Deleuze & Hume on Ethics and Knowledge: 3 Important Arguments

Deleuze’s reading of Hume attempts to mediate the various connections between knowledge and ethics in Hume’s work, and to develop a coherent picture of their reconciliation

Mar 14, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

deleuze hume ethics knowledge


What is the relationship between what we know and how we should act? How do knowledge and activity relate to one another? In Deleuze’s study of David Hume, entitled Empiricism and Subjectivity, it is the relationship between the realm of ethics and knowledge, between theory and passion, that takes center stage. Deleuze’s reading of Hume as both a great philosopher and a great theorizer of society and morality means that he is bound to find points of convergence between these two areas.


The attempt at connecting these two domains is made all the more difficult by the fact that Hume is famous for arguing about the necessity of maintaining a clear distinction between the two realms; between what is, and what ought to be. This article studies Deleuze’s engagement with these aspects of Humean thought by focusing on three important areas of argument. First, to do with the temporal priority of social understanding and the role of passion. Secondly, to do with Hume’s theory of mind. Lastly, to do with the paradoxical relationship between ‘atomism’ and ‘associationism’ in Hume’s thought.


1. Deleuze’s Starting Point: Hume as a “Moralist” and “Sociologist”

deleuze photograph black white
A photograph of Gilles Deleuze, 1990s, via Wikimedia Commons


Here is the first sentence of Empiricism and Subjectivity: “Hume proposes the creation of a science of humanity, but what is really his fundamental project?”. Deleuze begins with Hume’s own characterization of his philosophical project – the creation of the science of humanity – whilst noting that the aim of this project is in itself ambiguous. He then argues that, given a ‘choice is always defined in terms of what it excludes’, what Hume’s project is taken to exclude is a ‘psychology of mind’ – which is impossible, because such a  psychology would not find anything of the ‘required constancy or universality’ – and in its place insert a ‘psychology of the minds affections’, which is the only thing ‘capable of constituting the true science of humanity’.


time unveiling truth painting
Time Unveiling Truth, Giovanni Batista Tiepolo, c.1758, via Wikimedia Commons


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Deleuze then claims that Hume is ‘essentially a moralist and a sociologist before being a psychologist’, because it is shown in the Treatise that the two forms of affection are the passional – taken here to correspond with the field of the moralist – and the social – the field of the sociologist. These two forms of affection ‘imply each other’ – this is what secures the coherence of the minds affection as an object of scientific enquiry. Society demands reactions from individuals, and the passions implicate society as the means of their satisfaction.


There is a kind of strange circularity in which – ‘society demands and expects from its members the displays of constant reactions, the presence of passions capable of providing motives and ends’ and yet ‘the passions implicate society as the oblique means of their satisfaction’. In other words, we are to be conceived of as individuals, the affections of whose mind can be taken in isolation, and yet these affections are fundamentally orientated towards the social insofar as the satisfaction of our ends always implicates society.


2. Hume’s Theory of Mind: The Relationship Between the Passional and the Social

passion painting wood
Coronation of the Virgin with donors, Anon, 1464, via Wikimedia Commons


Deleuze then adds that we can see further evidence of the unity of the passional and the social by observing historians, who largely study forms of social institution and organization but describe change in terms of motive and action. Deleuze further claims that history serves to demonstrate the ‘uniformity’ of the human passions.


For Hume, the affections – both passional and social – are only a part of human nature. They sit alongside the understanding and the association of ideas. Deleuze claims that, for Hume, the ‘real role of the understanding’ is to make the passions and interests (which one can only presume are derived from the passions) social. That is, Hume’s project is about how we can reconcile the passionate individual to a place in a functional (or, at least, non-violent) social order.


hume statue edinburgh
Statue of David Hume in Edinburgh, 1995, via Wikimedia Commons


“Hume constantly affirms the identity between the mind, the imagination, and ideas”. Deleuze observes that the mind should not be seen as regulative with respect to our ideas (all of which are derived from experience – simple ideas directly so, and complicated ideas are composed of simple ones), but merely a collection of them. We can call this the imagination just because this is an assemblage, a ‘play without a stage’, a ‘flux of perceptions’, rather than a faculty.


