Monday, September 20, 2004

From the Mail: Deleuze and Relativism

Dr. Vallicella,
I just have a minute, but I wanted to run something by you in regard to your post on Deleuze (Ad.2.) You claim that it is false that genealogy is opposed to relative values. I don't think things are so clear cut. Certainly, Deleuze and company's (Derrida, Foucault, etc.) rejection of any a priori account of subjectivity or human nature undermines moral absolutes. On this basis it is often said that Deleuze and company advocate relativism. But, I don't think it is as simple as this. Relativism, it seems to me, presupposes an a priori account of the individual/human nature, doesn't it?

BV: Why does relativism presuppose this? We are talking about axiological or value relativism. The value relativist rejects the notion that values are absolute, holding instead that they are relative to some parameter X, where X might be an individual person, or a society, or a class within a society (the proletariat, the bourgeoisie), or an historical epoch, or a species of animal, etc. Why should this presuppose any account of human nature? Even if there is no fixed human nature, values could be relative to acts of human valuation.

It's worth noting that 'a priori' is an epistemological term. So an a priori account of human nature would be one knowable a priori. The ontology of humans, however, could be such that they have an essential structure, but one that was knowable only a posteriori. If I know that p a posteriori, it doesn't follow that p is only contingently the case.

As I understand it, relativism typically presupposes a kind of atomistic individualism of the sort associated with contemporary liberal political theory.

BV: Why should it? It would if the relativist said that values are relative to the individual -- but that is only one kind of value relativism. Values could be relative to the social substance of which the individual is a mere accident, and thus not an independently existing 'atom.'

If Deleuze rejects any a priori or static account of human nature, then it follows that he rejects the atomistic conception of the individual presupposed by relativism.

BV: I think this is a non sequitur. If someone rejects a static account of human nature, he could still hold an atomistic conception of the individual: he could say that, at ontological bottom, what we have are individual 'atoms' whose nature is malleable.

Thus, genealogy is opposed to the relativity of values. Genealogy aims to undermine the very presuppositions that underlie the relativism/absolutism debate itself. Do you think this is a plausible reading of what Deleuze is up to?

BV: I'm none too clear about what Deleuze is up to -- and that is part of my criticism of him and his Continental colleagues. The important question, however, is whether or not Nietzschean genealogy is, or implies, a species of value relativism. To me it is obvious that it is and does. Values are relative to quanta of ascending or descending life-force. Obviously, for N. there is no substantial self, no soul, no I or ego substantially construed. In Pali Buddhist terms, he is promoting anattavada. (Although of course N. rejects Buddhism as nihilistic and decadent.) So if you took value relativism to be identical to relativism of values to individuals construed as metaphysical substances, then N. would not be a relativist. But as I have already shown, relativism about values cannot be so identified.

Continental philosophers, especially the French, are out to supersede all the old dualisms. They get this urge from Heidegger. Unfortunately, it is always more rhetorical gesture than actual demonstration. Taking their cue from Heidegger, Continental philosophers are always out to 'overcome' - ueberwinden, Ueberwindung, die Ueberwindung der Metaphysik, usw. -- something, whether a traditional distinction or their predecessors, or all previous overcomings. As for the relativism/absolutism opposition, I do not see that anyone yet has 'overcome' it.

Best, Chris Blakley

Thanks for writing -- and for reading.