requiem for certainty

Deleuze on Problematization

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One source of a conception of philosophy as the work of problematization is the thought of Gilles Deleuze. Though the critical literature on Deleuze can hardly be said to have found many points of consensus, a number of commentators have not been hesitant to acknowledge the importance in Deleuze’s thought of what DeLanda calls “problematic epistemology” and what Rajchman describes as a form of thinking which consists in “making visible problems for which there exists no program, no plan.”  In Deleuze’s thought, the very practice of philosophy itself can be expressed in terms of this work of problematization. Deleuze is well-known for the view he developed with Guattari in What Is Philosophy? According to which “philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.” Often not acknowledged, however, is their further claim that “concepts are only created as a function of problems” such that “concepts are connected to problems without which they would have no meaning and which can themselves only be isolated or understood as their solution emerges.” (1991, 2, 16)For Deleuze, then, the primary task of philosophy is the cultivation of problems such that philosophy can then go about the task of fabricating concepts. Why problematization as more primary that conceptualization? Because concepts without problems would be blind, as any good pragmatist Kantian ought to know. Deleuze’s emphasis on problematization stresses a point which many of his commentators have failed to note: one cannot simply go about creating concepts without a sense of what they are supposed to do. Concepts ought to be relevant, and what they ought to be relevant to are the problems we have shown ourselves to be facing.

We can find this emphasis on the priority of problematization throughout Deleuze’s work. Here it is in Difference & Repetition: “The virtual possesses the reality of a task to be performed or a problem to be solved: it is the problem which orientates, conditions and engenders solutions, but these do not resemble the conditions of the problem. Bergson…” (1968, 212). Indeed it so to Deleuze’s work on Bergson that we should turn if we want to understand his distinctive way of developing his conception of problematization, although we should note in passing that Deleuze’s engagement with Kant may have first oriented him toward the conception of problematization that he would later on develop in his engagement with Bergson. (cf. D&R, 169ff., Bergson, 20ff., and Kant’s Critical Philosophy)

Deleuze explicates Bergson in terms of three acts or rules. The first rule of Deleuze’s Bergsonism states that the work of philosophy shall be problematization: “We are wrong to believe that the true and the false can only be brought to bear on solutions, that they only begin with solutions… True freedom lies in a power to decide, to constitute problems themselves.” (1966, 15) Deleuze then profitably quotes Bergson to the same effect. The point, though, is not whether or not Deleuze got Bergson right. The point is rather this conception of philosophy as work that begins in problematization. Deleuze and Bergson almost make it sound as if it is obvious that philosophy ought to concern itself with the freedom of constituting problems. It is therefore helpful to remember that this is in fact quite a radical departure from the received wisdom throughout the history of philosophy. There has long been a sense that it is easy to be skeptical and so the real value of philosophical reflection lies in discovering solutions or giving answers. If Deleuze and Bergson are right, then the first value of philosophical thought resides in backing away from answers in order to formulate questions.

Problematization, on this view, does not come easy. There are, after all, true and false problems. The “first rule” of Bergson’s philosophy according to Deleuze is: “Apply the test of true and false to problems themselves.” (1966, 15) This implies the crucial refusal to divide problems according to the soluble and the insoluble. This is an important point. Deleuze’s claim is that we should not reject a problem as false simply because we regard it as insoluble. Indeed an insoluble problem might be precisely what philosophy should seek to create so as to provoke the work of difficult thought. And yet there are still false problems: “The very notion of the false problem indeed implies that we have to struggle not against simple mistakes (false solutions), but against something more profound: an illusion that carries us along, or in which we are immersed, inseparable from our condition.” (1966, 20).

One can in this passage already hear the vibrations which would later come to animate the work of Foucault. But to hear in Foucault a corollary echo of Deleuze, we must be careful to take both at their word. The false problems or illusions in which we find ourselves ensnared are not the simple false solutions of ideology which could be unveiled by clever philosophical investigation. Our problems gain materiality (Foucault) and actuality (Deleuze) such that they come to constitute our condition. Breaking free of them therefore cannot take place on the basis of exposing them as false, but rather only on the basis of the production of a new problematic. This conception of thought by way of differentiation suggests how Deleuze and Foucault inaugurated the great break from thought by way of opposition, or dialectics.


Written by Colin Koopman

November 5, 2007 at 8:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. This is one of the aspects of Deleuze’s thought that I find the most attractive.


    November 13, 2007 at 5:12 am

  2. I’m preparing a presentation on Deleuze and the problem-solution hierarchy for this week, and this post has been quite helpful, especially since I haven’t looked at Bergsonism myself. If you’ve any interest, I’ll be posting the text on my blog when it’s finished.


    February 3, 2008 at 11:50 pm

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