(What follows below is a formative paper I have written for my MA. I’ll be posting it in two parts.)
‘Philosophos does not mean “wise man” but “friend of wisdom.” But “friend” must be interpreted in a strange way; the friend, says Zarathustra, is always a third person in between “I” and “me” who pushes me to overcome myself and to be overcome in order to live.’
-Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy.
In Plato’s Phaedo Socrates says that philosophy is training for death , thereby making death the object of philosophy. If Deleuze’s philosophy of difference is a reversal of Platonism, as he is well-known for commenting, then we should expect that he will reject this conception of philosophy. Indeed the purpose of this paper will be to argue that for Deleuze philosophy becomes a fight for life, a preparation for living in this world for the creation of the same world, but differently. Deleuze creates his philosophy by working through other philosophers (Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche, Bergson, Foucault), artists (Sade, Proust, Bacon, and nearly the entire history of Cinema up to his time), science (Riemann, von Uexküll) and with others (he is perhaps best known for his work with Félix Guattari) – undeniably Deleuze’s philosophy is far from autonomous, as he merely constitutes a kind of workshop for the production of concepts. Therefore, rather than focusing our attention on whether or not Deleuze re-presents those whom he thinks with and through in an accurate and scholarly fashion, we will instead take Deleuze’s word for it and treat these works as an attempt to take these thinkers beyond themselves, as if Deleuze had picked up an arrow of thought and shot it to some other place, to some other unthought thought.
In an interview Deleuze remarked that ‘everything I’ve written is vitalistic’. For someone like Deleuze, whose writings show a familiarity with contemporary biology and the other life sciences, this remark is shocking. Vitalism has been almost universally rejected as pseudo-science with perhaps one of the strongest expressions of this given voice by Daniel Dennett in his Kinds of Minds where he states:
“Dualism (the view that minds are composed of some nonphysical and utterly mysterious stuff) and vitalism (the view that living things contain some special physical but equally mysterious stuff – élan vital) have been relegated to the trash heap of history, along with alchemy and astrology. Unless you are also prepared to declare that the world is flat and the sun is a fiery chariot pulled by winged horses – unless, in other words, your defiance of modern science is quite complete – you won’t find any place to stand and fight for these obsolete ideas.”
As Deleuze appears to affirm both a round world and a sun unmoored to any horses (winged or otherwise) we must ask what then does Deleuze’s vitalism consist of? To answer this question we will first look at his reading of Bergson’s conception of the élan vital and then move to the vital-ethical imperative he drives forward from this in his reading of the Nietzsche’s Overman developed in his book on Nietzsche and his book on Foucault.
In Deleuze’s Bergsonism he delineates how Bergson validly uses both dualistic and monistic concepts in his philosophy, even though the chronology of his work could be read as moving definitely from dualism to monism. However, this is not a contradiction or a casting off of his early philosophy. To show how both are valid Deleuze turns to the Bergsonian scheme of the actual and the virtual. Deleuze tells us that ‘All the degrees coexist in a single Nature that is expressed, on the one hand, in difference in kind, and on the other, in difference in degree.’ Dualism is valid between actual tendencies or differences in kind. Monism is valid at the level where all the virtuals virtually coexist and unify. The élan vital is a monistic concept that makes of the monism a dualism. Deleuze defines it this way, ‘[The élan vital] is always a case of a virtuality in the process of being actualized, a simplicity in the process of differentiating, a totality in the process of dividing up: Proceeding “by dissociation and division,” by “dichotomy,” is the essence of life.’ We can say then that the élan vital then names the non-third third term between the actual and the virtual. This notion of the élan vital as non-third third comes from Deleuze’s statement that differentiation is an actualization that ‘presupposes a unity, a virtual primordial totality that is dissociated according to the lines of differentiation, but that still shows its subsisting unity and totality in each line.’ The élan vital is thus both actual and virtual or, more importantly, the actual and the virtual constitute the élan vital in a kind of disjunctive synthesis.
Deleuze focuses on elucidating the concept of the virtual, leading some readers to claim he gives ultimate priority to the virtual at the ethical and political expense of giving up any claim to changing this world. However, we need not go this far. Deleuze points to the confusion between the possible and the virtual amongst biologists when they posit that an organic virtual can be actualized by a simple limitation of their global capacity. In so far as creation is a crucial aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy the notion of the virtual is important because in order to be actualized it ‘must create its own lines of actualization in positive acts’ rather than proceeding by elimination or limitation. Creation then takes place within the real, not the possible. This follows if, as Deleuze tells us, the virtual is not opposed to the real, it is opposed to the actual, while the possible is opposed to the real. The possible is “realized” in resemblance, in that the real is in the image of the possible that it realizes, and limitation, where the realization repulses some possibles. But the virtual is real without being actual and proceeds not by repulsing other virtuals but by creating new lines of differentiation in its actualization. Furthermore the virtual is purely creative or positive for it doesn’t limit the actual by making the actual conform to its image. This technical point is crucial for understanding Deleuze’s ethical and political philosophy for it means that, against readings like Peter Hallward’s, the virtual is not opposed to the reality of our lives but is the very subsisting of life through matter. In fact, in so far as one can argue that Deleuze agrees with Bergson that the possible is a “false notion” propagating false problems then Deleuze himself gives priority to the real rather than to the possible. This priority of the real is given precisely in the name of creativity and against a kind of Aristotelian vitalism of “preformism”. In philosophies that emphasize the possible they are emphasizing the idea that everything is pre-given, which follows from the idea that the real is the image of the possible. But the possible, in reality, resembles the real in so far as it is, in experience, abstracted from the real once made.