Deleuze and Normativity

By Jun, Nathan | Philosophy Today, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Deleuze and Normativity


Jun, Nathan, Philosophy Today


Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany systematically dismantled German democracy, violated international law, and perpetrated countless horrific crimes against humanity - chief among them the extermination of ten million people, approximately six million of whom were Jews. Between 1948 and 1994, Nelson Mandela and other activists engaged in a bloody but ultimately successful battle against the racist government of South Africa in an effort to abolish apartheid. Most people would regard the actions of the Nazis as morally reprehensible and the actions of the anti-apartheid freedom fighters as morally praiseworthy. Although both used violence in the pursuit of political ends, only the latter were allegedly morally justified in doing so. Why is this the case? On what grounds do we morally condemn the Nazis but morally praise the freedom fighters?

These and similar questions are questions about political normativity - the moral criteria by which we judge the actions, policies, and, in some instances, the very existence of political entities. Politico-normative criteria often involve moral concepts such as justice, rights, and equality which, though related to other moral concepts such as the right and the good, apply specifically to political entities rather than individual persons. The overarching concern of political normativity, therefore, is: how ought political institutions to conduct themselves? This includes internal questions (e.g., what laws, policies, or principles ought states to implement?) as well as external questions (e.g., how ought states to act with regard to other states?).

Theories of political normativity often attempt to provide answers to the sorts of questions mentioned above in terms of justice, which is without a doubt the preeminent value of modern political philosophy. Generally speaking, a state is regarded as "just" if it implements just laws, policies, and social norms and acts justly toward its own citizens as well as those of other states. But this merely begs a further question, one that lies at the heart of the Western political tradition, namely, what is justice? Answers to this question are, of course, many and varied, but all of them take for granted that justice is the fundamental value in determining how political entities ought to conduct their affairs.

Although this approach to political philosophy is hardly new (Plato and Aristotle, not to speak of countless other ancients, were all preoccupied with questions of justice),1 it did not "come of age," as it were, until the Enlightenment. For thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, normativity (both moral and political) was inexorably connected to related liberal concepts such as universal rationality and autonomous subjectivity. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, such concepts fell prey to severe criticisms by the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Since that time, postmodern philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze have pushed these criticisms to their limit, completely jettisoning the ontological, epistemological, and moral presuppositions upon which much of Enlightenment thought is founded.

At the same time, it is clear that Deleuze - both in his work as a philosopher and as a political activist - believed that certain political institutions are to be recommended and others rejected.2 How is this possible given Deleuze's wholesale rejection of Enlightenment concepts such as justice, autonomy, and transcendental normativity? In this essay, my aim is to provide an answer to this question by exploring Deleuze's political philosophy. As I shall argue, although Deleuze rejects certain conceptions of normativity - most importantly the transcendental and universalizable normativity underlying liberal thought - he does not reject normativity tout court. Rather, he formulates an entirely new concept of normativity which is categorical without being transcendental - in other words, an immanent conception of normativity. …

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