Deleuze, Judgment and French Philosophy: An interview with Henry Somers-Hall.

Create concepts! That was the task set to philosophers by the great French thinker Gilles Deleuze (1925-95). Deleuze himself embodied this vision of the philosopher as a creator of concepts and his work is replete with novel conceptual creations. There is no doubt that this conceptual creativity is part of Deleuze’s attraction and also a source of his difficulty as a thinker. Whether one finds oneself as a fan or critic, what is certainly true is that confronting Deleuze’s thought today is unavoidable. Philosophers, theologians, political theorists, historians, film theorists, the list goes on, are all engaging with and drawing from Deleuze’s rich output (whether these be the sole authored works like Difference and Repetition (1968) and Logic of Sense (1969) or the co-authored works with Guattari, such as Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980)).

Joining me to discuss Deleuze’s thought (and some related matters) is co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Deleuze (2012) Dr Henry Somers-Hall, Reader in Philosophy in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London. Somers-Hall is the author of two books. The first, Hegel, Deleuze and the Critique of Representation (2012) constitutes an important intervention in the debate surrounding Deleuze’s complicated relationship to the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). Both thinkers, Somers-Hall argues, attempt to overcome the problem of ‘judgment’ and move philosophical debate beyond ‘transcendental idealism’, the position of their great predecessor, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). This interest in the philosophical problem of judgment is a persistent one of Henry’s, evidenced by his current AHRC funded project entitled ‘Judgment in Twentieth Century French Thought’. Somers-Hall’s second book, Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide appeared in 2013 and represents a crucial step forward in studies of this most challenging of Deleuze’s works.

PT: Dr Somers-Hall, perhaps you could say a few words in answer to the question ‘why Deleuze?’ That is, what is it about his thought that attracted you to his work? And, why do you think that he has become so important in recent debates in the Humanities?

HSH: Thanks, Philip. I think the honest answer would be that I fell into working on Deleuze during my postgraduate studies at Warwick. During that time, there was a great community of graduate students working on a range of different philosophies, but there were some sharp connections between work on post-Kantian thought, and twentieth century French and German philosophy. We were interested in questions about the nature of determination, questions about grounds, and about how giving a real place to time in our understanding of the world might change the way we thought about it and lived within it. In this sense, Deleuze was one particularly interesting figure in the broader post-Kantian tradition, but he was really a way into thinking certain problems. I found the idea of returning to a transcendental philosophy particularly exciting, particularly one that sought to give a proper place to genesis, and to recognise aspects of experience that go beyond simple representations of the world. For instance, there’s a passage where Merleau-Ponty writes about the way in which the colour red is always experienced in a singular manner – the red of this carpet relies on the spatial configuration of the carpet in the room, and the play of shadows upon it, and similarly, the ‘woolliness’ of the material of the carpet imparts a particular nuance to its redness. All of these features aren’t accidents, but are integral to the redness of the carpet. In a sense, Deleuze’s project is to explain the constitution of this kind of singularity in experience while also explaining why we tend to forget this singularity and see red as a simple universal. This is a very worthwhile project, but one that I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about, since I was drawn to phenomenology from very early on in my study of philosophy, which rules out the kind of genetic account Deleuze wants to put forward. This non-representational aspect of Deleuze’s thought has been important in the humanities more generally, as it allows us to understand aspects of the world, and of texts, such as affect, and the play of forces, that are perhaps missing from other accounts. Deleuze’s own examples of his use of transcendental empiricism to explain artworks, in the Cinema books, for instance, have been genuinely exciting, and have allowed scholars to get past the linguistic turn and see these works in a new light. I think there’s also a negative aspect to Deleuze’s reception. There’s a great book called The Success of Bergson that deals with the way in which Bergson’s thought became taken up widely in non-philosophical communities, but that this reception in the end led to a general belief that Bergson’s thought was as lacking in rigour as some of its applications. I think there is a similar risk with Deleuze’s thought – that it’s popularity risks a neglect of its philosophical foundations.


PT: Your first book focused on Deleuze and Hegel. Deleuze is often thought of as anti-Hegelian. Is this a misunderstanding?

