What is the Philosophy of Movement? Part III: Process Ontology

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What is the difference between process philosophy and the philosophy of movement?

Process Ontology and Becoming

The historical precursors of the philosophy of motion have also had a major influence on a number of contemporary process ontologies, or ontologies of becoming. Process ontology, like the ontology of movement, emphasizes flux and becoming but is not necessarily identical to the ontology of motion. There can be all kinds of flux: flux of time, flux of space, flux of force, and so on. The ontology of motion is strictly the flux of matter. All other fluxes are nothing but the flux of matter: motion. Time, space, and force do not transcend matter in motion. Space and time are dimensions of reality, but they are irreducibly material kinetic dimensions.38It is easy to see how the two are connected but important to see where they diverge.


One of the first major systematic process philosophers was Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). However, a whole other set of historical precursors could be drawn up, which would likely include Heraclitus, Duns Scotus, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Leibniz, and others. For Whitehead, process is real, but continuous change and motion are not. For example, according to Whitehead, change is only “the difference between actual occasions comprised in some determined event,” and thus it is “impossible to attribute ‘change’ to any actual entity.”39“Thus an actual entity never moves: it is where it is and what it is.”40Change and motion thus relate to a succession of actual entities and are constituted only by the differences among them. Every entity is simply “what it is,” and it “becomes” as the whole of reality enters a succession of different states, but no entity ever technically changes or moves. At least one scholar has aptly observed that this is a purely logical kind of change, or what has come to be known as a “Cambridge change,” after the school of logicians Whitehead worked with, and not a kinetic one. Whitehead’s transition, the same scholar observes, “is not a real transition, not a flow or flux, and change so understood is merely a fact consequent upon the successive existence of a series of different unchangeable and static actual entities. The very notion of change has been made incurably static.41If there were still any doubt on this matter, Whitehead quite clearly writes in The Concept of Naturethat “motion presupposes rest. . . . A theory of motion and a theory of rest are the same thing viewed from different aspects with altered emphasis.”42There is “no continuity of becoming,” Whitehead says, but only “a becoming of continuity.”43This is the direct inverse of Bergson’s claim that immobility presupposes mobility and that everything is in motion. So here we see that process ontology can be quite different from an ontology of motion and can even eliminate motion entirely and still be considered a process ontology of becoming.44


Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) is the philosopher of process and becoming par excellence. Influenced both by the ontologists of motion (Lucretius, Marx, Bergson) and by the great philosophers of becoming more broadly (Duns Scotus, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Leibniz, Whitehead, and others), Deleuze was the first to unify these two traditions into a vast synthetic and systematic philosophy of becoming. Instead of developing a single ontology limited to a single name for being (space, eternity, force, time, motion, etc.), Deleuze developed an inclusive and pluralistic ontology in which all the great names of being are said equally and univocally of the same being—on the strictcondition, however, that this single being be understood as the being of pure becoming or differential process. The ontology of becoming therefore is not a naive and contradictory affirmation of all other ontologies, but a complete reinterpretation of all ontology itself as process, as becoming. Thus, Deleuze develops and applies process theories of space, thought, force, time, and motion across numerous domains.

This incredible coup de grâce at the end of the twentieth century gave birth to a number of inspired efforts extending the application of becoming to new areas. Of particular interest are those Deleuzeans like Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Manuel DeLanda, Brian Massumi, Erin Manning, Jane Bennett, William Connolly, and Rosi Braidotti who have made a concerted effort to apply this ontology to questions of materiality.45Even object-oriented ontologists and speculative realists like Levi Bryant, Steven Shaviro, and Didier Debaise have explicitly drawn on Whitehead and Deleuze to theorize a process philosophy of objects and things.46In short, the ontology of becoming has become an extremely fecund starting point for numerous ontologies at the end of metaphysics.

Deleuze’s great contribution to the philosophy of movement was therefore to have shown the ontological primacy of becoming over being and the coherence of this minor historical tradition stretching from Lucretius to Whitehead. Oddly, however, for Deleuze becoming means continuum, matter, and motion as equally as it means difference, thought, and stasis. There is a becoming of both—hence the division and ambiguity between what is now called “new materialism” and “speculative realism,” both drawing on different strands in Deleuze’s work. This split, however, attests to the difficulty and perhaps the impossibility of affirming both becomings equally without falling back into one or the other, or introducing, as Deleuze ends up doing, a third “pure becoming” that traverses them all: force. For Deleuze, there is a “force of thought” just as there is a “force of matter.”47Everything becomes because everything is a force of becoming. He is quite explicit about the ontological primacy of force against Marx’s and Lucretius’s kinetic materialism (which lacks force) in his book on Nietzsche. “Atomism,” Deleuze writes, “would be a mask for an incipient dynamism.”48This position has at least three important limitations, which, by way of contrast, will help highlight the novel contribution of a new ontology of motion.


