French philosopher and writer Gilles Deleuze came to be one of the most celebrated thinkers of the latter half twentieth century for his critique of rationalism and modern individualism. Born in Paris in 1925, Deleuze authored more than twenty-five books in French, all but one of which have now been translated into English. In his time at the Sorbonne, Deleuze wrote monographs on Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Kant, and Bergson. Later, Deleuze would publish Difference and Repetition (1968) and Logic of Sense (1969). He would also join activist and political philosopher Felix Guattari and co-author Capitalism and Schizophrenia and Thousand Plateaus in 1972 and 1980 respectively.
Deleuze stands alone in the philosophical plateau because he considered philosophy to be a means of creating concepts. The Frenchman claims to be a pure metaphysician, dissecting abstract concepts like thought, individuality, and memory. In this sense, Deleuze is solitary in his philosophical undertaking, making him one of the most cited authorities in the humanities across all fields. This article looks into Difference and Repetition to discern Deleuze’s magnum opus – which finds that new modes of thinking and becoming are developed through difference and repetition.
The works of Gilles Deleuze, although considered seminal in understanding postmodern thought, are very difficult to get through. While it is not unusual for translations of dense French texts into English to have such an effect, the difficulty of Deleuze is attributable to his resort to neologisms. The inventions of new words (eg., ‘a-presentation’), the use of French terms which do not have English equivalents, and even the borrowing and philosophizing of technical terms that belong to other disciplines (eg., multiplicity from multiplicite) (Deleuze, 1968), make Deleuze especially challenging.
Understanding the foundations of Deleuzian theory, then, aids the reading of his works by equipping the reader with a set of predispositions and philosophical context – which his style of writing does not offer by itself.
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First, Deleuze cannot be grouped away into either Continental or Anglo-American philosophical traditions. As a postmodernist, Deleuze strongly opposes univocalism – terms such as ‘being’ and the thesis that terms like ‘being’ have only one meaning (Berti, 2001). This unity of meaning assigns “essences” to all things; some kind of permanence. Instead, Deleuze prefers ‘multiplicity’- wherein there is no “being”, only a state of becoming. His discontent is also with “representation” as a means of thinking. As such, Deleuze’s position immediately renders all prior Western Metaphysics useless, thereby creating the need for a completely new set of philosophical ideas.
Second, Difference, like most of his works, should be read with reference to Nietzsche. In this, Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy serves as a prelude to his original works. The most important resonance is in his interpretation of Nietzsche’s approach to thought and truth
“As Nietzsche succeeded in making us understand, thought is creation, not will to truth.”
Truth then is not valuable per its innate disposition of being true, but a matter to be scrutinized. This undertaking rejects traditional empiricism, which places empiricism beyond all else, limiting its perception to the capacity of the senses. Deleuze, instead, offers an understanding of empiricism which accounts for the ideas that exist before any sensory experience of the world- a radical question to the politics existing before the condition of ‘being’. Essentially, for Deleuze, all which exists is conceivable, and never beyond question.
In What is Philosophy, Deleuze furthers that empiricism is also an endeavor of creation – removing Plato, Kant, and Descartes’ designation of transcendentalism to empiricism. His empiricism is founded on Spinoza, Hume, and Nietzsche. Regarding Spinoza, Deleuze builds upon the finite modes of observation of substances- shifting the burden of reality from theory to practice.
Deleuze further says:
“Empiricism… (analyses) the states of things, in such a way that non-pre-existence concepts can be extracted from them.”
For Difference, Deleuze borrows the theory of eternal return from Nietzsche to explain the difference of repetition. This is discussed in detail in Directing Repetition below.
Third, it is necessary to understand philosophers from the lens of Deleuze, as creators. Deleuze was a constructivist, deeply interested in the history of philosophy – which prompted new concepts from him with every reading of a new philosophical work. Acceptance of this detail aids in the understanding of Deleuze as a creator in his own right, situating Difference and Repetition as an origin point of new concepts – and, more importantly, of new ways of thinking. The concepts Deleuze discerns correspond to his own experiences and outlets to his readings of other philosophers. The effect of repetition in the observation of writings, within the difference between different writings and the writing itself by the passage of time, is the creation of new concepts.
