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Deleuzian Ontology

  1. Oct 25, 2005 #1


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    So we're discussing an article on Deleuze by Manuel DeLanda in a seminar of mine. We were given a question to answer and bring to class to start discussion with, and I've copied and pasted what I wrote into this post. I don't know if anybody is interested in discussing this topic here, but I find this stuff rather fascinating. I wasn't too sure where to post it, as the question my professor had us answer explores the metaphysical and ethical implications - if there are any - of the Deleuzian ontology. On the other hand, the article itself that we are seminaring seems to be a prescription for the philosophy of science. Frankly, with all due respect to my professor, I do think that this was the intention of DeLanda, but discussion can go either way. Here is the answer I've written to the discussion prompt:

    And here is the article itself:


    You can do a quick google search on "deleuzian ontology" and come up with some pretty diverse links. If anyone would like to discuss either what I've written or any other take on this ontology that can be found online, I'd be more than willing to oblige.

    In particular, if anyone is familiar with either Deleuze or DeLanda and thinks that I am flat-out wrong (this is my first exposure to either), I would love to see your argument.
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  3. Oct 25, 2005 #2


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    5 to 1 that nobody responds to this thread (they never do to the particularly wordy ones).
  4. Oct 25, 2005 #3
    maybe you could generate more interest by condensing the ideas into something more readily digestible?

    eg what are the key issues/messages/questions/conclusions that you would like to discuss?

  5. Oct 25, 2005 #4


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    Sure, I can do that. A couple of key points are these:

    • DeLanda attempts to pilfer from Deleuze an ontology free from all traces of 'essentialism.'
    • A key element is to avoid reification of either 'categories' or 'social constructions.'
    • Geometric forms underlying the objects of everyday existence are replaced with topological forms.
    • DeLanda relies heavily on the mathematics of dynamic systems theory and particularly its application to far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics.
    • Deleuze recognize two different kinds of entities: 1) individual singularities (such as organisms, species, planets, etc.) and 2) universal singularites. Universal singularities are similar to physical laws, but they run deeper and seem to be the topological similarities between physical laws. Part of the plan seems to be to create a 'physics without laws,' or at the very least, a physics which transcends its own laws to uncover the dynamic system of mathematical abstraction from which these laws emerge.
    • Deleuze recognizes three dimensions of ontological existence: 1) the virtual, 2) the actual, and 3) the intensive.
    • The virtual consists of what he calls "affects," or the extrinsic capacities of individual singularities.
    • The actual consists of the material/physical structure of individual singularities.
    • The intensive refers to the process by which individual singularities come into existence, at bifurcations and other threshold points in the underlying dynamic topologically structured universal singularities. For instance, if we use the example of the species Homo sapiens as the individual singularity in question, the intensive process by which it came into existence was a threshold point in the dynamic mathematical mapping in genetic phase space of the genomic sequence of the topological structure "chordate," the phylum to which Homo sapiens belongs. Deleuze/DeLanda aim to map out regularities in such occurences, and then filter ontology of all entities other than these regularities and the individuals that emerge from them.

    A couple of key questions are these:

    • What are the implications of a Deleuzian ontology to a philosophical understanding of death?
    • Are there any ethical implications of a Deleuzian ontology? If so, what are they?
    • Does DeLanda succeed in freeing ontology from essentialism?
    • Does a proper understanding of DeLanda's argument have metaphysical implications, or only epistemological implications?
    • Should or can a Deleuzian ontology entail a way of life or is it simply a way to do science?

    Also, if there is anyone reading this with any good knowledge of thermodynamics and/or topology, your contributions would be appreciated. Frankly, beyond the extreme basics, I start to get lost rather quickly and I am certain that I have misrepresented something.
  6. Oct 25, 2005 #5


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    In the second paragraph, you say that a species of bacteria is an individual singularity. It seems to me that a species is a category, and the individual organisms belonging to that species are the individual singularities. The species as a whole, as a category itself, should not be any sort of singularity if we accept that categories are not reified.

    What are the implications of a Deleuzian ontology to a philosophical understanding of death?

    I don't see there being any real ones. We know that death is:

    the tendency toward equilibrium in systems not infused with intensive differences from outside energy sources.

    where as it applies specifically to when the system is some element of the category of living things. DeLanda stipulates that said category does not exist, but indeed, the members of the category exist. This stipulation should not affect any stable person's understanding of death. You and I know very well what this category is. If we can't agree as to whether we want to say that this category exists, that shouldn't matter, we should still understand each other perfectly well when we talk to each other about death.

    Are there any ethical implications of a Deleuzian ontology? If so, what are they?

