Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.50

Michael James Bennett, Deleuze and Greek Physics: The Image of Nature. Bloomsbury studies in ancient philosophy.   Bloomsbury; London:  Bloomsbury, 2017.  Pp. ix, 277.  ISBN 9781474284684.  $35.96 (pb).  ISBN 9781350099074.  ebook.  

Reviewed by Tim Flanagan, Murdoch University (


Rather than a simple conjunction which might relate two things, the titular ‘and’ from Michael Bennett’s Deleuze and Ancient Greek Physics could well serve as a reminder that any present-day undertaking to think philosophical antiquity is one to be regarded as ‘problematic’ in the sense detailed in the Critique of Pure Reason – that is, ultimately, as proposing something merely possible.1 In place of a more full-throated (that is to say, assertoric or apodeictic) claim, the title would thus seem to speak if not to the general condition of philosophy’s relation to its history (whatever this might be) then, given the image of Deleuze as a Continental soixante-huitard, at least to one of the “two immense problematics that innervate all philosophy today”;2 sure, why not, of course poststructuralism would try its hand at Greek thought. And yet, Bennett’s combination of Deleuze’s notoriously “idiosyncratic approach… with the rich philological, linguistic, and logical method of analytic history of philosophy” (1) not only avoids the strictures of chronology or methodology without sacrificing the rigour or insight of either, but in so doing demonstrates the philosophical (rather than just historical) significance of notions such as matter, motion, atoms, and bodies in antiquity. Indeed, in this way Bennett’s study provides us with a ‘perlocutionary’ example of what, according to Barbara Cassin, is involved in “simply continuing to philosophise”.3

Indeed as Bennett announces in his Introduction, ahead of further “discussion in detail in subsequent chapters” (4), it is important to understand that the ‘problematic’ has an ancient register in addition to its transcendental iteration; beyond (which is not the same as ‘outside’) the Kantian project, problēmata have a history which is to be thought, always to be thought, in critical relation to Aristotelian axiōmata (193) and theorēmata in Proclus’ reading of Euclid (184).

Proceeding through examinations on Plato (Chapter 1), Stoicism (Chapters 2-4), Aristotle (Chapters 5 & 6), and Epicureanism (Chapters 7-9), Bennett’s claim is that philosophical nous ‘is’ something epistemologically (or, noologically, or even, if not, mindful of the Kantian transcendental inflection of the ‘possibility’ of its discursive formation, ontologically) inseparable from the sheer phusis of ‘what’ there is. Accordingly, for Bennett, Deleuze’s reading of Greek physics yields an important stereoscopy of “the study of images of thought” together with “the study of images of nature” (256) – a “parataxis”, as described in the Conclusion’s grammatical rendering – involving Aristotelian AND Stoic AND Epicurean thought in such a way as to contest the (hypotactic) discrimination of ‘good copies’ (eikōnes) over ‘bad copies’ (eidōla) that figures all too readily in readings of Plato.

Importantly, however, as Bennett details in the chapter ‘Plato: Difference and Non-Being’, the familiar (post-Nietzschean) ‘reversal’ of Platonism is not some triumphalist modern hubris but rather something to be found in the dialogues’ author’s “having already untangled dialectics (the art of problems) from contradiction and difference from negation” (25). (“Thinking begins with the involuntary shock of encountering problems, what Plato called ‘provocatives’ (parakalounta)”, 24.) This can be seen, as Bennett shows, by the sense in which the Sophist reveals that ‘contrariety’ (enantiōsis) speaks to an all-too-veridical (grammatical, predicative) account of being that occludes or elides the sense in which there are likenesses (ontōs eikōn) regard-less of any actual thing (ontōs on) they might be said to putatively resemble. It is in this non-corresponding sense that, when discussing (254c) the Formal participation of things – as absolute (auta kath’hauta), rather than only relative (pros alla) principles (21) – the three “great kinds (megista genē)… change, rest and being (kinēsis, stasis, and to on)” (20) that are eventually proposed seem, in turn, to imply “the hypothesis that ‘the same or sameness’ (to tauton) and ‘the different’ or ‘difference’ (to heteron) are fourth and fifth great kinds (254e-255a)”. What interests Deleuze however, Bennett explains, and this is crucial, is the suggestion from the dialogue “that ‘that which is’ and ‘the different’ are identical, differing only in name (255c)” (21). According to Bennett, in so doing, Deleuze embraces the “apparent absurdity” whereby “‘some of the things that are different would be different without being different in relation to anything different’ (255d) – namely those things of which difference is said (auto kath’auto)” (21).

