the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Johnathan Li ’24
(Image: Neural networks that emulates Deleuze’s conception of a Rhizome)
We reduce to the most fundamental binary: A and B. Why do we name one A and the other B? Why do we consider their similarities and differences based on the fact that they are one and the same? This is the perspective that has long dominated Western intellectual thought: A cannot be B, and B cannot be A.
Essence, Sameness, and Being as the Fundamental Unit: Essentialist Metaphysics
Parmenides views being as the most fundamental and indivisible entity. We cannot imagine what is non-being, for anything we imagine has to be being, even being as an object of thought. Similarly, we cannot divide or deviate being from itself, for being cannot defer itself from being being. Being thus becomes indivisible and definite. It doesn’t change over time either, for to become is to be so dangerously participating in the non-beings.
This leads well to the ideal forms of Plato. If attaining true knowledge means to understand being, that which isn’t transient but instead consistent through time, then true knowledge resides not in the physical materials of day-to-day life, but instead, in ideal forms – the divine perfect ideals of everything in which all material goods are mere temporary and imperfect representations and replicas of.
Aristotle’s notion of telos can be said to be similar to the ideal forms in that regard. Telos is the purpose for everything, the source which guides materials into an “end,” a “goal,” according to the teleological model. The telos affirms a teleological hierarchy within the essentialist ontology. By the fact that objects differ by empirical differences (the difference of two objects from the fact that each one of them is definitely identical to itself, the identity that precedes the difference from comparison), some objects are truer than others. Some objects hold more “truth-contents” than others and are thus more teleologically perfect. One of such comparisons is between speech and writing; Aristotle and later Western philosophers often claim speaking to be a more authentic medium than writing, and writing is associated with lies as opposed to truth, absence as opposed to presence, “poison” as opposed to “remedy.” This is the concept of logocentrism, one in which Jacques Derrida will refute.
Flux and Sources of Differential: Heraclitus; Kant and Hegelian Metaphysics
The Milesian School, a pre-Socratic Greek school of philosophy, is obsessed with the primitive elements: earth, fire, water, air, etc. They aim to identify the first principle of the cosmos, the one element that precedes and, through processes, becomes and creates the others. Heraclitus argued that fire is the first principle, but different from other philosophers, believed that fire is special because of its power of transformation. The fire is not a substance, but the dynamics of everything that changes, flows, in flux, becomes. Permanence is an illusion, and becoming, more than being, is the reality of the cosmos. His analysis of warfare simultaneously offers his stance on the powers of fire: the processes of nature that creates, also destroys; “what opposes, unites.”
Kant is well known for his synthesis of the rationalist and empiricist predecessors. The empiricist and rationalist debates have created a rift in the territories of “experience” and “necessity.” If knowledge comes from contingency, we cannot claim the necessity (Empiricists). If concepts are universal, then they cannot be derived from particulars, the sensory experiences (Rationalists). Kant starts by rejecting the fact that reality lies entirely in the object, the environment around the subject (individuals, in this case), but instead partially in the subject themselves. Part of the objectivity is constructed within the identity of the subject. The subject’s identity constructs the universality and necessity out of the particular and contingent experiences. The rift of “experience” and “necessity” is bridged by the maneuver of relating the subject to reality, yet for Kant this only holds true in the world of phenomena, with the world of noumena, the world of all objects in-themselves with absolute universality and necessity, entirely out of reach of humanity.
