Gilles Deleuze: On Hume’s Theory of Society

He presents us with a critique of the social contract…

– Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity

About half way through his essay on Hume Cultural World and General Rules Deleuze comes upon the central tenet of Hume’s theory of Society: “the main idea is this: the essence of society is not the law but rather the institution” (45). As he relates it the law is the negative underbelly of society, and that the institution, unlike law, “is not a limitation but rather a model of actions, a veritable enterprise, an invented system of positive means or a positive invention of indirect means” (45-46). Against those political philosophers who base their theories on law rather than the institution he has this to say:

The fault of contractual theories is that they present us with a society whose essence is the law, that is, with a society which has no other objective than to guarantee certain preexisting natural rights and no other origin than the contract (45).

He tells us the problem with such theories is that it is an impossibility for society to guarantee natural rights. Why? Because people enter into society precisely for the simple reason that they do not have preexisting rights natural or otherwise. The notion of institution reverses the usual theories by its insistence that outside the social order only the negative, lack, and need exist. He admits that society has always been an artificial construct, an invented whole or totality, not a natural preexisting entity. At the root of the institution of society is the notion of convention which is an important concept for Hume. As Deleuze reminds us placing “convention at the base of the institution signifies only that the system of means represented by the institution is a system indirect, oblique, and invented – in a word, cultural” (46).

“Society is a set of conventions founded on utility, not a set of obligations founded on a contract” (45). In this view the law is a negative factor whose only job is to limit the institution. The corollary to this is the sense of the legislator not as one who legislates but the one who institutes. In this view the notion of natural law and rights is confounded and overturned, even reversed in the order of practice: “there is no question any longer of the relation between rights and the law, but of needs and institutions” (46). This shift to actions and affects rather than the abstractions of rights and the law informs Hume’s theory of society much as it did his understanding of subjectivity. In fact as Deleuze comments:

This idea implies an entire remodeling of rights and an original vision of the science of humanity, that is, of the new conception of social psychology.(46)

What binds need and the institution is utility. But we must not see in this some form of reductionism Deleuze reminds us. Against any “functionalist” reduction of society to nature, and the explanatory framework in which society is explained by utility, and the institution by drives and needs we must refrain because for Hume a drive is satisfied within the institution not the other way around.(46) Of course this is about social institutions not governmental: in marriage, sexuality is satisfied; in property, greed. (47) The institution is a model, a construct, of possible actions, and because it is it does not “satisfy the drive without also constraining it” (47). There is a double edge in every institution of satisfaction and constraint, a normative extension and regulation.

Again we learn that the drive does not explain the institution, but that it is the “reflection of the drive in the imagination” that does. Just as we learned that subjectivity is an affect, an “impression in reflection”(48). So too we learn that association of the drive in the imagination is revealed “as a veritable production of extremely diverse models: when drives are reflected in an imagination submitted to the principle of association, institutions are determined by the figures traced by the drives according to the circumstances” (49). For this reason Hume does not equate the drives to instincts but to the “reflective drive” in the imagination. As Deleuze states it:

This is the meaning of institution, in its difference from the instincts. We can then conclude that nature and culture, drive and institution, are one to the extent that the one is satisfied by the other; but they are also two insofar as the latter is not explained by the former. (49)

That political philosophy is founded on a sense of Justice goes without saying, but for Hume it is where it is situated that counts. Morality is addressed only to those who exist in the State: it “does not involve the change of human nature but the invention of artificial and objective conditions in order for the bad aspects of this nature not to triumph” (50). Once again the notion of a social contract comes under fire. The notion of founding a government as a promise to the people is erroneous, because the “promise is an effect of the specification of justice, and loyalty, its support”(51). The notion of the promise is not the cause of government but an effect of it. The point for Hume is this, that the state is not charged with representing the general interest of the people, but rather with making the general interest an object of belief (51).

Yet, this brings Hume to another conclusion: that of inequality and scarcity. Because of favorable circumstance and acquisition of properties a new rule must be implemented or enabled to bring about a balance: a rule of political economy. At the center of Hume’s theory is the problem of property. As Deleuze relates it property “presents a problem of quantity: goods are scarce, and they are unstable because they are rare” (53). For Hume society offers a quantitative harmony of economic activities which are mechanically established which is not true of property. Out of this Deleuze formulates Hume’s moral categories and rules as follows:

1. Content of the general rule: the stability of possession.
1.1 Support of the general rule: loyalty to the government
1.2 Complement of the general rule: the prosperity of commerce.

