Common sense as philosophical “misadventure” in Deleuze and Flaubert

I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the Warwick Continental Philosophy Conference (WCPC) 2018, which ran with the theme “Identity and Community: Metaphysics, Politics and Aesthetics”. Thanks to the organisers, other speakers, and attendees, especially those who gave me feedback on that earlier version.

What I propose to investigate is the usage of a quotation in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (orig. published 1968), which is taken from Flaubert’s final novel, unfinished and thus unpublished during his lifetime, Bouvard and Pécuchet (orig. published 1881). The quotation in question is this: “Then a lamentable faculty developed in their minds, that of noticing stupidity and finding it intolerable.”[1] In a biography of Flaubert, Michael Winock has the following to say on the development of the novel’s two central characters:

Now proverbial, these two names are among the most illustrious figures of stupidity in French literary history. […] But though they acquire an awareness of generalized stupidity, up to the end of the existing manuscript they themselves display a naïveté, gullibility, and lack of common sense that relegates them to the world of stupidity. (Winock: 415)

By the end of this paper, I wish to show that what Bouvard and Pécuchet display is not a lack of common sense as such, but that their stupidities point instead to an awareness and possession of a great deal of common sense, provided that we approach the text with the Deleuzian definition of this concept. Deleuze’s account of common sense emerges from his engagement with and criticism of what he calls in Difference and Repetition the image of thought, in a chapter of the same name, and concerns a specific function of the faculties of thinking as distributed evenly and uncritically. It is for the most part unrelated to other uses of the term, which crop us variously throughout philosophy and elsewhere; however, it is an adequate means to subvert what is being considered as stupidity, or what is specifically called bêtise or the stupidity of the bourgeoisie, in regards to Flaubert’s work.

To understand what is being meant by “common sense” here, we may begin by relating it to another term, what Deleuze variously calls “opinion” and doxa. What philosophical opinion proposes, say Deleuze and Guattari in a later text What is Philosophy?, “is a particular relationship between an external perception as state of a subject and an internal affection supposedly common to several subjects who experience it and who, along with us, grasp that quality.” (144)[2] When something is perceived (Deleuze and Guattari offer the example of a piece of cheese which is brought before us), it is simultaneously recognised by one or more of its external qualities (which of these qualities is chosen may be arbitrary – let us say, in the case of the piece of cheese, its smell), and reflected upon, or evaluated based on what its perceiver feels about the quality extracted (for example, we may dislike the smell, and by extension not only this piece of cheese but our idea of cheese in its entirety). This is a simple model for how opinion is formed. Opinions such as these become doxa – i.e. philosophical – when they are related to other, similarly held beliefs, those of the group or society, and are found to be agreeable and uncontentious (thus establishing an orthodoxy). Thus, statements of opinion can assume the form of statements of truth. Deleuze illustrates this with the phrase “everybody knows.” “Everybody knows, in a pre-philosophical and pre-conceptual manner …”: pre-philosophical, because the formation of opinion is not itself good philosophical practice, but at the same time, deemed necessary in order for philosophy to assume a beginning. Philosophy must be founded on a kind of thought that is not its own, because it exists in the face of and as a differential to the unknown and unknowability – i.e. chaos. To give thought the “consistency”, or grounding it requires not to collapse back into indetermination (Deleuze & Guattari: 42), it must strike out with a concept, which is in turn built around an “implicit presupposition”. In a pure sense, philosophy does not have a beginning without a priori presuppositions, as the opening sentence of the chapter “The Image of Thought” claims: in fact, that all philosophy must enact on presuppositions which threaten to unground it is one of the discipline’s most forthright problematics. The question for us then becomes: How can philosophy account for or combat doxa without collapsing back in on itself, back into undifferentiated thought and unknowability? Or, put another way, where (and indeed how) does philosophical opinion end and philosophical certainty begin?

