What is philosophy? – Tribute to Jean-Luc Nancy

14 September 2021

What is philosophy? – Tribute to Jean-Luc Nancy

R3 (where R=Ryoanji), John Cage; Image credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington.

"What is philosophy?" takes up the title of two famous texts, one by Heidegger and the other by Deleuze-Guattari, which I have juxtaposed with an equally famous text by Foucault, "What is enlightenment? But it now intersects with another text, very recent and yet nearly posthumous, by Jean-Luc Nancy, "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thought" - also devoted to philosophy, questioned from the side of its end and the space of thought that this end opens. Thus, from Heidegger to Nancy, passing through Deleuze and Foucault, it is as if a circular path was drawn from the origin of philosophical knowledge to its completion and, from there, to the enigmatic possibility of a new beginning. Should the Western tradition turn outward, to the point of merging with other traditions, or should it seek within itself the strength necessary for a radical revision of its own assumptions? And again, should it deactivate its own operative power, as Heidegger and Nancy think, or should it direct it in another direction? Without being able to tackle a subject that would take us far, the paths open to contemporary philosophy are multiple.


The title of this paper takes up the title of two famous texts by Heidegger and by Deleuze-Guattari, juxtaposed with an equally well-known text by Foucault, who is grappling with a similar question, What is the Enlightenment? But it now intersects with another text, very recent and yet already posthumous, by Jean-Luc Nancy, “‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’” (1) also dedicated to philosophy, questioned from the side of its end and the space of thought that this end opens. In this way – from Heidegger to Nancy, passing through Deleuze and Foucault – it is as if a circular path is outlined that goes from the origin of philosophical knowledge to its completion and from this to the enigmatic possibility of a new beginning. With respect to such a path, which concerns not only the sphere of knowledge, but our life – Nancy would have said the ''sense of the world'' (2) – these lines do not add much. They are not meant to be a reply to Jean-Luc – I wouldn't dare on the wave of regret and emotion for a philosopher and a friend who suddenly leaves us. Nor, properly, a supplement to what he writes. But a reflection on the role of philosophy that draws from Nancy's last writing a new impulse. Perhaps it is precisely this singular ability to re-signify terms or concepts generally used with different intentions that is the most profound legacy of a philosopher to whom we all – and I in particular – owe much. By pushing us to interpret differently the meaning of our words – community, freedom, body, thought, world, art – Nancy has in some way led us to the limits of our experience, to a horizon that we did not know and that is still largely unknown.

Before getting there, I would start with a general consideration that concerns the periodic repetition of a question – what is philosophy? – dating back to the beginning of the philosophical tradition. It testifies to the inexhaustibility of a question that philosophy cannot fail to ask itself, without being able to provide a definitive answer – if only because of the circularity that this question determines, since only by philosophizing can one attempt to say what philosophy is. But the recurrence of the question about the essence of philosophy brings out another element, which is worth recalling because in my opinion it is constitutive of philosophical practice. This is the relationship between repetition and difference. Philosophical reflection is marked by the continual repetition of the same questions which, depending on the context in which they are formulated, receive different answers each time. This philosophically pregnant relationship between repetition and difference refers to the relationship between origin and actuality. That something is repeated in different situations and at different times proves the impossibility of breaking the thread that links the present to its origin. Far from contradicting or opposing each other, origin and actuality belong to each other, illuminating each other.

This is exactly what Heidegger argues at the beginning of What is Philosophy? with regard to our relationship to Greekness. The term ''philosophy'' is so inseparable from the Greek world that, in order to grasp its meaning, we must turn our gaze to it, despite the infinite distance that separates it from us. Because the Greek notion of ''philosophy'' is also the intimate foundation of modern Western history: "The statement: philosophy is Greek in its essence says nothing more than this: the West and Europe, and only they, are in their most intimate historical process, originally '’philosophical' " (3). Let us set aside for a moment the violent character of this exclusivity of the West, and of Europe in particular, which is expressed in the subtraction from all other worlds of the legitimacy to think philosophically – the West is not only a cardinal point, but what precludes other historical horizons from existing in the mode of thought. And let us focus only on the relationship between the present and the past. The path of those who ask the question about the meaning of philosophy must be twofold, oriented toward what we are, but also, at the same time, toward what precedes us. Just as actuality cannot recognize itself in its essential meaning outside of the reference to the origin, so the origin is elusive if we lose sight of its contemporary projection. The constitutive place of philosophy is situated precisely in the chiasma delineated at the intersection of these two trajectories – at the point of tension between origin and actuality. In this sense it is always, in the literal meaning of the term, archaeology.

