This post is really something that needs more nuanced and careful development than I’m able to give it this evening, but I at least wanted to get the basic framework written down as inadequate as it might be. Hopefully any readers I have will keep this in mind and be charitable.
Throughout chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition— “The Image of Thought” –Deleuze targets the axioms or assumptions of what he calls “the dogmatic image of thought”. I cannot here develop a detailed commentary on these interdependent axioms (there are 8 in all). Among the postulates of the image of thought, Deleuze cites the thesis or assumption– many of these postulates are unconscious or so thoroughly pervade thought and philosophy that they aren’t even noticed –that error is the only possible misadventure of thought; that error is the sole error against which thought must protect itself. As Deleuze remarks, “[i]t is noteworthy that the dogmatic image, for its part, recognises only error asa possible misadventure of thought, and reduces everything to a form of error” (DR, 148). Perhaps the example of the New Atheists reflects this conception of thought. When approaching religion the New Atheists work from the premise that those who are religious suffer from a simple error or from a lack of truth. They have mistaken beliefs about the world and if we simply correct those false beliefs then people will no longer be religious. Hence the critique of religion proceeds under their hand through demonstrating the lack of evidence for these beliefs, their absurdity, that prayer has no power and so on. However, what if religion– if it a misadventure –is based on a far more profound misadventure of thought than that of simple error or falsehood that can’t simply be rectified through correcting falsehoods, pointing out contradictions, and demonstrating absurdity?
We must take care here. Deleuze does not deny that error exists. He does not deny the existence of truth and falsity. It would thus be a mistake to suggest that he is a skeptic. As he writes,
…it… seems to us that there are facts with regard to error, but which facts? Who says ‘Good morning Theodorus’ when Theaters passes, ‘It is three o’clock’ when it is three thirty, and that 7 + 5 = 13? These are effective examples of errors, but examples which, like the majority of such ‘facts’, refer to thoroughly artificial or puerile situations, and offer a grotesque image of thought because they relate it to very simple questions to which one can and must respond by independent propositions. Error acquires a sense only once the play of thought ceases to be speculative and becomes a kind of radio quiz. (DR, 150)
It is not that error doesn’t exist and that it isn’t real for Deleuze, but rather that error is generally trivial. As he continues a bit later, “[w]e doubt whether, when mathematicians engage in polemic, they criticize one another for being mistaken in the results of their calculations. Rather, they criticize one another for having produced an insignificant theorem or a problem devoid of sense” (DR, 153). In the context of pedagogy– and Deleuze develops a profound theory of learning and pedagogy throughout Difference and Repetition, aiming to affirm the primacy of learning over knowledge and the distinction between the two –he remarks that,
Teachers already know that errors or falsehoods are rarely found in homework (except in those exercises where a fixed result must be produced, or propositions must be translated one by one). Rather, what is more frequently found– and worse –are nonsensical sentences, remarks without interest or importance, banalities mistaken for profundities, ordinary ‘points’ confused with singular points, badly posed or distorted problems– all heavy with dangers, yet the fate of us all. (ibid.)
Full commentary on this passage would require a careful discussion of what Deleuze means by ordinary and singular points (which would require a discussion of the philosophy of mathematics developed by Lautmann) and how this relates to his doctrine or theory of problems. I hope to develop some of this in the near future, but for the moment the important point to understand or highly is that for Deleuze error is the least of our worries. On the one hand, there is is the issue of poorly posed problems. Deleuze calls for us to pose the test of the true and the false to problems themselves. To determine what he means by this, we would first need to develop an account of what he means by “problems” in general and then develop a set of criteria by which we could begin evaluating whether problems are true or false. Unfortunately, while he discusses this latter issue a bit in Bergsonism and Difference and Repetition he doesn’t give us a lot to go on. There’s much interesting work to do here, but it has to begin with getting clear on just what he means by “problems”.
Second, Deleuze thinks that there are far more serious misadventures of thought than error. Early in his critique of error in the dogmatic image of thought, he cites madness, stupidity, and malevolence as misadventures that perpetually haunt thought. Here we should recall that Deleuze’s last published book was Essays Critical and Clinical. What would critical and clinical essays look like. If we take Kant as the first thinker to render the idea of critique explicit, then a core aim of the Kantian critical project is the diagnosis of illusions internal to thought. There is something internal to reason, Kant says, that generates the three forms of illusion that haunt thought (the paralogisms, antinomies, and ideas of reason, relating to the soul, the world as a totality, and God respectively). Kant’s thesis is that these illusions aren’t simple errors or mistakes, but are generated by reason itself. I am not here suggesting that Deleuze gives Kant a big wet kiss and embraces him, but that this idea of illusions internal to thought can function as a sort of indicator of a set of salient features of what pertains to these more profound misadventures of thought Deleuze is trying to get at. The dogmatic image of thought treats madness, malevolence, and stupidity as simple errors or cognitive infirmities (especially the last), whereas Deleuze wishes to say that this triad cannot be reduced to simple error, but is instead something that haunts thought from within.
