Deleuze: Some Common Misunderstandings
To carry on the general theme of the last post, I thought I’d list in brief a few other common misunderstandings that I have encountered a number of times in Deleuze scholarship. These are my pet peeves.
1. Deleuze is not a transcendental philosopher
A lot of people do a double take when I mention this one, but its very true. Deleuze is indeed a transcendental empiricist, but the sense of transcendental here is different. There are really two different senses of the transcendental, a methodological sense (hence ‘transcendental philosopher’) and a more ontological sense (e.g. the ‘transcendental field’). To pursue a transcendental methodology is to inquire after conditions of possibility. Traditionally this is the Kantian project of the conditions of the possibility of experience, but there can be different objects of transcendental enquiry. The ontological sense refers to the conditions themselves, for instance, Kant’s categories, his pure forms of intuition, and the rest of his transcendental apparatus. These two senses neatly overlap in Kant, because what is sort in a transcendental enquiry is the transcendental conditions (conditions of possibility).
Deleuze’s method (insofar as he has a method) is certainly not that of searching for conditions of possibility. The sense of transcendental in transcendental empiricism is the ontological sense referring to the conditions themselves. However, precisely the innovation that Deleuze takes himself to have over Kant is his transposing of these conditions from conditions of possible experience to conditions of real experience. The transcendental in Deleuze is just the virtual. The conditions of real experience cannot be uncovered in a methodologically transcendental way, because they are purely specific to the situation in which they are actualised. They are the real factors governing the genesis of a certain state of affairs, rather than the general forms in terms of which any state of affairs is thinkable. One might then argue that it is not the specific make up of the virtual, but the structure of virtuality as such which is uncovered in transcendental enquiry. This is a far more sensible claim, but I cannot find any evidence for it. Insofar as Deleuze has an argument for the necessity of the virtual (or any other aspect of his metaphysical system), he does not explicitly deploy a transcendental argument for it. Ultimately, it is this form of argumentation that makes a philosopher ‘transcendental’, rather than sharing a certain subject matter (experience) and terms for discussing it with Kant.
2. The Concept is Not the Idea
This one crops up everywhere. I even recently found it in an otherwise very interesting piece on Deleuze by Laruelle (kindly translated by Taylor Adkins for Pli). The confusion is to a certain extent understandable, because the terms ‘concept’ and ‘idea’ play shifting roles in Deleuze’s work. For instance, in Difference and Repetition (D&R), he seemingly opposes the Idea to the concept (with such marvellous phrases as a lack in the concept is an excess in the Idea), rejecting talk of concepts altogether. There are obviously other non-technical uses of the term ‘concept’ (such as talking about A Thousand Plateaus (ATP) as a conceptual toolkit), but the term is only resurrected in a technical fashion in What is Philosophy? (WIP). It is then hard to place the exact role that it plays in relation to the metaphysics constructed in his early work (and rephrased and tinkered with in his work with Guattari and The Fold), because WIP is not explicitly a metaphysical book. It deploys much of Deleuze’s metaphysics (indeed, abandoning a lot of the hybrid Deleuzo-Guattarian terminology in favor of earlier concepts such as ‘Idea’ and ‘Event’), but does not really comment upon it.
Given this exegetical problem of where to situate the concept in relation to Deleuze’s metaphysical system, and the difficulties incurred by the less than explicit role that system plays in WIP, many interpreters try to place it within Deleuze’s metaphysics, identifying the concept with the Idea in D&R (or with the event in the Logic of Sense (LOS)), as if Deleuze had indeed been giving a theory of concepts all along, but used the term Idea to emphasize his break with previous accounts of the conceptual. What this approach does is to equate the concept with the virtual structures underlying the production of actual things. This is a truly maddening prospect, as it makes Deleuze into something like Hegel: the real intelligible structures underlying the genesis of the actual are just the structures of thought (this is objective, not subjective idealism). Moreover, it violates the principle of univocity, because it essentially conveys an ontological privilege on those beings (namely, us) who can think conceptually, i.e., it gives us some kind of special access to the real intelligible structures underlying the production of things.
I suppose what I find most galling about this interpretation is not just that it violates the principle of univocity (not everyone thinks this is as important for Deleuze as I do, c.f., the previous post), but rather that it blatantly contradicts the most famous thesis of WIP, what could even be thought of as its catch phrase: Philosophy is concept creation. Concepts are created! (By us, no less) How then can they be the real intelligible structures that already underlie the production of things? These claims together make about as much sense as a lactose intolerant lampost. Beyond these obvious contradictions, there is plenty of other textual evidence that the concept is not the idea. For instance, the claim at the beginning of the chapter on concepts, that concepts are multiplicities, but not all multiplicities are concepts. There is also the fact that the terms of ‘Idea’ and ‘event’ makes an appearance at several points in the book, as distinct from ‘concept’, and indeed, they turn up in the explanation of what concepts are.
