Difference & Repetition: The Image of Thought

An introduction written for the second session of the Difference & Repetition reading group I’m hosting in the XG Discord which took place last Sunday.

After skipping the intro and reading the first chapter, “Difference-In-Itself”, we moved onto chapter three: “The Image of Thought.”

As ever, if you’d like to hear the discussion that followed this introduction and take part in future sessions, you can sign up to the Patreon here.



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In “The Image of Thought” chapter of Difference & Repetition, Deleuze “begins” by wondering “where to begin in philosophy.” We might suppose this is a question of first principles.

In the history of philosophy, two of the best known beginnings are, arguably, “ontology” -– the philosophical consideration of what it is to be as conscious, philosophising beings –- or alternatively, as Emmanuel Levinas famously positied, “ethics” as what it is to be one conscious, philosophising being amongst many –- flipping the tables of ontology to put the Other before the Self or, rather, to place within ontology a circular communicative relation.

Already we might see the relevance of these first principles to the previous chapter we read. We might even go so far as to say that Deleuze’s philosophy of difference offers us a way of thinking philosophy that stops ethics and ontology being subsumed into one another — what is it to think the Difference of ethics within an Ontology of repetition? Or vice versa?

Here we can begin to understand what Deleuze means when he says, at the start of this chapter, that the concepts of Difference and Repetition constitute “an evocation of the idea of philosophy as a Circle.”

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This circular philosophy is something that Deleuze’s thought persistently contended with.

His first book, Empiricism & Subjectivity, an extended essay on David Hume, begins with a very similar problem, divided into two subsets of ontological thinking that, for Hume and Deleuze, are in a constant dance with one another. That is, empiricism as the idea that all knowledge is based on experience, and subjectivity as that seemingly recursive process of what it is to be a subject as a thing that experiences.

Here again we see the same manoeuvre Deleuze is articulating in this text: empiricism, as a foundation for knowledge, may be seen as repetitive; subjectivity, as an illusory process of becoming, may be seen as differential. (Such an analogy is awkward and imprecise but we can at least note that they feed into one another in much the same way.)

At the other end of Deleuze’s career, we have his final collaboration with Guattari, What is Philosophy?, which problematizes this question of first principles as well — albeit at a stage in each of the pair’s careers as philosopher-subjects, in which they are considering all that they have learned along the way.

Each book in Deleuze’s oeuvre starts to resemble a different entry point into this same problem. As a result, each book becomes its own plateau onto which we can map out a particular set of twists and turns as seen from a particular “vantage point” –- for lack of a better phrase…

To instead quote Deleuze directly, he himself says in “The Image of Thought” chapter of Difference & Repetition:

For if it is a question of rediscovering at the end what was there in the beginning, if it is a question of recognising, of bringing to light or into the conceptual or the explicit, what was simply known implicitly without concepts — whatever the complexity of this process, whatever the differences between the procedures of this or that author — the fact remains that all this is still too simple, and that this circle is truly not tortuous enough. The circle image would reveal instead that philosophy is powerless truly to begin, or indeed authentically to repeat.

It is not surprising, then, that the image of thought is a concept that repeatedly appears throughout all of Deleuze’s works. It is mentioned here in Difference & Repetition in the most detail but also appears again in Nietzsche & Philosophy, Proust & Signs and What is Philosophy? most notably.

There is an obvious development of this concept that we could trace genealogically if we wanted to but, in starting to get to grips with this concept as intended, this would undoubtedly be the wrong approach. Instead, we should say that the different aspects of this concept that Deleuze unpacks in each phase of his career emphasises, in turn, the different shifts from example to example, with the trajectory of his work practicing what it preaches: revealing difference within the philosophy’s own fated repetitions.

With this in mind, it is probably best for us here today to think of this concept as an abstract map that Deleuze gives to thought in itself.

The importance of the map here is something I discussed in my essay that just came out, “The Primal Wound”, where I wrote about how Deleuze challenges our teleological tendency to seek the origins of our ideas. The image of thought, however, is counter-genealogical in this sense. This is why Deleuze “begins” this chapter by saying that finding the beginning — the origin — of thought is a “very delicate problem” — it “means eliminating all presuppositions.”

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In line with this reading group’s somewhat disjointed and out-of-order approach to this book, it is perhaps better for us not to start at the beginning of Deleuze’s own thought which Difference & Repetition, as Deleuze’s first canonically important work and doctoral thesis, is often considered to be.

