Ktismatics

26 September 2009

Some Thoughts on Difference

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:29 pm

Just thinking out loud…

“Difference” implies “different-from.” Something that is is different from what it is not. Doesn’t it follow that the discrete uniqueness of an object, its essence as “different,” is defined in relation to everything else from which it differs? This isn’t just a language game, where the word for an object is defined as its difference from all other words. Nor is it just an epistemological matter, whereby an observer recognizes a discrete object relative to its surroundings. If something isn’t different from other stuff, then it’s the same as the other stuff, no?

If a reality is entirely uniform and stable, then any sort of change that emerges in this reality is differentiating. If a reality is entirely chaotic, random, noisy, unstable, then any sort of stability that emerges in this reality is differentiating. If a reality is comprised entirely of discrete things, stable yet distinct from one another, then any sort of unique pattern is differentiating. In any case, difference is different-from.

If difference is that which distinguishes a thing from the rest of the reality it occupies, then the uniqueness of a discrete thing is the combination of differences it contains. This n-dimensional differential vector might manifest itself in a variety of ways relative to other things in its larger reality. So, for example, a distinct genetic pattern will generate an organism that exhibits various kinds of distinct phenotypic differences in the ways it interacts with its environment. Whether one regards genotype or phenotype or both as the definitive “difference that makes a difference,”  in any case the essence of the discrete organism is still embedded in the vector of differences-from, which are intrinsically relational.

Suppose the essence of some discrete thing withdraws from all relations. If difference is always relational, then difference makes no difference to this discrete thing: it could hypothetically be identical to anything or everything else in its reality and still be a discrete thing in its withdrawn essence. Conversely, a thing’s difference-from other things can be multiple and extreme yet still not make any real difference for establishing its distinct reality. The only alternative I can think of is to propose a kind of difference that isn’t difference-from. The interior of a discrete thing into which its non-relational essence retreats: it would have to be a place outside of the reality in which relations occur, wouldn’t it?

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25 Comments »

  1. What’s an essence?

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    Comment by kvond — 26 September 2009 @ 9:31 pm

  2. Citing my favorite source, Wikipedia:

    “In philosophy, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the object or substance has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity.”

    If different-from is what makes something distinct from whatever it is not, then its essence would be the totality of its different-from-ness, wouldn’t it? If that’s not the case, then either difference isn’t different-from, or else difference isn’t the mark of a thing’s distinction. Maybe what you’d have to assert is that, while differentiation is a causal force bringing something unique into existence, the essence of that thing isn’t reducible its causes. Through differentiation something else emerges, and it’s this “something else” that is the distinct thing’s essence. But doesn’t that essential something-else have to be different from every other discrete thing’s essence? If so, we’re still talking about different-from. If not, then the essences of distinct things could be identical with each other. Or else essences exist in some realm outside of differences.

    What do you think about it, kvond? Am I missing some other alternative within a scheme that starts with difference as definitive? The other way to go is to regard different-from as symptomatic of some other sort of distinguishing essence that precedes or recedes from or transcends difference. But if the essences of different things don’t differ from each other, aren’t they they same as each other?

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    Comment by john doyle — 27 September 2009 @ 2:58 am

  3. Kvondique, are essences BOUNDARIED?

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    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 27 September 2009 @ 4:47 am

  4. Honestly, though Spinoza makes great use of the concept of “essences” I don’t really see much use for them (and I don’t really se why you John would find them appealing). Belief in them requires a whole armature of thinking that can be rather burdensome.

    The best “essence” can achieve in my book is something like a “place” in the great breadth of all possibilities.

    But what does it mean to be “reducible to it’s causes”?

    As whether essences are boundaried. I don’t know. Perhaps we treat them as limited for purposes, or distinguished. But a boundaried thing I would imagine is a cognitive horizon and wouldn’t apply to esssences.

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    Comment by kvond — 27 September 2009 @ 10:55 am

  5. I wouldn’t say that I find essences appealing, kvond. I’m just trying to think along with the paradigm. These ideas are interesting for someone like me who hasn’t really spent much time thinking metaphysically.

    “Reducible to its causes” — e.g., genetic differences cause metabolic and behavioral differences: one might decide that only the genetic differences are real and that the emergent phenotypic differences are merely epiphenomenal. Here’s a hypothetical complement to this reductionistic position: genetic differences are only causal but not essential; some singular essence of the organism emerges from the genes that is somehow not describable in terms of difference and is not relational.

