DELEUZE: philosopher of difference or philosopher of multiplicity

In a previous article I criticise Laruelle’s treatment of Deleuze’s philosophy as constituting yet another instance of the “philosophy of difference”. I argue that Deleuze’s philosophical evolution involves a passage from a problematic of difference to one of multiplicity. There is nothing explicit to mark this passage, but I there is an “epistemological break”, a rupture in Deleuze’s preferred conceptual vocabulary. After his encounter with Guattari, Deleuze ceases talking in terms of difference, and sticks to multiplicity.

Given this change, which I find to be a progress, I see no reason to confine Deleuze to the category “philosopher of difference”. Deleuze always presented himself as a pluralist and a philosopher of multiplicities, long before DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION. So I think it is a mistake to give too much prominence to the concept of difference.

Laruelle’s readings in general, and in the case of Deleuze in particular, have an important methodological defect: he systematically considers texts corresponding to a past phase of their philosophy when he is discussing Deleuze, and Badiou. If we take into consideration a wider selection of texts, we can see that often Deleuze anticipates Laruelle’s texts, and replies to them before he even constructs them.

Difference is one possible specification of multiplicity. Multiplicity is the more generic concept, as Deleuze uses it. Multiplicity explicitly incorporates a temporal dimension in Deleuze’s treatment: it’s lines and not elements (this is his stated difference with Badiou). I don’t think we should see difference as a foundation for the later usage of multiplicity.

From one phase to another, Deleuze’s preferred conceptual vocabulary shifted. After his encounter with Guattari, he no longer talks so much of difference, very little in fact. I do not say he effaces it completely, but it certainly becomes less prominent. There is a change, a passage from difference to multiplicity. My main disagreement with those who interpret Deleuze as a “philosopher of difference” is that, although the pre-Guattari Deleuze talked from the beginning in terms of both multiplicity and difference, if we take the evolution of Deleuze’s thought as a whole multiplicity is the more important concept.

Deleuze is a pluralist rather than simply a differentialist. “Differentialism” is a term that was used to group together a variety of thinkers who gave theoretical importance to the concept of difference. For example Henri Lefebvre, whose Differentialist Manifesto was important in the 70s. Here is an extract (the cover and the introduction) in French. The primacy of “difference” corresponds to the period of structuralism and of its immediate successors, even if difference is not exclusively a structuralist concept. It is one possible specification of the more general pluralist problematic.

Autobiographically speaking, I began reading Deleuze, in 1978-9, with ANTI-OEDIPUS, RHIZOME, DIALOGUES, and LETTER TO A SEVERE CRITIC. I only read DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION and LOGIC OF SENSE after these texts, and in their light. Then I was lucky enough to attend Deleuze’s seminars for seven years (1980-1986) and during all that time he barely mentioned the notion of difference. His specific differentialist problematic had been replaced by that of multiplicities, even if his more general pluralist research programme continued. So I am always surprised that some people call him a “philosopher of difference”, as if that summed him up.

There is a polemical thrust to my refusal to take difference as the primary concept. Some critics, including Laruelle try to limit Deleuze to basically the philosophy of DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION, and if they mention anything else like WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? they read it in terms of DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION. This is one possible reading, but it is not mine. I read all of Deleuze’s work in terms of A THOUSAND PLATEAUS. I read Deleuze in association with Michel Serres rather than with Derrida.

I have already discussed this interplay between a general pluralist ontology and particular specifications (such as an ontology of difference) indirectly, in a text I wrote in 1980, after my first year in Paris . In it I talk of Deleuze’s “flexi-ontology” and of the necessity of not confining his general ontology to one particular instantiation.

Note: I am indebted to a conversation with Wayne Brooks on facebook for helping me to clarify my ideas.

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6 Responses to DELEUZE: philosopher of difference or philosopher of multiplicity

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wonder how long each of Deleuze’s seminars was..


  2. Tim Howles says:

    What were your personal interactions / reminiscences, Terence? Just fun to know …


  3. S.C. Hickman says:

    I agree. That’s one of my issues with Levi’s book on Deleuze. Like others, especially Zizek, the like to dismiss his partnership with Guattari as an aberration rather than the fact that as Deleuze said in some of his letters that he instigated the relationship, seeing in Guattari a path forward for him. Their work together opened up his pluralist vision, expanded his ideas and empirical reflections toward actual praxis rather than reflection and endless philosophizing. There are so many shallow readings out there it seems that people get sucked in without ever really spending the time and effort to read through the full content of both men. One needs to situate them within their reflections on the impersonal and singular. Deleuze’s notions of “empty time” in his last book of essays on A Life… so many things left unfinished and for the most part misread and misprisioned by philosophers like Zizek and Badiou: two Lacanian’s built on structure and lack, rather than desire… strange this inability to see what is in front of one’s nose…

    Either way, you hit the nail on the head there, Terence.


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