(Lonely) The Last Metaphysician (Gilles Deleuze and The Logic Of Sense)


Here’s a quick attempt to sketch out some key concepts in The Logic of Sense. As always, I’m reading between the lines for religion and Talmud, in this case in relation to sense and non-sense, fantasy and paradox as modeled for Deleuze by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland. The connection with Talmud has to do with paradox and the world made strange, with a kind of “atheism,” and with the splitting off of sense along unexpected, multiple and possible directions, across a conceptual surface like cracked glass. If “logic of sense” is important it is because there is nothing more primary to human cognition and to other forms of being.

By sense is meant not about what is conventionally as “making sense.” Nor does it mean empirical sense-impression. Rather, what sense means in The Logic of Sense is a primary form of expression that does not make good sense. But more than that, sense is explored as a coupling of what we, following Deleuze, might clarify as “sense-expression” and “sense-direction.” In relation to Husserl, The Logic of Sense might be said to represent an anti-phenomenological form of phenomenology, a nomadic form of anti-phenomenology, in which sense never stops splintering. What Deleuze will mean by the logic of sense (as primary expression and direction) jumps over and crosses out the mediation of intentional consciousness, the trace of a transcendental ego as a stabilized or stabilizing entity or identity.


Let’s call it “sense expression.” As a linguistic term relating to speakers, speech and speaking, by sense Deleuze does not mean [1] the denotation of individuated entities that are external to a proposition about it, [2] the manifestation of a personal speaking subject, or [3] signification relating propositions to general concepts such as “God” or “world” that are prior to and condition “the self as manifested person and to things as designated objects.” These are the types of sense left behind in the logic of sense. Rather, what Deleuze means by sense is [4] “event” and “expression,” sense understood as that “that” which is expressed by a proposition but whose expression does not merge with objects, subjects, or concepts.

By “proposition” Deleuze seems to mean the kinds of expression that take the form of “verbs” (like greening) in contrast to “nouns” (i.e. things like trees or plants). Prior to the gelling of stable subjects and objects, sense would express that fluid middle figure between things and propositions, nouns and verbs, substances and process, denotation and expression (p.28). In-between, sense refers us to more of an ambient field, not to the fixed identity of determinate subjects and objects.

“Sense is that which is expressed,” or here, in fact actually following Husserl, “the perceived such as it appears in a presentation.” As distinct from both physical objects and mental representations, sense does not merge with the proposition or an image so as to create a resemblance, mimetic copy, or identity. Marked off and bracketed, “[w]hat is expressed has no resemblance whatsoever to the expression” (p.20-22). At the border between propositions and things, Deleuze calls sense “an extra-Being” and “inherence” (p.22).

In the history of art and aesthetic theory in the twentieth century west, sense-expression has its roots in Dada, Duchamp, Surrealism, atonal music, and their postwar successors in France.

Sense-Direction (Good Sense, Common Sense, Paradox)

It is, of course, easier to define something so ambient in relation to what it negates. In this case, Deleuze identifies three kinds of sense. The first two are drawn from Kant and Husserl, the third from Lewis Carroll. These are [1] common sense (the synthetic coming together of faculties), [2] good sense (the assignation of identity, the capacity to foresee and to predict {p.75}) and [3] paradoxical sense. Common sense and good sense are marked by Deleuze as fixed and at rest, whereas paradox is marked as unfixed and in motion. Viewed conventionally, common sense and good sense are to sense as paradox is to non-sense.

This is what I mean by “sense-direction.” Conceived as a moving line of thought, paradox is introduced later in The Logic of Sense, but it’s there already on the first page. “Good sense affirms that in all things there is a determinable sense of directions (sens); but paradox is the affirmation of both senses or directions at the same time” (p.1). In other words, a paradoxical proposition might “go” in one direction and in another. Tweedledee and Tweedledum here stand out as emblems of paradox, simultaneously identical and different (p.79).

Associated with the concept of pure becoming, paradox is said to be without measure. Paradox is understood as the movement that gives sense that capacity to branch out in multiple dimensions at any one given moment in time. As a radical figure of thought, paradox “destroys common sense as the assignation of fixed identities,” demanding the very disappearance of identity itself (p.3) (see especially Twelfth Series of the Paradox).

The criticism of Husserl lies in what Deleuze considers Husserl’s inability to break in any way from the strictures and identities of common sense (p.96f.). While the actual direction of The Logic of Sense ultimately veers away from this sobriety, Deleuze himself will early on concede that, at least in theory, one needs to break from common sense and good sense provisionally if not absolutely (pp.96-8).

