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A Philosophical Analysis

Paul Cilliers
Department of Philosophy
University of Stellenbosch
South Africa


Over the last few decades the notions of difference and diversity has received a lot of
attention, especially in the social sciences. The underlying philosophical
characteristics of the notion has, however, not always received sufficient scrutiny. In
structuralist and post-structuralist theories of language, difference is the source of
meaning. Similarly, in complex systems, difference, and the related notion of
asymmetry, is responsible for the structural characteristics of such systems. It is
therefore important to understand the logic of this notion. This paper will explore
this by looking at a number of problems. The play of difference cannot generate
specific meaning if differences reverberate infinitely. Meaning, albeit meaning that is
constantly shifting, only comes to be under bounded conditions. There has to be a
certain economy of difference. Furthermore, we cannot use the notion of difference
without reference to the notion of identity. Identity however, does not determine
difference, it is a result thereof. Complex systems and their components are
recognizable as a result of difference. Difference is thus a resource to be cherished,
not a problem to be solved.


A world rich in symmetrical homogeneity would certainly have its advantages. It

would be stable and its behaviour would be predictable. It would also be possible to
model such a world accurately, and thus understand it. Knowing would help in
controlling it. The problem is, such a world could only be a dead one. Living things
and complex social systems are heterogeneous and asymmetrical. They are
unpredictable and full of surprises. There are serious difficulties involved in
understanding, let alone modelling, them.

But perhaps the complex behaviour of such systems is only epi-phenomenal.

Perhaps, underneath the multifaceted surface, there are general principles to which
the seemingly contingent behaviour could be reduced. This would allow us to model
the essential behaviour of these systems, and not be distracted by the contingencies.
Finding these internal regularities was the hope of Modernist science (Bauman
1992). It was governed by the ideal to find universal, ahistorical and non-contingent
principles which would allow prediction and control.

With such an ideal as guiding principle, it should be clear that diversity is a problem.
It complicates our understanding and interferes with our planning. It confronts us with
the surface of things, not with their essence. It will be argued here, however, that
such an understanding of diversity is not only misguided, but dangerous. Diversity is
not a problem to be solved, it is the precondition for the existence of any interesting

In what follows a philosophical analysis will be made of why difference and diversity
is so important. The notions difference and diversity which will be used
somewhat interchangeably refer to the relationships which constitute complex
systems. It will therefore be shown that difference is not merely one of the
characteristics of such systems, but a precondition for their existence. Although there
are relationships between the two, the focus will not be on the diversities
encountered on the macro-scale, but on the nitty-gritty micro-diversities which
enables a system to be what it is. It will be argued that the identity (or identities) of
the system is a result of these differences and interconnectivities, not something
which precedes them. Although the notions of difference and identity are intertwined
in an interesting way, one could say, as a kind of non-foundational ontology, that
there are only differences1.

Although this analysis will concentrate on the logic of the notion difference on a
fundamental level, the implications of the important issues discussed (the relational
nature of difference, the necessity for the play of difference to be bounded and the
relationships between difference and identity) for large scale systems, like social
system, should be apparent, and will be discussed briefly in the conclusion.

There is an important reason why one should not start at the macro-level of social
systems. The problem is that on this level there are many different manifestations of
difference. There are large scale differences between groups as well as smaller scale
differences between individual persons and even differences within an individual.
These different types of difference or often lumped together without enough
distinction between them, i.e. not being respectful to the differences between them.
Social systems and purely biological systems are not the same thing. Even if the
notion of ecological diversity is a useful one, it should not be translated from an
ecosystem to an organisation without carefully considering the differences between
the two systems. On over-emphasis on difference and otherness, on the social level,
may actually result in a ploy to protect us from the different, or to resist meaningful
social interaction between heterogeneous groups.2 To understand the logic of
difference, we must first look at difference as a necessary condition for meaning at a
low level, and then see what the implications on a higher level could be.

This is equivalent to Derridas claim that [n]othing, either in the elements or in the system, is
anywhere simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere differences and traces of traces.
(Derrida 1981: 26, see Cilliers 1998: 4145 for detail).
A superficial understanding of difference can also lead to an eradication of differences within a
certain group. For a further discussion of these problems, see Sypnowich 1993.

