Deleuze/Heidegger: Motivation and method in Plato’s search for the simulacrum
Ruthlessness towards the tradition is reverence toward the past, and it is genuine only in an appropriation of the latter (the past) out of a destruction of the former (the tradition).
—Martin Heidegger, PS, 286
The poisoned gift of Platonism, is to have introduced transcendence into philosophy, to have given transcendence a plausible philosophical meaning.
—Gilles Deleuze, ECC, 137
What does Nietzsche mean when he calls on philosophy of the future to reverse Platonism? This is the question that Gilles Deleuze asks at the start of his essay “Plato and the Simulacrum.” On the face of it, Nietzsche appears to be advocating the abolition of Plato’s theory of ideas which creates a hierarchical relationship between a thing’s abstract essence or idea and its concrete appearance. Yet, as Deleuze points out, this aim would not be peculiar to Nietzsche, as it also marks the thinking of Hegel and Kant. Rather than a project of abolition, Deleuze understands that Nietzsche’s call is aimed at uncovering the motivation behind the theory of ideas. This, Deleuze says, lies in Plato’s desire to distinguish between two kinds of images of the thing: the copy and the simulacrum,1placeholder according to the degree that they participate in the idea. Both the copy and the simulacrum resemble that which they are images of; whereas the copy is deemed a truthful image, the simulacrum is understood as false, its apparent resemblance achieved only by deception. Deleuze asserts that Plato creates the theory of ideas for the express purpose of suppressing the simulacral image’s power of subterfuge. In the following, I will expand on this claim, by combining Deleuze’s analysis of Plato’s motive, with Martin Heidegger’s account of the method that Plato employs, in the Sophist dialogue, to apprehend the simulacrum. This entwined investigation will be developed up to the point in the dialogue where Plato readies the simulacrum, in the form of the sophist – the false philosopher, for capture, by splitting the “domain of images” in two. On one side of the divide, the copy, the image that conforms; on the other side, the simulacrum, the image that deceives.
In his 1925 lecture course on Plato’s Sophist dialogue, published in 1997 as Plato’s Sophist, Heidegger details the dialectical method that Plato employs to tame the simulacrum: division. Ostensibly, division is a process of definition, employed by the interlocutors in three of the major dialogues: the Phaedrus, the Statesman, and the Sophist, which attains its definitional goal by demonstrating how a being is linked to its eidos or “idea.” This is achieved by the interlocutors dividing the thing into an ontological lineage or genos, which descends from the idea to the specific being. In this way the thing’s ancestry, its provenance is given; showing that out of which it becomes what it is. In the Sophist, the interlocutors: the Eleatic stranger and Theaetetus, seeking to define the genos of the sophist, first practice their skills of division on an “exemplary object,” i.e. a paradigm of the sophist. The angler is chosen as the paradigm because he is seen to exemplify many of the sophist’s attributes, including the use of subterfuge to capture that which he hunts. The angler’s prey are living creatures that move in the depths of water, while the sophist’s prey are living creatures that live on land, “tame living beings, specifically man;” wealthy and credulous young men, who the sophist aims to recruit as followers, through the power of his discourse.
