Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Deleuze and Learning

  • David R. Cole
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_68



Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) provides an integrated theorization of learning without having written specifically on education. He was a philosopher who worked for the majority of his life as an intellectual and university academic. Deleuze was propelled into the public eye in 1972, after the success of his first collaborative work with Félix Guattari, called Anti-Oedipus. He did not write a book on learning, so one must piece together his ideas on learning from comments interspersed from within the oeuvre. Despite this apparent lack of direct information and analysis of learning, Deleuze’s ideas have gained traction in many educational and creative circles (Cole 2011). Perhaps this is because Deleuze provides what he described as “a conceptual toolbox” (Deleuze 1980, p. 17), which can be readily applied to education in terms of a philosophical framing and as a theoretical base that resists dogmatism and encourages the novel and imaginative (re)creation of theory and practice. In this entry, this conceptual toolbox does not represent a free-for-all in terms of an anything-goes learning and educational theory, but, on the contrary, the Deleuzian toolbox is in many ways deliberately hard to accept and necessarily challenging to put into action.

Deleuze and Learning

Deleuze’s most direct statements with respect to learning come in his book on Difference and Repetition. In it, he says: “… “learning” always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind” (Deleuze 1994, p. 165). This is the last sentence of a paragraph on problematic ideas and an explanation of how one learns to swim with respect to the idea of the sea. Deleuze’s argument is that one learns to swim in the sea not by opposing the sea in dialectical fashion, nor by deconstructing it, still less by imposing a person’s will upon the waves in a mythological, Cnut style. Following the philosophy of Deleuze, one learns through an “apprenticeship with signs.” Further, education is “amorous yet fatal” (Deleuze 1994, p. 23); in the case of swimming in the sea, the swimmer is able to cope with the waves and the currents of the seas, not by copying or repeating their existence and forms or through any processes of familiarization or thoughts about being a “natural sea swimmer,” but by becoming attuned over time to the way in which one has to swim in the seas in order to survive and to stay afloat. Deleuze (1994, p. 23) states that one learns from teachers who say “do with me” and not from teachers who say “do as I do”; in other words, learning is a necessarily reciprocating and relational process – and includes elements of non-relation, which makes questioning of accepted knowledge an imperative and working together communally around knowledge problems essential. Inna Semetsky (2009) has suggested that Deleuze’s approach to learning solves Plato’s paradox in Meno about learning, in that the production of new knowledge according to Socrates is merely the function of memory or recollection. Plato surmised that all knowledge is locked in the unconscious, so that one doesn’t learn at all, but recollects what one already knows through the recognition of truths through argumentation and Socratic dialogue. Deleuze (1994) turns this formulation around in Difference and Repetition, in that the unconscious is no longer a passive receiver of knowledge and the memory the active disseminator of knowledge. Contrariwise, the unconscious does profoundly synthetic and positive, i.e., paradoxically conscious, work according to Deleuze, through the clashing of affect and the playing with chaotic material processes through, for example, creative experimentation. The unconscious is in the Deleuzian frame a creative and vital cauldron of new thought. However, to get to this new vision of the unconscious as the place where learning fundamentally happens, one has to first attend to issues concerning philosophy and the image of thought that it has projected over time.

Philosophy and Learning

Deleuze executed a number of philosophical studies during his career, specifically focusing on the philosophies of David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Benedictus de Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Michel Foucault, and Gottfried Leibniz. These works by Deleuze on other philosophers do not constitute a history of philosophy, nor do they provide straightforward commentaries on the philosophy of these named thinkers. Rather, Deleuze executed these studies to come up with “new thought,” in order to question the classical or accepted image of thought and to ultimately produce a philosophical system that promotes learning through the unconscious and nature and questions knowledge as given. In some ways, every philosophy produces an “image of thought,” even Deleuze’s project to come up with a new image of thought and to return the thought of the philosophers to learning. In this context, Deleuze’s project is to enable an image of thought that may be infinitely divisible or possible to be differentiated in itself, until thought and learning themselves become apparent to the thinker and learner. In terms of Western metaphysics, the dominant and most far-reaching “image of thought” comes from Plato in terms of what constitutes metaphysics. Deleuze (1994) could be positioned as one of many thinkers who have tried to overcome Plato’s image of thought, yet the approach that he takes in Difference and Repetition is distinguished from many others in that the eight postulates that are proposed in order to question the philosophically dogmatic image of thought suggest an ultimate escape route from representation as the basis for metaphysics in general into learning per se and not only with reference to Plato.

