Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Trouble with Continental Philosophy #2

Today’s example of objectionable Continental verbiage is taken from Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (tr. H. Tomlinson, 1983, first appeared in French in 1962). Before I begin, I want to say that this is a book worth reading. I read it fifteen years ago, and am re-reading parts of it now. A sympathetic reader will garner some insights from it despite the Continental slovenliness. On p. 2, we find:

[1] Genealogy means both the value of origin and the origin of values. [2] Genealogy is as opposed to absolute values as it is to relative or utilitarian ones. [3] Genealogy signifies the differential element of values from which their value itself derives. [4] Genealogy thus means origin or birth, but also difference or distance in the origin. [5] Genealogy means nobility and baseness, nobility and vulgarity, nobility and decadence in the origin.

Ad 1. Notice the superficially clever transposition. That’s typically French. The attempt to achieve a clever or showy style drives the thought. The French writer aims at literary effect first, and worries whether a coherent thought has been expressed only later, if at all. It is true that Nietzschean genealogy is concerned to uncover the origin of values. But the origin of values, as Deleuze himself says on the preceding page is in acts of evaluation which "are not values but ways of being, modes of existence, of those who judge and evaluate..." (p. 1) So the phrase "value of origin" comes close to contradicting Deleuze’s own point on the preceding page. But whether there is a contradiction or not, there is unclarity. In philosophy, however, "clarity is courtesy" as Ortega y Gasset says somewhere. And you will notice how these writers never give concrete examples or show how any of this is supposed to work in detail.

Ad 2. It is clear that genealogy is opposed to absolute values. But in his concern to be ‘radical’ and to say something ‘shocking,’ Deleuze exaggerates and says something that is incoherent, namely, that genealogy is opposed to relative values. This is false: if values derive from acts of evaluation that are modes of existence of the evaluators, and as such expressive of the nobility or baseness, health or sickness, etc., of these evaluators, then it is obvious that values are precisely relative to these evaluating beings. The equating of relative with utilitarian values is deeply obscure, probably confused, and the context doesn’t help.

Ad 3. This is not particularly clear, but one can figure what is meant, namely, that the difference between ascending and descending life, between noble and base modes of existence, etc., determines which values are posited.

Ad 4. The way these French writers use ‘means’ and ‘signifies’ is annoying and sloppy, but one sees what Deleuze is getting at. Strictly speaking there is nothing in the meaning of ‘genealogy’ to require any particular theory of genealogical derivation such as Nietzsche’s.

Ad 5. What a miserable sentence. Strictly speaking, ‘genealogy’ means no such thing. I often get the impression with French philosophers that they cannot decide whether they want to be philosophers or literary writers. Unable to commit themselves one way or the other, they evolve an unholy blend. There are exceptions of course such as Descartes and Sartre.