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.

Taking “Things” as True

The second standpoint examined by Hegel in the Phenomenology is Perception, or in the literal etymological sense of the German word for it, “true-taking”. This etymology has an intriguing but probably accidental resonance with the notion of taking things as thus-and-such that Brandom emphasizes in Kant. In Perception, emphasis is more on the things than on the taking.

Harris in his commentary associates Perception with the philosophy of healthy common sense. Even the peasant woman of the previous chapter “must follow the ‘leading’ of language at least one step beyond the naming of [things]. She identifies her cows not just by their names, but by their color-patterns; and she knows her apple trees from her plum trees or her neighbor’s peach, etc. Hers is a world not just of singular [things], but of perceptible types; but for her, the process of classification with its universal names is an instrumental shorthand for dealing with the ‘real things’ that can be identified and pointed to. She does not want to take the leading of language seriously, but only to get back to her life, and to get on with it” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 238).

Perception at least begins to take up the nuances of how things interrelate that are ignored by sense certainty. “Sense-Certainty is rich only in positive things to be certain of…. Only perception can say what is, because it names universal things that are perceived through the changing sequence and variety of their properties”(p. 239). “Perception is the being grasped together of the moments that unfold in perceiving as process…. The perceiving we are concerned with is a process in which the universal self takes itself to be a rational being, and the truth of its object to be a universal truth” (p. 238). By “universal self” he means an individual self taken as an instance of a rational self, not anything like a world soul.

Harris continues, “Our situation as philosophical observers is different in its ‘object’ from the perceiving consciousness. Our object has been logically determined for us, whereas the object of the perceiving consciousness simply ‘falls out of the world of Sense-Certainty’ for it… It knows that the object is a universal essence; but it does not know that ‘universality’ is an activity of the perceiving mind” (pp. 238-239).

We know that the ‘thing’ is a result of this process…. Our perceiving is the process, of which the object is the result. Perception… is an interpretation of sense-certainty in which the knowing consciousness is no longer concerned about the truth of the copula ‘is’, but about what is…. Sense-Certainty was already implicitly perception in its examples” (p. 239).

He quotes Hegel saying “Being is a universal in virtue of having mediation or the negative in it” (p. 240). As Harris says a bit later, “There is no nameable property of anything that is not part of a range of alternative properties. Some variations of properties are consistent with the thing continuing to count as the ‘same thing’ — and some are not” (ibid).

“[T]he singular property of ‘being salt’ is known to us as immediate sensation only when we taste it (and that is when the salt itself is necessarily dissolved back into the flux of sense-immediacy). Thus, in the white cube that is the ‘thing’ I perceive, the character of being salt is a not-this; it is not immediately sensed, but it is stably preserved for the sensation whenever I want to sense it…. It is a potentiality for sensation…. As this potentiality, this ‘otherness’ than what it is (the cubical whiteness etc.), it is a universal” (pp. 240-241).

(I am delighted to see Harris stressing the importance of potentiality in this crucial transition out of immediacy in Hegel. I don’t recall Hegel using the word “potentiality” much, but thought he ought to have.)

“What is ‘truly taken’ is an essence that is the negative ‘property’ which determines and holds together all the positive ones. But it is also truly taken as the positive property of filling a certain space. All of the properties cohere together in the space that the thing occupies…. ‘Thinghood’ as directly given for perceiving is the persisting spatial togetherness of many independent qualities…. The ‘thing’ is not just a loose collection of properties inhering somehow in the same identifiable region of space at the given time. It is a thing because of what it excludes; and its exclusiveness is what particularizes each of its properties” (p. 241).

“I know that I do not passively perceive what is true, in the way that I seem to apprehend the fact that ‘this is Lisa, and this is Ursel’ passively. My reflective capacities are involved. Perceiving is an activity of consciousness” (p. 245). “But it ought to be consistent” (p. 246).

