univocity and nihilism

In an earlier post I discussed metaphysical nihilism, the view that there could have been nothing concrete. Here I’ll use the name ‘nihilism’ for the view that there could have been nothing (actual) at all, which entails that there is no necessary being. Nihilism is neither clearly coherent nor clearly incoherent – but it seems coherent, which is to say both that it seems we have a concept of absolute nothingness (herein ‘nothingness’), and that this concept seems to correspond to a genuine metaphysical possibility.

In any case, I haven’t yet answered the question: what is univocity? Instead I have explored the claim that univocity is more than mere conceptual univocity for Bergson and Deleuze. In this post I offer a few observations regarding the connection between univocity and nihilism. Specifically, I’ll describe how Bergson’s method of division, and the rejection of possibility he shares with Deleuze, are based on the premise that we don’t have an idea of nothingness.

(Note that the latter rejection is stronger than denying nihilism in my sense, since one could deny the latter by accepting that that we have an idea of nothingness but denying that it corresponds to a genuine metaphysical possibility. Moreover, on my reading, denying that we have an idea of nothingness means not only denying that we have an idea of what it would be for there to be nothing actual at all – but also denying that we have an idea of what it would be for any thing, by itself, to be nothing.)

Here is Deleuze’s reconstruction of Bergson’s method of division (CE: 92-4).

  1. We begin by criticising the idea that in the world there are only differences of degree or intensity. That is to say, time and space are initially given in a bad composite whereby time is spatialised and the denial of differences in kind is understood in this way. We must divide this composite in order to see the difference in kind between time and space – this is the moment of “pure dualism”.
  2. The heart of the argument begins here. All the differences in kind are temporal and all the differences in degree are spatial. Once we note this, Deleuze suggests, we can no longer posit any difference in kind between the two “tendencies” – though there is a difference of some sort. This is the moment of “neutralised, balanced dualism”, which supposedly succeeds in balancing the admission of temporal difference in kind with the denial of difference in kind between time and space.
  3. Since we are talking about two types of difference, between them are “all the degrees of difference” (italics removed). We thus end up with a univocal notion of difference whereby duration is only the most contracted degree of matter and matter only the most expanded degree of duration. That is, there is only a difference of degree between degrees and kinds. This is the moment of monism – there is an actual dualism but a virtual monism. The latter allows us to say that, after all, we were right to see the world in terms of differences of degree or intensity. It was just the particular way we went about it (i.e. by spatialising time) that was wrong.

The key step in this argument is the move between A and B:

    1. Differences in kind are all on the side of time, and differences in degree are all on the side of space (premise).
    2. The difference between these two differences is one of degree rather than kind (from A, somehow).

Prima facie it would make more sense to say exactly the opposite: that (a) space differs in kind from duration and that (b) they are unified because duration is what expresses or instantiates this sort of difference. In any case, the inference from A to B is obscure to me.

Notice, however, that if we are already denying the coherence of nihilism, then the following bridging premise is available to us for linking A and B:

A*. The only thing that can differ in kind from being is nothingness.

A* gives us a way of validating the movement from A to B – but only by admitting that we were never really talking about true differences in kind in the first place.

The dismissal of nihilism is also needed by the critique of possibility proposed by Bergson and Deleuze, a critique connected with their understanding of univocity. Badiou paraphrases this critique as follows (DCB: 47):

In referring a thing to its possibility, we simply separate its existence from its concept. Its concept possesses the totality of the thing’s characteristics and, examining the concept, we can state that the thing is possible, which means that it can exist, it only lacks existence. But if existence is all that is lacking, if all the rest is determined as possible in the concept, then existence is “a brute eruption, a pure act or leap” (DR: 211). Such a conception of existence is pure anathema for Deleuze. Existence is never a brute eruption, or a leap, because this would require that possible being and real being constitute two distinct senses of Being. But this is excluded by univocity.

