Deleuze, Spinoza and Univocity

How quickly I break my word. After a couple good conversations over the weekend on this topic, I’m going to break my promise to write something about either Brandom or Badiou, and I’m going to make a few points about Deleuze. I’ve been making several of these points for a while, but do not officially work on Deleuze anymore, so this is a good excuse to write down something I otherwise wouldn’t.

The first point to make is that a lot of people get confused by what Deleuze means when he espouses the univocity of Being. He is not himself always clear about it, and as I hope to show in brief, some of the more important and salient features of it are not explicit at all. Indeed, I think if we get over confusions about precisely what the principle of univocity is, we can see how it is not just an aspect of Deleuze’s ontology, but rather the core aspect which motivates many of the other decisions he takes in building his system.

Confusion No. 1: The principle of univocity is the same in Duns Scotus, Spinoza, and Deleuze.

It might seem that this is at least Deleuze’s opinion from the sections on univocity in Difference and Repetition (D&R). Here he heaps much praise on both Duns Scotus and Spinoza. Although he does criticise them, for keeping Being neutral and not ‘making substance turn around the modes’, respectively, neither of these criticisms seems to have direct relevance to the principle of univocity itself.

The principle of univocity can be stated thus, that Being is said in the same way of all beings. If we take this to be all there is to univocity, then it is indeed the case that it is common to Scotus, Spinoza and Deleuze, but the principal is more complicated than this.

In its Scotian form, the principle is meant to take a stance on whether what is predicated of God is predicated in the same way that it is predicated of his creatures. The classical (equivocal) position answered in the negative, taking the claims such as ‘God is wise’ to be only analogous to claims such as ‘Bob is wise’. The equivocal conception solved a scholastic theological problem quite neatly, in that it reconciled God’s complete transcendence and unknowability, with the possibility of us nonetheless speaking about God. Duns Scotus was radical insofar as he rejected this easy solution. Leaving the theological issues aside, the salient point about this notion of univocity is that it is fundamentally a univocity of predication.

In his big book on Spinoza, Spinoza and the Problem of Expression (considered by many, including myself, to be a companion volume to D&R), Deleuze interprets the principle of univocity as a central theme of Spinoza’s Ethics. His account is quite convincing, and it is usually taken as further justification for reading Deleuze as a kind of modern day Spinoza. I think there is something to this thought, but we miss the precise point at which Deleuze breaks with Spinoza if we fail to see where his conception of univocity goes beyond Spinoza’s own.

Deleuze thinks that the univocity of Being in Spinoza (which forms a trio with the univocity of production and the univocity of knowing) is a univocity of attributes. It is the fact that the attributes are said in the same way of substance and modes which constitutes Spinoza’s equivalent of the Scotian univocity of predication. This is far from identical to Scotian principle, as not all predicates are attributes (in fact, most aren’t), but this isn’t significant for our purposes.

The crucial point to recognise is that both the Scotian and Spinozan forms of univocity are fundamentally onto-theological. In both cases, God is a being, and indeed, if God were not a being there would not be the problem of a univocity of Being between God and his creatures. The positions are onto-theological insofar as the understand of the Being of beings is then indexed to a particular being, namely God.

I won’t discuss Duns Scotus in depth, because I’m not an expert on scholastic philosophy, but I will say something more about Spinoza. I’ve had this discussion with a number of people who deny the last move in relation to Spinoza (Stephen Houlgate is a notable advocate of this position). They claim that for Spinoza, God is Being, but not a being, and that in effect ‘being’ is synonymous with ‘mode’. I can see why one would want to say this, because when one looks at Spinoza’s metaphysics it almost looks as if he has taken on board the ontological difference (that Being is not a being). The reason for this is that everything that we would ordinarily think of as a being is accounted for as a mode. Indeed, Spinoza’s account of modal being is beautiful. It’s totally non-substantial, fully mereological, deterministic, anti-teleological. These are all features that Deleuze himself tries to reproduce in his own metaphysics (providing more warrant for the claim that he is a modern day Spinoza). On the other hand, Substance/God is so unlike modes (it causes itself, it necessarily exists, it is infinite and unlimited, it is atemporal, etc.) that it is easy to make the leap to thinking of it as not a being in any sense.

However, I can think of at least three separate reasons that undermine this interpretation.

1) As already noted, a univocity of Being (in the sense of predication) between Substance and modes would be irrelevant if Substance was not a being. One can reject this only if one rejects Deleuze’s interpretation of Spinoza and his emphasis on univocity.

2) In his definition of Substance and modes, Spinoza distinguishes between them as those things which exist in themselves (or are caused by themselves), and those things which exist through other things (or are caused by other things), respectively. Here, it is the ‘those things’ which is important, because it indicates a more general notion of being which is shared between substance and modes. Indeed, there is a (at least initially) common notion of existence deployed for both Substance and modes in the arguments of the 1st book of the Ethics.