The process of division begins with the interlocutors stating how the phenomenon of the angler appears to them. They agree that they see the angler as a technites, that is, as one who possesses techne or expertise, i.e. both knowledge and skill in relation to his area of operation. The definition of the angler then proceeds from this basic understanding, through a series of divisions, in which the angler is divided according to an idea of techne. To arrive at this idea, techne is divided between an expertise of production, the ability to produce what does not yet exist; and an expertise of acquisition, the ability to take what already exists. Of these, the latter is chosen as the idea most pertinent to the angler, as one who takes what already exists, i.e. fish. The division continues, acquisition is split between acquisition by seizing and acquisition by exchange. The former is judged most appropriate to the aptitude of the angler, because he takes what he seeks without giving anything in return. Acquisition by seizing is then divided between seizing by force, i.e. in a battle, and seizing by subterfuge, i.e. hunting; the latter is chosen as most relevant to the angler, as a hunter of fish. The process of division continues in this way until it can proceed no further, as what is being sought has been arrived at. In this case, the moment the angler’s acquisitive ability is employed in the action of taking hold of a fish, with an upward strike of a hook. The angler’s genos, his lineage, is then summed up by the Eleatic stranger:
“Within expertise as a whole one half was acquisitive; half of the acquisitive was taking possession; half of possession-taking was hunting; half of hunting was animal-hunting; half of animal-hunting was aquatic hunting; all the lower portion of aquatic hunting was fishing; half of fishing was hunting by striking; and half of striking was hooking. And the part of hooking that involves a blow drawing a thing upward from underneath is called by a name that’s derived by its similarity to the action itself, that is, it’s called draw-fishing or angling – which is what we’re searching for” (221b)
In this process of division, the interlocutors’ dialectical exchange divides up the techne of the angler into two ideas or species. The species which conforms to the phenomenon of the angler as technites: acquisition, is chosen, that which does not: production, is discarded. This allows the definition of the angler to appear in a lineage, which lays out the genos of the angler as a techne of acquisition, seen above. From this, it could be claimed, the sole aim of division is to arrive at this definition, but Deleuze says no, this is only its ironic aspect. If arriving at a definition is the true aim of division, then Aristotle’s objection, that it is a method that lacks a middle term, i.e. a concept by which one side of the division is selected over the other, is valid. In addition, to say that the aim of division is definition, implies that the genos being defined is clear and unambiguous, from which the selection of determinate species naturally flows. Deleuze asserts, instead, that the process of division should be understood as one in which the genos is a “confused species” which needs to be refined, as one would refine gold, by separating the pure – the authentic claimants, from the impure – the inauthentic claimants. These claimants are the alternatives considered at each stage of the division. What they both claim is participation in the idea being defined, but only the one judged to be the true participant is chosen. The fundamental aim of division, therefore, is not to divide in width, but to order in depth. Division acts as a screen that creates a pure line of descent, i.e. a provenance, by sorting out authentic claims of participation from inauthentic, the true from the false, in a process of selecting and ordering.
For Daniel W. Smith, Plato’s desire to sort out claimants has its basis in the structure of Athenian society, which was fundamentally agonistic, i.e. a society of rivals; in which the capacity to make a claim and a counterclaim was open to all citizens. For example, any citizen could put themselves forward as suitable to fill a vacant magistrate’s post within the City. Similarly, sophists, the rivals to philosophers, asserted that only they possess universal wisdom, therefore only they should be considered the true philosophers. The issue, then, was how does one distinguish between those with a good claim and those with no foundation to their claim? It is Deleuze’s contention that Plato creates the theory of ideas in response to this problem, using it to establish criteria against which the legitimacy of rival claims can be judged. In the Phaedrus and the Statesman dialogues, those who claim to participate in the idea give off an image, by which they appear to possess the idea as an unalloyed quality. It is then the task of the interlocutors to validate this image, or not. Yet a question now appears, on what ground are these validations made, if not according to the mediating concept that Aristotle calls for? Deleuze’s answer is that the ground for division’s validation of claims of participation is not conceptual, but mythical. Myth is the foundation of division. It enables the rivals to be placed in order, according to their degree of conformity to the idea, and to be selected or rejected according to the validity of their claims.
