Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavailles to Deleuze

Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavailles to Deleuze

by Knox Peden

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Spinoza Contra Phenomenology fundamentally recasts the history of postwar French thought, typically presumed to have been driven by a critique of reason indebted to Nietzsche and Heidegger. Although the reception of phenomenology gave rise to many innovative developments in French philosophy, from existentialism to deconstruction, not everyone in France was


Spinoza Contra Phenomenology fundamentally recasts the history of postwar French thought, typically presumed to have been driven by a critique of reason indebted to Nietzsche and Heidegger. Although the reception of phenomenology gave rise to many innovative developments in French philosophy, from existentialism to deconstruction, not everyone in France was pleased with this German import. This book recounts how a series of French philosophers used Spinoza to erect a bulwark against the nominally irrationalist tendencies of phenomenology. From its beginnings in the interwar years, this rationalism would prove foundational for Althusser's rethinking of Marxism and Deleuze's ambitious metaphysics. There has been a renewed enthusiasm for Spinozism of late by those who see his work as a kind of neo-vitalism or philosophy of life and affect. Peden counters this trend by tracking a decisive and neglected aspect of Spinoza's philosophy—his rationalism—in a body of thought too often presumed to have rejected reason. In the process, he demonstrates that the virtues of Spinoza's rationalism have yet to be exhausted.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"It's rare to finish a book in the history of philosophy and say to oneself that it's indispensable for an adequate understanding of the period and the context that it deals with. But for those who have a serious interest in Spinoza's reception or even in the history of French philosophy in the twentieth century, Peden's book certainly belongs in this category."—Mogens Lærke, Archives de Philosophie

"Knox Peden's Spinoza Contra Phenomenology is now the definitive statement on what it meant for some of French philosophy's most influential 20th century thinkers to begin, in Hegel's words, 'at the standpoint of Spinozism' . . . [I]t is an enviable work of scholarship, both massive in its intellectual scope and nuanced in its attention to detail. For those interested in 20th century French intellectual history, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology is sure to become essential reading."—Steven Swarbrick, Theory & Event

"[I]t is exhilarating to think along with Peden. In Peden's hands, Spinozism becomes a powerful tool for critique: it is not the Spinoza of substance monism but of an 'essentially critical rationalism' that the author wields with finesse to ferret out unwarranted ontological claims, deflating arguments that would seek to derive a politics from Spinoza's metaphysics."—Audrey Wasser, Critical Inquiry

"Peden provides a dramatic and compelling retelling of the intellectual history of postwar France. Instead of the familiar succession of existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism, Peden sees a set of variations of a fundamental struggle between two radically opposed ways of thinking."—Edward Baring, Modern Intellectual History

