What is Philosophy?

Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s What is Philosophy? is in many ways quite a departure from their previous joint-signed books. I say “joint-signed,” rather than “joint-authored” because François Dosse in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives (which I reviewed for H-Madness) makes it clear that the book “was manifestly written by Deleuze alone”; he included Guattari’s name “as a tribute to their exceptionally intense friendship” (456). But even considered within the lineage of Deleuze’s solo output, it is somewhat anomalous. If anything, it hearkens back to his seminal texts of the late 1960s, Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense, not least because it is not dedicated to any particular individual (unlike his books on Foucault, Bacon, or Leibniz) or any particular genre (unlike his books on the cinema). It is, almost, pure philosophy.

I say that it is “almost” pure philosophy because, first, as the title indicates What is Philosophy? is better classified as meta-philosophy. Deleuze is as interested in the “prephilosophical” or even the “nonphilosophical” that subtends philosophy. Regarding the latter there are a couple of interesting references to the work of François Laruelle, who is right now somewhat in vogue. Deleuze tells us that “Laruelle is engaged in one of the most interesting undertakings of contemporary philosophy. He invokes a One-All that he qualifies as ‘nonphilosophical’ and, oddly as ‘scientific,’ on which the ‘philosophical decision’ takes root” (220n5). The fact, however, that he finds Laruelle’s equation of the nonphilosophical with science “odd” indicates the second reason why Deleuze’s book is only “almost” pure philosophy: it is as much concerned with answering the questions “What is Science?” and “What is Art?” Indeed, the book as a whole might have been better titled “What is Thought?” For Deleuze is above all concerned to delineate the nature and specific domains of what he calls “thought in its three great forms–art, science, and philosophy” (197). And while it would therefore be tempting to say that the book therefore develops a philosophy of science and a philosophy of art (as well as a philosophy of philosophy), Deleuze is careful to warn that these three practices are very different and can only intervene in or interfere with each other in particular ways and within certain limits. Of the relation between philosophy and science, for instance, he claims that “The two lines are therefore inseparable but independent, each complete in itself [. . .] Philosophy can speak of science only by allusion, and science can speak of philosophy only as of a cloud” (161). Perhaps it would be best to describe Deleuze’s intent as an attempt to think about thought.

In most concentrated, telegraphic terms, Deleuze sums up the differences he discerns between the three forms of thought:

plane of immanence of philosophy, plane of composition of art, plane of reference or coordination of science; form of concept, force of sensation, function of knowledge; concepts and conceptual personae, sensations and aesthetic figures, figures and partial observers. (216)

Essentially (and still more telegraphically), these differences revolve around modalities of multiplicity: different forms of multiplicity, different means of organizing or navigating multiplicity, and different operations performed on multiplicity. What they have in common is that they each constitute a particular relation to chaos. On the one hand, they “want us to tear open the firmament and plunge into the chaos. [. . .] The philosopher, the scientist, the artist seem to return from the land of the dead” (202). On the other hand, they “struggle against chaos (203) and work to extract something from it: respectively, variations, variables, and varieties. As Deleuze puts is of art: “Painters go through a catastrophe, or through a conflagration, and leave the trace of this passage on the canvas, as of the leap that leads them from chaos to composition” (203). Chaos itself is unbearable. But the passage to or through chaos is (quite literally) vital, as it arms us in the still more important “struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself” (203).

Thought continually risks catastrophe–as Deleuze says, “what would thinking be it if did not constantly confront chaos?” (208). It even risks death, or a form of death, as the brain becomes “a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us” (216). But this is the risk we must take, for in fact there is nothing more deadening than opinion, with all its vapid discussion and dreary clichés: “the struggle with chaos is only the instrument of a more profound struggle against opinion, for the misfortune of people comes from opinion” (206). Opinion is the death of thought, but it will also be the death of us: a suffocating, weary, anticlimactic demise. Deleuze claims at the outset of the book that the very question “what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely” (1). Faced with the possibility of death as a life-sapping “weary thought” incarnated in “those weary old ones who pursue slow-moving opinions and engage in stagnant discussions [. . .] like a distant memory of their old concepts to which they remain attached so as not to fall back completely into chaos” (214), it is as though Deleuze were striving instead for what Jorge Luis Borges describes as “The Other Death”: a passionate death willed upon the past that negates the present. For Deleuze, far better than unthinking cliché is the “nonthinking thought” that plunges the brain in chaos so as to extract “the shadow of the ‘people to come’ [. . .] mass-people, world-people, brain-people, chaos-people” (218). This sounds like a Nietzschean gesture to something like the Overman; perhaps it’s the particular utopianism of (non)thought, “revolution” as the “absolute deterritorialization even to the point where this calls for a new earth, a new people” (101). Still, it’s a reminder of the dangers of this line, or a certain ambivalence in Deleuze, that this book should end with a discussion of the negative, of “the three Nos” of nonphilosophy, nonart, and nonscience, described as collectively constituting “the same shadow that extends across [philosophy, art, and science] and constantly accompanies them” (218). Here Deleuze almost seems to be affirming the power of negation in quasi-dialectical manner. Almost.