Deleuze’s Pedagogy of Problematic Ideas as an Example of Etheric Imagination

Below is another section of my dissertation proposal…


In What Is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between a singular pedagogy of the concept and a universal encyclopedia of the concept.155 What does it mean to say that Deleuze’s philosophical method is pedagogical, rather than encyclopedic? It means that philosophical concepts are not catalogued in advance, they are individually invented as needed to dissolve the poorly posed problems that emerge in the course of research.156 In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze makes a similar distinction between learning and knowledge.157 Knowledge is the memorization of specific facts and general laws that can only pretend to final comprehension, while learning is the incarnation of Ideas, an ongoing apprenticeship to problematic concepts that initiates one into the sub-sensory creativity of paradox. “Philosophers are always recasting and even changing their concepts,” Deleuze writes. “Sometimes the development of a point of detail that produces a new condensation, that adds or withdraws components, is enough. Philosophers sometimes exhibit a forgetfulness that almost makes them ill. According to Jaspers, Nietzsche ‘corrected his ideas himself in order to create new ones without explicitly admitting it; when his health deteriorated he forgot the conclusions he had arrived at earlier.’ Or, as Leibniz said, ‘I thought I had reached port; but…I seemed to be cast back again into the open sea.’”158 In his preface to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze describes his method of writing from a place of ignorance; like Leibniz, he is always beginning again, lost at sea. Deleuze writes: “How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly? It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say. We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other. Only in this manner are we resolved to write. To satisfy ignorance is to put off writing until tomorrow–or rather, to make it impossible.”159

The philosopher can only begin in media res, like Odysseus, lost at sea. He first finds himself there at the elemental limits of things, at the oceanic horizon of earth with only the starry heavens as a compass. He first task is to steady his metaphysical gaze upon these limits, thereby stilling the nausea associated with rootlessness. His final task is an infinite one, not merely to steadily “hover between heaven and earth,” or to “drop anchor permanently in some safe cove,” but to “dare to meet the truth freely,” without fear “of shipwreck on the rocks or sandbars”; the philosopher, continues Schelling, must “risk everything, desiring either the whole truth, in its entire magnitude, or no truth at all.”160

The philosophical researcher must accept that he can only begin writing in muddled confusion of poorly posed problems. This is the initial condition of the philosopher after the end of philosophy, when the history of philosophy, with all its truth and good sense, no longer claims authority over thinking. The history of philosophy no longer provides today’s thinkers with a steady stairway to the heaven of eternal ideas. Though it is true, as Whitehead suggests, that “philosophy is dominated by its past literature to a greater extent than any other science,”161 my attempt to philosophize anew must find a way to allow this history to function as collage does in painting: like a palette of personalities available for dramatizing concepts in response to the problems that matter today.162

“Method,” writes Deleuze, “is the means of that knowledge which regulates the collaboration of all the faculties. It is therefore the manifestation of a common sense or the realization of a Cogitatio natura, and presupposes a good will as though this were a ‘premeditated decision’ of the thinker.”163 Contrary to the pretense of a scientific method seeking certain knowledge, a pedagogical method is attentive to the fact that “learning is, after all, an infinite task.” For Deleuze, “it is from ‘learning,’ not from knowledge, that the transcendental conditions of thought must be drawn.”164 This pedagogical transcendental is not based on Kant’s fixed table of logical categories, the a priori conditions for all possible knowledge of objects, but rather on an experimental set of aesthetic categories, the genetic conditions for new becomings-with objects. Deleuze mentions Whitehead’s categoreal scheme as an example of the new transcendental aesthetic, where unlike representational categories, it is not only possible experience that is conditioned, but actual experience. He calls Whitehead’s categories “phantastical,” in that they represent novel creations of the imagination never before encountered by philosophers.165 For Whitehead, because each experient is a perspective on the world and an element in the world, the categories of an experientially adequate philosophical scheme must elucidate the “paradox of the connectedness of things:–the many things, the one world without and within.”166 In other words, while Whitehead accepts modern philosophy’s focus on the self-created perspective of the subject–that, in some sense, the world is within the subject (as in Kantian transcendental idealism)–he holds this insight in imaginative polar unity with the common sense presupposition that the subject is within the world. This refusal to remove subjective experience from the world of actual entities bring’s Whitehead’s panexperientialism very close to Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism.

