Deleuze, Gilles (1925–1995)

views updated


Gilles Deleuze, one of the most influential and prolific French philosophers of the postwar period, was born in Paris, and lived there, with a few exceptions, for the rest of his life. The son of a conservative, middle-class engineer, a veteran of World War I, Deleuze received his early elementary education in the French public school system. When the Germans invaded France, Deleuze's family was on vacation in Normandy, and he spent a year being schooled there. Deleuze traced his own initiation into literature and philosophy to his encounter with a teacher at Deauville named Pierre Halwachs (son of the sociologist Maurice Halwachs), who introduced him to writers such as André Gide and Charles Baudelaire. Early on, he later recalled, philosophical concepts struck him with the same force as literary characters, having their own autonomy and style, and he soon began to read philosophical works with the same animation and engagement as literary texts. During the occupation, Deleuze's older brother was arrested by the Nazis for resistance activities and deported; he died on the train to Auschwitz.

After the Liberation, Deleuze returned to Paris and undertook his khâgne (an intensive year of preparatory studies) at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV, and then studied the history of philosophy at the Sorbonne. He was taught by Jean Hippolyte and Ferdinand Alquié ("two professors I loved and admired enormously" [Deleuze, 1977, p. 12]), as well as Georges Canguilheim and Maurice de Gandillac, though like many of his peers he was as influenced by the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre as by the work of his academic mentors. He published his first book, Empiricism and Subjectivity, on David Hume, in 1953, when he was twenty-eight. In an era dominated by phenomenology and "the three Hs" (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger), Deleuze's decision to write on empiricism and Hume was already a provocation, early evidence of the heterodox tendencies of his thought.

During the decade between 1953 and 1962which he later referred to as "a hole in my life" (Deleuze 1990, p. 138)Deleuze published little, moved among various teaching positions in Paris and the provinces, and contracted a recurring respiratory ailment that would plague him for the rest of his life. In 1956 he married Fanny (Denise Paul) Grandjouan, a French translator of D. H. Lawrence, with whom he would have two children. In 1962 his groundbreaking study Nietzsche and Philosophy was published to considerable acclaim, cementing Deleuze's reputation in academic circles. In the decade that followed, Deleuze more or less published a book per year, most of them devoted to the work of a particular philosopher or writer: Kant (1963), Proust (1964), Nietzsche (1965), Bergson (1966), Sade and Masoch (1967), Spinoza (1968), and later Kafka (1975), Francis Bacon (1981), Michel Foucault (1986), and Leibniz (1988). Difference and Repetition, his magnum opus, appeared in 1968, followed by Logic of Sense in 1969.

In the same year, he met Félix Guattari, a militant psychoanalyst, with whom he wrote a number of influential books, including the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972, 1980), which were overtly political texts written in the wake of the ferment of May 1968. The first volume, Anti-Oedipus, was a best-seller in France, and thrust Deleuze into the limelight as a public intellectual. In 1969 Deleuze took up a teaching post at the experimental campus of the University of Paris VII (at Vincennes and, later, St. Denis), where he gave weekly seminars until his retirement in 1987. Like Kant, he traveled little, and devoted his time to teaching and writing: Paris was his Konigsberg, France was his Prussia. He shunned academic conferences and colloquia, insisting that the activity of thought took place primarily in writing, and not in dialogue and discussion. By 1993 his pulmonary illness had confined him severely, making it increasingly difficult to read or write; he took his own life on November 4, 1995.

Deleuze's writings were strongly grounded in the history of philosophy, but he read widely in contemporary science and mathematics, and was well known for his interactions with the various arts. His early work was in part a reaction against Hegel, and more generally against the then-dominant post-Kantian tradition in philosophy. Kant's genius, for Deleuze, was to have conceived of a purely immanent critique of reasona critique that did not seek, within reason, "errors" produced by external causes, but rather "illusions" that arise internally from within reason itself by the illegitimate (transcendent) uses of the syntheses of consciousness. Deleuze characterized his own work as a philosophy of immanence, but argued that Kant himself had failed to fully realize the immanent ambitions of his critique, for at least two reasons.

First, Kant made the immanent field immanent to a transcendental subject, thereby reintroducing an element of transcendence, and reserving all power of synthesis to the activity of the subject. In his first book, Empiricism and Subjectivity (1953), on Hume, Deleuze pointed to an empiricist reversal of this relation: whereas Kant's question had been "How can the given be given to a subject?" Hume's question had been "How is the subject (human nature) constituted within the given?" Deleuze would later characterize his own position as a "transcendental empiricism": the determination of an impersonal and pre-individual transcendental field in which the subject is itself the result or product of passive synthese s (of the body, habit, desire, the unconscious). Just as there is no universal reason but only historically variable processes of "rationalization" (Max Weber), so there is no universal or transcendental subject, but only diverse and historically variable processes of "subjectivation." Deleuze summarized his empiricism in terms of two characteristics: the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained; the aim of philosophy is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the singular conditions under which something new is produced (creativity).

