I mentioned several weeks ago that I think the most important figure in recent philosophy, who can give us insight into how to think about change and our ability to create change through practical reason, is the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. He is important because he explains why conventional modes of thinking about reality can neither explain change nor the constitution of individual identities, and he offers an alternative model to provide such an account. Although he didn’t really address the issue directly, I think he also provides an alternative to the ancient views on philosophy as a way of life that I find mostly inadequate.
Unfortunately, Deleuze is one of the most difficult thinkers to read. Because I spend a good deal of my time each week trying to understand his arguments, especially in his most important work Difference and Repetition, I am going to launch a series of posts, published irregularly, in which I try to articulate his arguments in ordinary prose, without his technical jargon or the terms of art that he too readily deploys.
Today’s post is about the basic argument that launches his project in Chapter One of Difference and Repetition.
The concept of difference is central to how we understand and experience reality. Without differences reality would consist of absolute homogeneity—being with no qualities. By pointing to differences, we are able to sort reality into distinct objects. We can say of any object “this but not that” because “this is different from that.” Furthermore, differences are not just a collection of random, free-floating qualities. Qualities that mark a difference attach to things, a relationship that is captured in the structure of language when subjects have predicates. So how do we understand this relationship between differential qualities and the things to which they attach?
Aristotle took the first comprehensive stab at answering this question. He classified artifacts, animals, and plants into hierarchies of categories based on observations of their features. Although his classifications have been significantly modified in subsequent centuries, especially in Biology by Linneaus among others, these are all more refined versions of Aristotle’s basic methodology. Deleuze views Aristotle’s classification through the lens of the 3rd Century philosopher Porphyry whose account of Aristotle had considerable influence in Medieval thought. I will also incorporate some modern classification terminology to explain Aristotle’s view.
The basic idea is that qualities attach to subjects via a system of genera (the plural of genus) and species. We begin with a property which belongs to everything such as “substance.” Through a repeated process of division of things into sub-categories based on differences, we eventually arrive at a complete definition of an object.
For instance, “living thing” is a sub-category of material substance (i.e. matter). But it is also a general category—there are many kinds of living things—and so it is also a genus at a lower level of the hierarchy. Plants are a species of that genus “living thing.” But then within the hierarchy, “plant” is also a general category, a genus, differentiated into species such as gymnosperms (unenclosed seeds), angiosperms (seeds within a pod), etc. Each of these species is then a genus for more specific categories.Thus, a species at one level of the hierarchy becomes a genus at a lower level.
- living thing
- Granny Smith
- living thing
For instance, “Living Thing” is a species of substance but a genus for plants. “Plant” is the genus for the species “angiosperm” and angiosperm is then the genus for fruit. Fruit is a species of the more general term, angiosperm, and fruit then becomes the genus for apples, oranges and so on. We can distinguish and compare apples and oranges because they are both species of the genus fruit. The genus fruit designates the similarities between apples and oranges and their differences then constitute various species. Apple then becomes a genus for various species of apples–red delicious, granny smith, etc. The characteristics of the general categories (the genera) are carried through all the sub-categories, so each branch of this tree-like structure shares similarities with higher levels of the hierarchy while also embodying specific differences that distinguish the sub-categories.
By means of this tree-like architecture, we are able to give precise definitions for which characteristics qualify an object as belonging to a category, and each object has a clear identity based on its position within the hierarchy. This is the basis for much of our reasoning about the world.
However, eventually we run out of important differences. Some differences are not general properties that sort individuals into groups but are differences that make an object an individual. This apple has a blemish on the skin; this one does not. But blemishes are not general features of apples. Many apples lack blemishes. They have no relevance to our categorizing apples according to genus and species. They are just non-essential differences that accidentally happen to individuals. Thus, Individuals do not fit within this classification scheme except as members of categories. An individual qua individual falls outside this Aristotelian- inspired taxonomy.
So what is wrong with this picture? Deleuze argues that “it fails the test of the large and the small.” It effectively organizes some differences but not others. I’ve just noted the small differences between individuals that fall outside this account. But there are large differences that also are not represented. Specifically, it doesn’t capture, in a useful way, differences between genera. We can compare apples and oranges as to their differences but how do we compare apples and airplanes or horses and triangles? Horses don’t have three sides, do not consist of mathematical lines, and are not useful in designing buildings. Triangles are not fast and cannot bear weight. We can go on like this endlessly creating a list of negations. But to say that a triangle is not fast tells us nothing useful about triangles that is not already part of the taxonomy of essential features of triangles. To say that a triangle is not a living organism tells us nothing that is not already given by the classification of triangle as an ideal, non-living object. In other words, using differences to divide a genus produces species. By contrast, using differences to compare genera is non-productive. It produces no additional order and thus does not systematiize our knowledge. Differences between genera are treated as if they are only important as species difference. They have no other relevance. This according to Deleuze is an undefended assumption and a questionable one at that.
Aristotle was aware of this problem and attempted a solution.
Genera all have something in common. They exist, they share being. Thus, it might be argued that differences between genera are captured by a super-genus, being, that can organize differences between genera. But what does it mean for genera to share being? Here, according to Deleuze, Aristotle stumbles. All genera share the predicate “exists.” But this does not help organize differences between genera because genera exist in different ways. Fruit exist in one way given by all the predicates that attach to “fruit.” Mechanical artifacts that fly exist quite differently from fruit in a way given by predicates that attach to airplanes, i.e mechanical artifacts that fly. The concept of being tells us nothing about the differences between airplanes and apples that aren’t already captured by the multiple genera themselves.
The best that Aristotle can do is to say there is an analogy between the way apples and airplanes exist. But this doesn’t help at all to explain how these free floating differences between the two are organized.
Furthermore, being can’t be defined according to Aristotle’s classification scheme because to define something is to place it under a more general concept. But there is no more general concept than being. So either being must be undefined or we have an infinite regress of general concepts—being organized under being*, which is then organized under being** ad infinitum. The result is that metaphysics is without foundation.
Thus, Deleuze summarizes, Aristotle fails to give us an adequate account of difference, because difference is domesticated, always viewed in relation to some larger unity, when they fit under a general concept. The differences between apples and oranges are meaningful because they are both fruit. Difference is subordinated to identity. But this leaves many differences out of the picture.
So why is this a problem? What practical difficulty does this raise? If you’re not a philosopher concerned with the foundations of metaphysics, you might not care. But Deleuze argues we should care deeply. It will take a lot of argumentation to show why, but the short answer is that these free floating differences, small and large, that fall outside our ability to conceptualize them, are actually what give structure and movement to reality. Our lives fundamentally depend on them. To the extent our practical reason is unable to take them into account, we will fail to think well about our lives.
I have long thought that our inability to capture individuals within a conceptual framework is a serious failing of philosophy. See this discussion here. Deleuze is on solid ground when he complains that differences that create individuals are not conceptualized within Aristotle’s scheme. It’s less clear what the relevance is of differences between unrelated genera. It will be the burden of the rest of the book to explain that.
Think of this as a detective story. We’re only at the beginning of the investigation.
Previous posts in this series: