Deleuze, Gilles

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Gilles Deleuze

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) has come to be regarded as one of the most important figures in European contemporary thought.

Many of Deleuze's ideas ran counter to the strain of so-called postmodern philosophy in vogue during the last decades of the twentieth century, and there was a positive, life-affirming strain in his writings that stood in sharp contrast to the pessimism of postmodernists who held, to borrow a formulation from the film Pump Up the Volume, that all the great themes have been used up and turned into theme parks. Deleuze believed that philosophy should be a positive act, not a neutral and detached observation of the world and the mind. One of the key concepts in his work was that of immanence, which he borrowed from the realm of theology to denote the unity of thought, mind, and the world, as opposed to the risingabove-the-world indicated by the idea of transcendence. Deleuze's writings were notable among those of modern philosophers for their wide range. He wrote about the history of philosophy, politics, literature, and visual arts (including cinema) with equal enthusiasm. Deleuze was also an unusual example of a truly collaborative writer, coauthoring several books with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari.

Rooted in Specific Neighborhood

Gilles Deleuze was born on January 18, 1925, in the 17th arrondissement, in the northwestern part of Paris, France. He lived in that same neighborhood for much of his life, but he spent much of World War II in Normandy after his family was stranded there when German forces overran France in the summer of 1940. Deleuze's father, an engineer, was a conservative with anti-Semitic leanings, but his older brother joined the French Resistance and was captured by the Germans and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, dying or being killed en route. The 15-year-old Deleuze, who to that point had showed no special academic talent, took classes with a tutor in Normandy who challenged him to read the classics of modern French literature, and Deleuze later cited that teacher as his first major influence.

Back in German-controlled but pacified Paris, Deleuze attended two specialized high schools, the Lycée Carnot and the Henri IV School. By the time he enrolled at the latter, he had been identified as a talented student and was put through a yearlong top-notch college preparatory curriculum known as the kâgne. He enrolled at the Sorbonne university in 1944. There he encountered a second major set of intellectual influences: the university's philosophy faculty included Descartes specialist Ferdinand Aliquié, Jean Hippolyte (an adherent of the ideas of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel), and Georges Canguilhem, who also served as an adviser to the famed French thinker Michel Foucault. Deleuze finished a philosophy degree called an agrégation (which qualified him as a secondary school teacher) at the Sorbonne in 1948 and went on to teach philosophy at top high schools in Amiens, Orléans, and Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Deleuze married Fanny Grandjouan, who had translated the works of British author D.H. Lawrence into French, in 1956, and the pair raised a son, Julien, and a daughter, Emilie. By that time he had already embarked on his writing career with a study of the works of Scottish philosopher David Hume, published in 1953. That book, Empirisme et subjectivité (Empiricism and Subjectivity), was typical in one way and unusual in another. Like Hegel, and like many of his peers, Deleuze started out believing that philosophy advanced in an orderly way, and that by writing about the history of philosophy one might pave the way to new breakthroughs—an attitude he was later to decisively reject. His choice of Hume as a subject, however, was less common for a French writer, and it pointed to an unusual aspect of his thought: unlike most of his compatriots, Deleuze over his entire career evinced a preference for English, German, and American philosophy and literature over the productions of French writers.

In 1957 Deleuze began teaching courses in the history of philosophy at the Sorbonne, and from 1960 to 1964 he held a position at the National Center of Scientific Research. In the 1960s he taught at the University of Lyon. He was a young scholar, not yet well established, and in each of these positions he held the post of assistant professor or another similar position. He followed up his Hume book with studies of other philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche (in 1962), Emmanuel Kant (in 1963), and Henri Bergson (in 1966), and his reputation grew.

Gained Attention with Nietzsche Book

The most important of these works was Nietzsche et la philosophie, which appeared in English as Nietzsche and Philosophy in 1983. With that book Deleuze almost singlehandedly elevated Nietzsche's reputation in France from that of an aphoristic essayist to that of a thinker who had subtly and concisely derived a multifaceted (although nonsystematic) philosophy of life from the idea of a life force, and had influenced many aspects of modern thought. Deleuze caught the attention of other French thinkers who were looking for ideas that were progressive, even radical, but who were uncomfortable with the orthodoxy of the stillpowerful French Communist party. Among his new admirers was Foucault, and the two developed a close friendship that, although interrupted by political disagreements, lasted until Foucault's death from AIDS-related complications in 1984.

Nietzsche became one of the two major influences on Deleuze's mature writing. The other was the Portuguese-Dutch-Jewish seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who became the subject of half of Deleuze's 1968 doctoral dissertation. The other half, Difference et Répétition, is regarded as Deleuze's most significant work of pure academic philosophy. By the late 1960s Deleuze was a full-fledged member of the French academic elite. But his life took a sharp turn in 1968, as a result of two unrelated events. One was the onset of a chronic lung disease from which he would suffer for the rest of his life. The other was the eruption of left-wing student protests in France in May of that year, which rapidly grew more intense and culminated in a national general strike. Deleuze emerged as the philosopher of the 1968 generation, not in its Marxist guises but as a result of his status as an experimental but rigorous thinker who could provide an intellectual underpinning to the project of overturning the established order.

