We Can Always Play Backgammon

Empiricism and Subjectivity

Deleuze’s Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature (1953) is a remarkable book.1 Slim but dense, it is full of the usual Deleuzian diagonalities2 and foldings, a striking precursor to his later, more-often-read books. Empiricism and Subjectivity is Deleuze’s first book, based on the graduate thesis that he wrote under the supervision of Jean Hyppolite and Georges Canguilhem, and as a first book it is more grounded than the ones that would follow, and indeed, functions for them as a sort of ground, or perhaps better, as a field of potentialities.

Deleuze states his research program succinctly: to survey the history of “new concepts created by a great philosopher”—in this case, David Hume.3 Primarily a close reading of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), with reference to other major works like An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Deleuze identifies Hume’s key contributions to philosophy as twofold: the “concept of belief” and the “real meaning” of the “association of ideas.”4 Contrary to idealist or rationalist theories of mind that locate knowledge and ideas in the subject’s interiority, Hume’s theory of mind—or properly, his theory of human nature—locates knowledge and ideas outside of the subject, and in fact, as prior to the subject.5 Through belief in this outside, the human being is “subjected”—made into a subject, made subject to the world.6

For Deleuze, to conduct a “science of humanity” one must begin as a “moralist and a sociologist, before being a psychologist.”7 Before one can posit the figure, one must first apprehend the background; before one can posit the individual, one must first apprehend the environment; before one can posit the subject, one must first apprehend society. This is not to erase the discrete human being, but rather to properly situate the human being as a “passional” entity always already embedded in a “social” context.8 One cannot conceive of the individual subject as the degree zero of society, the origin point, the locus of pure agency that determines the world around it. The individual human being is, rather, determined, or in Deleuzo-Humean terminology, “affected.”9 Through a naive belief in the world, the subject is formed, transformed, nature becoming mind becoming nature.10

How does the mind become human nature?11 Deleuze formalizes this process as he reads it in Hume, formulates the logic behind the subject’s operation. For our purposes here, it is useful to sketch out the steps in his argument:

  1. Mind “is not nature.”
  2. Mind is “identical with the ideas in the mind.”
  3. “Ideas are given, as given; they are experience.”
  4. Therefore, mind is experience.12

This argument is followed by a dependent one:

  1. Mind is a “collection,” not a “system.”
  2. A collection “is not a faculty” but an “assemblage of things.”
  3. An assemblage is “not different” from what is assembled.
  4. Therefore, mind is not by nature a subject (that is, a system).13

The mind and its ideas—the “imagination”—must, as a consequence, be “something determinable” if the mind is ever to become human nature, if the human is ever to become a subject.14 As Deleuze contends: “Nothing is done by the imagination; everything is done in the imagination.”15 Before its determination, the mind is “delirium,” “change,” “indifference” (i.e., without differentiation).16 There is no system, only collection, insofar as experience in the immediacy of its givenness is without determinate order. And yet, there is a logic that intervenes in the mind, structuring forces that traverse it, subjecting the imagination.

The three principles of association—“contiguity, resemblance, and causality”—are the basic functions that “organize the given into a system, imposing constancy on the imagination,” and that “fix and naturalize the mind.”17 This organization should not be talked about in terms of causes, only “effects.”18 One cannot presuppose an agency behind their functioning—“nothing is ever transcendental”—but only “scrutinize” their outcomes, analyze and describe them.19 The relations instituted by the principles of association are, importantly, “external to their terms,” without necessity.20 It is the very lightness of this exteriority that gives these relations a kind of substance, by virtue of repeated “easy transition” between terms.21 In following these pathways, the mind comes to acquire a “tendency,” a “disposition[],” a habit—subjectivity itself is seen to be “an effect.”22 Belief, then, is the subject’s fidelity to the effect of its own formation.

“I affirm more than I know,” the subject says; “I speak in general terms and I have beliefs.”23 The subject constantly invokes the moment of its foundation, referring others to the “idea[s] [it] claim[s] to have” but can never actually show.24 The subject feels the system of its formation, but can only insist upon this system’s reality, in the mode of a constant proof.25 There is no self-evident representation, no correspondence—only feeling, the “affection of the mind” by forces that exceed it.26 Reason is not primarily agential or active; reason is “instinct, habit, or nature.”27

For Deleuze, then, “the only possible theory is a theory of practice.”28 Reason is but one mode of practice, and a “practically or technically insufficient one” at that—it “does not apply to all there is.”29 Reason seeks differences, distinctions, decisions, but this “skepticism,” this desire for scission, “has its origin and its motive on the outside, in the indifference of practice.”30 The world is always there, outside the mind; indeed, the world is the mind, insofar as the world constitutes the totality of experience. It is in the moment of the mind being put into practice, the moment of the mind becoming-subject, that we discover this “preexisting world” of which the mind is but a part, a narrow field of view.31

In the world of practice, skepticism is defanged, because “practice itself is indifferent to skepticism: we can always play backgammon.”32 For five-thousand years we have played backgammon, across a myriad of local and historical variations, and of this practice the skeptic must remain silent, because the game can always be played. The backgammon board set before it, the mind discovers that the game already has rules, and through their assumption becomes a subject, made partial to a particular mode of practice. Which game, which games—whether backgammon, or soccer, or Halo, or any other game—is without guarantee, a chance operation, a fateful encounter—but the subject is determined, regardless.

So it is in the moment that we discover the world we also discover that this world “presupposes an antecedent ethics and an order of ends.”33 The subject is an effect, a tendency, a habit, or put yet another way, a “partiality.”34 Everywhere there are traces of the efforts, the effects, of other partialities, their “diverting and slanting” of the whole.35 The mind is always already crisscrossed by these lines of force, prior to the moment of its subjection. Perturbations in the field of experience effectuated by the movements of these lines radiate outward, intersecting with other such perturbations, a complex manifold of passions in the midst of which the mind finds itself, and says of itself, for the first time, “I…”36

We begin with the world and discover the subject, just as the subject begins with the world and discovers itself. This is Deleuze’s empiricism, the practical slant of his philosophy that short circuits idealist theories of the subject. The subject transcends the mind by way of belief, but it is in no way transcendental. The subject is a habituation or tendency of the given, a partiality of experience, an instinct or feeling born of a systematization of sensation. Having arrived at this point, following Deleuze in establishing the subject as an affection, next time we will turn our attention to the various rules of this affection and the cultural world that institutes them.


  1. Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature, 1953, trans. Constantin V. Boundas (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991). See my annotations at “Empiricism and Subjectivity,” March 29, 2023, https://www.steinea.ca/2023/03/29/deleuze-empiricism-and-subjectivity

  2. Alexander R. Galloway, “Graphic Formalism,” ASAP Journal, March 27, 2023, https://asapjournal.com/graphic-formalism-on-the-bias-alexander-r-galloway/ 

  3. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, ix. 

  4. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, ix. 

  5. In Deleuze’s reading, Hume is an externalist. See, for instance, Riccardo Manzotti, The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One (New York, NY: OR Books, 2017). 

  6. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 31. 

  7. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 21. 

  8. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 21. 

  9. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 21. 

  10. “What we most lack is a belief in the world, we’ve quite lost the world, it’s been taken from us.” See Gilles Deleuze and Toni Negri, “Control and Becoming,” The Funambulist, February 22, 2011, https://thefunambulist.net/editorials/philosophy-control-and-becoming-a-conversation-between-toni-negri-and-gilles-deleuze. Compare “naive contact” in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 1945, trans. Donald A. Landes (London, EN: Routledge, 2012). 

  11. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 22. 

  12. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 22. 

  13. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 23. 

  14. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 23. 

  15. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 23. 

  16. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 23. 

  17. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 23. 

  18. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 23. 

  19. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 23, 24. 

  20. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, x. 

  21. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 24. 

  22. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 25, 27, 26. 

  23. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 28. 

  24. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 28. 

  25. On insistence, compare Jacques Lacan, “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” 1957, in Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006). On proof, compare Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

  26. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 30. 

  27. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 30. 

  28. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 32. A praktognosia. See my “Bodies in Form, 2: Tabletop Roleplaying as Cosmic Poetics,” Bio and Psyche: Reading the Symptomatic Body, May 28, 2021, https://zenodo.org/record/4824078

  29. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 33. For decision, compare François Laruelle, Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction to Non-Philosophy, trans. Rocco Gangle (London, UK: Continuum, 2010). 

  30. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 33. 

  31. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 33. 

  32. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 34. Emphasis added. 

  33. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 33. 

  34. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 35. 

  35. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 35. 

  36. “We are habits, nothing but habits—the habit of saying ‘I.’” See Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, x. 

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