Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2049
Article abstract: Deleuze has provided important interpretations of crucial figures in the history of philosophy, including Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. He has also developed what he has called a philosophy of difference.
Gilles Deleuze was born in 1925 into a conservative, bourgeois family living in the seventeenth arrondissement of Paris. Deleuze’s father, a veteran of World War I, was an engineer and inventor whose first business failed just before World War II. When the Germans invaded France from Belgium in the summer of 1940, the Deleuze family was in Deauville (in Normandy) on vacation. Because of the invasion, the family stayed in Deauville, and Deleuze attended the lycée there. At the lycée, Deleuze met a young teacher, Pierre Halwachs, who was the son of a famous sociologist. Deleuze refers to this encounter with Halwachs as an enlightening experience. Halwachs introduced Deleuze to the works of writers such as André Gide, Anatole France, and Charles Baudelaire. The two spent so much time together that suspicions were aroused about the nature of their relationship.
After a year in Deauville, Deleuze returned to Paris and attended the Lycée Carnot. Deleuze’s father worked in a factory that originally made dirigibles but had been turned into a rubber raft factory by the Germans. The income from this job was minimal, and therefore Deleuze was forced to attend public rather than private schools. While at the lycée, where Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a professor, Deleuze was placed in a class with a philosophy professor named Vialle. Deleuze greatly admired Vialle for the enthusiasm and energy he brought to his classes. In Vialle’s class, Deleuze acquired a love for learning philosophical concepts and realized that he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing philosophy. From this point, he excelled academically.
In 1944, Deleuze graduated from the Lycée Carnot and entered the Sorbonne to further his studies in philosophy. Deleuze’s primary teachers at the Sorbonne were Ferdinand Aliquié (a René Descartes specialist and expert in Surrealism), Georges Canguilhem (who was Michel Foucault’s supervisor), and Jean Hyppolite (a Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel specialist). Deleuze’s friends at the Sorbonne included Michel Butor, Michel Tournier, and François Châtelet. In 1948, Deleuze passed his agrégation de philosophie, a difficult postgraduate examination for teaching positions at lycées, and until 1957, he taught philosophy at various lycées. He first taught at the lycée in Amiens, then moved on to teach in Orleans, and finally returned to Paris to teach at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. In 1953, Deleuze published a study on the English philosopher David Hume titled Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. The book was well received and is perhaps largely responsible for Deleuze’s being offered a position at the Sorbonne, a position Deleuze took. From 1957 until 1960, Deleuze taught the history of philosophy at the Sorbonne.
Deleuze left the Sorbonne to pursue his own research, and in 1960, he joined the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, where he would meet Félix Guattari. Deleuze published numerous book reviews and articles during this time, many of which would later be expanded into books, but by far the most important and influential work was his book on Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche and Philosophy. This book immediately established Deleuze as an important new voice on the French philosophical scene, and it perhaps single-handedly renewed interest in Nietzsche, for two years later, at the 1964 conference at Royaumont, Nietzsche’s writings would be discussed by those who would later become the most important philosophical figures in France. Among those who participated in this conference besides Deleuze were Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Sarah Kofman, Jean Granier, and Eric Blondel. In the same year as the Royaumont conference, Deleuze published a book on Marcel Proust, Proust and Signs, which was also well received, though not as influential as his book on Nietzsche. In part because of the book’s success, Deleuze received an academic appointment at the university level, and at the urging of Foucault, Deleuze accepted an appointment at the University of Lyon that was to begin in 1969.
Deleuze’s appointment at the University of Lyon was conditional upon a successful defense of a major and minor thesis. Deleuze had been quite prolific while at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, so it was simply a matter of defending previously written texts. Deleuze’s defense was the first to be conducted following the events surrounding the May, 1968, protests. The ongoing protests caused Deleuze to protest that the professors conducting the defense seemed to be more concerned about the potential for students barging in than the substance of his major thesis, Difference and Repetition. Deleuze also defended his minor thesis, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. After easily passing his defense, Deleuze published these two theses later that year.
