Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (12): Conversation versus Discussion

This distinction between structural demarcation and a-structural exchange poses a series of problems for the notion of discussion. From the perspective of demarcation, not only is it impossible for the philosopher to converse meaningfully not only with the partisans of the doxa, but also with the scientist and the artist, nor even with philosophers working out of other problematics.

The incommensurability of the non-referential concept with the doxa, with the function, and with percepts and affects seems absolute. The same applies, internally to philosophy, to the discontinuity between different philosophical systems.

Deleuze and Guattari condemn « discussion » as a narcissistic and sterile activity, an empty social ritual to be avoided at all costs:

Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, “Let’s discuss this.” (WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, 28)

1) One should be wary of taking such statements at face value, as enouncing some sort of general law about an abstraction called « discussion », about which one can say something in isolation from any specific context or concrete arrangement. Deleuze and Guattari do not seem to be speaking concretely.

What Deleuze and Guattari getting at here is the existence of incommensurability, which is very often ignored, denied or repressed. Many people proceed in a discussion as if you were using the same words with the same meanings and go off on a tangent based on the use by their interlocutor of a few key words that they recognise and employ themselves. This is a bad way to handle incommensurability, by autistic denial.

2) Nor should one understand this statement of Deleuze and Guattari as propounding a general rule: always avoid discussions, never discuss.

Deleuze and Guattari reject discussion and oppose the solitude necessary for creating concepts to the sterility of gregarity:

Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous (WIP?, 28).

Yet we feel that there is something one-sided about this proposition. All forms of dialogue seem to be equated, and equally excluded: discussion, communication, conversation are treated as synonyms. General rules are propounded: « flee discussion » and « conversation is always superfluous ».

This is very strange in a book stemming from the decades long collaboration (or creative dialogue) between two thinkers in whose professions dialogue plays an essential role: a philosopher (pedagogical and collegial dialogues) and a psychoanalyst (analytic session, therapeutic dialogue).

In contrast, exchange and conversations is held to be both possible and fruitful between the creative disciplines of philosophy, science, and art, by way of their accompanying a-structural « shadow ».

In an interview that Deleuze gave after the publication of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? he distinguishes between « conversation » and « discussion », and attributes a creative role to conversation:

Discussion amounts to wasting a lot of time on indeterminate problems. Conversation is something else entirely. Conversation is quite necessary. But the slightest conversation is a highly schizophrenic exercise happening between two individuals with common resources and a taste for ellipse and verbal shortcuts. Conversation is composed of immobility interspersed with long silences; it can give you ideas. But discussion has no place in philosophical work (TWO REGIMES OF MADNESS, 384, translation modified by me).

There can be no general rule, as most concrete cases, according to Deleuze and Guattari’s own principles, are mixtures. In this case,  we are confronted with mixtures between « discussion » (bad) and « conversation » (good). The idea that as a general rule discussion or dialogue is narcissistic, whereas a monologue or a conversation between friends is not, is quite doubtful.

There is also the problem of the criterion. How are we too decide when the other is merely « discussing » and not « conversing »? Are we not in danger of a dogmatism that legitimates its refusal to listen or to be open to critique as a creative posture?

Further, are we not in danger of rationalising and universalising a characterological particularity? Deleuze was perhaps an aristocrat at heart, and may have had difficulties with discussion that were sociologically and psychologically based rather than being philosophically grounded.

If we apply the distinction (discussed here by Badiou) between the three types of logics (classical, intuitionist, and para-consistent), we may say that « discussion » is inherently unstable and unsatisfying. This is because it tends to oscillate between the classical logic (following the law of the excluded middle) of binary demarcations (called by Deleuze in DIALOGUES the « forced choice ») and the intuitionist logic (allowing for the existence of other values than true or false) of a plurality of opinions condemned to « tolerate » each other.

Conversation is « schizophrenic » because it adds to this mix a para-consistent logic (which allows for the existence of contradictions). Here conversation is ellipse, and an animated exchange is compatible with immobility and silence.

A good conversation thus combines the three logics, making sharp distinctions and clear demarcations, (provisionally, where necessary), and allowing for a multitude of nuances and intermediate positions, while remaining half-plunged in a chaos where creation and destruction are maintained as one.

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Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (11): The Deleuze/Guattari Parallax

It is important to keep in mind that WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? is the result of a long-lasting collaborative effort, a work signed by two authors.