2. Specification of the general rules: immediate possession, occupation, etc.
2.1 Specification of support: long possession, accession, etc.
2.2 Specification of the complement: monetary circulation, capital, etc.

3. Correction of the preceding specification by means of general rules, promise, transfer
3.1 Correction: resistance
3.2 Correction: taxes, state service, etc.

I can see here that Hume and Rousseau would have been enemies. For Hume society was a protection against the brute violence of nature, while for Rousseau society was evil incarnate. Hume unlike the utilitarians that would follow did not reduce ethics to nature, but instead offered the reverse course and saw humans utilizing their native gifts within the artificially fabricated institutions based on a sense of justice and harmony that is mechanically established: wherever disputes arise, in philosophy or common life, the best way to settle the question is by ascertaining, on any side, “…the true interests of mankind.” This is the principle of utility that Hume offered. Outside society humans had no recourse but to the violence of nature.

1. Gilles Deleuze. Empiricism and Subjectivity An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. trans. by Constantin V. Boundas (Columbia University Press, 1991)

9 thoughts on “Gilles Deleuze: On Hume’s Theory of Society

  1. Deleuze’s theory of institutions is really creative. I can’t help but think that he let this line of thought go in the more volatile 1960s (and iirc he hadn’t read marx yet at this point either!). anyway, i find the hume book to be really refreshing!


  2. Pingback: Concerning Non-Violence and Commitment. | Constructive Undoing


        Kleinherenbrink in his translation of Deleuze’s course on Rousseau explains that ‘we know how to legislate, but we do not know what to’. The decision-maker with the question of who should deal with the issue or the particular situation often resorts to deferring the issue to another branch of government leaving the situation unresolved. Applicable here for example, constitutional scholars will argue that

        At the core of constitutional democracies is a complex relationship between the democratic will of a sovereign people and the constitutional framework that purports to represent the people by containing the expression of its will. Courts are continually confronted to balance democratic will and constitutional reason because the constitutional model incorporating the doctrine of the separation of powers, democratic accountability and the promotion and protection of human rights composes an often adversarial binary relation between the courts and the other branches of government resulting in uneven outcomes between democratic will and constitutional reason where in most cases people are put at odds with other people. As such courts continually struggle to define their institutional boundaries as set out in the constitutional text across. This leads to courts deferring a singular relation applicable to specific situation of rights-infringement to the legislature or executive branches of government as a macro-political matter instead of creatively acting upon a singular problematic situation where the established order is called into question. Furthermore, courts remain slow and even static when the established order (our ways of acting and being acted upon) is questioned because of current knowledge apparatus on which legal and political thinking is based. The latter includes institutional boundary setting, legal culture, legal/political history, interpretative approaches and legal conventions.

        Deleuze in his course on Rousseau, explains that one enter into the social contract only with one self and not with the sovereign. He argues that we know how to legislate but we don’t know what to legislate. In this course Deleuze proposes that instead of focusing on organizing our relations with others, we should focus on organizing our relations with things. This can be read to suggest that one needs to organize our collective ways of acting and being acted upon insofar assemblages (anagencement) is triggered by power (pouvoir) where it is in our interest to change current established ways of doing.

        This leave me with MANY QUESTIONS as always.

        In ‘Instincts and Institutions’ in Desert Island and Other Texts, Deleuze argues, ‘the example of an institution like the State, it will be objected, does not have a tendency to which it corresponds’. I understand the problem is not so much institutions but state institutions and formal legally instituted expressions (law) …. ?

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      • True. For Deleuze it was always about the outside, the exterior, the nomadic beyond the State and Law. The State and Law were always part of the interior, the machines of capture that inhibit rather than free desire, etc. His notions of singularity, minoritarian thought, nomadism, etc. lead one to believe he was moving toward a non-statist and non-legalist society. That’s the point of his saying that the only contract is with one’s dividuality, one’s nomadic self – the impersonal or inhuman core. Contracts with the State just trap one, capture one’s desires through Law that regulate and enforce controls on body and mind. His was a movement toward the mental space of nomadism, one that allowed one an absolute localism of nomadic life: enabling the flux of desire even in the in-between of State and Law. Living in the cracks…

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      • One could say that Law as an apparatus of the State is a way of regulating the flows of life in the polis: it striates and filters the citizenry into regulatory spaces of rules that define and delimit both mind and body in the space of the Polis. As they’ll say in Nomadology: “the State never ceases to decompose, recompose, and transform movement, or to regulate the populace (speed, body, etc.) Law as striation, as a mode of enforcement that regulates the movement of the populace, polices them…

        Liked by 1 person

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