18 Dec 2012

Pt1.Ch2.Sb4 Somers-Hall’s Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation. ‘Change and the Individual.’ summary

Corry Shores
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[Note: All boldface and underlining is my own. It is intended for skimming purposes. Bracketed comments are also my own explanations or interpretations.]


Henry Somers-Hall


Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation.

Dialectics of Negation and Difference


Part 1: The Problem of Representation

Chapter 2: Difference and Identity

Subdivision 4: Change and the Individual


Very Brief Summary:

Aristotle’s notion of alteration does not explain the self-differentiation that is most fundamental to the process of transition, because it regards there being a self-same essence maintaining itself throughout various self-same states. This model does not explain the transitions between states where we might say that something is both itself and not itself, or that something has, simultaneously, temporally incompatible accidental traits.

Brief Summary:

We previously noted one important similarity between (a)Deleuze’s transcendental empiricist notion of the differentiation producing the individuals that are given to us empirically and (b) Aristotle’s logical notion of specific difference in his hierarchical system of classification. This specific difference produces the different species of a genus; for, this difference is inherently essential to the species. In both cases, the difference is inherent and productive of individuals. However, we previously found one main reason Aristotle’s specific difference is incompatible with Deleuze’s difference. Aristotle’s hierarchical system has a highest single genus, being or unity, which means that all things must ultimately be defined or understood on the basis of something self-identical in them, and not by means of a constitutive difference. This proves to be a problem in Aristotle’s account of transition or alteration. Here we are to think of something moving from potentiality to actuality, in a process where matter takes on a new form, all while maintaining a self-same essence that remains undifferentiated throughout the change of accidental traits. On the basis of Aristotle’s concept of essence, we can understand how something remains the same, but we cannot understand how something is in a state of self-differentiation as it changes. There are also non-temporal instances of transition that pose a similar problem, for example ring species. A series of types of gulls are spread out in a chain across the globe. On species in Northern Europe can breed with the type of gull living just east of it, and that one is interbredable with the species just west and east of it, and so on, until the chain reaches its beginning place in Northern Europe. Yet the adjacent species in Europe lying at the beginning and end of the circular chain cannot breed with one another. A hierarchical classification system based on essences cannot determine whether or not these adjacent bird types are the same species or not. If they are, then there are members of a species that cannot interbreed, which goes against the definition of a species. But if we say they are to be grouped into separate species, then where do we draw the line along the chain to say these birds are in one species and these in the other? If we give them all their own species, then we have separate species that are interbreedable, which also goes against the definition of species. So this movement from bird type to bird type is like one thing changing over time. Given that we cannot determine the essence of the bird variations, we cannot explain the relation between adjacent interbreedable ones, just as we cannot explain something’s transition from one state to its adjacent successive state.




Previously we examined how difference seems to be the grounding principle of division in Aristotle’s hierarchical classification of things. However, the fact that there is a single category at the top, being or unity, means that Aristotle ultimately must ground his system on something self-identical rather than differential. So even though difference is what produces the various species, this will not serve as a model for Deleuze’s transcendental empiricist notion of difference as what produces the things that are given to us.


Now, Somers-Hall (SH) turns to problems with individuals in Aristotle’s hierarchical system. Note how there are potentially infinitely many things, each with its essence. Aristotle’s logic of hierarchical classification “is an attempt to capture the essence of a thing in terms of language, that is, in terms of universal concepts.” (52) But individuals cannot be reduced to universal concepts, because this robs them of their individuality in the world. We also saw how genera can be regarded as species to even higher genera. This can be understood in terms of the form/matter relation. [Consider a genus, ‘Animal’, and a species, ‘Man’. We might think of Man as one way of forming the matter, Animal, for it can be formed into ‘Horse’ as well. But then, Animal can be thought of as itself a form that gives form to the matter, Substance; for, Substance can be informed by ‘Mineral’ as well.]

In Aristotle's hierarchy of genera and species, the genus was considered to be matter, and the difference, form. This meant that, proceeding through the hierarchy, prior differences as differences of a genus shift from form to matter as the difference itself generates a new genus. Thus, while difference provides a formal distinction of the material of the genus when generating species, since these species can themselves be considered as genera of lower species, the formal difference gets incorporated into the matter of the genus. (52)

Now recall how “common difference” can differentiate individuals.

Common difference. [Because of diversity of nature, something differs from another thing by being diversely different from it, and something differs from itself over time in that it diversifies from itself.] “First, common difference defines difference as commonly understood-that is, difference in any way, as, for instance, Socrates differs from Plato (ISA, 42)”. (46d) And also, Socrates differs from himself, as Socrates the boy and Socrates the old man.

In the case of the temporally differentiated Socrates, we might think of boy Socrates as being like a matter that may actualize into the form old man Socrates.

At each stage in this process, the movement from matter to form is therefore characterized as a process of actualization of a potentiality. Thus, throughout the movement between the potentiality and actuality Socrates is asserted as a unity-potentiality is analogous to actuality. While the young Socrates differs from the old Socrates, these differences are purely accidental-they do not affect the actual essence of Socrates himself. (52)

SH now notes two questions.

[1] How do we differentiate Socrates' accidental properties from his essential properties?

[2] How should we understand the process that moves things from potentiality to actuality?