This problematic of implicit presuppositions is compounded when left unchallenged, and becomes the basis for a dogmatic image of thought by which all future philosophy is modelled after and aspires to imitate. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze identifies the image of thought of modern European philosophy (that which begins with Descartes, but which has earlier precedents in Plato and so on) by eight postulates, the first two of which we have just now begun to encounter in the nascent form of the phrase “everybody knows…”. Let us differentiate them more closely.

The first postulate relates to the virtuous and admirable qualities of thought belonging to good thinkers. Good sense presupposes that recognition is a universal, identical faculty, its operation having no need for philosophy, and that good thought has an undeniable “double aspect of a good will on the part of the thinker and an upright nature on the part of thought.” (173) Deleuze follows Nietzsche’s critique in regarding with scepticism the claim to universal good will or cogitatio natura universalis implied by the postulate of good sense, which imply an affiliation between thought and the will to truth, between a thinking subject and a desire for knowledge of a “moral” fashion (Nietzsche: §1, §6, §34), because, says Deleuze, it is implied that “only the good can ground the supposed affinity” between them (174). Good sense is will to truth, and truth is by extension virtuous. The thinker of truth is therefore predisposed to exercise an essential goodness expressed by thought’s upright character; a thought which, in itself, “knows what it means to think” (177).

The second postulate describes not the innate character of thought but its distribution. Common sense is the means by which good sense applies universally, to all thinking subjects. We are led to believe by the image of thought that two or more thinkers, provided their capacities for thinking are able enough, will always arrive at the same solutions to philosophical problems, regardless of any differences between their approaches and circumstances. Again, “everybody knows”, because to know is to recognise not only one’s own sense of what is correct, but the general distribution of the correctness of a given thought: it is shared by all good thinkers, hence it is truth. This recognition of universally held ideas is the basis for philosophy conceived under the dogmatic image of thought.

Recognition of good sense, common sense, and opinion functions thusly. In a general sense, firstly, to recognise is for all the faculties to converge upon a “supposed same object” in a “harmonious exercise”, as a process of identification (176). To recognise good sense, therefore, is to identify the noble qualities of truth intrinsic to good thought itself, and by extension, its thinkers: the convergence of the faculties enable the similarities between the perceived qualities of thought and the abstract goodness of truth to be determined. Recognition of common sense requires identifying good will as common to all thinkers: what is identified with the faculties here are the similarities between the good sense of an individual (the self) and its perceived consistency among thinking subjects. Lastly, recognition provides the model of doxa its consistency via the faculties’ convergence upon “an extension and criteria that are naturally those of an “orthodoxy”” (Deleuze & Guattari: 145-6): opinionated truth is established based on the group’s reproduction of the Same. To found truth on the model of recognition, therefore, is to relegate truth to consensus: what is “good”, “right”, and agreeable according to the criteria of what “everybody knows”.

It is a good idea at this point to understand the exact nature of Deleuze’s criticism against the image of thought and its resultant philosophy, the philosophy of good sense, common sense, and opinion. The first consideration is that of the relationship between image and representation. For any definition of common sense, a generality of accepted meaning is required. As Deleuze says, it only takes a “surly interlocutor” to express the opinion that their thoughts are not represented by the consensus to call that consensus into question (173). The treatment of thought as a natural faculty belies what is seen by Deleuze as “a depotentialisation and normalisation of thought”, in the words of Alberto Toscano, and, to continue, “Deleuze promotes the suspicion that such presupposition (or perhaps we should say such imputation) of thought hides an ‘interest’ […] in speaking for others by speaking universally”. (Toscano: 5) Thus, such philosophy is distracted from its purposes of understanding thought, being, and so on, and reduced to a competition for the establishment of the most general or authentic representation. Thought becomes analogical, and not critical: this is problematic, for the myriad components of representation bear upon each of the faculties differently: “identity with regard to concepts, opposition with regard to the determination of concepts, analogy with regard to judgement, resemblance with regard to objects” (181). A distribution of the “unspecified concept” of common sense across multiple faculties opposes this specificity of function.

