Kant, Deleuze, and the virtual

What follows is an extract from the chapter I am in the middle of writing now — about “Deleuze’s Encounter with Whitehead,'” and the relations of both Deleuze and Whitehead to Kant. This passage doesn’t have much to do with Whitehead; it is mostly my endeavor to think about what Deleuze means by the ‘virtual’, and how this can be understood in Kantian terms. Still to be written is the part in which I relate all this back to Whitehead’s interest in potentiality, and his concept of potentials as what he calls “eternal objects.”

Deleuze’s own “transcendental empiricism” centers on his notion of the virtual. I think that this much-disputed concept can best be understood in Kantian terms. The virtual is the transcendental condition of all experience. And Ideas in the virtual, which are always “problematic or problematizing,” are Deleuze’s equivalent of “regulative ideas” in Kant (DR, 168ff.). For Kant, as Deleuze points out, “problematic Ideas are both objective and undetermined.” They cannot be presented directly, or re-presented; but their very indeterminacy “is a perfectly positive, objective structure which acts as a focus or horizon within perception.” The error of metaphysical dogmatism is to use these Ideas constitutively: to take their objects as determinate, transcendent entities. This is to forget that such objects “can be neither given nor known.” The correlative error of skepticism is to think that, since the Ideas are indeterminate and unrepresentable, they are thereby merely subjective, and their objects merely fictive. This is to forget that “problems have an objective value,” and that “problematic does not mean only a particularly important species of subjective acts, but a dimension of objectivity as such which is occupied by these acts.” Against both of these errors, Kant upholds the regulative and transcendental use of the Ideas. A regulative idea does not determine any particular solution in advance. But operating as a guideline, or as a frame of reference, the regulative idea works problematically, to establish the conditions out of which solutions, or “decisions,” can emerge. In positing a process of this sort, Kant invents the notion of the transcendental realm, or of what Deleuze will call the virtual.

There are, of course, important differences between Kant’s transcendental argument and Deleuze’s invocation of the virtual. For one thing, Kant’s stance is legislative and juridical: he seeks to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate uses of reason. Deleuze seeks rather (citing Artaud) “to have done with the judgment of God”; his criterion is constructivist rather than juridical, concerned with pushing forces to the limits of what they can do, rather than with evaluating their legitimacy. Also, Kant’s transcendental realm determines the necessary form – but only the form – of all possible experience. Deleuze’s virtual, in contrast, is “genetic and productive” of actual experience (NP, 51-52). Finally, Kant’s transcendental realm has the structure of a subjectivity; at the very least, it takes on the bare form of the “I” in the “transcendental unity of apperception.” But Deleuze’s virtual is an “impersonal and pre-individual transcendental field” (LS, 102); it does not have the form of a consciousness. In making these corrections to Kant, Deleuze himself does what he credits Nietzsche with doing: he “stands [Kantian] critique on its feet, just as Marx does with the [Hegelian] dialectic” (NP, 89).

To convert Kant from transcendental idealism to transcendental empircism, and from a juridico-legislative project to a constructivist one, means to move from the possible to the virtual, and from merely formal conditions of possibility to concrete conditions of actualization. Deleuze’s transformation of Kant thus leads directly to his famous distinction between the virtual and the possible. For Deleuze, the possible is an empty form, defined only by the principle of non-contradiction. To say that something is possible is to say nothing more than that its concept cannot be excluded a priori, on logical grounds alone. This means that possibility is a purely negative category; it lacks any proper being of its own. Mere possibility is not generative or productive; it is not enough to make anything happen. It does not satisfy the principle of sufficient reason. This is why Deleuze says that “the possible is opposed to the real” (DR 211). Something that is merely possible has no claim to existence, and no intrinsic mode of being. Its only positive characteristics are those that it borrows from the real that it is not. The possible “refers to the form of identity in the concept”; it “is understood as an image of the real, while the real is supposed to resemble the possible” (211-212). That is to say, the possible is exactly like the real, except for the contingency that it does not, in fact, exist. And the real is nothing more than the the working-out of what was already prefigured and envisioned as possible. In this mirror play of resemblances, there can be nothing new or unexpected. When a possibility is realized – when it does come into existence – no actual creation has taken place. As Deleuze says, “it is difficult to understand what existence adds to the concept when all it does is double like with like” (212).

