Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (2): strange loops and concrete universality


The book WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? can be seen as circular and self-correcting, and its end gives us important clues as to how to read its beginning.

The book, whose title is a question, begins in the interrogative mood, and in the modality of uncertainty. Its first word is « perhaps »:

« 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 comes, and the hour to speak concretely » (my translation).

This is an extraordinary beginning to a book of philosophy. This first sentence is written in the language of the event, and its function is to counter-effectuate the book’s title and its effects. The sentence seems to be the « negative » or the « shadow » of the title-question.

In the last paragraph of  WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? Deleuze and Guattari tell us that each of the three disciplines considered in the text (art, science, philosophy) are in relation with a « negative » that « sends back (« renvoie ») its effects ».

Note: the published translation reads « that echoes its effects », which is perfectly correct, but which neglects the implicit resonance with « counter-effects ». Further « echoes » is a passive process, whereas the negative or shadow is seen as actively participating in the process of noesis or « non-conceptual thought ».

« Perhaps » – the event exists in a virtual plane that is irreducible to its actualisation. There is an inherent uncertainty to the event, as Deleuze argues in LOGIC OF SENSE.The event as becoming points in both directions at once.

In terms of this distinction, modal adverbs are dis-actualising devices.

« one« – the « fourth person of the singular ». This is the pronoun to be used for speaking of events in Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical language that subtends their seemingly ordinary way of speaking.

« can » – this is a modal verb expressing real potentiality, and not just abstract possibility.

« pose the question » – the bare infinitive after « can ». The infinitive is the tense of the event in Deleuze and Guattari’s event language.

« What is philosophy? » – we need all this modalising context to get us away from the type of question posed by metaphysics. There is a paradox when we see the names of Deleuze and Guattari as authors on the cover of a book, over the title « What is philosophy? » For these thinkers the question of « What is…? » is typical of abstract metaphysical thinking, and asks for an essence. We will need to understand the question, and not just its asking, « concretely », i.e. in terms of « its moment, its occasion and circumstances, its landscapes
and personae, its conditions and unknowns » (2).

« late » – chronologically this designates a period after the time of abstract thinking and talking, when comes the hour to « speak concretely ». Intensively, it designates a moment that is the opposite of « pre-« , and that cannot strictly be situated on the temporal line of Chronos. It is more properly designated by the prefix « non-« , as in « non-philosophy ».

At the end of the book, in the last paragraph, Deleuze and Guattari talk of this more concrete approach that shadows the more abstract one, as being necessary at every moment of the becoming of a discipline:

« 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. They do not need the « non- » as beginning, or as the end in which they would be called upon to disappear by being realized, but at every moment of their becoming or their development » (218, translation modified by me).

« when old age comes » – “Old age” is to be understood intensively, it is the time for posing the question. Not a chronologically situated stage of life, but a type of event that « comes », an intensive moment.

Contrary to a popular stereotype, Guattari and Deleuze were not « old » when they wrote WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? 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 82 years of age, and he only retired at the age of 80. His last major work was published in September last year, at the age of a little over 81 and a half.

Deleuze and Guattari were sick, not old.

« the hour to speak concretely » – the « hour » is a hecceity determined in terms an infinitive « to speak » and a qualifying adverb « concretely ». The whole stake of the first part of the book is to reverse our usual perspective, and to establish that real philosophy happens in an encounter, when we are seized by a question, and speak about it concretely. We can do philosophy only as located in an hour, a place, in relation to landscapes, personae, friends and enemies.

All philosophy is local and singular, and it is only as such that it can attain a sort of trans-temporal universality:

« to send into the future a feature that cuts across all ages » (1-2).

Thus, although Deleuze and Guattari were too anti-Hegelian to approve of the term, their « non-thinking thought » can be characterised as a form of concrete universality.

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4 commentaires pour Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (2): strange loops and concrete universality

  1. dmf dit :

    why not say « All philosophy is local and singular » and so should be thought of as proto-types and not arche-types of any kind?
    « For him (Deleuze), as you know, concepts could certainly migrate out of philosophy, but as tools to be engaged with, and thus transformed by the problems they would help create. And once this transformation occurs, they would have a new life, that is, a new necessity of their own”–architecture-in-the-anthropocene-encounters-among-design?rgn=div1;view=fulltext


    • terenceblake dit :

      This is in fact what I do say, and so do Deleuze and Guattari. Concepts are concrete universals – this means that they are dramatised prototypes rather than structural archetypes.


      • dmf dit :

        for me prototypes aren’t universals but tools for specific purposes and players/interests, performative not representative…


      • terenceblake dit :

        My approach is heuristic rather than systematic, diachronic rather than synchronic. This is why I talk about concrete universals, or prototypes as tools. The prototype is not my literalised experience, but the ideal event in my experience, which can be actualised in diverse and divergent ways.

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