Another element of Deleuze’s critique of common sense relates to the way in which the image of thought handles necessity. We will recall the problems brought to bear on thinking by the expressions “everybody knows”, and “no one can deny”. François Zourabichvili has reconfigured the central concern of Deleuze’s chapter – the difficulty of establishing a beginning in philosophy – as the problem of necessity, “how to arrive at a necessary thought” (Zourabichvili: 44). Deleuze’s critique then, for Zourabichvili, is that of the position of truth as being necessary under the image of thought. Necessary thought – what is recognised as truth – must be verified not by itself but beyond, by an “exterior”. However, the image of thought suggests that this judgment of truth has been “interiorized”, not as an outward process, or engagement with an outside, but as an innate content, a reproduction of “what must be said or thought” according to naturally endowed pre-philosophical notions. An internalization of the means to recognising truth also provokes the question of the validity of this philosophy’s claim to grounding. The function of a grounding is to differentiate in kind between received opinion and the basis for what is known: it is to objectify knowledge, to make it determinable and workable. This is of course undermined by a doxastic version of ground, which is itself no more than opinion on a more numerous scale (many subjectivities of the same idea). Deleuze’s critique, therefore, questions the necessity of a truth established without external verification, and how thought derived in this would be able to affirm an outside it ignores (ibid: 44-51).

The final aspect of Deleuze’s critique of the image of thought is that it is simply too limited, and produces philosophy that is too unambitious for the tasks of approaching varieties of thought that are beyond itself. To some extent, this ties back to the problem of necessity: what need do philosophers have of a kind of thought that is capable only of recognising itself, especially, as he says, when common sense itself “shows every day – unfortunately – that it is capable of producing philosophy in its own way” (178)? But this problem also concerns the image of thought’s inability to challenge its own grounding or resulting methodology, or even to recognise its embedded dogmatism – what Deleuze calls the image’s “disturbing complacency”, its somewhat terrifying struggle for the “trophy” of the cogitatio natura universalis (179-180). Later in What is Philosophy?, he and Guattari will go on to warn of the “fate of philosophy” being under threat from such a “philosophy of communication” (Deleuze & Guattari: 146), but the sentiment of the earlier work is the same. The concept of recognition is a hammer, and with it, all philosophies are variations on the same nail: “form will never inspire anything but conformities.” (178)

What is needed for philosophy is not a convergence of the faculties but a splitting open of their established formation under the image of thought; an assertion of difference and an “original violence” wherein each separate faculty is brought to the limits of their respective powers. This is what is prevented by common sense, which seeks to stymie original thought by maintaining a baleful harmony of consensus, and a false idea of its own necessity as thought’s primary ground; a necessity relative to its own conditions, as opposed to an absolute necessity of thought asserted through a “fundamental encounter” with the outside (183-186). As Zourabichvili has shown, Deleuze manages to maintain that there is no contradiction between the act of beginning in philosophy and philosophy lacking a primary foundation. What Deleuze calls for is not grounding but an act of universal ungrounding which rejects the model of recognition and affirms the outside from within, as immanence (Zourabichvili: 51-52).

Before we lose sight of this paper’s focus, I will finish this section by applying Deleuze’s critique of common sense and recognition to the philosopher he associates most strongly with those concepts’ expressions, and who I have been ignoring up until this point: Descartes. For it is Descartes who opens his Discourse on the Method by saying “Good sense is the best distributed thing in the world” (Descartes 1985a: 111); who elucidates recognition using the piece of wax in the “Second Meditation”, and who introduces philosophy to the cogito, perhaps the real starting point for the modern image of thought. This last point is especially relevant to the formation of a “philosophy of common sense” for Deleuze. The cogito establishes in philosophy the thinking subject, which binds all the faculties together, and “thereby expresses the possibility that all the faculties will relate to a form of object which reflects the subjective identity” (176). The necessity of the thinking subject is little more than a supposition: Descartes establishes it in relation to outward perception, declaring questionable conclusions such as “if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed” in the “Second Meditation”, and justifying them by supposing that whether these perceptions are authentic or illusory is irrelevant, because his indisputable good sense tells him that they do not seem to be false (Descartes 1985b: 17-19). Hence Deleuze’s objection to the cogito as a “false beginning”, and one of the most prominent illustrations of doxastic thought, as well as the pervasiveness of common sense thinking.[3]