3) Besides existence, there are other generic notions used to discuss both Substance and modes in similar terms. Causation is an important one, although this might be overlooked insofar as it is broken into immanent (Substance to modes) and efficient (modes to modes) varieties. However, notions like essence and idea are far more important. Indisputably, Spinoza takes Substance to have an essence and to have an idea. Indeed that substance has an essence which is expressed is a crucial part of Deleuze’s demonstration of univocity in Spinoza (leading back to reason 1). Moreover, even if God is not thinkable in full, there is nonetheless an idea of God. The intelligibility of Substance and modes is thought in the same the terms (this is what Deleuze calls the univocity of knowing).

So in what sense does Deleuze’s principle of univocity move beyond that of Spinoza? You have obviously gathered that it must consist in its somehow avoiding onto-theology. The question is how does it do this? He does it by moving from the weaker principle of a univocity of predication, to the stronger principle of a univocity of existence.

As I noted above, the notion of existence is at least prima facie the same between Substance and modes at the beginning of the Ethics. However, it is revealed to be a properly equivocal notion in Spinoza’s metaphysics. This is implicit in Deleuze’s interpretation, as he explicitly discusses the nature of Modal Existence (Chapter 13) as distinct from the existence of substance.

A univocal conception of existence precludes the positing of two fundamentally different kinds of being (e.g. Substance and modes, Creator and Creatures, or even Dasein and non-Dasein). This nips onto-theology in the bud, because for Being itself to be understood in terms of a particular being (God), or indeed a particular kind of being (Dasein), gives an ontological privilege to that kind of being which is incompatible with a univocal conception of existence. Indeed, this strong form of univocity necessitates adherence to the ontological difference: Being cannot be a being without being said in a different way of itself than of other beings.

The thesis that comes out of diffusing this confusion is that if Deleuze is to be seen as a modern day Spinoza, he should be seen as Spinoza post-Heidegger. He has attempted to create a Spinozan metaphysics which respects the ontological difference. There is more that could be said about this, most especially with regard to Deleuze’s embrace of metaphysics post-Heidegger, and what the significance of this is. That will have to wait for another time however.

Substance turns round the modes when it ceases to be a being, ceases to have an essence, ceases to cause beings, and ceases to have a corresponding idea, i.e., when it ceases to be understood in terms of its intelligibility on analogy with that of beings.

Confusion No. 2: That Deleuze’s adherence to the principle of univocity is equivalent to his monism.

This is a fairly crude interpretation that seems to be inspired by (though I’m not sure if its necessarily endorsed by) Badiou. It seems to take the claim that Being-is-Univocal to be equivalent to the claim that Being-is-One.

This just seems false. It arguable that someone like Badiou himself espouses a strongly univocal conception of Being. Whether his ontology meets the constraints such a conception implies is another matter, but it seems fair to say that prima facie, one can have univocity and deny monism.

However, I do believe that Deleuze’s monism is motivated by his commitment to univocity. If this is true, and Deleuze is right, this would mean that in fact if one is committed to strong univocity then one just is committed to monism. However, the entailment here is most certainly not prima facie equivalence.

Now, Deleuze’s argument from univocity to monism is not entirely explicit, and to reconstruct something like a viable argument in this direction is one of the points of my PhD thesis (one which is further off towards the end of it). As such, I won’t attempt to do so here. However, to do so properly requires adequately specifying what Deleuze’s monism consists in.

What is interesting about the above way of differentiating Deleuze from Spinoza is that it actually gives us a crucial way of thinking about how Deleuze’s monism differs from Spinoza’s. This is the fact that there for Deleuze there can be no idea of God, no essence of Substance. This is where I find Peter Hallward’s proclamation that Deleuze, like Hegel, is a thinker of ‘Absolute Idea’, totally laughable. If one understands Deleuze’s radical commitment to univocity one understands that his monism is totally unlike that of Spinoza and Hegel.

Exactly what the positive significance of this is I will leave for another post. However, I will drop a hint:-

Deleuze’s monism is significant for its attempt to reconcile Spinozistic determinism (along with the other Spinozan metaphysical desiderata mentioned earlier) with the absence of an intelligible content of Substance. To put it in another way, to reconcile complete determinism, and a commitment to the principle of sufficient reason, with in-principle unknowability of the whole of efficient causation, and the inexhaustability of reasons.

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

7 thoughts on “Deleuze, Spinoza and Univocity”

  1. De: “The thesis that comes out of diffusing this confusion is that if Deleuze is to be seen as a modern day Spinoza, he should be seen as Spinoza post-Heidegger. He has attempted to create a Spinozan metaphysics which respects the ontological difference.”

    Kvond: I would be interested in understanding why this would be qualified as post-Heideggerian, instead of pre-Heideggerian (or a-Heideggerian) in the sense that it evades the primary problematic of Being that Heidegger poses out of the Phenonmenological, really Cartesian tradition. It seems to me that it is precisely in Deleuze’s embrace of Spinoza that he evades Heidegger altogether, cutting him off at the root, where the very question of Non-Being becomes unthinkable. If anything it is Spinoza’s plenitude, his refusal of lack and non-Being that Deleuze appraises of great worth.

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