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4. The concept of Idea in the Philosophy of Difference



Yi-Jinkyung, Professor

Seoul National University of Technology



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The term ‘Idea’ is probably the most bewildering concept among others to understand in Deleuzian philosophy that is epitomized as the philosophy of difference. First of all, that’s because it is hard to understand what the concept of Idea means. Even more difficult than that is the paradoxical aporia that surrounds the concept of Idea. The conceptual difficulty stems from this aporia. You can’t fully understand this concept without understanding this aporia.

An Idea is usually used when a cause or a concept constitutes a whole in the fields of religion, politics, economy, law, etc.; the Idea of royalism, the Idea of marketism, the Idea of Marxism, the Idea of feminism, the Idea of Christianity, etc. When one says propositions or concepts form a whole, it means they are unified by one fundamental principle. That‘s why an Idea excludes or denounces what deviates from its principle. For this reason, an Idea is often accompanied by an oppression on the opposite to itself. Violences perpetrated in the name of ’Idea’ in human history are too many to count; religious violence, political violence, economic violence, cultural violence, legal violence, etc. An Idea makes the cruelty easily overpower the hesitation and dithering arising from the conscience, compassion, puzzlement, etc. In this sense, you can say an Idea is the ‘cunning wisdom’ of the cruelty.

In philosophy too, Idea has the position of a principle that unifies propositions and phenomena. For Plato, Idea is the complete and superior model of what exists in reality. Reality is the imperfect replica of the Idea. Therefore, human beings need to bring reality closer to Idea through the fidelity to it. Those who seek to head for illusion against Idea, like a poet, should be banished. For Kant, Idea is a huge whole produced by the transcendent predisposition of reason that inclines to unite everything under one principle. This eventually leads you to a judgment that can neither be proved nor disproved because it goes beyond the realm which can be verified empirically. The moment reason crosses over that point, insoluble ‘problems’ arise. Therefore, the point where problems such as antinomy or paradox emerge indicates the limit that reason must not exceed. For Hegel, Idea is the 'subject' that makes a concept a reality, and it is a powerful cause that advances the reason of being for something. If in accord with the Idea, what didn’t exist before comes to be brought into reality, but even what has real power is easily broken up and extinct if it’s against the Idea. A political Idea gets other oppositional regimes subverted and eliminates those who deviate from it.

In any case, Idea unifies and integrates everything under one principle. if so, isn't Idea the first and foremost enemy that the philosophy of difference must beat off? For Idea is the one that identifies, grasps, or integrates others under one principle, whether you think there exist only differences or want to make ‘the difference that makes’ the direction of thought. Most certainly it is. However, far from denouncing ‘Idea,’ Deleuze deals with it as a central concept(Difference and Repetition, chapter 4). Why do you think that is?

The philosophy of difference can’t be qualified for a philosophy only by decrying all the principles and Ideas under the pretext of ‘the Same.’ In order for the philosophy of difference to become a philosophy, it is not sufficient to simply raise the concept of ‘difference’ high and worship it. It will be necessary to fight against the thought of identity. The philosophy of difference must have a principle to orient the whole thought and unite various propositions and concepts too. It must have the principle of ‘difference,’ the Idea of ‘difference.’ The Idea needs to lie at the root of all related concepts. However, the moment you speak of an Idea or principle, the philosophy of difference becomes the one against the thought of difference. For this reason, you see a very intractable antinomy at the starting point of the philosophy of difference: that the philosophy of difference requires an Idea insofar as it is a philosophy, but must fight against and destroy all the Ideas that work as the principles of identification. This is the first problem to be resolved in the philosophy of difference. This philosophy can’t take a single step forward until this problem is resolved. How can this be solved?

Hereupon, by exploiting a few amazingly outstanding ideas, Deleuze constructs the concept of Idea that accords with the philosophy of difference. The first idea is to give directions to the thinking and constitute a philosophical unity, not through the oneness of the principle that is the answer for everything, but through the consistency of the question repeatedly asked about everything. Previously all Ideas used the principle as the answer for everything or the ‘basis’ for finding the answer; Idea for Plato, ‘God’ in Christianity, ‘class struggle’ in Marxism, and ‘market’ in liberal economics. Because the same answer is always already ready, Idea puts the Same into operation. Anything that disaccords with the answer is subject to denunciation or oppression. However, this is not the case with a question. A question steers the thinking in a direction, but repeated is not the fixed answer but the question. It erases firm answers by repeatedly asking the question. When the answers are erased, the ‘wrong’ answers thereby vanish. Questions set directions for finding answers, but even that time, don’t have the objects to oppress.

