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Empiricism and Multiplicity in the Work of Gilles Deleuze


If any image of thought accompanies the name Gilles Deleuze, it is one that privileges pluralism, multiplicity and differentiation. Gilles Deleuze is, at the same time, a self-proclaimed empiricist. There is nothing on the surface that precludes associating empiricism with pluralism, but what does this association mean for Deleuze? In this paper, I argue that we can best understand this claim, and many of Deleuze’s most difficult concepts, through William James’ account of radical empiricism and pure experience.

In Essays in Radical Empiricism, James defines pure experience as "the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories… a that which is not yet any definite what, tho' ready to be all sorts of whats…"(p. 46). In the first part of this paper, I analyze the concepts of becoming, desire and assemblages that Deleuze develops with Félix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus in terms of James’ concept of pure experience. Like James, Deleuze posits a primary flux from which all events and identities emerge. Also like James, Deleuze focuses on relations as the process of differentiation that establishes identities. The result is an ontology of contingent, ever-shifting identities, which is the result of emergent and on-going assemblages and creations, rather than pre-given, essential ideas.

Deleuze’s embrace of flux and contingency, however, is often faulted with leading to the absolute dissolution of identity, the impossibility of sense, and by extension, the impossibility of any empirical or ethical claims. In both Essays in Radical Empiricism and his Manchester lectures published under the title A Pluralistic Universe, James confronts the absolutist argument that one must either accept absolute chaos, and thus the impossibility of identity, continuance and sense, or one must accept an absolute, universal and underlying unity. Against the claim that “…the only alternative we have is to choose the complete disuion of all things or their complete union in the absolute One” (PU, p. 61), James offers pluralism. The pluralist, James argues, starts with the ‘each’ instead of the ‘all’, with the particular experience and its context of relations, rather than an absolute whole or totalizing system. In the second part of this paper, I argue that what are taken to be Deleuze’s most ‘fantastical’ concepts—the body-without-organs, becoming-animal, becoming-machine—are a performative enactment of the philosophy of the ‘each’, and are best understood as an effort to illustrate the demands of a pluralist mode of thought.

James believes that the key to answering the absolutist claims lies in understanding pure experience as a “process in time” and giving full weight to conjunctive, as well as disjunctive relations. In James’ claim that “[a]ccording to my view, experience as a whole is a process in time, whereby innumerable particular terms lapse and are superseded by others that follow upon them…” (RE p. 62), we can already hear Deleuze. In the final part of this paper, I use James’ analysis of conjunctive relations and the limitation of physical, natural laws to argue that Deleuze’s account does actually allow for functional stability of identities, and that contingency need not be understood as necessitating absolute dissolution. I will present my own reading of Deleuze’s thought as one that does not deny the limitations of physics, chemistry or human history, but one that realizes the exponential complexity created by their various conjunctions.

For James, radical empiricism is pluralism: Understanding the claims of radical empiricism opens us up to accept simultaneously a plurality of universes, while also accounting for the variety of our particular experiences and the exigencies of the universe we are in. It is in this sense, that we must understand Deleuze’s claim to be an empiricist.



Ella Brians

New School University, New York