I hope to write something about stupidity in the near future, showing that it can’t be reduced to a mental disability or deficiency, but that rather it has to do with love, desire, and attachment: that stupidity is a social problem that affects the otherwise intelligent, not a cognitive problem. It is something that arises internal to thought when desire, love, and attachment are at work. In this regard, the informal fallacies that we study in logic– fallacies like the famous ad hominem, the red herring, slippery slope arguments, arguments from ignorance, and all the rest –are not willful in most cases, but are swerves of thought that arise in the context of any discussion or issue where deep affective and passional attachments to movements, concepts, and figures are at work. We don’t think well about what we love and our thought swerves to protect itself. It “fuzzes” out. The informal fallacies are thus better thought as psycho-social defense formations than errors. Likewise, when it comes to madness we can readily recognize that we get nowhere by pointing out to the mad that their beliefs are false or in error. In many circumstances, doing so is even destructive, as the subject takes the corrections as confirmation. Somewhere or other Lacan quips that “just because your wife is cheating on you, this doesn’t mean that you’re not paranoid.” Whether or not the person’s conspiracy is true is independent of whether or not the psychic structure is paranoid. The paranoid delusion can be true, yet is no less a paranoid delusion for all of that. Paranoia is something other than error. Essays critical and clinical would both pluralize the sorts of illusions internal to thought, that haunt thought from within, and propose ways to cure these misadventures of thought (to the degree that they can be cured).
In this regard, Deleuze will continue that,
[i]n one way or another, philosophers have always had a lively awareness of this necessity [of uncovering misadventures of thought besides error]. There are few who did not feel the need to enrich the concept of error by means of determinations of a quite different kind [than error]. (To cite some examples: the notion of superstition as this is elaborated by Lucretius, Spinoza and the eighteenth-century philosophes, in particular Fontanelle. It is clear that the ‘absurdity’ of superstition cannot be reduced to its kernel of error [as the New Atheists would like to do]. Similarly, Plato’s ignorance or forgetting are distinguished from error as much as from innateness and reminiscence itself. The Stoic notion of stultitia involves at once both madness and stupidity. The Kantian idea of inner illusion, internal to reason, is radically from the extrinsic mechanism of error. The Hegelian idea of alienation [one of the rare places where Deleuze speaks positively of Hegel] supposes a profound restructuring of the true-false relation. The Schopenhauerian notions of vulgarity and stupidity imply a complete reversal of the will-understanding relation. What prevents these richer determinations from being developed on their own account, however, is the maintenance, despite everything, of the dogmatic image,, along with the postulates of common sense, recognition and representation which comprise its cortege. (DR, 150)
The difference between cognitive behavioral psychology and psychoanalysis is here instructive as an example. Here I will no doubt do an injustice to cognitive behavioral psychology (CBT). A patient enters the consulting room suffering from a phobia of weasels. What does the CBT say? The problem is that the phobic person has erroneous beliefs: they’re mistaken about weasels. They then set about correcting these beliefs and finding ways to habituate the patient to weasels. The psychoanalyst, by contrast, begins from the premise that the phobia of weasels has little or nothing to do with weasels, but is about something else. What might that be? Perhaps, during early childhood, the analysand’s parents went through a horrible divorce where one of them perpetually referred to the other as a “lying weasel”. Just as we try to lock away radioactive materials by burying them deep in the earth, a phobia would here be a way of dealing with a trauma in a way that is psychically manageable. Memories of the traumatic divorce are carefully locked away and all that remains is the signifier “weasel”. Dealing with the phobia means dealing with that traumatic event, not weasels. If we merely “correct” the mistaken beliefs, the trauma will take refuge elsewhere in another symptomatic formation (there’s so much more to be said here about how a trauma can inform and structure an entire life in all sorts of subterranean ways).
I always find Deleuze most instructive when he gives examples, whether they are of the concrete sort like his example of learning how to swim in the introduction to Difference and Repetition or his references to other thinkers. These examples must be meditated upon, reflected upon, or tracked down and worked out because so often Deleuze fails to provide detailed commentary on what he’s getting at. Let’s take the example of Lucretius and superstition. Deleuze says that for Lucretius, superstition is not a simple error or misrepresentation. What, then, is it? Superstition, what Lucretius calls religion, is not a simple error, but is a “sickness” of the imagination. Lucretius identifies three such forms of sickness. There is the sickness of anthropomorphization that consists in attributing human meaning and motives to natural events like good harvests, the appearance of comets, or natural disasters. There is the form of imagining that envisions the possibility of pain that knows no limits in intensity or duration. These are the fears that arise in relation to both dying and the afterlife (Book III of De Rerum Natura). Then there are the imaginings of pleasure that plague us. Just as imagining can envision the possibility of unlimited pain (think Hellraiser), it can imagine the possibility of unlimited pleasure. In Book IV of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius will therefore envision the madness of love that becomes destructive to self and even destroys the beloved, believing that it has discovered unlimited pleasure in the beloved and therefore idealizes the beloved in every way, or that believes unlimited pleasure exists but that it doesn’t have it and therefore is bitter and rancorous towards the entire world believing that either others have it or that it has been stolen from them. Here Lucretius anticipates Lacanian psychoanalysis and the paradoxes of one form of jouissance: phallic jouissance. Indeed, the Lacanian account of phantasy would be another example of a misadventure at the heart of thought that isn’t a simple error: which is why Lacan says that phantasy is the frame of reality; that it is the window through which reality is apprehended and viewed. From beginning to end, De Rerum Natura will be a therapy on the imagination and its tendency to excess that so causes turmoil in our thought. Again, I am not suggesting that Deleuze is a Lucretian, but only providing this as an example of misadventures of thought that differ from simple errors.
There is so much more to say and I can’t develop it all here, nor at this moment. The key point to take away, I think, from Deleuze’s concept of misadventures of thought is that these are illusions internal to thought and society that send thought astray in how it poses problems and questions. In the Kantian schema, but not according to the Kantian letter, there is a sort of inevitability to these sorts of illusions that is different form the external sources that generate error. They thus require very different techniques of treatment. We get the sense, for example, that the climate skeptic is in the grips of something different than simple ignorance or factual errors; that something other causes their thought to swerve. This would be why correcting facts falls so squarely on deaf ears. A project that is both critical and clinical would take stock of these misadventures, their mechanisms, how they function and how they might be treated or addressed.