Can we have a Philosophy of Difference?

R.S. Aggarwal

#virtual, #philosophy

For Hegel, it is ‘now’ and ‘here’ that would make up a ‘this’, and it is easy to see how both of these terms cannot really point to any particular place or capture any particular moment, since they both cannot capture a singular place or time due to the endless and continuous flux our immediate intuition offers us.
           Hegel starts his ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ with the expression ‘pure  This’ (Hegel 1977, Pg 58). This is supposed to represent the most ‘immediate’ and ‘receptive’, which he will then go on to show as the ‘most abstract and poorest truth’. Let’s contend with his argument a little bit. Hegel correctly notes here that ‘this’ is constantly changing in the face of flux of time. A ‘this’ is merely an instance; it will fly away at the very moment we attach an expression to it. Everytime we point at something using the expression ‘this’, it vanishes as soon as we begin to utter the word.
Hegel’s starting point is both a necessity and a pedagogical trick he wants to play on us. Hegel details his enemy, or the dogma that he is fighting quite succinctly in the introduction to this work: he clearly aims at the metaphor of instrument that philosophers have used or abused to describe the faculty of cognition. If cognition is an instrument facing what is, what he terms as Absolute, then there is all the reason in the world to mistrust our knowledge of it. No matter how much we learn about this cognition, we will always treat it as the one which hides, not one which shows the Absolute, because it always stands between us and the truth by not being a part of it. Hegel wants us to get rid of this way of thinking altogether, and wants us to accept that the mediation that obstructs our knowledge of the Absolute should be treated, not separated from the Absolute, but as a moment of it, which doesn’t alter our knowledge of the Absolute, but the Absolute itself. At the same time, therefore, Hegel is both a philosopher of mediation and immediacy, because both the terms must dissolve into the Absolute. The way he would like to show us this is to start with the purest immediacy one can imagine, and then show us that it necessarily would lead us into a mediation, and upon accepting this mediation as a moment of reality itself, we would realise that it’s no different than the immediate knowledge from where we started, except that it’s more informed and erudite.
           So he will start his program by staging the dialectics of sense-certainty, and this is why he chose ‘pure This’ as his departure point.  Let’s concentrate on his example of ‘now’, for which he would like for us to imagine that we have preserved the statement ‘Now is Night’ by writing it down. It’s easy to see that the truth of this statement, however, can only be preserved until dawn. By the next day, this statement would have lost its validity. However, it still would be ‘now’! Now could be both Day or Night, or any time of the day for that matter. ‘Now’ has indeed preserved itself, but Hegel would claim that it’s preserved as a mediation, because it’s precisely because it’s either no longer Night or it’s no longer Day, that ‘now’ has been able to preserve itself. ‘Now’ preserves itself, becomes eternal, ‘as negative in general’. This would be the launching pad for the entire exposition of Phenomenology of Spirit, where the Absolute would show itself in these mediations step by step.
           In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze would claim that in the western tradition of philosophy, difference is merely subordinated to the logic of identity, and that we must start doing a philosophy of difference itself, by imagining it outside the shackles of identity. But can we not say, in the light of the above discussion, that difference-in-itself will always fall back into the logic of identity, because our knowledge of it will always be mediated by the logic of negation? Our language can only prepare us to do philosophy in universals, while difference-in-itself, itself being concrete, would also have to be described by universals. A chasm will again open up between the concrete difference-in-itself and the universal categories our language must make use of, and once this happens, we will fall back into Kant’s idealism, where Hegel will have to rescue us again.
           We shall contemplate this issue by taking a detour to Heidegger. In the second introduction to Being and Time, Heidegger would try to define phenomenology, in order to make a case for it to be recognized as the appropriate method in the investigation of Being, which he will subsequently undertake. The tradition of phenomenology that Heidegger is referring to here is the one that comes from Husserl, which Heidegger would try to redefine here, going against his teacher in this regard. Hegel’s phenomenology is quite a separate matter, though. In fact, Hegel isn’t considered a phenomenologist in the usual usage of the word, which derives from the school of philosophy that Husserl started. Interestingly, we would realise that the definition Heidegger would offer would come very close to Hegel, but would also offer us optimism in following Deleuze in his task of creating a philosophy of pure difference.
           Heidegger would start his exposition of his idea of phenomenology by breaking the word ‘phenomenology’ into ‘phenomena’ and ‘logos’. By this breakage, he would then try to justify phenomenology’s claim to the knowledge of ‘things themselves’. Heidegger notices that both the terms that constitute the term phenomenology, find their history in the language of Greek. As he describes the etymology of the word phenomenon, first, he will make us aware of the fact that unlike what our Kantian heritage tells us, phenomenon has quite a distinct character from appearance, insofar as appearance can be used in the sense of that which brings something forth, that is, sort of like a medium through which something is given, whereas phenomena is that which is brought forth. But just like Hegel, he would also agree that appearance could just as well refer to something that hides something. These two aspects of appearance cannot be decoupled: the latter follows directly from the former. It is an instrument. However, that which shows itself in appearing is the phenomenon. While appearance is an entity in its own right, which references something, phenomenon is that which shows itself in itself.