In the Statesman dialogue, claims to be counted as the true statesman are focused around an idea of care. The question then is, who amongst the claimants has the greatest claim to care for others? Claims are measured against a mythic model of care, epitomised by an ancient god, the “shepherd-King of mankind.” Rivals are selected and ordered according to the degree they participate in the model of care, radiating from the shepherd-God. The statesman, because of his care for society as a whole, is judged most like the shepherd-God, he is therefore placed second in line after the god himself. This ordering continues, listing those with less and less of a claim to participate in the mythic idea of care: “parents, servants, auxiliaries.” (DR, 76) Myth not only enables rivals to be ordered in this way, it also enables them to be confirmed or rejected in their rivalry. Some, because of their occupations as doctors, farmers, merchants etc, say that they should be considered the statesman’s equal as the “shepherd of men.” These claims are, in the end, rejected; all exercise care in some way, but the care of the statesman supersedes theirs, because of the completeness of care he engages in. He has concern for all aspects of the lives of those he rules over, while the others exercise specialised forms of care, i.e. doctors care only for the body of patients, farmers care only for the health of their crops. Finally, the claim of the simulacrum of the statesman, the tyrant, is also rejected, because of the falsity of his claim. The true statesman rules by cooperation, but the tyrant rules by compulsion. Therefore, by his actions, the tyrant is seen as one who does not participate in the idea of care implicit in the mythic model of the shepherd of men. He is judged a charlatan, and his claim is completely rejected.
Myth, therefore, like the idea itself, is a transcendent structure which grounds division’s ranking and selection of rival claims of participation. From the true participant, i.e. the copy, to the false, i.e. the simulacrum. Deleuze defines participation as “to have after, to have in second place.” (DR, 78) It is effectively a measure of the degree to which the pretenders (i.e. claimants) participate in what the idea gives out for participation. If Justice is the idea towards which pretenders strive, what they contend they possess is the quality of Justice, i.e. justness. The meaning intrinsic to the mythic ground of division, that of establishing a named hierarchy of participation, allows the spoken dialectic of the interlocutors to select and order rivals, starting with the idea itself. In this case Justice is the idea towards which all strive, and which possesses what it gives out for participation in a primary way, only Justice is just. Claimants are then ranked according to the degree they participate in the idea, from the true copy which participates in a secondary way, onto those who are deemed less and less just, and therefore are named as third and fourth in rank. This ordering continues down to the simulacrum, the false claimant. The simulacrum makes a claim, by its appearance, to share in the idea of Justice, it gives an image of being just, but “without passing through the idea,” therefore it can be rejected as an intrinsically false image.
The identity of the copy is given in its resemblance to its model, i.e. the degree to which it participates in that which it aspires to, the idea. Yet it is a mistake to then think of the simulacrum as a kind of “degraded copy,” an inferior copy of the copy. Rather, it is better thought as the demonic other to the idea and to the copy. The simulacrum is demonic because it has the power to deliberately appear as that which it is not, to insinuate itself everywhere, and to make false claims as to the authenticity of its provenance. The simulacrum’s capacity for falsehood is most apparent in the simulacrum par excellence, the sophist, who, in the eyes of the philosophers, claims “the ability to speak and converse reasonably and beautifully about all things, regardless of whether what is said holds good or not.” (PS, 149) The sophist is not what he appears as, a philosophos, a “friend of wisdom.” The implication is that he is instead the embodiment of pseudos, the false, and by his very existence proves the false is, it exists.
To combat the sophist’s powers of deception, Plato, in the Sophist dialogue, strives to make him appear as the fraud he is, in the same way his paradigm, the angler, was made to appear, through a process of definition in which his true provenance is revealed. Yet the task of defining the sophist is easier said than done; he is a tricky character, one who constantly evades definition. He does this by adopting different guises of expertise and by convincing listeners, through the power of his rhetorical discourse, that he speaks the truth in each. As Heidegger points out, it is imperative that the definition is carried out, for if the sophist cannot be defined then the false cannot exist. Meaning there is no way to distinguish between the philosopher and the sophist, between the copy and the simulacrum. The sophist will only be made to appear as the counterfeit he truly is by a process of definition, that drags him into the light of day from his many hiding places. Only when he has been brought out of his many concealments, can his capacity to appear as what he isn’t be understood.
