How Are Cultural Rules Created? Deleuze and Hume’s Answers

Deleuze uses his interpretation of Hume to attempt to explain how rules and norms are created and sustained given our natural partiality and selfishness.

Jan 27, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

how are cultural rules created deleuze hume illustration


How is culture created? What are the parameters by which social rules are set? This article focuses on the creation of culture, and in particular the creation of the underlying rules by which culture is regulated. These are the rules by which the interests, desires or partialities grounded in a particular perspective come to be subsumed in rules determined for the good of the whole society, or all those who can be counted within a certain culture.


This article begins by focusing on the relationship between culture and ethics. It then proceeds to consider the extension of the passions as the basis for cultural rules, such as those we often call ‘justice’. Lastly, this theory of culture is related back to what Deleuze takes to be Hume’s philosophical project: an analysis of human nature.


Culture and Ethics in Deleuze and Hume

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


Deleuze argues that Hume’s conception of culture depends on his conception of ethics, and so Deleuze turns to focus on ethics first of all. He begins by arguing that, for Hume, there are two elements of our natural ethical functions: that of moral conscience and perspective. Moral conscience is what prompts us to such things as praise or blame. Moral conscience is the stimulus of distinctly ‘ethical’ judgments. Moral conscience has an ‘original nature’, which establishes it as oriented towards character in general.


However, we also naturally make judgments which are grounded in our particular point of view. The question, then, is how we can learn to be thoroughly sympathetic – meaning, how we can learn to liberate our native, generalized moral conscience from our particular point of view. If social organization is defined by rules which govern this organization, the problem of generalization underlies the creation of such cultural and social rules for Hume. His project is to investigate the extension of sympathy.

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The Restraint of Individuals

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Justice, Jürgen Ovens, 1662, via Google Arts & Culture


It is conventional, in certain contexts, to associate the principles by which societies are governed as those which restrain individuals in the pursuit of their own interests. Certainly, this conception is alive and well in the popular conception of the role of the state. However, as Deleuze points out, Hume is skeptical of the idea of the ‘individual interest’ in the modern, liberal capitalist concept.


For one thing, desires or passions find their resolution in a social context; very few desires are genuinely orientated exclusively towards the individual. What we have are better regarded as partialities – preferences towards certain social groups, or even certain forms of social resolution (resolution, that is, for our desires). For another thing, Hume doesn’t believe that social rules can or should aim to restrain our desires, passions, or partialities. This latter point bears some further explanation.


Natural Needs, Artificial Means 

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Portrait of David Hume, Allan Ramsay, 1754, via the National Galleries of Scotland.


As Deleuze tells us, even though Hume does hold that our needs are natural, he nonetheless affirms that the satisfaction of all our needs is possible through artificial means: industry and culture. This introduces artificiality into our identification of our interests – they are not immediate, holding in light of our nature, but in light of the ways in which we affect the world. It is this which allows passions to be ‘liberated’ from their natural limits.


Now, there certainly seems to be a kind of progressive aspect here, insofar as we are encouraged to think of our pre-artificial desires as real and distinct. In any case, taking the liberation of the passions rather than their suppression as the function of cultural rules, allows Deleuze to make the following claim about justice (which is often taken as the exemplary instance of a social rule): “passions are not limited by justice: they are enlarged and extended”. The thought here is, presumably, the same passions that are normally governed by the bounds of partiality should be intensified such that those boundaries can be broken.


Reflecting Our Interests 

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La Justice, Eustache Le Sueur, 1650, via Wikimedia Commons


This conception of social organization seems, on the face of it, quite appealing. For one thing, it constructs the relationship between our passions and social organization in such a way as to exclude the need to either repress or coerce our passions. What is involved in the construction of cultural rules is the extension of what is already native to our passions. What is called for, thus, is not a “reflection on interest but a reflection of interest”. Deleuze quotes Hume thus:


“There is no passion, therefore, capable of controlling the interested affection, but the very affection itself, by an alteration of its direction. Now this alteration must necessarily take place upon the least reflection.”


What is so fascinating about this conception of how individuals and their passions relate to societies or cultures is that it posits that the most extensive, most free manifestation of an individual’s passion is that which they express only when it is directed towards everyone. Implicitly, the concept of the furthest extension of an individual’s passion can also be taken to define the boundaries of a culture. Certainly, there are more arbitrary and less useful definitions.


Affections of the Mind 

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States of Mind III: Those Who Stay, Umberto Boccioni, 1911, via MoMA


Deleuze’s reading of Hume also offers a conception of reason in which it is subsumed within the ‘affections of the mind’, the category of which passion is a part. Reason is not a separate faculty, but rather an act of determination or direction. Reason and affection, nature and artifice, even passion and social conscience: these are just some of the false dualisms which Deleuze sees Hume’s work as opposing. Rather, Deleuze sees Hume as opposing nature including artifice, and the mind which is affected and determined by this.


This dualism has a hierarchical (or possibly directional) structure: one determines the other, one precedes the other. It is this division, particularly in contradistinction to the division between nature and artifice, which gives social and cultural rules their force as rules: “the fact that the meaning of justice is not reduced to an instinct or to natural obligation does not prevent the existence of moral instinct or natural obligation; above all, it does not prevent the existence of a natural obligation to justice, once the latter is constituted”.



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A photograph of Gilles Deleuze, 1990s, via Wikimedia Commons


The integration of artifice within the category of nature is due, as Deleuze puts it, to the intrinsic inventiveness of human beings. Here he refers to French philosopher Henri Bergson, who holds that – whilst habits are not themselves natural, the taking up of habits is.


The point here is to say that, as much as we are able to construct our habits and practices for ourselves, what is natural and inescapable is that we should take up these artificial habits. Here the identification of the boundaries of culture and the constitution of social or cultural rules now reverts to an analysis of human nature: this is, after all, both where Hume’s investigation starts and where it must end.


History is a part of human nature, and human nature is a kind of residue or affect of history. As Deleuze puts it, “Nature is what history does not explain, what cannot be defined, what may even be useless to describe, or what is common in the most diverse ways of satisfying a tendency”.


Deleuze on Claims About Human Nature

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Great Deal of Human Nature in Man, Alfred Jacob Miller, between 1825-1870, via Wikimedia Commons


Whether implicitly or otherwise, many claims are made on human nature in philosophy, in political discourse, in the human sciences. Deleuze raises the possibility that the sheer extent of naturalization that is possible within an empiricist program might even make human nature itself useless to describe. If this sounds implausible, it shouldn’t. If nature is defined broadly enough, so as to include all that is contingent about human activity and thought, then fixating on what is fixed might tell us far less than we imagine.


When we attempt to theorize human nature, we often seem to be in pursuit of limits: of delineating what we cannot do, of the further extent of human power. What Deleuze seems to be building into his analysis of Hume is an answer to the following question: what are the consequences of adopting an empiricism in which the basic units of thought are those derived from experience in such a way that they are qualitatively identical to perceptions?


If human nature involves faculties of perception and associations, no matter how extensive these might be, to speak of faculties or nature in itself might turn out to be superfluous. The implication for culture is that we need not distinguish the history of culture from the nature of its inhabitants: we are free to create universalizing systems of cultural rules.

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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.