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 Deleuzeâ€™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 â€“ but only the form â€“ 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 â€“ when it does come into existence â€“ 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 Ã©lan 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 â€“ 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 â€“ but not a sufficient one â€“ 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 â€“ the ‘meanings’ and the ‘reasons’ â€“ 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.