There is an abstract and Platonizing tendency of thought that is difficult to avoid. Whenever faced with a phenomenon we ask the question what is it, and immediately set about trying to find a category, concept, form, or Idea to which the phenomenon belongs. The category or form thus becomes transcendent to the phenomenon in question, such that the category doesn’t function simply as a sortal or descriptor of the phenomenon, but instead becomes a normative measure of the phenomenon, determining the degree to which the phenomenon approaches the Ideal set up by the category.

Read on.

Often, when speaking of such forms, the the category implicitly embodies a protypical example against which all other instances are measured. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid smuggling an exemplar or protypical example into our categories. Someone speaks of the category of the “human” for instance, but what is really meant is a particular group of humans such as European, white males, against which all other instances of the kind are measured in terms of how well they embody the characteristics of this prototype. This is what is at stake in the “True Scotsman Fallacy“:

No true Scotsman is a term coined by Antony Flew in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking – or do I sincerely want to be right?:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Press and Journal and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Press and Journal again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

Flew’s original example may be softened into the following [1]:

Argument: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Reply: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Rebuttal: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

This form of argument is a fallacy if the predicate (”putting sugar on porridge” or “doing such a thing [as committing a sex crime]”) is not actually contradictory for the accepted definition of the subject (”Scotsman”), or if the definition of the subject is silently adjusted after the fact to make the rebuttal work.

Rather than seeing the category as a topological space capable of undergoing infinite variation while maintaining its structural identity, one variation is raised above all the rest, becomes transcendent to all the rest, and becomes the measure of all the others. As a result, there emerges a gap between the category and existence. Existence is lost in the process of categorization and the world becomes abstract. Instead, following Bergson and Deleuze’s ideal, we should strive for concepts that are identical to the thing itself. “…Bergson puts forward philosophy’s ideal: to tailor ‘for the object a concept appropriate to that object alone, a concept that one can hardly still call a concept, since it applies only to that one thing.’ This unity of the thing and the concept is internal difference, which one reaches through differences of nature” (“Bergson’s Conception of Difference”, in Desert Islands and Other Texts, 33).

When speaking of social groups and movements we can clearly see how this essentialist way of thinking is a problem. We use an abstract essentialist definition to define the phenomenon rather than letting the phenomenon produce the definition. Rather than examining the way in which these groups individuate themselves, we instead think in terms of abstract categories or essences, which themselves might be quite remote from the actual organization and structure of the social phenomenon.

What is needed is a way of thinking these social phenomena that coincides with the phenomena itself. Rather than using the term “concept” or “category”, I will instead refer to this form of thought as a “constellation”. In its second definition, my dictionary tells me that a constellation is “any of the 88 arbitrary configurations of stars or an area of the celestial sphere covering one of these configurations”, while in the third definition it says that a constellation is “…an assemblage, collection, or gathering of usu. related persons, qualities, or things”. I steal this term from Benjamin, though I have no sense of whether or not it coincides with his usage. Of specific importance to this notion is its emphasis on the arbitrary nature of the configuration and its status as an assemblage. What a constellation seeks to capture is the organization of a really existing configuration, rather than an abstract thought divorced from really existing configurations. Put otherwise, it seeks to capture auto-organizing and sorting phenomena of the world. Negri and Hardt, for instance, indicate something approaching the thought of a constellation when they criticize Kelsen’s Kantian understanding of the United Nations as a transcendental scheme. There they write that,

Kelsen conceived the formal construction and validity of the system as independent from the material structure that organizes it, but in reality the structure must somehow exist and be organized materially. How can the system actually be constructed? This is the point at which Kelsen’s thought ceases to be of any use to us: it remains merely a fantastic utopia. The transition we wish to study consist precisely in this gap between the formal conception that grounds the validity of the juridical process in a supranational source and the material realization of this conception. (Empire, 6)

I offer this only as an example and not as an analysis to be endorsed. What is important here is Negri and Hardt’s focus on material reality and existence in their analysis, rather than an abstract transcendental schema. Such an analysis requires the investigation of a constellation, of really existing concrete conditions.

