The Conditions of the Question: What Is Philosophy?

Critical Inquiry 17 (3):471-478 (1991)
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Perhaps the question “What is philosophy?” can only be posed late in life, when old age has come, and with it the time to speak in concrete terms. It is a question one poses when one no longer has anything to ask for, but its consequences can be considerable. One was asking the question before, one never ceased asking it, but it was too artificial, too abstract; one expounded and dominated the question, more than being grabbed by it. There are cases in which old age bestows not an eternal youth, but on the contrary a sovereign freedom, a pure necessity where one enjoys a moment of grace between life and death, and where all the parts of the machine combine to dispatch into the future a trait that traverses the ages: Turner, Monet, Matisse. The elderly Turner acquired or conquered the right to lead painting down a deserted path from which there was no return, and that was no longer distinguishable from a final question. In the same way, in philosophy, Kant’s Critique of Judgment is a work of old age, a wild work from which descendants will never cease to flow.We cannot lay claim to such a status. The time has simply come for us to ask what philosophy is. And we have never ceased to do this in the past, and we already had the response, which has not varied: philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts. But it was not only necessary for the response to take note of the question; it also had to determine a time, an occasion, the circumstances, the landscapes and personae, the conditions and unknowns of the question. One had to be able to pose the question “between friends” as a confidence or a trust, or else, faced with an enemy, as a challenge, and at the same time one had to reach that moment, between dog and wolf, when one mistrusts even the friend. Gilles Deleuze was professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII, Vincennes-St.-Denis, until his retirement in 1987. Among his books translated into English are the two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia , the two-volume Cinema , The Logic of Sense , and Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza . Daniel W. Smith is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is at work on a study of the philosophy of Deleuze, and is translating Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Arnold I. Davidson, executive editor of Critical Inquiry, teaches philosophy at the University of Chicago and is currently Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center
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