11 Aug 2015

Somers-Hall, (3.7), Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, ‘3.7 Descartes on the Postulate of the Negative or Error (146–53/184–91)’, summary

Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos and other distracting mistakes. Somers-Hall is abbreviated SH and Difference and Repetition as DR.]

Summary of

Henry Somers-Hall

Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition:
An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide

Part 1
A Guide to the Text


Chapter 3. The Image of Thought

3.7 Descartes on the Postulate of the Negative or Error (146–53/184–91)

Brief summary:
The fifth postulate of the problematic image of thought is of error. It is the notion that error results simply from misrecognition. Error for Descartes is a failure of the good sense: the faculties work together in processing a common object, but the reason fails to make the proper judgment about it and thereby misrecognizes it. For Kant, however, error arises when our reason incorrectly assumes it can know everything, since it can always supply ideas to compensate when the other faculties are beyond their capacities. But these ideas are  insufficient, since a total system of knowledge would require thinking about things which go beyond possible experience, and thus still the other faculties need to be involved.
Reason’s mistaken view of its own powers is what Kant calls “the transcendental illusion.”






[We previously addressed the first set of postulates of the problematic image of thought: 1) good sense: reason alone is adequate for thinking, 2) common sense: for all people, the faculties cooperate to cognize a commonly shared object, 3) recognition: the common sense allows us to recognize the object, 4) representation: the recognized object and/or our means of recognizing it bear the four problematic features of representation, namely, identity, analogy, opposition, and resemblance. See section 3.4 for an overview. We turn now to the second set of four postulates.] The first postulate from the second set is the negative or error. The second set is based on a model of language obtained by taking the proposition as “the primary structure of expression” (119). Recall from chapter 2 how “representation took the subject to be ready-made, and pre-existing the | operation of synthesis” (119-120) [as was the case for example with Kant’s transcendental ego]. We also saw how the notion of the subject and of the object were interdependent (120) [since for Kant, for example, both subject and object find their unity in the transcendental unity of apperception]. The second set of postulates of the image of thought “all take knowledge to relate to an already constituted field of objects,” and they are: 1) the postulate of the negative or of error, 2) the postulate of the logical function or of the proposition, 3) the postulate of modality or of solutions, and 4) the postulate of the end or of knowledge (SH 120).

SH then defines the fifth of the eight postulates: “the postulate of the negative, or error, is the claim that the failure of thinking must be understood purely in terms of the failure of the structure of recognition, that is, error is purely misrecognition” (120). SH turns to Descartes to see “why representation might make this claim” (120). Descartes wanted to arrive upon certain propositions by using his method of doubt. It is reason that compels him to take this route, and also, reason will be “the arbiter of the success of the operation” (120). SH notes first how a method of doubt works in skepticism in order to show that no faculties can be trusted. For example, skeptics might appeal to “the fact that a stick looks bent in water to show that there is a disparity between reason and the senses, and so neither can be trusted” (120). Descartes’ method, however, aims to find “those propositions that borrow nothing from any faculty apart from reason. The aim of methodological doubt is therefore to create a space for reason to conduct its enquiries into the structure of the world, since ‘deduction or pure inference of one thing from another can never be performed wrongly by an intellect which is in the least degree rational’ (Descartes 1985b: 12)” (SH 120). So the intellect is incapable of error. But then, how does it arise? Descartes says its source lies in “the relationship between the faculties. That is error is simply a failure of good sense” (120). [We will see shortly why it is not a failure of common sense, which is also a matter of the relationship between the faculties.] In the Meditations, the faculties in question on this topic are the will and reason. The will “leads us to assent to claims that go beyond the truths that can be deduced by reason” (120d). The Meditations present a “proce- | dure by which we develop good habits of thought that allow us rationally to pursue an intellectual enquiry without the interference of the other faculties” (120-121).

Descartes’ conception of error can be seen to be a corollary of the model of recognition, with error simply being a failure of good sense [The following up to citation is Deleuze quotation]:

Does not error itself testify to the form of a common sense, since one faculty alone cannot be mistaken, but two faculties can be, at least from the point of view of their collaboration, when the object of one is confused with another object of the other? (DR 148/186)
(SH 121)

[SH says it is a failure of good sense, and Deleuze says it is a matter of common sense. But SH now explains how this works. We take Descartes’ example  that we might be dreaming. In that case, the imagination presents us with an object that the reason might mistakenly regard as real. Let us suppose that we are facing a threatening animal. So there is common sense, since the faculties are dealing with the same object and since the imagination presents its object to reason’s judgment under a form that reason can handle, namely, as an object with properties. The problem is that the reason incorrectly adds to the animal’s properties the property that it is real. This is the failure then of good sense and not of common sense.]