Second, Kant had simply presumed the existence of certain "facts" (knowledge, morality) and then sought their conditions of possibility in the transcendental. But already in 1789, Salomon Maimon, whose early critiques of Kant helped generate the post-Kantian tradition, had argued that Kant's critical project required a method of genesis and not merely a method of conditioningthat would account for the production of knowledge, morality, and indeed reason itselfa method, in other words, that would be able to reach the conditions of real and not merely possible experience. Maimon found a solution to this problem in a principle of difference: Whereas identity is the condition of possibility of thought in general, it is difference that constitutes the genetic and productive principle of real thought.

These two Maimonian exigenciesthe search for the genetic conditions of real experience and the positing of a principle of difference reappear like a leitmotif in almost every one of Deleuze's early monographs. Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962), for instance, suggests that Nietzsche completed and inverted Kantianism by bringing critique to bear, not simply on false claims to knowledge or morality, but on true knowledge and true morality, and indeed on truth itself: "genealogy" constituted Nietzsche's genetic method, and the will to power was his principle of difference. Bergsonism (1966) argues that Bergson's concepts of duration, memory, and élan vital constitute the dimensions of the multiplicities of the real. Against the "major" post-Kantian tradition of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, Deleuze in effect posited his own "minor" post-Kantian trio of Maimon, Nietzsche, and Bergson. In rethinking the post-Kantian heritage, Deleuze would also retrieve the work of a well-known trio of pre-Kantian philosophersHume, Spinoza, and Leibnizalthough from a decidedly post-Kantian viewpoint.

Deleuze's historical monographs were, in this sense, preliminary sketches for the great canvas of Difference and Repetition (1968), which marshaled these resources from the history of philosophy in an ambitious project to construct a metaphysics of difference. Normally, difference is conceived of as an empirical relation between two terms each of which has a prior identity of its own ("x is different from y"). In Deleuze, this primacy is inverted: identity persists, but it is now a secondary principle produced by a prior relation between differentials (dx rather than not-x). Difference is no longer an empirical relation but becomes a transcendental principle that constitutes the sufficient reason of empirical diversity as such (for example, it is the difference of potential in a cloud that constitutes the sufficient reason of the phenomenon of lightning). In Deleuze's ontology, the different is related to the different through difference itself, without any mediation. Although he was indebted to metaphysical thinkers such as Spinoza, Leibniz, and Bergson, Deleuze appropriated their respective systems of thought only by pushing them to their "differential" limit, purging them of the three great terminal points of traditional metaphysics (God, World, Self).

Deleuze's subsequent work was, to some degree, a working out of the metaphysics developed in Difference and Repetition. Deleuze considered himself a classical philosopher and conceived of his philosophy as a systemalbeit an open and heterogenetic (non-totalizing) systemwhich might be summarized in terms of the following traditional rubrics, derived largely from Kant.

Dialectics (Theory of the Idea)

Difference and Repetition attempts to formulate a theory of Ideas (dialectics) based neither on an essential model of identity (Plato), nor a regulative model of unity (Kant), nor a dialectical model of contradiction (Hegel), but rather on a problematic and genetic model of difference. Ideas are what define the "essence" of a thing, but one cannot attain an Idea through the Socratic question "What is ?" (which posits Ideas as transcendent and eternal), but rather through "minor" questions such as "Which one?" "Where?" "When?" "How?" "How many?" "In which case?" "From which viewpoint?"all of which allow one to define the spatio-temporal coordinates of Ideas that are purely immanent and differential. The formal criteria Deleuze uses to define Ideas are largely derived from Leibniz and the model of the differential calculus, which provides a mathematical symbolism for the exploration of the real: things or beings are virtual and problematic multiplicities composed of singularities-events, which are prolonged in converging and diverging series, forming zones of indiscernibility where the multiplicities entering into perpetual becomings.

Aesthetics (Theory of Sensation)

What are the implications of a principle of difference for aesthetics? Kant had dissociated aesthetics into two halves: the theory of sensibility as the form of possible experience (the "Transcendental Aesthetic"), and the theory of art as a reflection on real experience (the "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment"). In Deleuze's work, these two halves of aesthetics are reunited: If the most general aim of art is to "produce a sensation," then the genetic principles of sensation are at the same time the principles of composition for works of art; conversely, it is works of art that are best capable of revealing these conditions of sensibility. Deleuze's writings on the various artsincluding the cinema (Cinema I and II), literature (Essays Critical and Clinical ), and painting (Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation )must be read, not as works of criticism, but rather as philosophical explorations of this transcendental domain of sensibility. Deleuze locates the conditions of sensibility in an intensive conception of space and a virtual conception of time, which are necessarily actualized in a plurality of spaces and a complex rhythm of times (for instance, in the nonextended spaces and non-linear times of modern mathematics and physics).

