top of page
  • Max Schmermbeck

Philosophy is an Affective Endeavour (Or, On Being Interesting Rather than Being Right)

“A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.”

- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1980)

In my writings on this platform thus far, I have argued how and why we should reconsider some of our current ways of living and thinking. Though I have discussed new ideas in all my texts, a thematic unity runs through them pertaining to the superficiality, noise, boredom and loneliness of contemporary culture. To give you my thesis in a nutshell: I think everybody, including myself, needs to stop chasing the manufactured forms of desire that our culture feverishly churns out and embrace slow, thoughtful practices that move beyond the superficiality of our hyperreal absurdity. And we all need to start taking walks at night. Just for fun.

Though these texts have been a joy to write, their reflective nature is also limited. Critique is a valuable modus of thought, but it is certainly not the only one (a point to which I will return later). In my next pieces of writing, I want to let go of this reflexivity and move into more abstract and philosophical territory by developing a line of flight onto which other ideas and writings (my own as well as others) can attach themselves. This new project revolves around two central ideas: the concept of affect (and philosophy as an affective endeavour), which I will work out in this text, and an approach to life as the power of building worlds, which will follow in due time. Throughout these investigations runs a speculative line of thinking in which I argue that ideas are not rational forms, but an expression of a multiplicity of forces which transcend the domains of reason, understanding, and even personhood. I ask what it would mean for us to embrace these ‘affective’ elements of thought more fully, and I plan on using this idea to inquire into the concepts of worldliness and world-building in later writings. There is a lot to unpack there, so let’s get started.

The Event of the Idea

For various reasons, I do not want to immediately start explaining the concept of affect, but rather describe the puzzling experience that led me to it. Over the past years, I have found myself struck by something which I think every philosopher, writer or artist recognizes; the magical moment where you come across an idea so beautiful, so good and so majestic that it seems to contain extraordinary powers. Let me, for now, call this the Event of an Idea. This Event is, at least in my case, pretty rare. But when it occurs, it is as though something moves me that is simultaneously within and inside, a force that I do not understand or control, a primordial power which opens me up to a new intensity of life. This, in turn, creates the anxious reflex to quickly write something down, maybe even a single sentence, in the hopes of giving this fleeting sensation some sort of form before it is gone. After all, anybody who has experienced an Event knows it is over in a flash.

I find myself puzzled by this phenomenon. How is it possible that I can sit in a quiet room, alone, and experience something so powerful by reading words on paper? What is it about an idea that makes it possible to have such an effect? My most powerful Event occurred when I first discovered Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, two absolutely mad French philosophers who created some of the most complex, jarring, idiosyncratic, incomprehensible, scandalous writings of modern philosophy (a phrase like “capitalism is an anal machine” from Anti-Oedipus (1972) serves as a good illustration). Their philosophy is one of movement, becoming, creativity, flow, and possibility. It is dynamic, unorthodox, and takes the discipline of philosophy to monstrous, devilish, exciting places. But here is the confusing part: I did not gravitate towards these thinkers because I thought they were right. It wasn’t their arguments that convinced me. It rather felt like I managed to briefly intuit forces that lay beyond their concepts, forces of which the words on the paper were only a temporal expression. There was a feeling of resonance, a tantalizing sensation that these thinkers put something into words which I had felt, someplace, somewhere, but never fully articulated. However, these insights make the notion of Event an even stranger occurrence: how could I have this powerful experience without fully grasping the ideas at hand? Or, to pose the question in more general terms, how come we equate ideas with logic, structure, clarity and truth, when precisely none of these things seem to matter in the Event of an Idea? Where does the power of an idea lie, if not in the understanding? After all, is an idea nothing but understanding?


I am starting to think that this is not the case. It seems to me that there is a realm of the idea which is more immediate, more primal and more organic than its ideal consistency, and this is the realm of affect. We rarely pay attention to this realm, because we often equate ideas with the workings of the mind and the domain of the intelligible. In our pursuit of Truth, we exclude emotion, feeling, perception and embodiment from conceptual thinking, because the separation of mind and body still lingers in our everyday unconscious. Our bodies, senses and emotions are seen as contingent forms of clutter that impair logical thought, which we see as the highest of all possible faculties. We often unknowingly assume Supreme Reason to be a pure, independent domain of life which is muddled, distracted, hindered and undermined by the forces of nature. If only we were able to think more clearly, to be more reasonable, to purify our mind even more, our problems would be solved. Despite centuries of philosophical and artistic resistance, we are still avowed Cartesians; if not in theory, then certainly in practice.