Deleuze is at pains to stress that, in our mind/imagination, things are neither produced or organized, but merely happen. The activity of the imagination is the movement of ideas – nothing new is created, including any overarching order. “The depth of mind is indeed delirium or – the same thing from another point of view – change and indifference”. The only stability we find in the imagination is in the way in which ideas are associated, which happens according to three principles: ‘contiguity, resemblance, and causality’.


great deal human nature man
Great Deal of Human Nature in Man, Alfred Jacob Miller, between 1825-1870, via Wikimedia Commons


It is the principles of association which not only provide the necessary stability within the mind to talk about subjects, but allow the subject to go beyond what is given in experience. It is the product of these principles which can transcend that which is given (that is, the ideas which are given in experience). Causality is the principle of association which gives objects (or rather, our ideas which are formed from our impressions/perceptions of objects)  a ‘solidity and an objectivity’ they would not otherwise have possessed.


These principles are essential to the notion of belief, insofar as they ‘naturalize’ the mind – they make it a plausible object of enquiry. “The imagination is indeed human nature, but only to the extent that other principles [the principles of association] have made it constant and settled”. Deleuze clarifies that this view of the creation of human nature by these principles should be taken as an effect, not a cause, and so does not need to be rationalized as a cause: we do not need a reason for things to be this way.


3. Association and Atomism: Deleuze’s Individuation of a Paradox in Hume

painting david hume
Portrait of David Hume, Allan Ramsay, 1754, via the National Galleries of Scotland


There are three effects of the principles of association. First, an idea represents all the other ideas which are associated with it – this is the ‘general idea’. Second, a set of ideas in the mind acquires a kind of internal consistency or regularity – here Deleuze quotes Hume thus: “nature in a manner point[s] out to everyone those simple ideas, which are most proper to be united in a complex one” – this is the creation of a ‘substance’ or a ‘mode’. Last, one idea can precede and ‘introduce’ another idea; this is the ‘relation’. This constitutes, in all three cases, the creation of a tendency – the smooth passage from one idea to another.


Deleuze is at pains to stress that no new ideas are created here – these principles of association are not ideas. Constituting the mind in terms of these principles of association has the effect of constituting the mind in a distinctly passive way.


“Relations are not doing the connecting, but rather they themselves are connected; causality, for example, is passion, an impression of resemblance, and a ‘resemblance effect’. Causality is felt”.


These relations are in the subject only by virtue of the subject contemplating, not acting. This is the root of what is paradoxical in Hume – in other words, that which is at odds with the orthodox interpretation of Hume offered by Kant among others.


“The coherent paradox of Hume’s philosophy is that it offers a subjectivity which transcends itself without becoming any less passive. Subjectivity is determined as an effect; it is in fact an impression of reflection. The mind, having been effected by the principles, turns now into a subject”.


hume painting allan ramsay
David Hume, 1711 – 1776. Historian and philosopher, Allan Ramsay, 1766, via the National Galleries of Scotland


We will conclude by explaining the contradiction Deleuze identifies at the heart of Hume’s thought. Deleuze observes that one of the main paradoxes of Hume’s thought – on any interpretation – is that nature should be studied in terms of how it effects the mind, and yet the only true science of the mind should have nature as its subject. Quoting Hume: ‘human nature is the only science of man’.


Deleuze’s attempt to resolve this is to suggest that Hume’s work contains the ‘unequal development of two lines of diverse inspiration’. First, there is Hume’s atomism – a philosophy of ideas, simple individual elements. Second, there is Hume’s associationism, a study of dispositions which is distinctly humanistic. On this latter view, the psychology of human nature includes a study of morality, politics and history. The point of atomism is to clarify that a psychology of the mind is impossible – the affections preclude it.

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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.