The image of thought is a difficult concept within Deleuze’s works because, rather than constituting a description of a concept, it is instead doing what it is trying to describe.

So, what I want to do here, before we talk about this text in particular, is — just as Deleuze recommends — to find at the end what was already there in the beginning, specifically what we can make of the image of thought from how it appears in an illuminating paragraph from his last major work, What is Philosophy?

In the “Place of Immanence” chapter of What is Philosophy?, Deleuze writes that the image of thought is “the image thought gives itself of what it means to think, to make use of thought, to find one’s bearings in thought.” Here the sense of the image of thought as an abstract cartography becomes immediately prescient.

He continues that the image of thought “is not a method, since every method is concerned with concepts and presupposes such an image.” This is to emphasise the map’s abstract nature. It is not the act of reading the map — it is freed from this subject anchor in this sense, as a map “without organs” — but rather is the map in itself.

Further clarifying this point, Deleuze continues by saying that the image of thought is not “a state of knowledge on the brain and its functioning, since thought here is not related to the slow brain as to the scientifically determinable state of affairs in which, whatever its use and orientation, thought is only brought about.”

This is an important point as it echoes the beginning of the chapter in Difference & Repetition where Deleuze notes that philosophy — contrary to science — is not “confronted by objective presuppositions which axiomatic rigour can eliminate [because] presuppositions in philosophy are as much subjective as objective.”

However, on the note of subjectivity, Deleuze also clarifies in What is Philosophy? that the image of thought is not a set of “opinions held about thought, about its forms, ends, and means, at a particular moment.”

He continues: “The image of thought implies a strict division between fact and right: what pertains to thought as such must be distinguished from contingent features of the brain or historical opinions.”

So, he asks, “Quid juris?” — “what is the law?” — what is the rule by which we can determine the image of thought’s correct function? Here again, that “very delicate problem” of beginnings reveals itself. He writes:

… can, for example, losing one’s memory or being mad belong to thought as such, or are they only contingent features of the brain that should be considered as simple facts? Are contemplating, reflecting, or communicating anything more than opinions held about thought at a particular time and in a particular civilization?

This is perhaps to ask: how can we possibly think the difference-in-itself of thought, separate to the genealogical repetition of a canonical, civilational history of thought about thought? Deleuze declares that:

The image of thought retains only what thought can claim by right. Thought demands “only” movement that can be carried to infinity. What thought claims by right, what it selects, is infinite movement or the movement of the infinite. It is this that constitutes the image of thought.

It is worth noting here that this is how Deleuze sees the “image of thought” functioning within what he calls the “place of immanence”, but that is perhaps a discussion for another time since it requires we read a whole other chapter of an whole other book, so we will leave that particular can of worms closed for now.

Suffice it to say, if the image of thought is an abstract cartography of thought, the plane of immanence is the abstract territory that we are “mapping”. However, already, in attaching form to this process, in attempting to catch a glimpse of it, we begin to lose its function for-itself.

Perhaps the best thing for us to say is that what Deleuze hopes to uncover in his consideration of the image of thought is its untimeliness.

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“Untimeliness” is an aspect of philosophy that particularly interested Nietzsche and so it is no surprise that the image of thought also makes an appearance in Deleuze’s book on him. Indeed, in the translator’s preface to the English translation of Deleuze’s Nietzsche & Philosophy, Hugh Tomlinson credits Nietzsche himself with the most lucid proto-evocation of Deleuze’s concept, writing that

the most important point of Nietzsche’s philosophy [is] the radical transformation of the image of thought that we create for ourselves. Nietzsche snatches thought from the elements of truth and falsity. He turns it into an interpretation and an evaluation, interpretation of forces, evaluation of power. — It is a thought-movement, not merely in the sense that Nietzsche wants to reconcile thought and concrete movement, but in the sense that thought itself must produce movements, bursts of extraordinary speed and slowness (here again we can see the role of the aphorism, with its variable speeds and its “projectile-like” movement).

Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is precisely a critique of what Deleuze would go on to call a “dogmatic image of thought” in this sense. Just as Deleuze and Guattari would write themselves in the Geology of Morals, our civilisation’s conservative obsession with traditions and origins arrests thought’s movement under the weight of institutionalised moralities.

