Ideas Are Problems Themselves and Not the Criteria For Their Possible Solution: Deleuze, Plato, Dialectic

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“With Plato…The Idea is not yet the concept of an object which submits the world to the requirements of representation, but rather a brute presence which can be invoked in the world only in function of that which is not ‘representable’ in things. The Idea has therefore not yet chosen to relate difference to the identity of a concept in general: it has not given up hope of finding a pure concept of difference in itself” (DR, 59).

/0/. On Myth & Mediation

Deleuze’s reading of Plato in Difference and Repetition hinges on his interpretation of the relationship between Ideas and its participants as developed in the Statesmen and the Sophist. In each text Deleuze finds Plato posing a specific problem – who is the true shepherd of men? who is the true philosopher and who is the sophist? – where this problem and its formulation as a question becomes the grounds by which Plato can determine better and worse claimants; authentic and inauthentic philosophers and statesmen. Now, it may strike one as an odd opening onto Deleuze’s relationship to dialectics – mainly those who see Deleuze as the arch anti-Platonist and someone who seeks to undertake Nietzsche’s project of ‘overturning Platonism.’ However, it is clear that Deleuze discovers the impetus to think difference-itself already at work in Plato’s dialogues. Additionally, Deleuze recognizes Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s reliance on myth in these texts. For Aristotle, the fact that Plato invokes myth signals that Plato lacks a mediating term; that is, the Platonic relationship between Ideas and things does not yet have a term which can establish a relationship of equivalence and identity between the one who claims to be a philosopher and the Idea of the philosopher as such. And while it is important to note that Deleuze does not jettison Aristotle’s critique of Plato, he does take issue with Aristotle’s criticism, since for Deleuze, the moment where Plato realizes the necessity of a mediating term does not come at the moment of the establishment of myth. Rather, Plato realizes the necessity for this term of equivalence in relationship to the problem of distinguishing the philosopher from the sophist. In other words, the role that myth plays in these dialogues should not be seen as Plato’s nascent attempt at establishing a truly mediating function between Ideas and things. Rather, on Deleuze’s reading, myth functions as a test established by Plato to understand the continuum of all those individuals, who differ-in-kind, and who would lay claim to the title of Statesman or Philosopher.

/1/. Proceeding By Way of Problems

In beginning this immanent critique/overturning of Platonism by undertaking what was true in Plato’s definition of dialectics and responding to the Aristotelian worry regarding the role of myth on Plato’s dialogues Deleuze writes: “…myth establishes the model of a partial circulation in which appears a suitable ground on which to base the difference, on which to measure the roles or claims […] The function of the ground is then to allow participation, to give in second place. Thus, that which participates more or less in varying degrees is necessarily a claimant” (DR, 61-2). Thus, Deleuze praises Plato insofar as he understood dialectic as proceeding by problems and insofar as we understand that the role of myth in these dialogues serves as the grounds by which different claimants can participate, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Ideas themselves. However, says Deleuze, Plato has not gone far enough:

“The whole of Platonism…is dominated by the idea of drawing a distinction between ‘the thing itself’ and the simulacra. Difference is not thought in itself but related to a ground, subordinated to the same and subject to mediation in mythic form. Overturning Platonism, then, means denying the primacy of original over copy, of model over image; glorifying the reign of simulacra and reflections” (DR, 66).

Thus we can understand Deleuze’s criticism of Plato, and how it has resonances with the Aristotelian worry mentioned earlier: namely, it is because Plato is concerned with distinguishing between the true and false copy, the better and worse claimant vís-a-vís Ideas themselves, Plato’s dialectic culminates in the logic of subsuming difference-itself under the Same; under the concept of the good copy as opposed to the bad; the authentic claimant as opposed to the inauthentic participant. This forces Deleuze, then, to address the following question: what are the implications for Thought (and thinking difference-itself) given this image of overturning Platonism, which requires the valorization of the free play of simulacra over and against the model-copy logic proposed by Plato? The answer comes much earlier in the same chapter when Deleuze asks if

‘it is enough to multiply representations in order to obtain such effects? Infinite representation includes precisely and infinity of representation…The fact is that the infinite representation is indissociable from a  law which renders it possible: the form of the concept as a form of identity which constitutes on the one hand the in-itself of the represented (A is A) and on the other hand the for-itself of the representant (Self=Self)…The immediate, defined as ‘sub-representative’, is therefore not attained by multiplying representations and points of view…Each point of view must itself be the object, or the object must belong to the point of view. The object must therefore be in no way identical, but torn asunder in a difference in which the identity of the object as seen by a seeing subject vanishes” (DR, 56).

