather like a principle of semantic holism in his elaboration of philosophy as the creation of concepts and the impossibility of philosophical debate or discussion. For Deleuze, the processes leading to philosophy begin with a particular question or problem making itself felt to the thinker or would-be philosopher. In other words, the thinker first feels that there is a particular problem for which some solution or other is needed. In view of the problem and the particular resources available to him or her, the philosopher beings to elaborate a concept that follows in some sense from the problem, as originally worded. The concept thus created responds in somewhat to the question or problem experienced by the philosopher. In response to still another problem or a problem itself arising from the elaboration of the first concept, the philosopher might then be led to create still another concept which supplements the answer to the original problem or answers the one having just arisen. Taken together, the concepts arising from the original problem or annex problems form a “philosophy”.

Yet it is important to note that the solution, as constituted by the resulting body of thought, does not have the place of pride within a philosophy, but, instead, the problem from which it all arose. Put differently, the act of experiencing the problem constitutes the philosophical experience itself rather than the fact of having “solved” for the problem once and  for all. As an example, consider the case of Descartes. Descartes felt the problem of skeptical doubt concerning knowledge and existence to which he elaborated “the cogito”. To the cogito are then joined such annex concepts as reality under its objective and formal forms. The question or problem remains that of skeptical doubt.

The question remains whether Descartes’ solution for this problem can be considered a success. Yet the answer to this question can only follow from careful examination of the problem to which he responds and the wording that he gives this problem, which contains implicitly the conditions under which the solution is to be realized. If, after scrutiny, Descartes is found to meet the conditions that he set for himself in the formulation of the problem, then his solution to the problem cannot be reproached for having failed to meet its own goals. In other words, any critique of the solution represented by the cogito must follow from whether Descartes meets the goals that he both explicitly and implicitly sets himself. In short, what is at issue is a variant of internal coherentism or the evaluation of a claim in light of the background claims feeding it.

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