Deleuze's Ontology: A Plain Man's Guide

Dave Harris

I am a sociologist, not a philosopher, and it has taken quite a while for me to try to understand how philosophers operate.  Philosophers have a certain kind, that is, including those who have informed Deleuze's work.  Like many social scientists I came to Deleuze through the work with Guattari, the political stuff on capitalism and schizophrenia (Anti - Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus), and only later realized that Deleuze had spent much of his time writing standard philosophical commentaries on other philosophers, which didn't seem to have particular immediate political relevance at all.  I have since read some, but by no means all of those (see the list here) .  The usual commentary on Deleuze say that after this labour of commentary, he then went on to write two books in which he allowed his own views to emerge more clearly—Logic of Sense, and Difference and Repetition
It was the last to works that led Foucault to hail Deleuze as a major philosopher offering new ways to think [which probably boosted Deleuze's popularity no end].

Please note that hyperlinks lead to my summaries and commentaries on these works.  Those are more scholarly,  and take more care over terminiology and argument. This is a quick'n'dirty gloss.

Most of my initial puzzlement arose from the ways in which philosophers argue,and how this is different from the way us normal nice sociologists argue.

Sociological Explanations

If we think of sociological explanation first, there is an empirical tradition that says an explanation involves finding connections between empirical entities—social class and marriage patterns, gender and educational attainment.  These empirical entities are not much explored philosophically speaking, although definitions are always controversial.  Connections between these phenomena are established statistically or via a theoretical generalization, and both approaches have been much discussed.

An additional form of sociological explanation, a further theoretization,  suggest that there might be some form of patterns of forces or 'structures' which underpin and produce these empirical entities and their relations.  Obvious examples here include the notion that societies run according to certain basic 'functional prerequisites', such as the need to preserve social order, regulate sexual relations between people, explains suffering and the purpose of life, manage complex forms of work and so on (these produce various forms of government and police, families, religious systems, and divisions of labour or social strata respectively).  Another familiar example turns on Marxist notions of the 'base' which 'determines' in various ways the 'superstructures': it is the economic system and its organization that produces characteristic social relations between people which then appear in various secondary organizations such as the legal and political system.  Naturally, much debate turns on these explanations to actually define the terms and explain how structures work, how tightly they determine actual social practices and so on. 

Finally, there are some social theorists who approach philosophers in arguing that there is yet a third level of reality which produces these structures that go on to do the determining.  Various accounts exist of what these underlying 'structuration' forces might be and where they come from—they might be, for example a set of 'rules and resources' which have initially being constructed by human activity, but which then take on a separate level of existence and constrain future possibilities. Giddens offers one account.

This is where we get close to the particular kinds of philosophical argument I am interested in. 

Philosophical argument -- transcendentalism

Philosophers operate with two levels of reality from the beginning.  There is the ordinary material world which we can experience directly through our senses or human capacities of interpretation, but there is another level of reality 'above' or 'behind' this reality.  It is common to call this a 'transcendental' level.  I have read transcendental philosophers backwards, so to speak, through people who have criticized them in order to develop sociology, but to a plain man like me, they can be understood to some extent.

Plato is generally regarded as the one who developed this notion of the transcendental level.  Things as they actually existed in the empirical world were but imperfect examples of some Idea.  Ideas as pure and perfect versions were found at a different level of reality.  We can use the term essences here, and we could suggest that material objects represented these essences in imperfect ways.  The transcendental level was seen as partaking of the divine [see—I have also learned to weasel], but Deleuze, Rancière and others have noticed that there was a politics in there as well.  Plato used the notion of the transcendental essence to evaluate the status of chosen empirical events or operations: good ones were those that display the essence, but we had to beware of copies, imitators, simulations, that looked like they did but in fact did not.  Rancière is particularly good with his examples, showing how this was how Platonists distinguished real art from the work of artisans who could copy it, and real philosophers from mere sophists and cynics.  Deleuze's examples turn more on how we could use the notion of essence to distinguish those who have a genuine claim to participate in Athenian democracy, and those who just looked as if they did.  Naturally, only skilled philosophers could really tell the difference, since only they had any proper grasp of the transcendental world.

