Delicate Details: Disability in Nietzsche and Deleuze

Philosophy Is No Secret
9 min readAug 22, 2021


Source: David Wehmeyer via Instagram collaboration with @ego.sphere

The arrangement of this study is the singularity of the body as a venue of health and disability for two philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze.

Deleuze’s explanation for the health great writers is the contradictory relationship between personal life and health. In the space opened by that contradiction, a writer’s “personal life” becomes something threatened by philosophy.

“It is strange how great thinkers have a fragile personal life, an uncertain health, at the same time as they carry life to the state of absolute power or of ‘Great Health’” (Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, p. 5).

The singularity of “Great Health” describes a power and a poverty. The knowledge of . That curse of writing for Deleuze is simultaneously the promise of philosophy. “Life is like that too,” he writes. “In life there is a sort of awkwardness, a delicacy of health, a frailty of constitution, a vital stammering which is someone’s charm” (p. 5). Somewhere a limit is approached, often on several levels at once. Deleuze ascribes a vital charm to the awkwardness of a stammer.

“One must not say that all writers do not enjoy good health since many do.” “But,” he continues, there are “so many literary writers who do not enjoy good health” because they experience “a flood of life (flot de vie), that’s why.” (Deleuze, L’Abecedaire). The flood of life is what Deleuze considers the experience of multiplicity.

The experience of multiplicity in the body is detailed. As Judith Butler says in her conversation with disability activist Sunaura Taylor, each one of us needs help in different ways since each of us are or become disabled during our lives.

An ethics of the body is something already prefigured in the ethics of care as theorized by Carol Gilligan. Her book, In a Different Voice (1982), distinguishes between an ethic of care and an ethic of justice. Gilligan succeeds in radically including people’s everyday lives into the domain of politics and ethics, especially the experience of women. Caring is a way of seeing since caring focuses on the details of life like gender and the appearance of difference.

What is theoretically known as “difference feminism” aims at “care for concrete, specific others” (Stephen K. White, Political Theory and Postmodernism, p. 99). Vital to a lightness of care is the degree of detail afforded to differences in race, gender and ability.

By grounding ethics in the body, the other is regarded as a productive uniqueness. One cares by attending to the needs this concrete other in their different details. What concrete others truly deserve is an ethical care that is “held between the poles of dominating the other and succumbing to him or her [or them]” (White, p. 101). The worthiness of the other is universal. Uniqueness at the level of self is universally necessary, like Max Stirner writes of the unique, der Einzige from his Hegelianism. Also good is uniqueness itself, otherness itself.

Phenomena are unique in ways that have nothing to do with persons or personal forces, but whose individuation allies with the more universal force of becoming. There are singularities between black holes and multiplicities of ant colonies, geological strata and knots in the wood of trees. Relations of care structure the world.

The other is part of facticity, the externality of social being. To Jacques Lacan, the other is the object little ‘a’ that is empty The object called ‘a’ is full of nothing. The experience of desire follows Hegel’s description when he writes in Logic: “Given something, and up starts an other to us.” Less than nothing, the subject opened or structurally split by the object as a limit.

The other-as-subject is the source of social self. The other is a limit to experience because it is the negation of the subject. “On the one side the limit makes the reality of a thing; on the other it is its negation” (p. 623). In his system of Logic we are the subject of the knowledge, namely, that “we know that there is not something only, but an other as well.” By his association, Hegel recognizes the other as essential to the nature of experience. “But, again, the limit, as the negation of something, is not an abstract nothing but a nothing which is — what we call an “other.””(623–4). A body is never complete, but is a continually re-negotiated product. The body is uniquely what Hegel calls “a something,” that “is implicitly the other of itself” (624). By constant variation, what is next is always new.

The body is unique in its finitude, as what Hegel writes, “a something is implicitly the other of itself” (1960, p. 624). The uniqueness of a body is simultaneously its own limitation. The body as a time-space composite is what Hegel calls the finite, or “Being-there-and-then” (623). If Hegel speculates the body is a unique space and a time, then when and where is the body?

Time and space are the two aspects of territoriality. “Things never pass where you think, nor along the paths you think” (Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, p. 4). In his earlier book, Nietzsche and Philosophy (1965) Deleuze returns to Nietzsche for evaluating the body as a productive uniqueness. According to the literary theorist Ronald Bogue, “bodies” for Deleuze, “comprise alien, non-rational domains that defy common-sense understanding” (Bogue 1989, Deleuze and Guattari, p.152). The uniqueness of the body entails the threat of non-sense. All those “non-rational” details are experienced as a multiplicity. An event like a body is experienced as a multiplicity of detail. The plurality of detail is what Deleuze considers multiplicity.

“The essential thing […] is the noun multiplicity, which designates a set of lines or dimensions which are irreducible to one another. Every ‘thing’ is made up in this way” (Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, preface p. vii).

In this sense any “thing” can count as a body. In a deliberate sense, Deleuze means that a molecule can be a body and a planet can both be bodies since each is discernable as a meeting place for certain forces like desire and politics, or pain and pleasure. Defined by limits and relations, bodies are collective and multiple.

The experience of a lived body feels so contradictory since it is an experience at multiple levels. The territoriality of the body is both the product and producer of force. The unity of a body is something provisional because it is bound together by certain forces.

“Every relationship of forces constitutes a body — whether it is chemical, biological, social or political” (Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, p. 40). The situation of every body is constantly re-negotiated by a constellation of forces. Health and disability are certain arrangements of life events in the body.

Health is not personal, Deleuze writes, “precisely because life is not something personal” (p. 5). A body without personality is what remains after the organs are detached (deterritorialized). Like social death, life is ruined, a ruined body. At the limit Deleuze names ruin the body without organs. The person races toward several limits in the body at once.

The body without organs appears as it did in the beginning before the organs arrived. The BwO is pre-personal as much as it is also post-personal, even anti-personal. In Deleuze, the body relates to persons only by interruption. The body intervenes like as a screen.

The body is incomplete without events of interruption. An event is a universal limit since, as Nietzsche remarks, “[m]ost find this something unendurable” (p.143). The unendurable limit is what Deleuze names the body without organs, the screen of an intervention, the body as pure event.

Deleuze credits the Stoics for discovering “the event” (Dosse, 229) (Ronald Bogue 1989, 67). In Logic of Sense (1969) Deleuze writes that the “pure” event includes “objects ‘without a home,’ outside of being […] of ‘extra being,’ pure, ideational events, unable to be realized in a state of affairs” (Logic of Sense, p. 35). The impossibility of that deterritorialized object-body is the purity of a pure event. The body without organs is intentionally a paradoxical object like a mountain without a valley as a deterritorialized landscape.

“The specificity of the pure event is precisely to get beyond all dualities and to open onto the perspective of impossible objects, of paradoxes, absurdities, and oxymorons such as square circles, matter without extension, a mountain without a valley” (Dosse, Intersecting Lives, p. 230).

The product of absolute deterritorialization is the BwO as that limit-state. What remains is the mute writer in a non-productive stasis where “he ceases to be fruitful, to propagate himself, in this or that domain” (Untimely Meditations, p. 144). When Nietzsche’s health declines, he endures long periods of muteness. He passes through states where he, in his own words, “has become an indivisible, noncommunicating atom, an icy rock” (Untimely Meditations, p. 144). Mute and immobile, he approaches his own limit state reaching a writer without writing. The paradox of a writer without writing is a pure event.

The stasis of anti-production is a vital part of life’s auto-production, but every living body faces the danger of remaining stuck at that level of absolute deterritorialization. The effect of static non-production is what Nietzsche calls “petrifaction,” which, he writes, “severs the bonds that tied him to his ideal” in the body no less than in “the moral and intellectual sphere” (Untimely Meditations, p. 144). Severed bonds are what Deleuze calls a deterritorialization.

Before Deleuze can defend his doctoral theses in philosophy, he is diagnosed with a unique kind of tuberculosis that is resistant to antibiotics (Dosse 2007, p. 178). For this, he receives a thoracoplasty or the surgical removal of a lung. And for the rest of his life Deleuze suffers from painful respiratory illness. The way he continues to write is by requesting help from his caring friends and loved ones. Like Deleuze, Nietzsche also becomes too sick to write. So he too asks for help from others nearest to him. In his local assemblage, Nietzsche is often bedridden for months at a time, so that the act of writing in his bodily situation becomes impossible. To make writing possible again, each philosopher confronts the body as a limit.

In the book he considers his masterpiece, Nietzsche writes “body am I through and through, and nothing besides; and soul is just a word for something on the body” (Zarathustra, p. 23). “Hear my brothers, hear the voice of the healthy body: a more honest and purer voice is this.” (Nietzsche, Zarathustra, p. 22).

Later in his life, Nietzsche writes, “Essential: to start from the body and employ it as guide. It is the much richer phenomenon” (The Will to Power, section 532, trans. Kaufmann). Nietzsche makes his evaluation of the body despite philosophy. To him, modern philosophers reduce the body to a shadow of its active self. What is left of the body is a mere appendage to the modern category of a subject. Although a subject is in a body, that body is not in the subject. In this arrangement, Nietzsche perceives the body as having been robbed, impoverished by philosophy body without details. For him, bodily phenomena are the origin of mental phenomena. In a body, details are destiny, or what Nietzsche calls “[t]he uniqueness of his being,” since, he writes,

“one can be reduced to ruin by this uniqueness just as well as by the fear of it, by oneself as well as by surrender of oneself, by longing as well as by petrifaction: and to live at all means to live in danger” (Untimely Meditations, p. 144).

To Nietzsche, the danger of detail threatens to revolutionize ethics and politics. Through the experience of time, that same body varies infinitely across the boundaries of health and illness. When Nietzsche writes in Untimely Meditations that “the noise and gestures which are going on everywhere reveal that we are all in such a condition all the time,” (p. 158) he universalizes disability to the effect of removing the negative stigma attached to disability. Every destiny includes disability. We all need help in some ways.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. 1965.

Deleuze, Gilles. Logic of Sense. 1969.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Parnet, Claire. Dialogues II. 1977.

Dosse, Francois. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. 2007.

Hegel, G.W.F. Logic accessed in The European Philosophers: From Descartes to Nietzsche, edited by Monroe C. Beardsley. Random House. 1960.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Untimely Meditations. Cambridge University Press. 1983.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Random House. 1967.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Cambridge University Press. 2006.

White, Stephen K. Political Theory and Postmodernism. 1991.