Thus, to take up Descartes’ methodological claim that we might in fact be dreaming, what the imagination presents may be taken to be a real object by reason. In this case, we therefore have a simple case of misunderstanding the nature of the object to which the two faculties refer. The structure of common sense is preserved since the object encountered is amenable to reason (it is an object with properties), but we attribute the wrong properties to it (a failure of good sense), thus misrecognising it and making a false judgement.

[For Descartes, error is merely a matter of making false judgments. But for Deleuze, thinking can be erroneous in far more extreme ways, from madness, stupidity, and malevolence. This is because Deleuze thinks that error can go deeper when we encounter things which common sense cannot process and yet we insist on thinking it can. Let me quote, since I might be misunderstanding this part, especially the Deleuze quote.]

For Deleuze, thinking does not simply go wrong through the presence of error, but can also be afflicted with ‘the terrible trinity of madness, stupidity and malevolence’ (DR 149/187). Failures of thinking such as these are understood by Descartes as de facto difficulties in thinking that are simply the inessential causes of false judgements. Once we recognise that not everything can be captured within representation, however, another axis of potential failure opens up, namely, when we treat that which is encountered as if it were amenable to the structure of common sense when it is not [the following up to citation is Deleuze quotation]:

Stupidity is neither this ground nor this individual, but rather this relation in which individuation brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form . . . All determinations become bad and cruel when they are grasped only by a thought which invents and contemplates them, flayed and separated from their living form, adrift upon this barren ground. (DR 152/190)
(SH 121)

Kant however does not see error as arising from a failure of good sense as with Descartes. [The explanation here is complicated, and I might get it wrong, so please refer to the quotation to follow. The ideas here seem to be as follows. For Kant, when we are thinking, we are thinking about something in particular. And also for Kant, thinking involves an interaction of the faculties. Error occurs when the faculties operate without reference to the others. (This might also be what is happening in sublime experiences.) This mismatch of the faculties can happen when for example we are thinking about things that go beyond possible experience and thus when reason is not relating to the intuition and imagination perhaps. Such a situation can arise for instance when we contemplate whether or not the world has a beginning in time or does not. So the error arises when reason thinks it can unify all knowledge, which would require it always cooperating with the other faculties, when in fact it cannot. I think maybe that is what SH means when he writes: “Thus, for Kant, reason falls into error when it mistakes its task of unifying knowledge for the | possibility that a completely unified system of knowledge could actually be given” (121-122). The next idea seems to be that reason needs to assume that all things it can reason about can also be shared by the other faculties (“Nevertheless, Kant argues that without the assumption that all conditions could be given, reason would not be able to carry out task of unifying conditions” p.122). Then the next idea seems to be that on the basis of this assumption, the reason generates ideas that somehow compensate for the lack of collaboration from the other faculties. These ideas go beyond experience but they allow us to systematize our knowledge, which needs to deal with notions that we cannot cognize with the help of intuition and imagination. Then the next idea seems to be that the reason believes itself able to obtain a totalized system of knowledge when in fact it cannot, and this is the “transcendental illusion” for Kant. The last idea is that this notion of transcendental illusion is still inadequate for overturning the representational image of thought.]

It is not the case that error has always been seen as a failure of good sense caused by the interference of another faculty with reason. For Kant, thinking is discursive, that is, it is about something. As we saw in the previous chapter, Kant’s claim was that thinking relied on the interrelation between faculties. Now, if this is the case, then for Kant, the faculties themselves are capable of falling into error precisely when they operate without reference to the other faculties. Thus, for Kant, reason falls into error when it mistakes its task of unifying knowledge for the | possibility that a completely unified system of knowledge could actually be given. This is because some of the conditions of such a system (such as whether the world has a beginning in time or not) go beyond any possible experience, and thus in thinking them, reason no longer relates itself to the other faculties. Nevertheless, Kant argues that without the assumption that all conditions could be given, reason would not be able to carry out task of unifying conditions. Reason therefore generates principles called Ideas which, while going beyond experience, nevertheless perform a vital function in allowing us to systematise it. Thus reason is subject to what Kant calls a transcendental illusion that is necessary for its operation but also leads it into error [the following up to citation is Kant quotation]:

This is an illusion which can no more be prevented than we can prevent the sea appearing higher at the horizon than at the shore, since we see it through higher light rays; or to cite a still better example, than the astronomer can prevent the moon from appearing larger at its rising, although he is not deceived by this illusion. (Kant 1929: A297/B355)

As we shall see in the next chapter, while Kant’s theory of Ideas and transcendental illusion is an important advance for Deleuze, representing something ‘radically different from the extrinsic mechanism of error’ (DR 150/188), it ultimately fails to overturn the image of thought of representation.
(SH 121-122)

Citations from:

Somers-Hall, Henry. Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2013.

Or if otherwise noted:

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994/London: Continuum, 2004.


Descartes, René (1984b), ‘The Search for Truth’, trans. Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch, in John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch (eds), The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 399–420.

Kant, Immanuel (1929), Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, London: St. Martin’s Press.



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