HSH: I don’t think so. There’s a lot of really good work showing the positive connections between Deleuze and Hegel, and I just examined an excellent PhD on the subject, but ultimately, I think there’s both a technical difference and a difference in mood between the two. On a technical level, Deleuze takes up Bergson’s (and Feuerbach’s) charge that Hegel begins with an abstract universal, and that one can never return to the concrete by combining universal determinations. His critique of Hegel is far more complex than that, and there are some important technical innovations in Deleuze that I think cannot be incorporated into Hegel’s system (I think there’s no place in Hegel for the kind of pure becoming we find in Deleuze, for instance: a becoming without objects that become, and relatedly, Hegel cannot include the concept of the virtual within the dialectic). There’s a difference in temperament between the two. Hegel tells us in the Phenomenology to just follow the development of sceptical common sense, and as it discovers inadequacies in the way it conceptualises the world, it will develop a more adequate conceptual scheme for understanding the world. For Deleuze, this simply amounts to tracing out the presuppositions that were already implicit in common sense. In effect, it gives us an image of common sense thinking, rather than an account of the world itself. For Deleuze, there’s a recognition that’s far closer to Kant’s dialectic, that thinking can go wrong on its own – that allowing thinking to trace out its presuppositions can lead to covering over experience rather than disclosing it. There’s also an important sense in which the encounter and the contingent are important for Deleuze that draws him far closer to Kierkegaard than to Hegel. There’s a rejection of methodological immanence in favour of ontological immanence. Ultimately, there is a sharp technical critique of Hegel in Deleuze’s thought, but also a feeling that the ‘good will’ of Hegelian thought may in fact not be so good after all.

PT: In your Hegel, Deleuze and the Critique of Representation (2012) you looked at Deleuze’s thought in terms of a broader tradition of post-Kantian thought in Europe. Do you think that approaching Deleuze in this way helps to better situate his thought? Is your early focus on the problem of ‘judgment’ revealing in this regard? Do you think that this approach sheds any light on Deleuze’s relationship to phenomenological thinkers?

HSH: I think in that book I was quite concerned with a common conception of thinking that sees it as attributing properties to things – making judgements about the world. The heart of that book is therefore several problems surrounding judging. On the one hand, seeing the world purely in terms of judgement seems to be very problematic. As Aristotle showed, being is not a genus, and as such, subsumptive judgement cannot understand the world as a totality without the introduction of analogy. There’s a further problem in the background, which is how we relate sense to judgement. For Hegel, one of the key functions of the dialectic is to determine the meaning of concepts by showing the (logical/dialectical) history of their development. Without understanding them in the system as a whole for Hegel, they lack meaning and become abstract. For Deleuze, sense is something non-representational that also cannot be understood in terms of judgement itself, but is something transcendental and different in kind from judgements. From one angle, therefore, that book was exploring the differences between two very different genetic accounts of the origin of sense in judgement. The question of what makes it possible for us to make a judgement is one that runs through the whole post-Kantian tradition, and you can see if you like Deleuze and Hegel as both correcting and expanding the account of genesis given in that short two page piece, On Judgement and Being, by Hölderlin. I think this is a very powerful way of reading Deleuze, but my aim in that book, as I say, was to use Deleuze to try to shed light on a philosophical problem. Focusing on the post-Kantian means that you downplay the Spinozist aspects of Deleuze’s thought, for instance, which are incredibly important. I don’t have a problem with that – there are plenty of people doing excellent work on Deleuze and Spinzoa that can be used as a corrective to my own reading.

The post-Kantian Deleuze does have relevance to understanding Deleuze’s relationship to phenomenology, certainly French phenomenology. I think French phenomenology is also preoccupied with German idealism and with its mistakes. Kant is in the background throughout the Phenomenology of Perception, for instance, as a figure who takes very seriously the non-conceptual nature of space and time, but also sets up a number of errors that place judgement at the centre of how we think the world. Sartre also takes up many of the structures of Hegel’s thought, particularly in relation to the problem of the other, but the fact that he sees these structures as developing through a contingent encounter with another, rather than immanently through the unfolding of reason, means that he ends up foreshadowing Deleuze in very interesting ways.


PT: Deleuze has sometimes been seen as an outsider in European philosophy. Another important ‘outsider’ figure, at least in the English speaking world, is Salomon Maimon (1753-1800). You were part of the team who prepared the first English translation of Maimon’s neglected Essay on Transcendental Philosophy for publication in 2010. Can you situate Maimon’s thought for us? What do you consider his main contribution to have been?

HSH: I’m afraid I always feel like a fraud talking about Maimon. I was involved in the translation of the book, but Nick Midgley and Alistair Welchman were the driving forces with that project. For me, it was a way of getting an understanding of a text that wasn’t available in English. We worked through it very carefully in putting together the translation, and I learnt a great deal from Alistair, Nick and Merton about translation and post-Kantian philosophy. Maimon introduces many themes that are central to later German idealism, such as developing a genetic transcendental philosophy, and incorporating pre-Kantian themes from Leibniz and Spinoza, but he’s unfortunately remained an interesting but marginal figure in my own philosophical development.

