Pure Difference?

A common theme here is the conceptual priority of difference over identity. I think that identity is a derived concept, and not a primitive one (see also Aristotelian Identity).

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) in Difference and Repetition and other works argued that a pure notion of difference is by itself sufficient for a general account of things. In information theory, information is explained as expressing difference. In Saussurean structural linguistics, we are said to recognize spoken words by recognizing elementary differences between sounds. In both cases, the idea is that we get to meaning by distinguishing and relating.

Deleuze initially cites both of these notions of difference, but goes on to develop arguments grounded largely in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whom he uses to argue against Plato and Hegel. His very interesting early work Nietzsche and Philosophy was marred by a rather extreme polemic against Hegel, and in Difference and Repetition he announces a program of “anti-Platonism” that reproduces Nietzsche’s intemperate hostility to Plato. Nietzsche blamed Plato for what I regard as later developments. Neither Plato nor Aristotle made the kind of overly strong assertions about identity that became common later on.

In The Sophist and elsewhere, Plato had his characters speak of Same, Other, and the mixing of the two as equally primordial. Hegel took great pains to elaborate the notion of a “difference that makes a difference”. But Deleuze wants to argue that Plato and Hegel both illegitimately subordinate difference to identity. His alternative is to argue that what is truly fundamental is a primitive notion of difference that does not necessarily “make a difference”, and that come before any “making a difference”. (I prefer the thesis of Leibniz that indiscernibility of any difference is just what identity consists in.)

This is related to Deleuze’s very questionable use of Duns Scotus’ notion of the univocity of being, both in general and more particularly in his interpretation of Spinoza. For Deleuze, pure difference interprets Scotist univocal being.

I frankly have no idea what led to Deleuze’s valorization of Scotus. Deleuze is quite extreme in his opposition to any kind of representationalism, while Scotus made representability the defining criterion of his newly invented univocal being. It is hard to imagine views that are further apart. I can only speculate that Deleuze too hastily picked out Scotus because he wanted to implicitly oppose Thomist orthodoxy, and Scotus is a leading medieval figure outside the Thomist tradition.

For Deleuze, univocal being is pure difference without any identity. Difference that doesn’t make a difference seems to take over the functional role that identity has in theories that treat it as something underlying that exceeds any discernibility based on criteria. I don’t see why we need either of these.

I think Deleuze’s bête noir Hegel actually did a better job of articulating the priority of difference over identity. Hegel did this not by appealing to a putative monism of difference and nothing else, but by developing correlative notions of “difference that makes a difference”, and a kind of logical consequence or entailment that we attribute to real things as we interpret them, independent of and prior to any elaboration of logic in a formal sense.

In Hegel’s analysis as explicated by Brandom, any difference that makes a difference expresses a kind of “material” incompatibility of meaning that rules out some possible assertions. This is just what “making a difference” means. Meanwhile, all positive assertions can be more specifically analyzed as assertions of some consequence or entailment or other at the level of meaning (see Material Consequence). Every predication is analyzable as an assertion of consequence or entailment between subject and predicate, as Leibniz might remind us. It is always valid to interpret, e.g., “a cat is a mammal” as an inference rule for generating conclusions like if Garfield is a cat, then Garfield is a mammal.

What is missing from Deleuze’s account is anything like entailment, the idea of something following from something else. This notion of “following”, I am convinced, is prior to any notion of identity applicable to real things. Without presupposing any pre-existing identities of things, we can build up an account of the world based on the combination of differences that make a difference, on the one hand, and real-world entailments, on the other. Identity is then a result rather than an assumption. Meanings (and anything like identity) emerge from the interplay of practical real-world entailments and distinctions. It is their interplay that gives them definition in terms of one another.

Deleuze was a sort of ontological anarchist, who wanted being to be free of any pre-existing principles. While I agree that we can’t legitimately just assume such principles, I think this is very far from meaning that principles are irrelevant, or actually harmful. On the contrary, as Kant might remind us, principles are all-important. They aren’t just “given”. We have to do actual work to develop them. But if we have no principles — if nothing truly follows from anything else, or is ruled out by anything else — then we cannot meaningfully say anything at all.