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Virtualizing Pragmatism

Deleuze’s Metaphysics of Power
Christian Frigerio


This paper aims at exploring a particular dimension of the affinity between Gilles Deleuze and pragmatism: his ontology of the virtual, which results in a metaphysics of power. In Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, the essence of an entity is identical to its power: what can it do? substitutes the Socratic ti esti? as the leading philosophical question. This shift, operated by Spinoza and given a new and adequate ontology by Deleuze, is very close to Peirce’s pragmatic revolution: if Deleuze’s virtual ideas are identical to the range of variations in power and affects that a body may go through, Peirce defines meaning in terms of the whole range of possible effects that an idea would produce if taken to be true. Contradictory as it may sound, the concept of the virtual entails something like a pragmaticism of the singular, which informs every aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy: his doctrine of faculties and his theory of praxis will be used as instances of this pervasiveness. This pragmatist reading of Deleuze could possibly shape an alternative path for contemporary pragmatism: instead of valorising its “edifying” (linguistic, historicistic, humanistic) tendency, Deleuze allows to highlight the vitality of the second vein of pragmatism, the “constructive,” empiricist, speculative, even metaphysical one.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 Wahl leads Deleuze to identify pragmatism and pluralism, and to define both through Russell’s axiom (...)

1Gilles Deleuze’s bizarre view of pragmatism could be summarized through three features. First, on a theoretical level, pragmatism is a thought of convention or habit, opposed to European essentialism: “To what convention is a given proposition due; what is the habit that constitutes its concept? This is the question posed by pragmatism” (Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 105-6). Second, drawing on Jean Wahl’s divulgation,1 Deleuze takes pragmatism to coincide with the ontological axiom of external relations, that prevents the totalization of being by any Hegelian whole: Deleuze seems almost to identify pragmatism with pluralism, to the point that his view has been described as a “pluralism without pragmatism” (Madelrieux 2015). Finally, external relations entail a practical task: “Relations will consequently be posited as something that can and must be instituted or invented” (Deleuze 1998: 58); “we understand the novelty of American thought when we see pragmatism as an attempt to transform the world, to think a new world or new man insofar as they create themselves” (ibid.: 86). This principle of “fidelity” or “hope” results in a “function of universal fraternity” (ibid.: 78) – Royce’s community of interpreters – opposed to the European, vertical society of fathers. Thus, rather than “a summary philosophical theory fabricated by Americans” (ibid.: 86), pragmatism is for Deleuze something like the American Weltanschauung specular to Russian socialism (ibid.: 86; Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 98). This mode of existence traces a “plane of immanence of radical experience” that makes of Anglo-Saxon philosophy “a free and wild creation of concepts” (Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 105).

  • 2 The widest attempt is that of the essays collected by Bowden, Bignall & Patton 2015.

2Even though these features are not enough to differentiate pragmatism from empiricism or pluralism, the many attempts to link Deleuze to pragmatism properly so called2 suggest the presence in his thought of a deeper vocation in the direction once indicated by Peirce, James and Dewey. This paper will explore a particular dimension of this affinity: Deleuze’s ontology of the virtual, that conceives entities in terms of their power (puissance: Spinoza’s potentia). I will show how Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza brings him near to Peirce’s pragmaticism, that identifies the meaning of an idea with its conditional capacity to produce effects, and how conversely Deleuze allows to think of Peirce’s pragmatic maxim in ethical terms. I will then use Deleuze’s doctrine of faculties and his theory of praxis, based on applications of his metaphysics of power, to redefine in Deleuzian terms the pragmatist concept of inquiry, thus showing how this “pragmaticism of the virtual” informs every aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy.

  • 3 The references to Dewey that will be found here and there should be taken precisely as an attempt t (...)

3Rather than claiming that Deleuze can be described as a pragmatist tout court – this would be a somehow useless point, and, as we will see, a difficult one to defend –,3 this paper will enact what Deleuze and Guattari (2005) called a “double becoming.” On the one hand, the understanding of Deleuze’s concepts of the virtual and of power would surely benefit from a comparison with Peirce’s pragmaticism. Much of the literature concerning Deleuze’s relations to other philosophers has proceeded through the creation of new assemblages – limitedly to pragmatism, assemblages with James’ radical empiricism (Flaxman 2015), Peirce’s theory of signs (Williams 2015; Drohan 2019) and semiotic inquiry (Semetsky 2004, 2006), with Rorty and Brandom’s anti-representationalism (Bowden 2015; Patton 2015), Shusterman’s somaesthetics (Malecki & Schleusener 2015) or with the pragmatic method itself (Williams 2017). These operations usually result in a clarification of Deleuze’s thought through the work of other philosophers, or in the opening of new lines of inquiry. Peircean metaphysics is a relatively unexplored field for the comparison with Deleuze: this should allow the paper to accomplish both the aims mentioned above, clarifying the reach of the question: what can it do?, and drawing new lines of flight that could stimulate further creative comparisons.

  • 4 My exposition of Deleuze’s philosophy will sometimes be almost informative, precisely because this (...)
  • 5 An appreciative assessment of this “edifying turn” may be found in Brandom 2011; for a critical ass (...)

