The Concept as Method

Before returning to some issues raised in the previous entry, I would like to discuss a way of thinking introduced to me by the Negotiations of Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet. In the chapter “On Philosophy” Deleuze puts forward his own theory of philosophy, that of “portraiture” (135). The philosopher’s task is to produce “mental, conceptual portraits,” a “likeness” of reality that allows for new and productive analysis (135). Unlike an actual portrait, however, this “likeness” is distinctly a new production, rather than a mere reproduction. Philosophy is not simply a matter of repeating what other philosophers have said, but of “inventing new concepts” (136). It is, thus, an innovative task.

Far from being solely concerned with originality, though, Deleuze’s theory of philosophy is deeply pragmatic. Philosophy is, for Deleuze, “by nature creative or even revolutionary” (136)—which is to say, philosophy is always active, a mode of cognitive agency that allows for actual intervention in the world. New concepts are not valuable for their newness; new concepts “should have a necessity, as well as an unfamiliarity, and they have both to the extent they’re a response to real problems” (136). Thus, philosophy as a practice is carried out in response to the necessities of the real world—that is to say (and to avoid an argument about the nature of the “real world” for the time being), the intellectual practice of philosophy should always be concerned with the material reality of the object of inquiry.

In Deleuze’s theorization there is certainly a danger of falling into the snare of novelty, sacrificing practicable content for a veneer of uniqueness. But herein lies the necessity of his singular constraint—that new concepts should always be “response[s] to real problems” (136). Creation, invention, and revolution, as the basic functions of Deleuze’s philosophical method, should always be treated as such—as function, as method. The new concept, the likeness, the conceptual portrait, must always be held as a method, not a goal.

Adopting this intellectual posture, this methodology, creates a wealth of opportunity for the philosopher. The philosopher’s task is always to respond to the world in its constant change, to describe and to analyze, to ask questions and propose answers, to pursue new ways of thinking and interrogate old ones. It is for this reason that Deleuze is not “worried about going beyond metaphysics or any death of philosophy” (136). Because the “function of philosophy is to create concepts” (136), and it is through concepts that the conditions of material reality can be articulated and explored, the philosopher, as a creator of concepts, will always be necessary. As the world changes, so too must the likenesses with which we portray and describe it. Deleuze’s philosophy is thus, in its pragmatic stance, distinctly ethical, not merely concerned with the aesthetics of representation and the creation of the new. For Deleuze, “[c]oncepts are what stops thought being a mere opinion, a view, an exchange of views, gossip” (136). Concepts are the currents that run between the spheres of aesthetics and ethics, the particular and the absolute, and are, taken together, the force that makes this interchange possible.

Thus, to employ the concept as method is to inhabit this between-space that Deleuze’s theorization captures. Concepts allows for the articulation of ethical perspectives that operate at the level of the absolute and universal, while providing for their modification or transformation based on the particularity of a given reality. This approach avoids the totalizing declarations of traditional philosophy while retaining explanatory power, in spite of concern for the infinite particularity of reality. For example, Louis Althusser in For Marx applies Bachelard’s concept of rupture to reread Marx against the popular interpretation of his thought as simply an inversion of Hegel, treating Marx instead as radically breaking with Hegel. As Althusser identifies, Marx’s emphasis on the economic as the base of the politico-ideological superstructure is not just an inversion of Hegel’s formulation of the Idea as base, “essence,” or “truth of” economic phenomena, but is, in fact, a departure from Hegel’s elaboration of the dialectic of history as the manifestation of the “pure” and “simple” Idea. Althusser, through the concept of rupture, exposes a problem in contemporary Marxist interpretation, opening new avenues for inquiry into Marxist theories of history, economy, and ideology. This is the concept as method put into practice.

What Althusser’s example makes clear, then, is that the philosopher’s task is a largely hermeneutic one. The philosopher must constantly interpret and reinterpret the world around him, reading and rereading the phenomena of existence through the various conceptual portraits at his disposal. It does not matter whether these conceptual portraits are the philosopher’s own creation, as is the ritornello that Deleuze refers to in Negotiations (137), or that of another thinker, implemented in a new context and in response to a particular problem, as Althusser does with Bachelard’s rupture. What matters is the application of a concept, an absolute Idea (a term I use intentionally, to illustrate in passing both Deleuze and Althusser’s epistemological practices), to particular circumstances—the creation of a new “likeness” of the world that contains within it a new description, a new articulation, a new interpretation of the conditions of existence.

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