table of contents commented bibliography and index say what? noframes


Tracing the Notion of Difference

I have chosen to bring the preceding essay penultimately toward its close with an account of proximity because its positive informality most conveniently exhibits where temporality and plurality newly meet in contemporary thought. The notion of proximity often is complemented in our time by the notion of difference, sometimes in a variant as 'differance'.
Athena's Owl has long tenure as philosophy's familiar.
owl taking flight
The thought of difference has actually been more widely developed than the notion of proximity, and it will be shown here that difference is of great importance in 'filling in' for form where form is challenged by proximity. But difference is necessarily abstract and elusive, and as yet framed in various ways by diverse thinkers. For reasons of its multifarious and difficult attributes, and also because I feel that - for thinking - difference has not yet settled into primary meanings, I am surveying and developing its theme separately in this appendix.
It is Gregory Bateson who employs the notion of difference in the most straight-forward way: Bateson characterizes information as 'a difference that makes a difference'. He identifies where differences make a difference as the realm of living nature and experience. This formulation fits well with the pragmatic tradition; it has good use because it offers to make superfluous a range of other ideas which we might otherwise think were indispensable. But 'difference' is informationally important not only in active organization, but also in retaining and referencing organization. Were we, for example, to copy everything that happens, we would soon have problems with storing it and looking it up again. But if we keep only the differences of things, both processes can be much more convenient. Computer technology already follows Nature's lead as more comes to be learned about such ways to use differences.

            ...have you read David Bohm's
 Wholeness and the Implicate Order?

Making a hologram

making a hologram
David Bohm Similar differences play an essential role in what has been called 'the holographic hypothesis', which has been most thoroughly elaborated by the physicist and philosopher David Bohm (1918-1992). Here all of reality is seen as two sided, comprising on the one hand an 'explicate order' where experience and its objects manifest as spread out into our familiar world of separate and relative positions, and on the other hand an 'implicate order' where explicate events come to be 'enfolded' non-locally into overlays of difference. Time is then the overall dynamic by which en-folding and un-folding flow reciprocally between the explicate and the implicate orders. In this way Bohm examples his approach in analogy with the phase differences of incident light whose patterns of diffraction on photographic film enfold an image and subsequently take the place of a lens in the holographic projection (unfolding) of that image.
Jan Steen's 'Rhetoricians at a Window'
Dutch, 1662-66

Steen's 'Rhetoricians at a Window'

The preceding summary presentation of these powerfully 'objective' aspects of difference has been for the sake of leavening the following account of efforts which have approached a notion of difference specifically as an aspect of experience for thinking. Difference is still quite new both for Science and for Thinking - caveat emptor.

The intricacies of the Continental approaches to difference as it is part of thinking appear to be foreshadowed both inside and outside of philosophy. In general, the notion of difference is expected to help in realizing a condition of plurality, sometimes between existences and sometimes between aspects of existence. However, difference all too easily introduces confusions concerning the basis by which plurality is recognized as plural: From what perspectives or on what grounds might differences be encoded to capture what is different without smuggling into 'differences' principles of unification? Comparison or measurement is for this reason untenable. Even for Hegel, where difference is given through dialectical Negation, that Negation is ultimately meant as an agent of unifying Spirit.
The principle of complementarity introduced by Niels Bohr (1885-1962) to make sense of the wave/particle duality in quantum mechanics is perhaps an idea of difference by another name: it establishes a standpoint for choosing between equally valid, but observationally incommensurable, interpretations of physical events. By this, the mind is told it can come no closer to an intuition of such realities than a poise between necessarily discrepant descriptions of underlying states of affairs. The 'difference' that is implied here as a standpoint has called forth some of the best efforts of physicists for many decades to try and resolve wave and particle descriptions toward a more adequate relation of mind and reality.
Hieronymous Bosch's 'The Conjuror' (ca. 1500)

