Everybody thinks

Deleuze, Descartes and rationalism

RP 162 () / Article

In his 1968 book Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze famously stresses the violent, unnatural and shocking character of thought, counterposing his own anti-representational philosophy of difference to what he depicts as a dogmatic, humanist ‘image of thought’. In his own words: ‘“Everybody” knows very well that in fact men think rarely, and more often under the impulse of a shock than in the excitement of a taste for thinking.’1

In his commentary on Deleuze, François Zourabichvili has shown how this repudiation of the idea that thought is coterminous with human nature, that thinking is a natural and constant exercise of human beings’ ‘common sense’, plays a pivotal role in Deleuze’s association of thought with the notions of the ‘outside’ and the ‘event’. In Zourabichvili’s helpful summary: ‘thought affirms an absolute relation to exteriority, refuses the postulate of recognition, and affirms the outside in this world: heterogeneity, divergence. When philosophy renounces the activity of foundation, the outside abjures its transcendence and becomes immanent’. 2 Deleuze’s sundering of the lineage of rationalism (pitting Spinoza against Descartes) can accordingly be understood as a split in the understanding of what it is to think in general, and to think being in particular. In order to examine this radical division of what goes by the abridged name of rationalism, and what Deleuze’s role is in the constitution of what some have seen as a kind of contemporary anti-Cartesian doxa in Continental philosophy and critical theory,3 I will focus on the relatively subtle changes in Deleuze’s portrayal of Descartes as the purveyor of a ‘dogmatic image of thought’, and then move on to how Deleuze inflects and transforms the widespread condemnation of Descartes’s dualism.

The chapter on ‘the image of thought’ in Difference and Repetition clearly prefigures What is Philosophy? (written with Félix Guattari) in posing the problem of thought as the problem of beginning to philosophize without presuppositions, a problem with an incontestable Cartesian pedigree. But does philosophizing without presuppositions surreptitiously mobilize certain varieties of philosophical pre-understanding, or prephilosophical understanding? In particular, the chapter on ‘the image of thought’ anticipates the engagement with Descartes in What is Philosophy? when it adumbrates, in what might be regarded as an anti-modernist vein, the theme of beginning in philosophy. Given the power and pervasiveness of the figure of Descartes as the inceptor of ‘modern’ philosophy, and the broadly anti-Cartesian orientation of Deleuzean philosophy, it is particularly interesting to see this trope at work. Of course, the theme of presuppositions is also closely linked to that of immanence, which might also be envisaged as something like an abandonment of all presuppositions. But is this what Deleuze is aiming at? Is the forsaking of presuppositions not instead a gesture redolent of the Hegelian movement of the concept which, whilst acknowledged as precursor of the project outlined in What is Philosophy?, remains a definite rival for Deleuze? Is immanence marked by a certain relationship to presuppositions rather than an absence or repudiation of them? After all, for Deleuze the singularity of philosophy should not be confused with its legislative autonomy and/or transcendence. One might wonder in this regard whether the later development of the idea of a plane of immanence, for instance in A Thousand Plateaus, is to be considered as an evacuation of presuppositions or on the contrary as a new use of presuppositions…

Notes

This is a revised version of a paper delivered at the conference ‘Deleuze and Rationalism’, Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University, 14–15May 2007.

1. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Athlone, London, 1995, p. 132.

2. François Zourabichvili, Deleuze: Une philosophie del’événement, PUF, Paris, 1994, p. 17.

3. Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, Verso, London,1999.