When the title question « What is philosophy? » is posed on the first page, it is first referred to as such:

Perhaps one can pose the question What is philosophy? only late, when old age comes, and the hour to speak concretely.

It is then reformulated a few lines later:

That point of non-style where one can finally say, « What is it I have been doing all my life? » had not been reached.

This passage from the impersonal subject « one » to the personal subject « I » is perhaps even more striking in the original French:

« on n’avait pas atteint à ce point de non-style où on peut dire enfin: mais qu’est-ce que c’était, ce que j’ai fait toute ma vie? »


« one had not reached this point of non-style where one can say at last: but what was it, that I have done all my life? »

Those who think of the book as principally or entirely Deleuze’s work will find it normal that the answer is quite standard. Philosophy is based on the concept, it began in Ancient Greece with the replacement of the Sage by the lover of wisdom, it evolves through the agon of intrinsic friends and rivals and by the exclusion of extrinsic false pretendants.

In contrast, those who think of the book as primarily the fruit of a real collaboration, but without fusion, between rival perspectives of philosophical friends, will understand the book differently and see that the standard answer is only part of the full story.

There is a very interesting passage from a letter from Deleuze to Arnaud Villani, quoted in his book La Guêpe et l’orchidée (The Wasp and the Orchid):

« The way that you fail to mention Felix in your first pages needs to be corrected. Your point of view is still correct, one can speak of me without Felix. Still Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus are entirely by him, just as they are entirely by me, according to two possible points of view. Hence the necessity, if you will, to underline that if you deal only with me it is due to your own undertaking, and not at all because of any secondary or « occasional » character of Felix. This is very important » (page 125 – 126).

Thus the question « What is it I have been doing all my life? »  is asked equally by Guattari and from his perspective, and the answer cannot be understood in the same way as from  Deleuze’s perspective. In their collaboration it is parallax all the way through.

(Note on terminology: nowhere do I say that the « concept » in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? is cognitive or academic. In my first post in this series I explicitly reject that idea and argue that in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms the concept is « noetic ». I call the distinction between the three « Non-« s (non-science, non-art, and non-philosophy ») « cerebral », because that is the term that is used on the last page of the book).

I am trying to examine this last book in its own terms in order to bring out its singularity within the combined oeuvre of Deleuze and Guattari, and also in order to highlight some aspects of its structure and content that seem to have been overlooked, or insufficiently emphasised.

There is also a question of the sociology of French philosophy. In the sixties and seventies the principle obstacle was a repressive and suppressive order of thought and action, and many thinkers (Deleuze and Guattari, but also Foucault, Lyotard Bourdieu, Derrida) put the emphasis on the de-territorialising line of deconstruction and disorder.

However, with the rise of philo-marketing and of a new breed of philo-merchandisers (cf. the « nouveaux philosophes ») and of a generalised democratic relativism, it became necessary to emphasise the more orderly line of sobriety and « intrinsic » features of philosophy. WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? fully partakes of this new movement, while trying to remain loyal to the gains of the previous de-territorialising movement.

(A very interesting book on this subject is L’EMPIRE DE L’UNIVERSITÉ by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie).

Hence we are confronted with the spectacle of a book by Deleuze and Guattari that

(1) seems to go against the grain of their earlier efforts, and

(2) has a conclusion that seems to contradict the rest of the book, unless

(3) we perceive the contradiction as indicating that we must re-read the book as from the beginning to be understood in terms of this conclusion.

(4) must continually be read in terms of the parallax Deleuze/Guattari, and of the further prallaxes philosophy/non-philosophy, conceptual light/chaotic shadow.

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Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (10): structural demarcation and a-structural exchanges

I have been keeping as much as possible to WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? as distinct from Deleuze and Guattari’s other books written either together or separately, in order to see what distinguishes it from those other books, and also to determine what, if any, useful advice can be drawn from it.

A preliminary obstacle lies in what we may call the structuralism of the book’s general set up. Like it or not, in this book Deleuze and Guattari propose a metaphysics of the concept and a set of demarcations between art and science and philosophy. Not unlike François Laruelle, they propose a structural principle governing the thought-structure of philosophy, i.e. the creation of concepts that are auto-positing and self-referential.

Happily, from my perspective, they partially undo these two structural principles in the conclusion, but as developed in the bulk of the book they are inadequate.