    I tend to think that the genotype and the emergent phenotype are both real kinds of different-from, and that there is no essence other than the total of all differences-from. No single interaction of a thing with other stuff in a reality exposes all of that thing’s differences from its reality. E.g., one interaction with a rock might expose the rock’s hardness; another, its mass; a third, its shadow. In that sense there are always aspects of a thing that don’t participate in any particular interaction. But non-participation doesn’t require withdrawal, I don’t think.

    I see that you took a look at “phase space” as a possible way in which objects withdraw. I’ve given a bit of thought to that idea as well, and may write something about it another day.

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    Comment by john doyle — 27 September 2009 @ 12:28 pm

  6. I have trouble with the phrase “reducible to causes”, in particular the word/concept “reducible”. What does it mean to be “reduced”? Does this mean “Is nothing more than?” And if causes are defined as “producing x” then we have a circle. x is nothing more than causes a, b, c, and causes a, b, c are nothing more than that which produces x. All this is fine, but nothing has been “reduced”. We simply have effective descriptions of an immanent process.

    As to phase space and object withdrawl, as I posted on Levi’s use, I found the idea a bit ridiculous (and not paying attention to what phase space is). The problem lies in the concept of “withdrawl” which is extremely anthropomorphic and Idealist in nature. Nothing here is receding, or hiding. At most there are asymptotic limits to our knowledge.

    I do think that phase space is a helpful idea, but not as a means to solve (or impose) problems of “identity” or “objecthood” in the usual Idealist sense.

    Object withdrawl and other thing-in-itself imaginations are really nothing more than us saying “I wonder how he is feeling”.

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    Comment by kvond — 27 September 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  7. I’m using “reducible” as just a descriptive term, as in reducing the scope of reality so as to exclude certain things, forces, substances, qualities, etc. If one were to exclude imaginary and fictional and illusory and abstract things from reality, then that’s a reduced reality relative to one that includes all these kinds of things. What’s the opposite of reductionist: expansionist?

    I’m expecting Levi to elaborate further on phase space and withdrawal — so far it’s been less of a maneuver and more of a gesture, to quote Eddie Izzard. But now that we’re talking about it, I can feel the idea’s attractors drawing me in…

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    Comment by john doyle — 27 September 2009 @ 1:17 pm

  8. If one is excluding certain kinds of descriptions in favor of a exclusivity of others, one has two problems. First of all, if your exclusion produces something odd like “an object withdrawls from all interactions” it seems very likely that this odd little bit is a product of, a symptom of your very act of exclusion.

    Secondly of course, by excluding all other sorts of descriptions (forces, processes), you are also excluding the powers and benefits of those descriptions, and would have to provide a very good explanation why you are giving up those benefits. In the end the real reasonb behind this exclusion is actually to produce the very anomaly of the retreating object itself. One WANTS to see the world as exclusively composed of objects, and will do all that they conceptually can to do so. The problem is that this desire is really rather antropocentric (let’s imagine that all things in the world are like how we experience ourselves and other human beings), and is also a product of a taken-too-far optical analogy about the world. Treating the rhythms of a song hummed as an “object” is basically trying to “look at” the song that you hear. If you are really trying to be non-anthropocentric you are going to have to try to stop thinking in dominantly visional terms, since the preponderance of objects in the world have no visual cortex.

    As to whether Levi will post at length on phase space, of this we can have no doubt as he writes voluminously and authoritatively on pretty much anything that occurs to him. But I find there to be absolutely very little of object retreat in “phase space”. The phase space of a system (or object) would have to include the dispersion of all its elements into an absolute entropy condition of randomness. In otherwords, that little red ball’s phase space would have to include the possibility that all its molecules are randomly dispersed an unorganized. This has very little to do with the idea that the “ball” is in retreat from its properties. There would be no “ball” to speak of under such a circumstance.

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    Comment by kvond — 27 September 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  9. I think the withdrawn essence is an expansionist move rather than a reduction: there are all the differentiating qualities of an object that engage in interactions with other objects, and then in addition there is some supplemental essence that exceeds these interactional qualities.

    I don’t see why objecthood implies visualization rather than, say, touch. To a perceptual system based on echolocation, every object might be received as a separate song. Plus, per Levi, vision and touch and sound are epistemological tools of the observer rather than characteristics of the the object per se. Besides, an ontology based on difference doesn’t demand object orientation. We could be talking about different forces or movements just as easily as different objects.

