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Difference and Repetition is arguably Gilles Deleuze’s most important work. It was Deleuze’s major thesis and his first statement of his own philosophical position and of the approach to issues he had explored in earlier works, including his books on Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, and Marcel Proust. Deleuze’s reputation, especially in the United States, was largely established as a result of his later collaborative works with Félix Guattari, which include the first volume of Capitalisme et schizophrénie (Capitalism and Schizophrenia), titled L’Anti-dipe (1972; Anti-Oedipus, 1977), the second volume, titled Mille Plateaux (1980; A Thousand Plateaus, 1987), and Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (1991; What Is Philosophy?, 1994). However, he first developed many of the themes expressed in these collaborative works in Difference and Repetition.

Difference and Repetition is a critical text in that it solidly and explicitly places Deleuze’s philosophical project within the “philosophies of difference” tradition as found in the works of Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Julia Kristeva. In fact, Deleuze is quite straightforward in stating that his work, beginning with Difference and Repetition, is concerned with thinking about “difference in itself.” By this he meant that he was attempting to think about difference without reducing it to a difference between already identified terms and without relying on a metaphysical foundation of “identity” such as God, substance, or spirit.

Defining Difference

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In his effort to develop a philosophy of difference, Deleuze admits to formulating a philosophy that does not seek to ground the identifiable differences of the world in the way that the Greek philosopher Aristotle grounded differences upon the self-identity and stability of substance. The mistake, or what Deleuze calls “illusion,” of those who criticize this affirmation of “groundlessness” is that they assume that groundlessness “should lack differences, when in fact it swarms with them.” The groundless ground, so to speak, is therefore not an undifferentiated abyss; however, the differences that exist within it are not differences between identifiable terms or those that can be thought of in terms of identity. So, then, what are these differences? Answering this question is the task Deleuze sets for himself in Difference and Repetition.

In the chapter “Difference in Itself,” Deleuze notes that difference is the means for distinguishing or determining things; it is “determination as such.” He divides differences into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. “The difference between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic.” In contrast to an extrinsic form of determination, Deleuze calls for a more fundamental difference, an intrinsic difference that “makes itself.” An intrinsic difference is one that “makes the difference” between identifiable things, and it...

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Calculus and Chaos

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To explain what it means to speak of infinite speeds or of an excess that must be slowed and filtered in order for it to be transformed into finite, consistent speeds, Deleuze refers to differential calculus on a number of occasions in Difference and Repetition. In discussing the French mathematician Albert Lautman, for example, Deleuze notes that Lautman makes a fundamental distinction between the “distribution of individual points in a field of vectors” and “the integral curves in their neighborhood.” The manner in which these points are distributed in the field is the central issue. Chaos, per Deleuze’s reading, consists of infinitesimal vectors that cannot be reduced to a level of consistency, or in the language of differential equations, these points cannot be integrated. The distribution of individual points must therefore be transformed into an integrable distribution of points, or points consistent enough for the integral curves to be drawn in their neighborhood. The abstract machine, the difference that “makes the difference,” performs the function of filtering the nonintegrable field of points (chaos) and transforming it into an integrable distribution. The integration of these distributed points, or the integral curve in their neighborhood, is, as Deleuze makes clear, “the thing that brings about or actualizes relations between forces” in that it actualizes the differences “between” identifiable terms.

Deleuze and Leibniz

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In Le Pli: Leibniz et le baroque (1988; The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, 1993), Deleuze’s book on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the philosopher refers to a sense of “anxiousness” arising from a confrontation with the nonintegrable forces or vectors of chaos. What is needed, therefore, is a taming or subduing of this chaos, or what Deleuze calls an “accord.”I produce an accord each time I can establish in a sum of infinitely tiny things differential relations that will make possible an integration of the sum—in other words a clear and distinguished perception. It is a filter, a selection.

These differential relations or series from which an integral curve can be formed are not, however, differential series or relations that could, if taken as a whole, converge upon a complete and total picture of the universe. To assume this would be to attribute a comprehensive unity or identity to the universe, an identity that the differential series would approximate. It is clear that this is the assumption Leibniz makes, for in discussing the monads (differential series) in his La Mondologie (written 1714, published 1840; Monadology, 1867), Leibniz uses the analogy of the perspectives on a city to show that although there are an infinite number of monads that are different from one another, each monad nevertheless is a different expression of one and the same universe. Deleuze, however, breaks with this faith in a pre-existent totality or identity, and it is with his notion of chaos (the groundless ground) that he argues instead for a nonidentifiable inconsistency that exceeds identity and is identified only once the chaos is filtered or an accord is produced. Consequently, for Deleuze, the relationship between differential series is not one of accord, as it was for Leibniz, but one of divergence, wherein the excess of chaos entails the possibility of undermining the consistency and unity. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is explicit on this point.Each series tells a story: not different points of view on the same story, like the different...

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A Definitive Statement

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Difference and Repetition had an immediate influence on other philosophers in France following its publication in 1968. Although Deleuze received his greatest accolades, both in France and abroad, for his work with Guattari, Difference and Repetition is viewed as the most important statement of Deleuze’s own philosophical position and approach, an approach further refined and modified in the books he wrote with Guattari. Since its publication in English in 1994, Difference and Repetition has reached a wider audience. Because this work explicitly confronts themes broached by Deleuze’s more famous contemporary, Jacques Derrida, it provided scholars a fresh perspective on these themes. Deleuze’s ultimate influence, therefore, largely rests on the arguments and positions developed in this book.


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Additional Reading

Boundas, Constantin V., and Dorothea Olkowski, eds. Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1994. This is a very helpful collection of essays that present varying perspectives upon most aspects of Deleuze’s work.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Parnet. Dialogues. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, 1977. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. This work provides a glimpse into the philosopher’s life and thought.

Patton, Paul, ed. Deleuze: A Critical Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. This is a helpful text for those who want a more in-depth, detailed analysis of Deleuze’s work.

Pearson, Keith Ansell, ed. Deleuze and Philosophy: The Difference Engineer. New York: Routledge, 1997. This collection of essays is a useful resource for acquiring a quick overview of aspects of Deleuze’s writings.

Schrift, Alan D. Nietzsche’s French Legacy: A Genealogy of Poststructuralism. New York: Routledge, 1995. This is a good overview of the French philosophical tradition within which Deleuze’s work appeared. It places Deleuze’s work solidly within the French tradition that cites Friedrich Nietzsche as its major influence rather than Edmund Husserl. This tradition also includes philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Hélène Cixous, and Sarah Kofman.