This is to say that possibility is an equivocal notion. This is an accusation I should say something about. As far as I can see, the contrast between possibility and actuality only violates univocity if it is taken as a contrast between two types of being, possible being and actual being. This danger can be avoided by holding that possible things do not exist. By reintroducing nihilism I am able to avoid the choice between necessitarianism and equivocal talk of possible being. If this is right then it is essential to the Deleuzian understanding of univocity that nihilism not be reintroduced.

It may be thought that the way I am positioning Deleuze here is incompatible with some of the things he says about univocity. Putting aside the issue of how Deleuze’s position changes and develops after Difference and Repetition, I need to say something about passages like this one from The Logic of Sense (LOS: 180)

Neither active nor passive, univocal being is neutral. It is extra-Being, that is, the minimum of being common to the real, the possible, and the impossible.

Consider the following question: when Bergson says that nihilism (and indeed the possible nothingness of any particular thing) is incoherent, he is saying that there is no idea of nothingness per se. But how should we interpret the phrase ‘there is no’ here? It cannot mean that the concept of nothingness is a concept of nothing, or that it is itself qua concept nothing, since either of these would effectively be self-refuting. Rather it must mean that the concept of nothingness is a peculiarly misunderstood sort of something. Let’s gloss this as: there is a concept we mistakenly take to be the concept of nothingness, but it is really the concept of something else (in Bergson’s case, the concept of a felt lack of something, a disappointed expectation, etc.). Ignoring the question of whether ‘mistakenly’ can do the work it is assigned here without begging the question once more, and assuming that what holds for Bergson holds for Deleuze, we ought to read the passage just quoted as follows: even nothingness has being (since it is either real, possible or impossible and all of these things have being).

Now we can understand the objection to my account. It might be thought that my positioning of Deleuze is wrong because this passage from The Logic of Sense shows how his account actually outflanks mine by virtue of being more rather than less ontologically promiscuous. (Note that if we do not read the passage in the way just suggested, this outflanking manoeuvre will not be possible.)

A good short response to this – taking things at face-value – is that if even a transcendent God has being then we have lost the contrast between univocity and equivocity that we originally set out to preserve.

Aside from this I don’t have a worked out response, so I’m going to be brief and experimental. I’ll argue for the modest conclusion that we should accept that we have an idea of what it would mean for there to be an x such that there is no/could have been no/must not be any, x.

Thus: to say that everything has being, where ‘everything’ is allowed to be completely unrestricted, seems to me to be trivialising, precisely because it allows a trivial thing to have being (unless it is nothing, in which case the point is ceded in the other direction). A trivial thing has the property that if it has being then everything is true. Of course, this result can be avoided by saying that the consequences of triviality do not take effect at the level of being but only at the level of e.g. existence, concrete being, determinate instantiation, etc. But this is simply to reintroduce with the right hand the restriction that was taken away with the left.

Perhaps the following analogy is apposite. It seems to me that the Deleuzian who wishes to render univocity promiscuous in order to outflank my appeal to nihilism is in roughly the same position as the dialetheist who wants to say that (nearly) any contradiction could be true, but not all of them simultaneously. In each case there is an attempt to water down negation such that we can negate without having to accept that we therefore need (and have) a negation operator that necessarily preserves ex falso (in the case of the dialetheist or paraconsistent logician who wants to distinguish her viewpoint from trivialism whilst nevertheless offering a univocal account of negation), or that is nothing at all. The proper response in each case is that it cannot be done: indeed it may be the same thing to give a satisfactory account of how we are able to negate trivialism, and to show that there could have been nothing. Admittedly, that is not what my argument shows – it shows (if correct) something weaker: that it makes sense to say that there is at least one thing x such that there is no x. That is not everything that we want, but it is… err… better than nothing.*

To summarise, univocity for Bergson and Deleuze comes down to denying the coherence of the concept of nothingness and interpreting differences in kind as differences in degree from the viewpoint of time or the virtual, which is to say from the viewpoint of the plane of immanence. I have tried to show why this might be problematic.

*For a little more on trivialism, see my post here.


  • Alain Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, trans. Louise Burchill (UOM: 1999).
  • Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, (Dover: 1998).
  • Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, (Zone: 1988).
  • Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale, (Columbia University Press: 1990).
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