Deleuze on Learning and Skill

When it comes to learning, Deleuze argues that “it is so difficult to say how someone learns.” (DR 23). More dramatically, Deleuze adds, there “is something amorous – but also something fatal – about all education.” (DR 23). In learning to drive a stick shift car, for example, it is not sufficient simply to be told by the instructor to “do as I do,” or to follow the rule as they have stated and/or exemplified it in their actions. Learning is not a matter of following a rule or of doing what someone else does; to the contrary, what one encounters in learning to drive a stick shift car is the task of connecting various elements – namely, the hand, foot, clutch, accelerator, slope of the road, etc.—and of connecting them systematically so that the foot releases from the clutch right when the accelerator is being pressed, etc. Similarly in learning to swim it is a matter of establishing connections between the various parts and motions of one’s body with the resistance, currents, and buoyancy of the water. As Deleuze puts it, “To learn to swim is to conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the Objective Idea in order to form a problematic field.” (DR 165)

In clarifying what Deleuze means by conjugating the distinctive points “in order to form a problematic field” will offer, I argue, what I take to be a helpful perspective from which to understand Merleau-Ponty’s example of the expert organist as well as Jason Stanley’s recent work on skill.

To state the point bluntly, the problem or problematic field is what arises as a result of enacting a passive synthesis and conjugation of elements (hand, foot, clutch, accelerator, etc.). This synthesis is then taken up in an active synthesis that is knowledgeable action. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze offers the example of the monkey who “learns” that the food they want is in a box of a particular color. Initially the monkey will pick up boxes at random, but Deleuze notes that “there comes a paradoxical period during which the number of ‘errors’ diminishes even though the monkey does not yet possess the ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’ of a solution in each case.” (DR 163). It is at this point where the objectivity of the problem is encountered, where the elements and components are brought together in a consistent way to constitute the “sign” of the problem though not yet the solution of the problem.It is here where there is something “amorous—but also something fatal—about all education,” for education consists of bringing together elements into consistent relation with each other. This is the paradoxical point in the cae of the monkey where the objectivity of the problem is encountered but not yet the solution.

At the same time, however, learning is also potentially fatal for it is also possible that the elements do not congeal, the connections abort and we have a failure to learn—which could indeed be fatal in the case of learning to swim. It is the failure to make such conjugations, or to create what Deleuze will call a plane of consistency, that can either lead to chaos and total breakdown or, more commonly, result in a return to the already existent habits and routines. This is why learning is always fragile, for there may be too many elements to be drawn into a plane of consistency and the system may become overwhelmed. Therefore, in order to establish connections it is essential to maintain an equilibrium state between being overwhelmed by too many elements on the one hand and an outright avoidance and refusal to establish connections on the other. Successful learning engages with the objectivity of the problem and draws a plane of consistency that is able to actualize “the calm possession of a rule enabling solutions” (DR 164); namely, knowledgeable action.

It might be helpful at this point to recall Merleau-Ponty’s example of the “experienced organist” who is “capable of playing an organ which he does not know.” (PhP 167-8). Even though the new organ may have “stops differently arranged” or have “more or fewer manuals,” the expert, skilled organist is ready to perform after “only an hour’s practice.” (168). Merleau-Ponty argues that we cannot account for this ability if we assume that what the organist is doing is producing and remembering “a representation of the stops, pedals and manuals and their relation to each other in space.” (ibid.). Such a feat would be impossible, Merleau-Ponty claims, in such a short time, nor is it necessary for Merleau-Ponty concludes that the organist “does not learn [the] objective spatial positions for each stop and pedal, nor does he commit them to ‘memory’.” What occurs instead, he claims, is that “[d]uring the rehearsal, as during the performance, the stops, pedals and manuals are given to him as nothing more than possibilities of achieving certain emotional or musical values, and their positions are simply the places through which this value appears in the world.” (ibid.) In other words, Merleau-Ponty is arguing against is the notion that the organist has to re-learn a new organ each time he sits down to play, learning being understood here to be the acquisition of a representation and memory of the spatial positions of the stops and pedals.

This is not how Deleuze would account for what is going on. Stated in Deleuzian terms, when the organist sits down at a new organ they are confronted with the objectivity of the problem and set out, during the rehearsal and performance, to establish a consistency of relations between the stops, pedals, and keyboards. Moreover, this process can be done without having to be stated in representational or propositional terms. In fact, for Deleuze learning cannot be reduced to such verbally articulated representational or propositional terms, and this was why Deleuze argued that “it is so difficult to say how someone learns.” (DR 23). What the organist does then is that they are capable of successfully drawing the elements together into a consistent system upon encountering a new organ. More importantly, although the organist cannot reduce what they have learned to a representation and memory of the spatial location of the stops and pedals of the organ, they have, despite what Merleau-Ponty argues, acquired the systematic content that enables them to play the new organ.

At this point there is a convergence with the work of Jason Stanley. As those who are familiar with Stanley’s work know, he has argued that the practical skills of knowing how can ultimately be defined in terms of knowing that—that is, to know how to ride a bike can be defined in the propositional terms of ‘x knows that p’. Stanley refers to this position as intellectualism and argues that it is contrary to what a vast majority of philosophers think about practical knowledge, beginning notably with Gilbert Ryle (though we can now add Merleau-Ponty to that list). From the point of view of Merleau-Ponty/Ryle, knowing how to ride a bike or play a new organ entails, as Stanley characterizes it, “a distinctive kind of non-propositional mental state.” For Stanley by contrast (in a recent essay he wrote with John Krakauer), knowing how to ride a bike entails a form of propositional knowledge or “minimally” they argue, it involves “a state with propositional content, one that is suitable for us in guiding action” (p. 1). At first this claim may seem contrary to the Deleuzian arguments made above, but Stanley and Krakauer are quick to point out that one may possess the knowledge that is necessary to perform a practical skill without being able to verbally state what one knows. For instance, although one who knows how to ride a bike, swim, etc., possesses the “knowledge of what to do to initiate an action…some manifestations of this knowledge,” Stanley and Krakauer argue, “are by agents who cannot verbally articulate its content.” (p. 3)

What is key here is the ability to initiate the action, and the knowledge necessary to do so. Some abilities, for example, do not require such knowledge. For example, one may improve one’s ability to recognize faces, or to discriminate line orientation in peripheral vision, but these abilities themselves do not presuppose knowledge or instruction—it is already a baseline ability or motor habit. Riding a bicycle, swimming, or throwing a curve ball, by contrast, although they may presuppose certain unlearned baseline abilities such as moving one’s arms, head, legs, the use of peripheral vision, etc., these abilities serve as the elements that need to be drawn into a plane of consistency appropriate to the skill of throwing a curve ball, swimming, or riding a bike. Moreover, just as it is the systemic content associated with learning to play an organ skillfully is not to be confused with the ability to state verbally the content of what was learned, so too learning how to initiate a practical action, on Stanley’s view, entails an orderly, systemic content (or a knowing that… according to Stanley) even if this content cannot be verbally stated. That such content associated with knowing that can and ought to be verbally expressible is probably what many people are all too quick to assume is being argued when one hears that Stanley’s thesis is that “knowing how can be defined in terms of knowing that” (“Knowing (How)”). As Stanley makes quite clear, this is not the case; moreover, with Deleuze’s understanding of learning and expertise we have, I would argue, further support for Stanley’s thesis.


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