Difference & Repetition: Difference-In-Itself

The XG Discord reading group meets once a month via Google Hangouts to collectively work through a philosophical text and chat about it.

The masochists who constitute my first Patreons decided they wanted to tackle Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition together. Having attempted to read this book a couple of times, both on my own and with others, I anticipated it to be a very daunting task, but so far it’s been great and felt very productive.

The discussion sessions in themselves are private and the archive is only accessible to Patreons but I’ve been writing little introductions to each chapter to set the scene before opening up into a collective discussion through which we can collectively work through the particulars. So, I thought I might share those introductions here since I’ve been putting quite a lot of work into them and also use them as an advert for the XG Discord.

Here’s a garbled version of the first session’s introduction that I’ve pieced together quickly from my notes. The session was held a month ago in mid-June. The following chapter introductions — now that we’ve found our footing with this difficult text — will hopefully be much better and more detailed.

(I wrote the “Image of Thought” introduction yesterday in the pub and I’m really excited about it. I’ll post that next week and then the subsequent introductions will appear monthly from there on out.)

Enjoy!



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Difference & Repetition began its life as Gilles Deleuze’s doctoral thesis. François Dosse, in his dual biography of Deleuze and Guattari, Intersecting Lives, offers the best account of its development.

The author of Difference & Repetition distanced himself from the dominant philosophical tradition by arguing for an overthrow of Platonic thinking. His remarks occurred during the 1960s, a decade during which Hegelianism, the reigning force in the history of philosophy, was coming under fire. This was clearly a time of change: in literature with the New Novel, in the social sciences, and in the growing appreciation of Heideggerian thinking; it was an era of “generalized anti-Hegelianism.”

Dosse continues: “Deleuze defended his thesis at the Sorbonne in early 1969; it was one of the first defenses after May [1968], despite the fact the protests were far from over.” There are stories of Deleuze having to play a game of cat-and-mouse in order to present this new and major work. Maoists had taken over the school as part of the protests and would routinely disrupt its proceedings.

Whilst Deleuze was not “a revolutionary militant” to the same extent as Guattari was at this time, there are many accounts that reveal him to nonetheless be supportive and enthusiastic about the protest movement. Dosse writes that Deleuze “was one of the rare professors at [the University of] Lyon, and the only one in the philosophy department, to publicly declare his support for and attend the events of the movement.” This enthusiasm would lead Deleuze to eventually meet and begin his collaborations with Guattari.

Despite how different their lives may seem at this point, Difference and Repetition nonetheless lays much of the theoretical groundwork for all that the pair would discuss together.

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In the context of the “growing appreciation for Heideggerian thinking”, I once heard a tongue-in-cheek tale — and I can no longer remember where or from whom — that Deleuze named his book Difference & Repetition because Being & Time was already taken…

In the spirit of Heidegger’s best known work, Difference & Repetition is likewise Deleuze’s attempt to answer one of philosophy’s most fundamental questions, emerging from Plato and Aristotle: “How do we think reality — the objective nature of the world around us?” That is to say, how do we think the nature of knowledge itself? Typically, this requires certain structures and taxonomies of things, but Deleuze takes a lightly less intuitive approach…

Jon Roffe, in his 2018 lectures on Deleuze’s book, introduces things in the following way and his is a very useful introduction, I think, so in order to get the better grasp of where exactly Deleuze is coming from, I’m going to introduce things here by summarising Roffe’s own summary whilst throwing in some extra things I’ve found whilst doing my own reading of and around this book. (I’m new to this too so best to start with a third-party grounding before going way off track.)

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Roffe, at first, pulls back to the Greeks and begins by addressing Aristotle’s various problems with Plato — in particular, his attempt to think concepts or Ideas “in themselves” as eternal and unchanging things that can and should be thought directly.

For Aristotle, contra Plato, any attempt to think any concept without some sort of external real-world referent, is really dumb — and, to begin with, we might think so too. But Deleuze, perhaps surprisingly, is initially on Plato’s side here. For him, Plato’s greatness is found in his insistence that we think about concepts in themselves.

Deleuze gives the example of “birds” as a genus that contains many different kinds of creature. So what is it to think the concept of “bird” in itself? We all know what a bird is, generally speak, and, even if we don’t think of a particular type of bird, you can probably guess what sort of picture I have in my mind’s eye when thinking about what a “bird” is. If I were to describe it to you, generically, I might say: small, winged, feathered thing with a beak, etc.

However, the issue with this is that when we start to describe this generalised concept and attempt to tie it to actual external referents, we begin to develop a full taxonomy of the concept of “bird” that subordinates the thought-image to various presuppositions. It is here that Deleuze finds divisions and frictions within Plato and Aristotle’s thought.

