The book, whose title is a question, begins in the modality of uncertainty:
“Peut-être ne peut-on poser la question Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? que tard, quand vient la vieillesse, et l’heure de parler concrètement”.
“Perhaps one can pose the question What is philosophy? only late, when old age, and the time to speak concretely, comes”.
In French the book begins with “Perhaps”, a remarkable beginning for a book of philosophy, in the element of doubt and conjecture, rather than of dogma and mastery. Such a question is posed by the Idiot, who does not act in the situation according to the habitual sensori-motor schemas, but whose attention is concentrated on a question deeper than the situation, concerning the event hidden within the situation and not its current actualisation. The pronoun is “one”, the “fourth person of the singular”, the pronoun is that associated with the impersonal event. The question takes us out of the confines of chronological time or Chronos into the time of the event, Aion. So the “old age” in question is not a chronologically situated stage of life, but a type of event, an intensive moment when the stereotypes are removed and the abstractions abandonned in favour of speaking concretely (another event, signalled in French by the infinitive “parler”).
When Deleuze and Guattari talk of the question “What is philosophy?” as possible only “late” (not “late in life”, as the French is “tard”), in this book published in 1991, Deleuze is at the ripe old age of 66 and Guattari is 61. By current standards one is still productive at this age, as the book itself attests. Some people are content to just repeat this opening sentence literal-mindedly, forgetting that for Deleuze and Guattari everything is to be interpreted in terms of intensity, including age. Deleuze and Guattari are not primarily commenting on a chronological state where everything is finished and one can only reflect abstractly on the meaning of it all. Rather they are living through an intensive state where they asks themselves this question, a question that arises when it is time to “speak concretely”. Deleuze and Guattari are speaking concretely in this book, which involves becoming aware of their multiplicity and accepting its non-optimised characteristics (agitation, insomnia, slowness, a loss of control).
Deleuze and Guattari’s text goes on to inform us:
“En fait, la bibliographie est très mince”. “In fact, the bibliography is very slim”.
That is to say, in posing the question of what is philosophy? we are no longer taking the point of view of reflexion, of the library, of scholarship, of academia and its abstractions. It is too “late” for that, we are in the world of concrete experience, we are talking about our lives, of what we have done all our life, not about an academic discipline.
“C’est une question qu’on pose dans une agitation discrète, à minuit, quand on n’a plus rien à demander”.
“It’s a question that one poses in a discreet agitation, at midnight, when one no longer has anything to ask for”.
The translation reads: “when there is no longer anything to ask”. This is perfectly correct, but it obliterates the continued use of the impersonal subject of the event (“one”), and is slightly at odds with the underlying theme that the question “What is philosophy?” comes to be asked when there is a weakening of the “demand” that keeps us within the realm of representation, of the abstract approach to “doing philosophy”.
The book begins outside of philosophy as it is practiced within the limits of representation, as a discipline or a profession. It begins with the question “What is philosophy?” posed no longer as a philosophical question but as primarily a “non-philosophical” question. The book is not deployed in the element of wisdom, that is within the harmonious binding of the faculties, but in an unbound state, on the analogy with Kant’s CRITIQUE OF JUDGEMENT:
“une œuvre déchaînée derrière laquelle ne cesseront de courir ses descendants: toutes les facultés de l’esprit franchissent leurs limites, ces mêmes limites que Kant avait si soigneusement fixées dans ses livres de maturité”.
“an unbound work which its descendants will not cease to run after: all the faculties of the mind cross their limits, those same limits that Kant had so carefuly set in his mature works”.
The book is “unbound” (as in Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound”), and turned towards the future. “Old age” in this context is one of the times of the untimely:
“où toutes les pièces de la machine se combinent pour envoyer dans l’avenir un trait qui traverse les âges”.
“where all the parts of the machine come together to send into the future an arrow which traverses all ages”.
The translation reads: “in which all the parts of the machine come together to send into the future a feature that cuts across all ages”. “Feature” is wrong, the text relates to Deleuze’s definition of the “untimely” as found in Nietzsche:
“He compared the thinker to an arrow shot from Nature’s bow: wherever it lands, another thinker comes and picks it up, to shoot it in another direction” (TWO REGIMES OF MADNESS, 204).
