“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Reflections on Deleuze’s Engagement with Natural Science in D&R

In chapter V of Difference and Repetition, “The Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensible,” Deleuze engages with the various scientific theories of 19th and 20th century thermodynamics, not by identifying his fictions with scientific facts, but by detonating the philosophical idea of “intensive depth” in range of the qualitative extensity studied in terms of the scientific concept of entropy. The scientific concept of entropy, when subject to the dogmatic image of thought, comes to be described as the universe’s smooth and continuous causal transition from an improbably heterogeneous past state into more probable homogeneous future state. Deleuze, it seems to me, wants to save the metaphysical implications of the concept of entropy from the physical reductionism of a still all too Cartesian science.

Some commentators, like Badiou and Joe Hughes (A Reader’s Guide, 2009), insist that Deleuze’s engagement with natural scientific concepts is purely metaphorical and not at all physical. Hughes writes (153):

“We therefore have to be careful about concentrating too much on the scientific notion of intensity. Deleuze is concerned with founding representation, not thermodynamics. He says of Nietzsche at one point in the chapter that ‘[i]t is true that Nietzsche was interested in the energetics of his time, but this was not the scientific nostalgia of the philosopher’ (D&R, 243). The same can be said of Deleuze. In the same way that Deleuze’s theory of Ideas was not fundamentally related to mathematics, his theory of intensity is not tied to thermodynamics (and his theory of individuation is not tied to biology). Deleuze is neither a scientist nor a philosopher of science. Science never leaves the realm of fact, but Deleuze is interested in the constitution of facticity itself. What is at issue in these discussions then is not the nature of intensity as it appears in science, or even of founding the scientific notion, but of drawing inspiration from science in order to develop a philosophical concept. ‘Intensive quantity is a transcendental principle, not a scientific concept’” (D&R, 240-241).

I must disagree with Hughes’ reading here. It is at best a partial reading. Partial because, when Hughes quotes Deleuze as saying that intensive quantity is transcendental and not physical, he shortens Deleuze’s sentence, which actually begins: “Energy or intensive quantity is a transcendental principle…” Deleuze is not just drawing inspiration from science, he is ungrounding representational interpretations of natural science to show that general concepts like “energy” in thermodynamics, “differential” in calculus, “gene” in biology, or “phoneme” in linguistics (D&R, 278) are really virtual intensive quantities which only become recognizable to scientific consciousness after they’ve been covered over by qualities and explicated in extensity. Far from turning to the natural sciences merely to extract their metaphorics, Deleuze critiques the naïve physicalism of these sciences in order to install the genetic power of the transcendental at the heart of nature itself.

Deleuze is trying to provide the natural science of his day with a metaphysics; but like Schelling (see Preface to Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature), he meant his metaphysics to come after physics, and not before it. By engaging with the natural sciences, Deleuze doesn’t mean to undermine them by applying transcendental limits to subjective knowledge; his transcendental empiricism aims to unsettle the clear and distinct categories of scientific representation by pointing to the ceaseless rumbling of a volcanic nature whose groundless ground (Abgrund) constantly disturbs the smooth surface features that allow for lawful generalization. The inner nature of the scientist, with all the truth and good sense of his inductive method, projects an external nature that circles and so repeats lawfully without undue difference. Deleuze’s philosophy of difference is a direct assault upon such a Cartesian science, on the way it covers over the implication of ideal intensities without affirming the virtual processes that remain behind or beneath these coverings, processes which Deleuze argues provide the conditions for the actuality of the qualitative extensities measured by the scientist. Deleuze’s differential concept of nature is spiralic: nature is groundlessly creative; it is eternally recurring but only by repeatedly disguising its own intensive depth; it is always spinning out of the general categories or circles of control posited by the spectating scientific Cogito. There is a ceaseless rumbling in nature that forms cracks in every smooth ground or sufficient reason that might pretend to hold back the transcendental volcano of virtual intensities, a rumbling forever forcing thought to think.



9 responses to “Reflections on Deleuze’s Engagement with Natural Science in D&R”

  1. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards

    “Deleuze’s differential concept of nature is spiralic: nature is groundlessly creative; it is eternally recurring but only by repeatedly disguising its own intensive depth; ”

    This sentence has many affinities with Zizek’s interpretations of Schelling and Hegel via Lacan. More importantly for your project, it has affinities with Markus Gabriel’s Transcendental Ontology. MG’s TO is best accessed via his book by the same name, and by his book with Zizek (Mythology, Madness and Laughter). There’s also a great lecture on the web; i believe it was delivered in the UK a year ago.

