conceptual automata

With midterms out of the way I’ve been able to begin preparing for some upcoming events. In particular, I’ll be one of the lecturers at this year’s Deleuze Camp, along with Ian Buchanan, Dan Smith, and Ron Bogue (there are a couple others as well, I believe, but that’s all I know for now), and so I’m busy preparing for what I’ll do there. I’m also editing a book with Levi Bryant and have finally gotten together my proposed abstract for that project. I post the abstract here since I’ve already posted on this blog many of the ideas that will eventually appear in that essay. This work is also related to what I’ll be doing at the Deleuze Camp so any feedback or suggestions are welcome. As is the nature of abstracts, they often make broad sweeping claims and promises with only an indication, if that, of how successful the arguments will be in the end. I would hope that combined with previous posts some of these inherent problems in abstracts will be alleviated. Regardless, comments are welcome. The tentative title for the essay is ‘Conceptual Automata’.

In this essay it will be argued that Deleuze’s theory of concepts can be fruitfully compared with automata theory (AT), and in particular a dynamical systems approach to the theory of cellular automata. The comparison of Deleuze’s thought with dynamical systems and complexity theory is a terrain that has been well traversed by John Protevi, Brian Massumi, Manuel Delanda, and Jeffrey Bell, but to date this approach has not taken on the task of exploring the possible connections with Deleuze’s theory of concepts, which is particularly important since Deleuze repeatedly argues that philosophy’s primary task is and ought to be concerned with the creation of concepts. Addressing Deleuze’s theory of concepts, which is in itself a neglected area of Deleuze scholarship, will thus clarify the distinctive role Deleuze believes philosophy can play.

By understanding Deleuze’s theory of concepts in light of automata theory this essay will set out to establish three important consequences. The first follows from a detailed analysis of the important role abstract machines play in carrying forth the computational processes between the progressive states of the automata, which will then be compared and contrasted with the understanding of abstract machines as found in the work of Deleuze (and Deleuze and Guattari). This comparison will allow us to clarify how conceptual automata (as we will refer to Deleuzian concepts in this essay) both engender and are engendered by abstract machines, and hence how concepts are dynamic systems. In turning to the second part of this essay we will show how a Deleuzian theory of concepts as conceptual automata relates to more traditional theories of the concept. On the one hand, we will show how a Humean-empiricist account of concepts as engendered by certain processes of association (that is, by certain computational rules in AT) is in line with our Deleuzian theory of concepts, a theory that thus demonstrates the continuing relevance of Hume for understanding Deleuze’s project. At the same time, however, conceptual automata are from the start connected to other concepts and to other abstract machines, or, to cite the closing lines of A Thousand Plateaus, ‘Every abstract machine is linked to other abstract machines, not only because they are inseparably political, economic, scientific, artistic, ecological, cosmic—perceptive, affective, active, thinking, physical, and semiotic—but because their various types are as intertwined as their operations are convergent. Mechanosphere.’ Thus, when Wilfred Sellars argues that ‘there is an important sense in which one has no concept pertaining to observable properties of physical objects in Space and Time unless one has them all,’ (Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, p. 45); or when Brandom argues that conceptual contents are ‘social achievements,’ by which he means that our ability to appreciate ‘the distinction between correct and incorrect application’ of concepts derives from the norms implicit to social practice (‘we have met the norms,’ Brandom argues, ‘and they are ours’ [I discuss this here, herehere, and here for a quick reading of McDowell’s Mind and World]); in both cases we will find that our Deleuzian theory of concepts as conceptual automata will be quite compatible with these arguments. In other words, despite the widely held perception of there being a fundamental opposition between a Sellarsian/Brandomian theory of concepts and a Humean/empiricist account, we will show that not only does an understanding of concepts as automata not fall into the either/or alternatives of rationalist or empiricist accounts, but more importantly the Deleuzian theory set forth here offers a transcendental account in that it explicates the conditions for the possibility of these opposed alternatives, or for what will be called the intellectual mitosis (as I discuss here) inseparable from the bifurcation between empiricism and rationalism. The conclusions of the third and final section of this essay follow from those reached in the first two sections: namely, there is no priority given, in a Deleuzian account of thought and concepts, to human beings as conceivers, or to the thoughts and inferential arguments that are constructed and utilized by human cognizers. To the contrary, the Deleuzian theory offered here presumes a flat ontology of abstract machines. Conceptual processes and the inferential arguments of human thinkers are thus not privileged on this theory but are rather to be understood by the same theory of abstract machines and automata as is and can be used to account for any other determinate process. There is a reason, we shall see, why the final word of A Thousand Plateaus is Mechanosphere.

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