‘What Is Grounding?’ Deleuze’s Journey through the History of Philosophy

In this early 1956-1957 lecture previously unavailable to the public, Gilles Deleuze takes his students through a tour of the history of philosophy by using the red thread of the notion ‘grounding.’ What Is Grounding’ is unsurprisingly insightful and sweeping in scope, explaining the general thrust of many canonical philosophers and how the concepts of each prepares the way for the philosophers that follow them, forming a single story. The big attention-grabber for these lectures for those well-read in Deleuze’s oeuvre is that finally a published work in which he “positions” himself with respect to other famous philosophers of his day or era, especially Martin Heidegger. We also get a discussion of Hegel and his placement within the history of philosophy. But emphasis on this common thread of ‘Grounding’ has much more to reveal about the obsessive work of European philosophers than taking names and claiming lines of affiliation.

One can imagine Deleuze speaking in a conference room to a room packed full of youthful french intellectuals (the translator tells us that by the time they were given, “Deleuze’s lectures were already ‘must-see events’”) and moving from one philosopher to the next, jumping from the enclosed territory of one great thinker to the next in summary fashion with the audience desperately trying to keep up with his torrential pace. These kind of exercises in the imagination are fit for invoking too, for right at the beginning we get a foreshadowing of Deleuze’s trajectory in the project of ‘What Is Grounding?’: weaving through the “infinite task” that philosophy has set out for itself and not so much untangling it as passing through it with constant motion and remaining untangled in any one of its locations.

You can get a copy [here]

We have barely begun and already we learn that the beginning of the lecture was lost. I’m inclined to think that this is a deliberate joke that has been put over on the reader, but it is entirely plausible that in the 1950’s the tape recorder was not set up in time. It’s unfortunate, because he began with mythology and its “foundational heroes” according to the footnotes. So immediately we have the missing beginning of a lecture on philosophy that is not philosophical, instead it is a mythological prompt for the incoming great names of the history of philosophy who attempt to distinguishes themselves from the great names of mythology. Philosophers will perform a different task, attempt the construction of a work that is not involving fictional beings and unreal creatures, theirs (and Deleuze’s also, he unabashedly claims to be within the philosophical tradition) will be real. The thoughts composing the work(s) of philosophy will be real – resting on sure ground. But we don’t get to this distinction so easily: thought must first of all seek to be free of something and start something new, something otherwise.

Thought must be wrenched apart from the functions and reasons of the ceremony and the ritual. Those binding agents that keep a people together, that mark the body and place it into a symbolic regime that forms the body of the tribe or culture. Set at a distance from the ritual, thought will eventually come to realize natural ends. It is tempting to regard the tribal/ritual as the natural, whereas the progression into civilization would detach us from the natural, from the integrated earth cycles, but realizing nature was never a task that would have made any sense to a ‘primitive person’ (so conceived by the educated). With the coming of philosophy we get a proliferation of distinctions; nature or natural ends somewhere along the line of time became distinct from the ceremonies and rituals of culture.

“On the one hand, the human being can realize natural ends, but at the same time, does it not produce something in itself by virtue of being human? It transforms the natural ends. What is the function of a ceremony and of a ritual? It is distinct from a natural end.” (p13)

So we have natural ends which we as humans can realize if we make an attempt, but the culture by which humans must operate within is something distinct from it. Every ritual has a natural consequence and cannot be extricated from nature, yet here we are with this distinction between the natural ends and cultural ends. This distinction is persistent and the reunification of the two “back into nature” is not some place we can suddenly leap back into: a synthesis is always something new and the stakes of our cultural games are never very far from the positing of a holistic entity or an original point of unity. This will turn out to be a major lesson from these lectures: the project of grounding is an “infinite task” (p14), the realization of natural ends within the realm of human culture is an infinite task. It is a task with many rewards (just think about the many successes of modern science) but one which Deleuze’s thinks is never-ending; we only get a plurality of natural ends for all of our efforts.

Natural ends will be sought after by the philosopher in their reality; a philosopher “realizes”, remaining unsatisfied with fine speeches, mythical tales, and other products of culture. The philosopher seeks no less than the reality of nature and this sets them off on an infinite task, which I take to mean it is a task that will never be completed: “the transformation of natural ends into cultural ends renders them infinite.” (p14) So we readers get something new with the philosopher, but this something new comes with a price, or with strings attached (to attempt an avoidance of commercial language). Deleuze allows for a distinction between philosophy and mythology, between those who attempt to realize nature and those who wish to recite stories that reinforce the lessons of culture, but one that is a marked by a difference in task. We don’t get to say, in that triumphant way that both science and philosophy often does, that everything before it was superstition and ‘mere myth’, as if the new method was superior in its progression. The difference is one of endeavors, the purpose or motive of the person taking up a project.

“If, then, mythology is the imaginary, it is because infinite tasks are not to be realized. Mythology presents us this state of infinite tasks which ask us for something else than their realization.”

