This article aims to introduce Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought as found in Deleuze’s second book, Nietzsche and Philosophy. We emphasize the most fundamental part of that interpretation: namely, how Deleuze understands Nietzsche’s attitude to philosophy itself.
The analysis of certain core Nietzschean concepts, which does form part of this book, is not central here. Rather, this article begins by analyzing Deleuze’s characterization of Nietzsche as a systematic philosopher. It then moves on to consider the relationship between Kant and Nietzsche in Deleuze’s interpretation. We will explore the basic principles from which Deleuze’s interpretation proceeds, in particular those which allow Nietzsche to deprioritize truth, knowledge and thought in themselves and to prioritize evaluation and interpretation as the focal points of philosophical activity.
Gilles Deleuze on Nietzsche the Philosopher
It is already controversial to work from the assumption that Nietzsche is a philosopher, simply because so much of his work was explicitly anti-philosophical, and especially against philosophy as an exercise in system building. But Gilles Deleuze not only presents Nietzsche as a philosopher, but presents his thought as systematic.
Moreover, Deleuze presents Nietzsche’s work not as a criticism of metaphysics – which we can provisionally think of as an attempt to give an account of things in general – but as the author of a critical metaphysics. For Deleuze, Nietzsche is a rival of Immanuel Kant, as he makes clear at the outset: “there is, in Nietzsche, not only a Kantian heritage, but a half-avowed, half-hidden, rivalry.”
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Deleuze’s perspective on Kant’s critical philosophy is that it is an ‘immanent’ critique, that is, a critique that limits itself to what is inherent and internal to the topic at hand:
“If we ask what the limits of reason are, and what role it plays in knowledge, we must remain on the terrain of reason itself, and not invoke criteria that arise from other sources. To the degree that we proceed in this kind of way, we will never know what reason is capable of on its own terms.”
Three Criticisms of Kant in Nietzsche
Kant rejects recourse to transcendent criteria of evaluation, and when justifying some particular kind of knowledge, looks to ‘immanent’ conditions – conditions within a subject who knows, and which are directly accessible to that subject.
With that said, Deleuze finds three principal criticisms of Kant in Nietzsche. First, that Kant assumes that thought and knowledge are things of intrinsic value; in other words, no investigation into the value of thought is necessary. Second, in attempting to determine what constitutes the legitimate use of reason, Kant assumes that whatever that is will be static. Third, Kant searches for immanent conditions, but assumes that such conditions will be universal and necessary.
It is Deleuze’s contention that Nietzsche solves the problematic elements of Kantianism, claiming that, “Nietzsche seems to have sought (and to have found in the “eternal return” and the “will to power”) a radical transformation of Kantianism, a re-invention of the critique which Kant betrayed at the same time as he conceived it.”
Deleuze on the Dogmatic Image of Thought
Kant is the last in the line of philosophers who have fallen victim to the same structural error; in Deleuze’s terminology, they have accepted the ‘dogmatic image of thought’.
Deleuze describes the central problem with this image as follows: “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.”
This is sometimes framed as a criticism of abstraction in philosophy. Yet it is the ‘universal’ component which Deleuze seems to take more of an issue with. Abstract qualities can be attributed to a force, and indeed our final analysis of a force need not be especially precise. What a force cannot be is ‘universal’. Where a force acts, there is something which is acted upon, there is conceptual space in which it is proper to speak of this force rather than others, it may act in a certain direction, and so on.
Value-Neutrality and Postmodernity
Part of what this criticism amounts to is that we need to let go of any pretensions which intellectual activity has to be value-neutral and detachable from historically constituted creatures engaging in them. Insofar as it means anything in a philosophical context, this is arguably the central tenet of postmodernism. “Clearly thought cannot think by itself” (Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy.)
After having established this, we can ask two separate questions about Kant’s philosophy. First, what is the evaluative framework that underpins Kant’s conceptual edifice? By which values is it oriented? Secondly, what are the conditions that gave rise to these values which are expressed through Kant’s thought? What established powers were invested in this set of evaluations? Nietzsche’s answer to these questions constitutes the most fundamental part of Deleuze’s interpretation.
The First Principle of Nietzsche’s Project
Nietzsche’s project, on Deleuze’s reading, begins with an absolute first principle, which is one from which absolutely everything else follows, ‘Nietzsche’s most general project is the introduction of the concepts of sense and value into philosophy.’ We can paraphrase this principle as follows: every single thing represents an evaluative point of view, and understanding that thing means interpreting it in evaluative terms.
Deleuze puts the point in the following way: “we always have the truths we deserve as a function of the sense of what we conceive, of the value of what we believe.’ Deleuze even gives a new word for this kind of intrinsically interpretive philosophy: ‘symptomatology’. It is precisely the value of truth, of thinking and of knowing which Nietzsche problematizes.
At one stage, Deleuze claims that our concept of thought is far too broad. “The problem of consciousness (or rather, of becoming conscious of something) first confronts us when we begin to realize how much we can do without it; and now we are brought to this initial realization by physiology and natural history […] For we could think, feel, will, re- member, and also ‘act’ in every sense of the term, and yet none of all this would have to ‘enter our consciousness’.
Replacing “What” With “Which”
The already palpable radicalism and iconoclasm of Nietzsche’s thought is, if anything, emphasized by Deleuze. Foundational questions concerning the value of truth are what Deleuze focuses on, quoting Nietzsche from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ thus: “Given that we want truth: why do we not prefer untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance?”. To put the point another way, Nietzsche would have us displace ‘what is?’ with ‘which (one)?’
Deleuze is explicit that this replacement is not “like for like”, but rather involves drawing out the latter question, which is suppressed in earlier philosophers like Kant.
“When we ask the question “what is it?” we not only fall into the worst metaphysics but in fact we merely ask the question “which one?” in a blind, unconscious and confused way. The question “what is it?” is a way of establishing a sense seen from another point of view. Essence, being, is a perspectival reality and presupposes a plurality. Fundamentally it is always the question “What is it for me?”.
This relates back to a notion developed in David Hume’s work; that the fundamental science is the science of human nature, just because we must understand the limits of those who know before we can understand the limits of knowledge itself.
Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche, and Relativism
What Nietzsche is suggesting has to be strictly distinguished from a relativistic philosophy, in which all truths are equal. That view implies that what we ought to do is give up thinking about reality as a whole or what reality is in essence. It is rather that reality itself is plural, and it is for this reason that every truth expresses a perspective.
If what was most important in Kantian philosophy were two varieties of immanence – the rejection of transcendental criteria for knowledge, and conceiving of the conditions of thought as inseparable to thought itself – then Nietzsche’s value is a thinker comes from his rigorous chastisement of any lingering transcendentalism in the Kantian scheme, in particular the delusion of a value-free conception of truth.
Nietzsche also develops plurality as an element of the concept of immanence: as John Roffe puts it, “At issue is no longer the conditions for the possibility of knowledge or morality, but the conditions of all things, all phenomena, and all experience, in their historical actuality.”
And a plurality of another kind is worth noting here too. There is more than a theoretical distinction to be drawn between Nietzsche and variations of philosophical relativism. Gilles Deleuze structures each chapter of Nietzsche and Philosophy around a central concept of Nietzsche’s thought: the concept of tragedy (chapter one), the concepts of force and power (chapter two), the nature of truth as we have already seen (chapter three), morality (chapter four), and nihilism and the overman (chapter five).
His argument is that running beneath each concept are some of those things which will come to be the central values of Deleuze’s own later philosophy: something positive, vital, action-orientated, life-affirming.