4On the other hand – perhaps more importantly – pragmatism itself would benefit from such an operation.4 Nowadays, the predominant legacy of pragmatism relates to what Rorty (1995) called its edifying (linguistic, historicist and humanist) aspect: truth is a matter of expediency, the distinction between language users and non-language-users is the fundamental discontinuity in kind, and so on.5 Pragmatism is thus described as “the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones – no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of the objects, or of the mind, or of language” (Rorty 1982: 165), and it is opposed to any metaphysical commitment, since metaphysics is precisely “the belief in something non-human which justifies our deep attachments” (Rorty 2001: 89). This results in a “pragmatism without experience” (Bernstein 2010) mirrored in an “ethics without ontology” (Putnam 2004).

  • 6 I am thinking especially of the “speculative turn” in continental thought: cf. Bryant, Srnicek & Ha (...)

5Classical pragmatism presented however also a constructive – empiricist, speculative, even metaphysical – vein, centred on experience and synechism (Rorty 1995). Now, for Deleuze philosophy should be anything but edifying: he has famously rejected as silly the idea that philosophy should be conversational, adding an ironical reference to “Mr. Rorty” and his dinner conversations (Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 144). Rather, he advocates a full constructivism (ibid.: 35), and he would have agreed with his boldest critic when he writes that “the construction of a metaphysics remains the philosopher’s ideal, with the question being not ‘Is it still possible?’ but ‘Are we capable of it?’” (Badiou 2000: 100). A pragmatist reading of Deleuze will show how, when we search outside of neopragmatism, we find that the most constructive and metaphysical insights of Peirce, James and Dewey can still be taken as a source for inspiration – especially in times when “metaphysics” had ceased to be an embarrassing word in philosophy.6 The fact that Deleuze came to these insights not through the reading of the pragmatists, but through Bergson, Spinoza and Nietzsche, should only be taken as an index of the fruitfulness of studying “pragmatism outside the pragmatists,” or – to use an expression for which I will account later – of “virtualizing pragmatism.” The third and fourth sections of the paper, which illustrate Deleuze’s doctrine of faculties and his theory of praxis, will show that these insights can be used to build an overall “pragmatist metaphysics,” a consistent frame for the interpretation of our experience that does not share the antimetaphysical commitment of neopragmatism.

2. A Pragmaticism of the Virtual

2.1. From Essence to Power

6In a 1907 draft of a letter intended for The Nation, Peirce (R: 322) stresses the modal character of the pragmatic maxim he had formulated in How to make our ideas clear, restating it thus:

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings – especially in modifying habits or as implying capacities – you conceive the object of your conception to have. Then, your (interpretational) conception of those effects is the whole (meaning of) your conception of the object.

7It is only in recent years that, following some remarks from Peirce himself (CP 5.412, CP 6.490), Spinoza has been indicated as a fundamental ancestor of this maxim (Dea 2014; Fabbrichesi 2019a, 2019b). Spinoza was the first to show that “the substance of what one believes does not consist in any mere sensuous representation, but in how one would be disposed to behave” (Peirce 2004); more importantly for us, Spinoza was the agent of a revolution that, against traditional hylomorphic ontologies, revitalized Plato’s definition of being as dynamis (Soph. 247e), a capacity to produce and receive effects. This is possibly the greatest of “his extraordinary approaches toward pragmatism,” as Peirce (2004) calls them.

8One of Spinoza’s best-known concepts is conatus, the endeavor of a thing – identical to its essence – to avoid destruction: “The conatus with which each thing endeavors to persist in its own being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing itself” (Spinoza 2002: 283). This is a thrust to traditional hylomorphism. Essence is not a form imposed from above on an inert matter. Essence is equal to power:

By virtue and power I mean the same thing; that is, virtue, insofar as it is related to man, is mans very essence, or nature, insofar as he has power to bring about that which can be understood solely through the laws of his own nature. (Ibid.: 323)

9Spinoza is thus the philosopher who substituted Socrates’ ti esti with a more concrete philosophical question: what can it do? This reinterpretation of ontology in terms of power is the core of a silent revolution that after Spinoza took hold with American pragmatism: “Pragmatism is an attitude to understand each being in light of the question ‘What can it do?’ – not ‘What is it?’” (Fabbrichesi 2019a: 105). Among Spinozian scholars, this proto-pragmatist aspect of his thought is best highlighted by Deleuze (cf. Malecki & Schleusener 2015; Fabbrichesi 2019b). In the words of Massumi (2005: N), power

has been defined by Deleuze as a “capacity for existence,” “a capacity to affect or be affected,” a capacity to multiply connections that may be realized by a given “body” to varying degrees in different situations. It may be thought of as a scale of intensity or fullness of existence.

10Deleuze pursues Spinoza’s appeal that “nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do” (Spinoza 2002: 280). He makes clear that “essence is the same as power of action, and the power of action the same as the capacity to be affected” (Deleuze 1992: 225). The power of an entity is identical with the affects it is capable of, with what it is capable of inflicting and suffering, and to corroborate our power means to expand the range of these capacities.