G.W.F. Hegel, though heavily influenced by Kant’s thoughts, claims that Kant really had not escaped the Aristotelian logic. Kant believes that the Antinomies, the contradictions of our conjectures of the universe, occur because of our fruitless efforts obtaining the unreachable noumena. In reality, the noumena is consistent, the contradictions merely an illusion to the phenomenal us. Hegel rejects this idea of the separation between the subject and the true nature of objects; he also criticizes the belief that reality in-itself is consistent and void of contradictions, a trap of Aristotelian logic he claims. The Aristotelian Reason cannot tolerate the contradictions: the ideal forms have to be based on sameness, the identity of anything has to be identical to itself, the same in telos, the same in noumenal structure. The Judeo-Christian cosmology Hegel and his contemporaries were situated in begins with the concept of ex nihilo: a creation out of nothing, which makes no sense if one were to believe that nothing can only imply nothing, and being cannot be of nothingness. Hegel thus stated that the non-being that has created the beings ex nihilo has to be simultaneously being. Any identity derives themselves an antithesis holding the same weight as the thesis (the identity) that had formed it. The contradictions that is at the core of his metaphysics pushes individuals forward towards synthesis, pushes subjects as an embodiment, a carrier, of the dialectical forces, pushes history towards revolution, towards the rational development of the “absolute spirit,” one that Marx, a Hegelian, would later argue to be the state of communism.
Deconstructive Différance and Rhizomatic Difference: Modern/Postmodern Strand
Neo-Kantianism marks two major strands of post-Kantian thought: rationalist-oriented Structuralism, and empiricist-orientated Phenomenology. These two strands of thought are important to the discussion of differential ontology because they mark a semi-transition period from the Kantian/Aristotelian narrative of the identity to the modern, more radical arguments of difference as basis of reality: that of Derrida and Deleuze, who each of them will respond to Structuralism and Phenomenology in their own ways.
Structuralism, especially that of linguistic structuralism most famously represented by Ferdinand de Saussure, attempts to find universality within the structures of language. Structural linguists emphasize the similarities of language constructions across cultures, across subjectivities that don't necessarily have historical contacts with each other. It is an effort to create noumenal categories in the phenomenal world.
Phenomenology on the other hand, with its most prominent figure being the field’s creator Edmund Husserl, focuses on examining the structures (not referring to the structuralist’s structure) of consciousness. As its name suggests, it explores the realm of phenomenon. The process of epoch , or “bracketing,” is a process invented by Husserl of clearing all the external factors of reality, while focusing exclusively on the process of perception: the pre-abstract, pre-social, pre-deduction, pure, chaotic, and indeterminate sensation.
Time is a difficult concept to grapple with. Time is made up of nows, but with a seemingly paradoxical constitution. On one hand, nows can never remain the same, since there is a clear progression of time, a clear advancing past and future. On the other hand, nows cannot simply be discrete packets of time, because time is continuous. In some ways the nows are indivisible, while dividing the past and the future, its duration is infinitesimal, a limit to infinity. Husserl conjectures that the now is always attached to a thick sense of past and future. It started with the distinction between perception and memory, with some parts of the past still within consciousness, and some to be recollected later on. The primal memory (retention/past) and primal expectation (protention/future) is what surrounds our sense of present, the primal impression. The primal impression is an ideal limit, the immediate point of impact between the subject and the senses.
Derrida responds to Husserl with his model of repetition. The object of experience of the primal impression has to be able to be repeated to be consolidated within the retention, and later memory. This introduces the movement of Derrida’s Différance. The Différance is the opening of presence of the present; it introduces the traces of the non-present to the primal impression, the dynamic structure that underlies our perception of the present. Différance, the movement, the flow, the flux, precedes the point of impact of phenomenological primal impression, the difference more primordial than the moment, the traces of non-presence more indicative of the now-point’s surroundings. Différance constructs the presence, yet it also disrupts the presence, making it unattainable due to Différance’s movements. Différance differs and defers.
Saussure identifies that every linguistic element can be broken down into two parts: a signifier and signified. The signifier is the text, the words, the sounds that evokes the concept of a certain object; the signified is the object referred. We know an object is something not only because of the sole connection between the signifier and the signified, but also because of other words and texts that relate to the object described that nonetheless constitutes parts of the object’s definition (e.g. We know that high is high because we have low). Derrida extends this idea to the criticism of logocentrism, the Aristotelian idea that speaking is more authentic than writing. In essence, this is a debate of terms that are binary opposites, and in the tradition of telos, we often already associate one term above the other in the teleological model. Listening to a speaker evokes presence, while reading a text that can be prone to distortion evokes absence.
