Gilles Deleuze has a growing readership in English philosophy, where for long he was eclipsed by brilliant contemporaries like Derrida and Foucault. It is good that we are coming to appreciate his highly original and fascinatingly intricate philosophy. He worked with integrity and genius to do something different in philosophy from everything he was hearing in contemporaries. None of the familiar labels--structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics--apply to him. One thing he shares with all of these movements, however, is a conviction of Nietzsche's importance, and his Nietzsche and Philosophy is second only to Heidegger in influencing how we understand Nietzsche's accomplishment.
The passion for Nietzsche sets Deleuze apart from another quasi-outsider whom he somewhat resembles--Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead is another original, who wanted to do something new and different in philosophy, and not become mired in a polemic about "metaphysics" and whether it is finished. Shaviro thinks philosophy would be a lot different if Whitehead had enjoyed the attention the last century lavished on Heidegger and continues to lavish on Nietzsche. He epitomizes their difference in terms of their guiding question. Heidegger asks, What is the meaning of being? Whitehead asks, How is it that there is always something new? For Heidegger, metaphysics has always said the same, a monotonous litany of the names of Being. Whitehead is interested not in what metaphysics has always said, but what it has never yet said, even denied and rejected: the body, emotion, inconstancy, change, contingency, perspective.
Deleuze writes appreciatively of Whitehead, but learns more from Bergson (whose current renaissance is largely his doing). Deleuze's books are terrifically hard to read. There is nothing like them in our philosophical literature. He expects serious readers to struggle, and seems almost maliciously to exacerbate the encounter. Skeptics may wonder if it's worth the trouble. Increasingly, though, an English readership is finding that it is. Shaviro's book is more about Whitehead than Deleuze, but that is because he thinks that if we like Deleuze we should like Whitehead, too, and forget about Heidegger and Nietzsche. When he quotes Whitehead, saying "It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true," I wonder if he might not be half right.
This review originally appeared in Common Knowledge 17, no. 1 (2011).