I am a 4th-year social science PhD student at an American R-1 business school. I feel fairly comfortable reading relatively abstract sociology of the more philosophical bent. Reading abstract thinkers such as Anthony Giddens, Margaret Archer, Karen Barad, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, early Roy Bhaskar, Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, Nicholas Rescher etc. feels quite natural to me.

However, recently I tried to read two books:

  • Guattari - Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm
  • DeLanda - Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy (which supposedly is easier to understand than Deleuze himself)

Reading these books leaves me dumbstruck - I understand more or less nothing. Hence my question: what do I need to read/understand/do in order to understand philosophers such as Guattari, DeLanda & Deleuze?

  • 1
    i read a thousand plateaus... i think you have to take seriously their advice on reading e.g. starting at any point. – user6917 Sep 11 '14 at 19:16
  • 1
    Note that a lot of people, and a bunch of really smart people (Popper, Russel et al) think that this style of philosophy is obscurantism or nonsense. According to these, theres nothing you can do but to put those books away. – Lukas Sep 11 '14 at 19:40
  • 2
    To me it was helpful having read Hegel to understand Deleuze. But if time is an issue here for you, I cannot recommend this strategy at all since it takes some time to get Hegel as well. But if you've got time at your disposal the 'The Phenomenology of Spirit' would be a terrific point to start. But this is not an answer, just some autobiographical info. – Einer Sep 11 '14 at 19:43
  • 2
    You need to be Deleuzional. – user4894 Sep 11 '14 at 19:47
  • 1
    @Lukas You might be right or you might be wrong. But the question at hand is, how to understand that philosophy - not why/if one should use that books as a beer mat instead. – Einer Sep 11 '14 at 19:47

Mozibur's answer is great. I would just add that their "hostage-taking" of language is in almost every instance thoroughly grounded in literature or science (or other philosophers in turn).

In particular, consider reading Lautman, Ruyer and Simondon; these are critical sources for Deleuze, and will make many of his subtleties more clear (Nietzsche and Spinoza can also help here too.) In terms of Guattari, it can help to keep in mind that he is a student and former analysand of Lacan, and that despite their break-up there is an awful lot that Lacan can help us with in terms of understanding the kind of project that Felix Guattari is pursuing.

There is an especially intensive use of language in these texts that (as they point out) wavers, perhaps intolerably, between analyst and patient. --However, in terms of the problem of "grounding" texts like Anti-Oedipus, it may help to keep in mind a few things:

  • it is after all structured around careful if unorthodox readings of Freud and Marx, so perhaps consider diving in there as well;
  • these furious works are doubly-, multiply-authored: a product of augmented, inspired, and crowded thinking, that takes some time to acclimate to;
  • finally, the texts are generally roughly equal parts art, science and philosophy, and more generally projects like theirs are only possible on condition that everything is thrown in.

On this last point: the work may seem "over-saturated" but the radical horizontalism implied here is liberating, and even points towards a new universalism, even future images of thought. That art/science/philosophy are different creative practices, different abstract filters over chaos -- not better or worse, harder or easier, higher or lower, etc -- this is roughly one of the theses of What is Philosophy?, which may help provide some overall context and motivation for their effort; where (as they say) they ask this question of what they have been doing all their lives.

Reading these books leaves me dumbstruck

Unsurprising. It was my first reaction; and one D+G pick up from Nietzsche; they're using the aesthetics of the transgressive; which in certain fields - ie Art has been reduced to banality; but philosophy with its dedication to Enlightment Reason is virgin soil for such virile techniques.

Delueze & Guatarri take language hostage; they use language in a way that is not normally used; thus they require interpretation and commentary; one can then decide whether one can agree with their ideas or not.

Gayatri Spivak, post-colonialist critic in her well-known paper Can the Subaltern Speak describes Anti-Oedipus as a brilliantly poetic and radical work - whilst criticising it for preserving the Subject of the West; her own commitment coming from the Marxist tradition is to the marginalised - the subaltern, a term deployed by Gramsci to expand (and globalise) Marxs notion of the proletariat.

The use of language by D+G suggests to me the Symbolist movement in literature - which reacted against the realist and naturalist style; one might point out a parallel here to the analytic school (tending towards naturalism, socratic & logical) and the continental as towards the imaginative, pre-socratic and the poetic.

