Keith Robinson’s introduction to the collection Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections, just published by Palgrave Macmillan, provides an excellent and much needed overview of the reception histories of these three thinkers. Robinson’s contextualization of them within the analytical and continental philosophical traditions makes clear why each has been marginalized or misunderstood to varying degrees in recent decades. Bergson had been extremely popular in the early years of the last century, but became almost a non-entity in the Anglo-American world until Deleuze revived him in the 1970s, while Whitehead, an acknowledged founding figure of twentieth-century analytical philosophy alongside Bertrand Russell, became an object of suspicion after his metaphysical ‘turn’ (represented in part by the mammoth Process and Reality).
Robinson argues that Russell played a key role in marginalizing both and, in the process, in reducing analytical philosophy to the logically and mathematically oriented philosophical style it has become. Deleuze, meanwhile, was welcomed as part of the wave of French poststructuralists and ‘postmodernists’ — not so much by Anglo-American philosophers as by social and cultural theorists — but, in the process, his thinking was misunderstood and caricatured as a form of psycho-political anarchism, and the nuanced thinking about science, time, metaphysics, life, organism, and all manner of other traditional philosophical themes was largely left aside.
Now, Robinson argues, as the distinction between the analytical and continental traditions is becoming increasingly irrelevant, with each caving in under the weight of its own limitations and of internal and external critiques, this threesome is finally being seen as representative of a process philosophical tradition that offers much-needed alternatives to some of the philosophical conundrums we’re facing (such as the mind-body problem, the relationship between philosophy and science/technology, life and the biopolitical, etc.). This shared focus on process — a term most closely associated with Whitehead, though it’s often taken by Whiteheadians in religious/theological directions that many would find less germane — is, according to Robinson, combined with a “methodological constructivism” that seeks to create concepts with which to think experience and life in novel ways.
Deleuze, of course, makes no bones about his debt to Bergson, and his many references to Whitehead are only now beginning to be threaded together to generate productive engagements between the two (e.g., recent work by Steven Shaviro, James Williams, Isabelle Stengers, Eric Alliez, et al.).
Robinson’s articulation of Deleuze’s cosmology, or “chaosmos,” is worth repeating: the chaosmos is “a self-organizing system that creatively advances through the immanent construction of its own generative principles” (p. 23). This sounds much like complexity theorist Stuart Kaufmann’s argument (which I’ve referred to before) in his recent Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion – see here and here and here for pieces and reviews of that. (Kaufmann was unaware of Deleuze when I spoke with him a couple of months ago.) I’m working on a conference paper, which I may share bits of here, comparing Kaufmann’s and William Connolly‘s recent writings about the secular and sacred with Canadian social philosopher Charles Taylor’s celebrated tome A Secular Age in terms of how the metaphysical underpinnings of each (Connolly’s and Kaufmann’s Spinozan immanentism versus Taylor’s Heideggerian Catholicism) lines up with divergent forms of politics and religiosity/spirituality.
Robinson’s volume is most reassuring for those of us working the fields of what might be called “new process-relational theory.” (That’s the umbrella term I’ve been favoring, though I intend it more broadly than some Whiteheadians seem to mean by it, hence the “new.”)