Substance, Monism, Dualism

A quick note about Deleuze’s Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, which I read through a couple of weeks ago. I found most helpful the difference that Deleuze makes between “real” (substantive) distinctions versus “modal” distinctions. As I read him, the principle upshot for him is that “real distinctions” can’t be numerical. This sets “difference” within what Deleuze called the univocity of being.

I’m not sure I’ve quite thought through the mingling of dualism and monism in Deleuze’s thought. My sense is that it’s “complex.”

My starting thought about monism would be to say that if I’m not going to wed myself in the first place to a notion of substance (or in contemporary physics to the search for a theory of everything based on one fundamental element –am I getting this right??), then I don’t see any reason to be predisposed against numerical distinction (dualism). Without substance, all we get is modal distinction and difference. Turtles all the way down. On the other hand, it might be more correct to say that it’s “turtles all the way down a single, virtual plane of immanence.” It’s here that Deleuzian thought turns metaphysical (as pointed out in the afterword to the book on Bergson).

However, I will say with some confidence that I am not persuaded by the by-now-old argument made by Deleuze in the Spinoza book that immanence has a monopoly on political equality. This is the argument according to which dualism is enmeshed in the violence and hierarchies it generates. One could argue otherwise. Perhaps dualistic systems are better able to account for the stubborn opposition between things.

Consider the dualisms at work in rabbinic literatures –the foundational distinction between God and human persons.

It is not my intention in any way to claim that the world of the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud is anything but politically illiberal. How could it have been otherwise? But theologically, what I find most interesting is the constant inversion of the polarity between God and privileged human actors (the rabbis, Israel). The line of dependence is not one way. To be sure the human being is forced to depend upon God in this way and that way. But the most telling action in the system is when God is shown, davka, to depend upon the human deed. (For a quick modern expression of this thought, see the Buber’s early address on Jewish religiosity, since published in On Judaism.)

At least as I read them, the Babylonian rabbis seem to have been much less threatened by God or by a notion of separate substance than they are by other human beings. At any rate, I don’t see how monism solves the problem of modal violence. According to Jan Assmann and other critics, it’s monotheism that is the uniquely violent social-religious form. This claim too is overstated. I think religion and politics is fundamentally disjointed  –both connected at the hip but also out of joint. Or perhaps the relation is “virtual.” In the case of monism, the univocity of being can lend itself to a democratic ethos. It can just as well mean that I don’t have to pay attention to human difference.

But I’m not really sure that Deleuze is a monist after all. About this I’ll post tomorrow.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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