    Because MG relies heavily on Schelling and Hegel to think a 21st century Idealist Ontology, he is well situated to provide yr project with an analytic/continental master frame in which you can insert yr emphasis on the imagination as that which is a necessary mode of sense in the field of sense vis-a-vis the dominant modes of contemporary culture and materialist mythologies.

    btw: MG provides a cursory critique of Deleuze and Badiou in the lecture or reading cited above.

  2. j. Avatar

    oh come on…calling Joe’s reading stupid is a bit much. He knows his Deleuze.
    In any case, your reading in the is doing almost exactly what he is proposing. “really virtual intensive quantities which only become recognizable to scientific consciousness after they’ve been covered over by qualities and explicated in extensity” = “constitution of facticity itself.”

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Yeah you’re right, that’s not fair. Hughes has been helpful trying to grapple with this text, but his commentary on chapter 5 was frustratingly inconsistent. By “stupid,” I meant that his reading seemed to dismiss or downplay what I felt was the most important aspect of Deleuze’s project (ie, the challenges he presents to scientific materialism). Hughes repeatedly says throughout his readers guide that we shouldn’t take Deleuze’s use of science or mathematics seriously, that its all just metaphorical… Maybe my reading is partial, too, but I can’t help but see D&R as a full-blown critique and reconstruction of several representational scientific theories.

      1. j. Avatar

        Yeah, I mean this is of considerable debate in deleuze studies. although i don’t know that Joe would use the word metaphoric these days (check out Deleuze and the genesis of representation for his more creative work),

        I think that for those of us more geared towards the humanities, the overt scientization of Deleuze in the wake of DeLanda is a bit frustrating. I think John Protevi provides a much more complicated framework to thinking about D’s relation to science. In any case,..

  3. Levi Avatar


    Is a very close friend of mine and we’ve argued about this quite a bit over the years. I think you’re absolutely right here (not the stupid part). What Joe misses is the biological ground of representation that Deleuze defends. Minds, for D, are organic and arise from organic beings. This comes out clearly as early as the discussion of habitus in the repetition chapter of DR where D describes the flower as a contraction of water, sunlight, soil, etc. for D there are different sorts of intensities. Some will be physical like temperatures, others chemical, yet others will emotional, etc. I agree with Joe that among D’s many projects is to give an account of representation, but it’s Kant and phenomenology naturalized, not a wholesale endorsement of the Cartesian dualism of those theorists. This is why there’s a non-representational ground of representation in Deleuze.

  4. Joe Avatar

    Hi all,

    Thanks for the kind words about the book and for the fascinating reflection. j. is absolutely right that the context of those remarks was the annoying scientism of Deleuze studies in the late 90s and early 2000s–and also about the fact that it’s really hard to see a difference between my argument and the one outlined here, beyond the fact that we code “science” differently (I couldn’t agree more that one of the things at stake here is seeing “the genetic power of the transcendental at the heart of nature itself.”). I would, however, sharply object to the claim that mine is a partial reading because I omitted “Energy or […].” On the contrary, the partial reading of that sentence is the one that forgets its last half: “…a transcendental principle, not a scientific concept.”

    It’s this tension between two discursive contexts–transcendental principles/scientific concepts–that makes the word “metaphor” appropriate. If by “metaphor” you mean something like “mere ornament,” then fine, it’s a bad concept. But if you understand metaphor in its traditional sense as a non-logical transfer of predicates from one substance to another according to an undetermined ground, then it’s an exact description of what Deleuze is doing. And calling these moves “metaphorical” isn’t intended to be a way of diminishing Deleuze’s claims, it’s just a straightforward description of what he’s actually doing at a rhetorical level.

    If that context of late 90s scientism is important, then, it’s because of the way science functioned in Deleuze studies: the scientific concept was the ultimate explanation. To understand what Deleuze meant by intensity or Ideas it was enough to give a brief overview thermodynamics or differential calculus, and that was it. But the question of how these concepts functioned as transcendental principles was never raised (obviously there are inspiring exceptions–like Protevi). My reading of DR tried to show that the book could finally be thought as a whole if it was read as unfolding on the ground of the failure of Kant’s critical philosophy–which is to say, on the ground of transcendental principles–and so I naturally downplayed the way he put thermodynamics, Jacques Monod, etc. into play in favor of focusing on the processes of syntheses and Ideas.

    I’m curious to see how you negotiate this problem–which you must encounter if you insist on a distinction between “naïve physicalism” and “metaphysics.” If a simple identity of scientific concepts and transcendental principles is one of the defining features of “Cartesian science,” and if your problem with my reading is that rather than going for identity, I keep the two radically separate, how do you blend them?


    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to clarify. You’re remarks about the context of your reader’s guide, and about metaphor, are instructive.

      I’m not trying to argue for a simple identification of scientific concepts and transcendental principles. I agree that it is important that they remain distinct for the purposes of scientific research into natural states of affairs. What I am trying to push back against is the materialistic representation of scientific facts as though these facts were somehow self-grounding. Part of what excites me about Deleuze’s transcendental naturalism (and Schelling’s before him) is that it allows us to distinguish between natura naturans and natura naturata, or between creative nature and created nature. Representationalist interpretations of scientific facts ignore the naturans in favor of the naturata, as if natural processes could be explained by way of the mechanical interaction of extensive qualities alone.

  5. terenceblake Avatar

    I agree with Matt that Deleuze was trying to provide a metaphysics for science and so was criticising the the representationalism and the scientism that is not necessarily limited to the “philosophical” talk about science and to their own understanding of their categories and theories (and of their scope), It even has an effect on the content and methods of science, as the opposition between nomad science and state science confirms.

    An amusing anecdote comes to mind, dating from 1982, when I attended Deleuze’s seminar on the cinema on Tuesdays, and on Saturdays went to Serres’ class on multiplicities (which gave rise to the books ROME and GENÈSE). On Saturday I would hear an interpretation of the dispute between Bergson and Einstein favorable to Einstein’s position from the point of view of a theory of time (this in Serres class on multiplicities), on Tuesday I would hear a discordant interpretation justifying Bergson’s position (in Deleuze’s class on time and cinema) in the name of the theory of…multiplicities. This difference of interpretation and of evaluation was already amply treated in the previous published work of the two philosophers, without any explicit attempt by one to respond to the arguments of the other. Serres claimed that Bergson was just wrong, siding with a scientistic interpretation in this case (against the tenor of his own work). Deleuze argued that Bergson was misunderstood in the context of the scientism prevailing at the time of the publication of Bergson’s book DURATION AND SIMULTANEITY. According to Deleuze, Bergson was trying to produce the metaphysics appropriate to the revolutions in physical science.

    So I can understand Joe Hughes when he claims to have hidden behind the protective covering of an ambiguous word “metaphor”, that he really intended in a non-dualistic etymological sense of “meta-porting”, in order to defuse useless disputes with the ambient scientism of the late 90s. He raises a very interesting question: given the radical difference between scientific categories and philosophical concepts that the naive naturalist simply (and unkowingly) identifies, which for Deleuze and Guattari is a form of reductionism (cf. in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? their insistence on “the irreducibility of concepts to functions”) how in the name of transversality are we going to “blend” them? In avoiding reductionism we seem condemned to maintaining not just their irreducibility but, less comfortably, their separation.

    It can be argued that this transversal blending can be seen in the work of Ernst Mach, and is explicitly theorised by him. It is also, according to Paul Feyerabend, at work in the theoretical work of Niels Bohr, and also that of Wolfgang Pauli. An interesting contemporary example is that of the economist Frédéric Lordon who argues for the importation (meta-porting) of Spinozist concepts into economic theory. He explicitly cites WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY and its opposition between philosophy (concepts) and science (extensive functions). He argues that economics can achieve the dignity of a science without conforming to the mathematical model by just such a “blending”:
    “to increase in intellectual rigour, and perhaps even in objectivity, against Deleuze’s antinomy, science, and in this case social science, must import concepts”. (see video in French: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY8TH9ceyI0, approximately 6min30s to 7min.).

  6. […] interesting discussion over Deleuze’s views on the relation between philosophical concepts and scientific categories […]

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