In contrast to this destructive dualism, we need to think of philosophy (and experience more generally) as an affective endeavour. But what does this mean? What does the concept of affect consist of, and why is it a crucial, even revolutionary concept? I think the key term for understanding affect is continuity. Affect designates the inextricable, intimate continuity between the sensible and the intelligible, thought and emotion, and, on a more speculative level, between reflexivity and creativity. In her mesmerizing Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2012), Catherine Malabou captures the idea well:

One cannot be without being affected. (…) Reason and cognition cannot develop or exercise their functions if they are not supported by affects. Reasoning without desiring is not reasoning. In order to think, to want, to know, things must have a consistency, a weight, a value, otherwise emotional indifference annuls the relief, erases differences in perspective, levels everything.

As Malabou shows, the continuity between reason and affect does not lie in the fact that our emotions can ‘influence’ our thoughts; this would only be a slight modification of the Cartesian paradigm in which we think of body and mind as two separate domains. No, the point is that the very ability to think, to know, to reason, is only possible because of affective forces. Without affect, thinking lacks effect; it becomes stale, empty, naked, powerless. It has no movement, no becoming, no force. Affect is the power of the idea, the intensity of its motion, the energy of its vitality.


The concept of affect opens the door for us to think differently about the relation between forces and ideas, but we are still missing a piece of the puzzle if we do not discuss the conatus, Baruch Spinoza’s famous principle of life. In the Ethics, Spinoza writes: “each thing, as far as it lies in itself, strives to persevere in its being.” What Spinoza means by this, is that there seems to be some principle which keeps things going in the broadest sense. One need only look outside for a brief moment to see that the world is constantly changing; things set each other in motion, bump into each other, create and destroy each other, perish, flourish, and move in every direction. The question Spinoza asks, is what it is that allows all these things to keep on moving in the first place. His answer is the conatus, a principle of life which makes it so that every thing strives to persevere in its being. It is the ‘will to power’ that we find in Nietzsche, or the ‘Élan vital’ in Bergson. To quote Antonia Damasio’s reading of Spinoza, it is “the presence of life and the presence of a natural tendency to preserve that life.” The conatus is the driving power of all that lives, thinks, moves, acts and changes.

This all sounds rather vague and abstract, so let me illustrate it by making it a bit more personal. Though I do not subscribe to the myth that everybody must ‘find their true passion,’ it feels as though I do have one: philosophy. But when I think about this a bit more, a strange contradiction arises. On the one hand, my passion for philosophy is fully my own; it occurs in my world and arises from my motivation. Simply stated, it is that which I do, and which nobody does for me. But on the other hand, it seems as though I am driven towards it by something that transcends me. I do not wake up in a static state of being, contemplate why I should bother to do anything, map out the various options at my disposal, conclude I like philosophy, and get going. Rather, my passion precedes my reflection: even though I am the one doing philosophy, I can only retroactively say that I have always-already chosen to do so. This is a rather unsettling realization: my deepest drives, those things that I am most passionate about and that feel incredibly personal and real, are simultaneously internal and external. They are mine, but they are not under my control. I feel the freedom to pursue them, but I also know that I could not have chosen otherwise. In my passion, I am both present and absent, haunted by an elusive, fleeting drive that I can never fully come to terms with.

None of this is meant as a romantic depiction of passionate activity. It is well-known that extraordinarily creative and gifted people (a category which I do not want to place myself in) are often unhappy and difficult, sometimes to the point of being unbearable. But the point is not whether passions are good or bad for you, the point is that the dualism of choosing and not choosing, moving and being moved, illustrates the conatus; it is that uncontrollable force, which is in everything, that sets things in motion, day in and day out, sometimes even against their own volition.

