deleuze’s hume (the copy principle, &c.)


The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) in §II “Of the Origin of Ideas,” from his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (hereafter: the Enquiry), outlines what has come to be known as the ‘copy principle.’[1] Hume’s empiricism divides human perceptions into two types: impressions and ideas. This fundamental principle has to do with the way we immediately perceive things empirically and that those perceptions become ideas. The means that the ideas are brought to the mind—via memory and imagination—from the sensual impressions is known as the copy principle. In short, ideas are copies of sense impressions. In the 20th century, the French post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) writes about David Hume’s empiricism with creative and unexpected modifications.[2] In this post it will be argued that there is not simply one standard direction in which to read Hume, and that Deleuze’s approach offers a perspective that not only respects Hume’s position, as it originates with the copy principle, but it also radicalizes Hume’s empiricism to become Deleuze’s unique (un-Kantian) concept of transcendental empiricism. But, before we step into Deleuze’s innovations, Hume’s copy principle will be outlined as it was put forth in the Enquiry.

§I. Hume’s Copy Principle: Hume doesn’t formally call his principle ‘the copy principle,’ it has this name due to the fact that, for Hume, our ideas are copied from impressions, and that even if there is an association of ideas brought together by other ideas, those ideas can always be traced and found to originate (copied) from primary sense data, otherwise known as impressions. Hume divides perception into two basic ‘classes’: ideas and impressions. (A) Ideas: “the less forcible and lively are commonly denominated thought or ideas” (¶3).[3] For ideas, Hume illustrates the difference between being told about love and having an idea of what it is, which is a lot different than actually feeing in love. In other words, an idea of love cannot be the same as feeing in the passionate throes of love. The former (idea) is a less robust version of the latter (impression). (B) And there are impressions: “by the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will” (¶3).[4] From this, it should be noticed that the impressions are not simply, sense data alone, but the impressions are also passionate, emotive and willful. As in the love example, Hume humorously characterizes the passion of love as being that of “disorders and agitations” (¶2).[5] Hume writes “All our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our more lively ones” (¶5).[6] Again, an idea of love is to be sharply distinguished from feeing in love. To repeat a small step further, Hume’s description of ideas presents them as compounded by various elements of sense data “We shall always find that every idea which we examine is copied from a simple impression” (¶6).[7] Following the copy principle, ideas are threaded together by the three principles of association: resemblance, contiguity and cause and effect.

Hume offers two arguments to prove the copy principle. Whenever we choose to look closely, and analyze our ideas, it will be found that they all stem from a common source: impressions. For example, even an idea of God can be deduced from impressions.[8] With an idea of God we have our own faculties of thought taken to their ultimate conclusions, as with goodness, wisdom, omnipresence, etc. Hume then tries to argue that “a blind man can form no notion of colors, a deaf man [can form no notion] of sound” (¶2).[9] Although Hume is trying to show that, for instance, a blind man can have no notion of color. On a certain level this argument is true, since a blind man cannot actually see color. Yet, it can be argued that a blind man has the ability to learn about colors, i.e. he can be easily taught that a rainbow’s order of colors consists of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, he does not need to necessarily see the colors to have a notion about this one singular fact concerning the rainbow’s order of colors. Therefore, there must be plenty of other related notions a blind can know about concerning colors without ever having the eyes to see them. Aside from this argument about a blind man knowing about color, there is Hume’s copy principle in a few sentences. Now we transition to Deleuze’s post-structuralist reading of Hume.

§II. Deleuze’s Radicalization: It has been said that “although Deleuze is usually faithful to Hume’s writings, his readings are idiosyncratic and go well beyond the original texts.”[10] So the question is: how does Deleuze modify and extend Hume’s copy principle to fulfill his own philosophical ends? Deleuze’s first book from 1953, Empiricism and Subjectivity, is devoted entirely to Hume’s 1738 book A Treatise of Human Nature. It must be noted that we are reading Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, from 1748, written ten years later than the ‘unsuccessful’ Treatise.[11] Deleuze’s posthumously published book, from 2001, Pure Immanence has a chapter devoted to Hume’s philosophy in general. Needless to say, Hume was an important influence on Deleuze’s philosophy. Preliminaries aside, Deleuze writes on the copy principle (though he too does not name it as such), roughly put, if ideas contain nothing more than what can be known by the senses, then “relations are external and heterogeneous to their terms.”[12] This statement is ‘transcendentally’ important, which will be looked with more detail later. To this externality of terms, Deleuze writes that empiricism (i.e. Hume’s empiricism) “always fought for the externality of relations.”[13] But there is always the problem of how to constitute the origins of knowledge. Deleuze feels that Hume accomplishes this by maintaining that, of course, relations are not internal as a rationalist would argue, but that relations are external and exogenous, i.e. happening outside of their terms. If we have nothing but the base impression from which our knowledge of the world is derived, then the way relations between things are connected is exterior to the atomic impressions. Deleuze recasts this (i.e. Hume’s copy principle) further to say “thus the difference isn’t between ideas and impressions but between two sorts of impressions or ideas: [1] impressions or ideas of terms and [2] impressions or ideas of relations.”[14]