After having internalized Deleuze’s academic affinity with Nietzsche, the divorce of his philosophy with traditional western philosophy, and his constructivist and post-structural method of analysis, it finally becomes possible to understand Deleuze or Difference, at the very least.
Making Sense of Difference
Gilles Deleuze leaps from Aristotle to Spinoza to establish ‘difference’ as a primary concept, one which is not subject to the identical. What he means is, throughout the development of western philosophy, difference has been treated as secondary to pre-existing concepts which when compared, produce a “difference between”. This subordination reduces difference to a negative, a not-this. Deleuze opposes this method of categorization – which rests on representation and analogy. He proposes, instead, that we should analyze difference-in-itself.
To establish his idea of difference, Deleuze offers an “anti-Platonian” approach to difference. He begins with Plato’s categorization of idea, copy, and simulacrum. When a person sets out to define themselves, they refer to their idea of themselves – according to Deleuze, this reference doesn’t create a copy of who they are. The reference and subsequent understanding change the idea and distort it eventually.
Philosophers like Descartes and Kant have, as Deleuze puts it, avoided engaging with the simulacra directly (Deleuze, 1968). It is suitable to quote Baudrillard to understand a simulacrum:
“Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal…. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.”
Here Deleuze asserts that this avoidance preserves Plato and his likes’ attribution of difference to a method of analogy and comparison. This is because the simulacra, just by existing, destabilize this analogy. A simulacrum has no reference, to the extent to which, it is “unmediated” (Deleuze, 1968). Deleuze then takes simulacra to be a model of difference and makes an abstraction by attributing the difference of simulacra to ‘difference’ in general. Difference then, becomes the essence of beings, making them disparate, incongruous entities. This is what Deleuze calls “difference-in-itself”.
Taking on Hegel
In the Preface of Difference, Gilles Deleuze warns this work, in particular, comes from a position of general anti-Hegelianism. Deleuze takes issue with Hegel‘s dialectic – with the operation of extreme differences.
Hegelian dialectic comprises a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis within the same identity. Within the same identity are two elements (thesis and antithesis) which are extremely opposites to one another such that their differences can be eliminated to create a “superior” unity (the synthesis). This negation of difference-in-itself, according to Deleuze, faults history, ontology, and ethics.
The significance that Hegel prescribes to this negation further complicates matters for Deleuze, because the idea that difference can be “resolved” to find a higher unity misses the importance of difference entirely. By first assigning an affirmative role to difference, and then stripping it away by subordinating it to the necessary creation of a superior identity, Hegel undermines difference. Hegel takes it a step further and places dialectic at the center of history, deeming it the means of creation of an absolute, i.e. the truth. This is unacceptable for Deleuze, and he states:
“History progresses not by negation and the negation of negation, but by deciding problems and affirming differences. It is no less bloody and cruel as a result. Only the shadows of history live by negation.”
This teleology of dialectic toward an absolute unity by the negation of differences, along with the conception of difference as relative to identity, is intolerable for Deleuze. As such, the very fabric of Deleuzian Difference is anti-Hegelian.
Gilles Deleuze returns to his critique of ontological unity and argues that every being is becoming; that there is no stagnancy in existence. As such, the Deleuzian philosophy of difference is a philosophy of change – a change which occurs by difference and repetition.
For him, repetition is a function of time and as well as an embodiment of time itself. If you eat a spoonful of rice at moment A and again another spoonful (with the exact quantity of rice) at moment B, you have repeated an act at different moments. As such, Deleuze understands repetition to be a “difference over time”.
When we acknowledge the difference between these spoons of rice, we are bound to ask – is the second act really a repetition of the first one? If the difference is non-conceptual, what becomes of repetition? Deleuze tells us that we should stop relying on the generality of order in a thing to make it that thing. This means we should stop grounding repetition in the generality of rice, or spoonfuls of rice in our case. What this dependence facilitates is not repetition, but an approximation.
It’s crucial to analyze time to establish Deleuzian repetition, for which he proposes three models of time and applies them to repetition.
