What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

What is Philosophy? is the question that Gilles Deleuze (French Philosopher, 1925-1995) and Felix Guattari (French psychoanalyst, 1930-1992) explored in the last book they collaborated on and published in 1991. Of their collaboration Deleuze wrote. “We do not work together, we work between the two…. We don’t work, we negotiate. We were never in the same rhythm, we were always out of step.” (I have selected this quote because it resonates with my experience of working collaboratively, so I just want to mark it here).

This is also the book that has been selected by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network for discussion online on March 15th

‘What is Philosophy?’ is an inquiry into the nature of philosophy itself, i.e., metaphilosophy. The question is a metaphysical question.

I am not completely unfamiliar with the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Between 2014 and 2016 I spent quite a bit of time exploring some of the ideas they discussed in A Thousand Plateaus – principally The Rhizome (see page on Rhizomatic Learning on this blog), but also Lines of Flight; Multiplicities, Wolves, Tribes and Pacts; Smooth and Striated Space; and Nomadism. However, there was a lot in A Thousand Plateaus that I never got to grips with. My experience of this book is similar.

Deleuze and Guattari’s language is abstract and difficult to understand. Yes, it is often imaginative and sometimes poetic, but that hasn’t made it any easier to read.

They start the book by writing:

“The question what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely…….It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask.”(p.1).  It is also a question that is often posed as an icebreaker on the short adult education philosophy courses that I attend and, I realise now,  the answers provided by the participants (including myself) are exactly what Deleuze and Guattari say philosophy is not. Philosophy is not, argue Deleuze and Guattari, contemplation, reflection, or communication.

In this book Deleuze and Guattari are interested in how philosophy is distinct from other disciplines, in particular how it is distinct from the sciences and arts. What are the similarities and differences? A novelist generates stories, and a scientist generates empirical knowledge about the world, but a philosopher generates concepts. The philosopher is the friend or lover of wisdom, and the philosopher ‘is the concept’s friend; he is potentiality of the concept.’ (p.5). Philosophy is the creation of concepts.

Philosophers seek to define philosophy, but also to determine the boundaries without which there would be chaos. Deleuze and Guattari try to avoid chaos.

In what follows I am not going to discuss the whole book, but just the first two chapters, ‘The Introduction: The Question Then ….’ and Chapter 1, ‘What is a Concept’. I have found a very useful secondary source which has helped to explain these chapters (see Varsity Bookwork playlist on YouTube), which I am going to draw on heavily 🙂

Philosophy is not contemplation

In seeking to define what is philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari don’t just fill the space, but determine the boundaries (define it) by saying what philosophy is not.

‘It is not contemplation, for contemplations are things themselves as seen in the creation of their specific concepts.’ (p. 6)

Contemplation has always been considered important by philosophers, as far back as the Greek philosophers. Plato said that Ideas must be contemplated. For Deleuze and Guattari the question is, ‘how can you contemplate an Idea, if you don’t know what the Idea is?’ Asking what is the Idea is a conceptual and philosophical question, which has to be asked first before we can contemplate the Idea. So philosophy and concepts come before contemplation. We need concepts first before we can contemplate them. Contemplation considers the concepts that philosophy generates.

Philosophy is not reflection

Philosophy is not reflection, write Deleuze and Guattari (p.6),

‘… because no one needs philosophy to reflect on anything. It is thought that philosophy is being given a great deal by being turned into the art of reflection, but actually it loses everything. Mathematicians, as mathematicians, have never waited for philosophers before reflecting on mathematics, nor artists before reflecting on painting or music. So long as their reflection belongs to their respective creation, it is a bad joke to say that this makes them philosophers.’ (p.6).

On page 122 of his book, Negotiations (1997), Deleuze writes:

‘In barren times philosophy retreats to reflecting “on” things. If it’s not itself creating anything, what can it do but reflect on something? So it reflects on eternal or historical things, but can itself no longer make any move. Philosophers Aren’t Reflective, but Creative. What we should in fact do, is stop allowing philosophers to reflect “on” things. The philosopher creates, he doesn’t reflect.’