11It must be noticed that Spinoza’s potentia is nothing like Aristotelian potency – at least, it is not opposed to actuality: it is something like a real potentiality, an operating agency that brings effects in the world. The claim that everything in the world is just like it should be follows from the exclusion of a merely potential dimension: “By reality and perfection I mean the same thing” (Spinoza 2002: 244). It is notoriously difficult to harmonize this keynote of Spinozism with the general project of the Ethics: to sketch the “naturae humanae exemplar” (ibid.: 322) to which virtuous men shall conform. Power is not an Aristotelian potency, but nor does it seem consistent with a Megarian actualism. In his early reading, Deleuze states this difficulty discerning in Spinozism a “physical view,” according to which a mode is “always as perfect as it can be,” and an “ethical view,” which not only believes in “mechanical changes in the affections, but also in dynamic changes in the capacity to be affected, and in ‘metaphysical’ changes of their essence itself” (Deleuze 1992: 225).

12It is here that Deleuze departs from Spinoza. While he has famously insisted on the importance of immanence, the core of Deleuze’s ontology lies in the Bergsonian distinction between two modalities of the real, the virtual and the actual. What matters to us is the fact that, for Deleuze, power is virtual, and the virtual consists itself of pure power. We shall see how this expansion of Spinozian ontology allows Deleuze to resolve some of its problems.

2.2. A Pragmaticism of the Singular

13Deleuze splits his plane of immanence through a dualism of tendencies. The actual is the modality which defines states of affairs and lived contents – what we normally experience through common sense and the forms of representation (identity, opposition, analogy, resemblance). But an entire realm of teeming chaos and inorganic life-forces is implicated in it. This is the virtual. It shall not be confused with the possible, since “the virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual” (Deleuze 1994: 208). It is rather a problematic modality: “The virtual possesses the reality of a task to be performed or a problem to be solved” (ibid.: 212). The virtual haunts the actual world of our normal experience in the form of a problematic and intensive potentiality, that asks to be actualized just like problems ask to be solved. Rather than comprising two distinct planes, Deleuze’s ontology can thus be described as “a single flat ontology with two sides, one side populated by virtual problems and the other by a divergent set of actual solutions to those problems” (DeLanda 2010: 104).

14Despite his commitment to the “overturning of Platonism” (Deleuze 1994: 59), this has brought to Deleuze’s ontology the charge of being a “Platonism of the virtual” (Badiou 2000: 45). Deleuze himself calls Ideas the problems that constitute the virtual, in a Kantian but also Platonic fashion. The question is: conceding to his critics that there is a sense in which Deleuze retains some form of Platonism, how does Platonism change in Deleuze’s hands?

15First, Deleuze is one of the latest exponents of the line of thought – Kant, Goethe, Maimon, Husserl – that brought ideas back to immanence. There is no hyperuranion: the virtual is immanent to its actualizations, every actual is pregnant of the virtual ideas it incarnates, there is a “mutual immanence of the two states of the event” (Deleuze 2015: 91). Second, ideas do not show a perfect self-identity, Plato’s auto kath’hautô: they are rather “hétéro kath’hétéro” (Toscano 2006: 158), dynamical systems of differential relationships; this also implies that, against Spinozian geometricity and necessitarianism, Deleuze valorizes Spinoza’s most vague exclamation – “nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do” (Spinoza 2002: 280) – and exploits it to define the determinate yet vague nature of the virtual, as “distinct-obscure.” Third – and here comes what makes of Deleuze’s metaphysics a “rejuvenated Platonism and even a completed Platonism” (Smith 2012: 16) – Deleuze insists that our affects are virtual (Deleuze 1986: 207; Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 163-4). They are differential modulations within a range of continuous variation, heterogeneously actualized in given situations (cf. Massumi 2002; DeLanda 2002). Affects define conditional capacities rather than actual affections. The idea or the singular essence is therefore defined by what a thing can do. We actually do this or that, depending on the situation, on motivation, on tiredness. But our essence is identical with what we could possibly do independently from empirical limitations. It is in this sense that ideas are power. Even if Deleuze has good reasons to keep the virtual distinct from the possible, we may define the virtual as identical to the range of possible capacities that actual things may display in the most different situations.

  • 7 In both cases, actualization happens by means of a symmetry rupture or asymmetrization from the ori (...)
  • 8 For a reading of Peirce as a philosopher of power, see Frigerio (forthcoming). The same affinities (...)

16The analogy with Peirce’s notion of generality is evident. Deleuze defines the virtual as a continuous multiplicity whose elements are folded into one another in such a way that they cannot be sundered without changing the nature of the multiplicity itself. This is very much like the Peircean definition of continuum – that unlike the Cantorian continuum cannot be analytically decomposed in points (Zalamea 2012) – as “something whose possibilities of determination no multitude of individuals can exhaust” (CP 6.170).7 Peirce insists that “no present actual thought (which is a mere feeling) has any meaning, any intellectual value; for this lies not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought may be connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts; so that the meaning of a thought is altogether something virtual” (CP 5.289; italics added). Or else: “the mind is virtual, not in a series of moments, not capable of existing except in a space of time – nothing in so far as it is at any one moment” (CP 8.248). For Peirce, meaning is a would-be, a disposition inexhaustible by what it is at any moment, and signs are a power to refer to something else. This is the ground of pragmaticism: Peirce treats meaning just like Spinoza treats essences, as pure power.8

  • 9 A common bridge between Deleuze, Peirce and the questions of generality and realism would be the in (...)