In that pre-socratic way of philosophizing, we have the striving for natural ends in the attempt at finding something in nature which everything else can be reduced to. The elements of fire, water, air, earth, and even (or perhaps not) mind (nous) each take their turns in claiming the status of elemental substance of nature. Here we are searching for natural ends and using rational arguments to achieve these ends, but something qualitatively different happens when reason enters the picture, or should I say, the ends of reason:

“But natural ends are not yet ends of reason. They are values, sentiments which are felt and lived. Then what will we have to call reason? If, for their part, natural ends present themselves for realization, this time it will be infinite tasks which demand to be realized. They will become the proper end of reason. This is what happens when thought commits itself to realizing itself.” (p15)

Deleuze just breezes by this and moves on to the notion of grounding, but I cannot help to pause and appreciate the brevity of this opening remarks to a long lecture. The natural ends exist before and without any help from humans accumulating knowledge about them. However, when these natural ends are presented by humans and concepts are formed, culture is faced with infinite tasks. They will become the concepts of thought which seek realization, but realizing objects of thought within nature is an infinite task. This isn’t to say it is impossible to realize natural ends, or that we have come to reason by some primal error; Deleuze is only saying that the task of realization is infinite.

But then suddenly, right in the middle of the paragraph, reason, the means by which these ends are meant to be reached, is folds back on itself and, instead of reaching a single end, reaches for the infinite tasks themselves instead of natural ends. For we are in the realm of thought with the realization of natural ends, and somewhere or somehow, infinite tasks will replace natural ends for realization. Realizing natural ends is already an infinite task, but infinite tasks will become that which “demand to be realized” when “thought commits itself to realizing itself.” The ends of reason take on a new life apart from the natural ends.

Kant and Hegel will be the first names to appear and they are brought in to demonstrate the act of thought trying to realize itself, or the entrance of infinite tasks into realization.

“Kant and Hegel say that the will contemplates itself of rises to the absolute when it is the will to freedom. In this will to freedom there is the activity of being reasonable, which consists in realizing the infinite task… The grounder is then the one who poses and proposes an infinite task… To ground is to raise nature to the level of history and of spirit. All who propose values to us appeal to a ground… From the moment when the grounder proposes infinite tasks to us as something to be realized in this world itself.” (P16)

‘To ground’ is the act of realizing infinite tasks instead of realizing natural ends (or any other ends, but is as a result of the project to realize natural ends that the infinite task appears). The infinite task itself comes to be the object of realization. An object of thought that set itself apart from mythology, story, gods, etc. ‘doubled back’ on itself, as it were, and became something new: an infinite task that seeks reason itself as end (vs. as means to natural ends) and places reason where natural ends once were. Whereas natural ends once were brought into culture with the use of reason, reason itself took their place when a natural ground is sought for culture ends. “Reason as supreme end could only present itself to the extent that the infinite tasks themselves become things to be realized.” (p18)

We then move on to values and will for the last short segment of part one.

“The notion of value” says Deleuze, switching gears most unexpectedly, “has been created by Nietzsche in The Will to Power. For him there is no truth, there are only evaluations. To affirm that everything is value is to present a mystification which must be destroyed. Whence Nietzsche’s polemic.” (p.18)

We come back to Kant by way of the will:

“The infinite task as value was a content of the will. It concerned something else than a simple desire. To love is first of all to want. On the level of values, the will had a content exterior [and] heteronomous to it (Kant).”

But then, the will is extracted from what it wants, its content, and is allowed to double back on itself. The will will desire itself. To praise or blame, to hold in esteem or abhor, in other words to value we first desire. But Kantian values and other values that hold to the notion of grounding will be different, they will turn inward:

“These values to be realized take on their particular figures because the will becomes autonomous. It is a will which wants nothing else than itself. A will which wants nothing but its own content. Autonomy is presented as universality. It is exactly Kant’s autonomous will.” (p19)

For a number of reasons which Deleuze will get into later on in the lecture, Kant is this moment of the will becoming autonomous in thought. Kant will set about the task of grounding, the infinite task that will be the source of value (in the singular). The last paragraph is worth quoting full:

“The diversity of values came from their being transformed natural ends. They were still attached to natural ends. But when the will determines its own content, there is no longer a diversity of values. Grounds are no longer infinite tasks presented as values. The foundation became conceptual. We pass from mythology to philosophy.” (p19)

The will is detached from natural ends when there are no longer multiple values, or, rather, the correct order is that the will folded in on itself and then excluded the diversity of values in posing a ground – a single ground. From many to one value: a foundation, a ground for us all to stand on. A single earth that we all share, but only as decontextualized and self-driven individuals. The single ground that props up the abstract individual or the subject.

Nietzsche will object: there is desire without the one who desires, the individual being an image among images. Nietzsche’s philosophy will not be of the ground, it will not be grounded – he will add a mystification.  He will invoke Dionysus.

From here we will trace the story of philosophy using ‘ground’ as our guide. This is the ground that claims the source of value and resides beyond any particular natural ends and therefore must be conceptual.

From ritual and ceremony, with accompanied indirect imagination,

to the direct realization of natural ends, with accompanied infinite task,

to the infinite task as thing to be realized, with accompanied autonomy or freedom of the will,

to the consolidation of a plurality of values to a single source of value: the ground.

Grounding will be the infinite task that seeks the source of value (in the singular), be it The Will, Spirit, History, or (I would add) Matter.


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