How Can We Avoid Relativism?

by Beth Metcalf

Since Alan Sokal’s hoax perpetrated on a philosophical journal, philosophers lumped under the heading “postmodern” have come under attack.  Deleuze is one of those accused of being an “intellectual imposter” who abuses scientific terms.  The critics fancy themselves to be champions of scientific objectivism in opposition to postmodern relativism.  But how can the critics think Deleuze uses terms in a scientific sense?  How can they mistake him for a relativist?  Deleuze writes as a philosopher, not a scientist.  He understands that relativism is a problem for philosophy.  It is a problem that cannot be solved by merely entering into the classical debate among clashing relative opinions.  Deleuze addresses the philosophical problem of relativism by changing how the problem is posited.    

The classical positing of the problem presumes a negative structure of scientific objectivity or subjective moral value -- objectivism or moral relativism.  Stephen Jay Gould addressed the problem by saying that scientific truth and moral value are separate and nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA).  Sam Harris in ‘The Moral Landscape’ claims that scientific objectivity can determine morality.  While Gould’s NOMA creates an opposition between the magisteria (1), Harris’s claim leads to a scientific reductionism that limits morality to merely that which does not violate the objective (i.e. intersubjective normative) conditions of our human well-being. Both sides still assume the classical negative structure of the problem (opposition or limitation) that Deleuze calls the Representational Image of Thought.  This classical model assumes (Difference & Repetition 203) “the limitation of the One by the many and the opposition of the many to the One”.  Neither side allows for any real creative difference, because both are in the unchanging structure of conceptual identity. Whenever forces are negative (opposition or limitation), they are in the image of a prior conceptual possibility.  Deleuze says (DR 211), “What difference can there be between the existent [actual] and the non-existent [virtual] if the non-existent is already possible, already included in the concept and having all the characteristics that the concept confers upon it as a possibility?.....Difference can no longer be anything but the negative determined by the concept: either the limitation imposed by possibles upon each other in order to be realized, or the opposition of the possible to the reality of the real….”  The negative structure of opposition-limitation assumes a prior conceptual possibility of determination.  This structure is the assumption that we already know what is possible and what is not.

Deleuze is not an enemy of scientific objectivity.  (Of course, science must inform our political and moral choices).  Nor does he advocate “anything goes” relativism.  (Relativism would be impossible to consistently defend).  Rather, Deleuze rejects the whole structure of the classical debate that opposes objectivism to moral relativism.  Philosophy must not be opposed to scientific objectivity.  However, it cannot be reduced to science either.  When we assume the Classical Representational worldview, we succumb to a scientific reductionism that confuses philosophy with science.  This Classical view cannot take us beyond the interchangeability between one universalizing objective Truth and many relative perspectives.  It is this classical structure that we must question if we are to overcome relativism.    

In America today we see a religious-political threat to science.  Religious creationism and far right agendas are opposed to scientific objectivity.  And even though creationists believe in religious absolutes, they try to use a strategy of relativism to claim that their worldview is just as scientifically valid as evolutionary theory and should therefore get equal time in public education.  But if scientists blame Deleuze’s “postmodernism” for this relativistic worldview, they blame a potential ally in their struggle against relativism.  Classical Representational assumptions cannot be philosophical foundation for the real difference of scientific evolutionary theory.  Darwin gives us the best supported scientific theory so far for species’ change through time.  And science does not need philosophy for empirical support.  But classical philosophy cannot be a good historical-cultural foundation for a worldview of real change through time.  At best, it can be the metaphysical foundation for an opposition between fixism and evolutionism, with no real difference between them (2).  When the philosophical foundation is already extended into one fixed oppositional structure of variability; we presuppose one Transcendent, Unchanging Conceptual Image of Identity from which no real difference can evolve. 

Richard Dawkins is one of the critics of “postmodernism” who “disrobes” Deleuze and Guattari as “intellectual impostors” for using a pseudo-scientific style of writing.  Dawkins still labors under the classical assumption that philosophical language must conform to the negative structure (opposition-limitation).  However, according to Deleuze, that classical structure is still a theological (3) vision.  Deleuze writes (Logic of Sense 281), “One no longer needs to believe in God.  We seek rather the “structure,” that is, the form which may be filled with beliefs, but the structure has no need to be filled in order to be called “theological.”  Theology is now the science of nonexisting entities, the manner in which these entities….animate language and make for it this glorious body which is divided into disjunctions.”  From Deleuze’s philosophical point of view, the atheist Richard Dawkins is still too theological. 