The later Wittgenstein is at pains to frame philosophical problems in the use of language. He too can be considered as working to possess us with a sense for difference: moments where we stand outside or between ways of using language, hoisted on the petard of merely apparent consistency and exposed thereby to unaccounted gaps in what we thought was meant. Wittgenstein would have us search out 'intermediate cases' which allow us to see our standpoint clearly and so awaken from the sleep of 'idling' language.
Like a man to double business bound, I stand in pause where I shall first begin
Ludwig Wittgenstein with grafitti Wittgenstein came to insist on the priority of recognizing differences (1), as how we learn to see connections between things and avoid being 'held captive by pictures' and (2), as accounting for how contexts change what we see things as. On this basis his own immersion in thinking's temporality runs as deep as Heidegger's, though Wittgenstein restricted himself to a practice which labored only to clear away the tangle resulting from thinking's unthinking reliance Andy Warhol takes a crack at Goethe and his Color Theory (1982) on its abstract re-presentations. Wittgenstein felt that philosophy had lent a false reality to abstractions and had joined in complicity with science to poison human culture and experience by substituting the learning of abstractions for genuine learning. Thus Wittgenstein, as Rudolf Steiner before, posed with Goethe an alternative to a science that reduces reality to instances of its abstract theories. Goethe had looked instead for morphological ur-phenomena, patterns which connect entire families of phenomena (Perspectives Wittgenstein called 'perspicuous representations'), which would make it possible to see the differences of things as they are in our world without reverting to explanatory abstractions.
A 'perspicuous representation', then, would offer a perspective functioning as a threshold between perspectives. While this notion touches what is most essential about the way difference needs to work, it lacks an elegance that would lubricate transitions from other ways of seeing things. We will instead more closely engage with David Bohm's approach. For Bohm, contrasts and contexts arise together into 'explicate' orders, but they are not yoked together. A particular contrast can imply a range of contexts, while any context is susceptible of 'relevation' through numerous contrasts. To adopt standpoints that are open to such fluidity in the relations between what is implicate and what is explicate embodies the perspective of difference.
   X-ray diffraction image of
   muscle fiber function

diffraction plane is perpendicular to fiber
The general quality of difference in thinking seems revealed in the sorts of acuities which stand like doorways Swedish comemorative stampbetween different ways of seeing things - as in the evanescent apprehension of the two-dimensional configuration underlying the 'Necker cube' or 'Reutersvard's triangle' illusions as we swing between alternative projections of depth.

It is perhaps the case that the tendency of modern thinking is toward understandings in which the 'light' previously given by ideas now comes increasingly through apertures of difference. Possibly the experience of difference has always been a moment which belongs to the conception of an idea, but thinking had heretofore not found a temporality adequate to maintain relation with that phase of conception.

William of Ockham

     William of Ockham (1296?-1350)

Cartographic 'diagrams' mark the epistemological revolution severing Astronomy from Astrology
Astrological stellar cartography
It is interesting that the roots of some earlier epistemological revolutions in philosophy, William of Occam's late medieval prescriptions for conceptual simplification or Descartes' principle of doubt, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) typically bear the marks of essential aspects of difference. Such crises in the tradition have traditionally spied out a gap in their time's form of knowledge, refocused thinking's self-experience onto apprehending the experience of that gap, and assigned feeling of the gap to meanings which are critical of existing 'knowledge' and to methods which can constitute less impeachable knowledge. Often possibilities for knowledge on one side of the gap are denied. Note that the gaps in knowing found at the inception of epistemological crises get encoded as bifurcations in reality; world and mind, mind and body, etc. - partings of the ways for the pairs' mutual intelligibility. The mental realities thus sliced in two thence fall into ruins, but the cross-section between them, as difference, diagrams methods for thought which prove seminal by virtue of principles of simplification and/or verification and thus come to reconstitute, for knowing, standards of form.

From the perspectives of their new ideas, the recurrent epistemological revolutions in the history of thought were fresh beginnings, but their need to fix themselves as forms of knowing which establish relevance through counterpoints refuting antecedent knowledge tell a different story: Nothing new comes from the need to maintain in subjugation a vanquished, and when the ancient opposite finally passes on, the ensuing purposelessness of the 'new order' belies its claim to originality and progress. Such miscarriages are not pre-determined at the conception of those 'revolutionary ideas'. Rather, from the perspective of difference, they are destined by the currency for thinking of re-presentation: in brokering representations, differences grow up into ideas.
Were my lord so his ignorance were wise, where now his knowledge must prove ignorance.
Vincent VanGogh's 'Road with Cypress and Star' (1890)
Insights do not arise full-blown as ideas, but are borne through a near and pressing sense of relevance, begot of temporal engagement, whose diffuse illumination can polarize at a threshold of difference, to give new depth and relief not to a world of form, but to a world of process. Ideas can be seen as mere tokens of learning, with the value of most maintained through an artificial economy set up to ignore mind's temporal ecology; the latter's nearest roots in relevance, its foliage of difference, and its flower in actual learning. To paraphrase what Heidegger tells concerning the nature of learning: we learn when everything we do answers to the essentials addressing themselves to us in the given moment. What would specifically be learned here is something of thinking's historical path in assaying to make difference its own.
solar eclipse - revealing and concealing
Heidegger, who introduced a precursor to the notion of proximity, also first brought difference, as a standpoint of irreducibility to unity, into modern Continental thought - but strangely and almost mystically: Heidegger framed an ontological difference, a difference between Being and beings which shows itself as at once a concealing and a revealing and leaves for us, or leaves us as, its trace. Jacques Derrida (1930- ), and others, have adapted the characteristics of that 'trace' to comprise their notion of differance, 'deconstructing' the relation to Being from which Heidegger derived difference.
The term trace indicates what belongs to the movement by which an alteration is inscribed - let us say - in a context. On the one hand, a trace is effaced by the very registration of alteration, on the other hand it does not cease intimating a deferral of - let us say - reunion with what was altered.