At “midnight”, at the witching hour, at the moment when transformations are possible, and when becomings are unleashed, the deeper question can be posed as a means of transforming oneself even further. One page later Deleuze and Guattari will refer to this moment as the hour “entre chien et loup”, literally between dog and wolf, and translated as “twilight” (2, English translation) This is perfectly correct, but it obscures the relation to “midnight” on page 1. The exact time of day in the chronological sense is not the issue, but it is a matter of the moment where we find ourselves in the middle of things (mid-night), between more defined states. For example, between the domesticated state of the dog, and the wild state of the wolf. The time is “late”, it is the witching hour, it is not the end.
Deleuze always refused to adopt the “point of view of the end”, maintaining that it stems from the chronological vision of life tied to a sad affect. The question is posed not as a sign of the attainment of the calm and of the wisdom corresponding to the stereotype of old age, nor does it arise as such for the superficial agitation of youth, with its “desire to do”, its determination to act. When we pose the question we are in the intensive realm of depth, of the secret, of the attitude of discretion, and it arises not from calm finally achieved but from a deeper agitation. Here things are unclear, confused, duplicitous, ambiguous, metamorphic. Midnight, like twilight, is a time of fracture, where the forces of the outside re-interpret and re-configure what has gone before, to prevent any interiority from forming.
This is why Laruelle, despite his considerable merits, is forever wrong when he assigns Deleuze to the realm of philosophical sufficiency (which Deleuze calls “representation”). Despite his deep and intense non-philosophical voyage Laruelle is incapable of reading Deleuze and Guattari’s WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? in terms of the relation with the outside, because he has not measured what the collaboration of Deleuze and Guattari brought to both of them.
It is noteworthy that WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY is not just a work by Deleuze, as Laruelle’s response,“A Reply to Deleuze” seems to imply. It was written in collaboration with Guattari, a non-philosopher, who Deleuze explicitly honours for taking him outside philosophy. Laruelle gives a one-sided “philosophical” reading of the book and comes to the predictable conclusion that it is still philosophy, i.e. “philosophy” in his, i.e. Laruelle’s, sense, which has next to nothing to do with Deleuze and Guattari’s sense as expounded in the book Laruelle is purportedly replying to.
In WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? Deleuze and Guattari mention Laruelle twice explicitly.
“The non-philosophical is perhaps closer to the heart of philosophy than philosophy itself, and this means that philosophy cannot be content to be understood only philosophically or conceptually, but is addressed essentially to non-philosophers as well” (41).
Followed by note 5:
“5. François Laruelle is engaged in one of the most interesting undertakings of contemporary philosophy. He invokes a One-All that he qualifies as “non-philosophical” and, oddly, as “scientific,” on which the “philosophical decision” takes root. This One-All seems to be close to Spinoza” (220).
“The plane of philosophy is prephilosophical insofar as we consider it in itself independently of the concepts that come to occupy it, but non-philosophy is found where the plane confronts chaos. Philosophy needs a non-philosophy that comprehends it; it needs a non-philosophical comprehension just as art needs non-art and science needs non-science” (218).
Followed by note 16:
“16. Francçois Laruelle proposes a comprehension of non-philosophy as the “real (of) science,” beyond the object of knowledge: Philosophie et non-philosophie (Liege: Mardaga, 1989). But we do not see why this real of science is not non-science as well” (234).
1) WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? was first published in French in 1991, i.e. well within Laruelle’s PHILOSOPHY II, which lasted from 1981 to 1995. Deleuze and Guattari pose the question of Laruelle’s scientism, that is to say of his continuing imprisonment in the presuppositions of the authority of science that characterise both State philosophy and Royal Science. In PRINCIPLES OF NON-PHILOSOPHY, published in French in 1995, Laruelle seems to accept this criticism as he declares that during Philosophy II he had been still under the sway of the principle of sufficient philosophy in the form of a scientistic submission to the “authority” of science.
2) Their second criticism is not so much of the “authority” of science but of the privileged relationship of philosophy with science, where they advocate a similar relationship with art too. In PRINCIPLES OF NON-PHILOSOPHY (page 34) Laruelle analyses his PHILOSOPHY II phase as being based on two axioms that were supposed to be complementary, but that he later found to be conflicting in their loyalties:
1) The One is immanent vision in-One.
2) There is a special affinity between the vision-in-One and the phenomenal experience of “scientific thought”
Axiom 1 is faithful to non-philosophy. Axiom 2, with its “special affinity” between the vision-in-One and science, is faithful ultimately to the ruses of philosophy. It was not until Philosophy V that Laruelle, in his published works, was liberated from this “special affinity” with science in his actual practice of non-standard philosophy ( works on non-photography and non-religion).