Unlike Laruelle’s non-philosophy, they both explicate this philosophical auto-sufficiency in a favourable light and deploy the conceptual resources developed in the book to show that these incommensurable structures are not hermetically sealed of from each other, but that they are permeable and allow a-structural exchanges between differing creative practices.


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Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (9): Metaphysics of the concept and its non-conceptual shadow

We have seen that Deleuze and Guattari propose a principle of demarcation between science and philosophy based on a metaphysics of the concept. One justification for this position is that Deleuze and Guattari are asking after a lifetime of philosophising: « What is it that I have been doing all my life? »

The danger of such an orientation is that it may give rise to an answer that operates at the level of auto-positional reflection rather than of creative anamnesis, one that applies only to their own practice. The metaphysics of the concept would then serve not only to legitimate, but to actively produce the tautologous repetition of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts, rather than their creative extrapolation.

I have no objection to the doctrine of universal concept-ladenness or omni-conceptuality as such, but I think there is a problem when this plausible idea is elevated to the level of a definitory criterion, as the principle of demarcation between philosophy (concepts) and science (functions).

An important question one may ask in reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? is what is the non-philosophical (and one may add non-cognitive) knowledge or sensibility that is required for us to be able to « speak concretely » according to Deleuze and Guattari. The type of « concreteness » that they are seeking both to describe and to enact is not that of the concrete particular of an individual’s life, but that of the concrete universal that speaks to us and that can give us useful advice, in very different circumstances.

It may well be that Deleuze and Guattari have proceeded further into the « shadow » than Laruelle and Derrida, but that this remains too urbane and goes less far than many other people’s experience of the non-philosophical shadow. However, this shadow experience cannot itself be made a badge of noblesse, at the risk of « dumbing down » not just philosophy, but the shadow itself.

Deleuze has always maintained that the « first principle » of a philosophy is a potentially misleading mask, and the principle of demarcation that is asserted at the opening of the book, i.e. philosophy is the « creation of concepts », is probably to be taken as a mask. If we remain at the level of the mask, we risk becoming doxic Deleuzians obliged to go through a series of exaggerated contortions to defend a slogan that is manifestly insufficient to characterise philosophy and that is unable to distinguish it from science.

Note: I am indebted to a discussion with Artxell Knaphni for helping me clarify my ideas on this subject.

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Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (8): concepts all the way down

From the beginning of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? we are within the domain of the concept. « Old age » must be read as conceptual old age, the Idiot is a conceptual idiot, etc. This idea means that we are not in the domain of naive empiricism, and that « to speak concretely » is not the same as to speak empirically. Philosophy is concepts all the way down.

Here we come to a point of divergence between the perspective of this blog and Deleuze and Guattari’s doctrine of the concept. This blog is devoted to examining recent French philosophy (and associated Anglophone Continental Philosophy) as constituting a set of competing metaphysical research programmes, i.e. as an ensemble of heuristic projects (rather than completed systems) containing both testable and non-testable (speculative and empirical) components in various proportions.

Deleuze and Guattari say explicitly

« The concept belongs to philosophy and only to philosophy ».

This leads them to a simple principle of demarcation. They demarcate philosophy from science by denying the role of concepts in science, assigning concepts to philosophy and « functions » (equations) to science.

This clear and simple demarcation is a form of empiricist illusion, based on the denial of conceptual incommensurability within the sciences.

For example, some physicists and philosophers at first saw no difference between the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction and Einsteinian relativity, as the corresponding equations were the same, as were the predicted empirically observable values of mass, distance, and time. However, the concepts of the two theories are different, e.g. Newtonian mass as a simple property and Einsteinian mass as a relational quantity.

Deleuze and Guattari at this (demarcationist) stage of their argument (which as we have seen is strongly relativised in the conclusion of the book) resort to what we could call a conceptual uniqueness hypothesis.

This would seem to confirm François Laruelle’s reading of their book as expounding a form of  standard philosophy, i.e as falling under the principle of sufficiency. However, Laruelle oddly enough does not take into account the end of the book, he treats it as by Deleuze alone, and he converts what is essentially a hypothesis with a highly constrained domain of application (explicitly discussed and analysed in the book) into a principle.

