Can we be Impartial? Deleuze & Hume on Culture and Partiality

What was David Hume’s theory of society? Gilles Deleuze proposed an enlightening interpretation of the Scottish philosopher’s work.

Feb 22, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
gilles deleuze david hume culture partiality


This article explores part of David Hume’s theory of society. In particular, it focuses on how his analysis of partiality as a natural judgment comes to affect his conception of social and political organization more broadly. We will also consider Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of Hume, and his theorization of politics and morality as the artificial suspension of our natural inclinations. His analysis begins by characterizing the ‘moral conscience’ in Hume, before moving on to explaining the concept of ‘partiality’ and how it differs from simple self-interestedness or selfishness.


Deleuze then moves on to explain how the suppression of this concept defines Hume’s conception of politics, how this relates to the role of violence in politics, and how the imagination becomes one of the central components of creating culture in spite of the ways in which human nature falls short.


Gilles Deleuze on Hume on Moral Conscience 

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


Hume begins with a model of moral conscience as approval and disapproval, and asks how we can generalize this, to ‘abandon the reference to our own point of view’, and ‘make us take hold of something and live in it, because it is useful or agreeable to the Other or to persons in general’.


What follows from this is the paradox of morality. Sympathy must be of an extended kind; it must extend beyond the moment of impression, out into the future. The problem which strikes us is that of excluding all cases where sympathy does not ‘strike us in a lively manner’.


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Natural generosity, for Hume, has clearly inscribed limits. For one thing, sympathy implies partiality. Deleuze shines a light on this point: “One of Hume’s simplest but most important ideas is this: human beings are much less egoistic than they are partial.” Partiality, in this context, means those interests which arise by virtue of ‘belonging to a clan or community’.


Hume’s Theory of the Self

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


We might pause to consider how this all relates to Hume’s theory of self, in which there is no indelible core to selfhood, but rather the product of ever changing, ever mutable, perceptions and ideas which are directly constituted by our simplest perceptions.


One belief which comes under threat from Hume’s conception of the self is that of the separateness of persons; that we are always and absolutely distinct from one another. Does Hume’s focus on partiality, rather than individual or egotistical interests, allow Hume to discharge one potential justification of the absolute separateness of persons in terms of moral conscience? For Hume, our ‘natural’ concerns are focused on those we are closest to, and not just ourselves. In this belief, it is implied that we are not wholly isolated.


Natural Partiality

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


Deleuze emphasizes that partiality at once appears to us quite natural, even necessary –   “we condemn the parents who prefer strangers to their own children” – whilst nonetheless posing real problems for our conception of the social ideal as peaceful and conciliatory:


“No one has the same sympathies as another, given the plurality of partialities, we are confronted with contradiction and violence. This is nature’s course, there is no human language at this level”.


Hume’s approach is set against these natural inclinations, and has at its heart a universalizing motive:


“Every particular man has a peculiar position with regard to others, and it is impossible we could ever converse together on any reasonable terms, we each of us to consider character and persons, only as they appear from his peculiar point of view.”


It is important to note the distinction here between the view that society is composed of different individual interests (in the sense of egoistic or ‘selfish’ interests), and the view Hume expresses, which focuses instead on partialities. As Deleuze says,


“Even if society finds as much of an obstacle in sympathy as in the purest egoism, what changes absolutely is the sense or structure of society itself…Egoisms would have to be limited, but sympathies are another matter, for they must be integrated in a positive totality.”


The Role of Sympathy

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


This is Hume’s criticism of contractarian political theories: that they see political problems in terms of how to limit ego and interests, rather than as a positive set of commitments. We might posit that the failure to acknowledge the role of partiality – that is, our commitments to certain groups – as a motivation in the context of political organization lies behind our failure to explain various nativist or xenophobic movements in recent political history.


As Deleuze points out, the defining characteristic of these groups is that they are exclusionary:


“What we find in nature, without exception, are families…families are social units, but a characteristic of families is that they cannot be added together. Rather, they exclude one another”.


The exception one might point to is that of marriage, but marriage equally seems to be the exception that proves the role: meaning, there has to be a very good (and formal) reason for joining families together. It doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t happen easily.


For Deleuze, what follows from this is that, “The problem of society is, in this sense, not a problem of limitation, but a problem of integration”. Sympathy transcending its natural partially is essential for creating a positive moral world, which ipso facto cannot be conceived of as ‘moral instinct’ or the ‘natural determination of sympathies’.


Hume and the State of Nature

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


What is striking about Deleuze’s understanding of Hume is his characterization of Hume’s strong sense of the ‘state of nature’ feeling, at times, almost Hobbesian:


“The moral world affirms its reality when the contradiction is effectively dissipated, when conversation is possible as an alternative to violence…or, in a word, when ‘the sympathy varies without a variation in our esteem”.


Politics, for Hume, is first and foremost a response to violence, and the introduction of discourse in place of violence. One consequence of conversation is esteem, which allows us to integrate sympathies, and believe that those who fall outside of our natural partiality are nonetheless fully human.


The project, then, is the extension of sympathy, though not by means of an imaginary exercise. The reality of the moral world relies on this artificial constitution of ‘society’: “the rules of justice, in virtue of their universality and absolute inflexibility, cannot be derived from nature”


Political Conscience and Morality 

politics oyster house
Politics in an Oyster House by Richard Caton Woodville, 1848, via the Walters Art Museum.


Deleuze points out that partialities cannot be naturally totalized, because they are mutually exclusive:


“The moral world is the artificial totality wherein particular ends are integrated and added to one another. Or again, the moral world is the system of means which allows my particular interest, and also the interest of another, to be satisfied and realized…in short the moral conscience is a political conscience: true morality is politics.”


The idea is that these natural sympathies aren’t to be overridden, but are to be integrated with one another, despite the fact that their defining trait is their mutual exclusivity (they exclude one another).


Equally, the notion that ‘true morality is politics’ amounts to a subtle rejection of the way in which moral philosophy has been done in the Anglo-sphere since Hume, in which the model of an ethical problem is the ‘dilemma’.


Context, on this account, should be stripped away in order for us to figure out what we actually think about some ethical problem. Hume, on Deleuze’s reading, requires us to do the opposite, and always consider the political totality we are trying to create as we do ethics.



The Basis of Moral Obligation 

political discussion painting
The Political Discussion by Emile Friant, 1889, from Wikimedia Commons.


Equally, moral conscience is the ‘psychological conscience apprehended exclusively in the aspect of its inventive power’. This cannot be conceived of as a totally artificial exercise, insofar as it applies certain natural faculties. Rather it is a question of self-direction, of will: thus the claim that a ‘system of directed means’ is what constitutes a social rule.


The function of the rule is to determine a stable point of view: “now, in judging of characters, the only interest or pleasure, which appears the same to every spectator, is that of the person himself, whose character is examined; or that of persons who have a connexion with him”. To act in accordance with this constitutes a strict moral obligation, which differs qualitatively from natural obligation, and is essentially based on self-interest.


Gilles Deleuze’s and Hume’s Solution: The Totalization of Partiality

political cobbler painting
A Political Cobbler by Orfeo Orfei, 1873, via the Saint Louis Art Museum.


How should we construct systems of rules which are both ‘corrective’ and ‘extensive’? The more profound question is: ‘what exactly is it that we invent’? Meaning, what is the relation between our nature and our culture?


The answer to this is Hume’s theory of the artifice. The riddle – how to deal with demands which are by nature partial, which are by nature exclusionary rather than inclusive – has the following answer in Hume. Our interests must be ‘totalized’, in the sense of being made identical, to be extended by artifice or destroyed by contradiction.


Hume, therefore, is positing a kind of absolute horizontality as the first principle of social organization. Desires, similarly, must either be artificially satisfied or eradicated by violence. Deleuze also has Hume as pre-empting a thought that is more explicit in Bentham’s work: need is natural, but there is no satisfaction of need of a ‘constant or enduring kind’, which is not made possible through ‘culture, industry and society’.

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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.