So the first question asks how we might differentiate accidental from essential properties. The Greek term for essence, ti en einai, means “the what it was to be that thing.” (53) What we must note especially here is how an individual’s essence allows it to be reidentified over time despite its alterations. Thus this definition of essence “provides a self-identical underpinning for the thing whose essence we are searching for”. (52, citing Beistegui, Truth and Genesis in ft.20)

Thus essence provides a tool for the selection of properties that are properly definitive of an individual, as opposed to those that are merely accidental to the | individual. The fact that Socrates may be sitting is not constitutive of the essence of Socrates himself, although it does represent a state that he is in. If accidental states such as this were taken to be definitive, the identity of Socrates himself would break down through the collapse of all continuity. (52-53)

[While something is changing, we do not know what traits will remain while others come-and-go. So,]

While Socrates is becoming, the development of a fixed definition of his essence is problematic, as there is no way to differentiate accident and essence . It is only, however, once Socrates has ceased to be that the fixity we require for a determination of essence comes into being. Thus essence, as the "what it was to be a thing," is essentially retrospective. This means that the becoming of Socrates is related entirely to an atemporal state of being. (53, citing Beistegui again in ft.21)

[So there is a process of transformation by which something’s accidents alter]. But what process maintains the individual’s identity as it moves from potentiality to actuality? [In the transformation of boy Socrates to old man Socrates, the boy is the matter through which the form of the old man actualizes. The matter is a potentiality that actualizes as its form. They are two aspects of the same thing. So that ‘same thing’ shared by matter and form, potentiality and actuality, is perhaps what maintains the individual’s identity while it alters.] To answer this question, Aristotle explains: “ ‘the proximate matter and the form are one and the same thing, the one potentially, the other actually. Therefore to ask the cause of their being one is like asking the cause of unity in general; for each thing is a unity, and the potential and the actual are somehow one’ (MP, 1045b)”. [53]
Now recall also the previous discussion on genera. We could not define the genus [because the highest genus is indefinable]. Instead we referred to empirical notions of unity [perhaps how we sense the different ways something can express being and yet all these different senses of being share a focal meaning. But consider when we think of the unity that is found in anything. It refers us to the highest category, being or unity. So unity has a circular definition, perhaps because whenever we define it, we can only appeal to the highest possible genera, which is unity. When we define something, we need to designate something’s genus and specific difference from that genus. However, unity cannot be given any genus other than itself. Perhaps this is what the following passage is saying:]

In discussing the genera, we came across the difficulty of explaining the existence of the paronymous terms, which orbit the concept of being. When we tried to elucidate the concept of unity in our discussion of genera, we found the concept undefined and were referred to empirical notions of unity. When we ask about particular cases of unity, however, we are referred back to the generic concept of unity. Thus, the concept of unity has a circular definition in Aristotle's philosophy. (53)

Now, there are two ways that the question of unity relates to the problem of transition.

[1] Aristotle has no way to explain how the categories are both related but distinct [just as in the case of transition, something, like Socrates, remains unified or related to himself throughout his transition, all while distinguishing himself from himself as he changes.]

[2] We have no way to understand the individual’s self-unity while it changes, so we cannot really understand the individual’s process of change.

[SH writes, but I cannot explain the first part:]

In both cases, Aristotle lacks the ability to explain change or transition, in the first, through semantic drift, and in the second, temporal change. (53)


difference for Aristotle merely allows the "extraction or cutting out of generic identities from the flux of a continuous perceptible series" (DR, 34). These identities are extracted at the cost of rendering incomprehensible a certain mode of being, that of the transitional state. [53]

[Perhaps we might look at it this way. An analysis of change in Aristotle’s system would only look at the different states of something that maintains its essence. This does not explain those moments of self-disidentification, those moments of transition when something is between self-identical states, or we might think of transitional moments as being when something is of two contrary states at once, and Aristotle’s philosophy of self-same essence does not help us understand how something can simultaneously both be something with one accident and something with an incompatible accident.] This problem is also found in non-temporal transitions. We might think of something that is in between two species. First consider a man without legs. He still has the essence of man even though he lacks one of his species’ properties. However, an individual can also be trapped between two particular essences. Consider for example “ring species.”

A ring species is a species that contains a series of natural populations, each of which is able to interbreed with its neighbor. As the distance between these various populations increases, genetic differences accumulate, however, to the point where the first species in the sequence cannot interbreed with a species a certain distance away, even though all intermediaries are able to still produce viable offspring. The classic example of this kind of relation is found with the gulls found encircling the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere. In this case, the Herring gull, which breeds throughout Western Europe and Northern America, is able to interbreed with the Vega Herring gull, which inhabits North-Eastern Russia. This species is in turn able to interbreed with Birula's gull, and so forth, until we reach the lesser blackbacked gull, which is also an inhabitant of Northern Europe. Gulls from this particular community cannot, however, interbreed with our original gull, the Herring gull, even though a continuous path of genetic compatibility around the northern hemisphere can be traced. Thus the problem emerges, one which has not been solved by the current biological classification system, of whether we are here dealing with one or two species. Given the strict method of division that forms the heart of the Aristotelian system, it is clear that the intermediate species must either fall outside of the system of classification or must be incorporated at the cost of the integrity of the categories of species themselves. In examples of this kind, what we seem to be faced with is an objective kind of ambiguity that cannot be solved by simply applying our method more rigorously, an approach we might take in other cases such as the ambiguity in the word sharp in the phrases a sharp knife and a sharp taste. The heart of the problem would therefore seem to be the method of division itself. As we have seen, division for Aristotle is accomplished by the differentiae, and so it seems that the problem is once again the concept of difference at play in Aristotle's work. This is the ground for both the problem of ambiguity in classification and of the ambiguity of | becoming. (54-55)

SH will return to this theme after first exploring “how these difficulties play themselves out in more modern representationalist systems that do not rely on the peculiarities of the Aristotelian metaphysic.” (55)

Somers-Hall, Henry (2012) Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation. Dialectics of Negation and Difference. Albany: SUNY.

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