Book Review: Cosmogenesi dell’esperienza. Il campo trascendentale impersonale da Bergson a Deleuze, Giulio Piatti, 2021

Francesco Pugliaro, KU Leuven, Belgium / FWO

Cosmogenesi dell’esperienza. Il campo trascendentale impersonale da Bergson a Deleuze (“Cosmogenesis of Experience. The Impersonal Transcendental Field from Bergson to Deleuze”), written by Giulio Piatti, is the fifth book published by Mimesis as part of the Canone minore series, directed by Rocco Ronchi, for which Piatti had already edited the first Italian translation of Jean Wahl’s seminal work, Vers le concret [1]. In the book Piatti stages a complex scene, by moving multiple authors and concepts in and out of the frame in order to map the migrations of an idea, and to measure its effects on 20th century philosophy, from Bergson to Deleuze (via Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Hyppolite, Ruyer, Simondon). It is the idea of an impersonal transcendental field, which – as Ronchi brightly suggests in the Preface – “does not belong to the history but to the chemistry of philosophical thought” (p. 9), as a recurring factor in the processes of composition of modern philosophies. In the strictest sense, the idea refers to the effort to understand experience beyond any exclusively anthropological framework, by regressing to a field of existence in which the subject (and its relation to the world) emerges as an internal effect, as “one of the many vicissitudes of the world” (p. 145). Piatti’s book reconstructs a vast conceptual environment – at the intersection of an investigation of experience, a redefinition of the transcendental gesture, and a meditation on nature – and this is exactly where its strength lies. It does not treat the notion of impersonal transcendental field as a unitary (and hyper-technical) concept, to be examined in a comparative study of different authors, but rather as a shared insistence: to seize experience at its root, along the lines of development of a plural universe.

The book is divided into three parts, each sketching a specific progression. The first part (Beyond the Human Turn. Henri Bergson’s Cosmology, pp. 31-122) reconstructs the development of Bergson’s thought, focusing on three moments: the definition of a field of images at the root of subjectivity in Matière et mémoire, further integrated in a broader metaphysics of duration, the study of the evolutionary process of nature in L’Évolution créatrice, and the analysis of technology and human societies in Les Deux sources. Much attention is devoted to Bergson’s intuitive method, operating by “successive enlargements”, which Piatti studies in a key section of the book (pp. 73-85). The author’s initial aim, following Victor Goldschmidt’s reading of Bergson [2], is to show that there is a single theoretical device at work in Matière et mémoire, aimed at displaying the genesis of experience, which could be characterized as transcendental and impersonal. First, in order to explain the mechanism of perception, Bergson poses the existence of a material system of images, “in which the subject appears as a successive rotation” (p. 32). Then, in order to account for the functions of memory, he develops the idea of an integral conservation of the past, in a virtual dimension acting on the present through various modes of actualization. In both cases, the elements discovered (imperceptive images, virtual past) act as “transcendental operators” (p. 45) accounting for the emergence of individual perceptions and memories, and point toward a field of experience preceding its human “turn”. The status of this field is clarified at the end of Matière et mémoire, where – as Piatti shows – the notions of image and virtuality undergo a “partial redefinition” (p. 62), as the framework shifts toward a larger cosmological investigation. Virtuality is freed from the exclusive reference to conscious life to become a factor acting, in varying degrees, in every aspect of reality. As a result, the system of images previously outlined in the context of a theory of perception becomes a full-fledged “cosmogenetic field” (p. 282), accompanying and encompassing every process of actualization, from matter to the human sphere.