The mind is not the only problem solver; it is not the intelligent observer and manipulator of a stupid and passive nature. The etheric formative forces driving nature’s evolutionary “education of the senses” are just as creative and problematically arrayed as are the imaginative forces shaping the historical education of the human mind. As Deleuze argues, “problematic Ideas are precisely the ultimate elements of nature and the subliminal objects of little perceptions. As a result, ‘learning’ always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind.”167 Mind is simply a more complexly folded nature. The proper maintenance of their conscious complicity depends upon what Deleuze calls the “education of the senses,” by which he means the raising of each power of the imagination to its limit so that their mutual intra-action quickens the whole into the creation of difference in itself. The path of the learner is “amorous” (we learn by heart), but also potentially fatal,168 since the creation of difference–though free from the anxieties of method, free of having to know with certainty–for precisely this reason always risks the creation of nonsense, or worse, the descent into madness. But in the end, the researcher must take these risks, since “to what are we dedicated if not to those problems which demand the very transformation of our body and our language?”169 Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism does not privilege the faculty of thought, as does Kant’s transcendental idealism. While thought concerns itself with the domains or levels of virtuality (what Whitehead refers to as the hierarchy of eternal objects, or definite possibilities), it is the faculty of imagination that “[grasps] the process of actualization,” that “crosses domains, orders, and levels, knocking down the partitions coextensive with the world, guiding our bodies and inspiring our souls, grasping the unity of mind and nature.”170 Imagination, continues Deleuze, is “a larval consciousness which moves endlessly from science to dream and back again.”171 Deleuze’s faculty of imagination is no mere conveyer belt, transporting fixed categories back and forth along the schematic supply line between thought and sensation. By bringing the imagination face to face with the wilderness of existence, Deleuze forces it to rediscover the wildness within itself. Faced with what Schelling called “the unprethinkable” (das Unvordenkliche)172 sublimity of the elemental forces of the universe, the imagination becomes unable to perform its domesticated role in service to the a prioris of the understanding. “That which just exists,” writes Schelling, “is precisely that which crushes everything that may derive from thought, before which thought becomes silent…and reason itself bows down.”173 It is upon confronting the unprethinkability of these elemental forces that “imagination finds itself blocked before its own limit: the immense ocean, the infinite heavens, all that overturns it, it discovers its own impotence, it starts to stutter.”174 But, continues Deleuze, imagination’s sublime wounding is not without consolation: “At the moment that imagination finds that it is impotent, no longer able to serve the understanding, it makes us discover in ourselves a still more beautiful faculty which is like the faculty of the infinite. So much so that at the moment we feel our imagination and suffer with it, since it has become impotent, a new faculty is awakened in us, the faculty of the supersensible.”175

Like Whitehead, who wrote in The Concept of Nature that “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena,”176 Deleuze’s pedagogical metaphysics quickens the philosophical imagination’s powers into “a harmony such that each transmits its violence to the other by powder fuse.”177 Rather than converging on a common sense, Deleuze’s education of the senses approaches the point of “para-sense,” where “thinking, speaking, imagining, feeling, etc.” overcome themselves to create new forms of perception responsive to encounters with paradoxical Ideas and capable of incarnating them as meaningful symbols through a process of learning.178 Deleuze would here seem to approach Steiner’s spiritual science, where it is thought that “there slumber within every human being faculties by means of which individuals can acquire for themselves knowledge of higher worlds.”179 Like Steiner, Schelling’s understanding of the Idea’s gradual incarnation in the course of an evolutionary cosmogenesis leads him to argue that “the time has come for a new species, equipped with new organs of thought, to arise.”180

Deleuze’s pedagogy of the concept and problematic method of enduring within the symbolic fields constellated by encounters with Ideas is especially relevant to my research on the process philosophical tradition, since, according to Deleuze, “problems are of the order of events–not only because cases of solution emerge like real events, but because the conditions of a problem themselves imply events.”181 For Whitehead, as for Deleuze, “the ultimate realities are the events in their process of origination.”182 Whitehead calls this process of origination concrescence. Concrescence refers to the process of “growing together” whereby “many become one and are increased by one.”183 Each individual concrescing event, according to Whitehead, “is a passage between two…termini, namely, its components in their ideal disjunctive diversity passing into these same components in their [real] concrete togetherness.”184 Similarly, Deleuze describes the incarnation of a problematic Idea as an event that unfolds in two directions at once, along a real and an ideal axis: “At the intersection of these lines,” writes Deleuze, “–where a powder fuse forms the link between the Idea and the actual–the ‘temporally eternal’ is formed.”185 Whitehead’s evental ontology, wherein eternal objects intersect with actual occasions in the process of concrescence, can be read in terms of Deleuze’s account of the incarnation of Ideas, whereby concrescence becomes a temporary solution achieved through the condensation of the fragmentary multiplicity of past actualities and future possibilities into a precipitated drop of unified experience. The problematically condensed occasion of experience cannot endure in its unity long since it is perpetually perishing into objective immortality, leading “the solution to explode like something abrupt, brutal and revolutionary,”186 becoming experiential debris to be gathered up again by the occasions that follow it.