Singularities & Production of Sense

At the conclusion of the chapter on nonsense, Deleuze turns to what is by now the familiar idea that sense is not given, that sense is produced. As the fundamental figure of paradox, nonsense would not be the simple absence of sense. Nonsense and sense are instead considered as intrinsic to each other. That is to say, sense is stripped of the meaning of “signification,” particularly in the refusal of the principle of non-contradiction. “[A] term devoid of signification has nonetheless a sense…independent of all the modalities affecting classes and properties, being neutral in relation to all of these characteristics.”

Readers of Talmud might take note here.  Not a given, sense is a form of splitting produced in what Deleuze calls the machinery of structures. What Deleuze understands to be the “nonsense” nestled in “sense” are “paradoxes of subdivision ad infinitum and also with the paradoxes of the distribution of singularities” (pp.70, 75).

By “singularity,” Deleuze does not mean a fixed individuated existent or consciousness, but rather a pre-individuated and impersonal point in a “transcendental field” that would be the condition for any particular, conscious, and individuated emergence. Singularity is described as a “mobile, immanent principle of auto-unification through a nomadic distribution.” The idea is that a field of “singular points” outstrips any attempt to synthesize experience or expression into a single fixed expression (p.102-4).

What that is supposed to mean is probably best presented graphically.

Knot-like, a singularity would constitute a point upon which invisible physical forces converge and through which they traverse. A singularity is presented as that actualizing fulcrum in the distribution of a differentiating system, the emergence of which marks a radical or fundamentally new convergences. Singularities are defined in terms of “turning points and points of inflection; bottlenecks, knots, foyers, and centers; points of fusion and condensation, and boiling; points of tears and joy, sickness and health, hope and anxiety, ‘sensitive’ points” (p.52).

Readers of religion and metaphysics, especially readers of negative theology, should keep in mind that a singularity is juxtaposed not just against the fixed form of a god-like super-Being, but also against formless and abysmal non-Being. In other words, a singularity is not clearly formed and individuated, but nor is it undifferentiated and formless.  A world of pre-individual singularities is set up as “free and unbound energy,” in which that energy “leaps from one singularity to another…always fragmented and formed again in each throw [of the dice].”

Reflecting the twists and turns of sense-expression and sense-direction, nomadic singularity is materialized in an energy that “traverses men as well as plant and animals independently of the matter of their individuation and the forms of their personality” (pp.106-7, 112) (Fifteenth Series of Singularities). Singularity as such could be said to depend upon an intensity that shoots through persons and personhood, or moves through them like a wave.

As for the individual and what we call conventionally the real world:

It’s only on this basis that Deleuze will continue in the next chapter (Sixteenth Series of Ontological Genesis) to address the formation of the individual as relatively firm ground. “World” is defined as an “infinite system of singularities selected through convergence.” The individual is produced as that which “[selects] and [envelops] a finite number of the singularities of the system,” combined in the singularity incarnated in its own body (p.109). To be actualized out of the field of singularity or potentiality is to be “expressed” or “articulated” as “mixtures and aggregates, variable associations with zones of clarity and obscurity” as subject and predicates are aligned vis-à-vis each other in a system of attribution (p.112).

What we might call the real world enters here. First, “sense engenders a first field (complexe) wherein it is actualized: the Umwelt which organizes the singularities in circles of convergence, individuals which express these worlds, states of bodies…analytic predicates which describe these states.” A second level of actualization transcends the first; a world common to all, including “individuals in general,” is a “produced form” born out of singularity but which is “undermined by paradox as the very principle of their very own production…and are overthrown from within by paradox” (p.116-17).

The Surface — Against Height & Against Depth

Readers of religion and metaphysics should also note the following. Built up as a surface effect, the logic of sense is presented equally against the figures of Platonic height as well as against Nietzschean depth. For Deleuze, “The surface is no less explorable and unknown than depth and height. For the principal frontier is displaced. It no longer passes, in terms of height, between the universal and the particular; nor, in term of depth, does it pass between substance and accident.” The critique of Plato is to be expected by now in twentieth century philosophy. In contrast, the turn away from Nietzsche is probably what come as a surprise. Given his status as a patron saint in so much contemporary continental philosophy, it is that which most runs against the grain in The Logic of Sense.