Ethics (Theory of Affectivity)

Deleuze has similarly developed a purely immanent conception of ethics, an "ethics without morality." If morality implies an appeal to transcendent values as criteria of judgment (as in Kant's moral law), ethics evaluates actions and intentions according to the immanent mode of existence they imply. One says or does this, thinks or feels that: What mode of existence does it imply? This is the link Deleuze establishes between Spinoza and Nietzsche, his two great precursors as philosophers of immanence: each of them argued, in his own manner, that there are things one cannot do or think except on the condition of being base or enslaved, unless one harbors a ressentiment against life (Nietzsche), unless one remains the slave of passive affections (Spinoza); and there are other things one cannot do or say except on the condition of being noble or free, unless one affirms life or attains active affections. The transcendent moral opposition (Good/Evil) is in this way replaced by an immanent ethical difference (good/bad). A bad or sickly life is an exhausted and degenerating mode of existence, one that judges life from the perspective of its sickness, which devalues life in the name of higher values. A good or healthy life, by contrast, is an overflowing or ascending mode of existence, capable of transforming itself depending on the forces it encounters, always opening up new possibilities of life, new becomings.

Politics (Socio-Political Theory)

This immanent conception of ethics leads directly into Deleuze's political philosophy, which he developed most fully in the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, with Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus (1972), under the guise of a critique of psychoanalysis, is in effect an immanent reworking of Kant's theory of desire in the Critique of Practical Reason. Since the capacities and affectivity (desire) of individuals is always effectuated within concrete socio-political "assemblages"one of Deleuze's fundamental political conceptsthe political philosophy presented in A Thousand Plateaus (1980) takes the form of a typology of social assemblages (primitive societies, the State, nomadic war machines, capitalism) that provide conceptual tools for analyzing the complex dimension of the actual situation: How are its mechanisms of power organized? What are the "lines of flight" that escape its integration? What new modes of existence does it make possible? What relations does it sustain between desire and power?

Analytics (Theory of the Concept)

Finally, Deleuze's dialectic (the constitution of problems) leads directly into his analytic (concepts as cases of solution), which he presented in his late book What Is Philosophy? (1991, co-authored with Guattari). Deleuze defines philosophy as the art of creating concepts, as knowledge through pure concepts. But for Deleuze, the highest concepts are not a priori universals applicable to objects of possible experience (categories), but singularities that correspond to the structures of real experience. Concepts are self-referentialthey posit their object in being positedand are defined in terms of their consistency of their components (endo-consistency) and their relation to other concepts (exo-consistency). Deleuze's analytic should be evaluated critically in relation to competing theories of the concept (Frege, Russell), which often make use of scientific functions or logical propositions as their model. His analysis of the concepts of "sadism" and "masochism" in his 1967 book Coldness and Cruelty (and his concomitant critique of the notion of "sado-masochism") provides an excellent case study of his differential approach to concepts.

See also Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Nietzsche, Friedrich.


works by gilles deleuze

Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume's Theory of Human Nature (1953). Translated by Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962). Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Kant's Critical Philosophy (1963). Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Proust and Signs (1964). Translated by Richard Howard. London: Athlone Press, 2000.

Bergsonism (1966). Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty (1967). Translated by Jean McNeil. New York: Zone Books, 1989.

Difference and Repetition (1968). Translated by Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (1968). Translated by Martin Joughin. New York: Zone Books, 1990.

The Logic of Sense (1969). Translated by Mark Lester, with Charles Stivale; edited by Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Capitalism and Schizophrenia. With Félix Guattari. Vol. 1: Anti-Oedipus (1972). Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen Lane. Vol. 2: A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, 1987.

Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1975). With Félix Guattari. Translated by Sean Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Dialogues (1977). With Claire Parnet. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981). Translated by Daniel W. Smith. London: Athlone Press, 2003.

Cinema. Vol. 1: The Movement-Image (1983). Vol. 2: The Time-Image (1985). Translated by Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam, and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, 1989.

Foucault (1986). Translated by Sean Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1988). Translated by Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Negotiations, 19721990 (1990). Translated by Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

What Is Philosophy? (1991). With Félix Guattari. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Essays Critical and Clinical. (1993). Translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Daniel W. Smith (2005)

About this article

Deleuze, Gilles (1925–1995)

Updated About content Print Article