(Again, this is something discussed recently in my essay “The Primal Wound” — Nietzsche’s anti-Christ, like Deleuze and Guattari’s anti-Oedipus, is not a violent refutation of the historical figures in themselves but rather a violent refutation of their reification into monoliths of cultural moral thinking whose movement is perpetually arrested. If we are to name Christ and Oedipus, alternatively, as images of thought – or, more specifically, as conceptual personae – it is in order to take up their being abstractly and irreverently. Just as Deleuze would approach the history of philosophy itself as a roster of characters to play with, we too should do this with our concepts.)

The best way of thinking about this, I think, in a suitably irreverent fashion, is to think of philosophy not as a series of ”footnotes to Plato”, as the old saying goes, but rather as fanfic for Plato. Deleuze’s philosophical buggery is his process of ‘shipping concepts and thinkers with one another.

Fan-fiction is an interesting (quasi-literary) demonstration of this approach because it does not — necessarily — care about canon. It reimagines new becomings of the figures it takes up. “What if Sherlock and Watson were not detective partners but lovers? What then?” More often than not, we laugh at the suggestion, but is this sort of eroticisation of culture not the perfect analogy for Deleuze’s own approach to philosophy for the way it injects a object of canonical thought with the desiring-production it often tries to arrest and suspend?

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Deleuze would discuss this nomadic and irreverent process in his own terms in Nietzsche & Philosophy as follows, pulling together all the various problems that we’ve so far discussed that emerge from a reified thinking. He writes:

The dogmatic image of thought can be summarised in three essential theses:

1) We are told that the thinker as thinker wants and loves truth (truthfulness of the thinker); that thought as thought possesses or formally contains truth (innateness of the idea, a priori nature of concepts); that thinking is the natural exercise of a faculty, that it is therefore sufficient to think “truly” or “really” in order to think with truth (sincere nature of the truth, universally shared good sense).

Here we see Deleuze begin by implicitly challenging  (or, rather, exploding) the etymological root of the word “philosopher” as “lover of knowledge”, brushing off the veneer of respectability to unveil the libido underneath — a libido so often ejected for the way it interferes with knowledge-as-truth.

On this point, Deleuze continues:

2) We are also told that we are “diverted” from the truth but by forces which are foreign to it (body, passions, sensuous interests). We fall into error, we take falsehood to be truth, because we are not merely thinking beings. Error: this would be merely the effect, in thought as such, of external forces which are opposed to thought.

Again, Deleuze inserts the unruly nature of “philo-“; of “love”; of “desire” back into the equation, and the only way to meaningfully account for this is with a sense of the untimely:

3) We are told, finally, that all we need to think well, to think truthfully, is a method. Method is an artifice but one through which we are brought back to the nature of thought, through which we adhere to this nature and ward off the effect of the alien forces which alter it and distract us. Through method we ward off error. Time and place matter little if we apply method: it enables us to enter the domain of “that which is valid for all times and places”.

The philosophical reification of philosophy as a method of thought here becomes counter-intuitive to thought itself — but subtly. As such, Deleuze inserts a distinction between philosophy’s canonical longevity and the movement of thought’s rhizomatic untimeliness.

He continues:

The most curious thing about this image of thought is the way in which it conceives of truth as an abstract universal. We are never referred to the real forces that form thought, thought itself is never related to the real forces that it presupposes as thought. Truth is never related to what it presupposes. But there is no truth that, before being a truth, is not the bringing into effect of a sense or the realisation of a value. Truth, as a concept, is entirely undetermined. Everything depends on the value and sense of what we think. We always have the truths we deserve as a function of the sense of what we conceive, of the value of what we believe. Any thinkable or thought sense is only brought into effect insofar as the forces that correspond to it in thought also take hold of something, appropriate something, outside thought. Clearly thought cannot think by itself, any more than it can find truth by itself. The truth of a thought must be interpreted and evaluated according to the forces or power that determine it to think and to think this rather than that.

This is a somewhat knotted passage but only because what Deleuze is describing here is that same circle of thought, the very circle of difference and repetition, of difference within repetition and vice versa. He is describing a kind of unruly “untruth” that is perhaps somewhat similar to the “unbelief” of the Ccru, “ciphering a positive unbelief that both crazes-off into the latest thing, and re-animates contacts older than anything imagined…”:

When we speak of “plain truth”, of truth “in itself ‘, “for itself’ or even “for us”, we must ask what forces are hiding themselves in the thought of this truth, and therefore what its sense and value is. It is disturbing that truth conceived as an abstract universal, thought conceived as pure science, has never hurt anyone. In fact the established order and current values constantly find their best support in truth conceived in this way.