Deleuze also describes incarnating Ideas as a two-faced expression of both the power of love (the ideal principle which seeks to progressively harmonize the fragmented times of past and future to form a unified “temporally eternal” solution) and the power of wrath (the real principle which angrily condenses these solutions until they explode, creatively issuing in revolutionary new problems). He argues that the most important aspect of Schelling’s process theology is his consideration of these divine powers of love and wrath, where love relates to God’s existence and wrath to God’s ground.187 Schelling conceives of both love and wrath as positive powers which therefore do not simply negate one another as opposed concepts in a Hegelian dialectic of contradiction, where wrath would struggle with love before both were sublated in some higher Identity. Rather, the eternal encounter between divine love and divine wrath leads to their mutual potentialization into a dynamic succession of evolutionary stages in nature (Stufenfolge). “These two forces [infinitely expanding love and infinitely retarding wrath], clashing or represented in conflict, leads to the Idea of an organizing, self-systematizing principle. Perhaps this is what the ancients wanted to hint at by the soul of the world,” writes Schelling.188

For Deleuze, “Ideas no more than Problems do not exist only in our heads but occur here and there in the production of an actual historical world.”189 Ideas are not simply located inside the head. Nor can Ideas be entirely captured inside the grammatical form of a logical syllogism, even if that syllogism is dialectically swallowed up and digested in the course of history by an Absolute Spirit. Even though the primary instrument of speculative philosophy is language, Ideas should never be reduced to propositions, nor should philosophy be reduced to the labor of “mere dialectic.”190 Dialectical discussion “is a tool,” writes Whitehead, “but should never be a master.”191 According to Schelling, the age old view that “philosophy can be finally transformed into actual knowledge through the dialectic…betrays more than a little narrowness.”192 That which gets called from the outside “dialectic” and becomes formalized as syllogistic logic is a mere copy, “an empty semblance and shadow” of the authentic mystery of the philosopher, which, for Schelling, is freedom. Freedom is the original principle underlying both mind and nature, the archetypal cision generative of all Ideas through the “secret circulation” between the knowledge-seeking soul and its unconsciously knowing Other.193 The authenticity of the philosopher’s “inner art of conversation” depends upon this doubling of the soul into I and Other through an act of imagination. Without this imaginal doubling, the original cision of freedom is repressed and philosophy devolves into the formulaic dialectical refinement of the customary sayings and conceptual peculiarities of contemporary commonsense.194

Dialectic leads at best only to a kind of Urdoxa, or original opinion: “The dialectic,” writes Deleuze, “claims to discover a specifically philosophical discursiveness, but it can only do this by linking opinions together. It has indeed gone beyond opinion toward knowledge, but opinion breaks through and continues to break through. Even with the resources of an Urdoxa, philosophy remains a doxography. It is always the same melancholy that raises disputed Questions and Quodlibets from the Middle Ages where one learns what each doctor thought without knowing why he thought it (the Event), and that one finds again in many histories of philosophy in which solutions are reviewed without ever determining what the problem is (substance in Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz), since the problem is only copied from the propositions that serve as its answer.”195

As Whitehead describes it, “the very purpose of philosophy is to delve below the apparent clarity of common speech”196 by creatively imagining “linguistic expressions for meanings as yet unexpressed.”197 Whitehead’s adventure of Ideas, like Schelling’s and Deleuze’s, is not a search for some original opinion, or for the “complete speech” (teleeis logos) of encyclopedic knowledge.198 Ideas are not merely represented inside an individual conscious mind, they are detonated in the imaginal depths of the world itself. Exploding Ideas seed symbolic vibrations that echo along the cosmic membrane (or “plane of immanence”) and unfold at the level of representational consciousness as a profound complicity between mind and nature: Ideas generate synchronicities.

It follows that Ideas, for Whitehead as for Deleuze, “are by no means essences,” but rather “belong on the side of events, affections, or accidents.”199 As Steven Shaviro writes of Whitehead’s “eternal objects,” they ingress into events as “alternatives, contingencies, situations that could have been otherwise.”200 Ideas, that is, are tied “to the evaluation of what is important and what is not, to the distribution of singular and regular, distinctive and ordinary.”201 “The sense of importance,” writes Whitehead, “is embedded in the very being of animal experience. As it sinks in dominance, experience trivializes and verges toward nothingness.”202 The Western philosophical tradition’s obsession with pinning down general essences instead of open-endedly investigating particular experiences–its emphasis on asking “what is…?” instead of “how much?,” “how?,” “in what cases?” in its pursuit of Ideas–has fostered only stupidity, erroneousness, and confusion.203 “Ideas emanate from imperatives of adventure,” writes Deleuze, not from the banality of encyclopedic classification.204 The mistaken identification of Ideas with dead essences has lead to the inability of modern philosophy to grasp the utter dependence of rationality on “the goings-on of nature,” and to the forgetfulness of “the thought of ourselves as process immersed in process beyond ourselves.”205

