Over the last couple of weeks, David, of Indifaith, has written a series of posts responding to my characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to think immanence (here, here, and here). I have been impressed by the openness and interest with which David, a pastor, has approached this discussion, and am genuinely grateful for his probing questions that have helped me to further clarify my own positions. As I recall, Voltaire somewhere or other has a short little essay describing an encounter he had with a Quaker. As is well known, Voltaire, that sparkling giant of the Enlightenment, was certainly no friend of religion and often leveled his acerbic wit at various forms of religious dogmatism, hypocrisy, superstition, and brutality. Yet Voltaire went away from this encounter with nothing but praise for the virtuous nature of the Quaker and his quiet and unassuming inward religious belief. In this exchange, David has comported himself in a similar fashion.

The remark that set off this entire discussion occurred in a thread responding to a passage I had quoted by Guattari, where his sounded remarkably close to Badiou in his critique of postmodernism (the entire exchange can be found here). Responding to some questions by David, I there wrote:

In a number of respects, I draw my distinction between theology and philosophy from Jean-Luc Marion who rigorously tries to define the limit of philosophy. I differ from Marion in holding that theologies that posit transcendence ought to be left behind. I read the history of philosophy as the history of attempts to think immanence. These attempts can be deployed in a variety of ways, can be more or less successful, and the question of whether or not immanence has ever been fully thought is entirely open. By immanence I understand the thesis that we don’t need to refer to anything beyond, or to any intervention outside the world, to explain the world or to account for value. Consequently, when Thales says “all is water”, he is appealing to a principle of explanation that is strictly immanent to the world and is breaking with mythos or narrative explanations of the world such as those found in Greek mythology. To complicate matters more, we can have ontological forms of immanence and epistemological forms of immanence, and various combinations of the two. An account is epistemically immanent if it rejects any form of appeal in establishing a conclusion that cannot be arrived at through reason or some form of experience. That is, epistemological immanence rejects any appeals to privileged esoteric experiences, revelation, etc. Ontological immanence would be the principle that there are no causes outside of natural causes.

I don’t think I’m so much excluding poetry from this project (though philosophy and poetry are distinct), as questioning your characterization of poetry as the articulation of the sacred. Certainly a number of poets would themselves take issue with being characterized as Rilkean. The case of theology is complex. Professional theologians mean so many different things by theology, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. Descartes, for example, would fit the criteria of epistemological immanence in his proofs for the existence of God as his conception of God and proof for the existence of God is not premised on any revelation or esoteric experience, but proceeds through reason in a way that all can repeat. His position does not meet the criteria of ontological immanence, as he conceives God as being outside nature or transcendent to being. Spinoza, and Whitehead’s conception of God as I understand it, do meet the ontological forms of immanence. If these are theologies then they fall within the scope of philosophy. The moment a theology appeals to revelation, whether in the form of sacred texts, the authority of a prophet or man in the form of God, or esoteric, non-repeatable experiences, that theology is no longer in the domain of philosophy, though it can certainly remain of interest as a phenomenon to be studied by the psychoanalyst, sociologist, or the anthropologist.

The concept of “immanence” is relatively new in the history of philosophy (as I understand it, it appears in various scholastic philosophies, but really doesn’t come into prominence as a central theme until Deleuze and Badiou), however, the more I’ve thought about it since initially making this assertion, the more I’ve become convinced that a number of moves in the history of philosophy immediately gain clarity if situated in terms of the problem of immanence. Take, for example, Plato’s Meno and Phaedo. It will be recalled that Plato famously argues that learning is recollection. That is, to learn is not to acquire new information from the outside given to us by a teacher– elsewhere Socrates will refer to himself as a midwife of knowledge, i.e., he does not bestow or give knowledge but only asks questions that allow a person to recollect knowledge they already have –but rather to learn is to recollect an unconscious, innate knowledge. Every beginning philosophy student is baffled by Plato’s theory of learning. Indeed, it is likely that a number of Plato scholars are themselves baffled by Plato’s theory of recollection (as can be seen in the way that it is quickly swept under the rug as but a moment in Plato’s thought). However, as soon as we situate Plato’s theory in terms of the problem of immanence, its motivation suddenly becomes clear. Recall that for Plato, knowledge is not a knowledge of this or that particular thing, but a knowledge of forms, essences, or universals. The problem is that we nowhere encounter forms in sensible experience. This comes out clearly in the Phaedo, when Socrates is discussing the Identical. We never see anything identical in the world. All things differ in some respect or another. Consequently, the story goes, we could not have learned about the identical from experience. Yet we have knowledge of the identical. As Socrates reasons– almost as a proto-Kantian –we could never recognize two things as being the same if we did not first (a priori) know the form of the Identical. Knowledge of the form precedes knowledge of any particulars. So 1) we have the concept of the Identical, and 2) we did not learn this from experience. The grammar of philosophy stipulates that we cannot appeal to authority (“because I said so!”) or revelation as a ground for knowledge. Consequently, we must account for this knowledge in some other ways. The theory of recollection or innate ideas! What marvelous conceptual gymnastics to maintain immanence! What magnificent conceptual creations!