Deleuze then quotes from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations: “The ‘truth’ … is an easy-going and pleasant creature, who is continually assuring the powers that be that no one need fear any trouble from its quarter: for, after all, it is only pure science”.

This talk of “pure science” is, arguably, an example of Nietzsche’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek and provocative materialist project which attempts to put the “physics” back into “metaphysics.”

Deleuze continues:

This is what the dogmatic image of thought conceals: the work of established forces that determine thought as pure science, the work of established powers that are ideally expressed in truth in itself. Leibniz’s strange statement still burdens philosophy: produce new truths, but above all “without overthrowing established feelings”. And from Kant to Hegel we see the philosopher remaining, in the last resort, a thoroughly civil and pious character, loving to blend the aims of culture with the good of religion, morality or the State. Science christened itself critique because it made the powers of the world appear before it to be judged, but only in order to give them back what it owed them, the sanction of truth as it is in itself, for itself or for us.

A new image of thought means primarily that truth is not the element of thought. The element of thought is sense and value. The categories of thought are not truth and falsity but the noble and the base, the high and the low, depending on the nature of the forces that take hold of thought itself. We always have the share of truth and falsity that we deserve…

Here we might see echoes of Bataille’s own project of a “base materialism”, which takes Nietzsche’s provocative materialism and reduces it to its most “uncivilised” and scatological truths.

I’m reminded here of something my grandmother used to say to me as a kid, which is perhaps an odd anecdote to introduce into this weighty a text but I think it demonstrates the flattening of high and low that a truly base “truth” injects into thought.

We know kids love to laugh about farts and poop and I remember, on occasion, when the topic of bowel movements would provoke a pre-pubescent hilarity, my Gran would say in response that “even the Queen poops, you know!”

It is this sort of “truth” that Nietzsche would toy with and Bataille would run away with — a truth that recalibrates a social understanding of the noble and the base. After all, for Bataille: “Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations.”

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It is here that we can return to the question of ethics.

The primacy of the other in questions of Levinasian ethics, in particular, shifts how we might think about the scatological. It is one thing to acknowledge that I — myself — in private — as Shamed Base Subject — poop, but to acknowledge that the Queen as Noble Other poops is something else altogether. It is sort of (but also not remotely) like the epistemological encounter that Deleuze would draw further attention to in his work Proust & Signs in that its nature as taboo forces us to think; establishing and perpetuating an intrusive thought.

Along these lines, for Deleuze, Proust “sets up an image of thought in opposition to that of philosophy” by specifically challenging this sense of common “truth” in the form of “consensus” — similar to how I discussed consensus in my recent essay for Alienist.

Echoing the comments made about Nietzsche, Deleuze, ethically speaking, notes how the philosopher

readily presupposes that the mind as mind, the thinker as thinker, wants the truth, loves or desires the truth, naturally seeks the truth. He assumes in advance the goodwill of thinking; all his investigation is based on a ‘premeditated decision.’ From this comes the method of philosophy: from a certain viewpoint, the search for truth would be the most natural and the easiest; the decision to undertake it and the possession of a method capable of overcoming the external influences that distract the mind from its vocation and cause it to take the false for the true would suffice. It would be a matter of discovering and organizing ideas according to an order of thought, as so many explicit significations or formulated truths, which would then fulfill the search and assure agreement between minds.

From here, Deleuze inserts into his thinking on Proust the concept of “friendship” — something likewise shared (as previously discussed) by the anethics of blog favourites Nietzsche, Bataille, Levinas and Blanchot.

For Deleuze and, so he says, for Proust:

Friends are, in relation to one another, like minds of goodwill who are in agreement as to the signification of things and words; they communicate under the effect of a mutual goodwill. Philosophy is like the expression of a Universal Mind that is in agreement with itself in order to determine explicit and communicable significations. Proust’s critique touches the essential point: truths remain arbitrary and abstract so long as they are based on the goodwill of thinking. Only the conventional is explicit. This is because philosophy, like friendship, is ignorant of the dark regions in which are elaborated the effective forces that act on thought, the determinations that force us to think; a friend is not enough for us to approach the truth. Minds communicate to each other only the conventional; the mind engenders only the possible. The truths of philosophy are lacking in necessity and the mark of necessity. As a matter of fact, the truth is not revealed, it is betrayed; it is not communicated, it is interpreted; it is not willed, it is involuntary.