PT: In 2013 you published your Philosophical Guide to Difference and Repetition (1968). What motivated you to focus on that work?

HSH: Difference and Repetition is, I’d say, the most classically philosophical of Deleuze’s early works. For me, writing a page by page guide was something of an education. I see the text as presenting a rigorous, but allusive argument. Deleuze will frequently cite another philosopher at a key stage in his own argument, and without knowing what that other philosopher said, and how he argued for that conclusion, it’s impossible to assess the success of Deleuze’s own thought. There was something truly wonderful of chasing up all of these references, to Bergson and Kant, for instance, but also to forgotten mathematicians such as Bordas-Demoulin, and minor theorists such as Feuerbach. There’s also something very rigorous about writing a guide in that you have to explain what is happening on every page – you can’t simply skip sections that don’t fit with your own projects, as I did in the Hegel-Deleuze book, for instance. In this sense, writing the book was full of strange but wonderful encounters with areas of philosophy I hadn’t dealt with, or hadn’t seen enough value in to spend serious time on. You also have to take chances in your reading, and to try to make such a complex text accessible. It’s the text I’m proudest of, because while there are mistakes and missteps throughout, I think I succeeded in bringing a clarity to Deleuze’s thought, and at points, I felt I was really thinking and writing at the limits of my capacities as I brought everything together.

PT: Recently you have broadened your concern with philosophical problems focussed on the concept of ‘judgment’ to take in other contemporary French thinkers. Does a focus on the problem of judgment represent an important continuity in French philosophical thinking?

HSH: I think so – or rather, as I argue in my next book, what is key is recognising that thinking isn’t the same thing as judging. For Kant, loosely, I think it is, and much of twentieth century French thought is an attempt to escape from this equation while maintaining many of the central intuitions of post-Kantian thought. As I’ve been working through the book, I think the central thesis has become that what gives sense to the world has a structure that differs in kind from the structure of judgement. So behind spatial multiplicities, we find duration in Bergson, behind objective thought for Merleau-Ponty, we find perception, or behind scientia sexualis for Foucault, we find the ars erotica. There are exceptions, of course, and once again, the book is tied to a problem for me – namely, what gives meaning to the world, or what does it mean for something to be determined? I think these problems cut across distinctions between phenomenology and poststructuralism and give a continuity that can be obscured by taking other aspects as fundamental to either/both traditions. Once again, it’s about drawing a line through a field of philosophies that allows you to relate them to a particular problem. For me, that’s more important than whether it’s a completely adequate characterisation of a whole tradition, which isn’t even a possibility with just one line. It’s a question of bringing all of these great intuitions to bear on something that’s important to how we think and live. It has to be the right line, though, or else you lose the power of the philosophers you’re bringing together – you catch them too obliquely – and they no longer shed any light on the problems you’re dealing with.


PT: Finally, where do you see Deleuze studies going over the next few years? Is there a move to see Deleuze as less of an outsider in the pantheon of great French philosophers? Are there any new emerging trends that we should watch out for?

HSH: There’s a lot of very good work going on to elucidate Deleuze’s philosophical theories, and I think this will continue over the next few years. I think there’s a feeling in parts of the continental philosophy community that they want to move on from Deleuze, hence the interest in figures such as Laruelle and Badiou, and in movements such as speculative realism. Deleuze is also becoming a little sedimented, and perhaps some of the lines of flight he opened up are becoming effaced in some recent work. The scientistic readings of Deleuze, for instance, capture an aspect of his thought, but tend to reincorporate a concern for truth over learning that is somewhat antithetical to his own approach to philosophy. Personally, my own work is going backwards, and I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Kierkegaard. For me, Deleuze opens up questions of how we make sense of a world that is fundamentally temporal and incommensurable with our categories of (representational) thought. I think Deleuze’s Nietzscheanism threatens to resolve this incommensurability by positing a new post-human mode of thought. For me, however, problems of how to give meaning to experience, and how to live well have to be resolved in the here and now, and it’s Kierkegaard who offers the possibility of thinking and living through these problems sub specie humanitatis far more effectively than Nietzsche.


Dr Somers-Hall, thank you!

Thank you, Philip!


Henry Somers-Hall on Deleuze and Hegel.


Dr Somers-Hall’s website at Royal Holloway