“The attempt to claim that the manifold of sensation is simply subjective ignores its interpersonal objectivity. Every identifiable property is an objective essence…. Not just the oneness of the thing is objectively real, but its ‘difference’ from everything else” (p. 247).

“The essence of being a thing is to be ‘for another'” (p. 249). “Everything is specified by its difference from others” (p. 250). “The determinacy which is the ‘essential’ or ‘absolute’ character of a thing on its own account is essentially a relation to others (which negates the thing’s independence)” (p. 251).

Here we begin to see the limits of Perception. “The standpoint of Perception presupposes an absolute community of ‘things’. But the definition of ‘thinghood’ that the perceptual consciousness set up for itself contains no necessary reference from one thing to another for its being. The independent being of the thing is what makes it the ‘object’ that can be ‘truly taken’…. We have now seen that in any consistent formulation of the perceptual standpoint, this is logically impossible. It is the independence that is a sham” (p. 252).

“What is ‘essential’ and what is not ‘essential’ is a function of our supposedly external observation” (p. 253).

“Hegel… aims to show us that the naive empiricism which wants to conceive of perception causally (as analogous to mirror-reflection) cannot succeed.”

“We have already seen how we could not stand still at the concept of the ‘one thing’ with ‘many properties’. We had to admit that the multiplicity was founded in the ‘thing’, and not simply generated by the perceiving mind; and on the other hand, the ‘unity’ was an actively negative exclusion, which could not be simply contributed by the mind as it sorted the perceived ‘properties’ into things” (p. 254).

The standpoint of perception treats logic and philosophy as mere “game[s] with verbal counters” (p. 256). Its mistake is “to assume that ‘cognition’ is an activity that supervenes on an object that is already there; but actually it is the construction of ‘the object’ in a process of interpretation” (p. 257).

Adverbial Otherness

Hegel’s German word Anderssein has a more concrete feel than its usual English “otherness”. Literally it is more like “being differently”, a noun made from an adverb applied to a verb. Hegelian difference is not only constitutive, but has an adverbial character.

He says in a passage near where the term is introduced, “[True reality] is the process of its own becoming, the circle which presupposes its end as its purpose, and has its end for its beginning; it becomes concrete and actual only by being carried out, and by the end it involves…. Precisely because the form is as necessary to the essence as the essence to itself, absolute reality must not be conceived of and expressed as essence alone, i.e. as immediate substance, or as pure self-intuition of the Divine, but as form also, and with the entire wealth of the developed form. Only then is it grasped and expressed as really actual” (Phenomenology, Baillie trans., pp. 80-81; I seem to have misplaced the Pinkard and Miller translations).

In this very Aristotelian passage, he invokes ends, form, actuality, and actualization, while pointing out the inadequacy of what are really modern contractions of the notions of substance and essence.

Harris notes that for Hegel, “a self-thinking substance must necessarily be a community of rational equals within the natural order who recognize themselves in one another as a spiritual community that transcends that order. This is Hegel’s concept of ‘Spirit’…. Here it is called die Reflexion im Andersssein in sich selbst, ‘the reflection within the otherness into [or within] itself'” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 56, brackets in original). Otherness is the native element of self for Hegel.

Harris’ abstract of paragraph 19 reads, “Divine knowledge is the interplay of divine love. But the loving must comprehend its own opposite, the suffering, patience, and labor of human experience. Logically it is untroubled, but this peace is abstract. The form of its realization is as important as its logical essence (since it belongs to the essence)” (p. 57).

Indistinct Cows, Pistol Shot

Hegel in the Phenomenology wants to teach us to be at home in what he calls “otherness”.

Plato was traditionally read as treating “the Others” as inferior to “the One” in the Parmenides, but in the Sophist he explicitly suggested that notions of Other, Same, and Being are equally fundamental.

