Fiction & Madness in David Hume’s Philosophy

What role do fiction and madness play in David Hume’s work? Gilles Deleuze proposed an interesting interpretation of the Scottish philosopher’s ideas.

Feb 7, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

david hume philosophy fiction madness


What did David Hume believe about the limitations of reason? In this article, we will explore the interpretation and extension of Hume’s approach to fiction offered by Gilles Deleuze, in his Empiricism and Subjectivity, a monograph on Hume’s work and in particular his theory of mind and its consequences.


Deleuze’s monograph begins by setting out one reading of Hume which has proven fairly influential among English speaking philosophers – it represents Hume as the standard bearer for a kind of basic naturalism, something rather like a philosophy of common sense. This concept which has proven repeatedly influential among British and certain American philosophers, much to the bemusement of many others.


It then examines the role that fiction, or rather fictions, play in Hume’s philosophy, and how they unravel this quite straightforward conception of Hume’s thought. Lastly, this article considers the consequences of deeming reason as insufficient, by setting out Deleuze’s view and then offering a couple of counterarguments.


The Role of Imagination in David Hume’s Philosophy

david hume lithograph
A lithograph of David Hume by Antoine Maurin,1820, via the NYPL Digital Collections.


If we are interested in offering an interpretation of the Humean account of belief, then we must begin with an intimately related concept – that of the imagination. Hume, quite famously, holds our imagination to be an insecure, changeable place. If we wish to use a spatial metaphor, Hume’s conception of the imagination lacks a core – this is more generally true for Hume’s theory of mind and self.

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The imagination indeed, at certain points, appears to subsume the very concept of the mind, and become the definitive concept by which Hume understands mental life.


Deleuze explains this facet of Hume’s philosophy as follows::


 “Hume never ceases to affirm the identity between the mind, the imagination, and the idea. The mind is not nature, nor does it have a nature […] The collection of ideas is called ‘imagination’ insofar as this term designates not a faculty but rather a set, a set of things in the vaguest sense of the term, which are as they appear—a collection without an album, a play without a stage, a flux of perceptions.”


Empiricism, Habits and Reason 

allan ramsay hume painting
Portrait of David Hume as a young man, Allan Ramsey, 1754, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland.


Hume believes that everything which happens in our minds – every thought, every feeling, every intention, every belief – originates in simple perceptions, which are directly replicated in simple ideas by which more sophisticated ideas are constituted. This is the crux of Hume’s empiricism: everything we can know, believe, or think originates in perception.


As this suggests, Hume conceives of the mind as disorganized, insofar as it is constituted by undifferentiated, simple perceptions. Yet this view has to be qualified or seen in light of another dimension of the mind – these are the ‘principles of association’, or habitual modes of organization, rather than structures inscribed in perception itself.


Deleuze understands these in the following way: “The principles of association establish natural relations among ideas, forming an entire network similar to a system of channels inside the mind.”


Habit and Warrant

hieronymous bosch folly painting
Extracting the Stone of Madness by Hieronymous Bosch, between 1494 and 1516, via Museo del Prado.


The point, straightforwardly, is that these principles allow us to no longer, “move accidentally from one idea to another.” Because certain habits are, in fact, bad habits, what Hume calls reason amounts to our capacity to correct certain beliefs. It is a kind of feeling, a sense of incongruity, and is never more than probabilistic because habits are ungrounded beyond their continued success or usefulness.


The warrant for belief is not developed from any structural criterion – it has to do with distinguishing what Deleuze calls ‘fictitious causalities’, or the appearance of cumulative structure where there really is none.


If we were to stop our assessment of Hume’s philosophy here, we would be left with quite a respectable, straightforward naturalism, establishing the independence of the world from the structure of thought yet affirming our ability to apprehend it directly (and jettison faulty beliefs along the way).


Profound Fictions

wojtkiewicz circus of madmen
Circus of Madmen by Witold Wojtkiewicz, 1906, via National Museum in Warsaw.


What Deleuze emphasizes, and what constitutes one of the major innovations of his interpretation of Hume, is that certain beliefs cannot be simply discharged by the application of reason.


Indeed, this category of beliefs happens to include some of our most important beliefs. Deleuze lists four: the world as a whole, God, the object, and purpose or finality (we could call this freedom). The problem seems to be that we can’t live with or without these beliefs. We can’t accept belief in, say, the world as a whole given that it is something that we never experience and we have no point of comparison by which to draw analogy to or from it.


Yet, many of our beliefs seem to presuppose belief in a totality of things. Indeed such a concept seems to be very basic to any assertion of the existence or non-existence of something (whether it is or isn’t a feature of the world), to resolving questions of monism – the theory that there exists only one thing – and variation, i.e. the question of whether there are many objects or just one object in the world, along with a plethora of other very basic philosophical questions.


The Limits of Reason 

allan ramsey hume oil painting
A portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1766, via National Galleries of Scotland.


“Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”


Is this Hume’s way of saying, ‘I give up, and perhaps you should too?’ Perhaps, but only if we take it that ‘simple naturalism’ is the natural consequence of Hume’s system as a given. Maybe, once we move beyond reason in itself, and start to see the instrumental or external orientation of reason as the place where it is most at home, we are capable of solving some of these worries.


Reason and the Social World 

treatise hume cover
Front cover of an early edition of ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, 1739, from Wikimedia Commons.


What Deleuze encourages us to do is to recognise that these fictional beliefs are not so much a bug in Hume’s system as they are a feature. They open up the possibility that, as Jon Roffe argues:


“The actual response to the threat of fictional beliefs is to see that the real criteria for belief and the application of reason is not found at the level of belief or reason itself. It is instead found in the practical context of social life.”


Strange things happen when we start trying to make reason function without reference to anything that exists outside of it. Deleuze has it thus: “‘reason can always be brought to bear, but it is brought to bear on a pre-existing world and presupposes an antecedent morality and an order of ends”. This is why Hume claims that, “‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”, and what Deleuze claims is the ‘principle sentence of the Treatise’:


“Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”


One Criticism: Are Passion and Reason Really Distinct in David Hume’s Philosophy?

david hume memorial statue edinburgh
A photograph of the memorial statue to David Hume in Edinburgh, 2019, from Wikimedia Commons.


The relationship between pure reason, action and the pre-existing (social) world obviously requires a far more extensive and subtler treatment than there is space to give it here. However, it is worth raising, even if only in part, one plausible objection. This is not an objection to the ‘rightness’ of Deleuze’s interpretation as an interpretation of Hume, but the rightness of the interpretation as a philosophical theory.


gilles deleuze black white photograph
A photograph of Gilles Deleuze in the 1990s, published 2022, from Wikimedia Commons.


The first is to do with the fixity of the passions; whether we distinguish what we call reason from those elements of our minds which are passionate. Hume, as Deleuze points out, doesn’t distinguish reason from sentiment – indeed, reason is taken to be a kind of feeling, specifically one of incongruity. It seems quite possible that a Humean conception of reason bears at least a familial resemblance to distinctly passional or passion-adjacent sensations – that of uncanniness, of strangeness, and of weirdness.


But perhaps Deleuze doesn’t mean to propose a strict distinction at all, and is concerned with our tendency to isolate reason (one part of our whole mental lives). Because of this, he attempts to resolve the problems raised within it with proper attention to the full context in which it functions within our own minds and within the societies in which we live.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.