Neither reflection nor contemplation are creative activities, but reflection and contemplation are different, because contemplation contemplates concepts, but reflection does not involve thinking about concepts. Reflection is a mode of thinking distinct from contemplation. It doesn’t need concepts. Contemplation needs concepts.

Philosophy is not communication

Deleuze and Guattari also write that philosophy is not communication, because communication ‘only works under the sway of opinions in order to create “consensus” and not concepts. The idea of a Western democratic conversation between friends has never produced a single concept.’ (p.6).

Thus, the aims of philosophy and communication differ. Philosophy aims to create concepts; communication aims to generate consensus (agreement between people).

Deleuze and Guattari do not deny that communication plays an integral role in philosophy. It is part of philosophy but is not itself philosophy. No matter how many people share an opinion it doesn’t make it true. For Deleuze and Guattari, philosophy is about getting us to see where disagreements are; this is where creativity can thrive and a new concept can emerge.

In an interview with Deleuze conducted in 1990 (so before the publication of ‘What is Philosophy’), Deleuze said ‘We’ve got to hijack speech. Creating has always been something different from communicating.’

For Delueze and Guattari, philosophy is a necessarily disruptive act which challenges the status quo; creativity is synonymous with disruption, and philosophy is a creative act.

This is as far as I am going to go in this post. There is a lot more. I have barely scratched the surface. As it says on the back cover of my copy of the book:

‘The first part of the book [ as well as the concept, also] explores … the ‘plane of immanence’ in which [the concept] can be born and the ‘conceptual personae’ which activate it. It concludes with a brilliant account of philosophy’s relation to social and economic development, from ancient  Greece to the modern capitalist state. Part two considers other forms of thought: science, art, literature and music.’

However, just this short section has implications for educators. Deleuze and Guattari have argued that philosophy is distinct from the sciences and the arts, describing disciplines such as the human sciences and sociology, epistemology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, logical analysis, computer science, marketing, design and advertising as ‘increasingly insolent and calamitous rivals that Plato himself would never have imagined in his most comic moments’. (p.10).

Saying clearly what philosophy is not, helps to make the case for Philosophy as a unique discipline, a discipline much needed in education today.

Update 15-03-22

Dr Kay Sidebottom who will introduce the discussion about this book, has now posted three questions for us to consider:

Update 09-03-22

An individual extensive response to this book by Roy Williams, can be found here – http://resonancesofknowledge.pbworks.com/w/page/148119147/0%20-%20Knowledge%20Tools%20and%20Affordances

If you access the link you will see that this is a work in progress.

References

Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, F. (1991). What is philosophy? Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1990). Negotiations. Columbia University Press.

Additions R, Ewald F, C. C. (1990). Control and Becoming, Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Antonio Negri.

Varsity Bookwork YouTube Playlist: What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

2 thoughts on “What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

  1. Roy Williams March 3, 2022 / 12:24 am

    Thanks for this, Jenny.

    Clear and comprehensive, as always.

    I worked my way though much of the original text, and through the videos (which were refreshingly good), but I am still less enthusiastic about these two than I apparently should be. I think they are very erudite and focused, but I am not convinced that their subject matter needs to be strung out over so many pages. My academic training was in conceptual analysis, so I’m familiar with the field.

    I think they enjoy the look of their own writing too much! And they spend too much time (and space) trying to be worthy (and a little bit esoteric) – which in some of their other work I find quite amusing and entertaining, but I find this book rather dull, to be frank. (There’s little that’s playful in it.)

    Anyway – looking forward to hearing what other people think about it. And I love your quote on working collaboratively: “we don’t work, we negotiate.”

  2. jennymackness March 3, 2022 / 12:22 pm

    Hi Roy, Thanks for your comments. I think you and I have similar thoughts about the book, and it sounds as though you have read more of it than I have.

    Like you, I am going to be interested in what others have to say about D & G and this book. In particular I would be interested in a discussion about how their ideas are relevant to the philosophy of education.

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