Hegel goes further, in affirming the essential role of mediation (dependence of things on other things) — as well as the kind of differences in form that “make a difference” practically — in any kind of intelligibility. In the Preface, he sharply criticizes unnamed contemporaries for effectively denying the importance of otherness, either through excessive preoccupation with formal identity or through emphasis on a kind of immediate intuition of God or the Absolute.

Schelling never forgave Hegel for the quip that to insist that all is one in the Absolute makes of the Absolute a “night in which all cows are black”, which has often been read as directed at him. Harris in his commentary argues that the main target of this particular remark was actually the purely formal notion of truth propounded by K. L. Reinhold, who helped popularize Kant.

A bit later, Hegel goes on to denounce “the sort of ecstatic enthusiasm which starts straight off with absolute knowledge, as if shot out of a pistol, and makes short work of other points of view simply by explaining that it is to take no notice of them” (Baillie translation, pp. 88-89). In this case Harris finds it most plausible that the reference really is to Schelling’s Presentation of My Own System (1801), but adds in a note that a good case has also been made that the reference is to J. K. Fries, who apparently talked a lot about the feeling of the infinite.

Hegel shared many of the perspectives of the German Romantics, including a concern for spiritual renewal, awareness of the limits of formal reasoning, and inspiration from Greek antiquity. But by the time of the Phenomenology and for the rest of his life, he supported Kant against Schelling in denying the legitimacy of appeals to direct intuition of metaphysical truth, and had distanced himself from Romantic notions of individual immediate interiority.

For Hegel, Reason finds its home in otherness. This is closely related to the noncontrolling attitude he associates with what he calls “Science” (see The Ladder Metaphor). Hegel’s verbal emphasis on “system” and “Science” needs to be understood in the context of his defense of other-sensitive, value-oriented interpretive Reason against both its reduction to formalism and its effective rejection by Romantics and other proponents of metaphysical intuition.

Ricoeur on Foucault

I still vividly recall the moment over 40 years ago when the sharp questioning of unities of all kinds in the preface and first chapter of Michel Foucault’s 1969 work The Archaeology of Knowledge very suddenly awoke me from erstwhile slumber in neoplatonic dreams about the One. Today I would say Foucault like many others was terribly wrong in his reading of Hegel, but I still look on that text as a sort of manifesto of historical method. As Aristotle too might remind us, distinctions are essential to intelligibility and understanding.

Just this year, the work of Paul Ricoeur has become very significant to me. Ricoeur expressed admiration for Foucault’s late work The Care of the Self, but in both volume 3 of Time and Narrative and his late work Memory, History, Forgetting, he criticized The Archaeology of Knowledge rather severely.

Ricoeur did not object to Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuities in (the field Foucault did not want to call) the history of ideas, but rather to Foucault’s closely related polemic against the subordination of such discontinuities to an encompassing continuity of historical “consciousness”, and to his further association of the idea of an encompassing continuity of consciousness with the would-be mastery of meaning by a putatively purely constitutive Subject. Ricoeur as much as Foucault objected to such notions of Mastery, but he still wanted to articulate a kind of narrative continuity of what he still wanted to call consciousness.

Ricoeur scholar Johann Michel in his book Ricoeur and the Post-Structuralists agrees that “the subject” for Ricoeur is far from purely constitutive, and “in reality, is not a subject in the substantialist sense” (p. 107). Rather, it is mediate, and only understandable via a long detour through cultural objectifications. As Ricoeur says, consciousness is “affected by the efficacity of history” (Time and Narrative vol. 3, p. 217). “We are only the agents of history insofar as we also suffer it” (ibid, p. 216). Ricoeur’s suffering-as-well-as-acting “subject” gives very different meaning to this highly ambiguous term from the kind of voluntaristic agency attributed to the Cogito by Descartes, and Ricoeur’s “consciousness” is very far from the notion of immediate “consciousness” classically formulated by Locke. I prefer to avoid confusion by using different vocabulary, but agree that the notions Ricoeur wanted to defend are quite different from those Foucault wanted to criticize.

