Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Deleuze’s production of concepts

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For those who find Wittgenstein’s critique of contemporary philosophical problem-solving compelling, but who resist the idea that philosophy should be nothing more than Wittgensteinian therapy, where can philosophy go?

Continuing from where an earlier post left off, one answer would be to agree with Gilles Deleuze that philosophy should be engaged in “the production of concepts.” This is very different from the puzzle-solving philosophy that Wittgenstein critiques. Whether this puzzle-solving is labeled by its practitioners as a form of analytic philosophy or an alternative to it, it is motivated by the attempt to discover the answers to philosophical problems. It assumes, against Wittgenstein, that there are correct answers to these problems, and that these answers can be determined by logical inference from the linguistic materials at hand, whether these materials come from intuition, natural science, or psychological experiment.

A philosophy based on the production of concepts, by contrast, would seek to create rather than discover, to make rather than find. It could be seen as dedicated to the creation of new “vocabularies,” in Richard Rorty’s use of the term. These new vocabularies might serve some of our ends better than the vocabularies we already use.

What kinds of vocabularies does Deleuze himself create?

I have to admit that I have trouble making much sense of Deleuze’s own conceptual productions. Deleuze’s style of writing is an extreme case of something that could be said of a lot of French philosophical and theoretical writing from the last half-century, from Lacan to Badiou and beyond. He introduces philosophical terms of art at a rapid, dazzling pace, using them in provocative ways that cry out for interpretation. Yet the flood of neologisms and unfamiliar usages comes on so rapidly, accompanied by so few illustrations or definitions, that the novice reader often lacks sufficient materials to make sense of what the terms mean, even in the most basic sense.

One doesn’t have to be a disciple of Wittgenstein to conclude as a practical matter that understanding the meaning of a new term (or, what amounts to the same thing, a new use of a familiar term) requires seeing how the term is used. If I say “tallow is usually white” a single time, and you don’t already know what tallow is, my single use of the word “tallow” won’t shed a lot of light on what it is. My single statement won’t be enough to give you the sense that you understand the meaning of “tallow” at all. If I start to discuss tallow at length, however, including how it’s prepared by rendering beef or mutton fat, or how it’s used to make shortening, you will probably feel increasingly confident that you understand what tallow is in at least some basic sense—even if, of course, you still don’t know everything about it, and might not know how to answer definitional questions relating to marginal uses of the term (can tallow be made from goat fat?).

The trouble with Deleuze, at least for a novice reader, at least in his non-historical works such as A Thousand Plateaus, is that he frequently fails to provide sufficient linguistic materials to form the basis for even a very limited understanding of the terms he introduces. Even under the best of circumstances, the process of understanding a rich new philosophical term of art will never come to an end. It will always be possible to ask how a term should be used in some unfamiliar context to which one’s present understanding does not clearly, consistently extend. But Deleuze provides so little guidance, at least for the uninitiated reader, that it is often difficult to reach much of any understanding at all of the terms he introduces. To the extent that we sometimes speak of understanding as though it were a binary property—do you understand what I’m saying or not?—Deleuze often provides so little guidance that one could only pass the indefinite threshold between “not understanding” and “understanding” through a fairly precarious, and usually arbitrary, leap of the imagination. One is often left guessing how he would answer even the most basic and obvious questions about many of his terms, or (in other words) how he would use the terms in some of the contexts that would seem most obviously relevant to the discussion in which the terms appear.

It probably would not be worthwhile to make these observations about Deleuze if it were not for the fact, mentioned above, that this quality of Deleuze’s writing is characteristic of a lot of French theory over the last half-century. It also shows up in a fair amount of American literary theory that takes its inspiration from French theory—although not works that attempt to make French theory comprehensible to outsiders, like Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction. To the extent that what Deleuze does (as opposed to what he says philosophy does or should do) is in practice a problematic model for philosophy after Wittgenstein, the same might be true of what most contemporary French theory does. Put another way: I’d like to distinguish as clearly as possible between the general idea of philosophy as the production of concepts, and the specific way that Deleuze produces concepts. The latter is only one way of doing the former. I’m sympathetic to Deleuze’s idea of philosophy, but have trouble embracing his own practical realization of this idea.

I take it to be fairly uncontroversial that by using a term, and especially by explaining the term’s meaning, it is possible to make the term’s meaning less indeterminate. One’s uses of the term can provide evidence of the term’s meaning that can be invoked in a dispute between two people who support different understandings of the term. Generally speaking, the more a term is used, and the more the meaning of the term is explained, the less room there will be for dispute over the term’s meaning. As noted above, there will always be plenty of room for dispute somewhere or other, but some interpretations will be effectively foreclosed. An interpreter could insist on one of these foreclosed interpretations, but the insistence would sound like a joke—as if someone were reading The Critique of Pure Reason and insisted that the thing in itself is in fact a kind of egg.

