Dear Diary, LF theory of action

You absorb more philosophy than you realize when you study math. Choices, commitments to specific philosophical doctrines, were collectively made long before our modern textbooks were written.

As I attempt a transition to social science research, I feel I should revisit some of these choices.

This document is a repository for reflections—basically diary entries—undertaken for the ultimate purpose of articulating a logic and an ontology suitable for the kind of social science I most want to do (Marxist conflict theory).

I don’t know where these reflections will lead. But where I’m starting from is a lifelong love for the writing of Deleuze, an anti-fascist philosopher (when he was young, under the Nazi occupation, his brother was arrested for resisting and died en route to a concentration camp) who I think ought to be more known for the insightfulness of his interpretations of other philosophers than what he is actually known for, at least among many Americans, which is being French and hard to understand sometimes.

I’m specifically starting with a set of pairings between Deleuze and other thinkers, each of which denotes an idea that is key for both.

I know where Deleuze ends up—with a promise of emancipation through revolutionary desire—but I don’t exactly know how he gets there, or if his reasoning can be replicated. We’ll see if I can follow him.

In the meantime, here’s the pairings I have in mind atm:

Nothing in this document has been peer reviewed. Just want to be clear about that.

Jan. 7, 2022—The bio in bio-power

La vie est l’ensemble des forces qui résistent à la mort.

Xavier Bichat, 18th century anatomist and pathologist

Jan. 22, 2022—Deleuzorussellian

Bertrand Russell, writing in the early 1940s, tells us in his History of Western Philosophy that “[t]he main purpose” of Henry James’s “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” is “to deny that the subject-object relation is fundamental.” He continues: “The distinction of mind and matter, […] and the traditional notion of ‘truth’, all need to be radically reconsidered”.

Turning from analysis to discussion, Russell shares that he came to be “persuaded”, after initially disagreeing, that “James is right on this matter”. (THOWP, 812)

Gilles Deleuze, writing about 25 years later, explains how Spinoza, in his view, rejects the logic of subject and object by replacing Cartesian axioms with a “new theory of distinctions” (EPS, 38). Deleuze’s interpretation of Spinoza’s ontology is centered on the notion of “participation” in a universal power to exist, act, and persevere in existence.

Is it possible to reconcile the schools of thought represented by James, Russell, Deleuze, and Spinoza?

In broad but technical terms: is it possible to articulate a useful set of first principles for ontology and logic derived from whatever is methodologically consistent across Anglo analytic philosophy, American pragmatism, French poststructural materialism (I’d include Foucault), and classical Western rationalism?

I believe it might be. And I believe such a set of first principles would be useful for Marxist social scientists.

I believe it would be useful because my sense is that contemporary Marxism lacks a clear and ethical theory of action. We need one, because such is the necessary foundation of any clear and ethical theory of conflict—which is everywhere a conflict between actors, whatever other impersonal forces, social facts, etc., may be at work.

In Hegel the goal of history is domination. (“[H]e says that America is the land of the future. […] He seems to think that everything important takes the form of war.” THOWP, 739)

In Lacan everything ends in misunderstanding. That’s not a promising basis for an ethical theory of action.

Lacan’s ambivalence toward the efficacy of action is exemplified by Zizek, whose real-world commitment to political action I mostly admire, although I don’t understand how to square such a commitment with his philosophy.

The ambivalence becomes downright paralytic in Derrida (in my opinion the most desolate of all the Big Name 20th century philosophers), who simply takes transcendental negation to its logical conclusions: the cancellation of all Creation and the foreclosure of all that which can be positive in self-expression.

We also see the foreclosure of the possibility for meaningful action in the thought of Zizek, who said in a recent ep of This Is Revolution that “trans people love [him]”, not in spite of his endorsement of a theory of universal castration (see e.g. TN on Lacan’s 4 formulae of sexuation, shown in figure below), but, he says, because of it.

(Zizek says he gets what trans people get. He understands the horror of socialized sexual differentiation, I would say, from my own perspective as a transfeminine reader who once spent way too much time meditating on his doctrine that there are two kinds of feminine and two kinds of masculine, all four of them unattainable actually, with this whole impossibilist sexological typology somehow being derivable from the Critique of Pure Reason plus Freud (TN). [Note added in 2024: as a means of self-understanding for trans people, this whole line of reasoning strikes me as terribly unhealthy, especially in comparison to the theory of sexuation Deleuze and Guattari give in Anti-Oedipus.])

In Hume we appear to lose even the illusion of telos when the distinction between subject and object is discarded: “I may venture to affirm […] that [a human being is] nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”

Russell approves: “the Self, except as a bundle of perceptions, cannot enter into any part of knowledge. This conclusion […] is important in the analysis of knowledge, since it shows that the category of subject and object is not fundamental.” (THOWP, 663)

But I do not perceive (as sensory input) the fact that exploitation of workers is unethical. I meaningfully understand (verstehe) it to be the case.

And no purely formal collection, whether of properties or perceptions or forms of another order, can emancipate itself. Solids of revolution don’t revolve themselves.

What exists only formally does not and cannot act.

Moreover, what cannot act cannot experience purpose.

The “bundle theorycan’t be the right definition of being human.

Citations. THOWP—B. Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (Simon & Schuster 1972, orig. publ. 1945, but: “I am writing in 1943”, 789n). EPS—G. Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (Zone 1990, orig. 1968=1943+25). TN—S. Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative (Duke 1998, orig. 1993=1968+25).

Jan. 22, 2022—Deleuzospinozan

We come into Being and discover there is something rather than nothing.

Why there is anything, science cannot presently explain, and may never be able to demonstrate.