Despite the shared conceptual emphasis of much of Deleuze’s, Schelling’s, and Whitehead’s philosophical work, Deleuze’s dismissive attitude toward methodological knowledge in favor of a culture of learning may at times fall prey to Whitehead’s “fallacy of discarding method.” Though Whitehead was critical of tradition-bound and narrow-minded methodologies as well (as is evidenced by his corresponding “dogmatic fallacy”), he distances himself from philosophers like Nietzsche and Bergson (perhaps Deleuze’s two most important influences) because they tend to assume that intellectual analysis is “intrinsically tied to erroneous fictions” in that it can only proceed according to some one discarded dogmatic method.206 “Philosopher’s boast that they uphold no system,” writes Whitehead. “They are then prey to the delusive clarities of detached expressions which it is the very purpose of their science to surmount.”207 “We must be systematic,” continues Whitehead, “but we should keep our systems open [and remain] sensitive to their limitations.”208


155 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 12.

156 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 16.

157 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 164.

158 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 21-22.

159 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xxi.

160 Schelling, “Of the I as Principle of Philosophy” (1795) in The Unconditioned in Human Knowledge (1980), 64.

161 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 229.

162 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xxi.

163 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 165.

164 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 166.

165 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 284-285

166 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.

167 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 165.

168 Deleuze, Difference & Repetition, 23.

169 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 192.

170 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 220.

171 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 220.

172 “Das Unvordenklichkeit” is, according to Dale Snow, “one of the most difficult German expressions to translate.” He suggests it might be “somewhat clumsily…rendered as ‘the unpreconceivability of Being,’ implying that there is always that in reality which will remain beyond thought” (Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism (New York: SUNY, 1996), 235n8. My translation of “das Unvordenkliche” derives from Bruce Matthews, who renders it as “that before which nothing can be thought” (Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom (New York: SUNY, 2011), 28.

173 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Matthews, II/3, 161.

174 Deleuze, Kant seminar (4/4/1978); [accessed 4/26/2013].

175 Deleuze, Kant seminar (4/4/1978); [accessed 4/26/2013].

176 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

177 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 193.

178 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 194.

179 Steiner, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, ch. 1 []).

180 Schelling, Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830), trans. Grant, Philosophies, 55.

181 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 188.

182 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 236.

183 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

184 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 236.

185 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 189.

186 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 190.

187 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809).

188 Schelling, On the World Soul, transl. by Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 145.

189 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 190.

190 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.

191 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.

192 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvii.

193 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvi.

194 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvii.

195 Deleuze, What Is Philosophy?, 80.

196 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

197 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 227.

198 See Glenn Magree, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, intro.

199 Deleuze, Difference and Reptition, 187.

200 Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, 40.

201 Deleuze, Difference and Reptition, 189.

202 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 9.

203 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 188-190.

204 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 197.

205 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 8.

206 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

207 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

208 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 6.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. bobby richards says:

    this is one of the best accounts of the adventure of thought ever compiled. really great.

    btw 1: i’ve noticed the phrase ‘etheric imagination’ cropping up recently. if what you’re after is the necessity of doing imaginal philosophy as both imaginal critique and affirmative imaginal living, then i’d let go of ‘etheric imagination’ as a concept. ‘etheric’ is a technical description of a portion of the secondary light body, and the philosophical adventures you’re describing cannot be limited to the productions of this body. ‘etheric’ is also a technical designation of a domain, realm and/or dimension, and your philosophic grazings are not delimited to this field. imaginal philosophy is the irruption into thought as the activity of the ever-present Origin of all bodies [underscored] operating as Dionysian and Apollonian ingress, collision, copulation and birthing, yet genetically transcending these archetypal forces. btw 2: the Jaspers’ take on Nietzsche is less interesting, remarkable and useful than the ones by Sloterdijk or Deleuze. btw 3: what could temper the insistent fever of Romanticism, but not cure it, would be a long hot bath in David Lewis’ The Plurality of Worlds, which is to say some of the best examples of imaginal philosophy emerge from the analytic tradition. whereas Deleuze’s imagination is excited by topology and early French chaos mathematics, the analytics take the wonder drugs of modal logics and set theory to produce outrageous speculative philosophy (including some of the most interesting non-literary, logical arguments for four dimensionalism, metaphysics, hylozoism, panpsychism, and pantheism). the analytics provide good imaginal feedstock, despite the continentals’ ill-diagnosed repulsion to this philosophic category.

    1. Thanks for your helpful suggestions. It’s helped me clarify my project (which is still very much in its larval phase). I’ve just posted a piece on the theoretical perspective I’m taking on the “ether” concept. It might serve as something of a response to your problematization of my use of the term. Here it is:

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