"Peden's work is to be praised for drawing these philosophers to our attention, and for providing what will hopefully be a spur to further research. In addition, he provides interesting readings of more familiar figures which draw our attention to aspects of their work that have not previously received sufficient scholarly attention . . . Knox Peden has written a well-researched and well-argued book, which makes a meaningful contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century French philosophy. It is essential reading for those working in this area, as well as for any English-speaking philosophers whishing to purge themselves of unhelpful preconceptions they may well have inherited concerning philosophy in France in the twentieth century."—David J. Allen, British Journal for the History of Philosophy
"Not only does [Spinoza Contra Phenomenlogy] contribute excellent biographical sketches of the less well known figures of Jean Cavaillès, Martial Gueroult, Ferdinand Alquié, and Jean-Toussaint Desanti; it effectively reveals the world that shaped them, and their effect on the conceptual universe of continental philosophy today . . . One cannot do justice here to Peden's rich discussion of Cavaillès' work on mathematics and set theory."—Harrison Fluss, Radical Philosophy
"Peden offers an important book that seeks to challenge the dominant narrative that 20th-century French philosophy was in large part a series of responses to developments in post-Kantian German philosophy . . . [P]hilosophers and intellectual historians will find that this carefully researched book offers much to learn. An important acquisition for academic libraries building collections in 20th-century European philosophy . . . Summing Up: Highly Recommended."—A. D. Schrift, CHOICE
"In this signal contribution to the study of European thought, Knox Peden shows that the importation of German phenomenology to France in the twentieth century was only part of the story. In appealing to Benedict Spinoza's version of rationalism, neglected figures whom this book restores to their centrality made conceptual moves of lasting importance, setting a context for the careers of Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze, with which Peden's absorbing reinterpretation culminates. Thanks to his sure grasp of the theoretical materials and ability to address them in lucid writing, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology redraws the map, not simply for the sake of having a better one, but because debates across the contemporary humanities need its orientation."—Samuel Moyn, Columbia University
"The conventional understanding of twentieth-century French thought is just beginning to fracture, and we are now coming to appreciate the complexity and significance of intellectual trends that once-dominant schools—such as phenomenology and existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism—have too long obscured. In this brilliant new study, Knox Peden breaks free of received wisdom to cast a new light on the movement of French philosophical rationalism that borrowed both its energies and its name from the metaphysical writings of a seventeenth-century heretical Jew. Spinozism, as reimagined in France by heterodox intellectuals such as Althusser and Deleuze, was something more than a philosophy: it was a veritable ethos. With verve and sophistication, Peden maps this inheritance and guides us through the formidable debates that have not yet reached their end."—Peter Eli Gordon, Harvard University

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Stanford University Press
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Cultural Memory in the Present Series
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Spinoza Contra Phenomenology

French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze

By Knox Peden


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9134-2


From Consciousness to the Concept

The Spinozism of Jean Cavaillès

Scientific faith, which is an active faith, can take Spinoza as its precursor, its model, its prophet. Gaston Bachelard, "Physique et métaphysique," 1933

The history of Spinozism's critical relationship to phenomenology in twentieth-century French thought properly begins with Jean Cavaillès for two reasons. As a philosopher of mathematics, Cavaillès was attuned to modern developments in the mathematical sciences that posed a challenge to philosophical accounts of transcendental subjectivity grounded in a priori theories of consciousness or intuition. The mathematics of the transfinite inaugurated in the late nineteenth century by Georg Cantor's set theory produced a conceptually operative account of the infinite and its function in mathematical sequences. For the most part, mathematicians working in Cantor's wake relied more on conceptual demonstration than empirically grounded insights. Post-Cantorian mathematics proved its theoretical mettle in the physical sciences, but it remained a conundrum for philosophers in that it showed the utility and apparent truth content of a mode of rational thought that was not only irreducible to but by and large incommensurable with an intuitive grasp of lived experience. Cavaillès, who was born in 1903, was one of the first French philosophers to consider this problem, and his efforts to work through the implications of transfinite mathematics involved an extensive and critical engagement with Husserl's phenomenology throughout the interwar years. In the course of this engagement, Cavaillès invoked Spinoza's rationalism as a potential antidote to the excessive reliance on a concept of consciousness, or cogito, in Husserl's effort. In the final work of his attenuated career, Cavaillès concluded that "it is not a philosophy of consciousness, but a philosophy of the concept that can yield a doctrine of science." With this statement, Cavaillès effectively codified Spinozism as a rationalist alternative to phenomenology, thus setting the terms for the critical confrontation to be explored over the following chapters.