    I hope not. Any ethical system that finds itself troubled by a Deleuzian ontology is one that has it backwards. If for some reason, the values you have associated with death have to change once you hear that the category of living things has no ontological status, then your ethics seems to seriously miss the point. That said, ethics of this sort are probably the most popular. If I am forced to accept that there are no "real" differences between death and other thermodynamic processes, that won't change the fact that I will treat them differently anyways. I still feel differently about the two, as does everyone else. But if you hold a system of ethics that will somehow "make you" treat them the same if they have no "real" differences, regardless of how everyone feels (so we have a system of ethics that is ignorant of how everyone feels, in which case you must wonder what good this system is), then sadly this will have ethical implications. However, I might contest the notion that Deleuzian ontology does imply that death and other process are ontologically the same.

    The difference between death and other processes is that death applies specifically to the category of living things. As this category doesn't exist, the difference it makes would appear meaningless. However, although this category has no ontological status, it is made up of individual singularities. The description of death makes implicit reference to these individual singularities, and therein lies the ontological difference between death and the general notion of systems tending to equilibrium, which makes no reference, implicit or otherwise, to any individual singularities. Or rather, it would refer to every individual, whereas death refers to only some of them. In other words, if we agree that sentences make sense only if the names and descriptions in them make proper reference, then describing death in terms of the category of living things would have to be replaced by a stupidly lengthy conjunction of sentences wherein each one the words "the living thing" are replaced with a uniquely described living individual, and we'd have a conjunct for each individual. The more general situation of temperature stabilization will be similar, but there will be more conjuncts: one for each every living thing plus one for each non-living thing. So death would be described as:

    Death is when ABC happens to LivingThing1 AND Death is when ABC happens to LivingThing2 AND ...

    whereas the other process, let's call it TheProcess would be described as

    TheProcess is when ABC happens to LivingThing1 AND TheProcess is when ABC happens to LivingThing2 AND ... AND TheProcess is when ABC happens to NonLivingThing1 AND TheProcess is when ABC happens to NonLivingThing2 AND ...

    The second objection is that although the difference between death and similar processes in non-living things may be arbitrary, socially constructed, or categorical, it is there nonetheless. Even if we disagreed with the previous paragraph of mine, and said that we could not give an ontological account for the difference between death and "the process in general", we do draw a line between death and "the process" and you and I know very well (more or less) where to draw this line. For those ethics that feel they need to appeal to some external reason to value death differently from the process (and don't realize that they will value the two differently anyways, and the criteria that you need objective, non-arbitrary ways to distinguish two things to value them differently is itself an arbitrary criterium), Deleuzian ontology may bar us from appealing to an ontological difference, but the sociological or categorical differences remain. This, in fact, suggests a problem with Deleuzian ontology. It bars socially constructed differences, yet we can see quite clearly the difference between a death and a pot that ceases to boil. Deleuzian ontology says that this difference doesn't exist, but we can see it nonetheless. You can't tell the difference between identical things because there are no differences between identical things, but we can indeed tell the difference between death and non-death. If you're a good Deleuzian, then you must admit that you can't tell the difference between death and non-death, and everyone who claims to see it is just hallucinating or making things up. Can you honestly tell me, however, that death and these other processes are no different simply because they are the same from the standpoint of thermodynamics? Thermodynamics deals with classes of its own, distinguishing objects of different temperature but not distinguishing living from non-living. Society has its own classes. We do distinguish living from non-living, but we generally don't treat things at 300K different from things at 300.1K. Why are thermodynamic classifications any more "real" than social ones?

    Does DeLanda succeed in freeing ontology from essentialism?

    At first glance, it appears he does so, and that he does so trivially. He stipulates that categories won't be said to exist. Now to properly free ontology from essentialism, he needs to construct an ontology that still works without the existence of categories. Since "existence" is such a necessarily vague term (it is so fundamental that it should be impossible to clarify its meaning through other words, it's one of those words that other words depend on for their meaning in the first place), you can probably account for things like categories without saying that they exist. You might say that categories don't exist, that they are "just abstractions." In fact, whether we reify, say, the class of living things, or not shouldn't matter. By saying that the class of living things exists, I am not commiting myself to the belief that the class is itself a physical object, that I will one day open my cupboard and the class of living things will fall out, or that I might run over the class of living things as I back out of my driveway. There is little substantial difference between reifying categories and not doing so, the difference is more formal. Nonetheless, it still may have some importance. We talk about the class of living things all the time. If "the class of living things" doesn't exist, then how do we talk about them? Sentenes like, "the class of living things is a big class" should either be false or meaningless, depending on whether you agree with Strawson or Russel (cf. The Present King of France is Bald). Of course, there is probably some roundabout way of circumventing this problem, saying that statements about classes can be reduced to statements about the individual singularities that make up the class, or that truths about categories are also, in some way, "just abstractions." For example, people argue about the nature of mathematical truths. At the end of the day, people will agree that 2+2=4, regardless of what "kind" of truth you think 2+2=4 is and regardless of what ontological status you give to things like numbers, so at the end of the day, all those ontologies can be said to "work." As long as Deleuzian ontology does not require us to believe false things, regardless of how it accounts for things like categories and socially constructed differences, it is still consistent and so it still "works." At the end of the day, then, it will probably be just a matter of agreeing to disagree as to whether categories should be said to exist or not.

