“The richness of Hyppolite’s book could then let us wonder this: can we not construct an ontology of difference which would not have to go up to contradiction, because contradiction would be less than difference and not more? Is not contradiction itself only the phenomenal and anthropological aspect of difference?” – Gilles Deleuze, Review of Jean Hyppolite’s Logique and Existence
It is no secret, for those who have the slightest familiarity with the work of Deleuze and Deleuzeans, that the notions of contradiction and negation, which cannot be easily extracted from their Hegelian hue, are treated with the greatest amount of suspicion. For the critics of Deleuze and his followers, to treat contradiction and negation as specious concepts amounts to committing oneself to a line of thought that cannot supersede immediacy, immanence, and a static conception of Being. The intention here is not to clear the air, once and for all, on Deleuze’s relationship to either Hegel or to the notions of contradiction and negation. Rather, the intention here is to attempt to elucidate the content of Deleuze’s statement, which serves as the guiding quote for this post.
So… in what sense, then, can Deleuze begin to imagine a philosophy that does not ground itself on notions of contradiction and negation? What would it mean, for thought and for politics, that contradiction and negation are merely the ‘phenomenal and anthropological aspects of difference’? One meaning of this claim takes us back to Spinoza – a shared point of convergence for both Hegel and Deleuze. For Hegel, to do philosophy one must be a Spinozist, for everything must begin with the thinker that has achieved the first logically sound, and conceptually robust, systematization of the Absolute. For Deleuze, one must be a Spinozist not simply because Spinoza thought the Absolute in the most rigorous and systematic formulation. Additionally, one must be a Spinozist because it is with Spinoza that we get the conceptualization of Being, or God, or Nature, that does not rely on contradiction or negation for its realization in thought. This is to say, with Spinoza, the Absolute is conceived in wholly positive/affirmative terms. Now, this is not to say that Spinoza has nothing to say regarding negation or contradiction. In terms of the latter, Yirmiyahu Yovel has shown quite rightly in his text Spinoza and Other Heretics, Vol. 2: The Adventures in Immanence, that Spinoza’s historical milieu within the Jewish Marano tradition in Amsterdam was an environment which took quite seriously the principle of non-contradiction. Within this context, where Spinoza was continuously working on the Ethics, it was taken as logical truth that no two entities could exist in the same time and the same place for it would amount to a ‘really existing contradiction’; not simply a contradiction in terms but a contradiction in being, conceived under the attribute of extension, itself.
However, where Spinoza explicitly speaks of negation, he subsumes this concept under the category of finite entities. That is, for Spinoza, finite entities (objects, animals, humans, etc.) are in some sense, a “negation” (a lesser instantiation of God, or a lesser degree of Being), of Being/God/Nature itself (EBKII). Thus, negation factors into Spinoza’s thought only to highlight that finite entities have a lesser degree of being than the Infinite itself (Totality/the Absolute). Finite entities are a negation of being, and this is meant to be taken logically. Finite entities (as it is with the Finite itself) are, by their nature, not-Being (the Infinite). Thus, with Spinoza we receive a conception of negation that connotes a difference in degrees of being. And here, we come back to Deleuze’s remark regarding the concept of negation as an inadequate concept in order to think difference-itself. Negation is a concept that corresponds to the actual instances of Being itself; that is to say, the phenomenal instantiations of God, or Nature. A thought which claims as its object of knowledge and inquiry Being, or Difference, in itself could not have recourse to the concept of Negation since it is only adequate to a degree of existence that is less than Being itself. Thus, insofar as negation is a correlate of the actual, negation remains inadequate as a logical category regarding Being/Difference-itself. Therefore, within Deleuze’s own framework, negation remains an inadequate concept to grasp the ontological standing of the virtual as such. It is for this reason, that negation remains trapped within the ‘phenomenal and anthropological’ aspects of difference, that Deleuze positions himself against the concepts of contradiction and negation. With this in mind, and looking toward Deleuze’s other relationships to figures from the history of philosophy, Deleuze’s distaste for negation and contradiction will obviously hold deep metaphysical and political implications for his reading of someone like Marx. For those interested in seeing how Deleuze’s framework of the actual and the virtual map onto his reading of Marx, Andrew over at Anarchist Without Content has been studiously working away at a concept of ‘virtual communism’ that builds off Deleuze’s own insights into the virtual itself. This essay will be something to look out for.