Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Uses of Anachronism: Deleuze's History of the Subject

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Uses of Anachronism: Deleuze's History of the Subject

Article excerpt

Even the history of philosophy is completely without interest if it does not undertake to awaken a dormant concept and to play it again on a new stage, even if this comes at the price of turning it against itself.1

History of Philosophy: Recounting Imaginary Books

Gilles Deleuze observes a distinction between writing history of philosophy and "doing" philosophy. We are interested here in how this distinction is set up. How does Deleuze conceive of the relation between history of philosophy and doing philosophy? What is the use of historiography and how can it be brought to bear on the present? In the preface to the English edition of Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes this:

There is a great difference between writing history of philosophy and writing philosophy. In the one case we study the arrows or the tools of a great thinker, the trophies and the prey, the continents discovered. In the other case we trim our own arrows, or gather those which seem to us the finest in order to try and send them in other directions, even if the distance covered is not astronomical but relatively small. We try to speak in our own name only to learn that a proper name designates no more than the outcome of a body of work-in other words the concepts discovered, on condition that we were able to express and imbue them with life using all the possibilities of language.2

This metaphor of the arrow is instructive. Deleuze says that "After I had studied Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Proust, all of whom fired me with enthusiasm, Difference and Repetition was the first book in which I tried to `do philosophy."' Deleuze distinguishes here between his earlier texts on the history of philosophy and his first text which does philosophy-on the one hand, the selection of some arrows and tools, the tensioning of a bow, and, on the other, their deployment in a new direction. Following Nietzsche, Deleuze wants to be an untimely philosopher-he desires a philosophy that is not a philosophy of history, nor a philosophy of the universal, but untimely. That is to say-and these words are Nietzsche's"acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come." Deleuze anticipates a time when it will no longer be possible to write philosophy books as they have been traditionally produced. The search for new means of philosophical expression was begun by Nietzsche, and Deleuze hints here that his own work on cinema, theatre, and the visual arts is animated by this need for new modes of philosophical expression. At any rate it is in this context that Deleuze raises the question of the history of philosophy.

He says that the history of philosophy should play a role roughly analogous to collage in painting. This means that elements, or more precisely concepts, are lifted from the textual context in which they were created and juxtaposed with concepts from other places in ways that make familiar concepts strange and imbue them with new powers. A commentary reproduces a concept but it is reproduced in a new context-or rather, on a different plane-and for Deleuze commentary must be conscious of the mutations that occur when historical concepts are reproduced in the present. In fact it is the field of possible mutations which constitute commentary's possibilities.

The history of philosophy is the reproduction of philosophy itself. In the history of philosophy a commentary should act as a veritable double and bear the maximum modification appropriate to a double.3

Even more provocatively, Deleuze suggests that it should be possible to recount a real book of past philosophy as if it were an imaginary and feigned book. And here, by way of explanation, he mentions a story by Borges. The story is "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."4 As a guide to what Deleuze might mean here it is quite illuminating.

Borges had an extraordinary talent for the invention of imaginary texts. …

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