The eight postulates from Difference and Repetition (see below) constitute a framing of the dogmatic image of thought that specifically attempts to dismantle the manner in which thought has been created and recreated more recently through thinkers such as Kant and Heidegger. According to Deleuze, Kant and Heidegger create dogmatic images of thought because their systems for thought must be understood before any new thought can happen. The eight postulates signify a means to fully examine such images of thoughts and to allow for unthoughts, non-thoughts, and, importantly given the context of this entry, learning through the unconscious and nature to make its way into a new arena for thought. One could argue that everything that Deleuze writes after the “Image of Thought” section of Difference and Repetition during his career relates to these postulates in some way and is an attempt to create thought without an image that makes philosophy more democratic and fully open to novel reinterpretation. One could argue that this proposition is perhaps most fully realized in the rhizomatics of A Thousand Plateaus, because the “rhizomic text” and multiple conceptual elements of A Thousand Plateaus attempt to fully engage with the notion of immanence, including how immanence relates to time, power, and the fluctuations of everyday life (e.g., Cole 2013). Immanence is for Deleuze the great leveling concept, which makes new thought accessible beyond the philosophical specialism, seen, for example, in Kant or Heidegger, and learning in the moment becomes apparent. The eight Deleuzian postulates that a new image of thought and any consequent learning from Deleuze rest upon are as follows.

The eight postulates: from Difference and Repetition (Deleuze 1994, p. 167):
  1. 1.

    The Postulate of the Principle or the Cogitatio Natural Universalis: the good will of the thinker and the good nature of thought.

  2. 2.

    The Postulate of the Ideal or Common Sense: common sense as the concordia facultatum and good sense as the distribution that guarantees this accord.

  3. 3.

    The Postulate of the Model or of Recognition: recognition presupposes the harmonious exercise of the faculties on an object that is supposedly identical for each of these faculties and the consequent possibility of error in the distribution when one faculty confuses one of its objects with a different object of another faculty.

  4. 4.

    The Postulate of the Element or Representation: difference is subordinated to the complementary dimensions of the same and the similar and the analogous and the opposed.

  5. 5.

    The Postulate of the Negative or of Error: error expresses everything that can go wrong in thought, but only as a product of external mechanisms.

  6. 6.

    The Postulate of the Logical Function or the Proposition: designation or denotation [theory of reference] is taken to be the locus of truth, sense of being no more than a neutralized double or the infinite doubling of the proposition.

  7. 7.

    The Postulate of the Modality or Solutions: problems are materially traced from propositions or are formally defined by the possibility of them being solved.

  8. 8.

    The Postulate of the End or the Result or the Postulate of Knowledge: the subordination of learning to knowledge and of culture [or paideia] to method.


These eight postulates from Difference and Repetition work on the level of problematizing and questioning the image of thought. The first two postulates refer to the ways in which philosophers have made implicit agreements between themselves about what thought is and what thought should be. These agreements might jeopardize learning according to Deleuze. Likewise, postulates three and four refer to the ways in which philosophical systems have produced models and represented the image of thought as the “self-same.” The philosophical systems of Kant and Heidegger are good examples of these types of thinking models or modes of representation that require thinking through their tenets before any new thought or learning can happen. Postulate five is a reference to the Hegelian system of thought that prioritizes negation in thought to create difference (Somers-Hall 2012), therefore making learning dependent on the negation of, for example, the thought of nature and the unconscious, which is exactly what Deleuze wants learning to connect with. Postulates six and seven refer to propositional logic and how the definition of the image of thought in these terms can produce thought that excludes problems that do not fit with the strictures of propositional logic, i.e., irrational and illogical thought. Learning itself would also be trammeled along the lines of propositional logic according to these postulates. Postulate eight refers to the ways in which knowledge can dominate learning and create methods that intercede and take away from the force of culture. Deleuze wants to return thought to learning and culture and not to a set of predefined methods or sets of instructions that can take away from the impact and veracity of new thought.

One needs to systematically go through the postulates from Difference and Repetition to arrive at the last postulate, number eight, that directly relates to learning and is the starting point for a new metaphysics of learning from Deleuze that disavows representation in thought, i.e., gets back to learning qua learning and not the thought of learning. Deleuze (1994, p. 167) in Difference and Repetition immediately qualifies and questions the eight postulates and says that they function best in silence. How can one make sense of the notion that the thought that escapes the dogmatic image of thought through the eight postulates returns one to a state of learning, and helps to reverse the traditionally philosophical or classical “image of thought” and its accompanying dogmas, and yet is born “in thought” (Deleuze 1994, p. 167)? In terms of philosophical analysis, the genesis of “the image of thought” and the consequent critique of the image of thought through the eight postulates come from Deleuze’s earlier (1983) book Nietzsche and Philosophy.