Deleuze sets up the surface as “a frontier between the thing such as it is, denoted by the proposition, and the expressed, which does not exist outside of the proposition” (pp.132-3). Deleuze calls the philosophy Cynical and Stoic, wrapped up by Delueze in surfaces, carpets, and mantles. Neither “sublime” nor “deep,” these are free ranging and widely dispersed systems. “The philosopher is no longer the being of the caves, nor Plato’s soul or bird, but rather the animal which is on a level with the surface –a tick or louse.” We could say the same thing about the religious subject. I think this looks like Talmud, the surface as the true place of religion. Deleuze calls this kind of philosophy and we could call this kind of religion a “perversion” (p.133).

Thought and Pure Event

What is the pure event?? It has everything to do with movement and freedom and practically nothing to do with actual physical bodies, about which Deleuze seems quite hostile. What is presented as pure sense excludes the coherence lent to the things by ideas like God, world, and “man.” Pure event is constituted as “this surface nonsense which traverses the divergent as such” (p.176). More to the point, what “event” entails is the liberation of sound qua sense from objects and subjects, including corporeal bodies. That liberation pops up in the Twenty-Seventh Series of Orality (p.187) and then again in the Thirty-First Series of Thought. The verb “to green” is set up as distinct from trees and the color green, the verb “to eat” is distinct form food and edible qualities, and the very “to mate” remains distinct from “bodies and their sexes” (p.221).

It is here that sense begins to touch upon a rarified and heterodoxical form of “the religious.” Twisting off the material surface of bodies and things, none of what Deleuze is talking about is real in any conventional sense. Deleuze refers to pure event as subsisting on a “metaphysical surface” (p.221). He’ll go on to say that “the brain is not only a corporeal organ but also the inductor of another invisible, incorporeal and metaphysical surface on which all events are inscribed and symbolized…Only the victory of the brain, if it takes place, frees the mouth to speak, frees it from excremental food and withdrawn voices, and nourished it with every possible word” (p.223).

The upshot of the entire project comes to head in the last pages of the last substantive chapter, the Thirty-Fourth Series of Primary Order. Pure sense is the “total expresser of a unique expressed –the event.” It begins with humor as a form of “excessive equivocation,” compared to excessive masturbation passing into complete abstraction, or to sexual energy passing into something asexual and ascetic, without losing that sexual fixation. These are the last words of our text. The ultimate logic of sense proceeds from “noise to the voice, from voice to speech, and from speech to the verb…in order always to recover the independence of sounds and to fix the thunderbolt of the unequivocal,” all of which are quickly covered up and over by “everyday banality” or the sufferings of madness” (pp.248-9). These are the last words of the book, except for the appendices which follow.

Religion, God

As a concept, God appears here and there throughout The Logic of Sense as a negative or critical foil. The rejection of the term is taken in opposition to the way in which God stands as the ground and guarantor of the good sense and common sense that Deleuze wants to explode. What Deleuze welcomes as the death of God is isomorphic to the dissolution of the determinate self and of the world of self-subsisting objects, the dissolution of which is the ultimate telos for the logic of sense (pp.292-4). As Deleuze puts it, “If the self is the principle of manifestation, in relation to the proposition, the world is the principle of denotation, and God the principle of signification.” As pure event, paradoxical sense would represent the complete antithesis to the traditional theology of western theism.

Instead of the one direction indicated by God and good sense, Alice goes in two directions at once in an “always subdivided double direction” (p.78; cf. pp.72-3). As understood by Deleuze, God would be too personal and individuate a figure to allow for the effects that Deleuze wants to produce at the surface of things, which is “to make pre-individual and non-personal singularities speak” (p.73). Instead of “man,” world, God, and, above all, the copula, the logic of sense is built out of “the affirmative character of the disjunction” (p.175).

Against “God,” it could be that the ultimate devotion on the part of Deleuze is to “the world” as such, not as an ordered cosmos, but as “chaosmos” and “diabolical.” As pure sign and surface nonsense, the event does not “tolerate the subsistence of God as an original individuality, nor the self as a Person, nor the world as an element of the self and as God’s product” Only the event “subsists,” qua Eventum tantum for all contraries (p.176).

What Deleuze means by “God” is specific, then, to western philosophical theism. Overlooked are those “mystical” directions in which the idea of the gods or God work to dissolve the self, or to limit the self in ways that might not be the case in Cartesian and Kantian philosophy.

To work more productively than negatively within the parameter set by a Deleuzian system of thought, God would have to figure as less “real” than simulacral. By simulacrum, Deleuze means not “a copy of a copy, an infinitely degraded icon,” which he rejects as an expression of the very Platonism he wants to reject. Instead, a simulacrum would constitute an “image without resemblance,” a becoming unlimited in difference that denies from the start the very structure of originals and copies (pp. 257-8, 262). Part of the mischief played by a simulacrum as understood by Deleuze is the way in which the simulacrum is said to contain the observer. A point of view trans-forms the simulacrum with each twist and turn of perspectival shift making the image always different, always more or less, but never equal to a subject or object (p.258).