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    Comment by john doyle — 27 September 2009 @ 2:02 pm

  10. Touch give presence, but many things that we touch do not have boundaries. The temperature outside, the feeling of a current, the quality of sand, etc. etc., etc. Only sight gives us the illusion distinctive measure of a thing having defining limit.

    I have no idea why “the difference that makes a difference” view of the world is “reductive” rather than expansive. Bateson’s view of information is quite expansive. There is no really reason to then posit that there are differences that make no difference at all.

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    Comment by kvond — 27 September 2009 @ 2:07 pm

  11. But if you feel that it is meaningful to you to break the world into qualities and disappearing essences that hide from you like ghosts, feel free to indulge yourself. To me the difference that makes no difference is a silly unproductive idea.

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    Comment by kvond — 27 September 2009 @ 2:09 pm

  12. It’s the “that makes a difference” part that can be expanded or contracted based on different assumptions and commitments. In Levi’s scheme every difference makes a difference, which is a maximally expansive difference-based reality. Surely there are more restrictive definitions of “makes a difference;” e.g., for some ontologies the differences between Popeye and Batman would make no difference since neither is deemed real.

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    Comment by john doyle — 27 September 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  13. Actually, as usual, I think that Levi is in contradiction on the difference that makes a difference and the Object in continual retreat issue. He wants to embrace Harman’s nonsense because he wants to be a part of the SR crowd and ride those coatails, but this doesn’t jibe with his borrowing from Bateson. He is left with a hole in his theory which he recently tried to plug with an, to me, incoherent use of “phase space”.

    If an object is in retreat from all the differences its makes in the world, and is defined as a difference apart from all those differences, this is a difference that makes no difference, which is to me a bit of nonsense. Levi is big on slogans like “a difference that makes a difference” but is very short on explanations. And he gets pretty testy when anyone questions his use of slogans.

    Please tell me what an object in retreat is if not a difference that makes no difference?

    And of course the differences between Popeye and Batman make a difference. They make a difference on which comic book you want to buy.

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    Comment by kvond — 27 September 2009 @ 2:38 pm

  14. Levi just wrote a post on Larval Subjects elaborating on his idea of ontological difference, which he contrasts with the sort of difference-from that I addressed in my post. The term “difference” might be an unfortunate one because it does almost automatically convey the comparative sense, but Levi is carrying forward Deleuze’s elaborations on difference so I suppose it can’t be helped. His post is helpful both in clarifying difference and in the way he defines an object not as a static physical thing but more as an event or vector unfolding in time.

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    Comment by john doyle — 28 September 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  15. I wonder how many times he is going to use that Duchamp painting. I have no problem with thinking of an essence as a “distinction”, but what qualifies that particular object as having a RETREATING distinction (it really isn’t retreating so much as immanenting), and what makes it ONE distinction? Are we to say that the red ball’s essence is ONE distinction (difference) and the red ball + one molecule of air is ANOTHER distinction, and the red ball + momentum is another distinction? Sure, why not. But no longer are we really talking as if the “object” has a hidden other object behind it in retreat. And it really isn’t an “inner” object as Harman would like to imagine.

    The thing is this is just one of Levi’s two poles. He writes like this time to time wherein it pretty much makes no sense to draw a connection between this and Harman’s thought. And then he’ll go again and start cozying up to Harman’s Theory again, once he finds that his Deleuzian Philosophy of Immanence no longer makes him very interesting to the SR club (and he isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article any longer).

    If Levi wants to talk like a Deleuzian, I’d find a lot of common ground. Its when he wants to talk like a Harmanian that I find him in rather blatant self-contradiction.

    Maybe he should write a post about all the way Deleuze was completely wrong.

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    Comment by kvond — 29 September 2009 @ 9:20 am

  16. Of course John, you know, I say the above only as a “crackpot” :)

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    Comment by kvond — 29 September 2009 @ 9:34 am

  17. Yes, he certainly does sound more process-oriented in this post than does Harman. It’s a work in progress I’m sure. If an object has a trajectory through time, then it can actualize changes within itself — internal differences between time a and time b — without becoming a different object altogether. I.e., these internal state changes would be differences that don’t make a difference in terms of distinguishing one object from another. But clarifying the idea of a Deleuzian primary difference rather than a comparative difference-from is a helpful move. It’s been made partly explicit in Levi’s writings previously, so it’s helpful to elaborate on the idea.

