2 Sep 2015

Somers-Hall, (DR), Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, ‘Difference and Repetition [in its entirety]’, summary

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos and other distracting mistakes. Somers-Hall is abbreviated SH and Difference and Repetition as DR.]

Summary of

Henry Somers-Hall

Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition:
An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide

Difference and Repetition

Part 1: A Guide to the Text


Brief summary:

Deleuze reconceptualizes repetition and difference. He does so in order to enable philosophical thinking to find a new way to operate, which will allow it to explore a more fundamental layer of reality. In this layer, difference’s role is the genesis of variation, while repetition’s role is the perpetuation of variation. They cannot be thought using our normal philosophical tools, because their operations are unrepresentable, meaning that they do not lend themselves to subject-predicate judgments that may define something by determining which properties it has and which it lacks. To understand how all this works, we should distinguish three layers of reality: 1) Ideas, 2) fields of intensive difference, and 3) extensive actuality. In the world, intensive differences enter into situations that present problems. Ideas form in response to those problems, and they are like maps that implicitly suggest an infinity of ways the situation could develop. Those Ideas then interact with the problematic fields of intensive difference in a dramatized (unpredictable) way in which only certain developmental paths are actualized and made explicit in the world. It is just on this explicated level of extensity that we find negation, limitation, opposition, and identity, which is why extensive actuality lends itself to representation. Prior to that, on the levels of difference and intensity, all is affirmative and unrepresentable. Aristotle’s system of classification deals with this representable level of extensity, but it has its own flaws which result from it not acknowledging the more fundamental, non-conceptual sort of difference. Duns Scotus, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Hegel, Leibniz, Merleau-Ponty, and Plato all have to a greater or lesser extent improved upon Aristotle’s model. But to think this unrepresentable difference, our faculties really need to operate discordantly as each deals with an object different in kind from the others. Deleuze’s project in DR was not entirely successful in bringing about this new sort of thinking, but it makes substantial leaps in that direction.