The first limitation is Deleuze’s theory of motion. If the flux of matter, like every other flux, is ontologically equal to every other flux, then we should expect to find in Deleuze’s pluralist ontology of becoming a pure becoming of motion without stasis, immobility, cut, or break. But in almost every one of his major works we find the opposite.49He nearly always ends up reintroducing stasis or immobility into his definition of motion.

For example, in Difference and RepetitionDeleuze explicitly subordinates movement to time: “The [third] synthesis is necessarily static, since time is no longer subordinated to movement; time is the most radical form of change, but the form of change does not change.”50In Logic of Sensethe subordination of movement and matter to time is explicit in his theory of “an empty form of time, independent of all matter.”51Accordingly, the whole of chapter 16 is dedicated to what he calls “static ontological genesis,” and chapter 17 to “static logical genesis.” In Anti-Oedipushe and Félix Guattari frequently describe society as an “immobile motor”52and even define the concept of “flow,” taken from Marx, as continually “broken up,” “interrupted,” or “cut.” “Every ‘object,’” they say, “presupposes the continuity of a flow; every flow, the fragmentation of the object.”53In A Thousand Plateausthey even write, “It is thus necessary to make a distinction between speed and movement: amovement may be very fast, but that does not give it speed; a speed may be very slow, or even immobile, yet it is still speed.”54Hence the nomad’s “motionless voyage.”55

These quotes are not rare aberrations in his texts. Nor by citing them am I trying to introduce some clever interpretation. Deleuze explicitly and consistently describes motion in terms of stasis—reminiscent of Whitehead. Speed, time, stasis, and difference are each explicitly given ontological primacy over motion. Therefore, in Deleuze’s pluralist ontology of becoming, motion all too often resides unequally alongside the other kinds of flux. This does not mean that Deleuze clearly privileges immobility over motion in every case, just that despite all he says about continuous motion and the “movement” of becoming, he consistently includes in it stasis, breaks, and immobilities whose existence is ultimately incompatible with the ontology of motion. On the plane of motion everything moves continuously. Stasis cannot be introduced without dividing the continuum. Thus, at the least Deleuze’s theory of motion is extremely uneven and fractured, and at the worst (from the vantage of an ontology of motion) it is explicitly subordinated to stasis, time, immobile speed, vital force, and other such attributes. A similar issue occurs in the secondary literature, especially those following in the same Spinozist tradition.56


The second limitation of Deleuze’s ontology of becoming is his theory ofmatter. If motion is the flux of matter, then Deleuze’s pluralism must also be able to show at least an ontological coprimacy or immanence of matter to the other fluxes. Again, this is not what he does. In What Is Philosophy?Deleuze and Guattari define philosophy not as the movement of matter but as an “infinite movement of thought” that lays out a philosophical “plane of immanence” and populates that plane with concepts through a “finite movement of thought.”57These various movements of thought lay out philosophical planes defined not by material beings and things but by an “extraction of events from things and beings,” and by giving an ontological description of being as “space, time, matter, thought, and the possible.”58In short, philosophy has always given a name to being and so “handed over immanence to Something = x” and thusmimicked the discovery of something transcendent.59

However, according to Deleuze, the ontology of becoming is “THE plane of immanence, [which] is, at the same time, that which must be thought and that which cannot be thought. It is the nonthought within thought. It is the base of all planes, immanent to every thinkable plane that does not succeed in thinking it.”60Theplane of immanence cannot be thought, since it is the infinite movement of thought itselfthat thinks all the other planes. According to Deleuze and Guattari, this plane was first discovered by Spinoza, “the Christ of philosophy.” Substance, for Spinoza, is one, but it has an infinity of parallel and ontologically coprimary attributes, including thought and matter. However, Spinoza is also quite explicit that thought is the only attribute that can think its own plane and all the other planes. “By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence [quod intellectus de substantiâ percipit].”61Therefore, even though Spinoza’s attempt to make thought and matter ontologically equal, and thus not reducible to one another, is radical, there remains a fundamental inequality between them if only one of those attributes can reproduce all the others. This is a well-known issue in the scholarship.62In his book on Spinoza, however, Deleuze passes over this fraught issue all too quickly: “The intellect only reproducesobjectively the nature of the forms it apprehends.”63Deleuze thus makes clear, against other commentators, that thought does not create matter and the other attributes. It just objectively reproduces them all in a way that they cannot do themselves. Thus one inequality (subjective idealism) is thrown off only to reveal another (speculative idealism).

