Deleuze and the rejection of conventional thinking

Dave Harris 2013

Another problem with 'applying' Deleuze  by isolating concepts is that Deleuze himself says we should not ‘apply’ his work like this. Deleuze deliberately breaks with conventional thinking and writing (which explains why we have use rephrasings such as to ‘put him to work’, not ‘apply’ him in the conventional sense). For Deleuze (2004) the conventional image of thinking is seriously limited. It prioritises similarity rather than difference; operates through recognising similarities using literary forms like analogy or metaphor; and prioritises discussion and consensus as a means of solving philosophical disputes. A unifying essential consciousness – grounded ultimately on God or Humanity – is required to guarantee  and resolve all the subjective judgements about similarity.  This conventional image runs throughout philosophical and everyday thought. [I have some online notes on Deleuze 2004 here --it is VERY dense and complex but the critique of conventional thinking is done mostly in one chapter -- 3. Good luck!]


Deleuze says we should pursue instead a scholarly and individualized route into non-conventional thinking: ‘In this sense, it is indeed true that the thinker is necessarily solitary and solipsistic’ (Deleuze, 2004: 352).  A wide knowledge of the arts and sciences is used as raw material for his analyses. The result is a series of intense scholarly works quite unlike the familiar approaches.  One way of putting Deleuze to work, suggested in Deleuze and Guattari (1994), is to encourage analysts to develop Deleuzian concepts of their own, but, presumably, this would require first a similar level of engagement and commitment.

Developing Deleuzian concepts of your own seems to involve trying to first arrive at singularities. This is not what social scientists do -- they go for generalisations or generalities. A singularity is something that offers a particular combination of specific empirical factors which are not homogenous but, on the contrary, quite heterogeneous. These emerge as particular points or convergences of forces in the virtual (I know this isn't easy and it sounds like science fiction). Some are heterogeneous enough to be unique -- haecceities.  I think you might get to this understanding by looking at empirical objects or facts philsosophically, trying to see how they might be produced asa combination of forces and or processes which happen to converge in a particular fixed object or point. There is some mind-boggling maths involving topology which is cited here (best illustrated in a video by DeLanda) . Let me take a really simple example, once cited by Deleuze (1990) and about the only one I understand. We can examine a circular object, say a slice of a tree trunk as an empirical object all on its own, but we can also see it as a cut through a 3-dimensional obect, a sphere or a cylinder. Let's get philosophical and speculate that that sphere or cylinder might also be a cut from some 4 dimensional figure, and that 4-dimensional figure a cut from a 5-dimensional one -- and so on. We have to see these multi-dimension entities not as things ( which only exist in 3-d) but as forces, vectors, converging now and then,maybe, to produce more fixed figures which themselves can change their state to produce the 3-d objects we know and love. DeLanda has homely examples to illustrate changes of state (much clearer than Deleuze's own waffle and evasion) -- we are used to seeing water as a liquid but we know that if we changes its state ( its temperature, or example) it exists as a gas and a solid as well -- all the same thing. Writers and poets do this sort of thing too,but with less explicit methodology

We can pin down the term 'multiplicity', says DeLanda ( 2002), as those vectors of forces producing convergences and state changes (there is a fuller definition elsewhere) . These eventually produce singularities. In different terms again, we have explained how individual objects, some of which might look quite different, and some of which might not even actually exist on this earth except as ideas or possibilities, are produced by some underlying 'diagram' or process,  operating at the virtual level Deleuze insists that the virtual is also real even though we cannot perceive it directly, let alone measure or quantify it..  A proper concept grasps all these aspects of reality. It is not just a description of what can be seen and grasped immediately and empirically -- it must have a virtual dimension too to see that what exists empirically is only one possibility.It should also contain elements of the 'preconceptual', which might mean those bits of knowledge which have not properly been formalized, the precursors of the concept, so to speak.

It is not at all clear, and Deleuze offers few examples. It might be the case that his own philosophy can be seen as another option in some great philosophical diagram, which has also produced the specific works by philosophers he admires -- like Spinoza and Nietzsche (who are not normally seen as very similar at the specific level, I gather). Deleuze (1995: 6) himself is famously vulgar about his relation to the philosophers he studied:

I suppose the main way I coped with it at the time was to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking a philosopher from behind and giving him a child; it would be his own offspring, yet monstrous’.  He cites his book on Bergson as an example of how he included ‘all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations and hidden emissions’.