The interlocutors, therefore, use the divisional process of definition to first track down the one idea of techne that applies to the sophist, from the many he adopts. Following a series of divisions, the sophist is made to appear in the varied guises of competency he assumes: hunter, salesman, teacher etc. The interlocutors then agree that the one techne common to the several he adopts, is that of techne antilogikos. The sophist is skilled in the “art of contradictory speaking;” this is how he wins arguments and gathers followers in each of the forms he takes on. With an understanding of the sophist’s techne in place, the dialogue turns to the question of how he achieves his illusory effect of truthfulness. The interlocutors approach this question by first asking what this contradictory speech of the sophist is aimed at. Earlier this was said to be men, but now it is made clear that the techne antilogike of the sophist aims at appropriating everything, all beings, animate and inanimate and all understandings of them. The sophist appears as one, who, in his contradictory discourse, can speak with knowledge and conviction about every subject. This is a clear impossibility, therefore this techne is revealed as impossible “in its Being,” yet it is given along with the being of the sophist. It is factually there, but according to its Being, is impossible. This means, in the techne of the sophist, we have something that isn’t what it appears as, i.e. a simulacrum.
Plato now asks, how can such a simulacral techne be made understandable as an idea? In the eyes of their disciples, sophists have wisdom with regards to everything that exists, but such all-encompassing knowledge is impossible for anyone to possess. Therefore, the sophist’s apparent possession of knowledge of everything has the character of semblance, it poses as something it is not. The task then becomes one of tracking down this semblance in the techne of the sophist. This is approached through a paradigm, an example of a techne which has an even higher degree of impossibility than that claimed by the sophist. This is a techne, which, rather than following the acquisitive branch of the angler, follows the previously rejected productive branch, by asserting it has the capacity to produce everything that does not yet exist. This assertion, like the sophist’s claim to appropriate everything that exists, is judged impossible by the interlocutors. They say that it could only be said in jest, as it would only seem the techne had made that which it appears to have produced.
This is indeed the case, the paradigmatic techne, that claims the ability to produce everything, is that of the figurative artist. Neither the sophist’s nor the artist’s claim of universal truthfulness can be taken seriously by the interlocutors, both are judged impossible. The artist’s techne, the skilful production of images, is not a genuine production of the things themselves, but the production of their mimema, “imitations,” semblances with the capacity to appear as real. Associating the sophist’s techne with the idea of production, means the persuasive and contradictory speaking of the sophist can now be understood as a techne of mimesis, one which makes “it appear that the truth was spoken.” The sophist, in his “beautiful speeches,” produces mere appearances, that is images which look like the thing itself, but are not it. The sophist is then identified as a mimetes “an imitator of what is,” and in this sense the sophist does have the capacity to speak of everything. This also means, as this is impossible, it is speaking “only in jest,” it is aimed at those who are easily fooled into believing what the sophist says is true. The contradictory speech of the sophist, which claims to speak about everything, is understood as impossible, yet exists. This paradox of truth and falsity, Being and non-being, is only possible through a “modification toward ungenuineness;” a deliberately deceptive move on the part of the sophist, in order to produce things that appear as something they are not, i.e. mimesis; a move which achieves its goal in an underhand and subversive manner.
Plato claims that the sophist’s “modification toward ungenuineness,” i.e. subterfuge, is also present in every art. He uses the paradigm of artistic production to allow us to see the sophist’s and therefore the simulacrum’s falsity more clearly, and to distinguish it from the copy. The figurative artist’s techne of mimesis, produces images which look like something, but which are not that which they look like. Plato distinguishes two types of image production: 1). Eikastike, “iconistic,” which produces eikones, “icons,” images that follow the dimensions and colours of the original; 2). Phantastike, which produces phantasmata, “semblant images,” which, when compared to the eikon, have a modified character. Thus, the artist’s production of images can aim at the exact replication of appearances i.e icons, or it can aim at producing images which have the character of a modification of the original to which they refer, phantasmata. The first is most like that which it is an image of, it extracts the exact proportions and colours from what is to be presented. It is an image with the character of sameness, but without being genuinely what it presents, this is the copy. The phantasma is an image that differs from the model, it does not reproduce the actual being exactly, but distorts it, yet appears like it, this is the simulacrum. All images have only the appearance of reality, but whereas the production of the eikon aims at the appearance of exactness, the focus of the phantasma, on the coherence of the overall image, regardless of correctness, makes it “less that which it presents;” therefore in the simulacral image, non-being, i.e. the false, “is all the more genuine.”