The logic of difference

To start with, the argument that difference is so important has to be substantiated. To

merely insist on difference, as if it is necessary in some metaphysical way, is not
sufficient. Such an argument can be built around the claim that difference is a
necessary condition for meaning. For something to be recognizable as being that
something, it must be possible to differentiate it from something else. Sameness (not
to be confused with the notion of identity as it is used here) refers to an absence of
difference. The more differences there are, the more distinctions can be made.
Meaning is the result of these distinctions, of the play of differences.

In a philosophical context, this argument is best made using Saussures theory of

language as a system of differences (Saussure 1974). Meaning, for Saussure, is not
the result of an essential characteristic of a sign, i.e. some a priori identity, but of the
relationships between all the signs in the system. Similarly, Freud, in his early
neurological model of the brain, also described neural interaction as a system of
differences (Freud 1950). In Saussures system the emergent property resulting from
the interacting relationships was meaning, in Freuds system it was consciousness.
Thinking of a system constituted by the relationship of differences between its
components thus a system where the relationships are always more important than
the components themselves formed the basis of structuralist and post-structuralist
thinking. This basic, dynamical model, can then be used (with provisos, off course) to
generate an understanding of how an individual comes to be (develops its identity) in
a network of relationships with other individuals, or how an organisation comes to be
in a relationship with other organisations from which it differs3. The general point can
be summarised in what one could call the law of meaning: without difference there
can be no meaning. If we accept this, it would follow that if we want a rich
understanding of the world and of each other (i.e. a lot of meaning), then we need an
abundance of differences.

The point to be emphasised is that an abundance of difference is not a convenience,

it is a necessity. Complex systems cannot be what they are without it, and we cannot
understand them without making of profuse distinctions. Since the interactions in
such systems are non-linear, their complexity cannot be reduced. The removal or
reduction of difference will distort our understanding of them. A failure to
acknowledge this leads to error, an error which is not only technical, but also ethical.
When we pretend that we can understand or model a complex system in its
complexity, such pretence is not only hubristic, it is also a violation of that which is
being modelled, especially when we are dealing with human or social systems.
Trying to understand complex systems involves a certain modesty.

However, If we merely insist on an abundance of difference which is irreducible, we

are not saying much about how complexity is actually understood at all. A limitless
play of difference does not, as some postmodernists seem to argue, lead to the
generation of meaning, nor can a complex system function without being constrained
in some way. On the epistemological level (our descriptions of complex systems) as
well as the ontological level (the functioning of complex systems in the real world),
boundaries are required. This boundedness can be examined from two perspectives.

These arguments are detailed in Cilliers 1998. See especially chapter 7.

The first will be referred to as the economy of difference. The second is concerned
with the inescapable presence of some kind of identity.

The economy of difference

As a philosophical idealisation we may speak of an infinite play of difference, but real

systems, and understandable descriptions of systems, have to exist in finite time and
space. What is at stake, however, is more than the practical limitations of a finite
world or finite experience. For a system to be system at all, there has to be a
boundary to that system. This boundary is not a restriction placed upon the system, it
is what constitutes or enables the system to be4. Stated differently, one can say that
if the characteristics of a system is a result of the interplay of differences, these
relationships cannot continue to reverberate in an unconstrained way. At some stage
they have to be reflected back upon themselves in order to consolidate into a pattern
which constitutes some aspect of the system. The economy of difference, as one
may call this process, is dynamical, unpredictable and non-linear, but not

This insight is important for the way in which we conceptualise complex systems.
They do not have the capacity to be complex just because they are multidimensional
or have many degrees of freedom, but because they are structured. It is the structure
of a complex system which enables it to behave in complex ways. If there is too little
structure, i.e. many degrees of freedom, the system can behave more randomly, but
not more functionally. The mere "capacity" of the system (i.e. the total amount of
degrees of freedom available if the system was not structured in any way) does not
serve as a meaningful indicator of the complexity of the system. Complex behavior is
possible only when the behavior of the system is constrained. On the other hand, a
fully constrained system has no capacity for complex behavior either. This claim is
not quite the same as saying that complexity exists somewhere on the edge between
order and chaos6. A wide range of structured systems display complex behavior.
Complexity is not a function of plenitude, but of interchange and relationships.