The language of diagrams and multiplicities is also used specifically in Deleuze's (1999) work on Foucualt, however. Briefly, the argument goes that Foucault was not being at all contradictory or inconsistent when he wrote about knowledge on the one hand in one book (Archaeology of Knowledge-- I have some notes) , and disciplinary institutions in a later book (Discipline and Punish -- notes here). Specifically, a lot of people have seen him as waffling horribly about whether a discourse is just language and, if so, what the relation is to non-discursive 'reality', which includes the power to force people to do things without invoking any discourses. He was alluding to an underlying  multiplicity which produces combinations of both knowledge and power-laden institutions, says Deleuze. The multiplicity offers all possible combinations and a process that brings about specific and actual combinations  (in very complex ways which you will have to read for yourselves). The abstract possibilities can be seen as an underlying 'diagram'. Foucault got to that insight by identifying singularities in knowledge -- statements, not normal linguistic units like words or phrases,and his method for getting to those is defined as archaeology. The breakthrough in Disicpline is seeing the importance of 'the visible', that which informs actual arrangements like prison buildings, and other possibilities as well. Deleuze says great writers of ficition can also expose these singularities and multiplcities too --the best examples are in Deleuze (1997).

I have just read Guattari and Rolnik (2008) as well. Mostly the book is rather tedious, rambling and a bit sad in its support for revolutionary movements in Brazil ( and Solidarity in Poland!), but a couple of excellent clarifications on psychoanalysis from Guattari, including a most esxtended critique yet of Lacan. He also suggests that the Freudian Unconscious can be best seen as an assemblage of various subjectivation processes (or a multiplicity amd that all the schools of Freudianism are right while none of them is sufficient on its own. Clever! To be fair he also has a couple of throwaways about how schools constrain the creativity of children -- but only the usual liberal stuff I think.

Deleuze’s mission also leads to reluctance to engage in conversations with other philosophers (except his chosen collaborators) who might distract him: ‘philosophers have very little time for discussion...when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous' (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 28). Those who advocate debate and communication are often inspired by ressentiment, and ‘speak only of themselves when they set empty generalisations against one another' (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 29). 

 Deleuze admits that to escape all social constraint would be to risk personal chaos in the form of madness or self-harm, and he admires the artists who have pursued that route to that conclusion (Scott Fitzgerald, for example). Deleuze’s own style offers a series of experiments, first appearing in the odd serial structure of Logic of Sense (Deleuze 1990). Further experimentation produced a free exposition of associated ideas, especially in the better known works of Deleuze and Guattari.  They wrote ‘this book [Thousand Plateaus] as a rhizome’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 24) and as illustrating délire: ‘exactly to go off the rails’ (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 40). Given the rejection of conventional thinking this is fully explicable, but the result can appear as a ‘private language’.  Sociologists might also be able to detect some unacknowledged social elements which persist, as we shall see.

We cannot opt for Deleuze on the basis of any agreed ground for his work: Deleuze tells us that in conventional thinking ‘good sense’ or ‘common sense’ grounds philosophy, but this will not do for really radical philosophising. However, anyone following his arduous path will encounter the deep and groundless contingency of the ‘eternal return’: connecting ‘the individual, [this] ground and thought’ (Deleuze, 2004: 191) ends in madness or melancholy.

Instead, we should choose Deleuze’s work according to ‘philosophical taste’: ‘it is certainly not for “rational or reasonable” reasons that a particular concept is created’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 78).  This ‘faculty of taste… is ... instinctive’ (1994: 79).  Rather than developing knowledge or truth, ‘it is categories like Interesting, Remarkable, or Important that determine success or failure... Only [mere] teachers can write “false” in the margins, perhaps’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994:  82, original capitalisation). Bourdieu’s critique of taste clearly seems applicable here too.

The notion of the eternal return is a difficult one, and Deleuze refers us to Nietzsche, or to particular readings of  Nietzsche.  We can understand it perhaps if we remember that Deleuze wants to give no room to repetition in its normal senses.  So some people have seen life as repeating itself, may be going through various circles.  Others have seen life as proceeding in a straight line from past to future, may be in the form of evolution.  Deleuze wants to insist that there is a line that connect events in the past present and future, but it is not a circle nor a simple straight line.  Instead it is characterised by random shifts of direction, arising from chance events.  It is contingent, unpredictable, or ’aleatory’.  Nevertheless, there is something that remains consistent in the background, and that is the generation of differences.  It is the process of generating difference that endlessly and eternally returns, while the actual specific objects and events that are produced on the line are chronically likely to appear then disappear, change and combine, but never return.