The contents of Cavaillès's philosophical thought are the first reason for his inaugural status in this study. The second concerns why his project was attenuated. In addition to being one of the leading philosophical minds of his generation, Cavaillès was one of the most active leaders in the French Resistance during the Second World War. He was called up for military service as an officer in 1939 and was captured during the German invasion of France in June 1940. He escaped from prison later that summer and returned to the University of Strasbourg, which had been moved to Clermont-Ferrand as a result of the Occupation, to resume his duties as a professor of philosophy. In the autumn of 1940, Cavaillès founded, along with Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigerie, the Resistance movement Libération-Sud, which was designed to combat and destabilize the Vichy government in the south of France. In 1941, he was called to the Sorbonne in Paris to serve as a professor of philosophy and logic. Once there, Cavaillès made contact with the then barely existent group Libération-Nord, serving as a kind of emissary for Libération-Sud. While employed as a professor at the Sorbonne, and thus in full public view, Cavaillès took on a range of pseudonyms and conducted a series of clandestine missions throughout France. He was arrested in Narbonne in September 1942 and imprisoned by Vichy authorities. In December he escaped again and made his way back to Paris before undertaking a mission to London, where he sought to intervene in the political quarrels among the Resistance leadership in order to demand more focus on strategy. In the months after his return to France in the spring of 1943, Cavaillès took on a greater role in military action himself; among his many missions was a particularly dangerous operation wherein he placed and detonated a series of hidden explosives in the German submarine base at Lorient, on the Atlantic coast of Brittany. In September 1943, Cavaillès was arrested as he was walking along the boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris. After a series of efforts on his behalfby sympathetic countrymen who were collaborating with the Germans, Cavaillès was judged and sentenced to death on February 17, 1944, whereupon he was immediately executed by a firing squad.

While in London, Cavaillès met with other French intellectuals who were taking part in the struggle against Nazism in one capacity or another, such as Simone Weil and Raymond Aron. In a preface written for a posthumous collection of Cavaillès's writings, Aron recounts a memorable exchange in London with his erstwhile classmate at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). Whereas others invoked partisan imperatives, be they communist, socialist, or democratic, to justify their Resistance activity or pointed instead to a general notion of national honor, for Cavaillès the Resistance was simply a question of necessity: " 'I'm a Spinozist,' he said; 'we must resist, fight, and confront death. Truth and reason demand it.'" This was Aron's recollection in 1963. In December 1945, Aron had relayed the same conversation in a commemorative ceremony for Cavaillès at the Sorbonne. Cavaillès told Aron, "I'm a Spinozist; I believe we submit to the necessary everywhere. The sequences of the mathematicians are necessary; even the [historical] stages of mathematical science are necessary. This struggle that we carry out is necessary as well."

In recounting these words, Aron manages the peculiar feat of politicizing and depoliticizing Cavaillès's moral example in the same stroke. On the one hand, Aron connects Cavaillès's heroism to his philosophical Spinozism. Just as Cavaillès believed, following Spinoza, that rational thought was governed by necessity regardless of whether or not a thinking individual was cognizant of it, so, too, did he describe his commitment to struggling against the Occupation. On the other hand, Aron explicitly decouples Cavaillès's example from politics—"be they communist, socialist, or democratic"—by insisting that Cavaillès was an exceptional figure who thought necessity "had command over practical imperatives as well as scientific propositions." In effect, then, Aron explains Cavaillès's heroism in terms of his Spinozism, even as he also evacuates that Spinozism of any specific political content. Cavaillès was exceptional precisely because his motives were not "political." This is a politics that is logical and pure; in a word, it is above politics.

If Cavaillès the philosopher is responsible for figuring Spinozism as a rationalist alternative to phenomenology in the French context, his actions and fate are responsible for imbuing Spinozism with an ambiguous political valence. Despite eschewing references to "national honor," Aron's account clearly ties Cavaillès's heroism to the republican ideal as something worth dying for. A child of the Third Republic who was deeply influenced by its leading intellectual defenders, Cavaillès fought to preserve the French nation-state and the abstract ideal it incarnated. His actions were conservative in this limited sense. In later years, however, the idea of Cavaillès as a historical character will come to be expressive of the desire that there be a prescriptive or revolutionary politics of Spinozism, or if not Spinozism per se, of rationalism and a commitment to formalism and logic that is at the very least inspired by Spinoza. Indeed, Cavaillès has been a touchstone for radical French thinkers from Althusser to Foucault to Badiou. In each instance, there is the intimation of a link between Cavaillès's philosophy, which, to be clear, was in no way a political theory, and his manifest heroism in the face of death. But even when Cavaillès is invoked, no political content is ascribed to his example. At best there is an allusive equivocation between Nazi forces of Occupation and the contemporary enemies of the political left. In other words, Cavaillès's Spinozist commitment to necessity merely gives the form of Resistance and the contours of tenacity. Yet, because Cavaillès was philosophically opposed to philosophies of consciousness, it is as if one might perform a logical deduction that then establishes the political superiority of a philosophy of the concept to the proliferation of subject-centered philosophies of meaning that followed upon the arrival of phenomenology in France.