Here, Deleuze begins his sustained move away from the tenets of representative thought and looks to understand how Nietzschean forces may power thought, such as the contrast between reactive (moral) forces and life-affirming forces. One could argue that according to Nietzsche, paramount among the forces of reaction and affirmation is the force of now, which congeals everyday forces from a contemporary perspective that may work to corrupt and subjugate the mobility of thought. In Nietzschean terms, the power of the philosopher is derived from the ability to think (and learn) outside of the prejudices, clichés, and banalities contained in the social forces of the contemporary situation. This is why Nietzsche refined his writing technique to such an extent in order to come up with a new form of aphoristic writing that attempted to pierce the bubble of contemporary values and thought and that could execute a powerful critique on the image of thought connected to “now” and to reconnect thinking with learning. In consequence, Nietzsche teaches us to be wary of contemporary fashion and to exercise critical and affective energies when approaching thought, which might turn out to be merely reactive or responding to moral, narrow-minded, reproductive, or power-based dictates. This is one of the reasons why Deleuze qualifies his eight postulates with silence and with their birth “in thought,” which means they are precisely designed to escape the clamor of the contemporary moment and in order to connect to learning, to the unconscious, and to nature. The concern to make Deleuze’s postulates receptive to and part of an exploration of the unconscious predominantly comes from his examination of the formulation of the drives for thinking in Nietzsche and in the writing processes of Proust in Proust and Signs.

In Proust and Signs, the section on “the image of thought” concerns the ways in which the thinking of the philosopher can miss out on specific types of knowledge, aesthetic sensitivities, the learning that comes from the heart, and the thought processes contained in Proust’s writing style. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time sets up a wholly different image of thought to the philosophical image of thought, and it is through understanding the processes contained in the writing of this book that one is able to go beyond the rational, historic, and communal assumptions of the philosophers as listed by the eight postulates. Deleuze’s argument in Proust and Signs is that the writing of Proust adds to the endeavors and insights of the philosophers and that Proust’s work is philosophical, precisely because it out-maneuvers what Plato calls “simultaneously contrary perceptions” (Deleuze 2000, p. 101). In other words, Proust has the ability to write around such perceptions, and to make art of them, or to touch upon “sensations common to 2 places, to 2 moments” (ibid.). Proust is a Deleuzian exemplar of a writer able to deal with involuntary signs in a creative way and in a manner which forces us to think and learn.

Parallel to Nietzsche, who is a thinker out of time (as exemplified by Zarathustra), Proust is a thinker of time. Proust creates an image of thought that does not represent the tropes of now, but gets inside the mechanisms of time to encounter the fleeting effects, an apprenticeship in signs, and the delayed action in thought and learning. In Proust’s writing, obvious and scenic or exterior imagery is substituted for the time dimension to produce what Deleuze and Guattari (1988, p. 380) describe in A Thousand Plateaus in a parallel manner and with reference to nomadism, as “(a)ll of thought is a becoming, a double becoming, rather than the attribute of a Subject and the representation of a whole.” Deleuze, Proust, and Nietzsche allow for and give mobility to thought through their art and hence show what the image of thought is through learning, the unconscious, and nature. As has been noted above and in contrast to, for example, Kant and Heidegger, whose intellectual comprehension requires steadfast study of the structural aspects of their thought before new thought can happen, i.e., with respect to being, the faculties of thought and the possibility of experience, according to the approach of Deleuze, Proust and Nietzsche, have injected freedom into the construction of thought and into the consequent image of thought with respect to how new thought and learning happen.

However, if one accepts Deleuze’s notion of thinking and learning and how it proceeds empirically, one should be able to configure these processes in the world in some way. This point comes about not because Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism as he names this approach in Difference and Repetition requires any extrasensory or universal validity, but because the ways in which one can make sense of the eight postulates, the learning, and the image of thought that they refer to must relate in some way to practice. This is because it is in practice that the Deleuzian postulates can reach their tipping points and any breakthrough in the image of thought toward learning can be realized, i.e., immanently and in tandem with a concern for power.


If one compares Deleuze’s ideas on learning with, for example, John Hattie’s (2009) book called Visible Learning, which is widely cited in education, one could state that in contrast, Deleuze’s thoughts on learning describe a form of “invisible learning.” Deleuze designates pre-personal, fluctuating grounds for learning that can seem to be very different from the systematic analysis of the factors and strategies of/for learning as analyzed statistically by Hattie (2009). However, if one digs deeper into the two approaches to learning represented by Deleuze and Hattie, one can realize that the two positions are not so far removed. Deleuze is not adverse to scientific and mathematical explanation of phenomena; in fact he deploys such means frequently in his writing with respect to, for example, “singularities” and “the virtual,” yet Deleuze always brings back such explanations to thinking, creativity, and social problems.

The difference in the two approaches to learning is that Hattie (2009) stops at the “effect size” of every strategy or factor in learning from the 800 meta-analyses that are appropriated, which enables a ranking of the effect sizes. In contrast, Deleuze has latterly analyzed philosophy, literature, cinema, capitalism, science, and history to come up with an extended notion of learning as questioning the image of thought in these contexts. Certainly, one could argue that Deleuze’s notion of learning requires evidence-based studies of the type that Hattie (2009) has used in his ranking of the effect sizes of factors and strategies to enhance learning. This is perhaps a task for future educators and future education researchers that have been influenced by the philosophy of Deleuze to attend to, as they work together to change mainstream educational provision. Deleuze’s philosophical and intellectual approach to learning has the capacity to radically alter the course of educational practice beyond the short term and to make a difference in terms of the measurable “effect sizes” as calculated by Hattie (2009).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Education ResearchWestern Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia