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.

Nietzsche and Philosophy

Deleuze, Nietzsche and PhilosophyAs with most of his books on the History of Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy is in large part a work of ventriloquy. Deleuze is speaking through Nietzsche, or making Nietzsche speak for him, as part of a series of debates and concerns that are perhaps more properly “Deleuzian” than they are “Nietzschean.” This is no doubt clearest in the book’s excoriation of Hegelianism and the dialectic: “There is no possible compromise between Hegel and Nietzsche,” Deleuze tells us (195). Written in 1962, Nietzsche and Philosophy is then part of a broadside within French thought against the prevailing postwar interest in Hegel (very much as mediated by Alexandre Kojève). A few years later, Louis Althusser would also join in the fray, with his attempt to construct a Marxism in which all indebtedness to Hegel had been absolutely excised.

The war against Hegel and Hegelianism is also a war against negation. In Nietzsche, Deleuze claims to find a philosopher of pure affirmation: the affirmation of affirmation against the dialectic’s famous negation of negation. The dialectic can at best produce “a phantom of affirmation” (196). In Hegelianism, “everywhere there are sad passions; the unhappy consciousness is the subject of the whole dialectic” (196). By contrast, for Deleuze,

Nietzsche’s practical teaching is the difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns. Multiplicity, becoming and chance are the properly philosophical joy in which unity rejoices in itself and also in being and necessity. (190)

At every turn, Nietzsche chooses activity, life, the will, over against the forces of reaction and ressentiment. The only negativity in his work, Deleuze says, is in fact positive: it is always in the service of creation; it is a total critique that enables the new to manifest itself. Hence “destruction as the active destruction of all known values is the trail of the creator” (177); in Nietzsche, “the whole of the negative has become a power of affirming” (179).

Deleuze’s book, as though intoxicated by Nietzschean affirmation, ends with rather a flourish, heralding the powers of Zarathustra, Dionysus, and the Over-man. We a presented a vision, that can’t help but seem a little mystical, of the triumph of dance, “laughter, roars of laughter,” and a sense of “play [that] affirms chance and the necessity of chance” (194). All well and good. But the fact is that, if we look around, all we see is the supremacy of reaction, the ubiquity of ressentiment, and the ascendancy of nihilism. How can this be? Is it conceivable that reactive forces are in fact stronger than active ones? If not, what explains their triumph? How does action, activity, affirmation, and the will to power give way to the tyranny of the negative?

This is a question that Deleuze will never stop asking. Indeed, in some ways it is the central question of his philosophical career. In Anti-Oedipus, he and Félix Guattari put it in more strictly political terms:

Even the most repressive and the most deadly forms of social reproduction are produced by desire within the organization that is the consequence of such production under various conditions that we must analyze. That is why the fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly, and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” (Anti-Oedipus 31)

In short: if activity and affirmation are primary, how are they so easily overcome? What goes wrong? Are reactive forces of the same nature as active forces? Do active forces somehow become reactive? If so, how? How does joyous creation end up so badly?

Deleuze’s argument is complex. It all begins when the strangely positive power of forgetting is itself forgotten. Forgetting is “an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression” (113). After all, the first distinction between the noble soul and the slave is that the noble soon forgets any slights; the slave, by contrast, broods and breeds resentment. Ressentiment is only possible once the traces of past ills are preserved, even harboured and nurtured. When this happens, “reaction itself takes the place of action, reaction prevails over action” (114). But what Deleuze wants to stress–indeed, it is vital that he does so–is that “reactive forces do not triumph by forming a force greater than active forces. [. . .] Everything takes place between reactive forces” (114). Then, in a second stage, active force is itself disarmed by being “separated from what it can do; or rather, we find this fiction is propagated. Here we see also the birth of the subject, a fictional entity separated from its own powers of action and activity. But what is most important is that in the forgetting of forgetting and in the construction of the fiction of the subject alike, “in neither of the two cases do reactive forces triumph by forming a greater force than active forces” (124).

Deleuze has again to push further: How for instance does fiction gain a hold over the reality of force? Indeed, this question will soon be redoubled as the ascetic ideal itself is likewise founded on fiction, on the “projection of debt” and the internalization of guilt. How does fiction gain the upper hand? Why would a narrative about the way things are trump our sensation and experience, our affects and bodily investment in the world. Essentially, this is the question of hegemony–or rather, of the hegemony of hegemony. Why did we come to believe in the superiority of reactive forces? Why did we take their omnipotence for granted, so much so that we became habituated into submission and subjection? And with what effect?

I’m not sure that Deleuze is entirely satisfied with his answers here in Nietzsche and Philosophy. He does after all return to the problem over and over. Is this a symptom of some anxiety? Or is it simply that he feels that we need as many answers as possible: later, the figure of the fold will come to the fore in his consideration of how interiority and subjection develop. Or perhaps it’s the power of the return itself that Deleuze wants to affirm.


“We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier: we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 4).


Review of François Dosse, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. Trans. Deborah Glassman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus surely has some of the most remarkable opening lines of any work of philosophy or cultural critique. First published in France in 1972, just a few years after the demonstrations of May 1968, its stylish bravado immediately reminds us of the attitudes struck by student agitators, and proclaims that their radical energies persist: “It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, as other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id.” The original French is even more striking, playing on the fact that “id” and “it” are both “ça” (“Ça fonctionne partout . . . Quelle erreur d’avoir dit le ça.”). “It” is a machinic unconscious that is defined not by what it represents, but by what it produces: “Everywhere it is machines–real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (Anti-Oedipus 1). The question “what does it mean?” gives way to “how does it work?” As Deleuze and Guattari go on to declare in their second enquiry into “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” A Thousand Plateaus: “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier: we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed” (A Thousand Plateaus 4). They therefore refuse any attempt to derive meaning from biography, to reduce the work to its author(s). Indeed, they disclaim authorship as anything but a matter of arbitrary convenience and custom: “Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. [. . .] We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied” (A Thousand Plateaus 3-4).

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The Wednesday quotation, part XV: Gilles Deleuze on immanence:

Very small children all resemble one another and have hardly any individuality, but they have singularities: a smile, a gesture, a funny face–not subjective qualities. Small children, through all their sufferings and weaknesses, are infused with an immanent life that is pure power and even bliss. (Immancence: A Life, 30)


Alexandr Zholkovkii’s short essay “Deus ex Machina” does not, rather fortunately, succumb so swiftly to the strange (and strikingly out of place) Romanticism that characterizes so many of the other texts that outline what he terms a “poetics of expressiveness”. Here, instead of praise for the accomplished and inspired author and his or her techniques for better self-expression, his focus is on the literary machine itself and its autonomic tendencies.

Zholkovkii’s thesis, he tells us, is that “any artistic text is a machine working on the reader: a ‘machine’ not only in the figurative sense, but in the strictly cybernetic sense as well–as a transforming device” (53). Soon enough, however, this definition has to be extended: there is no special privilege to the artistic text; all cultural productions and practices obey a machinic logic that amplifies, distorts, modulates, or transforms a whole series of inputs, often in unpredictable ways. Social and legal conventions, for instance, ensure that a contract is fulfilled (in one example that Zhlkovskii provides) even when one of the parties to the contract has, unknown to the other, suddenly died. Events have a logic of their own, that goes beyond individual agents. Plot consists in precisely such machinic logic that overtakes and determines the fate of individual characters.

In Zholkovskii’s vision, every instance of a literary, artistic, or social machine still requires some kind of external input: the machines do not run by themselves. This is the residual trace of the notion of “expressiveness”: the machinery is ultimately a form of expression. But the mechanism that enables such expression tends to become so dominant that individuals are soon subjected to the machine rather than its subject: Zolkovskii mentions the famous scene, for instance, in Modern Times in which Charlie Chaplin is physically “dragged into an assembly line” (57). “One is, of course, tempted” he therefore observes, “to think of a machine that would alone do all the plot work” (59).

A machine without some kind of prior input, however, is unimaginable: the whole formula of expressiveness would disappear and “such a machine would [. . .] completely replace and thus cancel the plot” (59); such a perpetual motion machine, that strictly followed its own logic and no other, would be the end of art and culture. The machine needs an external God, a supplement of some kind, to ensures that there is indeed God also in the machine itself. Zholkovkii’s Romanticism never quite disappears, though here we see its limit point.

But what if there were nothing but machines? Or at least, other inputs that were not themselves already human. This, of course, is the provocative opening of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus:

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines–real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. (1)

This would be a machine that, like Athusser’s “hailing machine,” produced subjects (rather than being driven by them), though also so much else. Indeed, the subject might be perhaps the least interesting of its many products. And if a God remained in the mechanism, it would be immanent, fully part of the machine rather than the mere trace of some transcendent vision.

Meanwhile, I’ve written elsewhere on the machinic unconscious of literary texts: “Arguedasmachine”.