The virtual, on the other hand, is altogether real in its own right; it “possesses a full reality by itself” (211). It is just that this reality is not actual. The virtual is like a field of energies that have not yet been expended, or a reservoir of potentialities that have not yet been tapped. That is to say, the virtual is not composed of actual entities; but the potential for change that it offers is real in its own way. In the Proustian formulation so frequently used by Deleuze, the virtual is “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract” (208). One can in fact explain the virtual in entirely physicalist terms: as Gilbert Simondon did in work that greatly influenced Deleuze, and as Manuel Delanda has more recently done. But Deleuze most often describes the virtual as a transcendental field or structure, conditioning and generating the actual. The virtual is a principle of emergence, or of creation. As such, it does not prefigure or predetermine the actualities that emerge from it. Rather, it is the impelling force, or the principle, that allows each actual entity to appear (to manifest itself) as something new, something without precedence or resemblance, something that has never existed in the universe in quite that way before. That is why the virtual is entirely distinct from the possible. If anything, it is closer to Nietzsche’s will-to-power, or Bergson’s élan vital. All of these must be understood, not as inner essences, but as post-Kantian “syntheses” of difference: transcendental conditions for dynamic becoming, rather than for static being (cf. NP 51-52).

The virtual works as a transcendental condition for the actual by providing a sufficient reason for whatever happens. This brings us back to the distinction, or the gap, between sufficient reason and ordinary causality. Linear causality, of the sort that physical science traces, is always, and only, a relation among bodies. It is a matter, as Deleuze puts it in The Logic of Sense, of “bodies with their tensions, physical qualities, actions and passions, and the corresponding ‘states of affairs.’ These states of affairs, actions and passions, are determined by the mixtures of bodies. . . all bodies are causes – causes in relation to each other and for each other” (4). Everything in the world is determined by such physical causes; they consitute a necessary condition – but not a sufficient one – for whatever happens.

This linear causality is what Kant sought to guarantee against Hume’s skepticism. But if we accept Whitehead’s critique of Hume, then we will have to conclude that Kant’s very search for such a guarantee is superfluous. Causal efficacy is always already at work in the depths of bodies. Kant never questions Hume’s initial error: the idea that causality can never be found out there, and that consequently it can only be located in the mind of the perceiver. Where Hume appeals to habit as the empirical basis of the mind’s ascription of causality to things, Kant’s transcendental argument converts this into an a priori necessity. But Kant still accepts what Whitehead calls the subjectivist and sensationalist principles derived from Locke and Hume (PR, 157). In consequence, Kant’s transcendental deduction remains caught within “a logic of tracing and reproduction” (ATP, 12). Kant transfers causal efficacy from the world to the subject apprehending the world; but he does not thereby explain causality, or add anything to it. In Kant’s transcendental argument, the possible merely doubles the real.

Deleuze converts Kant’s argument from possibility to virtuality, and from the role of guaranteeing causal efficacy to one of providing sufficient reasons, by positing a different sort of transcendental logic. Alongside the actual, material “connection” of physical causes to one another, there is also a virtual relation, or a “bond,” linking “effects or incorporeal events” among themselves (LS, 6). The virtual is the realm of effects separated from their causes: “effects in the causal sense, but also sonorous, optical, or linguistic ‘effects’ ” (7), or what in the movies are called ‘special effects.’ Effects come after causes, of course, in the physical world of bodies. But transcendentally, these incorporeal special effects establish a strange precedence. Considered apart from their physical causes, and independently of any bodily instantiation, they are something like the generative conditions – the ‘meanings’ and the ‘reasons’ – for the very processes that physically produce them. Deleuze calls such generative after-effects “quasi-causes” (6). Quasi-causality is “an unreal and ghostly causality” (33), more an insinuation than a determination. The quasi-cause “is nothing outside of its effect”; but “it haunts the effect… it maintains with the effect an immanent relation which turns the product, the moment that it is produced, into something productive” (95). The virtual thus induces the productivity of the actual. But in itself, it partakes only of “extra-being”; it is “sterile, inefficacious, and on the surface of things” (7). This paradoxical, ghostly quasi-causality, rather than linear physical causality, is the proper content of a transcendental that neither copies the real, nor prefigures it.

16 thoughts on “Kant, Deleuze, and the virtual”

  1. Thanks. This is great, very, very helpful. I don’t know if you can talk about Deleuze and the virtual with greater clarity. But while I find a sentence like — “Deleuze converts Kant’s argument from possbility to virtuality…” persuasive and engaging I do blink at this sentence — “In Kant’s transcendental argument, the possible merely doubles the real.” And, in general, the “static Kant” rhetoric that runs throughout the essay. Perhaps I am just responding to the rhetorical structure of the post (or perhaps you are just plain right about Kant v. Deleuze), but my initial response is that Kant functions too much as a straw man here and, then, in Deleuze. What I mean to say (I think) is this: Is it necessary to take Deleuze as axiomatic on Kant in order to make your point about Deleuze? Doesn’t his own take on the virtual relative to the possible imply a greater flexibility in Kant than even Deleuze allows?….although maybe you are making an even stronger claim for Deleuze than I anticipated. Curious to see the Whitehead come in to this.

  2. Hi, Ken —

    actually, I agree entirely with what you say. It’s a rhetorical problem, I think — hopefully in the context of the entire chapter the impression will be different; if not, I obviously need to work on the rhetoric.

