White on White (Malevich, 1918) | Image via Wikimedia CommonsThere is much to applaud in the prompt sent to authors contributing to this forum. In its commitment to thinking through a positive vision of immanence as a philosophical position, it is a welcome correction to Charles Taylor’s much-debated notion of “the immanent frame.” In A Secular Age, Taylor reiterates a tired picture of a world that has turned away from the transcendent, and left individuals without direction, full of anxiety and doubts.1 In such a picture of the world, immanence is defined negatively: it is what is left to us after the gods have departed.

However, the danger of the prompt is that is reinstates Taylor’s binaries, even as it seeks to leave them behind. The religious is made equivalent to the transcendent, and the immanent is assumed to be secular. It is as if the secular world, tired of being defined by a negation (the non-transcendent), wishes to find a hilltop from which to fight. What was once an absence now looks like the empty space that the secularists wish to fill with new weapons with which to fight. Yet doesn’t the opposition of the immanent irreligious versus the transcendent religious redeploy the very terms that this forum should call into question?

The apparent battlefield is an old one, and the separation of philosophy from theology has a long history. Philosophy, in this battle, gets immanence and self-sufficient subjectivity, while theology remains stuck in transcendence and hierarchy. What I want to insist on in this post is that the tension between philosophy and theology cannot be made equivalent to the tension between immanence and transcendence, either in the contemporary moment, or historically; the tradition of immanent philosophy, as I will briefly indicate below, cuts across the former division, and would have to include religious as well as “irreligious” thinkers.

Few philosophers have done as much to articulate immanence in contemporary philosophy as Gilles Deleuze, who entitled the last essay he ever wrote, precisely, “L’Immanence: Une Vie” (“Immanence: A Life”). If one compares his understanding of immanence to that of Charles Taylor, we find, I suspect, the principal battleground over which a contemporary understanding of immanence is to be fought. For Taylor, the world of immanence is a self-sufficient world of human subjects inter-relating. For Deleuze,

Absolute immanence is in itself: it is not in something, to something; it does not depend on an object or belong to a subject . . . Immanence is not related to Some Thing as a unity superior to all things or to a Subject as an act that brings about a synthesis of things: it is only when immanence is no longer immanence to anything other than itself that we can speak of a plane of immanence.

Immanence here is not a condition distributed among preexisting subjects denied any access to the transcendent. The immanent plane rather exists prior to the existence of subjects: it is the plane of what Deleuze calls virtuality, which proves constitutive of—among other things—subjects themselves. Immanence is not, for Deleuze, a relational term. Indeed, as Deleuze and Felix Guattari argue, “whenever immanence is interpreted as immanent

For Deleuze, as for Michel Foucault (albeit in a very different register), to be committed to immanent inquiry is to be committed to a form of radical empiricism that does not assume the figuration of thought as a set of preexisting subjects and objects. It cannot, precisely, be either religious or irreligious. To already delimit the terms of immanent inquiry as irreligious would be to immediately reinscribe it within boundaries that it calls into question. Such a reinscription would reintroduce the transcendent, this time as a set of secular humanist, rather than theological, categories. Transcendence, then, in Deleuze’s account, is not prior to immanence, but is rather the product of immanence’s ontological capture: its delimitation.

For Deleuze, the plane of immanence precedes the subject-object structure. In “Immanence: A Life,” it is important that the term is not the life: not the life of a proper noun, a delimited subject, but a life—his work is an investigation of singularities and events, rather than particularities and subjects. “A life is everywhere, in all the moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given lived objects: an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subject and objects.” In Deleuze’s thought, the plane of immanence refers to that which precedes (and indeed exceeds) structured separations of subjects, objects, and worlds. From the immanent plane arise subjects, to be sure, but also a multiplicity of gods.

If one were to take up Deleuze’s call for such inquiry, then an immanent tradition does indeed emerge. Later in “Immanence: A Life,” in which the English version published by Zone Books includes two earlier Deleuze essays on David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche, Deleuze will summarize something of this tradition, which his other work lays out at greater length. A role-call of thinkers belonging to the “immanent tradition” would surely include Lucretius, Baruch Spinoza, Hume, and Nietzsche. What interests Deleuze in these thinkers, however, is not that they are “irreligious,” but that they bequeath to him the immanent philosophical project outlined above. Indeed, some recent work in philosophy indicates that some of our most central resources for thinking about such an immanent approach to thinking are themselves religious thinkers. In Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern (forthcoming with Fordham University Press), he indicates the degree to which a study of a thinker such as Meister Eckhart undoes the simplistic dualism that would ascribe immanence to the secular, and transcendent to the religious.

A further reason that it would behoove us to consider immanence outside of tired debates about secularism and religion is due to the warning that Nietzsche poses in much of his work, and that Deleuze clarifies. In the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche warns us of the danger of killing God, and simply putting man in his place. Perhaps what blocks us from having a genuine conception of immanence is neither man nor God, but precisely, the need to have a transcendent subject: be it Immanuel Kant’s transcendental field or the absolute place of the divine.

In the fields of contemporary philosophy and political science, it is not religion that prevents immanent inquiry, but rather the ascription of immanence to someone. In Deleuze and Guattari’s words, Kant, in the theorization of the transcendental subject (and the reduction of immanence to a question of consciousness), “discovers the modern way of saving transcendence: this is no longer the transcendence of something, or of a One higher than everything (contemplation), but that of a Subject to which the field of immanence of only attributed by belonging to a self that necessarily represents such a subject to itself (reflection).”

The ascription of the immanent to the irreligious is already a transcendent move, delimiting the formation of secular subjects, and pushing the religious to a transcendent outside. Indeed, in a world of liberal political philosophy whose baseline is self-sufficient subjects, autonomous beings making decisions for themselves, it is to the religious that we should turn—to the limit of secular transcendence—if we are to recapture the immanent tradition today.

  1. A world of Nietszchean last men, whose only explanation for religion’s “super-nova” effect is precisely the inadequacy of their own immanent frame.