What Heidegger is telling us is that philosophy is inextricably intertwined with the dimension of temporality. That not only its location, but also its essence, is inevitably historical: "What is philosophy [...] is a historical question in which our destiny is at stake. It is the historical question of our Western European being" (4). Philosophy, like existence, is so permeated by historicity that it becomes one with it. Therefore, the question of what we are, from a philosophical point of view, presupposes the knowledge of where we come from. But also the awareness of the radical discontinuity, linguistic and conceptual, that separates us from it. This is because the intrinsic historicity of philosophy is quite different from the simple chronological succession of epochs that makes the modern the overcoming of the ancient and the contemporary the overcoming of the modern. On the contrary, contemporaneity should be understood, according to its literal meaning, as the coexistence and friction of heterogeneous times within the same time. Only the reference to the origin allows those who inhabit their own time to activate a critical gaze on it, instead of crushing their perspective on the surface foam of the present. A philosopher – this is a first answer to the question of what philosophy is – is the one who inhabits the interstice between different and even opposing temporalities, experiencing the antinomic impact that arises from the co-presence of the archaic and the present. Philosophy is the ability to sustain this friction, giving voice to the dilemmas it entails.

After stating this requirement, Heidegger bends his discourse in another direction, which has at its center his most usual themes – the problematic relationship between philosophy, science and technology, the transformation of the concept of truth, the constitutive and elusive relationship between Being and being. Most of these themes, which he used against the philosophical tradition, are now part of it, in a theoretical horizon that in the meantime has clearly changed in its tone and content, moving away from the Heideggerian paradigm. But the decisive reference to temporality remains, from which a first indication of our relationship to philosophical practice emerges. To relate correctly to philosophy, we need to grasp its historicity, in the same way that the concept of history must expose itself to the anachronic intersection of origin and actuality. The relationship between thought and history or, as Hegel would have said, between concept and time, marks a semantic threshold behind which it is now impossible to retreat. Let us try to enunciate a first proposition in consonance with Heidegger's perspective: any philosophical knowledge – whether analytical or metaphysical – that is placed outside the relationship with its own historicity is not able to answer the question "what is philosophy?", because it lacks the essential tools for self-interpretation.


If Heidegger's text poses the question of the relation between philosophy and time, Deleuze and Guattari's text, titled in the same way, focuses on the relation between philosophy and space, in a way that they define as "geophilosophical", but that we could also define as "geopolitical". The succession, thirty years apart, of these two texts with the same title is the most eloquent testimony of that constitutive relation between difference and repetition – which is the title of Deleuze's best-known book – to which reference has already been made. Even if starting from the same question on the sense of philosophy, the categorial detachment from Heidegger could not be sharper. This is not because Deleuze and Guattari neglect the question of the Greek origin – on the contrary, they return to it with force – but because they place it on the horizontal one of spatiality instead of on the vertical plane of temporality as Heidegger does. Heidegger's lashing phrases restore the intensity of this paradigm shift: “He wanted to rejoin the Greeks through the Germans, at the worst moment in their history: is there anything worse, Nietzsche said, than to find oneself facing a German when one was expecting a Greek?" (5)