For Deleuze it isn’t important that the ideas and impressions are distinct, instead he places emphasis on the difference between terms and relations. This means that Hume’s terms are “veritable atoms” and his relations are “veritable external passages.”[15] In other words, Deleuze is saying that the ideas and/or impressions are in fact atomic—they are both atoms of knowledge, and, that ideas and/or impressions are both external passages—knowledge is a relative (indeed, a relational) passage to the external world. To say it another way, for Deleuze’s Hume we have what Deleuze calls the “physics of the mind [atoms]” and the “logic of relations.”[16] It should be noted that what Deleuze relies upon, in this philosophical turn, has to do with impressions and ideas, and how Hume extends the copy principle to include the “principle of connection between the different thoughts or ideas of the mind” (¶2).[17] Again, Deleuze is suggesting that if all we have is an empirical base to know the world via ideas and impressions, the associations and relations we make of those atoms happen eternally to their terms. Deleuze calls this a “world of exteriority,” […] “a world in which the conjunction ‘and’ dethrones the interiority of the verb ‘is’.[18] This dethroning of ‘is’ by ‘and’ can be interpreted as a Deleuzian way to say that Hume’s empiricism places top priority on relations rather than on rationality.

But what in all this is so radical? To be sure, Deleuze’s concept of transcendental empiricism originates from his commitment and transformation of Hume’s empiricist philosophy. Given his idiosyncratic reading of Hume, it is important to understand that human nature essentially begins at the atomic level of the copy principle. And it is also important to remember that all relations (and associations etc.) are derived from these primary atomic connections which are external to their terms (“relations are external and heterogeneous to their terms” as quoted above). This means that the relations, associations, and connections we make from the various atomic elements consisting of ideas and impressions happen outside of the elements. Relations happen outside of the terms themselves. This process which Deleuze calls human nature is transcendent. But to be very careful, it is not transcendent under what Immanuel Kant would call transcendent, i.e. as happening due to a table of universal a priori categories of the mind. Rather, the transcendence Deleuze speaks of is simply the way the human nature inherently, habitually, and imaginatively puts the terms of empirical experience together. Human nature is transcendentally relational. As the human mind is for Hume, there is no Kantian centripetal, universal, or transcendental core to the mind, there are just the relations we make between things. This is what is meant by human nature for Deleuze—the mind has no necessary center. Deleuze’s transcendentalism focuses instead on the multiplicity of experiences that can be derived from the relations we make with things. Worded another way, his transcendentalism is not paradigmatic like Kant’s. It is entirely contingent on the relations made because of experience. Transcendence of this kind happens because of our empirical, atomic, and indeed Humean way of knowing the world. Hume’s empiricism enables and informs Deleuze’s transcendence, not the other way around.

It is fascinating how an empirical philosophy that is fundamentally based on the copy principle as elucidated by David Hume can suddenly appear be post-structuralist or even postmodernist. The radical shift comes with Deleuze’s exogenous transcendence implied by Hume’s relations, more commonly thought of as associations. In the opening paragraph on Hume in Pure Immanence, Deleuze states that Hume’s “empiricism is a sort of science fiction universe avant la lettre.”[19] Paraphrasing this must mean: if Hume’s empiricism lacks a Kantian and rationalist center, the brilliant possibilities of a science fiction universe are transcendentally and imaginatively within reach—all we have to do is creatively bring about the multitude of relationships from the very base of our ideas copied from our impressions.

——Aurelio Madrid

[1] David Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” in Modern Philosophy: an Anthology of Primary Sources, 2nd Edition, edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins, (Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Co., 2009), 533-599.

[2] Gilles Deleuze, “Hume,” in Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, translated by Anne Boyman (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2002) 35-52. Deleuze’s first book Empiricism and Subjectivity is also about Hume, specifically Hume’s Treatise. It is not clear if I’ll stick to using his last book Pure Immanence, or not.

[3] Hume, Enquiry, 539. Also, the paragraph citations from Modern Philosophy will be indicated as: ¶1, ¶2 ,,, etc.

[4] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[5] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[6] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[7] Hume, Enquiry, 539-540.

[8] Recall that Hume also calls impressions: feelings or sentiments.

[9] Hume, Enquiry, 540.

[10] Cliff Stagoll, “David Hume,” in The Deleuze Dictionary, edited by Adrian Parr, (Edinbugh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 124-126 .

[11] Hume writes in his “Author’s Advertisement” for the Enquiry: “But not finding it [the Treatise] successful, he [Hume] was sensible of his error in going to the press too early and he cast the whole anew in the following pieces,… [i.e. the Enquiry is the Treatise ‘cast anew’].” Hume, Enquiry, 533.

[12] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 37.

[13] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 37.

[14] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[15] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[16] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[17] Hume, Enquiry, 541.

[18] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[19] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 35.


Bell, Jeffery A. Deleuze’s Hume: Philosophy, Culture and the Scottish Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Buchanan, Ian. Deleuzism: A Metacommentary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Hume.” In Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life. Translated by Anne Boyman, 35-52. New York, NY: Zone Books, 2002.

——, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. Translated by Constantin V. Boundas. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Hume, David. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” In Modern Philosophy: an Anthology of Primary Sources, 2nd Edition. Edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins, 533-599. Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Co., 2009.

Marks, John. Gilles Deleuze: Vitalism and Multiplicity. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1998.

Parr, Adrian. Editor of The Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

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