The mobilization of Cavaillès's example against philosophies of consciousness is one of the main themes of Georges Canguilhem's Vie et mort de Jean Cavaillès, a short book that best illustrates the ambiguities of Cavaillès's legacy. First published in 1976, this volume is a collection of three commemorative talks Canguilhem gave in 1967, 1969, and 1974. Though its contents are primarily exercises in hagiography, they also advance a set of arguments. On each occasion, Canguilhem describes Cavaillès's increasing hostility to Husserl's philosophy and "its exorbitant use of the Cogito" in terms of a growing attachment to Spinozism. "It is because Spinoza's philosophy represents the most radical attempt at a philosophy without Cogito that it is so close to Cavaillès's." But Canguilhem goes much further and connects Cavaillès's affinity for Spinozist necessity to his political fate as a "Resistant by logic." "Cavaillès always read, studied, and one could say practiced Spinoza," Canguilhem writes. More suggestive still is Canguilhem's take on Simone Weil's misgivings over the fact that Cavaillès appeared "to have abolished the intellectual in himself" in favor of pure action. In Canguilhem's view, Cavaillès's severity was the result of philosophical rigor. His words and decisions were not those of a lapsed intellectual; they were those of "a Spinozist mathematician who conceived action under a certain aspect of universality, of nonsubjectivity, we might say." Speaking in 1969, Canguilhem refers to the contemporary "cries of indignation" on the part of those distressed to see that some "have formed the idea of a philosophy without a personal subject." Cavaillès's example evidently puts paid to the claims of other "intellectual resistants who talk about themselves so much because only they can talk about their Resistance, discreet as it was." "Jean Cavaillès, this is the logic of Resistance lived until death. Let the philosophers of existence and the person do as well next time if they can."

With conclusions like this, Canguilhem's commemorative efforts indulge something akin to the rationalist fanaticism that Kant feared. There is indeed a degree of violence in Canguilhem's description of Cavaillès as "a philosopher mathematician packed with explosives, a lucid temerity, and a resolution without optimism. If this is not a hero, what is?" Cavaillès's tenacity has "something terrifying" about it: "A philosopher terrorist, that's Cavaillès." To be sure, the rhetorical register of Canguilhem's speeches must be borne in mind. Even so, concurrent with his evocations of a Cavaillèsian Schwärmerei, there is, perhaps fittingly, also a case made for the universality of reason. Canguilhem cites Cavaillès's own description of Mein Kampf, which he read in Germany in 1934, as a pathetic exercise in "pseudo-philosophy." "As for myself," Canguilhem adds, "I prefer 'counter-philosophy' insofar as the principle of this systematization, which was improvised to achieve a kind of collective conditioning, consisted in hate and the absolute refusal of the universal." This view is further elaborated in another instance: "Nazism was unacceptable insofar as it was the negation, savage rather than scientific, of universality, insofar as it announced and sought the end of rational philosophy. The struggle against the unacceptable was thus ineluctable."

