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June 01, 2005

Deleuze's abuse of the history of philosophy

With regards to his books on key conceptual personae such as Leibniz, Deleuze was not an archaeologist in the style of Foucault. There is no careful uncovering of strata. It is more like excavating with a JCB. But that doesn't matter, the creation of good concepts is more important.

The important thing is to create concepts with 'precision'. Not many achieve that aim, especially in this field. Papers on Deleuze tend to the extremes of either grand impressionism on the one hand, and vacuous taxonomic pedantry on the other. Perhaps that could be said of much that passes as philosophy. So when writing on Deleuze, it is important to understand exactly what is meant when he calls for precision in philosophy and in writing about the history of philosophy.

The precision of a concept is defined by its wealth of connections, by the work that it does in relation to the plane external to the concept, the plane in which it is constituted. Deleuze befriends the conceptual personae of Leibniz, Spinoza and others primarily with the aim of stealing their concepts into a plane that is different to those in which they were born. Faithful authenticity is never really the aim. The precision to which Deleuze aspires is not that of the authentic reading, of the recreation of long dead philosophical problems and their concepts. If it were, then perhaps all of those books about the history of philosophy would simply act as a long drawn out answer to the question "what is a concept?". In fact when he does finally address that question he couldn't be more flippant with his reading of Descartes.

Deleuze knew from that start that reconstituting concepts on a plane that no longer exists and no longer does any work only results in vacuity. Even the most authentic reading lacks precision. He was not an archaeologist in the style of Foucault, there is no careful uncovering of strata. This is more like excavating tombs with a JCB. Seeking and reanimating concepts that have been aborted by the history of philosophy is what he does best. But his Leibniz and Spinoza are Frankensteins. Picture this: Leibniz with an arm amputated from Thom, a leg stitched on from Cache, Koch's curve for a back, and Klee's hands. What a monster. Are we supposed to laugh at it? Or be terrified?


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