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Fr. 384

September 4, 2013

In the second part of his Abécédaire, Gilles Deleuze addresses the letter I for “Idée” and is brought to consider the role that this notion has in his philosophy, both on its own and in comparison with the work of his philosophical forebears.

Deleuze first clarifies this notion’s role in his own philosophy, where Idée (Idea) stands in for both the rencontre (encounter) and événement (event). More precisely, the Idée is that as of yet unformed, indeterminate happening in the world that confronts the subject, itself relatively unformed, indeterminate or “larval” at this stage, and leads to the development of a thought in the subject. As Deleuze specifies elsewhere, it is only following this encounter of subject and Idée that the subject can be truly said to think, for thinking is only ever forced and constrained by some outside source. With the beginning of thinking in the subject, the Idée, which was up to that point relatively indeterminate, begins to take on a specific shape and is elaborated in the language, terms and manner of a specific domain of thought, e.g. philosophy, science, art, etc., under the form of that field’s ideational material, e.g. concept, function, percept/affect, etc. Although the Idée underlies thought as an indeterminate force and only enters it in a more determinate form in a given field, the Idée retains this infinite potentiality as possible ideational material. Accordingly, even when it takes on a determinate form in a given field, e.g. as a concept in philosophy, it retains the ability to affect other subjects qua Idée/rencontre/événement and so to restart the process from this determinate form, in which the traces of the Idée are ever latent.

It is thus that the subject might encounter an Idée that then sparks the creation of a concept, which, upon affecting the thought of an artist, might then be translated into an affect/percept, which might itself then go on to affect a scientist, entailing the creation of a function. Hence, the infinite potentiality of the Idée. Moreover, this is precisely what Deleuze goes on to speak of in the Abécédaire as being a sort of “circulation de l’Idée”, by which he intends to describe the way in which the Idée might endlessly move from one field to another, ever taking on new and unexpected shapes of which the present subject and formulator can have no knowledge beforehand.

Of course, in light of what precedes, Deleuze is careful to distinguish his understanding of the Idée from that of Plato or Hegel, for whom this term had quite a different meaning. Although we will not go into the details of that distinction here, suffice it to say that Deleuze distances his Idée from those that came before. Yet the juxtaposition of his Idée with those of rival philosophies does suggest of itself a strange parallel insofar as his talk of circulation is concerned: the transmigration of souls in Platonic philosophy. Through the mouth of Socrates, Plato proposes that the eternal and indestructible soul is forever to leave behind its former body and life to pass through the realm of the Ideas or Forms and reemerge on the other side in a new body and life unlike those which it inhabited and lived before. As such, the soul leads an infinity of lives, differing in quality, character and content, this cycling a testament to the infinite potentiality of the soul, as it were. Most strikingly, the Idea here plays the inverse role from that of the Idée in Deleuze’s philosophy in that the Idée takes the place of the soul in the circulation of transmigration. Yet this only serves to reinforce the oddity of this link, for Deleuze speaks of his philosophy as an attempt to overthrow and invert Platonism, and it thus seems natural that soul/subject become Idée and the Idea the subject at the heart of the encounter. In the end, the parallel proves to be revealing, even if unintended.

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