Deleuze and the Time for Non-Reason

According to the French philosopher, rationalism is an illusion

The scandal of rationalism is its claim to be reasonable. The shame of reason is when it abets rational control. The close horizon of both is our final submission to autopoietic systems. The computer says ‘Do it now’.

In response, having defined contemporary worlds as societies of control, Gilles Deleuze argues that reason and rationalism are dangerous illusions when they are seen as self-contained and self-sufficient. Their independence is a form of self-deception or, worse, a way of deceiving and exploiting others. The humans or things deciding on the structure and, applying it, don’t really know what they are doing or why they are doing it, or they know they don’t know, but act as if they do anyway.

I define rationalism as a way to structure the world according to a pre-set logic and series of identities. Thus defined, it leads to forms of rational control, such as the organisation of a workforce into distinctive tasks according to a plan and grid of measurements. The logic regulates the relations between the identified workers, tasks, performance indicators and times. Chris, sorry, we have to downsize you: you’re in the tail on the vitality curve according to lines of codes checked per hour…

So, more seriously, the structure and the logic are also illusions of sufficiency. They aren’t independent either; they have soggy bottoms. Foreign lifeforms and material seep into them, making them rot, fail and adapt. Our laws are this kind of rational structure and suffer from this kind of porosity. We are their sogginess: rebelling against them, looking for ways around them, misusing them, going beyond them, pleading against them and making them old, ridiculous or monstrous.


“Each rational plan has a terrible relation to time as something that passes and unfolds”


The important point is that it is good to be porous in this way. The last thing we need is the dominion of reason. It is good to be open to non-reason. But the deep problem is how to be, without falling into unreason. 

We value our legal system over others because it adapts to unforeseen cases and events. The thing to fear is a legal system that thinks it knows it all. The managers and leaders to mistrust are the ones with total belief in their rational plan; the ones acting like omniscient systems (a severe challenge to the concept of case law, as  we are now discovering). A most empirical and pragmatic thinker, Deleuze is a pitiless opponent of overconfident reason – he’s quite English really, at least before their current descent into cheap ideologies.

His great middle-period work, The Logic of Sense, is a relentless debunking of rationalism as logical structuring. The book owes a lot to Lewis Carroll and to his lessons in nonsense and unreason. It attacks each component of rationalism. For Deleuze, the unconscious always seeps into and undoes conscious assessment and forward planning. Structures fall apart from the very beginning, destroyed from within. Logics depend on signs that turn out to be living processes, not inert functions. The world is an event, not a plan.

In his philosophy of time, Deleuze distinguishes between two types of present: the present as creature of reason and the living present. As creature of reason, the present falls apart and passes events by, because it is caught between overconfidence in a structure in the present and a connected desire to escape the past and control the future. Each rational plan has a terrible relation to time as something that passes and unfolds. The rational present is bound to be undone. And a good thing too, for otherwise it will try to impose itself on future times like a deceiving ruler.


“The last thing we need is the dominion of reason. It is good to be open to non-reason”


The living present is not beholden to reason alone. It is instead a process of change incorporating non-reason as well as it can. The living present listens to the past and to the future, allowing them to alter it in ways that it cannot fully know or understand. That’s why I say non-reason rather than irrationality (a most loaded of terms). A good legal system tries to be as close to the living present as it can, hence our horror of judges set in their ways against changing times.

Deleuze’s argument is radical. It isn’t that sometimes irrationality confounds reason. Rationalism could easily handle that; in fact, it would increase its power and mystique. Look how I defeat my demons. It’s that a necessarily unconscious irrationality is continuously at work within them. The real will be unreasonable and beyond the control of reason, forever and wherever. The task of thought – as opposed to reason – is to find the best way of responding creatively to problems on the borderline between reason and non-reason. How should we legislate for autopoietic systems before it is too late?

Edward Lear Irrational Rational SUGGESTED READING On Rationality and Nonsense By Matthew Bevis That’s why Deleuze’s book is called The Logic of Sense. He means that sense (understood as feeling, learning, adapting and creating in response to events) has its own logic. The logic of sense combines sense and nonsense, because you can’t separate them rationally without making a terrible mistake about the real and about life as deeply paradoxical and problematic, as resistance to reason: ‘Sense cannot be separated from a new genre of paradoxes, marking the presence of nonsense in sense…’

Here’s a thought experiment to understand the extreme but valuable nature of Deleuze’s position. Take a computer in a server farm with no human operators, running a program switching the light sequences maximising the flow of self-driving taxis through the streets of a distant city. Is it not folly to think that this server has an unconscious that undermines its codes and operation? Sure, things can go wrong in the city – humans will always vomit in the back of cabs and need to be rapidly disembarked. But the server is self-contained: the acme of reliable rationalism.

