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Life as Art

Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism, Part 1

To experience reality and thought that overflows.

Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Deleuze the Empiricist

Given his stress on the primacy of immanence, it should come as no surprise that Deleuze considered himself an empiricist. But he brings to this line of thought his own interpretation of what empiricism means:

I have always felt that I am an empiricist, that is, a pluralist. But what does this equivalence between empiricism and pluralism mean? It derives from the two characteristics by which Whitehead defined empiricism: the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained; and the aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced (creativeness).

Empiricism is not cast simply in terms of all knowledge being derived from the senses, and the rejection of innate ideas. For Deleuze, this is only the first moment of the rejection of transcendence. His work goes further and rejects all notions that ascendent reason is an a priori privileged way of relating to the world.

Empiricism necessarily involves creation, creativity:

Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard.

David Hume

Hume asserted that philosophy must begin with the immediate given: that real conscious awareness need not presuppose intelligible categories; that the intelligible is derived from the sensible.

Our interpretation of experience is nothing more than sense and habit, belief and association. Experience is atomistic, a perpetual flux of perceptions; and it is associative insofar as differences in perceptions communicate with one another in an unmediated manner.

There are no prefigured rational controls governing experience.

The sensible and the intelligible are generated in the same field.


Deleuze takes this approach a step further by arguing that as a consequence there is nothing transcendent about our self-awareness: the unifying processes that create the unified self are nothing more than the natural forces in which and of which we are formed. Human habits and beliefs are immanent to who we are and not derived from laws transcendent to the field of experience.

Thought is of the field of experience, created by it, participating in it. And once we clear the way for seeing it as such, we clear the way to free our own creative thought that participates in the immanent field in which we are immersed.

It is only when we attempt to remove the intelligible from the immanent field, via transcendent laws or principles of truth or knowledge, that we cut off the force of free, creative thought.

There is no united “I” which stands before experience, but only moments of experience, unattached and meaningless without any necessary relation to each other. No relation is necessary, or governed by transcendent laws. Every relation is local, spontaneous, passionate, creative.

The Logic of Relations

Such thought is thought that, following Hume, considers all relations as external to their terms. The logic of relations is not governed by transcendent principles of reason; it must be found in the empirical.

Deleuze will posit that relations must be thought of in terms of becoming; relations are changing, transitive. And taking this to the limit, if every relation implies change, then the terms themselves are only packets of relations. On a deeper level, the terms fall away, and relations are all there is.

Substance dissolves and pure temporal relations become the stuff of experience.

Reality Overflows

Reality overflows: desire and passion overflow under pure creative thought. Relations rise and fall, evolve in a process in continual flux. And a process characterized by infinite differential relations that are external to their terms, taken to the limit, determines the terms.

A process of infinite changing relations is primary; the terms that are related are secondary. Difference constitutes identity, not the other way around. And only thought that immerses itself in these ontological processes, confronts the uncertainty, change and chaos of reality, can endure direct encounters with pure intensity; can lead to anything remarkable.

Transcendent vs. Transcendental

To the search for the genetic conditions of real experience, and the positing of a principle of difference as the fulfillment of this condition, Deleuze applies the (at first glance) paradoxical term, “transcendental empiricism.”

Deleuze, as an empiricist, affirms that all thought (and reality) is based in the immanent. There are no principles of reason, nor a reasoning subject, that are or is transcendent of our experience. Everything is of, and must be explained within, the one and only immanent field of experience.

So why the term “transcendental”?

The use of the term “transcendental” as opposed to “transcendent” in the history of philosophy is the source of confusion here. Kant termed his critique transcendental insofar as it is a philosophy that critiques the pretensions of other philosophies to transcend experience. It is a methodology for providing strict criteria for the use of syntheses immanent to experience.

Deleuze adopts Kant’s critical approach, but views Kant as not going far enough, allowing transcendence to slip back in via the transcendent subject.

Deleuze approaches his philosophy of difference in the same manner as Kant, but bases his critique of the transcendent firmly in the immanent:

Empiricism truly becomes transcendental… only when we apprehend directly in the sensible that which can only be sensed, the very being of the sensible; difference, potential difference and difference in intensity as the reason behind qualitative diversity.

Transcendental empiricism is concerned with what is immanent to the empirical. What he refers to as “transcendental” are the immanent thought processes that generate our experience of the real.

Encounter with Intensity

Rather than grasp at transcendent truths and paper over metaphysical flux with categories of identity, Deleuze proposes that genuine thinking begins in a violent confrontation with reality, and an involuntary rupture of any established categories of identity:

The conditions of a true critique and a true creation are the same: the destruction of an image of thought which it presupposes itself and the genesis of the act of thinking in thought itself. Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter.

He refers to this violent confrontation as an “encounter with intensity.” Pure difference in intensity is grasped immediately in the encounter with that which can only be sensed.

Experience Overflows

For Deleuze, not only does the world overflow any categories of being we might base in an ontological theory of identity, our experience of the world overflows and exceeds any epistemological concepts based in identity we might propose.

The world and our most simple and direct experience of it is one of endless, unpredictable change, one of pure metaphysical flux. The world exceeds any static concept we might hold up to it by presenting us with novelty.

To grasp an overflowing reality we must be willing to embrace thought that overflows categories: thought that is remarkable.

In the immanent field, there is more than the eye can see in a snapshot in time. The generation of thought is not of another world: it is an immanent process that strikes with the encounter; transcendental but not transcendent.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!


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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.



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Tomas Byrne

Tomas Byrne

Jagged Tracks Music, Process Philosophy, Progressive Ethics, Transformative Political Theory, Informed Thrillers, XLawyer