    As for the retreating bit, we’ll see. Freezing an object at a particular point in time is like taking a screengrab from a movie. The rest of the movie isn’t retreating from the static image; it’s just that still photography is the wrong tool for the job.

    Is the pot’s crackedness integral to the pot-event, having manifested itself at some discrete point in time or perhaps emerging and extending itself over a protracted interval? Or is the crackedness an epistemological artifact of particular interactions with other pot-objectiles?

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    Comment by john doyle — 29 September 2009 @ 9:39 am

  18. Levi’s “process” would be much more interesting if

    a) it didn’t strike one as a negotiation between honest intellectual discovery and a political attempt to gain interent (and meat world) allies.

    b) he was much more open and self-crtical about his self-contradictions, instead of having to play the Master of his Discourse (and the dialectically related self-denegrating professor).

    Then we could think along with some enjoymenht.

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    Comment by kvond — 29 September 2009 @ 9:53 am

  19. Put another way, the problem lies with Harman’s Aristotlean conception of “Substance” (each object has a substance), which is to be contrasted with Spinoza’s explosion of the conception, there is only one thing that has Substance, and that is Substance, Nature (God), the totality of things. Think of it this way, as Bennett controversally summed Spinoza’s (meta)physics:

    “If there is (…) a pebble in region R, what makes this true is the fact that R is pebbly (which) stands for a
    certain monadic property that a spatial region / can have. If the pebble moves (…), what makes this true is the fact that there is a continuous change in which regions are pebbly: The so-called movement of a pebble through space is like the
    so-called movement of a panic through a crowd.”

    The pebble is the expression of Substance. Now the problem with Levi’s attempt to turn himself into a Harmanist is that he when he is making overtures there he is attempting to talk of the pebble as if it were Aristotlean, having its very own substance, whereas when he wants to talk as a Deleuzian, he is back to talking about processes, basically in reference to One Substance. These are two very different places of thinking.

    So to say that there is a “difference” that underlies an object (which is only to mean a distinction), this is wholly within Spinoza’s ontology of essences. But this difference/distinction does not comprise an “object” (that is in retreat) or an “inner” object. It is just Substance (in the Spinozist sense) expressing itself distinctly, and modally.

    It is Levi’s hopping back and forth between the two views of Substance, the Aristotlean and Idealist one, and then the Process one, not being able to decide which is which and through in some Science stuff like “phase space” and “vectors” that makes of the whole thing a confusion, at least as I see it.

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    Comment by kvond — 29 September 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  20. I don’t know about you, kvond, but I find that the process of designing something usually looks more circular than linear. You put something in place temporarily and move on, but then when you come back around to it you find that it has to be reshaped in order to fit better with the other pieces that have been installed in the meantime. Sometimes you have to rethink a component completely, replacing it with something else altogether. You keep iterating around and around until something reasonably coherent and elegant and functional takes shape. I suspect that’s what the process of designing an ontology is like.

    “there is a continuous change in which regions are pebbly”

    That’s interesting. It emphasizes the inextricable relationship between object and reality, such that an object can be defined entirely in terms of changes in the local texture of reality. Certainly some movement is continuous like this, where prior configurations of substance/reality gradually transform into other configurations. The alternative is to allow the possibility of discontinuous change: an event happens, and abruptly the state of reality is different, without it being possible to trace the process leading from state A to state B. I’m not sure where Deleuze stands on this issue, but I suspect he’d allow discontinuous emergence of pure difference without it being describable in terms of a sequence of changes (= temporal differences) that permit direct comparison from moment to moment of an object moving through time.

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    Comment by john doyle — 29 September 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  21. Kvond, I wrote a separate post on phase space, so I moved your comment there. Same information, different location.

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    Comment by john doyle — 30 September 2009 @ 8:16 am

  22. John: “I don’t know about you, kvond, but I find that the process of designing something usually looks more circular than linear. You put something in place temporarily and move on, but then when you come back around to it you find that it has to be reshaped in order to fit better with the other pieces that have been installed in the meantime. Sometimes you have to rethink a component completely, replacing it with something else altogether. You keep iterating around and around until something reasonably coherent and elegant and functional takes shape. I suspect that’s what the process of designing an ontology is like.”

