Mood, Mode

Deleuze and Guattari’s last collaborative work, WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, was published in 1991. The book, whose title is a question, begins in the interrogative mood, in the modality of uncertainty. Its first sentence is:

« 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” (my translation).

The published translation reads:

« 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 ».


In French the book begins with “Perhaps”, which is a remarkable beginning for a book of philosophy. It begins in the element of doubt and conjecture, rather than in that of dogma and mastery. The question is posed not by the savant but rather 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, a question concerning the event hidden within the situation and not its current actualisation.


The pronoun one expresses, according to Deleuze and Guattari, the “fourth person of the singular”. It is the pronoun associated with the impersonal event. Thus the question of philosophy as posed by « one » takes us out of the confines of chronological time, Chronos, into the virtual time of the event, Aion.

Old Age (Aion)

“Old age”, as the time for posing the question, is not a chronologically situated stage of life, but a type of event, an intensive moment.


When Deleuze and Guattari talk of posing the question « What is philosophy? » as possible only « late » (not “late in life”, as the French says simply « tard »). There is a Hegelian ring to this expression (« The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of dusk »).

However the sense is the opposite. For Hegel philosophy is reflexion, it comes only at the end of an epoch, after the event, at dusk. For Deleuze and Guattari philosophy is a form of becoming, participation in the event. « Dusk » (twilight) is not the end but between, a time of the event, as is « midnight ».

Old Age (Chronos)

At the time of publication, Deleuze is 66 years old and Guattari is 61. By current standards this is hardly the end of the active life, one is still productive at this age, as the book itself attests. Badiou is still going strong at 79 years of age, and will only retire at the age of 80.

Some commentators 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, including their multiplicity of ages, and accepting its non-optimised characteristics (agitation, insomnia, slowness, a loss of control).

Not only was Guattari a conceptual persona for Deleuze in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? and vice versa, but Deleuze was also a conceptual persona for himself. This stylised portrait of the philosopher as an old man is conceptual through and through.

To Speak Concretely

At last the time has come to « speak concretely ». This is another intensive moment, a time when the stereotypes are removed and theoretical abstractions abandonned in favour of speaking empirically, from concrete experience, when we are forced to think by a violent encounter. Another event, signalled in French by the infinitive « parler ». For Deleuze and Guattari the infinitive signals the temporality of the event.

The Discourse of the University

Deleuze and Guattari’s text goes on to inform us:

« En fait, la bibliographie est très mince ». « In fact, the bibliography is very slim ».

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 and are continuing to do, 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 rendering 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 ».

Outside, Unbound

The book begins outside of philosophy as it is practiced in the discourse of the university, within the limits of representation, as an academic 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 here, it should be « arrow » or « projectile ». 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).

Midnight, Twilight

The question is posed at « midnight », the witching hour, a moment when transformations are possible, and when becomings are unleashed. Not at the end. 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 intensive moment when we find ourselves in the middle of things (mid-night), between more defined states (twi-light). 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. The process has gained in strength. This is an untimely moment, it is not the end.

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.

The Secret

« C’est une question qu’on pose dans une agitation discrète »

« It’s a question that one poses in a discreet agitation » (my translation).

The published version reads:

« It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness »

When we pose the question we are in the intensive realm, the realm of depth (of the deeper question of the idiot), of the secret (of a « discreet » agitation), of the attitude of discretion. It arises not from calm finally achieved but from a deeper agitation.

In the depths everything is agitated, unclear, shadowy, confused, duplicitous, ambiguous, metamorphic. Midnight, like twilight, is a time of fracture: the forces of the outside  come to re-interpret and to re-configure what has gone before, to prevent any fixed interiority from forming.

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  1. Ping : Of “Internal Musicology” & This ‘Opus Postumum’ Thing (06) | dwmasten

  2. Ping : IS OLD AGE A CONCEPT?: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (1) | AGENT SWARM


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