There are a couple of articles on wikipedia that are usefully explanatory:

Body with organs often abbreviated as BwO. This is lifted from a poem by Antonin Artuad To have done with the judgement of God:

When you will have made him a body without organs,

then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions

and restored him to his true freedom

The title of the poem reveals Deleuzes fascination with the thought of Nietzsche (he was one of the few to revive Nietzsches reputation from the suspicion of fascism) and the surrealists fascination of the affects and intensities of the body.

A quote:

"The Earth," they write, "is a body without organs. This body without organs is permeated by unformed, unstable matters, by flows in all directions, by free intensities or nomadic singularities, by mad or transitory particles" (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 40).

An explanation:

That is, we usually think of the world as composed of relatively stable entities ("bodies," beings). But these bodies are really composed of sets of flows moving at various speeds (rocks and mountains as very slow-moving flows; living things as flows of biological material through developmental systems; language as flows of information, words, etc.). This fluid substratum is what Deleuze calls the BwO in a general sense.

When put like this the notion becomes clear.

Its useful to note, that the BwO when visualised biologically (which was my first imgainative impulse) has an element of the gothic about it - this is a literary component of Symbolism.

Plane of Immanence - this is derived from Spinoza who has a monist philosophy of substance (God) within which is the world or Nature; thus Immanance; this was a reaction against the Transcendent (God outside of the world); one can classify it as a variation on Emanationist philosophies - other examples being Plotinus or Suhrawardi. The 'plane' in Deleuzes is an allusion to Spinozas 'geometric method', which itself is a tribute to the axiomatic approach in Euclid Elements to plane geometry.

There are dictionaries on Deleuze by Adrian Parr and Eugene Young that might be worth digging through.

Since you are training to be a social scientist, you should read the chapter "Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari" in Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (published in French in 1997, then in English in 1998). Sokal and Bricmont argued that the use of scientific terms by Deleuze and Guattari and other authors is often nonsensical. "If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing."

Sokal and Bricmont included a very lengthy quotation (two pages) from one of the books that you tried to read, Guattari's Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, and they commented: "This passage contains the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific, and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered; only a genius could have written it." I think Sokal and Bricmont were right: There is no question that Deleuze and Guattari were brilliant users of language, but their use of language often seems to be a kind of avant-garde art, perhaps not too distant in spirit from Dada or Fluxus or Assemblage (the latter is in fact a prominent concept in Deleuze and Guattari's books). Deleuze was explicit about this in a 1973 letter (republished in Deleuze's 1990 book translated under the title Negotiations): "Or there's another way [of reading]: you see the book as a little non-signifying machine, and the only question is 'Does it work, and how does it work?' How does it work for you? If it doesn't work, if nothing comes through, you try another book. This second way of reading's intensive: something comes through or it doesn't. There's nothing to explain, nothing to understand, nothing to interpret. It's like plugging into an electric circuit." Notice Deleuze's word "non-signifying"—which is approximately equivalent to meaningless.

In their epilogue, Sokal and Bricmont tell the story of a student whose experience was similar to yours: "We met in Paris a student who, after having brilliantly finished his undergraduate studies in physics, began reading philosophy and in particular Deleuze. He was trying to tackle Difference and Repetition. Having read the mathematical excerpts examined here (pp. 161–164), he admitted he couldn't see what Deleuze was driving at. Nevertheless, Deleuze's reputation for profundity was so strong that he hesitated to draw the natural conclusion: that if someone like himself, who had studied calculus for several years, was unable to understand these texts, allegedly about calculus, it was probably because they didn't make much sense. It seems to us that this example should have encouraged the student to analyze more critically the rest of Deleuze's writings."

Deleuze and Guattari's use of anthropology was also problematic, as Christopher Miller showed in his 1993 essay "Beyond identity: the postidentitarian predicament in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus".

It should also be noted that Deleuze was, on occasion, capable of writing entire essays that were completely lucid. His little 1972 essay on Hume is a model of clarity. And some of the essays in his 1993 book Essays Critical and Clinical are quite good. The essay in that book on Alfred Jarry as a precursor of Martin Heidegger shows the connection between Deleuze and Dada that I mentioned earlier.

Incidentally, I found this question through a Google search for "John Dewey" and "Nicholas Rescher" (who both appear in the question)! How delightfully off-topic from my original search.

Your Answer


By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.