Having established the possibility or rather the ‘sense’ in which it is possible to speak about non-being, the three chapters on Stoicism consider how incorporeal lekta serve to ground ‘thoughts’ and ‘things’, propositions and bodies (Chapter 2: ‘Sense and Truth’); how this challenge to formal (onto-logical) structure does not propose a further, even more superior, ‘supreme genus’ but rather expresses an interstitial and indeterminate genetic element aliquid, or to ti (Chapter 3: ‘Surface and Paradox’); and how this in turn allows for a formulation of a quasi-causality that allows them “to affirm divergences as divergent, disjunctions as disjunctive, rather than treating them as conceptual contradictions” (107; Chapter 4: ‘Events and Fate’). Here, as elsewhere, Bennett incorporates not only commentaries on Deleuze’s work (in order to illustrate and critically evaluate the particular philosophical project undertaken there, consideration is given as much to the engagement with Russell, Frege, and Meinong as to Deleuze’s other historical studies, such as the book on Leibniz, and his own ‘signature’ concepts) but also scholarship on these received traditions of interpretation more broadly (for instance works by Graeser, Long, Sedley and, more recently, Caston). Moreover, the explication of these various themes and commentaries is undertaken through an attentive scholarship of their own – for instance, when Bennett points out that Deleuze moves beyond Bréhier, at in least in part, by misquoting him (62). The thoroughness of this critical explication is especially evident in the complex discussion from Chapter 5: ‘Analogy and Difference’, the first of the two chapters on Aristotle, where Bennett explains how – despite Aubenque’s assessment in Le problème de l’être chez Aristote (125) – “Deleuze’s construal of Aristotle seems to collapse a crucial distinction between homonymy and analogy” (117). But once again, Bennett is as much interested in the reasons for Deleuze’s reading as to how (or even whether) it happens to accord with other readings. Working alongside Christopher Shields’ Order in Multiplicity: Homonymy in the Philosophy of Aristotle (1999), a study which Bennett claims Deleuze anticipates, Bennett acknowledges that homonymy is indeed an approximation rather than an identity or unity, but that ultimately the account of difference it relies upon “is more like the relationship between different genera (heterotēs) than between different species within a genus (diaphora)” (139). While this is widely acknowledged in works on Deleuze, Bennett claims, “Deleuze’s reading of Aristotle is much trickier than most commentators perceive, and is, as it stands, not entirely successful” (139). The reason for this is that, although in developing his own account of univocity (which is key to the work on Spinoza) Deleuze’s criticism of Aristotle is that both the collective and distributive unity of being is relative, there is nonetheless something ontologically productive in this specific distribution so long as the differences are taken to be problematic rather than just negations.

This subtler and, if not more sympathetic then certainly altogether more erudite, reading of Aristotle by Deleuze is extended in Chapter 6 (‘Nature and Individuation’) where, Bennett examines the biological implications of such a metaphysics in accordance with the pioneering work of Gilbert Simondon and his influence on Deleuze’s project. For whereas Aristotelian hylomorphism would require that the individuals produced resemble the very grounds of their individuation – an all too generalised, or even specific, understanding of an already-constituted difference – Deleuze’s use of Simondon rejects this systems equilibrium where “potentiality is merely ancillary to actuality, an index of its imperfection… There is a difference intrinsic to being itself; difference is not simply the index of a fall away from, or negation of being” (163).

The final three chapters on Epicurean thought consolidate the account of problematics and difference as philosophically generative rather than limitative. Chapter 7 (‘Atoms and Minima’) does this through an examination of the manner in which “while atoms are physically indivisible they are not theoretically or conceptually indivisible” and how, as “elakhista or minima” (170), in this way they can be thought as having “a paradoxical, infinitesimal status, ambiguous between possessing and lacking the relevant extension” (176). This is further explored in the following chapter (‘Problematic Ideas and the Swerve’) where the Epicurean response to Aristotle is shown to inform certain post-Kantian readings of the mathematical calculus, via Maimon and Wronksi: “The argument is a transcendental one: if the universe were a totality (and either the number of atoms or the vastness of the void were infinite), then it would not be creative, but it is creative, so it can’t be a totality” (225). Key to this account, Bennett shows, is Deleuze’s focus “on the atomic swerve (parenklisis in Greek, clinamen in Latin) as a doctrine that clearly evinces how Epicureanism creates the right conditions for the intrinsic determination of the problematic idea independently of external constraints” (211). Once again, here Bennett draws simultaneously on the sophisticated reading of the broader history of ideas that informs Deleuze’s work and yet also, through sustained engagement with the classical scholarship, upon the intrinsic riches of philosophical antiquity traced in such a project. While many influential studies have been written on the former, this study is the first to do the latter and thus could be said to at once propose and complete a ‘genre’ of scholarship, a ‘minoritarian’ achievement, in Deleuze parlance. This is no more evident in Chapter 9 (‘Epicureanism and Stoicism: Chaos and Thought’) which consolidates and underlines the important role of Greek thought beyond Plato and Aristotle – especially for the way in which it provides for such terms such as the ‘virtual’ that are so quintessential to the literature on Deleuze, in his own right, or in his collaborative work with Felix Guattari.

A possible objection to Bennett’s stereoscopic focus on Deleuze and Greek physics is that it induces a strabismus of sorts, that either its metaphysics is too physical or its physics too metaphysical. A corrective to this would be to be reminded – indeed, that is, to recall – that there is a concertedly Proustian element to Deleuze’s own ‘reversal’ of Platonism, one in which, as he set out in an early study, the philos for truth, as inaugurated in classical Greece, is to be understood as proceeding by way of signs. “Physics supposes an objective and unambiguous matter subject to the conditions of the world... We are not physicists or metaphysicians; we must be Egyptologists.”4


1.   Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith, (London: Palgrave, 2007), A74/5 B100.
2.   Barbara Cassin, Nos Grecs at leurs modernes, (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1992), 11 [my translation].
3.   Ibid, 12. More recently, citing Jean-François Lyotard and his own interest in Greek thought, Cassin has described the sense in which “the perlocutionary in turn joins up with logological performance of the sophistic kind”: Sophistical Practice: Toward a Consistent Relativism (New York: Fordham University Press), 210. See too her description there of her earlier L’effet sophistique (1995) as “a book of ‘pure philosophy’ (in the way we talk of ‘pure science’), about Greek philosophy and its relation to the contemporary world”, 240. For a critical engagement with logology, see Alain Badiou’s (1986) essay ‘Logology Against Ontology’, reprinted in the collection The Adventure of French Philosophy, translated by Bruno Bosteels (Verso London: Verso 2012), 309-20.
4.   “Everything is implicated, everything is complicated, everything is sign, meaning, essence”, Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs, translated by Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 92. For an alternative perspective, see Anna Marmodoro’s work, especially her Everything in Everything: Anaxagoras’s Metaphysics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and the discussion there of Anjum, Mumford, and Scaltsas.

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