This leaves the question of the relative priority of continuity and discontinuity. Foucault in his Archaeology phase advocated a method grounded in the conceptual priority of discontinuities of meaning, while Ricoeur wanted to give discontinuity an important subordinate role in an approach dedicated to recovering a continuity of consciousness. In my own current Aristotelian phase, I want to emphasize a view that is reconciling like Ricoeur’s, but still puts the accent on discontinuity like Foucault’s. My historiographical notes both tell stories and offer explanations somewhat in the way that Ricoeur advocated, and emphasize the differences and discontinuities favored by Foucault.

Ricoeur also seems to have been troubled by Foucault’s disinterest in what Ricoeur calls the “first-order entities” (p. 218) of history — actual communities, nations, civilizations, etc. (I would note that he is not using “first order” in the logical sense, which is a purely syntactic criterion; he just wants to suggest that these kinds of things are more methodologically primitive for historical inquiry.) I actually think apprehension of something like form comes before apprehension of any substantialized “things”, so my sympathy is more with Foucault on this point. Undoubtedly Ricoeur would say these have a narrative identity rather than a substantial one, which seems fine in itself, but I think any narrative identity must be a tentative result and not a methodological primitive.

Ultimately, I think Ricoeur was motivated by an ethical desire to put people first — a concern Foucault did not make clear he actually shared until The Care of the Self. Ricoeur would also agree, though, that historiography is not simply reducible to ethics, but has largely independent concerns of its own. He seems to have wanted to say that the history of ideas is fundamentally a history of people. I’m a pluralist, so I have no objection to this sort of account as one alternative, but I think people’s commitments tell us who they are more than who holds a commitment tells us about the commitment. I also think higher-order things come before first-order things, and that people are better thought of as singular higher-order trajectories of ways of being throughout a life than as first-order entities. Ricoeur, I believe, was reaching for something like this with his notion of narrative (as opposed to substantial) identity, which I would rather call something other than identity.

Ricoeur on Structuralism

Commenting on the work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in a 1963 lecture “Structure and Hermeneutics”, Paul Ricoeur averred that “Structuralism is a part of science, and I do not at present see any more rigorous or fruitful approach than the structuralist method at the level of comprehension which is its own” (The Conflict of Interpretations, p. 30). It can help lead the “philosophical discipline” and “meditating thought” of hermeneutics “through the discipline of objectivity, from a naive to a mature comprehension” (ibid). He nonetheless argued that in The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss generalized too far and set up false oppositions.

The structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, on which Lévi-Strauss based his methodology, investigated systems of “mutual determination, [in which] what counts are not the terms, considered individually, but the differential variations” (ibid). Saussure is quoted as saying that “in language there are only differences” (p. 32). (As a teenager in the 1970s, I was enthralled with this sort of thing, and it still influences my thought. Lévi-Strauss was my actual entry point, but fairly soon I moved on to Foucault and others, who applied a much more broadly based, less formal “difference first” outlook in historiography and philosophy. See also Difference.)

Ricoeur points out that emphasis on a purely differential concept of meaning ends up privileging what Saussure called the synchronic (“contemporaneous in time”) over what he called the diachronic (change “through time”). I would point out that if there is such a privileging, it is at the level of the determination of meaning in context, not that of the forward-moving determination of change. Saussure’s model says nothing about how change to the system of determination of differential meaning actually occurs, only that it occurs.

Ricoeur then asks how far such a model “leads us to a clear understanding of the historicity of symbols” (ibid). To me, any such understanding is rooted in the notion of context. Each historical context is tied to a time, so there is nothing at all wrong with approaching it synchronically. Such a synchronic context has many more layers than just a formal Saussurean combinatoric, but that is a different issue. Also, any singular time synchronically contains sedimentation from many different past times, as well as potential for diverse futures.