We can see the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to preserve or think immanence. Some of these attempts are more successful than others. Some are more interesting than others. If Deleuze and Guattari are led to describe Spinoza as the “Christ of philosophers”, then this isn’t because Spinoza was a prophet or divine, but because Spinoza went furthest in thinking ontological immanence, or a way of explaining the world that relied on no intervention from anything outside the world, history, or nature (certainly this claim can be disputed). The history of philosophy will therefore be a history of strategies for thinking immanence. Empiricism would be one strategy (whatever is immanent to sensation). Rationalism will be another (whatever is immanent to reason). Transcendental idealism will be yet another, and phenomenology yet another. Each of these strategies generates its own unique problems– like Plato’s problem of learning arising out of the immanence of the forms to thought and their absence to experience –and it would be possible to write a “cartography” of the history of philosophy that charted the problems that emerged as a result of particular drawings of immanence and the conceptual gymnastics and inventions that result as a function of these problems. Some day I would like to work through all of this in much the same way that Marion attempted to work through the problem of givenness in Reduction and Givenness, in hopes of arriving at a point where I could pose the problem of immanence. For immanence itself must be accounted for in terms of immanence, and cannot be treated as a transhistorical form floating about outside the world.

In this connection, David writes,

My only point drawing attention to equations and eggs is that they are assumed to function in a static therefore repeatable manner. I am not convinced this is the case in human relationships and therefore needs to be accounted for in any political theory. I am of course all for careful and reflective observations of human social behaviour.

No disagreements here. The significance I was aiming at with my examples from mathematics and boiling eggs wasn’t their universality, but rather that we have access to these things without having to rely on narratives or stories. We can know these things regardless of whether we are Greek, American, Chinese, Hindu, etc. For instance, arithmetic exists the world over in some form or another, in more or less advanced states, yet we would be tremendously surprised to discover that two groups of people with no communication whatsoever had created, say, baseball.

However, as David here point out, inquiry must be tailored to its object. We already begin to approach this with the case of boiling eggs. The point at which water boils is not universal, but rather depends on other factors such as air pressure, altitude, etc. I have tried to develop the concept of constellations to talk about these sorts of things

Compare a mathematical equation with an armadillo. The value of x for 2x + 4 = 12 is going to be the same for all times and places, independent of context, history, psychological idiosyncrasies, etc. However, if we wish to understand living organisms, we can no longer make these kinds of generalizations. Rather, we have to look at the way the organism fits within a particular constellation such that this constellation is not a global or universal logos, but a local logos or structure with a history, and its own immanent organization that cannot be generalized to other cases. We shouldn’t speak of logos, or a universal law underlying all being, but rather of logoi, or divergent and differing patterns of organization. A good example underlining this point would be the last great meteor impact that wiped out most life on earth. The life that returned subsequent to this event was radically different than the sort of life that existed prior to this event. The lesson to take away from this story is that there aren’t “laws” of life similar to say the Newtonian laws of physics. Rather, we have highly local “logics” (where “logic” here refers to patterns or organizations) that look more like what we refer to as customs than necessities– Customs and styles of matter. Another example would be language. Languages each have their own immanent structure of sounds, their own pattern. We cannot know a priori what this structure of language will be for a particular language because the patterning of sound is differential (it is determined in terms of relations to others sounds that may or may not be present in another language).

Life and language are not universal or particular (where the particular is the instantiation of a species, form, or essence), but is rather singular. However, contrary to Hegel, the singularity of these things in now way precludes our ability to map and comprehend these things, nor does it require any special revelation. In this connection, I think biology is again an excellent example. An organism is always problematic in the sense that it is a solution to a problem within the world. Yet there are many ways of solving one and the same problem. Thus, fur and sweat are one way of solving the problems of heat and cold. There is a frog in Canada, the Eastern wood frog, that solves the problem of cold in another way. When freezing temperatures are reached, the frog itself freezes, effectively dying (there’s no brain or heart activity). When heat returns the frog de-thaws and comes back to life. . . The Christs of the animal world.

Here we have different solutions to one and the same problem. We can transfer this way of thinking to cultural formations. In certain regions of India people eat off a banana leaf with their fingers. Here, of course, we use silverware. The lack of universality involved in these customs doesn’t undermine their intelligibility, nor prevent us from collectively deliberating about these things. I think this is, perhaps, one of the key points about philosophy– It’s only requirement is that of open-ended deliberation with others.

Philosophy begins with the other, the stranger, or the person who does not come from the same cultural background as ourselves. It begins from the standpoint of difference and is an attempt to solve the problem of difference. Philosophy tends to appear in periods of cultural crises– philosophy, by no means, always exists –where traditions have broken down, and we’re no longer able to rely on shared narratives to coordinate human action and the understanding of the world. This is why philosophy is always an affair of the city, rather than the countryside (even when the philosopher lives in a rural region like Heidegger), because the city is a community of strangers, of people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. This difference in background, this otherness, suspends the possibility of assuming the existence of shared mythos or narratives, requiring the invention of other interpersonal technologies, other ways of grounding social relations.

I think this aspect of philosophy tends to get obscured because of the “book form”. Today we tend to encounter philosophies in the form of books and articles. The book is itself a problem of time, distance, and otherness. Books surmount space and distance, allowing encounters with an absent other that is not present. Leibniz writes his New Essays on Human Understanding, responding to Locke’s Essay point by point. He is in dialogue with Locke even though he’s never met him. We are led astray by Descartes’ Meditations. There it seems that Descartes is simply reflecting privately on what he can know, seeking to ground his knowledge. We forget that the Meditations begin with a letter to the Church, and that he’s perpetually looking for those things that can be repeated. He is constantly with the other. Everything is a Platonic dialogue, even Husserl’s wretched attempts to think the other in the Cartesian Meditations. Unlike Plato, we just forget to add the names of the interlocutors. The difference, then, is that where other stances begin with a certainty, a conviction, such a thing is, for philosophy, a perpetually receding horizon that is only ever approached asymptotically without ever being reached.