Gilles Deleuze: Hume and Subjectivity

As Deleuze breaks down the components of Hume’s philosophical system into its differing layers he exposes the specificity of subjectivity as an effect: “it is in fact an impression of reflection“(26).1 He qualifies this stating: “When Hume speaks of an act of the mind – of a disposition – he does not mean to say that the mind is active but that it is activated and that it has become subject” (26). Many terms have been used to describe what Hume means by dispositions: ‘power’ (Locke’s term), ‘dunamis’ (Aristotle’s term), ‘ability’, ‘potency’, ‘capability’, ‘tendency’, ‘potentiality’, ‘proclivity’, ‘capacity’, and so forth. This sense of power or disposition according to Deleuze is termed a tendency. As he tells us in another passage the effect of association in the mind appears in three ways: first, through resemblance an idea has the capacity or power to represent all the ideas it is associated with; second, is the notion of substance and mode: the unity of ideas in the mind form a regularity they did not previously have; and, third, the notion of relation, that one idea can introduce another.(25) As Steven Mumford states it:

Hume knew of the causal powers view as an alternative to his own. But he thought that such a view would mean that causes had to necessitate their effects. If there is a power for a certain effect , he argued, it would mean that it had to produce its effect when it operated. But this need not be the position. A power might only dispose towards a certain effect. There can be cases where it succeeds in producing that effect, but in other cases it could be prevented from doing its job. The effects that we see around us are often the result of many different factors working together. When a paper aeroplane is thrown, for instance , its trajectory is determined by its aerodynamic shape but also gravity, gusts of wind, electrostatic attractions and repulsions, and so on. It could be that some of those factors dispose it in one direction while others dispose it in an opposite one.2

Deleuze makes a key point regarding Hume’s study of Human Nature as a “science”. The first concerns Hume’s atomism, the notion that the psychology of mind is a psychology of ideas, of “simple elements, of minima or indivisibles” (26). Such notions as he explores in his system of understanding concerning such ideas as “space and time”. The second concerns his psychology of dispositions that Deleuze likens to an anthropology, “a science of practice, especially morality, politics, and history” (27). The point of the atomization of ideas Deleuze tells us is that for Hume there can be no atomistic psychology, therefore he affirms the truth as well that there can be no psychology of mind. As Deleuze argues this is why all “serious writers agree on the impossibility of a psychology of the mind” (27). He continues: “[t]his is why they criticize so meticulously every single identification between consciousness and knowledge. They differ only in the way they determine the factors which give a nature to the mind” (27-28). In this he alludes to the notions of the mind-body debates that are still carried on in our contemporary settings. As he tells us sometimes the shift moves toward the body or matter, at other times the factors concern specific principles that replace the body or matter in which psychology finds its “unique, and possible object and its scientific condition” (28). Hume takes this second path: the notion of the principles of association. This is Deleuze reminds us where Hume’s ambiguous relationship to materialism comes to the fore.

Deleuze sums up the Humean project as the problem of subjectivity, that Hume’s basic question is one of empirical proof: “how does the mind become a nature?” He tells us that Hume starts with the impossible contradiction of the idea itself: “Show me the idea you claim to have.” As he states it:

What’s at stake in the challenge is the very psychology of mind. In fact, the given and experience have now two inverse meanings. The given is the idea as it is given in the mind, without anything transcending it – not even the mind, which is therefore identical with the idea. But, the transcendence itself is also given, in an altogether different sense and manner – it is given in practice, as an affection of the mind, and as an impression of reflection: passion, says Hume, does not have to be defined: by the same token, belief is a je ne sais quoi adequately felt by everyone. (28-29)

Deleuze next gives us an argument against the essentialism of subjectivity: “Empirical subjectivity is constituted in the mind under the influence of principles affecting it; the mind therefore does not have the characteristics of a preexisting subject” (29). True psychology, he tells us, is of the affections as well as a critique of the false psychology of the mind; in fact, as he states it, the “latter is incapable of grasping without contradiction the constitutive element of human reality” (29).

At this point he asks: Why is it finally necessary  that philosophy undertake this critique, express the transcendence in an idea, produce the contradiction, and manifest the incompatibility under discussion? The answer: “because the transcendence under discussion is not given in an idea, but is rather referred to the mind; it qualifies the mind” (29). The point of this is the simple fact that we can never have access to the mind(brain) itself, no amount of reflection will ever allow us access to the processes of the mind, it is closed off and we are incapable of reflecting on it, we are, in fact, blind to its processes. But, as Deleuze suggests, we have a negative relation to the ideas which transcend it because within the “structures of transcendence, the mind finds a kind of positivity which comes to it from outside” (29).