What is the correct way to think about concepts? Well that is a whole post (if not a paper, if not a book) in itself. However, a brief sketch can be made. The best way Deleuze explains them is in terms of their function: they capture events. Notably, this is not a matter of corresponding to, or representing events/Ideas. Whatever this relation of capturing is however, it needs to be understood as not something ontologically special, lest it give us conceptual beings a backdoor ontological privilege. Nevertheless, concepts need to be understood as something which is specific to us, not something that rabbits, doorknobs and weather systems create and deploy.
In brief, I believe that the more general ontological mechanism of which capturing is what Deleuze would call counter-actualisation. I should point out here that perhaps even more people who take the concept and the Idea to be equivalent take counter-actualisation to be something unique to us (or at least non-ubiquitous); this is a more forgivable interpretative error, but I still believe it is an error. An example of non-human counter-actualisation is the way in which species adapt to develop sensitivity to salient features of their environment, for instance, the way in which a small mammals can adapt to respond to and avoid brightly coloured (poisonous) snakes. I take this to be a case where the population of small mammals, which is a larger scale process (a population dynamic), counter-actualises the Idea or event which is immanent within the population of snakes. The individual creatures produced by the population dynamic thus acquire a certain discriminatory response based on the genuine virtualities of snakes. Conceptual counter-actualisation is just a far more powerful (that is adaptive) version of the same ontological process, and this adaptive power is provided by the specific way it is structured.
What about the specifics then? Again, in brief, it is important to recognise that concepts are virtual multiplicites, even if not all multiplicities are concepts. This means that concepts are neither actual, nor are they processes of production of actual states of affairs. Rather they are virtual forms which insist (immanently) within processes of production, which are thus actualised in actual states of affairs. I think there is an interesting way of interpreting this, which, although I think it definitely stretches Deleuze’s account beyond what he intended, best handles the subject matter itself. This is to claim that concepts are the virtual forms governing reasoning. The actual states of affairs produced are the concrete instances of asserting, inferring and arguing, and the processes of production in which the forms insist are the wider distributed social interactions consisting in the use of the concept, which through both implicit and explicit reciprocal correction maintain the stability of the concepts usage (as well as allowing it to adapt).
This promises a kind of bizarre synthesis between Deleuze and Brandom, which for the moment can remain only a promise (and I think it definitely goes beyond Deleuze’s own conception, although taking what I think is good about it). The interesting thing about thinking of concepts in these virtual terms is that you get something slightly different from Conceptual Role Semantics, which only treats concepts in terms of how they can and must be used. Although the ‘can’ and ‘must’ here are obviously normative (one can use a concept incorrectly if one wants) we can basically assume that it is only through using the concept correctly that anything can be achieved. As such, we can see CRS as thinking of concepts in terms of their possibilities for use, or even, their capacities. What this Deleuzian alternative allows is for us to think of not only the capacities of concepts, but also of their tendencies. This allows for a similarly bizarre Deleuzo-Brandomian slogan: the space of reasons is a phase space (with all of the interesting topological terrain that implies (attractors and all)). If this seems too out there for you, think of a phrase we often use in an argumentative context: ‘slippery slope’. This is used in cases where there is indeed a range of possible positions between two or more stable points (think of ethical debates about when a foetus counts as a person), but there is a marked pressure on anyone occupying the unstable ground in between to tend towards the stable points (It is possible to claim that a foetus counts as a person at precisely 17.4573 weeks, but it is not easily occupied). This is just a very simple description of the virtual terrain of a certain kind of argument, as produced by the concepts involved.
3. Deleuze is a Panpsychist
This doesn’t take the form of a ‘Deleuze is not…’ statement, but it is a oft overlooked, or misunderstood point. It also follows fairly well from the last point, as it picks out another possible motivation for the interpretation I argued against there. The salient point is the fact that the term ‘thought’ in Deleuze is quite ambiguous, and used in several distinct senses (even just in D&R). The passages which cause the most confusion are those on the faculties in D&R, and the chapter ‘Repetition for Itself’ in the same book. These tend to encourage a reading of Deleuze as giving an account of subjectivity, where subjectivity (or the psychic) is some special kind of being, as distinct from say the biological, the chemical, or the physical. I think particularly of Ray Brassier’s reading of Deleuze in Nihil Unbound (and the slightly altered treatment in his article in Pli), along with the interpretation I’ve heard from Christian Kerslake before. I think that it is the sheer number of influences, interlocutors, and goals that Deleuze pursues in D&R which produces this interpretative pitfall. I won’t excuse Deleuze’s unclarity of expression here (or indeed elsewhere) as I have been tortured by it enough myself. Nonetheless, I think that it is possible, and indeed, in light of the principle of univocity, obligatory to read Deleuze’s use of ‘thought’ as having three distinct senses: two interrelated ontological senses, and one casual sense (which is then made less casual by WIP). These are as follows:-
i) Contemplation: This is the basic building block of Deleuze’s panpsychism, and its something he shares with Whitehead, who called it prehension. Everything contemplates its environment insofar as it stabilises itself in relation to it. This deserves to be called thought insofar as it is problem solving. In this sense, everything solves problems: a beating heart is a process which keeps blood flowing in a body, but it is sensitive to a whole range of factors in doing so, these factors making up the elements of the virtual ‘problem’ it solves with each beat. Even a seemingly inert lump of steel is composed by a complex process of distributing heat through its fine-grained molecular structure.