What distances Deleuze and Guattari's text from Heidegger's is a notion of philosophy that is not external to the line of temporality, but that crosses it from the beginning with the spatial dialectic between territory and deterritorialization. On this side, too, the distance from Heidegger appears unbridgeable. If for Heidegger the earth is the place of identification with one's own immemorial origin, in Deleuze it is the sphere of its dispersion through a continuous trespassing that overturns the inside into the outside. To the point that even the so-called national philosophies – German, French, Italian – should be understood not in their identity, but in their mutual contamination. What matters, with respect to the question of what philosophy is, is not its territorial rooting, but, on the contrary, the antinomic tension between border and trespassing – something very different from the Heideggerian relation between earth and world. Geography – says Deleuze – is not the form that historically fixes a people to its destiny, but, on the contrary, what “wrests history from the cult of necessity in order to stress the irreducibility of contingency. It wrests it from the cult of origins in order to affirm the power of a ‘milieu’ [...]. Finally, it wrests history from itself in order to discover becomings that do not belong to history even if they fall back into it” (6). With respect to Heidegger's Occidentalism, there is, in Deleuze and Guattari, the commitment to rethink in a way that is no longer exclusionary, and not even hegemonic, the double relation West/East and North/South. The entire philosophy of history, which from Hegel to Husserl and Heidegger has placed Europe at the center of the world and Germany at the center of Europe, is deconstructed in its verticality and flattened on the surface of a world that has become a globe.

What consequences does Deleuze draw from this spatialization of thought? What is philosophy for him? Let us start with a negative definition – from what philosophy is not, nor should it be. It is not contemplation, reflection, communication. It is not contemplation because contemplation presupposes a form of detachment between the contemplator and what is contemplated – exactly the opposite of the philosopher's radical involvement with his object. It is not reflection because anyone can reflect on the world or on himself without necessarily being a philosopher. Finally, it is not communication, because communication, by always working on already given contents, is incapable of creating a truly new concept. When, on the contrary, the creation of concepts is, for Deleuze and Guattari, the task of that form of knowledge that has assumed the name of philosophy. To do philosophy is not a discussion, even in an unlimited community of communication. It is not to recognize, to cure, to console, as the therapists of philosophical counseling believe. It is not to construct logico-mathematical relations in competition with the exact sciences. None of these practices has anything to do with philosophy in its essential meaning. Which always and only is, for Deleuze and Guattari, the creation of concepts – the capacity to wrest them from the chaos in which they are immerged, to situate them on a plane of immanence that inaugurates the possibility of new becoming.

3. Does this definition satisfy us? Does it answer our question about what philosophy is? Is it up to our becoming? If it did, we would not have re-proposed it as it has been formulated so many times. Personally, I think that Deleuze and Guattari's answer, although necessary, is not enough. Something else and even different should be added to it – a segment of further reflection. Which is it? What is missing from Deleuze's definition? How could it be modified or supplemented? On one point it is possible to agree with him: the rejection of an essentially negative philosophy. This does not mean to exclude criticism from the field of philosophy, which on the contrary exercises an indispensable function, but to invert its relation of cause and effect to creation. It is not that one philosophy creates new concepts because it is criticizing another, but it criticizes it because it is creating new concepts. It's because it's already setting up a new plane of discourse that Spinoza criticizes Descartes or Hegel criticizes Kant, not vice versa. This is the difference between an affirmative and a negative, reactive way, as Nietzsche would have said, of doing philosophy.

What does it mean that modern thought has predominantly thought in the negative form; and indeed that it has been so caught up in the machine of the negative as not to recognize it as such? It means that philosophical reflection, instead of affirmatively stating its concepts, has inferred them from the negation of their opposite. This is particularly evident in the modern philosophical-political tradition. Thus, just as in Hobbes the political state is derived from the negation of the natural state, the concept of property, starting with Locke, presupposes the negation of a world originally given in common. And isn't modern freedom also defined as "negative" - not "freedom of", but "freedom from"? That is to say – instead of affirmation, expansion, participation – non-domination, non-constriction, non-necessity. Hence a reversal of modern political concepts into their apparent opposite, with their consequent depoliticization.