“If by ‘that which shows itself’ we understand those entities which are accessible through the empirical "intuition" in, let us say, Kant's sense, then the formal conception of ‘phenomenon’ will indeed be legitimately employed.” (Macquarrie and Heidegger 1978, Pg 54)

Having settled this, and defining ‘phenomenon’ as distinct from the Kantian conception of it, we turn to ‘logos’. While it is true that it could be simply translated as ‘discourse’, Heidegger urges us to first consider the original way in which discourse was thought to function, which has been painted over the tradition of western philosophy. Discourse would originally refer to, according to him, is ‘to make manifest what one is talking about’. It is how we ‘let something be seen’. Unfortunately, it has now received a very different connotation, which tends towards concepts such as ‘reason’ and ‘judgement’. The function of discourse, however, is to simply express something that would otherwise remain hidden, while in the case of judgement, it is to express something as True or False in its ‘synthesis’ (the likes of which Kant would discuss in Critique of Pure Reason extensively). However, originally, it is Being-true or Being-false which is the occupation of discourse, not True or False as such. Being-true would refer to showing something that would be hidden otherwise, a sort of discovery. On the other hand, Being-false would be the act of hiding something, or masking its nature by putting something in between, by making it something which it is not. Note how appearance would fall into this category of Being-false, and how Hegel would discover this in the mediation of Now as well. While one can derive the True-ness and False-ness of a judgement from this original notion of discourse, it primarily doesn’t refer to something as complicated as a synthesis of a subject and a predicate and how they correspond to each other (whether they belong together or not at the level of truth and falsity). In fact, in its most primordial usage, it refers to something as simple as hearing of a sound or the sense of a colour, ‘perception of the simplest determinate ways of Being which entities as such may possess’, which is prior to any judgement.
           Heidegger is now prepared to define phenomenology by clarifying its components separately. Phenomenology ‘lets us see’ something in the manner of discourse we have been explaining so far. Therefore it must make us see something that is hidden. This ‘hidden’ isn’t mediated by judgments, because that’s not what discourse occupies itself with, but it is transported in the phenomenon (that which shows itself). What is it? It is none other than Being! It is Being which is present in every entity, makes an entity an entity, and yet is hidden. And this is how Heidegger would finally justify the usage of phenomenology for ontological purposes. One can now see how close it is to Hegel’s phenomenology as well, because it is the grasping of Absolute itself that is the purpose of such a method.

“Yet that which remains hidden in an egregious sense, or which relapses and gets covered up again, or which shows itself only ‘in disguise’, is not just this entity or that, but rather the Being of entities...Phenomenology is our way of access to what is to be the theme of ontology, and it is our way of giving it demonstrative precision. Only as phenomenology, is ontology possible.” (Macquarrie and Heidegger 1978, Pg 59-60)

