A Model of Actions

Empiricism and Subjectivity, 2

The institution, unlike the law, is not a limitation but rather a model of actions, a veritable enterprise, an invented system of positive means or a positive invention of indirect means. This understanding of the institution effectively reverses the problem: outside of the social there lies the negative, the lack, or the need.1

Last time, we examined Deleuze’s empirical logic of the subject as presented in chapter one of his study of David Hume, Empiricism and Subjectivity (1953).2 Because of his philosophical commitment that “nothing is ever transcendental,” Deleuze must locate the subject and its movements in the realm of the practical and the habitual, contrary to the idealist tradition of epistemology and metaphysics that we can trace as far back as Plato.3 The subject in Deleuze’s conception is not first and foremost an agent or actor, but something acted upon, something determined, which is to say, something subjected. This is the Humean innovation, Deleuze contends, that the essence of the subject, the essence of human nature, comes from without. Subjectivity is not cause but effect; the mind is diverted by a tendency, invested with an affection, and so made into a subject.

The example employed in the last essay was that of the game of backgammon. Such forms of practice reveal domains beyond skeptical reason, trans-forming the subject through the assumption of rules that always already precede them. Backgammon is a uniquely suitable exemplar for its ancientness, a ludic multiplicity of local traditions and variations communicated from practitioner to practitioner over centuries, but all games, not only ancient ones, can be said to operate in this way.4 A game is an abstract machine5 specially suited for the creation of a particular game player, a particular gamer.6

It is this process that concerns Deleuze in chapter two of Empiricism and Subjectivity, “Cultural Worlds and General Rules.” If subjectivity is primarily formed from without, rather than expressing itself from within, then the immediate context of this formation must be scrutinized if we are to understand this process better, in all of its situated variations. As noted last time, the human being is first and foremost a passional and social being, or more precisely, a being of socially affected passions. To be human is less to be “egoistic” than to be “partial”—partial to a system of mores with particular ends that satisfy individual passions.7 Moral conscience, from Deleuze’s empirical perspective, is “to approve and disapprove … to praise or blame,” and importantly, to orient one’s individual “pain and pleasure … with reference to character in general.”8 This is the sociality of feeling.

For Deleuze, this sociality does not arise from each individuals’ recollection of transcendental notions of the ‘good’ and the ‘just’ and the ‘beautiful,’ which is to say, from each individuals’ participation in the universal. Rather, sociality (or “sympathy”) is the “positive totality” that integrates the “plurality of partialities” characteristic of communities of passional beings.9 Partiality is an “inequality of affection,” an asymmetry of interest, that, when not integrated into some “positive moral world” tends to results in “contradiction and violence.”10 Deleuze’s innovation on social contract theory, then, as drawn from Hume, is that the contract is not an agreement of “limitation” but possibility.11 In society, individual, partial passion finds a broader horizon. The promise of society is the integration of sympathies and consequent satisfaction of passions to a greater degree than would be possible otherwise.

In this view, there is not some ideal “justice” that presides over a society, but rather a number of rules that dictate the various modes of its operation.12 These rules, rather than being understood as some ideal Law, are rather to be understood as “means.”13 The problem of society, the “moral problem,” is thus a “problem of schematism,” the “act by means of which we refer the natural interests to the political category of the whole,” the “moral world … wherein particular ends are integrated and added to one another.”14 The rules of this moral world constitute “a system of directed means,” a “model of actions.”15

Here, Deleuze uses Hume’s example of property to explicate the “form and content” of the general rule, the topological significance of the extension of sympathies through the mediation of institutions.16 For our purposes, it is the broader question of motivation beyond the singular motive of property that is of concern.17 Society presents itself as the positive terminus for human motivation, and so the morality of any specific human passion is determined by its integrability to a given society. “Society is a set of conventions founded on utility,” Deleuze argues, “not a set of obligations founded on a contract.”18 To be moral is to find one’s satisfaction in the ends afforded by society; to be sociable is to sustain the institutions that satisfy one’s passions.

The “institution” is a machine, a “designed system of possible satisfaction.”19 To adhere to the rules of the institution is to become an operator of the machine, a player of the game, with the intent of receiving the pleasures it promises. It need not be “this system” or “this form”—there are a “thousand others, which we find in other times and places.”20 The nature of the institution, of any institution, is simply that of the “figures traced by the drives according to the circumstances.”21 The institution is a diagram of passions. Because it is better (i.e., more pleasurable) to have one’s passions “extended through artifice” than to be “destroyed through contradiction,” the imagination, through the three principles of association discussed last time, produces possible models of integration that might allow both itself and others to join their sympathies in a “real situation.”22 Through “belief” in this possible world so modeled, society is discovered; and indeed, the newly formed subject finds society to have always already been there, because there is no subject without society. The human being is always already determined by an “antecedent ethics and an order of ends”—to be human is to be in society.23 There is no state of nature for human beings other than social nature.

Deleuze concludes the chapter with an analysis of the “three dimensions” of the “general rule” of property: “its establishment, its determination, and its correction.”24 This analytic model could be extended to any such rule or institution, or to a collection of these that constitutes a given moral world. We will leave the discussion here, with the possibility of such analysis left open for the future. Next time, we will turn to chapter three of Empricism and Subjectivity with a closer look at how the rules or models discussed here are possible at all.


  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), 45-46. See my annotations at “Empiricism and Subjectivity,” March 29, 2023, https://www.steinea.ca/2023/03/29/deleuze-empiricism-and-subjectivity

  2. Eric Stein, “We Can Always Play Backgammon,” May 26, 2023, https://www.steinea.ca/2023/05/26/we-can-always-play-backgammon

  3. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 24. 

  4. We use backgammon because that is Deleuze’s example, though at least one Wikipedia editor remarks that the “popular belief” that backgammon is the “oldest board game in the world” is false, and is rather a later addition (c. 1635) to the family of “tables games”—which do in fact reach back in history to the Jiroft culture of 5,000 years ago. See “Backgammon,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backgammon. However, to speak of “tables games” is to employ perhaps an even better metaphor, a uniquely antimetaphysical one: there is no ideal table, only a myriad of tables (both the support and the game played upon that support) and their practical, historical inheritances. 

  5. The abstract machine is a key concept in Deleuze’s work, particularly in his collaboration with psychoanalyst Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). 

  6. For an extended discussion of the “gamer,” see my review series of Amanda Phillips Gamer Trouble (2020), starting with “The Idea of the Gamer,” May 25, 2021, https://www.steinea.ca/2021/03/25/idea-of-gamer

  7. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 38. 

  8. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 37. 

  9. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 39, 38. 

  10. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 38, 40. 

  11. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 39. 

  12. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 40. 

  13. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 40. 

  14. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 40-41. 

  15. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 41, 45. 

  16. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 43: “the significance of justice is exclusively topological.” 

  17. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 45: “Hume adds many other motives to interest … prodigality, ignorance, heredity, custom, habit, or ‘spirit of greed and endeavor, of luxury and abundance.’” 

  18. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 46. 

  19. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 47. 

  20. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 47. 

  21. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 48-49. 

  22. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 43, 50. 

  23. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 33. 

  24. Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, 50. 

Previous Post Next Post

« We Can Always Play Backgammon Determined Figures »