The notion of a trace attaches to difference to ensure an appreciation of difference's temporalization. In the light of how we have so far shown the nature of difference for thinking, the self-effacement constitutive of a trace means that the actualization of a principle of identity is virtually incompatible with the experience of being 'between' perspectives. When we are really learning - for example - we (a) forget ourselves and (b), change. Experience foregoes unifying closure, and elemental temporality takes up the slack. It is safe to say that difference in general gains appearance as a kind of interval for temporal and pluralistic thinking.
Jacques Derrida
This section began by characterizing difference as we can find it 'objectively'. Since then we have emphasized difference as characterizing standpoints for experience. It is in the middle region between these (see section IX, above) that Jacques Derrida has brought his notion of differance to bear. Derrida's interest is in textuality in the widest possible sense. From the perspective of this exposition it is worthwhile to see how differance qualifies what has been taken as formal concerning 'systems of signs' (writing).
Mark Tansley's 'Derrida queries de Man' (1990)'

In the example of writing, the function of differance names the order of postponements and deferrals implied by the reference of signs to each other in a text. More essentially, the nuance of interval belonging to Derrida's differance bears mute witness to how differance is put into play through a trace, and to what of the trace endures as a crossroads for the different ways the writing is read. As those roads are traveled in reading, differance names how the text's meanings are kept open, how its significance dis-seminates. Again, the path of differentiation supposes the interval of a trace, which before anything else, effaces what might otherwise be imagined as a basis for formal correspondence between disseminated significances.

Insofar as we can admit that writing and reading does organize experience, Derrida's differance would be answerable for what it is tempting to call elements of form, but ones that testify against the 'summing up' we look for from form. Thus notions of difference show great promise in giving new perspectives on many aspects of cultural history. There seem to me also intriguing echoes in accounts of differance which could work with concepts current in the sciences. But, of course, academic cultures are typically slow to give interest to ideas from without their own boundaries.
William Blake's 'Whirlwind of Lovers' (1827) What is most important for us in this picture, in any case, is how difference can invert the role of form from unification to dissemination. Even as thinking apprehends phenomenological disclosure of the flux and continuities of proximity, thinking rightly asks about what becomes of the distinctions and disconnections so amply found in experience and brought to form heretofore as separations between identities or as features of their internal structure. As the notion of proximity gives a new kind of account of experiential continuity, so the notion of difference yields a contemporary account of experience's distinctions. Taken together these notions emphasize the Einsteinian characteristics of the kind of philosophy that has taken its point of departure from Phenomenology. Proximity and difference both rely on the way that temporality and spatiality are mixed into intervals, echoing the intuitions underlying physical Relativity.
Difference offers distinctions not tied to relations between or within identities. We can even conceive the distinctions of difference as seminal, for differance shows dissemination of differing differences. But while dissemination gives a ground for variation, it falls short of satisfying what we mean by 'individuation'. The type of meaning for difference mainly developed by Derrida is not able to approach what we experience as individuality through difference, rather than (as in traditional thinking) identity. For this, difference must remain in conjunction with proximity - a situation of feeling. This is why we have given precedence above to difference as a 'standpoint' for thinking. Heidegger's 'ontological difference' had already established some such conjunction, drawing its trace from a nearness which comes nearest in its mark of withdrawal. Derrida's deconstructive appropriation of trace as differance, based - it seems to me - on a very subtle reification of absence, appears unable to retain a role for proximity.
Because Gilles Deleuze positions difference as more positively temporal in Difference and Repetition, he can allow proximity and difference more nearly to arise together. For Deleuze, repetitions or recurrences Franz Marc's 'The Fate of the Animals' (1913) 'pour' into each other and 'contract' temporal experience into individualizing inequalities which at once establish difference, AND the excessive receptivity which overflows as proximity: The nearest kind of difference is our incessant incommensurability with ourselves, drawn from how time's patterns, as they are lived, break time's symmetry by condensing as presence. Deleuze here offers one of contemporary thinking's more legitimately difficult thoughts, which stands as a brave attempt to bring together proximity and difference as constitutive of experience's individuating temporality and plurality. It may even lend insight to Whitehead's announcement that 'life is an offensive directed against the repetitious mechanism of the universe.'
If it should be told, the repetition cannot make it less, for more it is than I can well express.
One of the great divisions in the history of philosophy has been between empiricism and rationalism. Classically, the arguments hinge on whether form Gustav Klimt's 'Allegory of Sculpture' (1889) is more properly native to facts or to the whole of which facts would be parts. Empiricisms have sometimes been identified as pluralistic, while rationalisms usually imply a monism - a way of circumscribing reality as a Oneness, an entire unity. The thrust of the associated notions of difference and proximity is to supersede both sides of the argument between rationalism and empiricism by altering the role and status of form.