If we follow Deleuze, the paradox is that any event that occurs in and around the server farm necessarily breaks into the closed boundaries of systems and machines. This is because those systems only have meaning when they interact with living processes, whether a rat gnawing into a high voltage line, a human mistaken by a facial recognition programme, populations thrown into darkness due to an algorithm allocating resources to other ‘more important’ ones, power sources failing due to climate breakdown. We must make sense of these events, but we can only do so if we add non-reason to reason (in time). 

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Liz Bee 2 September 2021

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Pete Harrison 28 June 2019

Some brief extra context (particularly for those of us outside - even 'against' - the arena of the properly trained and functioning intellectual):

“As Gilles Deleuze affirms: “Foucault’s key historical principle is that any historical formation says all it can say and sees all it can see.” (Deleuze ‘Negotiations,’1995: 96) To claim that my words and my life are not part of the civilizing discourse would be to say that I was out of history, and such a situation would mean that my words would be, in effect, inaudible and invisible.”

(from: 'The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,' P Harrison, TSI Press, 2017, p37)

From: 'Deleuze and Guattari 's What is Philosophy?' P113-114, Jeffrey A. Bell, 2016:

If we recall how Descartes began his Meditations, he was taking
advantage of the luxury of time to withdraw to his study, in solitude,
and give himself the opportunity to question his beliefs and raise
doubts he would not otherwise have been able raise while engaged
in his everyday affairs. The process of being freed from the social
role associated with knowledge is integral to Descartes's concept
of the cogito for this concept, as we saw (see example 1), was an
attempt to conceptualize the preconceptual and avoid any "any
explicit objective presupposition" (WP 26/QP 31) whereby concepts
always refer to other concepts.

In this context, therefore, the
private thinker avoids the associations that come with what Deleuze
and Guattari describe as "the public teacher (the schoolman)" who
is tied to an accepted body of knowledge - an orthodoxy - and as
such the public teacher "refers constantly to taught concepts (man-rational
animal), whereas the private thinker forms a concept with
innate forces that everyone possesses on their own account by right
('1 think')" (ibid.). The private thinker is also able to avoid the
sociological pressures of conformity and is therefore able to explore
questions and doubts that might otherwise appear idiotic to one
actively engaged in a social life. In his Discourse on Method Descartes
recognizes this when he notes that conversing with those of other ages is about the same thing as traveling.

“It is good to know something of the customs of various peoples, so as to
judge our own more soundly and so as not to think that everything that
is contrary to our ways is ridiculous and against reason, as those who
have seen nothing have a habit of doing.”

In other words, for Descartes it is important to be able to "form a
more correct judgment regarding our own" manners and beliefs by
being able to contrast them with those of different times or by traveling
to different countries. Doing this should also instil a modicum
of tolerance too, for we should come to recognize that customs,
manners, and beliefs that are unlike our own are not, for that
reason, to be thought of as "ridiculous and irrational." However,
and this is key, Descartes warns that if "too much time is occupied
in travelling, we become strangers to our native country," and
hence we are unable to fit in anywhere - we become an outsider,
a stranger, and if taken to an extreme we become "ridiculous and
irrational," an Idiot.

And for context:
Deleuze follows Nietzsche:

Ibid. p7:
For Deleuze, […] the immanent nature and
substance that is the sufficient reason for the extrinsic determinations
and properties of things is not an already presupposed unity,
but rather multiplicity, or a substance consisting of divergent series
and differences. Instead of a world of convergent series, we have for
Deleuze and for Deleuze and Guattari a "world [that] is now made
up of divergent series (the chaosmos) ," and instead of Leibniz's
monadology we have "a 'nomadology' ."

The subsequent problem
for Deleuze, then, is to account for the emergence of systematic
unity in the first place. If the sufficient reason for existing phenomena
is a multiplicity of divergent series, then what accounts for the
apparent convergence of predicates and qualities upon the unity of
a subject? It is precisely this problem that would occupy Deleuze's
early work on Hume, and it is one that continues to motivate him
up to his final essay, "lmmanence: A Life."