Deleuze took a job teaching at the new and experimental University of Paris VII (now Denis Diderot University) in 1969, remaining there until his retirement in 1987. Around that time he met Guattari, a radical psychoanalyst who believed in putting his ideas into practice in actual therapy situations. The two collaborated on several books that became among Deleuze's best known, including Anti-Oedipus (1972), Kafka: Pour une litterature mineure (1975, translated as Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature), and Mille plateaux (1980, translated as A Thousand Plateaus). These books were not co-authored in the usual sense; rather, they represented a true meeting of the minds in which it is often impossible to tell where one author's voice leaves off and the other's begins. “So close was the association between the philosopher and the psychiatrist,” noted David Macey of the London Guardian, “that they were sometimes described as a ‘bicephalous scientist.’ ”

The most celebrated of these books was Anti-Oedipus, in which Deleuze and Guattari, writing in a dense but freeform prose, gleefully attacked several of the theorists and thinkers who had been central to much of twentiethcentury French thought, including Sigmund Freud and his French intellectual descendant Jacques Lacan, and Karl Marx. The two writers were hostile especially to the systematizing tendencies of these thinkers, and they affirmed the unquantifiable aspects of the human mind in their analysis of Freudian ideas. To quote Macey in relation to the book's analysis of the Freudian idea of the unconscious: “The unconscious is no longer seen as a theatre, as in Freud, or as a text, as in Lacan, but as a psychic factory in which desiring machines pulsate and throb. It does not produce stable structures, but operates like a rhizome, constantly bifurcating and putting out shoots at unpredictable intervals.” Despite the fact that it was extremely difficult to read, the book became a bestseller in 1970s France.

Was Active in Gay Rights Movement

Part of the new trend in Deleuze's thinking was that philosophy was, and ought to be, a form of direct action. Accordingly, despite the disapproval of his wife, he often took part in street demonstrations. In the 1970s, although he himself is thought to have been heterosexual, he was active in the early French gay rights movement. He was a member of the group FHAR (Front Homosexuel d'action Révolutionnaire, or Revolutionary Front for Homosexual Action), which was short-lived but exerted heavy influence on later gay activists in France. In 1972 he worked with Guattari and Foucault on a special issue of the influential philosophical journal Récherhces, titled “Trois milliards de pervers” (Three Billion Perverts). The publication of the journal resulted in Guattari's arrest (and subsequent conviction) by French police on obscenity charges, but the quieter and more prestigious Deleuze escaped sanction.

The freewheeling style of Deleuze's writing has sometimes led to his being grouped among the thinkers of the French postmodernist movement, who included Jean Baudrillard and Jean Lyotard. Major postmodernist thinkers themselves rejected that categorization, however, and Deleuze's essentially activist stance entailed an intrinsic rejection of the postmodernist ideas of blank pastiche and the death of ideology. Toward the end of the twentieth century Deleuze emerged as an alternative to postmodernism, just as he had become an alternative to Marxism and Freudianism in his younger years. His recurring philosophical ideas had a revolutionary but not dogmatic ring: he created the concept of deterritorialization to describe an individual's attempt to free himself or herself from social categories, and he used the term nomadism to describe the act of resistance to repressive state structures. He was also active on behalf of prisoners' rights, and he became a staunch supporter of the Palestine Liberation Movement.

In the 1980s Deleuze wrote several books on the arts, including Francis Bacon (1981), Cinéma 1: Mouvement-Image (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, 1983), and Cinéma 2: L'image-temps (Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 1985). He argued, however, that these books should not be understood as film or art criticism. In Deleuze's own words, quoted in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Let's suppose that there's a third period when I worked on painting and cinema: images on the face of it. But I was writing philosophy.” Deleuze retired from teaching in 1987 after his already fragile health began to deteriorate.

In the last decade of his life Deleuze worked with Guattari on a book that followed from many of his ideas, even though it did not exactly summarize them: Qu'est-ce que c'est la philosophie? (What Is Philosophy?), published in 1991, ironically questioned the historical primacy accorded to pure thought, generally regarded as a key basis of philosophy itself. Hospitalized repeatedly and suffering badly after undergoing a tracheotomy, Deleuze committed suicide by jumping out the window of his Paris apartment on November 4, 1995. He was the sole author of 25 books, plus several more written as part of his unique collaboration with Guattari. Numerous explications of his work by other scholars have appeared in the years since. In the United States his writing has been particularly influential among theorists of contemporary art.


Badiou, Alain, Deleuze: The Clamour of Being, trans. Louise Burchill, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Hardt, Michael, Gilles Deleuze: An Apprenticeship in Philosophy, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Patton, Paul, Deleuze and the Political, Routledge, 2000.


Artforum International, March 1996; April 2003.

Guardian (London, England), November 7, 1995.

New York Times, November 7, 1995.


“Biography: Gilles Deleuze,” European Graduate School, (February 2, 2008).

“Gilles Deleuze,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (February 2, 2008).

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Deleuze, Gilles

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