In the tradition, form confirms a principle of identity, even as identity takes form as its sovereign garment, regardless of whether the identities and forms in question belonged essentially to empirically independent facts or to encompassing rational totalities. But when difference is seen as formative, its function begins as differentiating rather than as either separating or unifying. To begin with difference/differentiation presupposes wholeness, but brings both separation and unification as emergent and relative.

Odilon Redon's 'Pegasus' (1900) The instantiations of difference through form reverberate in their failure to enclose the essentially temporal overflow whose phenomenological evidence is the character of subjectivity. Once we withdraw form's authorization of identity we may, instead of interpreting such overflow as mere residual or subliminal form, take subjectivity's excess as witness of ground outside of what aims toward form or constitutes Identity.

Though the One - always the underlying principle of identity - may more persuasively receive from us a name, and reflect thence upon us a glory which sanctifies our power to name and to have, perhaps, as Levinas holds, the Infinite and not the One is at the source of things, and our individuality, the uniqueness of experience, has its basis in how sentience rises to its occasion of exposure to the Infinite, a calling quite different from naming.

before after
The time approaches that will with due decision make us know
what we shall say we have, and what we owe.

above: Macbeth, V, iv, 17 table of contents commented bibliography and index say what? noframes


Wittgenstein's relation to Goethe's morphology:      See Ray Monk's Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.

we learn when:      Paraphrased from Martin Heidegger's What is Called Thinking, page 4.

...our incessant incommensurability with ourselves:      This account relies on Joseph Libertson's summary in his excellent book Proximity, Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille and Communication, page 306.

a modest proposal...      The tradition's pervasive reliance on principles of Oneness and unity suggests that even after we attempt to deconstruct their previous status for the life of the mind, questions remain about finding their proper status. Such inquiry is beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, we have in general pointed toward thought which has Rene Magritte's 'Elementary Cosmogeny' (1949) anchored itself in representation's spatialized temporal canvases - hypostatized and also mutually exclusive pasts, presents, and futures - as giving false evidence concerning the status of oneness. With further consideration we should find true evidence here as well. One radical approach would be to develop a 'symbolic metaphysics' in concord with how contemporary thinking can now approach symbolism. Here could be situated representations of the most general and pervasive claims which as ideas are found to orient human experience. We would begin with the One and the Infinite, but would not leave out Nothing (cause here to mention Buddhism's ca. 150 AD legendary Nargarjuna). Unlike many of thinking's big ideas, these three prove uniquely indispensable to mathematics (hence physics too) and so would inaugurate our enterprise with some measure of caution and prospect of rigor. We might expect that symbolism's fertile 'middle ground' would be able to lend to these investigations (1) relations to a wider multicultural world of human meaning inclusive of diverse spiritual aspects, (2) salient patterns and phenomenological points of departure beyond the domain of symbolism and also (3) evidence concerning symbolism itself which would unfold better comprehension of its analogy with organic form and the openness of its grounding in metaphor.

...lineup and alibi

Like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin.

- Hamlet, III, iii, 41
Were my lord so his ignorance were wise,
Where now his knowledge must prove ignorance.

- Love's Labours Lost, II, i, 105
If it should be told,
The repetition cannot make it less,
For more it is than I can well express.

- Rape of Lucrece, 1285

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