Hegel also seems to operate with two level explanations, seeing the material world as produced somehow by a Spirit (is is tempting to think this out initially as some version of the Christian God, but it could also be some Spirit of Humanity).  Spirit automatically creates concrete levels of reality as a manifestation of its thought.  Those levels of reality then take on a real form and develop, as a way of Spirit developing new insights.  The relation between the two is considered to be a dialectical one in this way.  A philosopher of particular interest to Deleuze, who is also admired by Althusser, is Spinoza, who apparently saw God as responsible for creating Substance.  This substance then manifested itself at various levels of concrete reality, producing first 'modes' and then examples of the modes.  This also helps Deleuze to clarify a particular method which was involved, roughly inferring the nature of Substance by working up through the specific manifestations or expressions of it, and also working the other way around: once we had some notion of substance we can then see how it became expressed in particular empirical concrete events or practices.

So much for Dave's quick intro to transcendental philosophy.


Let us crack on hastily to Deleuze.  He also has a two level model, but he wants to reject any notion of a transcendental level of reality accessible only to philosophers.  The general problem is well known—that only philosophers can tell whether the empirical examples are expressed by the transcendental or not.  This can get rather circular.  Philosophers claim to be able to identify particular essences, and then they go around and recognise these essences is embodied in empirical observables.  However, the suspicion is that they only define this essence by generalizing from particular cases of which they happen to approve.  This provides the peculiar circular nature of bourgeois ideology, according to AlthusserDeleuze himself seems to have a different angle, arguing that if we operate with a notion of essence we can only ever repeat finding it in empirical objects, and that this is one of the ways in which repetition tends to dominate conventional philosophical thought, whereas we should really be interested in proper difference.

So Deleuze operates with a two level model, but denies that the 'deeper' is transcendental.  He insists that we should use the term 'virtual' to describe this level, and also insist that it is equally real compared with the empirical and concrete level.  It is no longer a matter of spirit, ideas or divine judgements being realized in the empirical world.  Instead, reality itself has two dimensions, one concrete or actual, and the other virtual.

In describing the virtual and its connection with the actual, Deleuze operates with a number of resources.  This makes his argument particularly difficult to follow, and it is very  elitist, since most of the resources are drawn from literature and the arts, sometimes particularly obscure writers or dramatists.  Baffling terms like 'body without organs' are used to describe the virtual level, for example: these are terms used by the schizophrenic playwright Antonin Artaud, and living a body without organs is also one of the symptoms of the schizophrenic Schreber, one of Freud's patients ( both discussed a bit in Deleuze's Logic of Sense, and then much more allusively in Anti-Oedipus).  For various reasons, Deleuze and Guattari want to explain that we can learn a lot about how sense is made by looking at nonsense, including the nonsense hallucinations of schizophrenics.  They also want to pursue one of their feuds with a rival, in this case Jacques Lacan, by interpreting the Schreber case in a different way, since Lacan had used this case as a major plank in his own reading of the Freudian Unconscious. Deleuze's and Guattari's account is a veiled criticism [Guattari's feud with Lacan is a theme that occurs in several other places].  Other terms used in this way to refer to the virtual include the notion of 'smooth space', the way in which TE Lawrence writes about the desert ( see Desert Islands) , and terms that look a bit more manageable such as 'intensive spatium' ( Anti-Oedipus) .