If we are allowed to vulgarize the concept like this, there are clearly implications for the social and human sciences—I’m going to consider sociology in particular.  So far, we have seen how Deleuze denies the relevance of empirical studies in sociology, which search for empty generalisations.  They do this by normalising, treating exceptions as mere deviations from some general law.  As far as I know, however, this is never been a major trend in modern sociology, although it still persists, and might even be gaining ground as the government seems to like empirical generalisations.  Nevertheless, social theory has always done more than just generalise: at its best, it tries to discover underlying social forces, currents or ‘social facts’ that produce the empirical.  To revert to Deleuze’s example of singularities discussed above, social theory has always tried to show how the same underlying social currents, variously described as rationalisation, modernity, advanced capitalism and so on have produced a variety of individuals, all of them unique in one sense.  Now I know that Deleuze denies the relevance of this concept of individual, and prefers the term singularity, probably so there he can include much wider areas of reality than just social reality, but I think that social theory is not that far away.

The same goes for the eternal return.  The only alternatives seem to be simple duplication or unidirectional change, but social theory has offered another concept—social reproduction.  This involves not just copying the same institutions from one generation to another, but copying them in a form that permits adaptation to new conditions, a kind of dynamic reproduction.  This sort of reproduction of empirical events and institutions is precisely what is ignored by Deleuze, in favour of some philosophical mechanism where actual singularities or institutions emerge from virtual processes, then fade and die until new singularities or institutions emerge again.  Once they’ve been actualized, institutions seem to have no life of their own at all, except in that they help us grasp the virtual processes that produce them.

I suppose it is inevitable that a French militant would also think of marxism as having replaced sociology. Deleuze and Guattari tend to see marxism as simply economic determinist, so it can be dismissed as pretty unsubtle and uncomplicated. Only rarely is real modern marxism discussed. When Guattari tried to explain how subjectivation occurs in social formations (how individuals are manipulated while thinking it is all their own choice), he develops pretty standard cultural marxism, though.

In Deleuze (2004) we get back briefly to something like the notion of multiplicities explaining singularities when discussing a marxist popular at the time -- Louis Althusser. Marx’s notion of abstract labour approaches the status of the social Idea (or concept) which can be used to describe different societies as differential relations between specific elements including production and property relations.  Individuals appear as ‘bearers of labour power or representatives of property’ (2004: 234).  The economic instance (or system) is a social multiplicity comprising these different relations which gets incarnated and differenciated into determinate societies and real relations. Deleuze spells 'differenciated' with a c to refer to an empirical process of  developing difference, as things evolve or develop for example. ‘Althusser and his collaborators are, therefore, profoundly correct in showing the presence of a genuine structure in Capital and in rejecting historicist interpretations of Marxism, since this structure never acts transitively, following the order of succession in time; rather, it acts by incarnating its varieties in diverse societies…  That is why “the economic” is never given properly speaking, but rather designates a differential virtuality to be interpreted, always covered over by its forms of actualizations; a theme or “problematic” always covered over by its cases of solution’ (2004: 234-5).  The economic in this general sense, needs to be grasped, despite its disguises offered by specific forms of economic organization -- types of capitalism for example. The economic multiplicity is the source of all the important problems given society, even though solutions may take political or ideological forms, which seem to have nothing to do with the economic. Solutions can involve cruelty and oppression as well as political reform and welfare states. Deleuze cites in support Marx’s formulation (in Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) that “mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve”. 


In my view, sociology offers much more useful and practical  insight into the actual empirical processes going on in, say, schools than Deleuzian philosophy or Althusserian marxism does.  Deleuze's project does help us to dereify existing forms, like a lot of other radical theorising does.  We come to see the existing system as not natural or inevitable, but as the result of specific combinations of forces.  We can then withdraw our consent and think of alternative specific combinations.  I don’t know if we have to buy the whole Deleuzian package, though, and philosophically dissolve what exists back into the multiplicity, and struggled to realise another actual possibility.  This might be fun and personally liberating, as we attempt to ‘become’ other people, animals or objects, but it is a crap form of politics in my view which will never be done with philosophising.



Delanda, M.  (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, London: Continuum (notes here)

Deleuze, G. (1990). The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia University Press. (my online notes here)

Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press. (notes).

Deleuze, G.  (1997). Essays critical and clinical, Daniel Smith and Michael Greco (Trans).  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (notes here)

Deleuze, G. (1999) Foucault. London: Continuum. (notes here)

Deleuze, G. (2004). Difference and Repetition. London: Continuum Publishing Group.(notes here)

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1994).  What is Philosophy? London: Verso Books. (notes here)

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004).  A Thousand Plateaus, London: Continuum. (notes here)

Deleuze, G. & Parnet, C. (1987).  Dialogues. London: The Athlone Press. (notes here)

Guattari, F and Rolnik, S. (2008) Molecular Revolution in Brazil. London: MIT Press. (notes coming)