From his first book to his last, Deleuze grants a similar ontological primacy to what he calls “the image of thought.”64Thought, for Deleuze, following Spinoza, is just one plane of becoming among many, but, more important, it is also the only plane capable of thinking its own plane and theplane that is“the base of all planes”(matter, space, time, possibility, etc).65Again, this is not an interpretive discovery of a hidden meaning in the text. Deleuze and Guattari are explicit about this: “Spinoza thoughtthe ‘best’ plane of immanence—that is, the purest.”66

Strangely, then, Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the “infinite movement of thought” that defines philosophical practice must be understood as a kind of pure motion without matter—an oddly abstract, ideal, and “purely formal motion,” as Marx would say.67If ontological practice had even the smallest bit of materiality to it, it could not be an infinite and objective survey or reproduction of theplane of immanence that thinks all the planes as their unthought presupposition.68Rather, it would have to be productive, positional, and kinographic.69


The third limitation of Deleuze’s ontology of becoming is his theory ofhistory. Deleuze’s thesis that being is becoming is an explicitly ontological claim, even if it sounds paradoxical. The claim that theplane of immanence is the base of all the other planes is not just a regional or historical claim about all previously invented planes but about all planespast, present, and future. Just like Spinoza, thought, for Deleuze, stretches out and surveys infinitely across itself and all the other planes without limit. This is possible because thought is freed of any materiality that would connect it to practices of inscription and thus history. However, ontological practice, or “thought,” for Deleuze is not outside history but immanent with all of history: past, present, and future. “But if it is true that the plane of immanence is always single, being itself pure variation, then it is all the more necessary to explain why there are varied and distinct planes of immanence that, depending upon which infinite movements are retained and selected, succeed and contest each other in history.”70In other words, there is only one pure plane of becoming forever and for all time, which only thought can reproduce, but which is thought ofdifferently depending on the historical and geographic circumstances. “History,” for Deleuze and Guattari, is thus simply the “set of conditions . . . from which one turns away in order to become, that is to say, in order to create something new.”71“Philosophy is becoming, not history,” they say; “it is the coexistence of planes, not the succession of systems.”72

Deleuze and Guattari are right to reject a simple succession, dialectic development, or deterministic evolution of historical ontologies, but this does not necessarily mean that all ontological descriptions coexist forever and for all time. How could they coexist, for example, before they were historically invented by humans? There was no Platonic description of eternity even 4 million years ago, much less 4 billion years ago. Ontological practices are created in history, not discovered on a speculative plane of becoming. Only after they are created in history can they coexist, and mix with other ontological descriptions, as they do today. In practice, postulating the coexistence of future planes adds nothing to philosophical analysis. Furthermore, why say that thought (becoming) is an escape from matter (history) and not that matter is an escape from thought or from itself? Deleuze and Guattari are right that history is not deterministic. But then why does becoming require thought to become other than history? If there is truly an ontological equality of fluxes, then history and matter are fully capable of becoming other than themselves through their own flux: motion. Humans are, after all, matter with the capacity for creating new ontological descriptions and inscriptions. A glimmer of this point is most apparent in Anti-Oedipus, their most Marxist book, in which Deleuze and Guattari describe the historical and material conditions of inscription. However, in Anti-Oedipusthese are understood only as the social conditions of desire, to be “turned away from” with the thought of becoming—as is later made plain in What Is Philosophy?The plane of matter and its movement through history is thus just another plane to be traversed by infinite thought.


The historical precursors of the ontology of becoming also have their limitations: Whitehead’s ontology is completely static and ahistorical, while Deleuze’s is more nuanced but ultimately limited by its theories of stasis, thought, and becoming. Both philosophers provide robust theories of becoming, but neither provides an ontology of motion. Deleuze says that all fluxes are ontologically equal, but motion is continually cut up and mixed with stasis.73Unlike the planes of space, force, and time, which do not seem to pose a contradiction when combined, the planes of stasis and motion pose an explicit contradiction at the heart of Deleuze’s philosophy. He says that philosophy is a “movement” of thought but then abolishes this same movement by purifying it of all matter with the Spinozist thought of thepure plane of becoming. He says that thought is not outside history but then claims that all planes past, present, and future coexist and become only by turning away from history.

Thus, despite the ontological nature of their claims, Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s philosophies fit very much with the twentieth-century Einsteinian paradigm, which prevailed publicly well after it had been disproved by Hubble: the universe was absolutely static but internally and spatiotemporally dynamic. The universe is immobile but creative and becoming. It is an ontologically “motionless voyage.” Today new discoveries in cosmology, quantum gravity, and other fields render visible the dated and historical nature of such claims, but they also set up new conditions that force philosophy to create a new historical ontology for the twenty-first century.

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