Now we can return to Deleuze and answer the question that appears as the problematic of this article. Deleuze would follow Heidegger, who would later conceptualise ‘Ontological Difference’, through which we must begin to think about Being. For Deleuze however, the Difference itself would be the Being, which is why he would call himself a transcendental empiricist (Being can be sensed, it’s only hidden in the form of identity and judgmental thought). Deleuze gives us a concept of Being, but as pure Becoming and if he is trying to do a philosophy of difference, it is in the sense of discourse that Heidegger has explicated in Being and Time. We can see this clearly on what these philosophers have to say about Being and Difference-in-itself respectively. For Heidegger, Being is what makes possible the existence of entities as entities. For Deleuze, his ‘Transcendental Empiricism’, unlike traditional empiricism, would not look at the given, but “that by which the given is given” (Deleuze 2001, Pg 140). It is this difference, that is the genetic element of identities and the categories of thought. This is exactly why Deleuze has such admiration for the third critique, where Kant encounters a sublime, and hopes to see how perception is constituted through a discordant activity of faculties in the face of such an experience.
           And so, even if we do wrap our empirical sensations, which constitute the flux of time, in universals, as long as these universals let us see these sensations, which are hidden in the form of judgments, then it’s a discourse most true to its roots, nearest to Being-true. In fact, if Deleuze is trying to describe the genesis of thought as such, then Deleuze is, in fact, investigating Being. And so a philosophy of difference is not only possible, but is needed, for the sake of Ontology. To say that such a philosophy is impossible, and would always fall prey to negation which constitutes its mediation, is to say that discourse never lets something be seen without mediation, that is, it necessarily fails at its own function. For Deleuze, there is no negation when a Day turns into Night, because this change itself is the truth of the matter. One need not define ‘Now’ as something that is sustained through negation, but it’s just a discourse that lets the passage of time be seen. It is the other way around, for Deleuze: the negation is realised because of the ‘Now’, which is real (Being-true) as it is the Being which constitutes all beings (including all mediations). This would not be true if we look at discourse only in the form of a synthesis of a Kantian flavour. But things themselves show themselves, and discourse un-hides them, and we need the same for Difference-in-itself. If we accept this, then philosophy of difference, too, according to the definition offered by Heidegger, would be phenomenology and would be the appropriate way to do Ontology.
           But what do we have to gain from this philosophical manoeuvre undertaken by Deleuze? Both Hegel and Deleuze are trying to write a philosophy of becoming, but if the latter wants us to step directly into the realm of difference-in-itself, not stretching it towards contradiction, what are the consequences he has in mind? To understand this we must grasp what is the basic difference between these two approaches towards the category of becoming. For Hegel, the question that he must answer is how the past is preserved in the present as it becomes it. The problem he is contesting is not simply that things are overcome in their becoming, but they are overcome precisely through the conditions (contradictions) that make it necessary for them to do so. That is, there is preservation alongside metamorphosis. A new society is born necessarily from the conditions of the previous society. And so if progress occurs, it occurs with an operation that saves and destroys at the same time. This is the entire point of the concept of Aufhebung. For him, it’s true that everything has already happened, but not because there is no more change possible, but because the range of everything is the past, because it is that which becomes.
           Deleuze is not interested in such questions, because he feels philosophy must first grapple with the present in terms of its difference with the past, before thinking of its sameness with it. In his essay ‘How do we recognize structuralism?’, Deleuze delineates the issue at hand. Seeing himself as a thinker within the domain of structuralism, alongside thinkers like Althusser and Lacan, he would insist that any complete theory of structuralism must explain the procedure by which something New is incorporated into the structure, or another way of saying is ‘how a new structure is born’. This might not look very different from what we said about society in terms of Hegel, but the focus here is shifted towards the transcendental conditions that shape the New. The present is no longer looked at from the retrospective view, finding out how the past achieved it in its necessary and immanent conditions. The goal is to explain how the present can give birth to the future by delving into the transcendental conditions of change, which Deleuze would equate with Difference-in-itself.
           The consequence of such an approach can be easily realised in the political field, where the clamour is precisely what Deleuze is trying to solve: how do we create a New structure? After Hegel, we cannot turn back to naive and radical individualism since subjects are already ‘interpellated’ by the current structure. Nor can we live in retrospect, waiting for an ‘Event’, which may take us to a new society. That would be like practising for a failure: an inherently illogical task because failure is that for which you can never practise, because achieving the objective is always a success. The failure, in this case, would itself either be unthinkable or a part of reproduction of the same structure we are trying to overcome. Waiting for an Event is like simply carrying on within the structure, reproducing it, cancelling the task of politics itself. We need a proactive approach, and for Deleuze it’s necessary we rely on difference.
           The tension between the politics of Deleuze and Guattari, and Negri can also be understood in terms of difference. For Negri, a political action can be built upon the ‘common notions’ subjects of labour under capitalism are able to communicate and subsequently come together to form an alliance. This is a Spinozist sentiment, as for Negri, our bodies look for these common notions with other bodies as they bring us joy. This is why ‘affective labour’, the labour involved in ‘immaterial’ tasks of communication and people-care and other such tasks in late capitalism, would become the kernel for revolution for Negri and Hardt (Hardt 1999). For Deleuze, however, the prerequisite task is first to understand how these common notions are built in the first place. The gap between the first and second kind of knowledge in Spinoza is not that easily crossed (Spinoza failed to address this properly according to Deleuze). How are several individuals able to think in similar terms, and what are the tensions that would constitute such an understanding? Are we not to believe that factors of an intersectional nature are to be first understood amongst the constituents of this labour? Moreover, do these common notions always bring joy? Deleuze and Guattari certainly don’t think so, since they realise that the fundamental issue of political philosophy is that humans and their collectives are very well capable of desiring their own repression. Once again, Negri, like others, is too quick to resolve Difference into Sameness. Difference must not be rushed, it requires its own rigorous theory. To repeat the theme once more and finally conclude, it’s not diversity, but that by which diversity is produced, that we must study, and for that we need a ‘philosophy of difference’.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm F. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Edited by John N. Findlay. Translated by Arnold V. Miller and John N. Findlay. N.p.: Oxford University Press.

Macquarrie, John, and Martin Heidegger. 1978. Being and Time. Translated by Edward Robinson and John Macquarrie. N.p.: Blackwell.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2001. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. N.p.: Continuum.

Hardt, Michael. 1999. “Affective Labour.” boundary 2 26, no. 2 (Summer): 89-100. .