Since we do not have access to the mind itself, we turn to the affections it produces: this is the psychology of affections to which Hume refers us, and as Deleuze relates “the psychology of affections becomes the philosophy of the constituted subject” (30). For Hume this is where Rationalism fell into error with its reliance on a theory of representation, and as Deleuze remarks Hume’s philosophy is a “sharp critique of representation” (30). Not being a critique of relations Hume was able to show that it was impossible for representations to represent relations. As Deleuze explains it by “making representations into a criteria and by placing ideas within reason, rationalism expects ideas to stand for something, which cannot be constituted within experience or be given in an idea without contradiction…”(30). Rationalism objectified mental determinations by placing them in external objects, taking away thereby, Deleuze says, “from philosophy the meaning and the intelligibility of practice and the subject” (30).

The Rationalists had fallen into another error Hume tells us, they had equated reason and mind, when in fact “reason is an affection of the mind” (30). It was for this reason that Hume would equate reason with terms such as instinct, habit, or nature.(30) Reason as an affection moves through a cycle of skepticism of reason to a positivism of feeling, in which the latter becomes a reflection of feeling within the qualified mind (30). Ultimately this notion led to a contradiction for Hume, or as Deleuze states it:

We do not really understand how we can move from dispositions to the self, or from the subject to the self. How can the subject and the mind, in the last analysis, be one and the same inside the self? The self must be both a collection of ideas and a disposition, mind and subject. It is a synthesis, which is incomprehensible, since it ties together in its notion, without ever reconciling them, origin and qualification. (31)

Deleuze tells us that Hume would present possible solutions later in his speculations. ( I will have another post, or update this one with those sooner or later)

What’s interesting in this early work is how many threads would be taken up from it time and again by Deleuze altered in form of terminological practice but essentially the same set of notions that led him to understand Hume’s theoretical discourse in the first place. I do not see it mentioned as much in the secondary literature as I do other of his works within the history of philosophy. Either way the notion of the subject as affect, as impression on reflection, an insertion or action that constitutes the subject as non-essentialist but a part of the very processes of the brain, as well as the elision of mind from access to its own processes, all these notions would show up in other works. I’ll add other posts as I have time on Deleuze’s speculations in the history of philosophy that were relevant to his project and problems.

…. follow up: Hume and the Problem of the Self

1. Gilles Deleuze. Empiricism and Subjectivity An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. trans. by Constantin V. Boundas (Columbia University Press, 1991)
2. Mumford, Stephen (2012-08-30). Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 53). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

8 thoughts on “Gilles Deleuze: Hume and Subjectivity

  1. dmf: I’ve had my eye on Pentland for some time now. Fascinating, troubling stuff, treating humans as ISPs rathers than agents. Post-intentional through and through.

    Craig: Excellent post, and pretty much zeroed in on my monster post on the implicit coming up. And all of it fits, not only with BBT, but with the picture of consciousness arising out of a number of labs across the world. This, by the way, is the Deleuze I love; so much better than the faddish Deleuze, who I think chased his desire to come up with ‘theory zingers’ right back into a funky dogmatic rationalism, convincing a generation of grad students to piss away their credibility.


    • Yea, after what I commented to you -about Hume- in another post on your sight I decided to reread this early work (1953) of Deleuze’s. Yet, I’m tempted now to say that Deleuze’s notions of subjectivity did not change that much later on either, he was much more methodical than that. I’m going to trace this down through other works as a pet project. lol Been rereading all of his works for months, now need to refresh even that…

      I do believe much of the secondary literature got it wrong, rather than Deleuze… because for a while I’ve felt that many have either left out this aspect or misread it and ergo, misprisioned his notions of the subject and subjectivity.

      If you’ve read Simondon (whom Deleuze followed in some of his terminological distinctions early on – late sixties ) this same sense of subjectivity even if couched in other terminology: Simondon speaks of pre-individuality and the impersonal and individuation etc. but not in the terms that Freud etc. would.


  2. Looking forward to the followup update to this post/additional post(s) regarding this! Digging Deleuze on Hume WAY more than Meillassoux on Hume.


  3. Pingback: Gilles Deleuze: Hume and the Problem of the Self | noir realism

  4. Pingback: R. Scott Bakker: Why not simply yet another affection, this one dispositionally prone to yelp, ‘Me-me-me!’ | noir realism

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