He points out that differential determination of linguistic meaning operates on an unconscious level, “more a Kantian than a Freudian unconscious, a categorial, combinative unconscious” (p. 33). So far, so good. But this “establishes between the observer and the system a relationship which is itself nonhistorical. Understanding is not seen here as the recovery of meaning” (p. 34).

I think unconscious cultural formations are as historical as anything else, and have no idea why meaning would not be involved at this level. That is by no means to claim that synchronic analysis that is also purely formal in the modern sense gives the whole story of meaning — though if well applied, it can tell us a lot.

In my current view, meaning has to do fundamentally with (embodied) form in the Aristotelian sense and all its nuances and ramifications, not with a mental state. (See also Intentionality.) I think Aristotelian form is also differentially constituted, but in a much more complex way than in the examples studied by Lévi-Strauss. I also find a difference-first perspective to be entirely compatible with Brandom’s inferentialism, which allows for far richer constructs, and explicitly focuses on meaningful content rather than purely formal combinatorics. If there is a limitation to structural analysis, it is due mainly to the purely formal character of that method, not to the fact that it looks at one historical context at a time, since any purely formal analysis can be expressed in synchronic terms.

Ricoeur correctly notes that the relation between synchronic and diachronic may be different for different kinds of discourse, but again, for better or worse, no particular relation between the synchronic and the diachronic was ever specified. Saussure simply presented them as a pair. This seems like good, principled Aristotelian minimalism or underspecification to me. Again, it is true that structural linguistics has little to say about the diachronic — about change — except that it occurs. Change is what is not explained by synchronic structure. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality; The Importance of Potentiality.)

He correctly notes that there is a large difference between interpreting something like a totemic system, and interpreting something like the Old Testament, which has many more layers of meaning. Since I associate meaning with differentiation, I also think he is right to question the value of undifferentiated talk about “the” savage mind. Lévi-Strauss’ point, though, in contrast to, e.g., Lévy-Bruhl’s theory of “primitive mentality”, was that people in tribal societies have the same basic capability for logic as modern people. The differences are in the cultural contents they have to think with, not mental capacity. This also seems right.

I eventually became disappointed myself with the rather minimal amount of meaning exhibited in Lévi-Strauss’ analyses. I agree that structural analysis is a technical tool, and not philosophy; but then, according to Aristotle, the same is true of logic, and that does not mean logic has no philosophical interest. Structural “ism” is highly polymorphous, and this label’s use has been highly disputed. The kind addressed here, closely based on structural linguistics, is probably the least philosophical. But even at that, the basic idea of a “differential” outlook is important, and the preconscious layers of Kantian synthesis are important.


Michel Foucault (1926-84) played a very great role in developing approaches to subjectivity as something that is constituted, rather than pre-existing or only one-sidedly constitutive. Despite some nontrivial issues with things he said at different times, this seems like a major contribution. In his later work, he also emphasized that people actively participate in the constitution of their own subjectivity. Foucault was not only a brilliant theorist, but often expressed his ideas in beautiful, sparkling prose.

I see his focus on the constitution of subjectivity itself as an invaluable and necessary complement to the notion of a constituting subjectivity, as exemplified by, e.g., Kantian synthesis.

Much of Foucault’s work tended to fit the common trope of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” — pointing out how liberal reforms actually implemented more efficient strategies of social control, and so on. Unlike most of the people who use this phrase, I think this sort of “suspicion” of usual assumptions can play an invaluable critical role. However, I agree it can also be taken too far.

For example, received truths may turn out to be mere prejudice, and the notion of truth itself may turn out to have been naively hypostasized in many instances. But it is going too far to say — as Foucault did on several occasions — that truth and knowledge as such are inevitably caught up in strategies of domination, or — as Nietzsche and Foucault both did — that there really is no Platonic truth. In matters like this, we need an Aristotelian mean that avoids both naivete and cynicism.

