- transcendental empiricism + politics
- ---- by Bruce BaughDeleuze often quoted Alfred North Whitehead's dictum that the abstract does not explain, but needs to be explained. This thought stands at the basis of both Deleuze's transcendental empiricism that searches for the real conditions of actual experience rather than for the abstract conditions of any possible experience, and of his politics. Empiricism wants to hold onto the concrete richness of experience, and to resist abstract universals by insisting on the situated and historical nature of the conditions of experience. Deleuzian politics likewise insists on the singularity of experiences and practices, rather than merely seeing these as either instances of some universal rule or exceptions to the rule. Yet, in contrast with classical empiricism and liberalism, transcendental empiricism holds that the empirical is not composed of discrete givens, but of concrete particulars (individuals, groups) defined by the history of their contingent and actual relations with other beings. Against idealism and Marxism, transcendental empiricism sees all supposedly necessary universals and structures as being either causally or logically dependent on contingent particulars, and thus as themselves contingent.Classical empiricism (John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume) holds that universal class terms, predicates and relations ('dog', 'black', 'next to') are derived through abstraction from particular experiences, and linked together through habits of association based on the 'constant conjunction' of those experiences; unlike in Plato, universals have no independent standing, and particulars do not depend on universals. Classical liberalism (Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill and John Locke) similarly holds that aggregates such as 'society' and 'the State' are nothing over and above the individuals which compose them, and so are dependent on individuals, rather than the reverse. The 'independence' of individuals in classical liberal theory is the basis of its demand for individual rights and liberty, understood as freedom from the coercion of society or the State.Although Deleuze agrees that the universal depends on the particular, he rejects the 'atomism' of experiences and of individuals. For Deleuze, sensations are not 'givens', but must be explained by conditions involving a complex and mostly unconscious set of relations among different bodies' powers of acting and reacting. Similarly, individuals are conditioned not just by other individuals with whom they interact, but by factors common to all of them (language, social relations, biological structures, technology). Liberalism's 'individual' is superseded by what Deleuze calls an 'assemblage' (agencement): a conjunction of a number of persons, forces and circumstances, capable of its own collective experiences and actions. Rather than the rights and liberties of individuals, power or agency is the prime concern of Deleuzian politics. Rather than universal principles being the criteria by which practices are evaluated, practices are judged entirely with respect to whether their effects increase or decrease someone's or something's power of acting. Principles emerge as a reﬂection on how much certain practices increase or decrease agency, as an a posteriori generalisation, rather than an a priori necessary condition.Like Deleuze, Marxism also argues that social relations - particularly economic relations - condition individual experience and agency. Yet, unlike classical Marxism, Deleuze does not believe that 'classes' are basic units of analysis, or that the economic base is more fundamental than the ideological superstructure. Social and economic structures, forms of thought, norms of action, are all produced through particular and contingent conjunctions of desires, actions and affects, and are all part of an assemblage in which each element is conditioned by all the others. 'Classes' are abstract in relation to assemblages that are not just subdivisions within classes, but can cut across different socio-economic classes. To some extent, classical Marxism retains the precedence of abstract universals over singular assemblages that - whether the universal be a class, a party, the State or history - suppresses creativity and blocks the emergence of the new. Subjection to higher universals cuts off assemblages from their power and is always reactive.Transcendental empiricism would be the basis of a politics of positive individuality and difference, valorising agency and creative power, but mindful of the oppressive conditioning of individuals and our voluntary servitude to universal norms.
The Deleuze Dictionary. Revised Edition. Edited by Adrian Parr . 2015.