The Classical Representational structure is the Image of Unchanging Transcendence.  It is the Conceptual Identity of Self-World-God without real difference.  It cannot be a philosophical foundation for modern evolutionary science, because it cannot allow for real transitional difference.  Likewise, it cannot account for real historical change or cultural difference.  When science assumes an already given homogeneous and universalizing structure, Deleuze-Bergson calls this a “badly analyzed composite” that philosophy must question --- not in order to oppose science, but in order to give our scientific worldview the metaphysical foundation it lacks.  Whereas the data of science are assumed to be empirically given, philosophy must inquire into that by which the given is given.  Philosophy is not opposed to science.  It merely has a different vocation.  The scientific function is an actualization of reference without consistency.  The philosophical concept is virtual consistency without reference.  The philosophical concept does not resemble the scientific function.  Deleuze’s philosophy of univocity can provide a post-classical foundation for real change in duration.  It is the philosophical vision of pure immanence and creative difference.    

In Empiricism and Subjectivity, Deleuze explains his reading of Hume.  Hume is usually understood from the perspective of the classical tradition.  However, Deleuze sees something new in his reading of Hume.  In chapter 6, Deleuze says that he distrusts the objections often raised against Hume’s empiricism.  He says that most criticisms raised against the great philosophers are philosophical objections in name only.  A good philosophical criticism must take into consideration that a philosophical theory is not a solution to a problem already structured, but the necessary implications of a formulated question.  If one is to criticize this question, one must consider the conditions that make the question possible.  We cannot criticize a philosophical question by assuming as already given ‘What things are’ or ‘How things are related’.  To do so would be to assume that which philosophy must question.  It is the philosophical question itself that presents things in a certain light.  Critics can only ask whether the question which presents things in that light is a good and rigorous question.  Only one kind of criticism is philosophical.  Does the questioning of the philosopher force the nature of things enough?  Questions about psychological intentions, historical causes, or foundations assumed to be already structured, have nothing to do with philosophy.  They are questions which confuse philosophy with science.  Philosophy must question that by which the sensible given is given as object for science. 

Classical tradition asks, ‘What is true?’ --- Objectivism or Relativism? --- Determinism or Free Will? --- Rationalism or Empiricism? --- etc.  But these questions, when posited in this oppositional manner, are not good or rigorous questions.  They do not force the nature of things enough.  Such oppositional thinking keeps both our knowledge and our sense experience inside an identity of a presupposed concept.  All oppositional relations of thought and experience are internally related to a prior way of thinking them possible.  This classical thought is the Transcendent Representational Image.  It assumes we already know what objects are and what relations there can be.  As long as questions are posited in this classical way, we assume matter is structured as many numerically distinct entities (unchanging and continuously existent) internally related in one form of conceptual identity.  No real creative or singular difference can be derived from it.

In asking Hume’s question through a becoming with Deleuze’s univocity, there is a change in the nature of the question.  Deleuze’s reading of Hume reveals hidden secrets of empiricism.  Hume does not ask, ‘How does the subject know the object that is opposed to it?’   Rather, he asks, ‘How is the subject constituted inside the given?’  Hume’s atomism and associationism are developments of this question.  The question, when posed in this way, does not assume a given content already structured, or a subject already constituted.  Hume’s associationism must not be confused with relations internal to their terms or with a conceptual structure encompassing its terms.  That would be to presuppose more than what is given in sense impressions.  Rather, relations are external to their terms without a prior concept. 

For Hume, mind is a collection of ideas in the imagination.  Hume’s question, then, is ‘How does mind become subject?’ ‘How does imagination become faculty?’  Hume says there is no constancy or uniformity in how ideas are associated in the imagination.  So, imagination must become a faculty of human nature through other principles.  These principles of association (continguity, resemblance, and causality) build a constancy of imagination to form a system.  Therefore, association is the nature of imagination and gives it enough constancy and uniformity to make the mind an object of a human science.  Imagination becomes human nature because principles of association make it constant and settled.  Hume’s principles of association are laws inferred by effects in the imagination.  They are not determinate causes.  Therefore, whereas science looks for theories of cause and effect, the domain of philosophy questions the virtual-transcendental conditions upon which empirical science may become actualized.  Science is empiricism, but philosophy is transcendental empiricism.

So, the philosophical questions must take on a new form.  How can a science of humanity be constituted?  If the human mind is to become an object of science, how can we find in this object enough constancy and uniformity to call it an object of scientific inquiry?  How can the subjective human mind become its own object?  Deleuze says that since a psychology of mind is not possible, Hume changes the problem.  Only a psychology of the mind’s affections can constitute a science of the human mind.  But this is not just a question about the human sciences.  Even a philosophy of the natural sciences must ask how the given is given.  Philosophy must question the constitution of the mind’s affections prior to the presentation of objects for science. 

Therefore, Deleuze’s Hume takes empiricism beyond the classical tradition of the Representational Image of Thought.  If ideas are not to presuppose anything more than what is contained in sensory impressions, then we must no longer assume that the mind’s associations are already given along with sense impressions.  Relations are external and heterogeneous to their terms.  That means we must no longer assume relations internal to a homogeneous structure.  We must not assume internal relations of a generalizing, universalizing, and totalizing concept.  We must no longer assume a homogeneous opposition between the association of ideas, on the one hand; and sense impressions, on the other.  Rather, associationism is the heterogeneous real difference between impressions or ideas of terms, on the one hand; and impressions or ideas of relations, on the other.  External relations are the heterogeneity of parallelism, not the presupposed opposition of homogeneously formed-matter and its internal relations.  Universal, generalized knowledge is not derived from sense experience.             

If ideas contain only that which we receive in sense impressions, and nothing else, then relations must be heterogeneous and external to their terms.  Ideas and impressions are no longer presupposed internal relations of correspondence.  It can no longer be assumed that what we say represents what we see in a totalizing structure.  In the Classical-Representational model, matter is already formed in one Transcendent Image.  From that perspective, Hume’s associationism could only be seen to internally relate terms of conceptual identity.  His atomism could only be a pulvarization of the given extensive form that, in dividing, does not change nature.  But Deleuze’s Hume opens the forms into movement-image (4).  The axes pivot into the parallelism of content (atoms of intensity) and expression (association of external relations).  There are now external relations of intensive minima that, in dividing, necessarily change nature.

In the classical reading, Hume’s atomism is a pulverization of the given.  The atomic minimum is the indivisible unit beyond which matter can no longer be divided without losing its form.  But that form was still seen as the homogeneity of internal relations, universalizing one general form.  But Deleuze sees in Hume the open association of external relations without prior concept.  This reaches that difference Deleuze calls ‘intensity’ (5).  Intensity is indivisible, not because it has reached the smallest minimum that is still of homogeneous form; but because in dividing, it necessarily changes the nature of its form.  It is no longer one form of homogeneous and internally related terms.  Rather, it opens form in the external relations of heterogeneity.  Intensity, without prior extension, opens the forms.  That is, intensity is not yet structured in extensive relations.  Whereas classical atomism was the smallest minimum of extensive form which, in dividing, does not change; Deleuze sees Hume’s atomism as intensive minima that, in dividing, necessarily change nature.  Whereas classical form is already extended in the numerical distinction of fixed and continuously existent objects; intensity opens form into the real distinction of real difference, without prior concept of how form must be extended in matter.  Whereas classical atomism can only be the internal relations of a prior concept; Deleuze sees Hume’s atomism as association of external relations without prior concept.  For Deleuze-Hume, relations are no longer associations of internal correspondences (6). 

Deleuze’s post-classical reading of Hume tells us first of all that, if experience is nothing but a collection of perceptions, then relations are not given with experience.  Nor can they be derived from experience.  Rather, experience itself must be the effects of external relations --- effects of principles of association.  These principles constitute, within experience, a subject who, with purposiveness (divergent interests, pleasures, and pains) can transcend experience.  Hume’s relations are not causes internal to the principles.  Principles are not derived from experience.  They are laws of association inferred by their effects.  Relations function as effects of practical conditions that fuse in the imagination to become habit.  The principles do not determine which ideas are conjoined.  Rather, they are principles of how human nature can stabilize the mind in order to find in it an object of human sciences.

Then, is freedom merely the indeterminate in opposition to the determinate?  Or, is it merely the limitation or lack of the determinate?  Either would assume that the subject is already constituted in a determinate form and that “free” choice is merely internally related to that determinate form.  But Deleuze reads Hume to say that, although ‘self’ is determined by certain habits of past ontological constitution, the divergent processes of this constitution includes the problematic functioning toward future purpose.  ‘Subject’ is constituted as the problematic functioning of ontological individuation and its external relations of practical interest.  There is not a prior conceptual form to which choices must necessarily conform.  There is no necessary form of how terms must be related in the imagination to become a faculty.  There can be external relations of creative difference not completely determined by the form of past constitution.           

Therefore, Hume’s empiricism cannot be defined as a theory of generalized knowledge derived from experience.  Moral practice is an artifice that functions to constitute theory and practice together.  Empiricism is the practice of external relations without opposition between theory and practice.  Theory is itself a moral practice that is an artifice, an invention of real difference.  Relations are not derived from a presupposed nature of things.  Heterogeneous parallelism of content and expression opens the forms.  It is a process of accord between powers of the given and the principles that constitute the subject inside the given.  There is an accord of purposiveness that constitutes subjectivity within the given. 

An illegitimate functioning of the faculties can lead to fanciful relations that become reflected in the imagination.  Fanciful relations resonate in the imagination until these illegitimate fictions can no longer be corrected.  The danger is not error, but delirium of the imagination.  But this delirium does not only result in superstition.  The illegitimate fictions of imagination also become faculties of human nature.  The principles of association discipline this delirium to make the mind settled and constant.  However, the imagination also uses these same principles to make us believe that these fictions are Representations of the real.  We believe in the fiction of distinct and continuous bodies (World), an identity of self (Self), and one universalizing structure that unites everything (God).  Our classical philosophy is in this fanciful structure of numerically distinct entities Represented in universalizing relations of opposition. 

However, Deleuze-Hume’s empiricism is a critique of this fiction that has become our Representational Image of Thought.  Reason is the habit of representations in the qualified mind, not in things.  Relations are not representations derived from experience.  They are means of a practical activity.  Therefore, theoretical knowledge is not of primary importance for empiricism.  Rather, knowledge is the means to practical activity.  There is no longer an opposition between theory and practice.  Theory is only known through practical, external relations.  Moral and political actions are not determined by theories of science.  Rather, scientific theory is itself moral and political practice.  There is no longer an opposition between value-free science and moral application.  The moral subject is constituted inside, and along with, the given in its practical constitution.  There are divergent and non-totalizable constructions of individuation.  The external relations of intensity overcome the opposition-limitation structure between many individuals and the one collective.  The forms are no longer closed in the oppositional dualisms of classical thought.       

Therefore, as long as empiricism was Classically Representational, it could only see sense impressions as already constituted experience given to the subjective mind.  Truth could only be in the structure of one totalizable reality with many relative perspectives. Or, objective truth was seen to be limited by subjective error.  But Deleuze’s Hume sees the subject as constituted inside the given along with experience.  Scientific objectivity now has a more solid foundation.  It must no longer fall prey to the fallacies of classical universalizing notions of a Transcendent Image of Representation (i.e. objects already structured and represented to a constituted subject).  Objectivity must be the function of a new synthesis.  Subjectivity is constituted inside the ontological truth of its own epistemological expression.  Post-classical philosophy is not a theory of what is.  There are not the many relative perspectives on one Transcendent Universalizing structure of Truth.  Rather, theory is a function of divergent practical constructs of scientific objectivity, each time extending no farther than its conditions. Relativism is overcome. Subject and object are both constructed and actualized in relative objectivities of divergently structured planes.  There is no totalizing or universalizing Truth, but that is not to say there are no objective truths. There is truth of the relative, not relativity of Truth. 

Therefore, when classical thinkers critique Deleuze’s “postmodernism”, they do so from their classical perspective that assumes things already constituted and structured.  They confuse philosophy with science.  They assume that which philosophy must question.  But Deleuze’s post-classical philosophy (poststructuralism) presents things in a new light.  He shows us that the Classical Transcendent Image of Representation is not an adequate philosophical foundation for our scientific worldview. 


(1) However in another context (Deconstructing the “Science Wars” by Reconstructing an Old Mold), Gould himself rejects such “false dichotomies”.  

(2) Evolutionary biologists no longer use the classical Linnaean classification system.  Rather, they now use the phylogenetic classification system of cladistics.  However, when some of these evolutionary biologists criticize philosophers like Deleuze or Foucault, they do so under an unconscious assumption that philosophy should have to adhere to that same classical structure science no longer uses.  (See Foucault’s The Order of Things).

(3) Theism is a prime example of the classical negative model of opposition-limitation.  Its internal inconsistency is revealed in the Problem of Evil.  The theistic solution is either oppositional dualism between ultimate powers of Good and Evil, or Evil is limitation-lack of Good (Privatio Boni).  In order to go beyond theism, we need to go beyond this negative structure. 

(4) Of course, Hume’s empiricism is still an example of the actualizations of the movement-image.  For Hume, time is still subordinate to movement.  It does not reach the eternal return of the Time-Image where movement is subordinate to time.  However, Deleuze’s Hume does go beyond the Classical-Representational Image of Thought.  So Hume, like Bergson, takes a first step toward univocity.

(5) Deleuze’s terms, such as ‘intensity’, will not be understood if read in a scientific sense.  But he does not use terms metaphorically.  ‘Intensity’ in the scientific sense becomes ‘intensity’ in Deleuze’s philosophical sense when the forms are opened.

(6) The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits the incommensurability of language across cultures.  However, how can this hypothesis be tested by science?  As long as it is assumed that there are numerically distinct objects in an internal correspondence with terms, there is the assumption of the commensurability of the diverse.  But Deleuze shows us that real incommensurable difference is not diversity (Difference & Repetition p. 222).  Diversity is the assumption of conceptual identity.  It is the assumption of commensurability (with its oppositional disjunction:  either deterministic innate universal or culturally acquired relativism).  However, Deleuze allows us to escape any necessity of commensurability.  Disparate intensity is that by which the given is given as diverse. Deleuze’s intensity comes up through the middle.  It re-includes that middle which had been excluded by the oppositions of classical thought. [I am indebted to Prof. Daniel Fineman, Occidental College, for noticing that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis illustrates my thesis.]


Return to Home Page