Difference by Other Names


This came to me as an afterthought to Levi’s remarks in this thread of comment. What started out as a quick rejoinder, metamorphosed into this rhapsodic collection of thoughts. Have at it, and see if they make sense. I really should have addressed a central part of Levi’s contribution in my initial response, but didn’t. The central claim I want to focus on,from his comment runs as follows:

One of the strange things about the ontology I’m trying to develop is that anything that produces a difference would be included under the umbrella of the real. Consequently, insofar as concepts contribute differences– and often very important differences –they would, for me, be included under the real. I take it that this is one of the consequences of what I’ve called the Ontological Principle, which states that being is said in a single and same sense for all that is, i.e., being is univocal. Consequently, in my ontology, there is not one world that is “really real” like, say, physical objects, and another world that is not really real like, say, minds. Both are really real insofar as they contribute differences.

Leaving aside the Spinozism of his last two sentences, I think Levi’s right to say that Concepts contribute to, or create differences. In fact, I think all of contemporary aesthetics is built on this claim — it’s the cornerstone for Danto’s whole aesthetics and ontology of art: the differentiation between art and non-art, as Danto argues in his the transfiguration of the Commonplace is conceptual. Hence Warhol’s genius. His brillo box is art, for although it’s perceptually indistinguishable form a Real brillo box, it has a conceptually distinct physiognomy. What I’m wary about is Levi’s Occamite nominalism: the thing (in its broad sense) that announces a difference gains ontological status. What delineates Danto’s thought from the one Levi is pursuing is, ceteris paribus, that whereas art is a human activity and Danto’s ontology is a social ontology, Levi thinks that this distinction between social ontology and natural ontology is bogus. To irritate him, we could say: this difference (the difference between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften) isn’t a difference that makes a difference. So despite radically different research paradigms, interests, and theoretical objects, there’s no difference at the level of ontology.

Synthetically rephrased: Levi selectively emphasizes difference. And I take this to be a paradox, one that Mikhail caught a fair amount of flak for articulating in the course of his Downer Principle.  Now, unless Levi can somehow (1) rein in the cascade of conceptual differences that make a difference, say between ‘Nature’ and ‘culture,’ there’s no grounds for making distinctions or identifying differences in the first place. But that means that not every difference can ultimately be treated as an ontological entitity, at least in Levi’s robust sense.

This implies, moreover,  (2) figuring out conceptually how concepts can contribute to or create difference, without themselves being ontologically central. This latter point is a corollary of the more consistent Copernicanism that characterizes Object Orient Philosophy: Subjectivity — that begets all concepts — is not the Centre of Ontology, and hence it’s resources — concepts — cannot be central to the ontological. Mikhail announced versions of these criticisms earlier. And I think that were the two of us particularly churlish, we could write a very Platonic dialogue, akin to the Parmenides and the Sophist, to show why you don’t want to endorse Levi’s Occamite nominalism: this ontlogy of concepts always engenders inconsistency.

But it’s not so much the inconsistency that worries me (I like dialectics, after all, and inconsistency is the worm in the blood), but that sfter some forty years of wondering through Quine’s ontological Desert, Levi wants to lead us back to the conceptual slums from whence we came. So, if the criticisms are founded, Levi needs to allow some conceptual differences that make a difference to be ontologically unreal (e.g. Nature vs. Culture, Extension vs Thought) in order for other differences to announce themselves as difference (art vs. non-art).

Appealing to Danto might be a nice way to illustrate this. For Danto, art is essentially and from the beginning a conceptual activity. So it’s not like there’s a work of art to which we apply a set of concepts post festum. There’s no real ancestral relationship.  and hence our ability to create art and our aesthetic concepts are equiprimordial. Levi’s claim is different. Things are ontological, levi contends, in virtue of their ability to produce differences. Concepts, however, come late.  They are effects of differences that can, in their turn, produce or identify other differences.  Despite their ability to identify or produce differences, concepts are not equiprimordial with other differences, since they don’t have the same ancestral relationships, and hence don’t inhabit the same plane or level of ontological consideration.  I suppose this is a version of Spinozistic parallelism, but who on earth was ever happy with this argument in Spinoza?

Must run now, but I think there’s enough here to continue a conversation.

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