It was Heidegger and Blanchot that provided important clues in defining Idea through questioning. Heidegger once said a true philosopher devotes a lifetime to only one question. For him, the question of being is exactly that question. Blanchot suggests that the reason a question is repeated is because of its being thrown toward the impossibility. To give up asking question for the reason of the impossibility to get answer is to give up thinking. He who thinks repeats asking questions endlessly because of the impossibility of getting the answer. Scrapping the previous answer, he repeats asking again. Nietzsche’s Eternal return and the concept of repetition are thereby interwoven with a question on the impossible into one(additionally, the impossibility of the answer is related to the inability of thinking, and therefore connected with the transcendental experience).

The difficulty of using difference as a principle in the philosophy of difference, the paradoxical aporia that ought to be called the ‘impossibility,’ causes ‘the question about difference’ to be repeatedly asked. The question that is thrown everywhere gives a direction to the philosophy of difference, and provides unity to the concepts used by that thinking. However, unlike an answer that is identically repeated, a question guides you onto a different path depending on the object, condition, or situation of the question being asked. It leads to another ‘problem,’ rather than to another answer. At this point, a question is changed to the concept of a problem. Deleuze emphasizes the repetition of the question, but warns that if the question is asked identically without any difference, thinking will hover around the identical answer. The repetition of a question without any difference results in the repetition of thinking with little difference, and such repetition is easily considered the ‘necessary’ repetition of the answer.

To ask a question properly means finding out the problem that varies depending on the condition or object and problematizing it differently according to the situation. Let’s take shamanism as an example. It is simply regarded as a ‘superstition’ and rejected in the Western way of thinking. The Same is put into operation under the name of ‘science.’ How should the philosophy of difference approach Shamanism? Should it be simply ‘acknowledged’ or accepted as one of the various cultures? Or an unquestioning and naive belief in shaman? It activates another Same symmetrical with exclusion. On the contrary, you have to ask what ’produce’ the singular phenomenon of shaman that is different from ordinary people and in conflict with good sense, what is happening in their world through the singular capability of the shaman, and how those should be dealt with. The question of difference ‘problematizes’ shamanism as a problem that needs to be solved in various ways. If it’s not about shamanism but art, it will certainly be problematized differently.

The second idea is not to define Idea as the all-encompassing big principle or macroscopic model but as the microscopic universal of the minimum size permeated everywhere. One grand Idea aims to integrate everything into itself. Therefore, there should be nothing getting out of its hand. What if there is any? The Idea gets rid of it. The magnitude of the size becomes the magnitude of the power over what’s outside the ‘whole.’ On the other hand, what if the universal which is certain to be everywhere has the minimal size? Even when trying to exercise the power of the universal on the grounds of its “being certain to be everywhere,’ isn’t it hard to exert the enormous force for identification because it only has the minimum power in itself?

It is the differential theory that provides an important clue here. Differential is the mathematics about change and movement. The ‘universal’ used to calculate the force linked with change is the differential. It is designated by dx, dy, dt, etc. The differential denotes the minimum size used wherever there is a change or movement. For example, dt--.pngmeans the distance between t.png  and t0--.png when t0--.png next to t.png  gets as close as possible to t.png. This is the distance between a point t.png and the other point t0--.png that is as close as possible to t.png. This is a distance of the smallest size that can’t be any smaller. This is also the minimum difference between the two points.

However, as you know, it doesn't mean anything in itself either it's  dt--.png ordx.png. It neither has any value nor any determination by itself. Because it doesn't have any determination in itself even though it is the universal, it can’t exercise the power of identification over the other determinations. It can have a value or determination only when entering into a reciprocal relation in combination with the others. For example, dx_dt=0.png expresses the reciprocal relation between dx.pngand dt--.png. Herein,dx.pngand dt--.png can have determination only if in combination with each other, like dt_dx=1, dt_dx+-1.pngIf the neighbor it combines with or the reciprocal relation changes, it has different value. It varies infinitely depending on the neighboring term. It is indeterminate in itself. However, it is the universal which has an infinite number of determinabilities as the neighboring term varies. Though it is the universal, it is not the universal which subsumes all the objects if it comes within it and gets rid of it if not, but the one that varies according to the neighboring term. It is not the transcendent universal, but the immanent universal.