(0 Introduction: Repetition and Difference) Deleuze wants a new concept of repetition that is not based on generality but rather on difference. We see generality (non-difference-based repetition) in two areas: 1) scientific experimentation, which tries to equalize differences between trials through symbolic quantification. But this generalization is blind to the irreducible differences unique in each case. 2) Moral law, like the categorical imperative, which mechanically calls for the rigid application of a command in diverse situations, which again are different. Kierkegaard provides an instance of the moral law exercised with real repetition and not with generality. God’s commands are not consistent, as we see with his command to Abraham to kill his son. Thus we repeat the moral law only when it is different each time. Representation is not true repetition, however, because what repeats is identical. However, there is a non-conceptual sort of difference that can allow for ideas to repeat. Leibniz’s identity of indiscernibles would say that concepts with the same determinations are the same thing. But Kant’s incongruent counterparts show that things like hands, gloves, and triangles can be formed with identical relations between the parts, and thus be conceptually identical, while still being distinct in space. (Chapter 1. Difference in Itself) In chapter 1, Deleuze critically examines representational systems. What makes a system representational is if it uses the subject-predicate structure of judgment that enables us to say, “this is an x, since it has these and not those properties.” It is thus based on limits and negation as well. Aristotle’s system of classification is one classic representational system. In it, there are genuses that contain species which are differentiated by differences in kind. Each genus can be a species in a yet higher genus, and likewise each species can be a genus that further divides into other species. The highest genus is being, but it cannot have a higher genus, so it does not conform to the structure of the system. Aristotle’s solution of giving being an equivocal meaning makes it inconsistent with all the other things in the system, which have univocal meanings. There are four ways that can more or less successfully avoid the problems of Aristotle’s system. 1) Univocity. For Duns Scotus, there are different intensive degrees of perfection/being, but there is only one sense of being, thus it is univocal. Spinoza also has a univocal sense of being. For him, there is just one being, but it is internally determined modally. As well, Nietzsche has a univocal notion of being. For him, the world is fundamentally a play of intensive power variations. Only secondarily do the weak divide the fields of variation up into regions that are treated as morally accountable subjects. Instead, one can affirm that being as this play of wills is univocal, and affirm the eternal returnability of each moment. 2) Infinite representation: Hegel’s dialectic for example is an infinite movement that all events are wrapped up in. Leibniz’s monads have a subject-predicate structure, but their predicates are infinite. 3) Perspectivism: Merleau-Ponty notes that the world is given not as made of discrete objects but rather only of spatially and temporally limited perspectives that only give us fragments of objects. 4) Plato’s Partial Participations. For Plato, things in the world never fully express a concept, but only do so to greater or lesser degrees, and the same thing can to more or less of a degree express different concepts. (Chapter 2. Repetition for Itself) The second chapter examines the role of repetition in the three syntheses of time and of the psyche. The first time synthesis is habitual contraction. On the basis of paired events that consistently follow one another, we anticipate the second whenever experiencing the first. This constitutes time as a mode of “waiting”, and it synthesizes the living present. The second time synthesis is memory as an inherent structure to all experience. The present from its inception is already integrated into our memory, which is a whole structure that we can either express as condensed in current habitualized automatic actions or as expanded like when calling to mind some specific event. This synthesizes the past in general. The third synthesis is the pure form of time, which is understood as time out of joint. Time can be out of joint when it is not successive, as with Kant’s a priori intuition of time. It can also be out of joint when it is passively synthesized by the eternal return. Kant thinks that time is synthesized by an active transcendental subject. But Deleuze locates the synthesis in the repetition of differential intensity. When we affirm the eternal returnability of the present experience, we are not anticipating the exact same circumstances repeating but rather that the future, like now, with be composed of differential intensities. This impregnates the present with the future and liberates us from the past, and thus the third synthesis constitutes the future. Deleuze also discusses three syntheses of the psyche, parallel to the temporal ones. Our psyche manages disruptive excitations according to the pleasure principle. But we repeat traumas, which are unpleasant. This is because the excitations from the trauma cannot be contained in the psychic system, and they must continually be contracted back into the system. This is the compulsion to repeat, which is a habitual synthesis. The second one is the virtual object. In the absence of the mother, a child might suck its fingers. This is a virtual object that helps it manage its unpleasant psychic excitations. It recalls past experiences of sucking milk, but in fact it recalls an event that never happened, since never before did the fingers give milk. The third is the death drive. Disruptive excitations can mutate the psychic system and cause it to evolve. The compulsion to repeat tries to take the system back to a prior state, which is a movement toward the organism’s inorganic origins. Thus for Freud, the death drive is a personal loss. But for Deleuze, the death drive is the variability of self-identity, and is thus a movement forward to a future self-variation. (Chapter 3. The Image of Thought) Philosophical thinking so far has been unable to think the more fundamental level of difference . Deleuze characterizes eight problematic features of the traditional image of thought: 1) good sense (thinking is reasoning), 2) common sense (the faculties agree on an object), 3) recognition (the faculties recognize the common object), 4) representation (the faculties use representation, with its four features: identity, analogy, opposition, and resemblance), 5) error (as misrecognition), 6) proposition (as bearer of truth), 7) solutions (problems are defined by propositional solutions), 8) knowledge (as propositional solutions rather than learning). Deleuze thinks however that real thinking requires that our faculties operate discordantly while each deals with an object different in kind. Kant’s sublime experiences are like this, as is Plato’s notion of the experiences of inconsistency, where we sense something imperfect while our understanding recalls a perfect Idea. But Kant thinks that the discord of the faculties is resolved when the reason supplies a representation, and Plato does not trace the origins of the discord to the immanent world but rather to a realm of representational Ideas. (Chapter 4. Ideas and the Synthesis of Difference) Deleuze thinks Ideas are non-representational. An Idea has two important features: 1) it is composed of indeterminate parts that are determined only through a binding differential relation, and 2) it can be explicated in various spatio-temporal events. Deleuze sees differential calculus as providing the basic model for the important features of Ideas, and then he offers three examples of Ideas. In calculus, the differential’s terms are indeterminate on their own and only gain determination in their differential combination. Ideas are like groupings of differential relations that suggest directions or paths of actualizations. Example 1) Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ atomism. Atoms are only sensibly determinate when they collide and differentially relate vibrationally, thereby constituting a physical thing. And there are many combinations that can be actualized. 2) Geoffroy’s homological anatomy. He thinks there is a transcendental structure that does not describe the parts of creatures but rather it only consists of the relations between those parts. Many creatures may instantiate those relations in various ways, making a fish fin have the same relational position as a human leg. 3) The Marxist notion of underlying invisible structures. There are visible economic, social, and political structures and relations, but they are determined by underlying invisible structures that may manifest on the surface in different ways given the conditions of the situation. Learning is the fashioning and application of Ideas in response to problematic situations. It involves the discordant exercise of our faculties, which allows us to deal with the unrepresentable intensive and differential relations in the problematic situation. Negation is not involved in these deeper layers or in our formation and application of Ideas. It only comes about when Ideas actualize determinately in the extensive world. Actualization begins with intensive variations in speeds and distributions that later determine the extensive and qualitative properties. This actualization is dramatized, since it is unpredictable.  (Chapter 5. The Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensible) Deleuze is lastly concerned with the fields of intensity that can be evident in the physical world. He wants to account for how intensive differences come about and how new ones are constantly generated. Thermodynamics studies the importance of intensive differences, but it also thinks that on account of entropy they will equalize, causing the world to become a homogeneous, uneventful disorder. But life forms attest to the fact that instead more differential relations become created and the world also tends toward a heterogeneous dynamic order. For Deleuze, this happens because fields of intensity always interact with Ideas in a dramatized way, meaning that things develop not in a mechanistically predictable manner but rather they unfold with unpredictable differences and variations, like how life evolves or how eggs develop. Underlying our own subjectivity is a process of individuation that likewise is unrepresentable even though it forms the basis for the structures that we use for representational thinking. Our faculties might try to think this unrepresentable source as an ultimate Other which can know the world without perspectival limits. But even it is a representation. We also note that philosophical thinking in Deleuze’s sense, since it takes us to the pre-subjective structures in the world and within us, is a solitary and solipsistic activity. (The Two Prefaces: After Difference and Repetition) We gather from Deleuze’s two prefaces to DR that he was trying to revolutionize philosophical thinking by liberating it from the restrictions of conventional modes of thought. These traditional ways of thinking subordinate difference to identity, and thus are unable to think the more basic sort of difference that is fundamental to the world. Deleuze does not succeed completely in DR, because the explicated extensive world is still too closely tied to the more fundamental unrepresentable level. Deleuze later values the third chapter, because it serves as a guide for the new way of thinking that he sought and which he more successfully accomplishes with Guattari in their reconceptualization of multiplicity.


Citations from:

Somers-Hall, Henry. Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2013.

Or if otherwise noted:

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994/London: Continuum, 2004.





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