Instincts and Institutions – Gilles Deleuze

“What we call an instinct and what we call and institution essentially designate procedures of satisfaction.” (19 Deleuze)

In one way, an organism operates by instinct; it reacts to external stimuli and outside forces. The organism extracts from the external world the elements it needs to be satisfied. For Deleuze, “these elements comprise worlds that are specific to different animals.” The world of the human is much more complex than say, the world of a tick, which extracts a limited number of elements from the outside in order to compose a world and meet it’s needs. The world of the tick is comprised of only three elements – 1.) It finds the extremity of a branch by being sensitive to light 2.) It smells an animal below, it allows itself to fall 3.) It has the tactile sense to find the area of the animal least covered in fur. 1.) Light 2.) Smell 3.) Touch. The tick is an example of an animal with an incredibly limited world, but each animal occupies a world that is unique to its needs.

In another way, “a subject institutes an original world between its tendencies and the external milieu, developing artificial means of satisfaction.” Creating artificial means of satisfying a need liberate an organism from nature, though they subject it to something else, the creation of institutions transform our tendencies by entering a subject into a system of operation that has taken on a life of its own apart from nature. For example, the instinct to procreate and find a mate meets its need in the institution of marriage. Satisfying a need through an institution transforms the instinct, on one hand the need is met, and on another the organism is subjected to a whole new set of tasks. So, there are species-specific worlds of instincts, and there is the creation of an institutional milieu that allows an organism to meet its needs. “Instinct and Institution are the two organized forms of a possible satisfaction” (Deleuze).

(Milieu – a social environment or setting)

The difference between institution and law is that the institution is a positive model for action, where as law is a limitation for action. The institution places whatever is negative, or unlawful, outside of its system of social means, in an effort to create a society that is based only on what is positive – social needs – everything erroneous, superfluous, or inconsistent does not compose an institution, and is most often placed outside of the institutional milieu, or in a space of confinement within the milieu.

“But if it is true that tendencies are satisfied by the institution, the institution is not explained by tendencies…Brutality does not explain war in the least; and yet brutality discovers in war its best means. This is the paradox of society: we are always talking about institutions, but we are in fact confronted by procedures of satisfaction.” (20)

The tendencies that find satisfaction in an institution do not depend on the institution. The institution provides a means for satisfaction, but not without altering the tendency, misshaping it, constraining it. This is probably a big reason for emotional states like despair or neurosis in an individual attempting to satisfy elusive desires. If we are only finding satisfaction of our needs through the institution our tendencies are becoming contorted in order to fit in a pre-designed form. Desires are being created for us before we can realize a tendency. The tendencies that are indirectly satisfied by the institution are directly satisfied by instinct. Instinct, though, can not be reduced to the interest of the individual because it is comprised of things like reflex, habit, hormones. So, one only finds an indirects satisfaction of a tendency in an institution. The question Deleuze raises, is the institution is then useful for whom? For all those who have needs? Or just for the privileged few? Or only for those who control the institutions? The institution sends us into social activity that is not explained by tendencies.

Intelligence can only exist in a social milieu, which is the third term that sits between instinct and institution. Intelligence can not be on the side of instinct, because instinct is comprised of so many species-specific factors that can not be reduced to the individual.

“What does the social mean with respect to tendencies? It means integrating circumstances into a system of anticipation, and internal factors into a system that regulates their appearance, thus replacing the species. This is indeed the case with the institution. It is night because we sleep; we eat because it is lunchtime. There are no social tendencies, but only those social means to satisfy tendencies, means which are original because they are social. Every institution imposes a series of models on our bodies, even in its involuntary structures, and offers our intelligence a sort of knowledge, a possibility of foresight as project. We come to the following conclusion: humans have no instincts, they build institutions. The Human is an animal decimating its species.” (21 Deleuze)


Deleuze, Gilles. Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2004. Print.

About Michael Johnson


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