Understanding Gilles Deleuze and the Concept of Difference

How does Gilles Deleuze attempt to use the concept of difference to turn the Western philosophical tradition on its head?

Jun 6, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
gilles deleuze what is difference


Often, philosophers attempt to assert difference – to draw distinctions, to compare features, to itemize, classify, diverge and contrast. But what is difference? What is its philosophical importance? These questions are taken up by Gilles Deleuze, and understanding his conception of difference will go a long way to understanding his philosophy as such.


This article begins with a brief discussion of Deleuze’s life and education. It then moves on to explain why Deleuze felt difference was such a fertile philosophical concept, and why he felt that Western philosophy had misunderstood and misused it. This explanation necessarily involves a discussion of identity, which Deleuze understands to be difference’s opposing concept. This article then concludes with an analysis of the concept of intensity.


A Biographical Sketch 

paris photograph
A photograph of Paris, 2014, via Wikimedia Commons


Gilles Deleuze was a French philosopher, whose work in the latter half of the 20th century was and remains one of the last radical projects of haute-philosophie, or the study of things at large. Deleuze lived a fairly conventional life, even by a philosopher’s standards. He was born, lived, and died in Paris. He is a product of France’s elite academic institutions and was taught by several renowned experts on the history of philosophy, most famously Jean Hyppolite.


The effect of this on Deleuze’s work was profound: the array of concepts he mobilizes from both major and minor figures of the Western philosophical canon is startling and confusing. His work is, nonetheless, utterly original. Though he is perhaps best known for his collaborations with the psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, the philosophy he wrote in his own right still bears careful elaboration. This article focuses on a concept developed in his two most systematic works: Difference and Repetition, and the Logic of Sense.


A Philosophy of Difference

gilles deleuze black white photograph
Photograph of Gilles Deleuze, 1990s, via Wikimedia Commons

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Deleuze’s philosophy is often described as being a philosophy of difference, rather than a philosophy of identity. It is important to distinguish – at least at first – some of the social and political resonances of these two terms from the various senses ascribed to them in Deleuze’s work. Deleuze is often working at a level of abstraction, generality and philosophical technicality, which results in ideas that are particularly difficult to parse.


What is meant by ‘rather than a philosophy of identity’? In what senses are difference and identity opposed? This question requires several answers. Partly, the prioritization of identity opposed by Deleuze has to do with the prioritization of discrete entities, with concrete features and elements which can be used to identify one entity against another. It is worth clarifying that there are several different kinds of identity, and they can be seen – in certain contexts – as elements of a unifying concept, an intellectual procedure.


Two Forms of Identity 

byrd difference painting
The Difference, Gibson Byrd, 1965, via Wikimedia Commons


Two such kinds are ‘numerical identity’ and ‘qualitative identity’. How legitimate the claim that at some level these various forms of identity do indeed rely on a shared movement of thought is an open question.


Numerical identity is something’s identity in number. Numerical identity is a relation an entity bears only to itself, whereas qualitative identity is a relation an entity bears with any other that shares all of its features. Two distinct things can only be identical in this second way.


If we define “features” in the broadest possible way, such as to include being situated in precisely the same place, at precisely the same time, with precisely the same causal history, then qualitative identity collapses into numerical identity. Therefore the set of ‘qualities’ by which a relation of qualitative identity are constituted cannot be general.


Some philosophers, notably Gottfried Leibniz, held that even if we adopt more narrow conceptions of qualitative identity, this collapse will still happen. It is a tendency of identity to dissolve difference, to assert identity where there is also difference.


The Prioritization of Identity

guattari gilles deleuze
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in France, 1980, photo by Marc Gantier. Via Aeon.


The prioritization of identity doesn’t just manifest itself in the focus on concrete entities, but in the effect that the concretization of these entities has on difference. Simply, difference is thought of as non-identity. Qualitative difference between two entities is thought of only when there is some feature they do not share.


Deleuze doesn’t deny the existence of distinctly existing entities, but he wants to deny that these entities are more fundamental than difference itself; another way of saying this is that it’s not a given that difference can only be thought of in terms of them.


Difference is not all that is ‘given’ – it is not wrong to conceive of entities as what is. Yet, difference is what entities are given in terms of, and in this sense difference is both more basic or (though Deleuze wouldn’t have liked this term) foundational than the entities themselves, and positive. This is a central issue for Deleuze – how is difference to be thought of positively?


What is Prioritization? 

ficino platonic philosophy
Marsilio Ficino explains Platonic philosophy to the Serristori family, Egisto Sarri, 1877, via Wikimedia Commons


Before addressing how Deleuze thinks we might learn to think of difference positively, and thereby shift our prioritization from a focus on identity to a focus on difference, several other elements have to be in place.


First, it might be productive to ask the following question: what is ‘focus’ or ‘prioritization’ in a philosophical sense? The notion of focus already seems to admit a kind of pluralism within understanding, i.e. the idea that what we choose to focus on structures our explanations, and what we could focus on is broader than what we are intellectually obliged to.


This seems to express one of the major elements of Deleuze’s work – a strong genealogical impulse with respect to philosophical theories, one which goes beyond historicizing, and appears at certain points to reverse the traditional order of operations for intellectual history. Rather than understanding the history of a theory in order to understand the theory, Deleuze seems as interested in understanding the history of a concept via the concept itself.


Thinking Difference Positively 

find the differences painting
Find the differences, Peter Klashorst, via Wikimedia Commons


It is worth clarifying some of the problems with the prioritization of identity and the subordination of difference. There are some fairly awkward questions to be answered by those who attempt to think of the world in terms of discrete entities, differentiated by certain features. Many of these questions are an attempt to get at what constitutes a feature in the first place.


Yet there is another challenge, which is probably the more famous and important to understand in detail. That is the challenge presented by those forms of difference which cannot be thought of in a negative way and thereby be subordinated to identity. These are differences of intensity – differences in speed, light, heat, and so on. It is possible to represent intensive differences in an extensive way (which we can roughly paraphrase as a spatial representation – such as that of a thermometer, or a speed dial).


The most succinct way to explain the significance of intensive differences for Deleuze is to explain why intensive differences cannot be understood if we prioritize identity over difference. Adrian Moore puts the point this way:


“If one entity is brighter than another, this is a qualitative difference that nevertheless does not consist in the entities’ failing to share some feature: the only relevant feature here, namely brightness, is one that they precisely do share.”


Difference here cannot be understood in terms of lack of identity, and so it must be thought of positively. Deleuze will use these intensive differences as the basis on which to give a positive account of difference.


Intensive Difference

deleuze gilles
Photograph of Gilles Deleuze, via the Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology


Let’s explore intensive difference further. Intensive difference – the difference between the actual and the virtual – is the feature of how the virtual is actualized. Intensity can never be understood as the intensity of one particular point; intensity is inextricable from intensive difference. The temperature of a particular point cannot be separated entirely from the heat of points around it.


Even more obviously, something moves at a certain speed not at points, but at portions of space. Considerations of this kind apply temporally as well as spatially – the temperature at a particular moment cannot be separated from the temperature of the period of time that it occupies. No particular history is required to constitute a particular point’s temperature – it could be heating up, or it could be cooling down. Considered in itself, the intensity is a ‘pure event,’ but one which pulls in ‘both directions’, as Deleuze puts it.


The paradox of intensive difference is that of which direction any given point of intensity moves towards. The resolution of this paradox is actualization, which in turn creates further paradoxes for the new, actualized state. For this reason, we can say that intensive difference is inherently paradoxical.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.