This attention to the active, performative, ultimately political character of thought is certainly lacking in Heidegger. But it does not take on well-defined contours in Deleuze either. It is true that both of them, Heidegger and Deleuze, lived a political experience, albeit in very different ways. But without this springing clearly from the internal movement of their thought. Neither Heidegger's reference to being, nor Deleuze's to becoming contain a clear reflection on the political attitude of thought. To activate it, it is not enough to say that philosophy is a resumption of the interrupted relationship with being; but neither is it enough to say that it is pure creation of concepts. If in Heidegger's case one would say that an intrinsic relation to the political is prevented by the negative turn of his lexicon, in Deleuze's case it is in some way neutralized by an affirmative ontology that does not fully come to terms with the negative. What seems to characterize both of them, albeit in profoundly different and indeed opposite forms, is a lack of articulation between the categories of affirmation and negation. While Heidegger, starting from a negative semantics – truth as the opposite of non-truth – forbids himself any affirmative version of his own ontology, Deleuze sometimes seems to erase the question of the negative, reducing it, following Bergson, to a distorted representation of difference. From this point of view, both perspectives appear blurred with regard to the urgencies of our time, in dizzying contact with the negative. With respect to them, one could conclude that the task of future thought is precisely that of re-articulating affirmation and negation – conceptually reconverting the meaning of the negative within an affirmative philosophy. Of course, to do this, the first necessary step is to deconstruct the metaphysics of negation along the path opened by Deleuze. But working on a project of affirmative philosophy does not mean removing or, worse, denying the question of the negative. Also because, in spite of any easy dialectic, the negation of the negative is still a negation.


In order to escape this short-circuit, we should return to Foucault's essay on the Enlightenment. It too proposes a fundamental question about the meaning of philosophy, in the more specific formulation that, in the wake of Kant, Foucault gives it: what is the Enlightenment? The sagittal relationship with actuality comes back into play in a form that distances itself from any philosophy of history. Kant, Foucault argues, confronts his own present at the moment in which it appears illuminated by the flash of reason. This is not the first time this has happened. But Kant does it differently than in the past. He does not interpret the present as a season of the world, nor as an event of which the first signs are perceived. Nor as the dawn of a fulfillment that is being announced. He interrogates it in relation only to its actuality, seeking in it the difference between today and yesterday. Modernity, in Kant's text as in Foucault's interpretation of it, is not thought of as an epoch, but as an attitude in relation to what is current, therefore as an ethos – a peculiar way of inhabiting the present.

The questions that arise from this attitude – at the same time ethical and political – of philosophy are: "what happens now?", "what is that now in which we are?". Finally, "What, in the present, makes sense for a philosophical reflection?” (7) What appears for the first time in this text is the simple presence of the present, not derived in the negative by comparison with what precedes or follows it. But affirmed as such. As Foucault expresses it, it is the present itself as a philosophical problem. But thinking of the present as a philosophical problem does not mean immersing oneself integrally in it, adhering to its outermost surface. It means, on the contrary, confronting what is eternal in it. Once again, the relationship between origin and actuality, from which we started, returns. Foucault recalls it through Baudelaire. Baudelaire's peculiarity lies in the particular ethos he assumes with regard to the Modern. An attitude not of simple abandonment to its emergence, but rather of resistance to its unstoppable flow. Baudelaire would never have said, like Rimbaud, il faut être absolument moderne – although in fact he was. He does not subscribe to the dizzying rush that crushes the present over the future, losing contact with it: "for him, being modern [...] consists in recapturing some­ thing eternal that is not beyond the present instant, nor behind it, but within it.” (8)

What is this? And what does this attempt to grasp the eternal in time – from which, moreover, the most absolute verses of Les fleurs du mal are born – if not to recognize the original in the present and the present in the original? In a note in What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari observe that, from this point of view, what Foucault calls "actual" corresponds exactly to what Nietzsche, in his Considerations, called "inactual." Both thought in the narrow strip of land that separates the present from itself, making it, in fact, for Foucault current and for Nietzsche inactual: “We must,” says Deleuze, “distinguish not only the share that belongs to the past and the one that belongs to the present but, more profoundly, the share that belongs to the present and that belonging to the actual. It is not that the actual is the utopian prefiguration of a future that is still part of our history. Rather, it is the now of our becoming.” (9)