Friendship, then, ethically speaking, is an image of thought by way of its amorphous and adaptive nature; its movement around and through the encounter with another. This “Other” might be another person or it might be a concept, which in turn can take on the shape of a conceptual personae. As I’ve written various times on the blog — and this is something relevant to everything on social relations under the apparatuses of capture of the state and capitalism, and indeed for things like patchwork and accelerationism — the primacy of this movement always comes first, and by “primacy” we do not necessarily mean “the first thought” or “the most important thought”. It is rather acknowledging the movement of thought as always already occurring within thought itself — the circle of thought – and of desires and forces — must always be, if not accounted for, at the very least acknowledge as the ground on which all “monoliths” emerge. And so, Deleuze continues:

Each time we propose a concrete and dangerous thought, we know that it does not depend on an explicit decision or method but on an encountered, refracted violence that leads us in spite of ourselves to Essences. For the essences dwell in dark regions, not in the temperate zones of the clear and the distinct. They are involved in what forces us to think; they do not answer to our voluntary effort; they let themselves be conceived only if we are forced to do so.

It is in this sense that Deleuze determines Proust to be a Platonist, in much the same way that Deleuze himself is a Platonist — as discussed in the “Difference-In-Itself” chapter of his thesis. Proust attempts to think the difference-in-itself at the heart of temporal experience. Proustian memory, for example, is the repetition of an event that exacerbates the experiential difference-in-itself that constitutes past and present. However, such an experience does not lead to the bright lights of Aristotlean taxonomy. In being an involuntary memory, this sense of difference-in-itself emerges from the forces that force us to think.

Here then, for Deleuze, Proust’s Platonism leads instead to the dark side, the occulted side, of Aristoltean epistemology.

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To summarise, and returning to “The Image of Thought” chapter, which we can hopefully now discuss with more assuredness, we may be able to see how difference and repetition here becomes not only an issue of epistemology but of ethics.

A dogmatic image of thought, forced upon us — as Nietzsche says and Deleuze echoes — by moralisers, “crush[es] thought under an image which is that of the Same and the Similar in representation, but profoundly betrays what it means to think and alienates the two powers of difference and repetition, of philosophical commencement and recommencement.”

The image of thought is, then, that field through which pedagogic and epistemic desires can flow. In Difference & Repetition in particular, Deleuze makes frequent mention of the act of “learning” and it is this — organically and dare I say “creatively” understood — that allows for the differences and repetitions of an image of thought to appear. Rote learning, by contrast, is the domain of the dogmatic Same and Similar. “Pedagogic experiments”, he writes, “are proposed in order to allow pupils, even very young pupils, to participate in the fabrication of problems, in their constitution and their being posed as problems.”

(In this context Deleuze’s popularity with the art world is not all that surprising.)

Here we find that there is far more at stake in making space for difference and repetition than a simple reconstitution of philosophical semantics. We see the seeds of his schizoanalytic practices with Guattari; his “schizophrenic out for a walk” model of worldly engagement.

The image of thought is a concept that provides us with a plane to walk over and discover for ourselves, generatively, opening up avenues for the new, in distinct opposition to the fixed expanse of limited possibilities that structures everything from our education systems to the state-sanctioned economic realities that tell us there are no alternatives.



If you’d like to listen to the discussion that followed this introduction, you can sign up to the XG Discord via Patreon and catch up there. You can also take part in our next session, happening in August, on the chapter “Repetition-In-Itself”.

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8 thoughts on “Difference & Repetition: The Image of Thought

  1. Does Deleuze give a certain “agency” thoughts so it’s easier to remove “the organs” from the human that is thinking? (I know I may be off base).

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      1. This is a really important question but I’ve ended up giving you a long answer. If it’s alright with you, I’ll write this up as a blogpost and post it tomorrow.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, please write your longer answer up and post it. I’m currently reading “The Fold,” and diving into Deluze’s thought, so I would love to read your answer.

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