Thought: An Uncanny Precision, Research Time, 21/11/2017

Gilles Deleuze has an awful reputation as an impenetrable writer. And I mean fucking impenetrable. Not like it isn’t his fault. Some of Deleuze’s sentences – especially in his super-dense late 1960s works – are the kind of language you grind your teeth on.

Working with Félix Guattari made his words more poetic, more like a teacher than a researcher. But the flow of this jazz was sometimes a little too out-there. Deleuze’s language was looser in his solo works during his last decade alive, though he never met the fever pitches of those collaborative works again.

I do sometimes think of their collaborative style like jazz musicians
riffing on each other's improvisations, or rappers freestyling in tandem.
Deleuze and Guattari's collaborations do have a very musical feeling
to their language.
But he doesn’t have a reputation for precision. Mostly stereotypes about being either immensely difficult or bizarrely weird. Which is too bad, because he’s actually a very precise writer.

When you read What Is Philosophy?, it isn’t just a book of philosophy – it’s also a look at Deleuze’s own method of philosophical thought.* Start by describing what it is he makes. Concepts.

* Why not Guattari too, even though his name is on the cover? A reference to the history. Their collaboration was pretty light on this one, nowhere near the intensity of their work in the 1970s. They were old by then, Guattari deep in a years-long depression. He’d die of a heart attack at 62 the year after it was published. Félix didn’t do too much.

A philosophical concept is an account – in thought and as best you can in words – of the full range of possible variations when several different processes collide and interact. It’s like a mathematical description, but without variables or constants, using only the ranges of all the relevant vectors.

A concept has no X, Y, and Z; no e or π. A concept has maximum and minimum ranges of development from a decisive, transformative point. There’s a collision of forces, a moment of change constitutes from its complex dynamics and turbulence a new system of those forces. The range of possibilities that event sets in motion is its concept.

Let's be honest with ourselves, however. They'd never be as cool as
actual jazz musicians.
A concept is an expression of this knowledge of the ranges of potentials, but in thought. When you ask what these thoughts make possible, you’re doing practical philosophy. Exploring what a particular way of thinking – a framework for understanding the world – enables you to do.

What does such a framework – the ability to understand the world using these ranges – open our minds toward? Practical philosophy – philosophical thinking and analysis going to work in the world.

But in this book, Deleuze is thinking only of the nature of concepts. He’d written enough about their development and use. What Is Philosophy? is Deleuze doing meta-philosophy. Trying to describe what philosophical thinking actually is, and what philosophers do when they’re actually doing philosophy and not just writing about it.**

** The occupation of way too many people who call themselves philosophers.

Studying a concept means examining how that concept is expressed, how it’s written, other explorations of it in different philosophical (or philosophically-inclined) literature.

Once you understand the writing, you can mull over its mechanics – its processes, the activities it suits, what it makes visible and invisible, the relationships and dynamics of all its components, how its structure can affect how someone would think through it.

You survey it, like a drone flight over a mountain range. It has to be a very careful survey, because of its complexity. Incredibly precise knowledge, but only after careful, attentive study. A survey to map thoughts themselves.

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