Nomadography: The 'Early' Deleuze and the History of Philosophy

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I belong to a generation, one of the last generations, that was more or less bludgeoned to death with the history of philosophy. [...] Many members of my generation never broke free of this; others did, by inventing their own particular methods and new rules, a new approach. I myself "did" history of philosophy for a long time, read books on this or that author. But I compensated in various ways: by concentrating, in the first place, on authors who challenged the rationalist tradition in this history (and I see a secret link between Lucretius, Hume, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, constituted by their critique of negativity, their cultivation of joy, the denunciation of power ... and so on).

Gilles Deleuze, "Letter to a Harsh Critic" (1)

In his Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel says that "What the history of philosophy displays to us is a series of noble spirits, the gallery of the heroes of reason's thinking," but that the history of philosophy would have little value if thought of as a mere collection of opinions, in themselves arbitrary and thus worthless: "But philosophy contains no opinions; there are no philosophical opinions." (2) Hence, Hegel says, those who wish to understand the history of philosophy by studying the individual philosophers it comprises, rather than achieving a more universal idea of the totality of its thought, will be missing the forest for the trees. "Anyone who starts by examining the trees, and sticks simply to them, does not survey the whole wood and gets lost and bewildered in it." (3) For Hegel, the history of philosophy is the overarching concept, and the evolutionary realization, of philosophy itself.

Let it be said up front: Gilles Deleuze hates this history of philosophy. Indeed, he does not care for the philosopher and philosophy underlying that view: "What I most detested was Hegelianism and dialectics." (4) However, Deleuze does not abandon or reject the history of philosophy. Rather, he transforms the project into something else, a "nomadography," which projects an alternative history of philosophy that not only allows Deleuze to "get out" of that institution, but allows us to re-imagine it in productive new ways. Deleuze's distaste for the history of philosophy, the Hegelian institution presented to him and his contemporaries in school and which formed a basic requirement of the profession of philosophy in France, is overcome by his peculiar approach to the history of philosophy, an approach that redeems philosophy as it transfigures it.

Typically, any discussion of Deleuze's career draws a line between his "early" work, those monographs produced between 1953 and 1968 dealing with individual figures from the history of Western philosophy, and Deleuze's later work "written in his own voice" (such as Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense), (5) followed by his 1970s-era collaborations with Felix Guattari, and finally with his diverse post-Capitalism and Schizophrenia writings, culminating perhaps in What is Philosophy? (also co-authored with Guattari). Although Deleuze himself has remarked that his early works were devoted to the history of philosophy, readers of his entire oeuvre will notice that the concerns animating those early studies are still engaged in his later work. Moreover, one could say that Deleuze never really stopped "doing" the history of philosophy, albeit in his own rather eccentric way. In addition to those early monographs on Hume, (6) Nietzsche, (7) Kant, (8) Bergson, (9) and Spinoza, (10) Deleuze wrote studies devoted to the philosophers Leibniz, Foucault, and his old friend Frangois Chatelet, (11) as well as maintaining an ongoing conversations with his nomad thinkers and other figures from the history of philosophy in the collaborations with Guattari, (12) in his dealings with literature (including a book on Proust and a lengthy essay on Sacher-Masoch, (13) in addition to the Kafka study), and in his books on cinema and on Francis Bacon, (14) to name just the book-length studies; his essays and other shorter works frequently address the history of philosophy. …


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