Now in this second half, I will mount the challenge of common sense to Flaubert’s final novel, and that often-quoted sentence, to argue an alternative reading to that of the critique of stupidity. The theme of stupidity is encountered consistently throughout Flaubert’s works, and has unsurprisingly led to a number of interpretations as to its significance. It is important, therefore, to take this theme seriously, and to better acknowledge its presence within the novel. In his essay “Fantasia of the Library”, Foucault pairs the idea of stupidity in Flaubert’s novels with that of sainthood, arguing that Bouvard and Pécuchet represent but a more comedic expression of sentiments found in earlier characters, such as Charles Bovary and Saint Anthony. Here we have two copyists who, coming into a large inheritance and wanting to escape the tedium of city life, decide to move to the countryside, where they will spend their autumn years undertaking any discipline of the sciences and arts they decide upon. Bouvard and Pécuchet consult books before applying themselves to agriculture, chemistry, archaeology, history, politics, religion, physics, metaphysics, and everything in-between; each time ending with failure or disaster, and each subsequent pursuit beginning with renewed zeal. When, by the end of the published work (which was to compose but the first of two sections) they finally resign themselves to defeat, they agree to take up copying once more: the subject of their copying being the many bodies of knowledge they have accumulated during their renaissance. It is not their faith in learning they have renounced at this moment, argues Foucault, “but the possibility of applying their beliefs. They detach themselves from works to maintain the dazzling reality of their faith in faith.” (Foucault: 107) The “lamentable faculty” sentence occurs right before this moment, between the loss of intellectual territory for their passions to roam free, and their reaffirmation in the activity they have always known and practiced, repetition.

The stupidity of these two characters arises from their attitudes towards forms of knowledge they do not possess, and are likely beyond their understanding, and how these attitudes relate to their views and treatments of the characters which surround them. Bouvard and Pécuchet may be characters of limited intelligence and success, but this is not what makes them stupid. It is instead their reasoning behind their desire to learn, the methodologies they consider appropriate for doing so, and their expectations that an acquisition of specialist knowledge will elevate their stature in their community, even when they themselves have treated this community with scepticism, which defines the bêtise Flaubert attempts to elucidate, and that was the object of the writer’s personal scorn. We see early in the novel, for example, that the two men wish to try their hands at their manor’s garden, so as to become what they consider to be “country gentlemen”. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, A. J. Krailsheimer describes their reasoning in the following way:

they are ignorant; the way to dispel ignorance is by acquiring knowledge from authorities; experts who write books must be more authoritative than peasants who merely do what their fathers had done before them. Book in hand (or at least in head) they plant trees, stack hay, treat animals and so on with sovereign disregard for the experience of those around them, whose whole lives have been spent more or less successfully exercising skills quite unsupported by theory. (Krailsheimer, in Flaubert: 9)

This observation demonstrates the somewhat contradictory relationship the characters, and Flaubert himself, have with received ideas. It was Flaubert’s intention to include within the second half of the novel a Dictionary of Received Ideas, a sottisier comprised of the popular yet unsupported and inaccurate remarks shared amongst the middle classes. Entries for this dictionary would be fashionable topics of conversation that were worthy of ridicule because their dislocation from reality would compound the more they resonated among people who considered themselves superior for fashioning their perspectives on the world on more refined sources. The stupidity for such entries is realised, says Jonathan Culler,

not because the facts on which they rely are false but because the particular meanings offered do not exhaust an object or concept and because they place it in a self-enclosed system of social discourse which comes to serve as a reality for those who allow themselves to be caught up in it. (Culler: 160)