Delanda has done great work in trying to explain the notion of the virtual in Deleuze in far more accessible terms, including those derived from mathematics and physics that offer a particular analysis of what has become popularly known as 'chaos theory', or the more cautious 'complexity theory'.  I like Delanda because he offers nice homely examples.  Here are some:

We can examine empirical objects such as a lump of ice, a pool of water, and a cloud of steam.  If we were empiricists, which god forbid, we might see these objects as separate, but we now know that they are in fact connected.  Ice and steam are both water, but they are states that exist different conditions of temperature.  Thermodynamic systems often do display different arrangements of molecules at different temperatures and pressures.  Boiling water is another example.  As we increase the temperature, we see things appearing in the water such as convection currents.  As we increase the temperature still further, we get a more chaotic state as the molecules move about in irregular patterns, and finally, we get quite a spectacular transition from liquid to gas.  What this helps us to understand, DeLanda argues, is that the same empirical objects can be traced back to an underlying system of energy forces, converging a particular points to produce changes in states.  We don't see this underlying system of forces, or rather vectors, but it is real, and it does produce noticeable empirical effects.  What if everything can be understood in this way, not just water?  The underlying system of invisible forces, vectors, convergences and attractors could be seen as operating in virtual reality.

DeLanda makes the same point by considering new mathematical ways of conceiving of the geometry of objects.  Deleuze himself has an example which I have found helpful, referring to the work of the SF author HP Lovecraft.  Let us consider trying to describe a circle.  We can clearly do this by referring to its radius, circumference, area and so on, using standard geometry.  However we can also consider a circle as something 'cut' from a sphere, a two dimensional figure as a section through a three dimensional one.  Let's project this further.  Can the sphere itself be seen as something that really represents a cut, a section, a snapshot of a four dimensional figure?  That can be done if we consider the fourth dimension as time, and the sphere is moving through time: we study the sphere itself by stopping time, or cutting into it.  OK now let's proceed—can the four dimensional figure be seen as a cut in a five dimensional space, the five dimensional space as a cut in a six dimensional space and so on?  It is clearly possible, although we can't use ordinary language to describe these figures, and we would need mathematics instead.  However, it is the same argument, that the empirical circle or sphere that we see is a manifestation, or actualization of more complex multi dimensional space.  The energies and forces in that space have happened to converge at particular levels of energy to produce a solid sphere or a two dimensional circle.

Another homely example also demonstrates current mathematical thinking.  What is a bicycle? ( DeLanda again)   The object that we see in front of us motionless, leaning up against a wall, is actually composed of a number of objects that can change their relation to each other—handlebars, wheels, the crank, the chain and so on are all capable of moving.  This is the concept of 'degrees of freedom' possessed by an object—roughly, the more changes that are possible, the more 'degrees of freedom' are available to the object.  These degrees of freedom describes the number of possible states that the objects can be in—wheels moving but nothing else, handlebars moving, handlebars moving and wheels moving and so on.  We can think of a bicycle as a particular combination of these movable objects, or a particular value of degrees of freedom of its component parts.  To fully describe the bicycle mathematically, we would have to consider all the combinations, not just the particular one that we see in front of us.

Delanda explains that it is this sort of mathematical reasoning that lies behind Deleuze's use of terms such as multiplicity and singularity: both are best thought of as mathematical terms.  The multiplicity refers to a constellation of forces and vectors at particular levels of energy, and the singularity is a particular figure cut from this multiplicity at particular levels of energy.  It is clear that this sort of explanation can be very widely applied indeed.  Take human beings, for example: the actual concrete person that you see in front of you is clearly one possible result of all the forces and factors that have combined together to produce the person, all the influences on them, the psychological, biological, sociological and political forces at work.  All those forces and factors can be considered to constitute a multiplicity, and the concrete person in front of you a singularity. 