In order to say more about the nature of these relationships of difference and how
they constrain and are constrained in a certain economy, it is necessary to realise
that difference does not mean opposition. To say that A differs from B is not to say
that B is not-A. There may be a lot of similarities between A and B, that they differ
only in some small aspect. As a matter of fact, there has to be at least some common
element between them (this point will be returned to below). Is it possible, one could
even ask, to talk about the difference between only two things? As long as we deal
with just the two things, the difference between them is totally unconstrained. A
differs from B in everything that B is not, and vice versa. The difference between
The nature of boundaries and the way in which they are enabling is discussed in Cilliers 2001.
A related argument is provided by Anthony Wilden (1984: 155195) when he distinguishes, in a
fundamental way, between the digital and the analogue. For a collection of differences to become
a distinction, i.e. a carrier of meaning, it must become a discrete element with well-defined
boundaries (169).
This point can also be elaborated from the perspective of self-organised criticality. This perspective
helps to resist a too close association between chaos theory and structured complexity. A non-linear
interaction between a few components can produce chaos, but chaos theory cannot explain
complexity (Bak 1996: 31). A complex network of interactions will constrain chaotic behaviour.

them is boundless, or to put it differently, it would not be possible to give content to

the difference between A and B if the two are the only entities taken into
consideration. Difference is not a function of a binary opposition, but of a network of
relationships framed in a certain way. A collection of differences is required to narrow
down what is completely open to something that has an identifiable meaning. This is
vital for the way in which the components of the system acquire meaning. Of the
many relationships of difference associated with a component of the system, think of
a specific one.7 This relationship does not determine the meaning, or part of the
meaning in any way. Since it is a relationship of difference, it can only minutely
indicate part of what the meaning is not, and thereby place a little constraint on the
meaning of the relevant component. The meaning of a component at a specific point
in the history of the system is therefore that which satisfies all the current constraints
placed on it through all its relationships in the current context.

It is vital, therefore, to understand function and meaning in complex systems as a

dynamic process. Differences are continuously in the process of interacting, and
therefore the meaning and function of the components are always shifting. Since
there is feedback in the relationships amongst the components, the process of
differing is causing the differences themselves to change. It is crucial to incorporate
this temporal aspect, to realise that meaning is not only the result of difference, but
also of deferral the generation of meaning unfolds in time, the process of differing is
always still taking place.8

It should be clear now that difference does not generate meaning in an unlimited
way. Meaning, in real time and space, is only possible when there are many
differences interacting by constraining each other. Put differently, meaning is only
possible if difference is confined. Again, this does not mean that we can now pin
down the meaning of a component in the system. But it does mean that the meaning
or function associated with a certain component is not arbitrary. If there are only few
relationships associated with a certain component, the associated meaning will have
many degrees of freedom. If there are more relationships involved, the meaning is
more richly constrained. In other words, if the set of relationships of difference
associated with a certain component is underdetermined, the meaning of that
component will be fairly arbitrary; it will be more open but somewhat lean. If the set of
relationships is complex, the meaning of the component will be much more unique,
but, and this is the crux of the matter, it will simultaneously be more rich and varied.
The fewer constraints, the more possibility, but possibility left empty. The more
constraints, the better we can get at the meaning, but the more bountiful it is. To take
a social example: the life of a hermit can be fairly unconstrained, but it is difficult to
give much social significance to her existence. It will be much easier to say
something about the significance of somebody with a rich set of social interactions,
interactions that will at the same time constrain that persons life. Possibility can only
be actualised in the presence of constraints.

Such one, specific relationship of the many relationships associated with a component is what I
understand under Derridas notion of the trace. It is, of course, not possible to give conceptual
content to a trace, despite the fact that there is nothing but traces. See footnote 1.
The inclusion of this temporal shift is one the important aspects of Derridas transformation of
Saussures structuralist system. He uses the notion of diffrance to describe the interplay between
difference and deferral.

The argument thus far can be summarised by saying that although difference should
be proliferated, it cannot be done in an unbounded fashion. There is a certain
economy involved in the process whereby differences generate meaning in a
complex system. This economy imposes limits on difference. We can therefore
reformulate the law of meaning stated above: without constrained difference there
can be no meaning. The problem can now be explored further by looking at the
relationship between the different and the same.