What is there? What is the case? Material conditions, but there’s more to life than these. Thought, but there is more than thought.

[Definition:] We distinguish qualities of what is the case. When we say a circle exists, and we are asked in what sense it exists, our answer is such a quality. A circle exists in the mind or it is material, e.g. drawn in the sand.

No quality exhausts what is the case. Qualities are “positive forms” (EPS, 78): distinguishable formal attributes of Being’s self-expression.

We are ourselves finite expressions of Being. Qualities do not hang in the air. What is the case always expresses itself finitely as a necessary condition of existing at all. This fact is something we experience as human beings: part of being human is to know that one’s existence is bounded.

[Definition:] What is the case, conceived formally as that which has the power to exist, act, and persevere in existence, we call, following Spinoza approximately, Being-or-Nature.

Finite beings participate in the indeterminate natural power of Being to exist, act, and persevere in existence by existing, acting, and persevering in existence determinately as beings.

The variety of qualities (in Spinoza, attributes) of being and acting is unlimited (“infinite”, so to speak) in principle. In practice, we distinguish thought and matter. We hesitate to speculate that there are any other qualities of Being because we have no experience of them. But we have no evidence that the qualities of matter and thought exhaust the whole cosmos.

[Definition:] The collection of all those forces which resist death, we call life (Bichat).

[Definition:] The action of these forces—the actualization of an effort to exist, act, or persist in existence—we call desire (Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari) or conatus (Spinoza) when it is accompanied by an experience thereof. (Rocks, in my opinion, don’t desire. What experiences an effort to resist death, does.)

Let’s apply the Deleuzospinozan “logic of expression” to life. Life is what is expressed. It has at least two qualities of expression: it is expressed in a physical sense and in a mental sense. Its actual expressions are finite living beings.

As we follow Deleuze, who is following Spinoza, we notice that we have nowhere adopted a subject-object distinction, as in Aristotelian substance theory. Nor are we collapsing the individual to a formal collection of perceptions, as in Humean bundle theory or Kant’s version thereof.

Perhaps most pertinently for the 21st century Marxist, so far we have also done without Hegel’s most cherished principle, the “power of the negative”. Deleuze and Spinoza eschew it. Their alternative principle is “not opposed, but different,” non opposita sed diversa (EPS, 60).

I don’t think we’ve done an anthropocentrism yet, either.

We do not even know what a body is capable of, says Spinoza. That is: We do not even know what affections we are capable of, nor the extent of our power.

How could we [possibly] know this in advance? […]

We can know by reasoning that the power of action is the sole expression of our essence, the sole affirmation of our being affected. But this knowledge remains abstract. We do not know what this power is, nor how we may acquire or discover it.

And we will certainly never know this, if we do not concretely try to become active.

The Ethics closes with the following reminder: most [people] feel only when they are suffering something.

Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, Ch. 14, “What Can a Body Do?”

Jan. 29, 2022

Just picked up analytical Marxist G.A. Cohen’s History, Labour, and Freedom on a podcaster’s advice. Chapter 3 is titled, “Being, Consciousness, and Roles”.

If there is no novel utility in anything I’ve written here so far—if someone before me has worked all this out, and ended up in the same place I was trying to head to—then I should be delighted. That would be independent confirmation, without even the same axioms.

I’ve always preferred Continental to analytic philosophy. But here’s G.A. Cohen adopting methods from analytical philosophy and making the same kinds of retroductive inferences I’ve been trying to build toward: I want an ethical Marxist theory of action that can be stated in terms of Being, consciousness, and functional roles.

January 31, 2022

G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History, p. 260
op cit., 260n.

I agree that this is not the correct formal version of what appears in the text.

  • If “x hypothetically causes y” simply means “if the event x were to happen, then the event y would happen”, then this should be written in symbols as “xy” or “~(x∧~y)” (“it is not the case that when x happens, y fails to happen”).
  • The existential quantifier on x is baffling. For an event to “exist” can only mean that it occurs at some point in time. But both x and y are quantified as existing in the “hypothetical implication” ☐→. The statement “(x)( Ex at time t1 ☐→ (y)(Fy at time t2) )” says, “there exists an event x of type E such that if x occurs at time t1 then an event y of type F would occur at some later time t2 > t1.” What can the word “would” possibly mean here, given that x was already assumed (x) to actually have occurred?
  • I’m also surprised to see the relation between antecedent and consequent (the “unboxed connective”) referred to “natural law”. Is the latter phrase a placeholder for a concept Cohen intends to develop, or is Cohen assuming the relation of antecedent (a particular causal “law”) and consequent (the actual existence of an effect) to be a representation of “natural” ontological reality?

A correct formalization (taking into account the second note on p. 260, not reprinted here) is (writing t(e) = time at which an event e occurs, so that t-1(t0) = set of all events occurring at time t0):

I have more reading to do before I find out whether this is what Cohen actually means, but it seems to me this is what he’s saying: some event of type E happens because of the general “law” that whenever an event of type E happens, some event of type F happens simultaneously or subsequently (260n2).

Feb. 4, 2022

I want a theoretical explanation of why my politics are ethical.

It’s unreasonable to expect the people to embrace radical social change if we can’t explain how we’re not going to end up with gulags if we—say, end homelessness, through land reform maybe—in Marx’s name. It has been tried. It has failed. The history of radically democratic socialism contains no tales of enduring achievement except at the expense of certain of the project’s express aims. What makes us think it’s possible we can do better? We need to produce a satisfactory answer to that question.

My urgency comes from the fact that we don’t have another 150 years to figure it out. We’re at a real community-or-barbarism fork in the road at this moment in history. It feels to me like general awareness of this fact is becoming increasingly palpable.

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