Or as Deleuze mentions later in the chapter: 

“It is not enough to multiply perspectives in order to establish perspectivism. To every perspective or point of view there must correspond an autonomous work with its own self-sufficient sense: what matters is the divergence of series, the decentering of circles, ‘monstrosity’…The simulacrum is the instance which includes a difference within itself” (DR, 69).

In what way, then, is this a response to the claim of glorifying the free play of simulacra? By understanding that what was established as the ground in these Platonic dialogues (myth) provides us with a continuum of differences-in-kind before any differences-in-degree. In other words, what Plato discovered and quickly covered up by separating the ‘thing itself’ from any simulacra was precisely the qualitative differences that occur in the every claim made to the Idea of what it means to be a Philosopher, for instance, as opposed to a Sophist. That is, prior to the criteria of distinguishing the Philosopher from the Sophist comes the qualitative differences that are made apparent by their claims to the same Idea. In this way we can understand not only how difference precedes identity/sameness, but how the Ideas themselves (taken as the problem-question ground) unite qualitative differences in such a way that does not require any mediating concept or category of equivalence. The philosopher and sophist, as claimant to the same Idea and prior to their evaluation, equally participate in the same Idea taken in itself. Thus, it is the very claimants of an Idea that differ from both their rivals and any purported ‘essence’ of the Idea in which they instantiate. Or, in Deleuze’s own formulation: “Plato gave the establishment of difference as the supreme goal of dialectic. However, difference does not lie between thing and simulacra, models and copies. Things are simulacra themselves” (DR, 67, my emphasis). If Difference is already given in the simulacra themselves it is only because, prior to any attempt to render commensurate claimant and Idea, every claimant is qualitatively different from every other claimant in the continuum opened up by myth as the grounds for division and selection. This is the meaning behind the self-sufficiency of every point of view, or claim, made in relation to an Idea.

/2/. Univocity Thesis

This valorization of simulacra over the model-copy relationship must be understood in conjunction with Deleuze’s proposition that Being is univocal, since as Deleuze himself writes “Being (what Plato calls the Idea) ‘corresponds’ to the essence of the problem or question as such” (DR, 64). Why is there a correlation between Ideas and the univocity of Being for Deleuze? Because what we see happen in this overturning of Platonism is the same logical relationship with this principle of univocity: namely, if Being is said in a single and same sense, then, Being gives no privilege to beings themselves. The univocity of Being and the valorization of the simulacra assert that every mode of substance, being of Being, or claimant of an Idea, exists in an equal relationship to Ideas (Being) only on the basis of each individual’s fundamental difference from all others. Being does not grant privileges to beings just as the main consequence of this overturning of Platonism is the assertion that Ideas themselves only provide the grounds for participation without privileging one participant among others. The distinction between true and false copies attributes something to the Ideas themselves (to Being-itself) that is not already contained within them. As we cited earlier regarding Deleuze’s reading of Plato, “The Idea has therefore not yet chosen to relate difference to the identity of a concept in general” (DR, 59). Deleuze gives another formulation later in the text that gives the sense of the overturning of Platonism in its most direct manner: “Does this not mean, however, that if simulacra themselves refer to a mode, it is one which is not endowed with the ideal identity of the Same but, on the contrary, is a model of the Other, an other model, the model of difference in itself from which claws that interiorised dissimilitude? Among the most extraordinary pages in Plato, demonstrating the anti-Platonism at the heart of Platonism, are those which suggest that the difference, the dissimilar, the unequal – in short, becoming – may well be not merely defects which affect copies like a ransom paid for their secondary charactery or a counterpart of their resemblance, but rather models themselves, terrifying models of the pseudos in which unfolds the powers of the false” (DR, 128). Thus it is shown to be Plato himself who lays the grounds for the overturning of Platonism, which concludes that the Ideas do not act to guarantee the identity or sameness between Ideas and participants; rather, Ideas themselves give rise to their own simulacra; to those who differ-in-kind from the Ideas themselves.