    Kvond: If you are describing Levi’s process, you should then include doing such with arrogance and assertion, declaring anyone who questions your authoritative declamations either poorly read, or just plain idiotic. You should include, aside from the occasional self-depricating and morose admission that you are just trying to find your way, a general attitude that what you are NOT doing is something that is “circular”, that you are NOT in potential self-contradiction, that you are NOT at times failing to make sense. The problem with Levi, at least to my tender ears, is the guy likes to play the arrogant professor, lecturing as he goes, bluffing with bravado, declaring “fallacy” this, and “principle” that, making up terms as if he is inventing a philosophy, and all the while cringingly brittle to any questioning, to the degree that he finds his sincere questioners “vampiric” undead, and the social equivalent of racists and homophobes. If indeed Levi’s process is circular, it is more circular like a dog chasing its tail. Its very hard for me to read. All the while, many people find his particular brand of philosophical arrogance and bombast appealing. Its just not my cup of tea, and reminds me very much of the little princedoms that professors like to set up in their little corner of their departments, their little corner of “truth”. A circular process thinker is actually at their best when they are in contradiction. Levi seems at his worst.

    John: “That’s interesting. It emphasizes the inextricable relationship between object and reality, such that an object can be defined entirely in terms of changes in the local texture of reality. Certainly some movement is continuous like this, where prior configurations of substance/reality gradually transform into other configurations. The alternative is to allow the possibility of discontinuous change: an event happens, and abruptly the state of reality is different, without it being possible to trace the process leading from state A to state B.”

    Kvond: Key is, Do you accept the power of explanation. Does being able to explain how something in state A come to be in state B meaning something substantial in this world, bring about real power changes in the knowing. If you feel that it does than the “discontinuous” model has some weaknesses, perhaps even profound weaknesses. For instance, if you look at Harman’s “theory of causation” he pretty much tosses out all regular explanations of the causes of things, and replaces it with…nothing. He simply says he hasn’t figured it out yet. He just knows that it can’t happen the way that other think it does because he says there have to be vaccuum-packed objects.

    In terms of the discontinuous model, much of that model seems to be founded on a) an appropriation of quantum physics to the macro world (which I’m not sure is applicable) or b) wanting to imagine a philosophy of pure “difference” so that the different sorts of folks in society, minorities, homosexuals, terrorists, etc, all have ontological support, ie justification, for their differences (I’m not sure that this is the way to establish that).

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    Comment by kvond — 30 September 2009 @ 8:21 am

    • John: ” was describing my own design processes and wondering if you had the same experiences. The point for me is that a design need not be regarded prematurely as a finished work, either by the designer or those to whom he shows his design.”

      Kvond: If we are talking about our own processes, I have to say that I don’t really experience my process as circular or linear (though I can see the strengths of circular reasoning). It seems like something much more like a crystal that grows, element by element. And yes, to say that it is “finished” at any one time is a bit silly. But that isn’t to say that any one time it is unfinished either. According to the reasoning of things one has to say, “Ah, done” but this strikes me as something of a random, or aesthetic severing. The logic by which things grow seems internal. At least, that is the way that I EXPERIENCE it.

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      Comment by kvond — 30 September 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  23. I was describing my own design processes and wondering if you had the same experiences. The point for me is that a design need not be regarded prematurely as a finished work, either by the designer or those to whom he shows his design. The same components of the design can be iteratively reworked, refined, even abandoned or replaced. I agree that Levi often presents what are surely tentative propositions as permanently fixed, and that I too find this stance off-putting. Hey, it’s just a blog: let’s talk.

    On a related note, here’s a welcome moment of self-awareness revealed by Graham on his blog:

    “”And after sleeping on it, I realized that this disagreement is not at all one of perversity, but of a disagreement between two fundamentally different schools of thought (though I may be the only member of one of the schools)”

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    Comment by john doyle — 30 September 2009 @ 8:47 am

  24. I agree about the explanatory problems confronting discontinuous change and emergence. An explosion might be instantaneous, but the causes and prior states leading up to the explosion can be identified. When Prigogine wrote about the emergence of self-organizing systems, he was emphasizing emergent phenomena that can be repeated precisely through repeatable causal sequences. Even if there is a discontinuity in manifestation from prior states, the emergent end state is often fully determined. Even unpredictable emergence doesn’t come out of the blue for Prigogine: it’s a matter of crystalizing in discrete time-space one of the possibilities that already existed in the prior phase state of the system. Thinking along these lines gets us to a more reductionistic ontology, where emergent differences are always predictable transformations of prior conditions.

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    Comment by john doyle — 30 September 2009 @ 9:11 am


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