We can see something similar with Bouvard and Pécuchet’s gardening: the appeal to elite opinions, which stand in for the entirety of their thinking on the subject. The two protagonists’ journey from one subject matter to another, moreover, and as Krailsheimer notes, follows a logic of “first principles”: they associate their failures with an unfamiliarity of a more fundamental body of knowledge – in the case of their experiments into agriculture, which end with an explosion, this is decided to be chemistry – and send for new books which will grant them the perspective they currently lack (Krailsheimer: 10). Yet we may observe that they are also trying to avoid another variety of received idea, those that they have identified among the peasantry, and are equally as unchallenged.

It is perhaps testament to their stupidity, therefore, that Bouvard and Pécuchet are capable of avoiding uncritical opinions they witness in various practitioners (farmers, doctors, priests), yet are swayed by alternatives that cater more to their imaginations, which we are probably supposed to accept are written by less experienced authorities. These pretentions, which arise out of stupidity, seem to feature across the spectrum of the society the novel depicts: high and low culture, bourgeoisie and proletariat, each incapable of escaping their own brands of received ideas. Flaubert once said that bêtise was “formidable and universal” (in Culler: 158), and though perhaps most readily espoused by the leisurely middle classes, remained an inescapable feature of the human condition. No doubt there is a wider historical-political dimension to Flaubert’s preoccupation with the emergent forays into knowledgeability attempted clumsily by the middle classes. Hugh Kenner has placed the novel’s beginning at more-or-less precisely fifty years after the Revolution: this being a similar age as Bouvard and Pécuchet, they are therefore “untainted by the least memory of a time when knowledge, which is power, was the preserve of the few”, and the ideal heroes for this uninhibited new world (Kenner: 9). Yet of course, these heroes are not immune to the lamentable faculty they perceive all around them by the novel’s denouement. “The only way to transcend a commonplace is to make it serve your own purposes, to make it an instrument, a means of thought”: these are the words of Sartre, speaking on Flaubert’s life and ambitions (Sartre: 619), and although the philosopher considers the novelist a failure in this regard, we may identify this as the position of his characters when they commission their large double writing-desk and set to work on the task of copying once again.

Stupidity, as encountered in Flaubert’s novel, is an opportunity for hastily and badly drawn conclusions to enjoy similar rights to established facts and certainties; to quote Jonathan Culler once more, it “negates ordinary meaning to replace it with an open and exploratory reverie.” (Culler: 185). Deleuze’s account of stupidity in “The Image of Thought” is not like this. He quotes from the novel in order to illustrate the misattribution of error as the sole negative of thought. Recognition, with its endless procession of the Same, he argues, reduces philosophy to the construction of problems, each with its own pre-packaged solution which can be worked towards using good thinking. In this case stupidity is subsumed by error, which exists externally to the mind endowed with good sense, and stands in for everything philosophy is supposed to overcome:

According to the hypothesis of the Cogitatio natura universalis, error is the “negative” which develops naturally. Nevertheless, the dogmatic image does not ignore the fact that thought has other misadventures besides error: humiliations more difficult to overcome, negatives much more difficult to unravel. It does not overlook the fact that the terrible Trinity of madness, stupidity and malevolence can no more be reduced to error than they can be reduced to any form of the same. Once again, however, these are no more than facts for the dogmatic image. Stupidity, malevolence and madness are regarded as facts occasioned by external causes, which bring into play external forces capable of subverting the honest character of thought from without – all this to the extent that we are not only thinkers. The sole effect of these forces in thought is then assimilated precisely to error, which is supposed in principle to include all the effects of factual external causes. (195-6)