Plato, thereby, sets-up two kinds of images: copies and simulacra. In Deleuze’s analysis, copies are well-founded claimants, built on a similarity to the original, whereas simulacra are false claimants, built on a dissimilarity. In light of this, the difference between copies and simulacra is further clarified. Copies are guaranteed by an eidetic similarity to the original; whereas simulacra are contradicted by their eidetic dissimilarity to the original. Both copy and simulacrum are imitations, but the copy conforms to the essence of the thing represented, and as such it gives an effect of truthfulness in its representation of what is, i.e. the idea. Whereas the simulacrum gives what Deleuze calls a “nonproductive effect of resemblance.” In its image, it cannot reproduce the thing’s eidos or idea; it gives, instead, the effect of imitating that which it is an image of, by “ruse and subversion.”
Plato gives an example of how subversion guides the production of the simulacral image in the techne of the figurative artist; in the form of a large sculpted frieze on the side of a building. The aim of the artist, in producing the work, is to create the impression of a coherent image of the scene depicted in the eyes of the viewer on the ground looking upwards. In order to achieve this, the actual dimensions of figures higher up will need to be enlarged, so they don’t look out of proportion to the viewer. The use of this ploy indicates that the artist does not aim at the exactness of the eikon, i.e. a correctness of representation, but at a “mere appearance,” an effect which is focussed on making the overall image appear to the viewer as an “integrated real thing.” Because the viewer of the artwork can only experience an “impression of resemblance,” from whichever point of view it is seen, means it is judged a false image, a simulacrum.
This is the point at which Deleuze and Heidegger now diverge. Heidegger points out that the concrete appearance of the simulacrum proves its existence, enabling Plato to then search for the underlying Being of its non-being. Heidegger’s own subsequent search for Being, in Being and Time (published in 1927, two years after he delivers the Sophist lectures), explicitly builds on Plato’s efforts. Heidegger characterises his pursuit of Being, in Being and Time, as a contribution to a “newly rekindled” battle of gods and giants concerning Being, (BT, 2) a direct reference to the Sophist dialogue’s ontological analysis.
Deleuze draws a different conclusion: judging images according to the degree to which they conform to the idea, imposes the constraints of Platonic representation on the simulacrum; ordering it according to the requirements of similarity and imitation, and thus obstructing its demonic “power of the false.” This is why Plato splits the domain of images in two, making that part which conforms to the original, the copy, placid in its conformity, while locking up that part which remains rebellious, the simulacrum, “in a cavern at the bottom of the Ocean.” This, Deleuze claims, is Plato’s motivation in setting up the domain of representation, overseen by the theory of ideas, which “philosophy will later recognise as its own” and which Nietzsche calls on those in the future to overthrow; by allowing the simulacrum to rise to the surface, in order to affirm its “phantasmatic power,” its power to deceive.
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
Gilles Deleuze, “Plato and the Simulacrum” in The Logic of Sense, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Derek Hampson, Reading Plato’s Sophist in Lockdown, (Amazon, 2021).
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1962).
Martin Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist, (Bloomington, Indiana: IUP, 1997).
Plato, The Sophist, translated by John Burnet, (Oxford: University Press, 1903).
Daniel W. Smith, “Deleuze and the Overturning of Platonism: The Concept of the Simulacrum,” in Continental Philosophy Review, Vol. 38, Nos. 1–2 (Apr 2005), 89–123.
Simulacrum is a Latin term, meaning “semblance,” which gained its theoretical currency through extensive usage in postmodern, particularly French, writing, e.g. Badiou, Baudrillard and Deleuze. The term that Plato uses is phantasma, which can be translated as “semblant image.”