Lastly, the third idea is not to give the position of Idea to the completed ideal or perfect principle but to the undifferenciated embryo on the opposite side of completion. Idea is not defined as the actuality at a maximum completion such as god or reason but the virtuality that is folded up at a minimum like seeds or a fertilized egg. Because it is not a differenciated adult but an undifferenciated embryo, each will develop into a different individual depending on the varying conditions. Even when born to the same mother, there can never be two identical offsprings. That‘s because they are differently individuated according to the condition that intervenes in the process of development. In these ways, the virtuality is open to external conditions. During the process of actualization, each is on its way of individuation. A problem as a seed that becomes a different answer whenever it does, that is the Idea.

Even though it is an undifferenciated embryo, it’s not differenciated into anything or everything. Turtles can‘t come out of chicken eggs, and out of crocodile eggs come only crocodiles. Therefore, the virtuality as an embryo also has complete determination. xdx+dt=0.png taken as examples above have different determinations. When the relation with the neighboring term(‘differential relation’) is determined, the determination is completed. In this sense, Deleuze says virtuality has the complete determination in addition to indetermination and determinability. His second and third ideas are combined in this way. Another point to note is the fact that both xdx+dt=0.png  are not answers but problems. As you see, it is a ‘problem’ to be solved to get dt_dx.pngand its primitive function. The proposition that Idea is problem is connected with the proposition that Idea is virtuality this way. The concept of Idea is constituted by the close combination of the three Ideas mentioned above: the concept of Idea as question and problem, the concept of Idea as the microscopic universal, and the concept of Idea as virtual embryo.

We can see more clearly how different this concept of Idea is from the grand concept of Idea through a concrete example. In 19th centuries when the concept of Life as a substance had a privileged position, the word biological Idea is commonly represented as the ‘organism.’ It means an organic unity of organs—instruments— necessary to sustain life. Based on this Idea Cuvier constructed the system of animal classification. However, depending on Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Deleuze says that the ‘osselet’ of the minimum size is exactly the zoological Idea. By this, he means that innumerable kinds of animals can be organized through the combinations of osselets.

The Idea is a principle and ‘structure’ that brings disparate individuals together into one. Both organism and osselet are common ‘structures’ found in all animals. When grasping the animal ‘structure’ in the light of Idea, Cuvier assumes an Ideal model in which organs are organically connected. It is a transcendent model. However, ‘osselet’ doesn’t require any animal model. It creates a different ‘organ’ or body depending on the differential relation with the neighboring osselets. Therefore, It organizes bodies in the continuity of mutation that crosses the barriers such as species or phylum. Cuvier would say that monkeys and octopuses have different body structures because they belong to different phyla, and accordingly they are separated by the wall of immutability that doesn’t allow them to cross each other. The measure of ‘completeness’ is applied to the structural morphs to distinguish the more evolved from the less evolved. If one of the legs that should exist doesn’t do or the wing which should be tidy is twisted, it is considered as ‘deformed.’

On the contrary, Saint-Hilaire’s thought about the microscopic Idea of osselet allows to cross the barriers of length and morph. For example, He argues that if osselets are organized in a way that the size of the neck bone and spine of mammal is minimized and the number of limbs is increased, a mammal can be transformed into a cephalopod. In other words, the osselet is the seed that can make up ‘all’ animals. Even though it is universal because it’s in ‘all’ animals, it neither idealizes any morph or structure as a model nor privileges it by the reason of completeness. It doesn’t activate the power of exclusion by the reason of ‘deformity.’ There can’t be deformity because everything is in the continuous process of transformation. Conversely, looked at from the standpoint of ‘deformity,’ there exists no being without deformity. Therefore, it’s not only impossible but also meaningless to distinguish the more evolved from the less evolved. There exist only different answers—multiplicity— made by the Idea of osselet to the biological ‘problem’ that every being has to adapt to its milieu. The ‘abstract animal’ or ‘abstract machine’ that activates the abstraction of transformation, which Deleuze later liked to use, is connected with this microscopic concept of Idea. Isn’t this an amazing and fascinating concept of Idea?



translated by Jung Ki Lee