Deleuze wishes here to reinstate what he calls thought’s “misadventures” – of which stupidity is one – as “structures of thought as such.” (198) If a false solution is derived from a philosophical problem, it is not predetermined that an error has arisen out of confused or badly applied thinking. The mistake instead lies in the problem’s relation to sense, and in “making stupidity a transcendental problem” (197). It is instead for Deleuze a problem of individuation, of which the cogito has played its part. Stupidity occurs when individuation “brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form” – in other words, when an answer is provided that bears little or no relation to the question being asked, questions that are derived from undifferentiated contents which resist the form being imposed on them (199). Bouvard and Pécuchet represent for Deleuze the “fractured I” of individuation, their stupidities a ground that exists between them, composed of the unthought itself (ibid.).

Conversely, perhaps we ought to consider Bouvard and Pécuchet’s simultaneous critique and appropriation of received ideas not as examples of bourgeois stupidities in a straightforward sense, but consider the relation between received ideas and common sense. Both are concerned with what is popularly believed to be true, and both derive this truth paradoxically from this very popularity of the sentiment being expressed, allowing the most vocal and forceful opinions to triumph. The problem with aligning received ideas with stupidity is that doing so masks stupidity’s true relation to original thought. A stupid thought is usually a novelty or aberration in relation to the problem it sets out to solve: if examined closely, it displays a process of original thinking gone astray. A received idea, on the other hand, is derived from a source its thinker believes to be reputable: it does not require original thought but borrowed solutions. Therefore, I conclude that an idea derived from common sense is a kind of received idea. Whereas Flaubert’s received ideas have as their source the echo chamber of bourgeois society, Deleuze’s common sense takes the image of thought’s erroneous suggestions of universal distribution of good sense (specifically Descartes’s) as its occasion to turn away from original thought. To rewrite the object sentence of this paper, would be to claim that the lamentable faculty Bouvard and Pécuchet find intolerable is an awareness of received ideas, distributed everywhere, unavoidable, unoriginal, and tending towards the universal.


[1] Flaubert (1976: 217). Difference and Repetition translator Paul Patton uses a slightly different translation of the quote: “A pitiful faculty then emerges in their minds, that of being able to see stupidity and no longer tolerate it…” (199). I judge the two variations to be of similar meaning in relation to the contexts I apply to them here, and have therefore chosen to maintain A. J. Krailsheimer’s translation throughout this essay for the sake of consistency.

[2] Unlabelled bracketed numbers refer to pages in Difference and Repetition (see Bibliography below).

[3] See also Nietzsche: §16; Toscano.


Culler, J. (1974) Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, London, Elek Books Ltd.

Deleuze, G. (2014) Difference and Repetition [Différence et Répétition], trans. Patton, P., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso.

Descartes, R. (1985a) Discourse and Essays, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D., Cambridge/New York/Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 109-176.

— (1985b) Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, 1-62.

Flaubert, G. (1976) Bouvard and Pécuchet [Bouvard et Pécuchet], trans. Krailsheimer, A.J., Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (1977) “Fantasia of the Library”, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Bouchard, D.F., trans. Bouchard, D.F. and Simon, S., Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 87-109.

Kenner, H. (1989) “Gustave Flaubert: Comedian of the Enlightenment”, in Bloom, H. (ed.) Modern Critical Views: Gustave Flaubert, New York/Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 5-22.

Nietzsche, F. (1989) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future [Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft], trans. Kaufmann, W., New York, Vintage Books.

Sartre, J.-P. (1981) The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857 [L’Idiot de la famille de 1821 à 1857], trans. Cosman, C., Volume I, Chicago/London, University of Chicago Press.

Toscano, A. (2007) “Everybody Knows: Deleuze’s Descartes”, available online at

Winock, M. (2016) Flaubert, trans. Elliott, N., Cambridge, MA/London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Zourabichvili, F. (2012) Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event, together with The Vocabulary of Deleuze, trans. Aarons, K., Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Featured image credits: Wikimedia Commons.