    Does a proper understanding of DeLanda's argument have metaphysical implications, or only epistemological implications?

    Unless I read it wrong, it's all about metaphysical implications. Categories don't exist. How much more metaphysical can you get?

    Should or can a Deleuzian ontology entail a way of life or is it simply a way to do science?

    Just as I believe no sensible ethical theory should really depend much on metaphysical beliefs, especially those metaphysically beliefs that are highly abstract in nature (like "there are no categories"), I don't think you should decide a way to live your life based on this ontology. What there is does not tell you what there ought to be. That previous sentence itself, however, seems to be too formal an argument however, and it is barely formal at all. I am trying to get to something much more down to earth. That being that deciding how to live your life is something that ought to be a very down-to-earth process. It seems to me that if you're looking to Deleuzian ontology, or any abstract metaphysical theory, to decide how to live your life, then you're looking in the wrong place. You want to be introspective, and ask yourself what you want of your life, and what do you feel. The idea that you will deduce the meaning of life from first principles almost sounds like a joke. In fact, I believe there is a famous joke from The Hitchiker's Guid to the Galaxy where the meaning of life is deduced, and it is "42".

    The question remains as to whether a Deleuzian framework makes for better science and will help us better understand the way things are. The issue as to whether it really describes the way things are, i.e. whether there really are electrons or whether there are "just" the equations describing their behaviour again seems to be an empty question. Just as it makes no real difference to say that the class of living things exists, it makes no real difference to say that electrons exist. Again, it is formal. We like to speak of electrons as having the essence of being an electron, plus whatever additional properties. We can talk just about the properties, but we generally think of properties as properties of something. It seems intuitive and natural to model and interpret the world in terms of things of certain essences which are instantiated with additional specific properties. Why throw out our intuition that allows us to do this type of modeling? Our ability to abstract something like an essence from particular instances of that essence gives us a power to understand and model the world that is, I would argue, beyond that of any being that lacks this intuition/ability. Cause and effect may not "really" exist, but we couldn't do what we do if we weren't able to model phenomena in terms of cause and effect anyways. On the other hand, intuition may get in the way. When we try to tie down properties and equations onto a concrete instantiation of some essential category, we may be tying down too many things and restricting ourselves from being free to make better interpretations.

    But I am skeptical of that. He seems to suggest that we look at "just the math" and refrain from tying the math down to concrete structures, because then we can really see what's happening. But this seems to have it backwards. Indeed, the math is never what's really happening. Most pure mathematicians will tell you that their subject has nothing to do with the physical world. Physicists and scientists decide how they will apply mathematical models to describe physical phenomena. The calculus used to do Newtonian mechanics only make sense once we agree that there are objects, and objects have speed, and they travel distances, and that these distances can be modelled with real numbers, and that space has certain topological properties that allow us to make sense of things like integration. We measure things like temperature, but it is not as though there is a number floating around labelled temperature that we pull out of the air. There is something we're looking for when we measure temperature. And that which we're looking for depends on what we postulate there to be. For example, if we don't believe that there are electrons, then what are we trying to measure when we want to measure the speed of an electron. If there are no electrons, then we can't be trying to measure the speed of an electron, so what are we trying to do? What are the equations about? If we have "just the equations" and the variables don't represent anything (i.e. we only give meaning to these variables to satisfy our intuition), then how can they possibly be telling us about the world? It would appear, rather, that an equation of meaningless variables is meaningless, it tells us about nothing. If you have an equation for "the speed" but can't say what it is the speed of, what good is it.

    Person A: Here's the speed.
    Person B: The speed of what?
    Person A: I dunno... nothing?
    Person A: ...

    There is no such thing as speed and distance in math. Speed and distance are things we model with math. So before we can use math in science, we have to say what it is we're modelling, and thus there is something in science that preceeds the math, and so science cannot be just the math.

    Doing science as "just the math" where the math isn't about anything else, because there really "is" nothing else but the math, seems meaningless. Science is supposed to use math to describe how things are. Unless I'm being overly critical in my interpretation, doing "just the math" seems to do nothing analogous to this, and thus you'd seriously have to question what it is doing at all.
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