When all this has been said in defence of one of  the book’s core hypotheses, one cannot deny that there is a form of philosophical sufficiency that is heavily foregrounded. If we do not see how the conclusion’s hypotheses concerning non-philosophy are actually at work throughout the book, we shall be led to give primacy to the demarcations (and thus validate the judgement of philosophical sufficiency) and to see the final invocation of non-philosophy as the incoherent inclusion of a « backdoor » exception.

This impression of a « sufficiency » or a tautology of the concept is reinforced by Deleuze and Guattari’s affirmation that concepts are self-positing and self-referential.

Testability is one of my meta-criteria in reading, as I consider that the text is constantly setting up criteria, so that one can seek to assess whether, and to what extent, it actually satisfies its own criteria and also assess the value of these criteria themselves.

These questions (What are the criteria?, Are they satisfied,? To what degree?, and What’s so great about these particular criteria?) can help us to read more closely but they also permit more degrees of freedom than an « empiricist » idea of reading. If we can read the text as a heuristic process then we can invent new thought and new hypotheses in close relation to it, playing off concepts against criteria, and tautology against testability, as part of what Deleuze and Guattari call an « »athleticism » of the concept.

Note: I am indebted to a conversation with Ethan Nope for helping me to clarify my ideas here.


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Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (7): the idiot and the private thinker

The title question What is philosophy? can be posed in two ways, from two perspectives, according to two approaches: the abstract and the concrete. Deleuze and Guattari assign the former to « youth » and the latter to « old age ». In a reversal of perspective they come to characterise old age itself as the « time to speak concretely ».

These two ways of posing the question refer implicitly to two conceptual personae:

1) the bright young man who dominates the question, and poses it abstractly. His answer will be just as abstract. This is the discourse of the university, of the philosophical expert, of the public professor.

2) the idiot, instead of dominating the question is « seized » by it, and poses it concretely in relation to a deeper problem. This is the discourse of the private thinker, of

« the uninitiated, private, or ordinary individual as opposed to the technician or expert » (221)

The « idiot », subtending the title question of the book, in a similar reversal of perspective is characterised in terms of the « private thinker »:

« The idiot is the private thinker, in contrast to the public teacher (the academic): the professor refers constantly to taught concepts (man-rational animal), whereas the private thinker forms a concept with innate forces that everyone possesses on their own account by right » (62, translation modified).

The Idiot, according to Deleuze and Guattari, traverses the history of philosophy. It is one form of the « shadow » of the philosopher, the non-philosopher who is not and can not be satisfied by abstractions.

The private thinker today continues to « form concepts », no longer in relation to « innate » forces that everyone « possesses, but in relation with outside forces (with the « forces of the Outside »), that everyone encounters.

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Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (6): the cerebral and the Absolute

I am reading closely Deleuze and Guattari’s WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? in order to find out what it may mean to « speak concretely ». Reading closely means reading « aux aguets », i.e. with attention, “on the lookout”, as Deleuze calls this state in his ABC Primer (see A as in “Animal”). Philosophy begins in wonder, but it continues in attention. « Wonder » is a form of intoxication, attention is sobriety.

I have also pointed out that we must keep in mind, be attentive to the fact, that the book needs to be read as a circle, or a spiral. The introduction is written from the point of view that we rise to at the end of the book.

There is an Absolute for Deleuze and Guattari, a One-All, that subtends and sustains the non-philosophical sensibility that we must maintain with regard to our concepts to avoid them falling into abstractions:

« In any event, philosophy posits as pre-philosophical, or even as non-philosophical, the power of a One-All like a moving desert that concepts come to populate » (40-41).

.This One-All is not just (non-)philosophical, it is also non-artistic and non-scientific (we can think here of « science studies », which Bruno Latour affirms can constitute a shared sensibility for understanding, and also practising science). The sharp demarcations that exist between the three on the cerebral plane are later relativised by the plunging of the brain into chaos and the extraction of a non-conceptual thought:

« Now, if the three Non-s are still distinct in relation to the cerebral plane, they are no longer distinct in relation to the chaos into which the brain plunges » (218, translation modified).

Note: I have translated « Non » as « Non- » (and not « No » as in the published translation) as it reiterates the prefix in non-philosophy, non-art, and non-science.

This non-cerebral Absolute is the guiding awareness in the Introduction, where Deleuze and Guattari move easily between philosophy, art, and science, before descending into the cerebral demarcations that constitute the bulk of the book, and that are relativised in the conclusion.

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