What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
Reviewed by John David Ebert
What is Philosophy?, originally published in 1991, was the last of the four great collaborations between Deleuze and Guattari, who had already published Anti-Oedipus, Kafka and A Thousand Plateaus. It was also Deleuze’s last significant work.
Customer reviews on Amazon have claimed that this book is unintelligible, and even people with brains like Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have complained about the obtuseness of Deleuze and Guattari in their Fashionable Nonsense. But let me just reassure the reader here that Deleuze and Guattari’s books are neither fashionable nor nonsensical: they are masterpieces of postmodern thought, especially A Thousand Plateaus, which remains their best book. Just because a book is difficult does not mean that it is incomprehensible. Far from it. Ask anyone who’s read (and actually understood) Heidegger, for instance, whether he is nonsensical.
It is true that French philosophers do not read in the direct and transparent fashion of American thinkers like Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman or William Irwin Thompson. But this is a matter of national stylistic difference, not comprehensibility. You simply have to work harder, with French thought, than you do with a work of American cultural studies. One cannot just grab a book by Deleuze at random, read it through in a couple of hours and expect to understand anything. It doesn’t work that way. It’s like martial arts: there are no shortcuts to learning how to do it. You have to practice it, bit by bit, day by day, until their dazzling mindfields begin to come slowly into view, like a landscape looming out of the fog as the ship of the ego approaches.
What is Philosophy? is, as are all of D&G’s books, very difficult to understand, though it is easy to read, due to their swift style and polished prose. According to the authors, philosophy is involved with the creation of concepts. Not reflection, contemplation or analysis. It does these other things, but they are not the core of its activity, which is inherently creative. The philosopher is one who creates new concepts. They are his paint.
And the canvas on which he paints is something which the authors call ‘the plane of immanence,’ a term familiar from their other works. The plane of immanence is a sort of intangible virtual thought field, a horizon or landscape, that is constructed by the philosopher and populated with his concepts. The plane can consist of multiple levels, but it is a sort of mind field, like a literary landscape.
There is something, too, which the philosoopher does which is similar to, but different than what the literary artist does. The literary artist creates a plane of composition as an image of a Universe, and his tools are not concepts but affects and percepts, although as the authors recognize, literary art is a kind of conceptual thinking in another mode.
However, when the philosopoher says “I” he is actually an avatar of another entity which the authors term “conceptual personae.” The “I” of the phiosopher is always a third person: for example, Socrates is the conceptual persona of Platonism; Dionysus is the conceptual persona of Nietzsche; the idiot (in the old classical sense of individual vs. corporate) is the conceptual persona of Descartes and so on. These figures actually substitute for the “I” of the philosopher and think through him as he constructs his plane of immanence of concepts. They are similar to the aesthetic figures of the literary artist, but they are not the same thing. Occasionally, though, aesthetic figures like Don Juan or Zarathustra can be taken up by philosophers like Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, and become transformed into conceptual personae. Thus, the plane of composition of art and the plane of immanence of philosophy can sometimes overlap and slip into each other such that the parts of one may be occupied by the entities of the other.
So for D&G, the success of a book of philosophy does not lie in whether it advances truth, but whether it is original or unique. Weak books of philosopohy are not “false,” they are simply uninteresting because there has been a failure to conceive of a new conceptual persona or to create any new ideas. A concept must be interesting, even if it is repulsive. “When Nietzsche,” they write, “constructed the concept of ‘bad conscience,’ he could see in this what is most disgusting in the world and yet exclaim, ‘This is where man begins to be interesting!’ and consider himself actually to have created a new concept for man, one that suited man, related to a new conceptual persona (the priest) and with a new image of thought (the will to power understood from the point of view of nihilism).”
Science, however, deals not with concepts, but with functions, functions that are elaborated in the form of propositions that may or may not grasp the concept of the object so constructed. Science differs from philosophy, though, primarily in its attitude toward chaos: whereas philosophy retains the infinite speeds of the birth and disappearance of particles of chaos, science relinquishes these infinite speeds, wishing to create not a plane of immanence but a plane of reference in which the virtual (i.e. chaos) can be actualized. Philosophy, on the other hand, does not need to actualize the virtual but merely to think it. Science slows matter down in order to actualize it; philosophy can allow it to remain at infinite speeds. “A function is a Slow-motion.” Science has, by contrast with philosophy’s conceptual personae and literature’s aesthetic figures, what D&G call partial observers, such as Maxwell’s demon, or Heisenberg’s or Einstein’s observers, who are partial precisely because there are always limitations imposed upon what they can do and know.
Art, then, deals with percepts and affects, which are not as subjective as they sound. Percepts in the sense in which the authors define it, are no longer perceptions, and affects are no longer feelings because they have been immortalized by artists, who create blocs of sensations as combinations of immortal percepts and affects which outlast the point of view of any one particular subject who “lives” them. So long as the material in which the sensations are incarnated last, the sensation enjoys an eternity in those very moments. By means of the material, the aim of art is to extract a bloc of sensations from particular perceptions of things by particular subjects. “The percept is the landscape before man, in the absence of man.”
“Affects are precisely these nonhuman becomings of man, just as percepts …are nonhuman landscapes of nature.” The artist becomes with the world. He is embedded within it. Art creates a plane of composition that through the action of aesthetic figures bears monuments or composite sensations.
Thus, art, philosophy and science are three different forms of thinking and no one of them captures more fully than any of the others the realm of ‘thought.’ With its concepts, philosophy brings forth events; art erects monuments with its sensations; and science constructs states of affairs with its functions.
The philosopher, the scientist and the artist make journeys into the land of the dead, each of them returning bearing concepts, functions and sensations. Each of these three realms acts as a means of protecting us from pure chaos: the philosopher tries to think chaos, the scientist to minimize it, the artist to make use of it.
All three domains are involved in a struggle against the realm of mere opinion, of cliched thinking and of stereotypes.
Needless to say, the reader won’t find any cliches here.