17It is true that Deleuze cannot agree with Peirce on the importance of generality. Difference and Repetition starts with the claim that “repetition is not generality”: while “generality expresses a point of view according to which one term may be exchanged or substituted for another,” repetition “concerns non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities” (Deleuze 1994: 1). Deleuze is not a thinker of the general; but he is far from being a mere nominalist. Both generality and particularity or individuality are modes of the actual: to the “generality of the particular” – the difference between concrete individuals and lawlike generals governing them – the virtual opposes a “universality of the singular” (ibid.), “a singularity opposed to the particulars subsumed under laws, a universal opposed to the generalities which give rise to laws” (ibid.: 5). As Deleuze writes, “there is no abstract universal beyond the individual or beyond the particular and the general: it is singularity itself which is ‘pre-individual’” (ibid.: 176).9

  • 10 We lack the space for a description – which would only confirm the similarities with Peirce – of th (...)

18What does Deleuze mean by this? Consider a horse (and let us simplify things a bit). A Platonist would say that it is an instantiation of the idea of horseness. An Aristotelian would say that it is a form imposed upon an indeterminate matter. Peirce would probably say that my idea of a horse is constituted by what I would be disposed to do if I took it for true: a horse is something I can ride, for which I should prepare a stable and proper food, and so on. This remains however the idea of a horse in general, and it is only to horseness that Peirce concedes full reality. On the contrary, Deleuze brings this generality within the individual, making it a universality of the singular. There is no horseness, just this or that horse, but no horse is exhausted by what it is at a certain moment. The universal is immanent to the individual: it is its power, meant – with Peirce – as the conditional capacity to produce and receive effects, but – against Peirce – as always relative to a unique individual.10

  • 11 Some Peircean remarks are ambiguous to say the least: “Generality is either of that negative sort w (...)
  • 12 Fernando Zalamea’s words on the relation between continuity and plasticity in Peirce are perfectly (...)
  • 13 For an overview, see Fisch (1986, chapters 9 and 10). The question of the evolution of Peirce’s rea (...)

19Now, Peirce famously had a threefold conception of modalities: there are the possible, the actual, and the general (cf. Fisch 1986: 177). Peirce’s and Deleuze’s actuals clearly converge; but Deleuze’s virtual covers for both possibility and generality: reminding of both the universality of thirdness and the spontaneity and novelty of firstness, singularity could help to solve the classificatory problems of Peirce’s phaneroscopy, which often has difficulties in distinguishing neatly thirdness and firstness.11 As Ibri notes, Peirce always progresses by means of tripartitions, but the real categorical opposition is that between secondness – actuality – and the other two: “secondness, which is represented by the universe of existing individuals in which each one is definitely this for not being that, translates into a plurality of acts with two potentialities: firstness and thirdness” (Ibri 2015: 54). Accordingly, Deleuze “always gives a two-fold definition of the virtual […] using both singularities (unactualized tendencies) and what he calls affects (unactualized capacities to affect and be affected)” (DeLanda 2002: 62). Here, the universality of the singular stands for Peirce’s generality, whereas affects stand for possibilities to be actualized,12 but the two dimensions are implicated in one another and separable only by means of abstraction. The interplay between possibility and generality remains a problematic knot in Peircean literature,13 but the Deleuzian concept of the virtual suggests that this could be a productive tension rather than a contradiction to be dispelled.

2.3. From Can to Ought

20As a modality escaping both particularity and generality through a peculiar conditionality inherent in a single being, the virtual allows to consider an entity’s variations in affects beyond its actual behavior. This is a condition for an ethics centred upon power: Deleuzian ethics consists precisely in liberating “the singular [power] imprisoned within the limits of the individual” (Deleuze 1994: 113). Paradoxical as it may sound, Deleuze’s ethics can thus be defined as a pragmaticism of the singular, in which the full power of the entity plays the part of the final interpretant, the true nature of meaning in Peirce’s semiotics, “that which would finally be decided to be the true interpretation if consideration of the matter were carried so far that an ultimate opinion were reached” (CP 8.184).

21In his lessons on Spinoza, Deleuze uses one of Peirce’s favourite examples, the diamond: “What will a diamond be able to do?” (Deleuze 2007: 81; cf. CP 5.403). He thus reproduces the descriptive core of Peirce’s pragmaticism. But Deleuze’s realism of power implies an ethical task as well. It constitutes an ethical-ontological test: it only really exists that which reaches its full power, unleashing its virtual capacities at the maximum degree. It is a question of “power as sufficient reason of the quantity of reality” (Deleuze 1992: 86). The discrimination is not between those who have great power and those who have little, but between those who actualize what they are capable of and those who don’t: “the smallest becomes equivalent to the largest once it is not separated from what it can do” (Deleuze 1994: 38); “The most profound difference in kind is between the average forms and the extreme forms” (ibid.: 54). Ontology and ethics ground each other: it is a famous Humean principle that there is no passage from is to ought; but we arrive naturally at ought once we take can as the starting point. Hence the double status of the question: what can it do? First, its descriptive status: in defining beings we no longer search for essences or forms; rather, what we need is something like an ethology of affects: “we avoided defining a body by its organs and functions, we will avoid defining it by Species or Genus characteristics; instead we will seek to count its affects” (Deleuze & Guattari 2005: 257). Second, its normative status: “To do all we can is our ethical task properly so called” (Deleuze 1992: 269). The dispositional would-be that defines us must be actualized.