While at the University of Lyon, Deleuze began his collaborative work with Félix Guattari. Guattari was a practicing psychoanalyst who, since the 1950’s, had been at La Borde, an experimental psychiatric clinic founded by Lacanian analyst Jean Oury. Deleuze met Guattari soon after the publication of his book The Logic of Sense. In this work, Deleuze emphasizes the nature of becoming, of breaking down oppressive sociocultural stereotypes and expectations, including the identity of being an “author.” This breaking down of stereotypes was precisely what Guattari attempted to do in his psychoanalytic practice. Guattari sought to promote what he called “human relations that do not automatically fall into roles or stereotypes but open onto fundamental relations of a metaphysical kind that bring out the most radical and basic alienations of madness or neurosis.” What Guattari needed, he felt, was a more sophisticated philosophical expression and formulation of his approach, and he believed that Deleuze could assist in this regard. Similarly, Deleuze hoped to get beyond philosophy into realms of practice, and by working with Guattari, he could test philosophical concepts within an actual practice. Moreover, by working together, Deleuze believed they would create a work that could not be strictly identified with either Deleuze or Guattari, but rather Deleuze would be, to use Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) terminology, “becoming-Guattari,” and Guattari would be “becoming-Deleuze.” The collaboration worked well for both Deleuze and Guattari, and with Anti-Oedipus, volume 1 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, they created a sensation that went well beyond the philosophical community.
Soon after the publication of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze joined the faculty at the University of Paris in Vincennes. Deleuze would remain at Vincennes until his retirement from teaching in 1987. While at Vincennes, Deleuze often taught classes containing a wide mix of students, including psychiatrists, musicians, drug addicts, and people from many different countries. Deleuze thrived on this heterogeneous mix of students and found that any time he visited a more traditional university setting, he felt he had taken a step backward in time. Moreover, the diversity of students in these classes fed into Deleuze’s own philosophical attempts to understand the synthesis of heterogeneous elements, an attempt Deleuze first began with his work in Difference and Repetition.
During the 1970’s, Deleuze, a recognized philosophical voice in France, became more politically active. Deleuze joined with Foucault in an effort to initiate prison reforms, and he was involved with the gay rights movement. He wrote less, focusing primarily on his political involvements and on his teaching; however, he did publish several essays with Guattari that would later become part of A Thousand Plateaus, volume 2 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In addition to this work, Deleuze and Guattari wrote a book on Franz Kafka entitled Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.
As the 1980’s began, and with the publication of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze’s international recognition began to grow. At this point in time, among French philosophers, only Foucault and Derrida were more readily recognized. Deleuze rarely traveled, however, because he did not like to travel and also because he was generally in poor health, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1968. Deleuze primarily stayed in Paris, taught his seminars at Vincennes, and continued with his research. Much of this work was dedicated to film, and in 1983, he published the first of two volumes on film, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, followed in 1985 with Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Deleuze then turned to the history of philosophy and wrote a book on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. By 1988, however, Deleuze’s health began to deteriorate, and he was no longer able to muster the energy he felt he needed to teach his classes as he would have liked. Deleuze retired from Vincennes and dedicated nearly all his time to his research, his wife, Fanny, and their two children, and friends. Late in 1988, Deleuze agreed to give a televised interview with Claire Parnet. Deleuze rarely gave interviews; he insisted on responding to questions in writing, distrusting himself to be adequate with answers in an oral context. Deleuze granted this interview on the condition that it be shown posthumously.
The last few years of Deleuze’s life continued, despite his poor health (he contracted emphysema in the early 1990’s), to be productive with respect to his work. In 1990, Deleuze once again joined forces with Guattari, and in 1991, they published their last collaborative work, What Is Philosophy?, before Guattari’s death in 1992. Deleuze’s health made it increasingly difficult for him to work, and he would publish only one more book, a collection of essays he had written on literature over the preceding twenty years. The book, Essays Critical and Clinical, was published in 1993, and two years later, on November 5, 1995, Deleuze committed suicide by throwing himself out of his second-floor apartment window. In his interview with Parnet, Deleuze had said that suicide in a young man is tragic, but in one who has lived his life and has nothing more to accomplish, it is not tragic. Apparently Deleuze believed his declining health left him unable to work, and concluding that he had done all that he could, he took his own life.
After Deleuze’s death, his reputation increased. Many of Deleuze’s early books were translated into other languages. Difference and Repetition was first translated into English in 1994, and The Logic of Sense was translated into English in 1990. In the 1990’s, Deleuze’s books on film were beginning to be studied by film theorists. Foucault once said, largely in jest, that the twentieth century might one day be known as Deleuzian. Late in the twentieth century, Deleuze’s writings began to receive the exposure that might lead others to agree with Foucault. Deleuze certainly would not want a school of thought to be formed as the sole voice of Deleuzian thought, nor would he want disciples to spread his philosophy. Rather, Deleuze sought to engender thinking, to cause changes in people’s attitudes, and to have philosophy initiate becomings (changes or variations) in realms outside philosophy. The extent to which his works accomplish this might reveal the ultimate range of his influence.
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.
May, Todd. Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. An essential introduction to Deleuze’s work.
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.