Derrida participates in Deconstruction. It refers to many of his attempts to undermine essentialist arguments, and in this case it refers to the Deconstruction of the teleological hierarchy of binary oppositions. The essentialist metaphysics always aim in destroying the impure, the secondary term out of the binary opposites. In doing so, they realize that the second term always returns to haunt the first term, supplementing the definition of the first within the hierarchy. If the second term can supplement the first term, doesn’t it mean that the first term is deficient from the start, that the first term requires the second term to be completed in its definition? Doing so, Derrida deconstructs the hierarchy, deconstructs the binary opposites: each of them are within each other from the start. Instead of the terms defining themselves, as of the empirical differences emphasized by the essentialists, terms gain their definition through the intervals between terms, the Différance instead of the static units create the greater structure.
Deleuze seeks to establish a new metaphysics of pure difference, one that is based on immanence instead of the transcendental (what is related to material and the living world versus what is believed to be beyond the world). Equivocity of being in theology refers to the idea that being is hierarchical and some beings be more than others (echoing the concept of the telos), and the concept of analogous being is the part of the Scholastic method of speaking and thinking about God and the scala naturae (the great chain of being) without falling into the traps believing that a finite mind can grapple with the infinite nor thinking about God’s qualities in terms of human ones; the analogous being refers to the concept that God is an other, or only similar to human in analogy. Deleuze however, proposes the univocity of being from previous philosophers such as John Duns Scotus and Baruch Spinoza. The expression of being is univocal, and the existence of God is the same as that of the existence of man, meanwhile permitting the usage of describing people the same way of describing gods (attributes can be shared).
Deleuze is thus relatively monist; he is a materialist who emphasizes the immanence and the similarity of all beings. However, he believes in the pure differences as the basis of his monism, not universal identity. The empirical difference relies on negation. A is different from not-A, and that is how differences are constructed. The pure difference views difference as a relation, the intervals of Différance as Derrida would have said. Apart from relational differences, pure differences also relate to the internal differences, refuting the identity that holds the essentialists’ “A”s stable and self-identical.
The rhizome is the ground of Deleuze’s metaphysics. The rhizome is a kind of plant-root that is much different from the prevalent tap-root; you can trace the main root and its branches and their corresponding branches in the tap-root, but you cannot do so in the rhizomatic roots, where you cannot find a start and an end, as there are only nodes and connections, units and lines, sometimes without units: pure lines, pure differences, pure intensities. He uses the rhizome to refute many of his predecessors: the theists arguing for equivocity of being, the structuralists, linguists, humanists, the Freudian psychoanalysts who are overly obsessed with the tap-root structure, tracing everything back to the desiring, the Oedipal, the id… His work is cross-disciplinary: from theology to biology, from sociology to even architecture. The multiplicity precedes the potentiality for identity. The rhizome repairs itself, a multiple that cannot be traced from anywhere. The nodes and the fixed dimensions of essentialist metaphysics are replaced by the pure relations in the rhizome and the constant creation of new lines and lines of flight within the rhizomatic network. Deleuze’s philosophy is a philosophy of creation, of becoming, of rupture.
It is difficult to pin down what exactly is Differential Ontology. The intellectual strands are everywhere and coming from everywhere: almost rhizomatic in Deleuzian jargons. Differential Ontology is similar to terms like modernism, postmodernism, posthumanism, etc… all a catchall term for the network of thoughts based on a central doctrine and, really, not much else. That is why so many thinkers that can be considered as a differential ontologist develop in different realms: Derrida a grammatologist, Deleuze (most commonly viewed) a metaphysician. The common theme, the central doctrine for these differential ontologists, is the rejection of the essentialist metaphysics, the metaphysics that views difference as negational, and coincidental, as byproducts of the more fundamental identities. Differential ontologists see difference as a constituent, an unit of reality that is relational, and in some way, much greater than the units themselves.