22One great problem of Spinozism was how to make the physical view and the ethical view consistent with one another. Deleuze’s internally articulated immanentism provides a solution: the actual, our body as we commonly experience it, corresponds to the physical view. It is limited by external conditions, by our finite intellection of the real, by what Spinoza called passions. But the virtual power our bodies involve accounts for the ethical view, defining what we could conditionally do outside of empirical limitations. Our power is not a mere potency: it is immanent in our body, real in its effects even if incapable of ever being fully actual. It is virtual. Deleuze’s metaphysics converts Peirce’s pragmatic maxim and scholastic realism into an accomplished realism of power, and in an ethical task that does not reproduce the double-view problem of Spinozism.

3. What Can a Faculty Do?

  • 14 This is the locution used by Sartre 1991 to indicate the pre-individual reality from which egos spr (...)

23Another name for the virtual plane implicated in the actual is transcendental field:14 the virtual accounts for power, but at the same time it defines the transcendental conditions for the production of the real and of experience. One of Deleuze’s ambitions is in fact to rejuvenate transcendental philosophy, elaborating a post-Kantian pragmatism that searches for the conditions of experience beyond its actual manifestations. Here the transcendental is not referred to the conditions of possible experience of a preformed subject: that Kant determined the conditions of possible experience means he only inquired the conditions of what common sense allows as experience – namely, the lived contents of actual experience. Philosophy is instead a quest for the conditions of real experience: this means that the search must be pushed to the virtual, to what common sense often regards as impossible.

24This is an important point. For both Peirce and Deleuze, what follows from continuity is an impossibility: the impossibility of complete determination of meaning, or vagueness as a fundamental feature of semiosis, for Peirce, and for Deleuze the impossibility of telling in advance. The virtual is determinate yet vague (“distinct-obscure”) in such a way that we cannot predict what an encounter will result in. This is a positive deficiency, a further affirmation that what something actually does is not identical to what it virtually can: identifying the two domains would be an ontological, epistemological and ethical error. The fundamental reproach of Deleuze against Kant is in fact that he traced or copied the transcendental (virtual) field on the empirical (actual) field (Deleuze 1994: 143). He thought the transcendental as a mere redoubling of the actual. Searching for the conditions of real experience means instead to ask what experience can be, or: what can a faculty do?

25What can it do? is not a question which seeks for a straight answer. An ethical silence is required. We do not determine in advance what something can do: discovering it “is a long affair of experimentation, requiring a lasting prudence,” since “you do not know beforehand what a body or a mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement” (Deleuze 1988: 125). Copying the transcendental on the empirical, Kant broke that sacred silence, creating a normative image of thought that identifies faculties with what they actually are; he determined how far each faculty could legitimately (de facto) go, missing what they could claim by right – that is, their whole range of power.

26What Deleuze calls transcendental empiricism is precisely the practice of letting faculties claim their own rights without delimiting them in advance or pretending to represent them through a normative image of thought. Empiricism becomes transcendental “only when we apprehend directly in the sensible that which can only be sensed, the very being of the sensible: difference” (Deleuze 1994: 56-7). The virtual is a complex system of differential relationships, and this is why difference is the “noumenon closest to the phenomenon” (ibid.: 222). But difference is also the imperceptible itself, that which cannot be sensed, from the point of view of the ordinary exercise of faculties. In everyday experience we never encounter difference in its pure form. Here comes Deleuze’s challenge: the being of the sensible is that which cannot be sensed, but which can only be sensed. This apparently contradictory form hides a rigorous meaning.

27Let us consider an example. The being of hearing is silence (Deleuze 1998: 173). Silence is by definition that which cannot be heard. But how to approach silence if not through hearing? Transcendental empiricism answers: you shall discover a new way of hearing, different from the ordinary one. Deleuze defines Kantian recognition as the model that invites “all the faculties to exercise themselves upon an object supposedly the same” (Deleuze 1994: 167): the faculties converge upon the same object that can be felt, saw, touched, heard. But each faculty owns the possibility of a superior exercise. This happens when a faculty encounters its own limit, which is also that in the world which pertains exclusively to it, its condition. Silence is at the same time that which cannot be heard (through the ordinary use of hearing) and that which can only be heard (through a superior exercise of hearing). Musicians like John Cage or Julia Holter prove that we can in fact hear silence, and also that when we do our faculties are disoriented: each goes its own way, ceasing to converge upon a single object. This is where the faculties find their superior exercise – where they discover their power:

The transcendental form of a faculty is indistinguishable from its disjointed, superior or transcendent exercise. Transcendent in no way means that the faculty addresses itself to objects outside the world but, on the contrary, that it grasps that in the world which concerns it exclusively and brings it into the world. The transcendent exercise must not be traced from the empirical exercise precisely because it apprehends that which cannot be grasped from the point of view of common sense […] That is why the transcendental is answerable to a superior empiricism which alone is capable of exploring its domain and its regions. (Ibid.: 143)

  • 15 As noted by Stuhr 2015, Maimon’s method of internal genesis could be applied to Dewey’s theory of i (...)