However, this raises a new problem for Deleuze: if we agree that difference precedes identity in this way, what allows us to differentiate the philosopher from the sophist, since it appears that we have sacrificed any possible criteria by which we can offer an answer to the question posed by the Idea of who is the true philosopher? In other words, what is the fate of philosophy in light of what appears to be the absence of any grounds for adjudicating, distinguishing, and dividing between claimants to an Idea? This question allows us to understand another aspect of Deleuze’s task: namely, a wholesale reorientation of Thought in relationship to Being. The task assigned to philosophy, to thinking and to concept creation, is not the appraisal of claimants to an Idea (this is the moral character of thinking that Deleuze finds at the heart of Plato’s distinction between copy and simulacra). Rather, the task of philosophy is the understanding and articulation of Ideas themselves. If it is already a well known trope of Deleuzean rhetoric that we must proclaim the innocence of Being through the affirmation of “a difference of difference as its immediate element” (DR, 69), it is precisely because what is affirmed in Thought, when thinking is confronted with its proper object of cognition, is nothing other than the problem-questions opened up by Ideas themselves. The task of thought is not to propose, or determine, the solution to a problem. Rather, “if according to Kant, reason does pose false problems and therefore itself gives rise to illusion, this is because in the first place it is the faculty of posing problems in general. In its natural state such a faculty lacks the means to distinguish what is true or false, what is founded or not, in any problem it poses…Ideas have a perfectly legitimate ‘regulative’ function in which they constitute true problems or pose well-founded problems. That is why ‘regulative’ means ‘problematic’. Ideas are themselves problematic or problematising – and Kant tries to show the difference between, on the one hand, and, on the other, ‘hypothetical’, ‘fictitious’, ‘general’, or ‘abstract’” (DR, 168)

/3/. The Fate of Philosophy

On Deleuze’s account the fate of philosophy, seen in light of the claim that there is a difference-in-kind between Ideas and things, is that thought must not comfort itself with thinking the relationship between the empirical and the transcendental, or the copy and its model in a given Idea. Rather, thought must aspire to grasp the conditions for the Ideas themselves and understand that Ideas, or Problem-questions, are the true objects of thought. It is in this manner that Platonic Ideas are understood as ‘problem-questions’; that Ideas and Thinking are understood as the grounds that give rise to modes that differ from them in kind, while still maintaining a necessary relation to that which they differ from. One formulation of this claim would follow the Principle of Identity understood as an Identity of Inclusion instead of Reciprocity. The relation A=A, understood as Inclusion, would not mean that both instances of A share the same essence. Rather, A=A would mean that the first iteration of A and its second are essentially different but despite this essential difference, we cannot conceive of one without the other. Thus, Identity-as-inclusion allows us to understand the relationship between differences while preserving their differences and establishing a continuous, serial, relationship between the two. It is in this way that Deleuze can assert on the one hand that Plato “has not given up hope of finding a pure concept of difference in itself” (DR, 59), while on the other hand claiming that Identity understood as mediating equivalence covers over the more profound Identity of Inclusion; Inclusion that preserves the qualitative differences between terms while acknowledging that we cannot adequately conceive of one term in its singularity without other singular terms to which it is related by necessity. Thought must aspire to Ideas understood as regulative and problematic; where what is implied in the claim that Ideas are the true objects of Thinking is the assertion that to think Ideas is to think the differential relations laid out by Ideas themselves (or the problematic-conditions that give rise to the products/solutions of these conditions) without recourse to any empirical content that seeks to confirm the essential identity between Ideas and its claimants. Additionally, what is implied throughout Deleuze’s interpretation of the legacy of Plato’s dialectic is the need to rehabilitate the Kantian distinction between thinking and knowing. While the latter functions as the knowing-subject’s understanding of the manifold of sensibility through conceptual determination, the former operates in relation to an object whose synthetic content is foreclosed to the understanding but whose existence can be legitimately theorizable.

Thus, the fate of philosophy understood as thinking the differential relations that are given by Ideas themselves sets the stage for what Deleuze will later term ‘transcendental empiricism.’ Thinking cannot be confused, or treated as reducible to, the activity of ‘tracing the transcendental from the empirical’ since this ‘tracing’ still requires the verification of what we apprehend through the understanding by means of what is phenomenally given. Rather, Thinking is transcendental precisely because its objects are the specific conditions that serve as the basis for further exploring the relation between the transcendental and empirical; and thinking is empirical since the Ideas themselves afford the possible existence of every particular claimant that would find a stake in the question of who is the true shepherd of men? And who is the true philosopher? It is only through a transcendental empiricism that we can understand how Difference precedes Identity; how the Ideas themselves cannot serve as the criteria for establishing true and false claimants; the good copy from the bad simulacra.