(I note that the preceding paragraph is itself an attempt to make clearer what I said about Deleuze two paragraphs earlier, in part by providing more uses of the terms I’m using, such as “use” and “term.” Those who already understood the point will probably find the last paragraph redundant.)

Of course, a single use of a term might be sufficient to allow someone to understand a term, at least in a basic way, if that use offers a simple, clear definition of the unfamiliar term based on more familiar ones. But when it comes to difficult new philosophical concepts—the kind of thing that interests Deleuze—offering a simple, clear definition will rarely be possible, because understanding what Deleuze means by the term and what he does not mean will usually require understanding the term’s relation to a whole range of other philosophically contested terms that themselves call out for definition. In any case, Deleuze (based on my limited reading) rarely attempts to offer straightforward definitions.

Reading Deleuze, at least initially, is a little like trying to interpret fragments of esoteric poetry from some lost civilization—the primary difference being that the value of attempting to speculatively reconstruct the thought of a lost civilization is usually clear, while the value of speculatively reconstructing Deleuze’s thought is less clear. One may wonder: why did Deleuze decide to write in this way? Why is he making me do the work of reconstruction, rather than simply explaining what terms mean through definitions or illustrations?

Is this all a way of attracting attention? Has French theory taken from Hegel the lesson that obscurity attracts interpreters, and thus increases the chances of securing a prominent position in the history of ideas?

More troublingly, one might wonder in the course of one’s laborious reconstruction of Deleuze’s thought: did he even do the work I am doing now? Am I re-constructing, or simply constructing? And if I am simply constructing, why am I constructing from these materials—why am I dedicating so much energy to making sense of Deleuze’s use of these terms, if he himself did not bother to do the work of thinking that I am doing now?

But perhaps I am simply being uncharitable to Deleuze. I never spent as much time trying to make sense of his writings as I dedicated to other theorists whose works might be seen as equally obscure, such as Heidegger or Hegel. Perhaps Delueze’s uses of terms all come together in the end—even, perhaps, by refusing to come together in some original and interesting way. Perhaps it is possible for a scholar who is intimately familiar with Deleuze’s intellectual background to arrive at a relatively clear understanding of his terms. Perhaps Deleuze’s writings as a whole, interpreted in light of his intellectual background and his goals, provide sufficient material for a scholar to narrow down the range of plausible interpretations and then to say that one interpretation makes the best sense in light of the evidence as a whole.

Fortunately or unfortunately, however, even if this is possible, it is not always what happens, at least among Deleuze’s readers in the United States. The more common approach is to imitate Deleuze. Rather than attempting to clarify what he means, and then to make use of this clarified meaning, the tendency among humanities scholars has all too often been to pluck an interesting-sounding term from Deleuze and begin using it in one’s own work—perhaps in a different way from Deleuze, perhaps not—who can say? Often no one can, because both Deleuze’s use and one’s own display the same opacity, the same oracular refusal to offer the reader sufficient materials for making sense of the term. For another example of this general phenomenon, consider the use by literary theorists of Austin’s notion of “the performative.” Each new appropriation, such as Judith Butler’s, involves a different meaning—and yet everyone persists in speaking of “the performative” as though they are all having a conversation about the same thing. I find all of this baffling.

In any case, whether or not we happen to find Deleuze’s obscure mode of producing concepts to be an appealing one, or the results of his production to be helpful, his notion of philosophy as the production of concepts opens the way to a kind of non-therapeutic philosophical work that remains viable in the wake of Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophical problem-solving. It is an answer to the question: where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

The next post in this thread will turn toward the relationship between Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy and philosophical traditions that share little in common with the standard problem-solving methods of analytic philosophy and its close methodological relatives. Does Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy even apply to, say, Hegel or Heidegger? (For that matter, does it even apply to Plato?) Suppose I’m wrong and Deleuze’s uses of his terms make as much sense and are as interesting and potentially valuable as Heidegger’s, and that the same applies to other difficult post-Hegelian contemporary theorists in France and elsewhere. Would this mean that philosophy after Wittgenstein is already well underway in the works of these theorists? Does Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy only bring analytic philosophy and its close puzzle-solving relatives to an end, while leaving post-Hegelian traditions in philosophy undisturbed?

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One thought on “Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Deleuze’s production of concepts

  1. Pingback: Philosophy “in the doldrums” | Against the Logicians

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