Let us keep this distinction in mind, because it is the one that tells us something about the way to understand the negative within a philosophy of affirmation. We could define it, with Lyotard (10), as the presence of an absence, the perception of a lack: the negative – not understood as a nihilistic power, or as a device of exclusion – is rather the limit that crosses our life, separating it from something to which it aspires without being able to reach. It is this limit, this lack, this finiteness, the negative, internal to the affirmation, that pushes the present beyond itself, insofar as it keeps it in a productive relationship with the eternally eluded promise of origin. While the present, the pure present, is what we are and, for this very reason, we are no longer, the present is what we are not, but we are becoming, the otherness that disturbs us and urges us, the possible becoming-other than us-being ourselves.

Nancy alludes to this problematic relationship between identity and otherness – and therefore to the restlessness of the negative (11) – in his last intervention. The whole sense of philosophy, as it has been thought in the West, oscillates on this ambivalence: "the West is the sunset. It is therefore both a fulfillment and an anguish" (12). This means that its powerful productive machine, extended to the whole world, has a force at once self-fulfilling and self-destructive. At this point Nancy invokes the category of 'autoimmunity', alluding to the risk of a self-protection so intense that it turns against the very body it defends, risking deflagration. Colonialism, imperialism and racism were the three waves that marked this process, turning, between the 1930s and 1940s, what has been called 'biopolitics' into 'thanatopolitics'. This passage is read by Nancy, who did not like this Foucauldian terminology, and in conformity with Heidegger's thought, as the self-dissolving destiny of technoscience. But, unlike him, he sees the possibility that the movement of self-destruction, having reached its climax, can also destroy itself, freeing an alternative possibility. The end – not only of philosophy – opens, as we have said, an inaugural space still unfathomed: "one must inaugurate and continue the inauguration – always knowing how to reinvent it – until the very end." (13)

What name – or what content – to give to this inauguration? What to affirm, passing through the negative, without pretending to dialectically derive good from evil? Where to look for the way out of the hell of negation without removing it? Should the Western tradition lean outwards, to the point of merging with other traditions, or seek within itself the strength for a radical revision of its own assumptions? And again, should it deactivate its own operative power, as Heidegger and Nancy believe, or direct it in a different direction? Without even touching on an argument that would take us far away, the paths that are open to contemporary philosophy are different. But, in trying to follow them, none of us can avoid comparing ourselves with the work, truly 'singular and plural' (14), of Jean-Luc Nancy.


1. Jean-Luc Nancy, “‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’”, in Philosophy World Democracy 2.7 (July 2021), https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/the-end-of-philosophy.

2. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, translated by Jeffrey S. Librett, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

3. Martin Heidegger, What is Philosophy, translated by William Kluback and Jean T. Wilde, New Haven: College & University Press. 1956; Italian translation referenced here: Che cos’è la filosofia, Genova: Il Melangolo, 1981, edited by C. Angelino, p. 15.

4. Ibid., p. 19.

5. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell III New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, p. 108-109.

6. Ibid, p. 96.

7. Michel Foucault, What is Enlightenment? in The Foucault Reader, edited by in P. Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p. 33.

8. Ibid., p. 39.

9. G. Deleuze, F. Guattari, What is Philosophy?, p. 112.

10. See Jean-François Lyotard, Why Philosophize?, translated by Andrew Brown, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

11. This is the title of the book by Jean-Luc Nancy, Hegel, the Restlessness of the Negative, translated by Steven Miller and Jason Smith, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

12. Nancy, “‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’”.

13. Ibid. Starting with Nancy's text, see the two contributions by Divya Dwivedi, “Nancy's Wager” in Philosophy World Democracy 2.7 (July 2021), https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/nancys-wager, and Shaj Mohan, “And the Beginning of Philosophy” in Philosophy World Democracy 2.7 (July 2021), https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/and-the-beginning-of-philosophy.

14. Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, translated by Robert Richardson and Anne O’Byrne, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, translated into Italian as Essere singolare plurale, Torino: Einaudi (1997), 2021, with a dialogue between Nancy and Roberto Esposito.

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