 

According to Piatti, L’Évolution créatrice can be seen as a further exploration of this field, pursued on an explicitly “cosmomorphic” level [3]: “If the field in which reality is distributed is impersonal, i.e. no longer internal to the conditions of a subject, we must now determine the way in which, starting from the field, reality constitutes itself, and what its different forms are” (p. 86). In other words, it is now necessary to truly place ourselves within the processuality of this field, to determine its lines of evolution, to outline the concrete ways in which beings form and distribute themselves. At the same time, it is a matter of providing a scheme of this process, an elementary trace of the movement which runs through the field like a “current” (p. 92), actualizing itself through different lines (material, organic, psychical, anthropological). It is this scheme (élan vital) that brings true unity to the field: not a unity of nature, which would amount to dissolving its internal differences in an undifferentiated whole, but a unity of development or formation, capable of articulating its multiple ramifications. We thus reach the core of Piatti’s book. What is at stake in Bergson’s work is a rehabilitation of speculative cosmology, beyond the delimitation of philosophical inquiry to the horizon of human finitude (p. 28). It is not however a question of returning to unspoiled nature, finally detached from our relation to it, but rather of multiplying our relations to the world (psycho-physical, vital, social, scientific, technological), of enlarging the plane of experience to a “maximum of connections” [4].

 

The second part of the book (Intercessors. Conceptual History of a Legacy, pp. 123-178) traces the transformations of Bergsonism in the decades leading to Deleuze’s work. A specific chapter of this story – connecting Sartre’s Transcendance de l’Ego (1936) to Bento Prado’s Présence et champ transcendantal (1964) – is traversed by a series of discussions on Matière et mémoire, which center around the idea of a subjectless transcendental field (p. 143). The true “inventor” of the term is Sartre, who introduces it in order to highlight the transformative power of Husserl’s notion of consciousness, provided that it is stripped of its egological structure. The Ego, he writes, “appears against the background of a unity that it has not contributed to creating” (La Transcendance de l’Ego, quoted at p. 145), as an opacity introduced within an impersonal and translucent field of consciousness. Sartre disavows the Bergsonian heritage of this idea, despite its “extraordinary similarities” (p. 146) to Bergson’s field of images, and rather develops it in opposition to him. It is interesting to follow Piatti’s analyses of L’Imagination (pp. 147-149), where Sartre’s arguments against Bergson, accused of not grasping the specificity of consciousness as relation to the world, appear as a critique of his own position in La Transcendance de l’Ego. Merleau-Ponty’s dialogue with Bergson is more layered, and filters since the beginning his appropriation of phenomenology. Bergson’s effort to seize experience at its source, in a universe “so full that it seems to envelop” our perception of it (Le Visible et l’invisible, quoted at p. 152), gradually appears to him as the true aim of phenomenology. What captivates Piatti’s attention in this story is that it reveals the “uneasiness” (p. 154) of this generation of philosophers toward the phenomenological perspective that they were introducing in France, due to its perceived subjectivism, which needed to be mitigated and retranslated to other terms. Bergson’s ideas, however often misrepresented or silenced, appear at every turn of this process. This is clear in Hyppolite’s speech at the 1957 Royaumont Congress on Husserl, where he stresses the need to retrace the genesis of intentionality from a “subjectless transcendental field”, in itself prior to any openness to the world, linking this idea to Fichte and in later works to Bergson (Discussion de la présentation de R. P. Van Breda, quoted at p. 155). Piatti skillfully reconstructs part of this (still relevant) debate – caught between a refoundation of phenomenology and a clear-cut exit from it –, highlighting above all the line that connects Hyppolite to Goldschmidt and Prado, who explicitly address the notion of impersonal field “as a Bergsonian invention” (p. 156), rooted in a specific cosmological gesture.

 

The reference to Prado, accompanied by a quick but fruitful study on Raymond Ruyer (pp. 160-164), allows Piatti to emphasize a limit of these debates, which have often tended to turn Bergson into a sort of proto-phenomenologist, or to integrate his ideas as a way to provide a more realistic foundation to phenomenology. As he puts it, “the notion of impersonal transcendental field, and the specific weight given [by Bergson] to the theme of perception, can certainly help ground the correlational structure of consciousness (…). Nevertheless, Bergson’s conception of the field of images does not respond in any way to the need to ground a relation of directionality (or transcendence) toward the world; on the contrary (…) it conceives the elements emerging from this plane (subjects, objects, affects, and perceptions) as immanent to the system from which they derive” (p. 159). This is why Ruyer’s concept of consciousness as “absolute surface”, as a field of liaisons which is “present to itself without any intentional relation to the world (or to itself)” (p. 161), recovers a more genuine Bergsonian inspiration. As Ruyer argues, in fact, consciousness does not emerge from reality, and it does not introduce any difference between a “seer” and a “thing seen”, but is already present to itself in the unity of the living being, as well as in any self-producing domain of interactions, organic or inorganic. The chapter closes with a longer section on Gilbert Simondon’s concept of pre-individual field (pp. 164-178), the “true point of conjunction between Bergson’s thought and its entry into Deleuze’s philosophy” (p. 164).

