One of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Gilles Deleuze, had a significant impact on a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and literature to psychoanalysis and political theory. Born in 1925, Deleuze lived through a time of immense turmoil and change—events that would shape his own philosophical inquiries.
Let’s delve into the life and work of this fascinating figure, who, alongside his close collaborator Félix Guattari, sought to uncover the hidden connections and interdependencies that make up the world we live in today.
Early Life and Education
Gilles Deleuze was born on January 18, 1925 in Paris, France. His father was an engineer and a World War I veteran, and his mother was a homemaker. Growing up in a middle-class family, Deleuze had a typical upbringing, attending local schools and developing a keen interest in literature and philosophy from a young age.
Following high school, Deleuze enrolled in the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, where he studied under renowned philosopher Jean Hyppolite and completed his agrégation in philosophy. While at the École, he met and befriended fellow philosopher Michel Foucault—a friendship that would have a profound impact on both of their careers. You can read more about Foucault’s life and work here.
Deleuze’s career as a philosopher truly began with his first book, Empiricism and Subjectivity (1953), which explored the work of 18th-century philosopher David Hume. It was his second book, Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962), that established Deleuze as one of the most original thinkers of his time. He reinterpreted Nietzsche’s work in a radical way—emphasizing the importance of the will to power, the eternal return, and the affirmation of difference. Learn more about Nietzsche’s life and struggles here.
Throughout his career, Deleuze continued to engage with the work of other influential thinkers, both past and present. His unique, often unorthodox readings of philosophers such as Spinoza, Bergson, Kant, and (later) Leibniz, resulted in a series of groundbreaking books that defied categorization and drew praise from scholars and critics alike.
Arguably, Deleuze’s most significant contributions to philosophy were made in collaboration with psychoanalyst and political activist Félix Guattari. Together, they authored two monumental works: Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). These books—collectively known as Capitalism and Schizophrenia—focused on the interconnected nature of human society, critiquing the Freudian and Lacanian theories of desire and the family while offering new ways of understanding power, language, and the formation of subjectivity.
Key Concepts and Ideas
Deleuze’s philosophy revolves around the idea of difference, which he believed to be at the heart of reality. His aim was to undermine any dualistic or hierarchical thinking that tended to separate or compartmentalize phenomena. Instead, he emphasized the interconnectedness and multiplicity of everything that exists.
One of the most significant concepts introduced by Deleuze and Guattari is the rhizome—a metaphor for understanding the non-hierarchical, network-like structure of knowledge, society, and life itself. This idea has influenced an entire generation of philosophers, artists, and social theorists, who have embraced the rhizomatic model as an alternative to traditional, linear ways of thinking.
Furthermore, Deleuze’s work on desire challenged the dominant psychoanalytic theories of his time, proposing instead that desire is not an individual, personal experience but rather a productive force that runs through all aspects of society.
Legacy and Influence
Gilles Deleuze passed away in 1995, but his work continues to inspire and provoke debate among contemporary philosophers and scholars. His ideas have influenced fields as diverse as political theory, literature, film studies, and even ecology.
In our increasingly connected and complex world, Deleuze’s philosophy offers valuable insights into the nature of reality, forcing us to question our assumptions and rethink our approach to understanding the world around us.
As one of the most innovative and influential thinkers of the 20th century, Gilles Deleuze’s life and work will undoubtedly continue to shape the course of philosophy and the humanities for years to come. Explore more philosophers’ lives and works, such as Jacques Derrida and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.