ii) The Thinking within Thought: Deleuze talks about this in relation to Heidegger’s book What is Called Thinking?, and there is indeed connection there (and to his own Cinema books, with the concept of the shock to thought), but this should not be seen as indicating a Heideggerian antropocentrism, wherein only some beings (Dasein) can truly think (even if they might not be on Heidegger’s lights). If contemplation is stabilisation in relation to one’s environment, then the thinking within thought is adaptation in relation to one’s environment. When Deleuze says that such thinking can only ever be forced, what he indicates is that it is through disrupting the ordinary processes of contemplation that those processes may be forced to change and adapt (or die, as is the two-sided character of death in Deleuze’s third synthesis of time). Just as everything contemplates, all contemplation is a stable thinking which is produced out of a radical creative thinking. These first two senses of thought are simply two sides of the same coin: one is former is produced out of the latter and the latter is occurs from within the former.
iii) Human Thought: This is just the casual sense of thought that most philosopher’s, including Deleuze at times, use without thinking. It is not ontologically laden, nor should we take it to be. But if we confuse it with the previous senses (which Deleuze’s unclear expression can invite us to) then we end up taking what is merely one form of thought among others (the thought of humans as opposed to that of galaxies, population dynamics, etc.) as being the only genuine kind of thought. This is further complicated by the fact that at the same time that Deleuze is engaged in pure ontology (in working out the three syntheses of time) he is also engaging in debates with psychoanalysis. The three syntheses of time should be taken as applying to everything equally, even though psychoanalysis proper does not claim to apply its concepts to the whole myriad of entities. The crucial point is that if the syntheses apply equally to all beings, then they very well apply to humans, and thus they can provide insight into psychoanalytic debates. Ideally, this is how it would occur, rather than in the heavily intertwined way that Deleuze takes. Some (such as Brassier and Kerslake) have argued that Deleuze’s claim that the third synthesis is the properly psychic synthesis entails that it is only a certain kind of entity, namely, psychic (read human) beings that go through it. Not only does this ignore univocity, but it also ignores the abundant textual evidence that the third synthesis (the eternal return) is equated with Being as such (this is prominent at several points in LOS).
As point (2) was meant to show, Deleuze domesticates this third casual sense of thought by providing an account of how specifically human (or more specifically, discursive) thought occurs. Ultimately, in Deleuze’s metaphysics, the term thought only plays two roles, and those are the ontological roles of (i) and (ii) above, which, as noted, are two sides of the same coin.
Ultimately, Deleuze’s position can be stated fairly succinctly: Thought is problem solving. Problem solving is the actualisation of the virtual. In this sense, every being thinks, or rather consists in thinking. Thus, Being and thought are identical. However, this is different to Hegel’s identity of Being and thought. There is no particular structure of thought (i.e. that of the concept) which is taken to be the structure of Being. It is simply the case that to be is to think.
One can see how getting confused about these points could lead one into treating Deleuze as an idealist (as Brassier does, indeed as a ‘biological idealist’), indeed how well such a misunderstanding fits with the identification of the concept and the Idea argued against in (2).
4. The Event in Deleuze and the Event in Badiou are Incomparible
I’ll keep this one brief, as I really need sleep, but here is the gist of it: the event in Deleuze and the event in Badiou do not play the same role in their two systems, to the point at which the fact that the same word is used is effectively contingent. This particular misunderstanding drives me up the wall, because any discussion of the relation between Deleuze and Badiou inevitably seems to focus on comparing their respective conceptions of the event. Badiou has even written a piece on this directly, which I find quite disingenuous, insofar as it finds Deleuze’s conception of the event lacking in relation to a set of criteria it is not meant to meet.
Nonsense/Intensity/Difference-in-Itself/Noumenon/Object=x, these are terms that pick out that which, in Deleuze’s system, plays the same role as the event in Badiou. Nonsense is a disruption. It is precisely what produces what we earlier called the ‘thinking within thought’, or what forces processes to change and adapt. It is unpredictable by definition. It is a point of excess.
This is where the debate between Deleuze and Badiou is to be had, and yet it seems that Deleuze is always made to fight with one hand tied behind his back. Interestingly, if one conducts the debate on these terms, Deleuze’s notion of Nonsense has at least one obvious advantage over Badiou’s notion of Event. This is that, for Deleuze, Nonsense is everywhere. There are disruptions on all spatio-temporal scales, in all kinds of processes. Whereas, as many commentators have pointed out, the only disruptions that occur in Badiou’s system are those that are indexed to human thought: revolutions in politics, art, science and love. But a supernova is not an event, even if it wipes out all life on earth.
There are probably more of these misunderstandings to discuss, but for now I must sleep. This is the most I’ve written about Deleuze for a few years, and its obviously been building up inside me in that time. I will be back soon with something on Brandom or Badiou (for real this time). I think I’ve figured out a way to add epistemic modals to Brandom’s incompatibility semantics. We will see.