The first is circular time, like the rising and setting of the sun every day. This cyclic nature of repetition suggests that forces beyond our reach are in play. This creates a perception of time as continuous and containing an event or even several events. It is by the experience of such cyclic moments that habit is made- creating a subject by passive synthesis of moments.
Second, a straight line, which Deleuze takes from Kant, makes time a function of sensory experiences. Here, events are placed into time, bringing experience to the forefront as a means of perceiving time itself. Repetition here becomes an active process of synthesis. To recall past experiences from memory and attempt to repeat them is far from habit. Deleuze calls this active synthesis the “second synthesis memory”.
Both of these theories subject repetition to the function of time, subordinating it to a ‘being’. These theories don’t serve the entire purpose of the establishment of Deleuzian repetition, because difference as essential and constitutive of disparateness is not established. A third theory thus emerges, accounting for both difference and repetition.
Here Deleuze turns to Nietzsche and his concept of the eternal return. In contrast with the first theory of passive synthesis, habit is the same every time and active synthesis allows the remembrance of experience through memory. Eternal return, however, is the repetition of entities which differ-in-themselves. The habit represents the past, memory represents the present, and eternal return, the future. Nietzsche says:
“The subject of the eternal return is not the same but the different, not the similar but the dissimilar, not the one but the many.”
Deleuze remains faithful to the prospect of multiplicity in existence and posits that “difference inhabits repetition” (Deleuze, 1968). Repetition of the third kind affirms the position of difference as an independent element capable of the production of new entities. Finally, repetition, when attributed to a process of becoming, remains not a repetition of identity, but the difference within the identity, i.e. difference-in-itself.
Gilles Deleuze on Thought
In the first two chapters- Difference-in-itself and Repetition-in-itself, Gilles Deleuze criticizes traditional western philosophy while offering a novel way of thinking about concepts in general. Beginning from the third chapter, Image of Thought, however, Deleuze begins doing philosophy in his own right.
Deleuze opens this section by acknowledging the complexity of beginning philosophy, i.e. starting a thought. He adds, “…beginning means eliminating all presuppositions” (Deleuze, 1968). Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am” becomes an easy example for Deleuze to illustrate what he means by presuppositions. When Descartes uses “I” to denote this attribution of existence and identity to the capacity of thought, he avoids defining what it means to think, to be, and to be rational. It isn’t difficult to observe that the meanings of these terms differ greatly among philosophers. So when Descartes makes this statement without attempting to define its parameters, he assumes that the meaning of these terms is understood and in common sense. More often than not, “common sense” is evoked as a defense that is free of scrutiny, because it comprises what “everyone knows”. For Deleuze, this is a subjective presupposition.
Conversely, objective presupposition would be to define such terms and use such express presuppositions to avoid engendering the risk of unexamined ideas sifting into our initial premises. Deleuze takes issue with the former, subjective presupposition because he thinks it is necessary to tackle the hidden framework of thought. When a thought is valorized because it is supposedly within common knowledge, it is usually ascribed the value of truth or morality. This again reverts us to representational thought, which Deleuze calls an “image of thought”- a general image of what the thought is, what it is about, and what it ought to be. This image, however, isn’t justified because of the valor of common sense- it is pardoned of any scrutiny that other thoughts may be subjected to.
To avoid succumbing to presuppositions of this kind, Deleuze proposes that we remove ourselves from the “everybody” in question- allowing us to truly begin and repeat thoughts. In line with the same, Deleuze offers some insight into how a thought exists and operates through eight postulates:
1. The postulate of the principle, or the Cogitatio natura universalis: The philosopher purposely uses and keeps hidden subjective presuppositions with an affinity for the truth. For them, these themes are understood pre-philosophically, allowing them to create an image of thought. This is called dogmatic thought. Then, for philosophy to truly begin, or begin anew, it needs to criticize this image of thought, without an image – without any presupposition. This requires renouncing representation and common sense completely.
2. The postulate of the ideal, or common sense: When common sense is taken as an image of thought, it no longer remains a thought. It is merely recognition by the thinking subject. This again relies on a model where the thinking subject is in unity, is not becoming, but being.