Another term here is haecceity—a haecceity is a particular unique combination of forces and factors at a particular time and place. Before we go any further, we might use this concept to point to a difference between social sciences and Deleuzian philosophy.  The way a sociologist would explain the activities of a person in front of them would involve placing that person in a number of sociological categories—working class, male, white, middle aged, French, disabled and so on ( usually one sort is preferred)   These would be generalizations.  Deleuzian philosophy would try not to generalize, but to explain the person in front of you as the manifestation of a multiplicity.  This would be far more radical than sociology, because it was include a much wider range of forces, not just the ones that sociology happens to prefer and conventionally work with. [Of course, even Deleuze has to generalize sometimes]


Why should we worry about this ontological discussion?  I think the answer is that it explains much of Deleuze's and Guattari's applied work.  I think a good simple illustration of how this works is seen in a discussion Guattari  and Rolnik had with a number of psychoanalysts in Brazil.  Normally, both Deleuze and Guattari have been quite scathing about rival approaches, especially those of Freud or Lacan, but here, Guattari is a bit more analytic, admitting that there are at least seven ways of describing states of subjective consciousness or subjectivation in psychoanalytic theory, and he lists them: they include Freud and Lacan, approaches associated with Jung and Sartre, and two that he thinks he and Deleuze have contributed in particular—machinic consciousness and capitalistic subjectivity.  This time, he is not going to be scathing about these alternatives.  He says that all of them are valid in describing particular levels of reality of subjective consciousness.  This just seems like the old liberal tolerance and relativism, but I think he's also arguing that these different levels of reality can equally be seen as singularities produced by an underlying multiplicity.  What makes Deleuze and Guattari superior, underneath the modesty,  is that they are the ones who recognise this extra dimension—the others naively think that the particular level of reality they are describing is simply reality itself, and they go on to announce that there particular approach is universal and scientific and so on.  So if Guattari gives some ground in terms of psychoanalysis, he gets it back again by philosophizing about these differences.  Incidentally, we can already begin to see maybe some problems with this approach—it looks suspiciously tactical.

The Guattari example occurs quite late in the series of arguments, but from the very earliest examples of Deleuzian work, we can see the two level argument at work.  I first came across it with Deleuze's discussion of Bergson. I happened to have some idea of what Bergson was saying because his work on consciousness had been much discussed by social phenomenologists.  They wanted to argue that it was consciousness that had to be studied if we wanted to understand the world, and they were interested in the way in which consciousness works.  So was Bergson in his early work on memory.  Bergson argued that memory was in fact the most important factor that influenced how we behaved  and acted in the present.  Every time we perceive a new situation, we think it in an memory to a series of perceptions, emotions feelings and interpretations that are already there—our 'stock of knowledge' as Schutz called it.  Of course we're not always aware of these links being drawn, and they go on in the form of a habitual or unconscious process.  Nevertheless, they are crucial.  Bergson in a famous analogy sees the whole of our consciousness has dominated by a cone shaped memory, bigger and bigger circles or levels describing all the memories, perceptions, insights, and understandings that we have accumulated, all interconnected in very flexible and complex ways.  What we are doing now and what we are conscious of in the present is just the point of this cone.  The implication is that memory drives everything.  I think of it as a large old car running downhill, with our conscious self desperately standing in front, trying to hold it back.

All this was fine until Bergson wrote quite a different book, this time on evolution, the evolution of species animals, real things, nothing apparently to do with consciousness.  Although he flirts with the notion of a life force driving this process forward, there is no absolute spirit or mind guiding it.  There is no blueprint for evolution neither, no necessary drive towards complexity, although again there is a flirtation with this idea.  Delanda has explained some of the principles here and how they connect with modern conceptions of evolution at the species level, and maybe at the embryological level as well.  The issue is to explain this apparent different emphasis in Bergson, from an interest in human consciousness as something that constitutes the world, to description of what looks like real processes affecting real objects, with nothing to do with human consciousness.  I hope you can begin to see how this is going to work in Deleuze's hands—both works can be joined because they are both explain the actions of a multiplicity.  The cone of memory is a multiplicity, with particular acts in the present as singularities; the life force is a multiplicity being able to produce concrete manifestations in the form of particular species.

I think this sort of argument is also a work when Deleuze discusses other philosophers, and he's evidently able to join all sorts of philosophers together even where they are not normally thought of as belonging.  I do not know enough about these philosophers to be able to judge if this is a reasonable or forced marriage. I thought I'd give one other more familiar example possibly, with Deleuze's work on Foucault, where I feel a bit more at home.  The usual criticism of Foucault is that he sometimes seems to imply that discourses constitute all our knowledge and produce institutions and social realities: this might be the implication of work such as The Archaeology of Knowledge.  However, other works seemed to offer far more concrete analysis of institutions how they develop and how they regulate and constrained subjectivity, such as the work on prisons.  Does this show that Foucault is being contradictory, shifting tactically between one argument and the other, or possibly trying to work out a whole new approach that somehow combines both?  Clearly, Deleuze is going to go for the second option, in the way which is becoming familiar I hope: Foucault is really working towards the concept of a multiplicity that will explain both discourses and concrete institutions as singularities.  In the process of making this argument, Deleuze offers an interesting and important account showing that, at the virtual level at least, actual reality and human consciousness, including the power to frame discourses are connected together in a particularly complex way: they are folded.

Deleuze is never all that clear, and I'm not sure if he uses the term 'fold' in a different way here compared to say his work on leibniz.  I also do not really like Deleuze's scratchy little diagrams, but the one produced in the course of this argument (p 120) of Deleuze on Foucault is genuinely helpful I think.  Apparently, we also owe a debt to Mrs. Deleuze, who got Deleuze to think in terms of folding by pointing to how a hem is constructed in material.  Bless her!

the fold

So, roughly, what happens is that the wild, virtual outside reality (the line 1 and above it) is partly domesticated by human capacities to develop strategies towards it (strategic zone 2). Sometimes these get frozen and institutionalized as social strata ( social structures and institutions 3). These institutions put a fold or hem in the accessible bits of reality ( 4) -- the hem is kept closed, wild reality is kept at bay by our institutions. We are the socialised or subjectivated by the domesticated bit of reality closed off by the fold. Convinced?


What should we make of these arguments?  I have already suggested that they are are a bit tactical.  In skilled hands, your mates can be defended against accusations of inconsistency, and those you don't like can be accused of naivety in thinking that particular position they have taken is the only one possible.  I don't want to underestimate this tactical capacity, because it seems quite useful to deploy against those who think they have all the answers.  One of my favourite examples here are the silly sods in management who solemnly advocate versions of complexity theory to explain the disorganization and social chaos in particular companies or universities, sometimes that they have caused themselves.  They want to sell their expertise on the grounds that they are the only ones to realize what's going on and can fix it.  Deleuze's complexity theory can be used extremely successfully against these people, even if it is a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut.  You can tease a manager by saying that they don't know the half of it!  That their puny efforts are not going to stabilize the universe, that their particular recommendations are just another singularization, equally prone to being dissolved back into a multiplicity.  The notion of a multiplicity producing innumerable forms of organization is also a good way of arguing against those who think there is only one way to organize an organization—as a hierarchy or bureaucracy.  This is argued quite well, although not as spikily as I would like in the concept of a 'trembling organisation'in a section applying Deleuzian theory to various social practices (Fuglsang).

However, if we do use Deleuze in that way, we must recognise that we are doing politics and not abstract philosophy,although ti is not uncommon to slide from one to the other, sometimes tactically again .  The sort of politics that seems to be connected with Deleuze and Guattari is discussed in another section.

As a philosophy, as an academic piece of work, is there any reason to prefer Deleuze's account over any other?  The great man himself says there is not, that is not a matter of rational choice, it's more to do with taste or judgment.  He is also not particularly keen on discussing his work or explaining it (I have noted this in one of my own publications).  I would want to add a good sociological explanation here—that the university context is crucial , that choosing an approach is also to do with generating a research programme, and maintaining it in the competitive climate of the modern university.  Again I'm not criticizing particularly, just describing what academics actually have to do.

You have probably had enough. Go away ( as Charlie Brooker might put it)

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