I always preferred to pay more attention to Foucault’s practical multiplication of articulable differences, distinctions, and discontinuities in his historiography than to his negative rhetoric about truth and knowledge in general. During his earlier “archaeological” period, which greatly impressed me in my youth, this multiplication of articulable differences was the positive side of his questioning of too-easy unities, identities, and continuities in history.

In his later work, he developed a distinctive theory of power in society, treating it as distributed everywhere at a micro level, rather than emanating from a central authority. On a practical level, this seems to me to contain valuable lessons, although it also seems to play on an ambiguity between power as capability and power as domination. (It is easy to see that power as capability is ubiquitous, and illuminating to think of how what are really modes of control may be actualized at a micro level. But capabilities and modes of control, while they are both distributed, are two different things that cannot be just identified or assumed to have the same distribution.)

He also pointed out how control can be effectuated through the very formation and self-formation of people and things, without the overt involvement of any sort of repression or repressive apparatus. This seems like another important insight.

Foucault was much influenced by the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem’s investigations of the concept of normality in biology and medicine, which highlighted the importance of pathology for an understanding of normality. (It also appears that within the French context, the term “normativity” has strong connotations of mere empirical “normality” and conformity, in sharp contrast to its value-oriented significance in analytic philosophy and my own usage.) Foucault himself had a sort of fascination with what sociologists call deviance, and a bit of a morbid streak that I never liked.

The discursive regularities he analyzed in his earlier work represent a kind of empirical “normality” rather than an ethical normativity. Again, these are two entirely different concepts.

In Aristotelian terms, discursive regularities fall under the domain of “art” or technique, rather than that of ethos. Technique is the canonical example of an Aristotelian means or efficient cause (not to be confused with later notions of impulse, or a scholastic act of creation). As efficient causes, Foucaultian discursive regularities operate under the mode of actuality. (Ethical normativity, by contrast, involves derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality.)

Foucault’s “archaeological” method can be seen as a specialized historiographical application of what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, concerned with fine distinctions in the ways things actually said might be meant, as well as of Aristotelian dialectic, concerned with making the practical consequences of those distinctions explicit. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Archaeology of Knowledge; Ricoeur on Foucault; Genealogy; Immediacy, Presence.)

More Difference, Less Conflict

This is not a panacea because often people are not attuned to logical subtleties, but strife can be reduced by closer attention to distinctions. Even opposite assertions about what are actually different things do not conflict at all, except possibly through their implications. More qualified assertions also reduce the potential for conflict.

Claims of incommensurability tend to end dialogue rather than promote it, so it is not clear that they actually reduce conflict. Intelligible distinctions, on the other hand, are an important part of the implicit basis of civility. Much of civility and ethics is about appropriate response, which depends on intelligible distinctions.

Attention to distinctions is entirely consistent with a Kantian concern for ethical universality. It actually helps. We can do a better job of applying universals to particulars when we have more distinctions to work with. (See also Practical Judgment; Reasonableness; Contradiction.)


Like definition, classification sometimes gets an unjustified bad name. It is not a kind of truth about the world, but rather plays an expressive role, helping to explain the meaning of what is said. Classification makes it possible to substitute simple names for arbitrarily complex conditions or adverbial expressions, allowing the underlying complexity to be abstracted away, or reconstructed as needed.

In Book 1 of Parts of Animals, Aristotle shows great sophistication about this. He explicitly argues against Plato’s recommended procedure of “division” or repeated application of binary distinctions, noting that many significant real-world distinctions are better approached as n-ary or manifold than as binary.

He also explicitly notes how difficult and arbitrary it ends up being to develop real-world classifications in a strictly hierarchical manner, arguing for a more holistic approach, which cannot be reduced to a sequential application of lower-level operations.

Good real-world classifications are arrived at through dialectical trial, error, and iterative self-correction over time. Conversely, behind every ordinary referential use of simple names for things is a complex implicit dialectical/semantic development. (See also Difference; Aristotelian Identity; Substance; Aristotelian Semantics.)