For instance, Deleuze speaks of flying and flightless birds as a challenge to one of the most basic categories that we might associate with the genus “bird” — flight. In truth, flight is not an ontological category that applies to all birds in all cases.

So, for Deleuze, this Platonic conceptual thinking is actually quite interesting because it has a tendency to contain a kind of “difference-in-itself”. It’s not a Universalised version of a concept, which is what Aristotle would try to rigorise, but rather a concept that allows multiplicities to flow through it somewhat seamlessly.

Aristotle’s work, somewhat contrary to this, is more of a science of Being. He systematises and structures logic and reality, developing an analytic epistemology, noting that we have the concept “bird” and accounting for this concept by mapping out all of the knowledge and observations that constitute our common sense of the concept.

Beyond this, Aristotle also develops a logical account of substance, charting all the differences and repetitions that allow us to move from the concept of “substance” — like matter; that which we all are — to the differentiation between humans and inanimate objects, etc.

For Aristotle, however, substance as a concept is unthinkable in itself, and we can only understand it through our understanding of all the differences it contains.

Roffe has a really good example of how multiplicity problematises what otherwise seems like an “eminently sensible” way of thinking about substance. He asks, as Aristotle himself would do: “How can we know that substance is all there is?” Even with all these categories and structures, and even with our contemporary scientific understanding of atoms and particles, acknowledging them as something which fundamentally makes up everything doesn’t actually help us think about what substance is because there are other ways we can account for everything which the apparent oneness of “substance” doesn’t really express.

This is to say that, whilst “substance” is an “irreducible” category, the problem is that it’s not the only one.

Roffe asks, for example, about quantity. When I say: “here are five apples”, we can account for the apples within the framework of substance, but what about the apples’ fiveness? Quantity is just as irreducible as substance but each concept does not account for its other.

So, realising this, Aristotle pluralises substance into 10 different categories which give specific meaning and context to a given concept — quality, quantity, time, place, position, etc. etc. But, again, this is an upscaled version of his taxonomic approach whereby every category becomes knowable and thinkable only because each is defined by what it is not; by how it is not like the others.

The biggest inconsistency within this framework, Roffe explains, is how Aristotle thinks about Being.

Being isn’t like substance, nor is it a category, because it can’t be thought through its contradistinction to anything else. This is to ask: “How do we define being by what it’s not…?” The answer is that we can’t! There is no “extrinsic difference” that helps make Being thinkable.

The problem that emerges here, as Deleuze sees it, is that if, for Aristotle, difference is integral to all Being then how can difference only applied to Being as a secondary aspect?

Typically, difference is subordinated to an identity within a concept. For instance, we can talk about flying and flightless birds, but what categories can we apply to this difference-in-itself that actually have any meaningful impact on how we understand “bird” as a concept?

Deleuze writes in Difference & Repetition:

Here we find the principle which lies behind a confusion disastrous for the entire philosophy of difference: assigning a distinctive concept of difference is confused with the inscription of difference within concepts in general — the determination of the concept of difference is confused with the inscription of difference in the identity of an undetermined concept. This is the sleight of hand involved in the propitious moment (and perhaps everything else follows …)

So, the opening question of Deleuze’s thesis becomes: How do we think being through difference “in itself”?

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Hopefully we are now in a better position to begin to discuss this question and how Deleuze approaches it in the text but I also want to add a couple of things about this problem that highlight just how important this “sleight of hand” is for Deleuze’s philosophy as a whole and how he relates to other thinkers.

We might acknowledge, for example, Bergson’s influence on Deleuze at this point, as well as the influence of Spinoza. (His two books on these figures were written around the same time as Difference & Repetition.)

Difference & Repetition, then, could even be seen as Deleuze’s own attempt to extend the Bergsonian project and account for “the constitution of a logic of multiplicities”, as he calls Bergson’s project in his book Bergsonism.

Can we also think of difference and repetition as Deleuze’s attempt to rigourise what he says are the two major types of multiplicity in Bergson’s work? That is: “…the discrete or discontinuous and the continuous, the spatial and the temporal, the actual and the virtual.”

Later still, we can see the influence that this thought had on Guattari following their fateful 1968 meeting. He himself would write on the importance of a philosophy of difference and its importance for schizoanalysis in his work Schizoanalytic Cartographies, in which he describes their hybridised Platonic-Aristotlean project as an attempt to “construct a science in which dishcloths and napkins would be mixed up, along with other things that are still more different still, in which dishcloths and napkins could no longer even be encompassed under the general rubric of linen.”



If you’d like to listen to the discussion that followed this rudimentary introduction, you can sign up to the XG Discord via Patreon and catch up there. Tomorrow, we’re discussing the “Image of Thought” chapter and another (far better) introduction to that chapter will follow on the blog next week.

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