But why is this concept relevant for what I am trying to express here? How does it relate to the notion of affect, the Event of the Idea, and thinking more generally? Again, we can ask Spinoza for guidance. Famously, he argues that “the human body can be affected in many ways by which its power of acting is increased or diminished.” This quote is what everything comes down to, the key to the system, the meat and bones of the whole endeavour. When you read it carefully, you see that Spinoza makes two crucial points. First, he argues that the force of the conatus is not stable, but rather subject to constant change. Second, and more importantly, he argues that this change of intensity in the conatus is itself affective. What Spinoza points out is that our power of life, that which drives us forward on the most fundamental level of being, can be affected in ways that allow us to move through the world with greater intensity, speed and power, or in ways which force us to retreat, close in on ourselves, and decrease our field of action. Let us return once again to Malabou, who writes:

It is impossible to comprehend the tendency of being to conserve itself without acknowledging the role of the affects in modulating the intensity of the conatus. Indeed, just like the appetite, the tendency to persevere is qualitatively and quantitatively variable, more or less open, more or less intense. The hunger to live is not always equal to itself: it changes, increasing or decreasing according to affects, depending on how one feels. For Spinoza, the affects manifest a range in which joy and sorrow are two opposite polls. Joy increases the power to act, increases the intensity of the conatus, widens its scope. Sorrow, on the other hand, dampens, diminishes and restricts this power.

I think we now have enough conceptual baggage to start unravelling the mysteries of the Event of the Idea. Following Deleuze, Spinoza and Malabou, we can say that the exhilarating power of the Event does not constitute some quasi-religious experience, but rather signals the increased intensity of the conatus, the expansion of our life-force, which pushes us to do more thinking, create more ideas, and engage in more action. This is not an occurrence in the mind of reason: it is an embodied, affective, rational, scandalous experience all at once. Reading a really brilliant text, or having one of those good, intense, meaningful discussions with like-minded friends, we want to kick, scream, punch, fuck and write, all at the same time. This is what it feels like to be affected in a way that allows the conatus to move through us with greater intensity, to lift us up out of the mundanity of everyday experience, if only for a second.

However, we must be careful not to romanticize this field of affective forces, for there is also a possibility that tarrying with conative powers blows us away, overwhelms us, or annihilates some part of our being. As Deleuze wonderfully remarks:

Why are there so many writers who suffer from weak health? It is because they experience an overwhelming flood of life, that’s why. Whether it is the weak health of Spinoza or the weak health of [D.H] Lawrence, what is it? (…) These writers have seen something that is too big for them. They are seers, and visionaries, they have seen something that is too much for them to handle, and it breaks them. Philosophers and writers of literature are in the same situation. There are things that one might see and literally never recover from in some ways.

This beautiful quote covers the full range of the conatus as a pre-personal intensity that lives both inside and outside of us. When done with conviction, writing, thinking and experimenting find balance within a field of contradictory, creative, organic intensities that is always feeble, fleeting, and finite. Approaching these things as affective endeavours shows us that the fragile equilibrium which good writers and artists find is an act of creativity which always carries within it the possibility of its own destruction. Despite our illusions of exceptionalism, we are, and always will be, incidents riding the forces of a cosmological game of dice, for the intensity of the conatus lives within a realm that always-already constitutes the more-than-human.

What do we want from ideas?

The question is what all these metaphysical reflections ultimately lead to. What can they tell us? I think it comes down to what we, as philosophers, writers and artists, want from ideas. Do we want truth? Clarity? Logic? Or do we want our concepts to be scandalous, effective, aesthetic? The point that I have tried to make in this text is that we cannot think one without the other, because they co-exist on a single plane.

Approaching thought and practice in this way, we can try to more fully embrace the affectivity of our endeavours instead of passing it off as an irrelevant sentimentality that distract us from Pure Reason. On a practical level, let us therefore embrace a more sophisticated sense of style in philosophical writing. Let us embrace novelty and experimentation. Let us create new forms of thought. Let us supplement our questions about truth with questions about the interesting, the important, and the remarkable. Let us ask if our ideas can do something. These are the questions which can allow us to build the bricks that we can use to throw through windows (and I think we can agree that there are still a lot of windows deserving to broken). Let us re-find the strange, eerie power in creative thought by approaching it as an affective endeavour, and be astonished by what we discover along the way.

Sources & Additional Reading

Arjen Kleinherenbrink – Machine Philosophy – Gilles Deleuze and the Externality Thesis (2016)

Baruch de Spinoza – Ethics (1677)

Brent Adkins – Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: A Critical Introduction and Guide (2015)

Catherine Malabou - Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2012)

Gilles Deleuze & Claire Parnet – ‘L’abecedaire de Gilles Deleuze: L comme Littérature’ (1988-1989)

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus (1980)

Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter (2010)

Levi R. Bryant – Onto-Cartography (2014)

René Descartes – Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

Rick Dolphijn – Filosofie van de Materie (2022)


bottom of page