    My overall point is not to set up Kant as a straw man to be refuted, but precisely to insist upon the central relevance of Kant to Deleuze’s project (and to Whitehead’s). The sentence you single out is one of those in which I am basically just paraphrasing Deleuze; its broader context is — or at least is supposed to be — one in which everything is due to Kant and comes back to Kant. If there is an overall straw-man polemic, it is anti-Hegel, and arguing that Deleuze’s well-known objections to the dialectic are deeply Kantian ones.

    So my deeper point is precisely what you say, that the whole releationship of Deleuze to Kant works to “imply a greater flexibility in Kant than even Deleuze allows.”

  3. See here, where I propose the “fitness landscape” invoked by adaptationist evolutionary theory as an example of virtuality. I don’t know if it actually is a good example or not; would be interested to know your thoughts.

  4. For a starter text by Whitehead…

    I’d say, first read SYMBOLISM: ITS MEANING AND EFFECT, which is a very short book, under 100 pages.

    Then, part 3 of ADVENTURES OF IDEAS.

  5. Hi, Dominic —

    Your post makes an interesting suggestion, which I don’t have any ready answer to. Sometimes Dawkins, Dennett and others seem to be proposing the fitness landscape as a multidimensional phase space which gets explored (to a certain limited extent, as you note, given the problem of local optima) by the evolutionary algorithm (Dennet explicitly proposes that natural selection is an algorithm). In the sense that the phase space is conceived as preexisting (there is an enormous, but ultimately finite set of possible codon sequences , etc) I am not sure that Deleuze would accept it as virtual in his sense — when all the possibilities already preexist, there is no creation going on, and in this way it would be very different from the relation of a mathematical problem to its solution. To make the parallel to actualization in Deleuze’s sense, you’d need something more like a complexity theory approach to phase space (e.g. Stuart Kauffman) rather than Dawkins’ more atomistic approach. I suppose one could argue this in terms of how a change to an organism changes the environment as well, so that there isn’t a steady background fitness landscape, but every move on the fitness landscape changes the topography of the landscape itself… I don’t know enough math to have any idea whether this makes the problem less tractable to a Dawkins/Dennett algorithmic approach, boosts it to another level of magnitude in computational terms, etc.

    Your larger question — “n what significant way does Deleuze’s Bergsonian vitalism add anything to the non-vitalist “adaptationist” account of how the “problem of light” might find a solution?” — is a really serious and important one. Can all the issues of emergent order, of interactions between the genome and other non-genetic biological factors in development, etc., all be comprehended in more reductionist, “adaptationist” terms? Do the recent developments in “evo-devo,” for instance, obviate the criticisms of adaptationism made by Susan Oyama and other developmental systems theorists? Can Kauffman’s emergent order, or Lynn Margulis’ vision of symbiosis as driving evolution, be recuperated in adaptationist terms? This seems to be the big issue right now, and I haven’t a clue as to how it will play out.

  6. I suppose one could argue this in terms of how a change to an organism changes the environment as well, so that there isn’t a steady background fitness landscape, but every move on the fitness landscape changes the topography of the landscape itself… I don’t know enough math to have any idea whether this makes the problem less tractable to a Dawkins/Dennett algorithmic approach, boosts it to another level of magnitude in computational terms, etc.

    It massively complicates it: you need to compute the effect of the mutation at time T-1 on the fitness function at time T-1 in order to know what fitness function to apply to the effects of the mutation at time T.

    I think there’s an underlying assumption that the rate at which mutations affect the fitness function is much lower than the rate at which the fitness function selects mutations, so there’s at least enough stability for the model to hold over a portion of history even if the landscape does change slowly over time. Forget what if anything Dawkins says about this, but I doubt he ignores it completely.

  7. Hi! I have a pretty basic question but it’s one I’m curious about. I see that you’re using Kant to understand Deleuze and both to understand Whitehead. Where do you fit into all this? What is the reason for discussing theorists by using theorists? Thanks in advance.

  8. G — it’s hard to answer this, because there is a double process going on. On the one hand, it is all very personal. I try to work with texts (philosophical, literary, whatever) that mean something to me, that I feel I am connecting with — so part of the answer is just that Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze are all important to me, they all provide important suggestions about how to see the world. They have all profoundly affected my understanding of the world, and they continue to engage me, in ways other equally celebrated thinkers do not.

    At the same time, and on the other hand, any writing project like this has a dynamic of its own — I am doing a ‘reconstruction’ of certain aspects of these thinkers’ ideas, not trying to give them an exhaustive ‘close reading,’ but their texts take me in places I didn’t expect, and I find myself forced, if I am to write at all, to follow certain of their inflections, even if they take me someplace else from where I wanted to go. So in that sense, my writing isn’t personal at all.

  9. Chanced upon this while researching Deleuze and Kant. I think this is a brilliant blog post regarding Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism, and works as an excellent introductory element to the nature of Kant’s Philosophy in relation to Deleuze’s ideas on virtual.

    As this is 5 years on, do you have the finished chapter??


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