Lifted outside a system of meaning and identity in relation to subjects and objects, God would have to nothing to do with a determinate Apollinian form or with an undifferentiated underground of Dionysian energy (cf. pp,106-7). As simulacral, God would have to subsist not in the clear heights and not in the mysterious depths, but skipping along the surface as a splitting force or movement of division and difference –like the gazelle-like figure in the Song of Songs or the very characteristic associated by Bergson with the elán vital of life.

Drawing on Deleuze to make this aberrant theological point, we have had to leave the author’s own explicit discussions of God and religion. Indeed, we have had to leave The Logic of Sense altogether and to rely on material drawn from the appendices. But there is more than sufficient reason to suggest above that Deleuze is a metaphysical thinker invested in the invisible surface. To bring God into that system, God would be as one singular point on that surface, pressured by and pressuring other competing figures. In that logic of sense, God would figure not as an object of belief possessed of determinate attributes brought together and harmonized together, not as a fixed point of individual or group orientation and obligation. God would have to belong to a structure that animates language and bodies “divided into disjunctions” (cf. p.281).

Critical Question & Conclusions

Taken to its logical extreme. At what point does the logic of sense betray itself? The logic of sense is supposed to commit aesthetic and philosophical reflection to the surface, but these are no longer strictly physical structures and surface effects. If the relation of sense to a surface is structurally intrinsic, then the liberation of sense from bodies and subjects as pure expression would represent an alloyed descent into unalloyed nonsense, veering away from and off that surface relation.

What’s left is no longer a world.

Better than Levinas, Deleuze paints a terrifying picture, a Surrealist image, of life without the Other. Writing about Robinson Crusoe, Deleuze describes a life in which “there reigns alone the brutal opposition of the sun and earth, of an unbearable light and an obscure abyss, the ‘summary law of all or nothing.’…A harsh and black world without potentialities or virtualities: the category of the possible has collapsed….only abstract lines now exist, luminous and harmful –only a groundless abyss, rebellious and devouring. Nothing but elements…Everything is implacable” (306).

While Deleuze accepts this world-picture without Others as the “real adventure of the spirit, the logic of sense-direction would allow one to conclude that there is no need to follow a line of thought to one single logical extreme. Searching out alternative byways, a critical reader of Deleuze might concede all the circularities identified by Deleuze as inherent to the first three meanings of sense (denotation, manifestation, signification). Without having to posit a new metaphysic implied by the logic of event, the better and best option could be simply to muck along inside the circles inhabited as finite, cognizant entities. There might be no better alternative to the necessary muddle of a more consistent empiricism.

If one stays with Deleuze and veer away from more standard notions of sense (relating more clearly to subjects and objects) it is to stick with the artful and intellectual energy that is opened in this metaphysical system. In The Logic of Sense, as in Lewis Carroll’s work, “everything that takes place occurs in and by means of language as in a flat or flattened world composed of surfaces” or given to the proliferation of verbal entities (Frege’s paradox), and infinite regress where names never quite cohere with objects (p.29), or a series characterized by “great disparity” while “regulated by an esoteric word” (p.43).

What is basically a stripped down and extended meaning of sense opens the door to the fantastic, to nonsense, to the paradoxical as the ground of sense and cognition. For readers of religion, one might add that it also opens the door to “the religious” understood as non-dogmatic and non-didactic and at the border of sense, whether on this side or that, perhaps as it might appear, if not in expressionism, then in Dada or surrealism.

Alone, is this the only way?

An alternative and less implacable path to the one painted by Deleuze is this passage from an appendix to The Logic of Sense. One that could be easily confused with a text by Levinas, it is Deleuze himself who describes life with the Other in terms of a visual field.  “[T]he Other assures the margins and transition in the world. He is the sweetness of contingencies and resemblances. He regulates the transformations of form background and the variations of depth. He prevents assaults from behind. He fills the world with a benevolent murmuring. He makes things incline toward one another and find their mutual complements in one another…In all these repasts, my desire passes through Others, and through Others it receives an object.” The point that stands out here is that Other for Deleuze does not constitute a subject or object in the field of perception, but rather an apriori structure, the “structure of the possible” (305-6, 307).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (Lonely) The Last Metaphysician (Gilles Deleuze and The Logic Of Sense)

  1. dmf says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic zero.

  2. This is lovely

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