28Deleuze merges Kant’s aesthetics and dialectics in order to abandon the commonsensical image of thought. It is true that the valorization of common sense is a tenet of pragmatism, and that a split between everyday experience and some “new ways” of experiencing seems to entail a dualistic account of inquiry. However, we must keep in mind that what Deleuze is challenging here is the normative use of common sense: Peirce himself stated that Kant’s a priori method “does not differ in a very essential way from that of authority” (CP 5.383). Transcendental empiricism is an experimental practice: it owes its apparently oxymoronic name to the fact that, against the essentialism and normativism of Kant’s doctrine of faculties, the transcendental conditions of real experience must be discovered experimentally, empirically, within experience itself. Space, time and concepts are not given forms we apply to various encounters, but relational creations occurred in the process of experience itself. Identically, for Dewey, “all logical forms (with their characteristic properties) arise within the operation of inquiry” (Dewey 1944: 3-4). This is the method of “internal genesis” that Maimon opposed to Kant’s “external conditioning” (cf. Deleuze 1983: 91),15 and that allows Deleuze to abolish the application of the scheme-content distinction to faculties: there are no conditions preexisting the conditioned; conditions arise within inquiry together with the conditioned experiences. The question proper to a pragmatic theory of faculties – what can a faculty do? – can be solved only through a pragmatic method – experimentation. In the end, faculties are no longer confined to a fixed role within an essentialist, a priori scheme; they must be conceived as identical to their superior exercise, to their power, their capacity for variation and intensification. This post-Kantian pragmaticism results in a “pedagogy of the senses” (Deleuze 1994: 237), a true gnoseo-ethics, and the inquiry turns into the practical task to elevate each faculty to its superior use.

4. Praxis: The Theory of Inquiry

29Deleuzian ethics can be described as “a kind of ethical pragmatism, which defines ethics as the practice that cultivates affirmative modes of relation, active forces, and values” (Braidotti 2012: 173). Spinoza allows Deleuze (1992: 289) to say that “the different kinds of knowledge are also different ways of living, different modes of existing.” I will show how Deleuze’s theory of praxis represents the natural continuation of his original model of inquiry.

  • 16 This is just another way of expressing what Deleuze means with the famous concepts of deterritorial (...)

30For Deleuze, every actual situation can be considered as an answer to a virtual problem: these two sides are always mutually implicated. Here another important qualification that differentiates the virtual from Platonic ideas must be added: the virtual can be modified by its own actualizations. Just like an answer modifies the problem it was meant to solve (for instance, photography and cinema modified the concept of art itself while answering an artistic problem), every actualization has a feedback effect on what generated it. Thus, there is a movement of actualization, from the virtual to the actual, but also a virtualization or counter-actualization (Deleuze 1990: 151) that goes back to the virtual and can possibly modify it. Pierre Lévy has provided the best account of Deleuzian virtualization, defining it as the “transition to a problematic” (Lévy 1998: 169): “The virtualization of a given entity consists in determining the general question to which it responds, in mutating the entity in the direction of this question and redefining the initial actuality as the response to a specific question” (ibid.: 26). Virtualization consists in tracing, within the actual situation, the problem it involves and in affecting this problem.16 If the virtual is the transcendental field defining the conditions of reality, then we can say that “the conditioned is capable of producing new conditions” (Murphy 1998: 225): Deleuze’s theory of praxis is not only about how to act, but about how to change the very conditions of the situations in which we act.

31This shift, from the simple action to the transformation of conditions, is best explained by Deleuze while accounting for the passage from classical to modern cinema. Subduing time to movement, the “movement-image” typical of classical cinema resulted in a “cinema of behaviour” defined by a very strong “sensory-motor link” (Deleuze 1986: 155): every situation is a cliché, a “sensory-motor image of the thing” (Deleuze 1989: 20); characters have a prebuilt scheme indicating how to act properly, something like Bergson’s automatic recognition. But a revolution, anticipated by Yasujiro Ozu and Orson Welles, explodes after World War Two in Italian neorealism and culminates with French Nouvelle Vague, unbinding the “time-image” from its subordination to movement. The essence of time-image is the destruction of clichés, which are substituted by “purely optical and sound situations” (ibid.: 47). The characters do not know how to act anymore, and are obliged to watch: they become clairvoyants, seers, or visionaries. The spectators do not wonder what will happen in the next scene, but what should be seen in every image. Both characters and spectators are caught in a “becoming visionary,” and the aim of modern cinema is “to produce a means of knowledge and action out of pure vision” (ibid.: 18). This means that faculties must be brought to their superior exercise: in its purest forms, modern cinema obliges to practice transcendental empiricism.

32In classical cinema, the characters acted within an actual situation, without any possibility of changing its conditions. But the time-image is a virtual image: modern cinema allows the characters to go back to the virtual involved in the actual images. This movement of virtualization, the same described by Lévy, is best shown as a practical task in Deleuze’s analysis of Akira Kurosawa’s cinema. Before knowing how to act, Kurosawa’s characters search for the virtual problem or for the conditions of the situation, tracing the data or givens that can be found within it:

the givens […] are not simply those of the situation, they are the givens of a question which is hidden in the situation, wrapped up in the situation, and which the hero must extract in order to be able to act, in order to be able to respond to the situation. The response therefore is not merely that of the action to the situation, but, more profoundly, a response to the question, or to the problem that the situation was not sufficient to disclose. (Ibid.: 189)

33This is the gesture that Deleuze calls idiotic. It is typical of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, but it is found in almost every film by Kurosawa (just think of his adaptation of The Idiot). It consists in failing to act directly because of a feeling of urgency towards a deeper question that only the idiot, giving up common sense and clichés, can discover:

Instead of absorbing a situation in order to produce a response which is merely an explosive action, it is necessary to absorb a question in order to produce an action which would truly be a considered response […] The only response consists in providing givens again, re-stocking the world with givens, putting something into circulation, as much as possible, however little it may be in such a way that through these new or renewed givens, questions which are less cruel arise and are disseminated, questions which are more joyful, closer to nature and to life. (Ibid.: 190-2)

34The idiotic gesture results in a “speculative pragmatism” that consists in “sensing the virtualities present within this situation” (Debaise & Stengers 2014: 18). This is probably the best description of Deleuze’s version of inquiry, and his theory of praxis can be condensed thus: we must problematize the situation, give up the sensory-motor scheme to search for the only creative answer to the problem. “One must tear from a situation the question which it contains, discover the givens of the secret question which alone permit a response to it and without which even the action would not be a response” (Deleuze 1989: 189).

35Talking about the relation between learning and problems, Dewey once wrote that “the depth to which a sense of the problem, of the difficulty, sinks, determines the quality of the thinking that follows; and any habit of teaching that encourages the pupil for the sake of a successful recitation or of a display of memorized information to glide over the thin ice of genuine problems reverses the true method of mind-training” (Dewey 1933: 45). Having a mechanized scheme of reaction that allows to perform what Deleuze calls an “explosive action” often forecloses a serious evaluation of the problem involved in the situation, together with the “considered response” this would bring. Just like virtual essences correspond to the power of an entity, virtual problems define the potentiality for change and improvement in that situation. It is important to notice that Deleuze does not really prefer the virtual over the actual: rather, he prefers a certain configuration of the actual over another. What he despises is the exhausted actual, the actual emptied of its virtual reserve of potentiality, separated from its power: “A state of affairs cannot be separated from the potential through which it takes effect and without which it would have no activity or development” (Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 153). His conceptual hero, the idiot, is the true inquirer, the one who insists on the problem instead of overlooking it for the sake of reaction, fostering the transformation of the very conditions of our actions and unleashing the virtual potentialities contained in the situation itself. Must we say that the true pragmatist should always be an idiot as well?

5. Conclusion: What Can Pragmatism Do?

36Transcendental empiricism and virtual praxis are just two examples of how Deleuze’s metaphysics of power informs every aspect of his philosophy. A pragmaticist reading in the light of Peirce should have helped to clarify the reach of Deleuze’s question – what can it do? – and to show how it can be used to shape an accomplished “pragmatist metaphysics.”

37The aim of this paper was not to argue that Deleuze can be defined as a pragmatist tout court. There are indeed some Deleuzian claims that can be hardly included in a pragmatist framework – above all, his use of a vocabulary made to stress the dualities implied in his philosophy. Still, we may notice that it was a “dualism” of existence and reality that grounded Peirce’s pragmaticism; also, despite his commitment to a doubly articulated ontology, Deleuze’s pragmatics of conditions shows how the actual and the virtual are not more separated than situations and problems are in Dewey’s theory of inquiry: they are two complementary, mutually implicated descriptions of experience and being that do not entail the endorsement of any dualistic metaphysics. The same goes for his doctrine of faculties: Deleuze’s opposition between everyday experience and the superior use of faculties should be read as an urge to prevent a normative image of thought from restraining what our faculties are capable of, allowing them to search for the problems involved in every situation.

38Finally, it is true that Deleuze does not fit the neopragmatic tenet of an “ethics without ontology” (Putnam 2004): it is the achievement of virtual power that sets the objective of ethics, and the program of individual and collective praxis is set by the virtual problems corresponding to the potentiality for change of a situation. Still, Deleuzian ethics cannot be described as a foundationalist ethics. There is no ethics without ontology; but conversely, there is no ontology without ethics. Actants strive to actualize their virtual power, but the operation of virtualization allows for “dynamic changes in the capacity to be affected, and […] changes of their essence itself” (Deleuze 1992: 225). Our actual actions affect and modify the virtual problems they answer to; our public praxis results in a thorough transformation of being; the conditioned has always a powerful feedback effect on its conditions. Is, can and ought are caught in a continuous process of mutual determination. Ontology grounds ethics, but ethics grounds ontology in return.

39More importantly, reading Deleuze as a pragmatist could have benefic effects for pragmatism itself. The appreciation that pragmatism receives today is often limited to its “edifying” (linguistic, historicist, humanistic) side. But inspiration for a renewal of the “constructive” (empiricist, speculative, even metaphysical) side of classical pragmatism can be found outside of neopragmatism: Deleuze is a symbol of this possibility of deterritorializing or virtualizing pragmatism, demonstrating how unpreceded assemblages with other philosophers could create new paths for pragmatism itself. The originality of the pragmatist movement was not limited to its edifying side. A pragmatist interrogation around pragmatism would ask: what can pragmatism do? As a pragmatist reading of Deleuze shows, much of the power of pragmatism is lost when we forget that it may undertake not only an edifying route, but also a constructive one.

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1 Wahl leads Deleuze to identify pragmatism and pluralism, and to define both through Russell’s axiom of external relations: “Pragmatism, regarded as the consideration of precise consequences, is but the logical result of that whereof pluralism is the metaphysical result” (Wahl 1925: 117). Deleuze’s other source for American philosophy, Gérard Deledalle, leads him to consider pragmatism as a reflection of American “ideology” (Deledalle 1983: 14).

2 The widest attempt is that of the essays collected by Bowden, Bignall & Patton 2015.

3 The references to Dewey that will be found here and there should be taken precisely as an attempt to temper the divergences between Deleuzian ontology and pragmatism.

4 My exposition of Deleuze’s philosophy will sometimes be almost informative, precisely because this paper is addressed particularly to a pragmatist public.

5 An appreciative assessment of this “edifying turn” may be found in Brandom 2011; for a critical assessment, see Giladi 2015.

6 I am thinking especially of the “speculative turn” in continental thought: cf. Bryant, Srnicek & Harman 2011.

7 In both cases, actualization happens by means of a symmetry rupture or asymmetrization from the original continuum: for Peirce, see Zalamea (2012: 19, 40); for Deleuze, DeLanda (2002: 27).

8 For a reading of Peirce as a philosopher of power, see Frigerio (forthcoming). The same affinities may be noticed turning to Peirce’s definition of habit: in describing the ontological status of habit, Clare Carlisle (2014: 11) writes properly that “habitual tendencies may share something in common with what Gilles Deleuze calls ‘the virtual,’ which is as real as actuality, as dynamic as potentiality, and as myriad and shifting as possibility.”

9 A common bridge between Deleuze, Peirce and the questions of generality and realism would be the inspiration both draw from Duns Scotus (see Mayorga 2009 for Peirce, Di Maio 2020 for Deleuze).

10 We lack the space for a description – which would only confirm the similarities with Peirce – of the way these power-ideas are fused into the virtual continuum. To make it intuitively clear, we could recur to Claudio Paolucci’s use of the concept of the common (“il comune”) against the “type ideology” of many Peircean scholars. According to Paolucci (whose reading of Peirce is strongly mediated by Deleuze), this concept allows to “unmask the false opposition between singular and general […] and substitute it with the opposition between singular and regular” (Paolucci 2010: 396): the common, in which singularity and generality are reconciled, is not something which is valid in the same way for everything, but “something which demands to be valid for everyone singularly” (ibid.: 395), something which holds for many in peculiar and irreducible ways. On the concept of the common, see also Fabbrichesi 2012.

11 Some Peircean remarks are ambiguous to say the least: “Generality is either of that negative sort which belongs to the merely potential, as such, and this is peculiar to the category of quality; or it is that positive kind which belongs to conditional necessity, and this is peculiar to the category of law” (CP 1.427). Equally exemplary is the fact that, in the last years of his cosmological research, Peirce uses the Platonic concept of idea as a terminological lieutenant for this phenomenal indiscernibility (see Esposito 1980: ch. 5): ideas act as firsts – Peirce reads Platonic ideas as real possibilities (CP 6.206) – but also as thirds – they guide the becoming of the material world with their “creative power of reasonableness” (CP 5.520).

12 Fernando Zalamea’s words on the relation between continuity and plasticity in Peirce are perfectly consistent with DeLanda’s description of virtuality: “In the continuum, beyond an object’s singularity or its external contingencies, the structure and the intrinsic richness of concepts take precedence. On the other hand, the progressive forces which transform the particular into a habit (‘generalizing tendency’) may be better observed in plastic contexts. Where plasticity is at work, beyond the statics of particulars, dynamic transformations and extrinsic evolution are at hand” (Zalamea 2012: 110-1). According to Zalamea’s “horotic dialectics,” continuity is to “general intrinsic structure” what plasticity is to “general extrinsic transformation.” Identically, in DeLanda’s description, singularities accomplish the role of the continuum that defines the structure of the idea, whereas affects are the agents of plasticity, determining the conditional capacity of the idea to be actualized according to situations. Together, they define power as the stuff of the idea.

John Rajchman too has detected the affinity between Deleuze’s singularity and Peirce’s firstness: “this ‘indefiniteness’ or ‘vagueness’ is not a logical deficiency or incoherence, but, rather, as with what Peirce called ‘firstness,’ it is a kind of power or chance, a ‘freshness’ of what has not yet been made definite by habit or law. Thus, as with Peirce’s talk of a ‘heterogeneity’ that comes first, Deleuze speaks of a logical ‘disparity’ that is neither a ‘diversity’ nor a simple disorder; he speaks of a ‘disparation’ that does not divide a space into distinct parts, but rather so disperses or scatters it to allow the chance for something new to emerge” (Rajchman 2000: 53).

13 For an overview, see Fisch (1986, chapters 9 and 10). The question of the evolution of Peirce’s realism should also be considered since, as Mayorga 2009 has shown, his “realicism” encompasses nominalist and idealist elements as well.

14 This is the locution used by Sartre 1991 to indicate the pre-individual reality from which egos spring through reflection.

15 As noted by Stuhr 2015, Maimon’s method of internal genesis could be applied to Dewey’s theory of inquiry as well.

16 This is just another way of expressing what Deleuze means with the famous concepts of deterritorialization and line of flight.

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Electronic reference

Christian Frigerio, Virtualizing PragmatismEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIV-2 | 2022, Online since 17 October 2022, connection on 27 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Christian Frigerio

University of Milan

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