Such a thought is of Darwinian inspiration as described by Deleuze. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze argues that Darwin effects a “Copernican Revolution” in how we think of difference:

Darwin’s great novelty, perhaps, was that of inaugurating the thought of individual difference. The leitmotiv of The Origin of Species is: we do not know what individual difference is capable of! We do not know how far it can go, assuming that we add to it natural selection. Darwin’s problem is posed in terms rather similar to those employed by Freud on another occasion: it is a question of knowing under what conditions small, unconnected or free-floating differences become appreciable, connected and fixed differences. Natural selection indeed plays the role of a principle of reality, even of success, and shows how differences become connected to one another and accumulate in a given direction, but also how they tend to diverge further and further in different or even opposed directions. Natural selection plays an essential role: the differenciation of difference (survival of the most divergent). Where selection does not occur or no longer occurs, differences remain or once more become free-floating; where it occurs, it does so to fix the differences and make them diverge. The great taxonomic units– genera, families, orders and classes –no longer provide a means of understanding difference by relating it to such apparent conditions as resemblances, identities, analogies and determined oppositions. On the contrary, these taxonomic units are understood on the basis of such fundamental mechanisms of natural selection as difference and the differenciation of difference. For Darwin, no doubt, individual difference does not yet have a clear status, to the extent that it is considered for itself and as primary matter of selection or differenciation: understood as free-floating or unconnected difference, it is not distinguished from an indeterminate variability… These are the three figures of the Copernican Revolution of Darwinism. The first concerns the differenciation of individual differences in the form of the divergence of characteristics and the determination of groups. The second concerns the connection of differences in the form of the co-ordination of characteristics within the same group. The third concerns the production of differences as the continuous matter of differenciation and connection. (DR, 248-49)

The question here is not one of advocating a sort of biologism where all phenomena are to be traced back to the organism. Rather, the “Copernican Revolution” that Darwin institutes is that of the primacy of individual difference over conceptual difference. As Deleuze put it, “…it is a question of knowing under what conditions small, unconnected or free-floating differences become appreciable, connected, and fixed difference.” It is in this connection that we must think in terms of populations, actually existing populations.

A population is something that exists somewhere and at some time. Moreover, a population is populated by a heterogeneous diversity of elements, composed of different tendencies or vectors of movement. Compare the idea of a population to the idea of the intension of a concept. Logicians speak of the intension of a concept as being those defining features that specify the conditions under which an element belongs to a class. For instance, “three-sided figure” is the intension of the class “triangle”, such that all existing figures belong to this class if they have these properties. Here there is a pre-defined criteria for membership, such that the actually existing triangles are irrelevant to any talk of triangles as such.

However, when we speak of a population existence matters quite a bit, as it is the differences that inhabit the population that determine the tendencies by which the population organizes and deploys itself. It is best to look at concrete examples in order to begin thinking about constellations. Any example will do. For instance, we might think of the bustle of people at New York’s Grand Central Station on any given day. This is a population. Here we have people of all types. There are an infinite number of ways we could sort them according to representational modes of thought working with concepts or intensions. We could sort them by gender, by religion, by ethnicity, by economic bracket, by jobs, by destinations, and so on.

However, the problem with all of these sorting strategies is that they remain abstract and exterior to the population itself. This sorting strategy relies on resemblance and analogy, as Deleuze outlines in the passage above. They impose external and foreign criteria on the immanent dynamics of the population. When we think in terms of constellations, by contrast, we instead examine the immanent processes by which the elements that populate the population sort or group themselves into various patterns and forms of organization. That is, constellation thought seeks to investigate the tendencies that inhabit the population, and how these tendencies more or less inhabit the situation. Some tendencies will be very small and fleeting, having little impact on the overall organization of the population in question. Other tendencies will be dominant within the population, seeking to dominate the rest or push the others into a particular form of organization. Occasionally there will be divergent tendencies within a population, creating a breaking point, a critical point, where we can no longer speak of a single population but must instead say the population has split, or where the dominant organization of the population undergoes a qualitative transformation such that it is no longer the same constellation as it was before (for instance, the shift from Feudalism to Capitalism).

It is clear that thinking in terms of populations and constellations is hostile to all “a priorism” of theory and those abstract modes of thought that fail to attend to actually existing conditions, populated by their potentials or tendencies, and their antagonisms. It is also clear that this conceptual deployment raises all sorts of questions about material logistics and strategics, focusing on how very small, almost imperceptible differences that are nearly invisible with respect to the dominant organizing dynamics or tendencies of a situation can be made into large, transformative differences. What is of crucial importance is that a population not be seen as populated by the same, but that it be thought as a bubbling “heterosphere” that is something less than a system or structure and more than a collection of disconnected atoms. I find deep comfort in the thought that all things pass away and come to be in the order of history.