 

The final chapter (The Functioning of Deleuze’s Metaphysics, pp. 179-278) pulls together all the threads of the book through an extensive study of Deleuze’s work. A specific passage informs Piatti’s reconstruction: the passage from Deleuze’s redefinition of the transcendental motif in Différence et répétition and Logique du sens – which considerably renews the legacy of Bergson’s philosophy and the entire debate that arose around the notion of impersonal field – to the development of the concept of plane of immanence, from Spinoza et le problème de l’expression to Cinéma 2. L’Image-temps. Deleuze treats Bergson, like Simondon after him, “as a post-Kantian philosopher” (p. 180), who paved the way for a completion of the transcendental project by reattaching the conditions of possibility of experience to the genetic conditions of reality. To borrow an expression from Ruyer, we could say that Piatti presents Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism as an effort to reattach experience “to the earth” [5], by connecting the genesis of the knowing subject to the same movement which engenders plants, rivers and rocks – an earth free from the phantom of naturalism, as it already appeared in the chapter on Bergson, and understood as the differential of beings, as a virtual and pluridimensional field of formation. Piatti devotes several pages to analyzing the dynamic of this field, focusing firstly on Logique du sens, which specifies it in terms of “surface organization” (p. 202), in an attempt to deactivate the logic of groundlessness still present in Différence et répétition, and then on Deleuze’s mobilization of Spinoza toward a theory of univocity, capable of articulating the plurality of beings within a dynamic of co-expression (pp. 205-210). This process culminates in the idea of plane of immanence developed with Félix Guattari in Mille Plateaux, perhaps the summit of Deleuze’s cosmology, i.e. of an absolute, “autopoietic” surface (p. 211) on which every aspect of reality takes shape. The last sections of the book focus respectively on the two volumes on cinema, which develop the theses proposed in Mille Plateaux through a rereading of Matière et mémoire (pp. 217-237), on Deleuze and Guattari’s compelling form of “inorganic vitalism” (pp. 240-257), and lastly on the concept of event, point of arrival and reformulation of Deleuze’s metaphysics (pp. 257-278).

 

Ultimately, Giulio Piatti’s book has the merit of recomposing a debate that has often remained on the sidelines of the philosophical scene, despite the visibility of some of its protagonists, characterized by an increasingly decisive tendency to see in a world stripped of all anthropocentric narratives the conditions of its own becoming subjective. From Bergson to Deleuze, passing through Ruyer, Simondon and the discussions that accompanied the reception of phenomenology in France, the book explores the multiple ways in which experience can become the place of cosmology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Wahl, Jean. Verso il concreto. Studi di filosofia contemporanea. William James, Whitehead, Gabriel Marcel, ed. by G. Piatti, afterword by B. Wahl, Mimesis, Milano-Udine, 2020.

[2] Goldschmidt, Victor. Cours sur le premier chapitre de Matière et mémoire (1960), ed. by D. Morato-Pinto, in F. Worms, (ed.), Annales bergsoniennes I. Bergson dans le siècle, PUF, Paris, 2002.

[3] I am referring to Pierre Montebello’s use of the term in Métaphysiques cosmomorphes (Les Presses du Réel, Dijon, 2015), which constitutes an important reference point for Piatti’s work.

[4] Deleuze, Gilles. Critique et clinique, Minuit, Paris, 1993, p. 69.

[5] Ruyer, Raymond. “La connaissance comme fait physique”, Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger, 114, 1932, p. 101.


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