Canguilhem's remarks about the universality of reason against the historical advent of Nazism acquire a deeper sense when they are considered in light of the long-standing critique of Hegelianism that informed his own philosophical work. In a 1948 review of Jean Hyppolite's translation of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Canguilhem also makes reference to Cavaillès's fate. He considers the consequences if we were to read the defeat of France by Nazi forces in June 1940 as "the Judgment of the World" in the Hegelian sense. In this reading, Cavaillès's Resistance would then be understood as the refusal of this "Judgment." But, Canguilhem asks, were Cavaillès's refusal and ultimate death undertaken "in order to verify the Negativity of History or in order to overcome History with Reason?" It is clear that Canguilhem thinks in terms of the latter formula. If "History" might explain the advent of Nazism, just as it accounted for Napoleon's arrival in Jena, then what explains Cavaillès is the force of reason against history.

It is this subtle critique of "History" as a metaphysical and political warrant that gives Canguilhem's commemoration a peculiar twist. For even as he celebrates Cavaillès in no uncertain terms, he also limits the political lessons that might be taken from his example by refusing to tether Cavaillès's fate to anything other than a resistance to the historical negation of "reason." Canguilhem reads Cavaillès's comments on mathematics' relationship to physics in these terms. In Amersfoot in 1938, Cavaillès remarked: "Whatever the importance of physics' suggestions for the positing of new mathematical problems and the edification of new theories, the authentic development of mathematics under the accidents of history is oriented by an internal dialectic of notions." Canguilhem develops the implications of this downplaying of the "accidents of history" as follows:

Cavaillès thus refuses in advance the interpretation that Marxist philosophers of good will, and no doubt good faith, have wanted to give the last sentence of the posthumous text, Sur la logique et la théorie de la science, as if, by invoking a dialectic of concepts, Cavaillès had brought the water to the mill of this dialectic that makes all thought, including mathematics, arise from the sensible world. [...] According to Cavaillès, the development of a mathematical essence owes nothing to existence.

Although Canguilhem's assessment of the efforts of Althusser and his collaborators is questionable—after all, their goal was to move beyond the vulgar base to superstructure model invoked here—the point is clear enough. Reason is not in the service of History, and it is not History that accomplishes Reason's tasks for it. Much as Aron placed Cavaillès's Resistance "above" politics, Canguilhem places it "outside" history. The valorization of the universality of reason against its attempted historical negation by Nazism is Canguilhem's main polemic point. It is surely ludicrous, if not obscene, to suggest that there is a rational necessity that "elected" Cavaillès to resist and determined others to collaborate or perish. What Canguilhem aims to illustrate, however, is that reason cannot be reduced to a historical agenda. This suggests that it is irreducible to a political one as well, if politics is to be understood as a means for accomplishing goals attributed to History or any other external criterion that might bring the essential "water" to the "mill" of social existence. That there remains an air of elitism, if not "election," in Canguilhem's portrait of Cavaillès is in fact perfectly consistent with the latter's Spinozism. For Spinoza recognized that viewing existence "under the aspect of eternity," that is, not of history, was a difficult task. But "all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

Cavaillès's example, as digested and presented by Canguilhem, thus presents a host of problems, rather than solutions, concerning what the political and ethical implications of a Spinozist "philosophy of the concept" might in fact be. If the sources of the slogan within Cavaillès's work were narrow and technical, however, its broader significance for French philosophy becomes clear in a historical perspective. In Cavaillès's work, the sense of Spinozism transforms from an idiosyncratic feature of French neo-Kantianism to a key resource in the battle against phenomenology and its apparently solipsistic and irrationalist tendencies. Appreciating this historical development thus requires a grasp of Cavaillès's theoretical concerns and investments. In this regard, coming to terms with Cavaillès's Spinozist hostility to phenomenology in its original discursive context—a context that was thoroughly based in the philosophy of mathematics—allows us to develop an at once critical and historical perspective on others' attempts to mobilize his example for their own political ends, academic or otherwise.


Excerpted from Spinoza Contra Phenomenology by Knox Peden. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Knox Peden is an Australian Research Council Fellow in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University.

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