3. The postulate of the model, or of recognition: The image of thought is again, criticized for the extrapolation of an important concept- which when imbibed in common sense, is merely speculative. The values enshrined therein are also observed accordingly, such as in Descartes’ use of “rationality”- which is inherently positive. So when the reader reads the word “rationality”, a positive picture is painted, not by active thought, but by recognition and common sense.
4. The postulate of the element, or of representation: By virtue of recognition, objects are reduced to their general elements, and comparison becomes integral to form an image of thought. Supposedly then, when a person begins to “think”, they essentially compare representations of ideas and conclude them to be the same, similar, analogous, or opposed. The objects themselves are not scrutinized for difference in itself or repetition in itself.
5. The postulate of the negative, or of error: Traditionally, error in thought is a “misadventure” of thought. It is supposed that thought can attain the truth until external mechanisms infringe and something goes wrong. However, thought may suffer because of madness and stupidity as much as it may suffer from error.
6. The postulate of logical function, or the proposition: There are two elements of proposition – sense (for Deleuze, the condition of truth) and designation. Designation here refers to the extrinsic condition or imposition of truth/falsity to a concept within common sense. For Deleuze, sense should be the condition of actual experience; to facilitate the creation of truth. Designation, however, obstructs this process.
7. The postulate of modality, or solutions: Deleuze tells us that we don’t usually want to think until something forces us to think. In a dogmatic model of thought, “problems are evaluated according to the possibility of … finding a solution” (Deleuze, 1968). This reduces problems to simple obstructions that need to be neutralized instead of representing them as the interrogative and productive aspect that they are. Thus, “solvability” overshadows the positive character of problems.
8. The postulate of the end, or result, the postulate of knowledge: Learning, in contrast with knowledge, is an active process, dealing with the flux within an idea. Knowledge, however, renders thought passive. For this reason, Hegel’s “absolute knowledge”, deriving from the negative dialectic of an idea, leaves thought lifeless and ultimately perpetuates dogmatic thought.
This encapsulation of thought describes Deleuze’s issue with unity, its translation into dormancy, and the way out of it. Image of Thought binds Difference together, insofar that it deals with the beginning of all philosophy, let alone that of Deleuze. All of Deleuze can be read with this in mind: the Preface of Difference itself attempts to discern his subjective presuppositions, allowing the book itself to not be a being but be becoming.
“The weaknesses of a book are often the counterparts of empty intentions that one did not know how to implement. In this sense, a declaration of intent is evidence of real modesty in relation to the ideal book.”
The Legacy of Gilles Deleuze
The works of Gilles Deleuze draw heavily from traditional philosophers, his reading of them accounting for a repetition of sorts. In turn, his works present a difference in perception, and even in the older works themselves, by the virtue of time. Most postmodernist thought is dedicated to understanding the underlying framework of thought and action while rejecting broad abstractions and questioning what was previously accepted as norms. In this vein, Deleuze and the life of his work depict how a subject can become capable of interrogation and defiance.
Michel Foucault, in awe of Deleuze, prophesied that the 20th century would be called the “Deleuzian Century”. This did not prove to be true. Deleuze, due to his non-traditional method of philosophy and method of writing, remains detached from mainstream philosophy. However, Deleuze’s very method of thinking and writing conforms to his idea of removing oneself from the general public and withdrawing from common sense. Only then, Deleuze believed, can a new thought be formed. Even a reader of Deleuze struggles to understand him by comparing his ideas with existing pre-dispositions about his concepts; which is to say, it isn’t possible to retain any images of thought when reading Deleuze. In this sense, Deleuze has created a philosophy that is truly original, and original in his own terms.
There is no greater measure of creation than originality, and Deleuze is not comparable with any traditional philosopher by any means. An extensive study of Deleuze produces, thus, a philosophy of creation as a by-product, which can be truly realized by acknowledging the differences-in-itself and effectuating a repetition-of-itself. Every word Gilles Deleuze has written liberates the reader of any prior conceptual understanding, every sentence flourishes, and every chapter is an endeavor of creation.
Deleuze G., Difference and Repetition (1962).
Deleuze G., What is Philosophy? (1991).
Berti E., Multiplicity and Unity of Being in Aristotle (2001).
Baudrillard J., The Precession of Simulacra (2009).