Difference and identity9

Were one to write a general philosophical history of the concept of difference, one
might be tempted to view it as the progressive emancipation of difference from
identity writes Gasch (1994: 82). Many have fallen for this temptation. He
continues: If at the dawn of philosophical thinking difference scarcely left the shadow
of identity, identity now barely shows its face. Some of the reasons for this are not
difficult to understand. The postmodern flight from universal principles and unifying
meta-narratives resulted in a strong emphasis being placed on the notions of
difference and the other. To a large extent this criticism of modernity and the
enlightenment is correct (see Sypnovich 1993), but to think that one could talk about
difference without involving the singular or the same, is equally problematic.

The mistaken opposition between the notions of difference and identity also results
from confusing difference with opposition, i.e. to think that to say A is different from B,
is the same as saying A is not B (see above). In order to recognise a difference
between A and B, they must in the first place be identifiable as A and as B (in their
singularity), and secondly, they must, even if only slightly, share something that
makes a comparison possible (there must be some element of identity). Moreover, as
has already been argued, it is not really possible to talk of the difference between A
and B if A and B are the only two things under consideration. The difference between
apples and pears can only be understood in terms of what they share, e.g. that both
are fruit. One can talk of the difference between apples and motorbikes, but this
difference is so open that it will only have meaning in terms of a number of other
factors that form part of the context of the comparison perhaps that apples cannot
be used for transport, or that motorbikes do not grow on trees. To attempt to relate
two things that are radically or absolutely other is something that cannot be done,
the comparison will be totally meaningless in the full sense of the word. If we
encounter something totally alien we will not be able to recognise it. Gasch (1994:
2) formulates this point in the following way:

The word identity has a number of meanings, often shading into each other. It can refer to
something singular (oneness) or to things which cannot be distinguished and thus are identical.
The notion of personal identity has to do with what makes a person identifiable as that person, and
not another, with what it is which makes up a person (or an institution). In the critical theory of the
Frankfurt School, identity thinking refers to the mistake which aims at the subsumption of all
particular objects under general definitions and/or a unitary system of concepts (Held 1980: 202).
Particular identities are sacrificed in favour of a universal identity. Identity thinking is therefore
another example of a modernist resistance to difference. What is at stake in this paper, on the one
hand, is the interwoven relationship between the different and the same and, on the other, the
construction of (personal) identity through relationships of difference.

any encounter worth the name presupposes not only encountering the
Other in all his or her singularity, but recognizing this singularity in the first
place. Paradoxically, even the most radical singularity must, in order for it to
be recognized for what it is, have an addressable identity, guaranteed by a set
of universal rules that, by the same token, inscribe its singularity within a
communal history, tradition, and problematics.

Let us consider briefly what the implications of this understanding of difference are
for our relationship with the other in the social sphere.10 The realisation that there are
differences in the social system should lead to the important insight that these
differences should not be violated. An overemphasis on these differences may lead
one to think that no relationship between the self and the other is possible. However,
in order to be able to recognise the other as other at all, some form of identity
between the self and the other is required. As a matter of fact, the claim that the
other is completely unknowable is nothing but an inverted insistence on pure identity
in the sense that the other has an identity which is not breached by any difference
in the same way that relativism is an inverted form of foundationalism11. Does the
insistence that the other must always already share something with the self before it
can be recognised as other imply that the other can be fully appropriated? Not at all.
There is an irreducible difference between the self and the other that will always
complicate the relationship. But we are not lost in space. The moment we can
recognise the other as other, there must already be a minimal form of identity (of the
same) to make the recognition possible. The relationship will remain complex, and
merely acknowledging this does not guarantee that the other will not be violated. It
merely provides a point of departure from where a relationship, even if it is a tenuous
one, with the other can be attempted. Gasch again:

if the singularity of the Other requires a minimal universality to be itself and

to be recognized as such, then the Other's point of view, or private fantasies,
become repeatable, risk being lost by becoming entirely mine. Yet without this
risk no justice can possibly be done to the singular; without it, the very
possibility of something singular would remain irretrievably lost.

To summarise this section: Meaningful relationships in a complex system develop

through relationships of difference, not through opposition. For meaning to become
possible, some form of similarity must already be there . This does not imply that the
meaning can be fixed or exhausted in any way. The element of identity inaugurates
the play of difference, while simultaneously protecting it from pure arbitrariness. We
can therefore add a further refinement to the law of meaning: without constrained
difference and repeatable identity, there can be no meaning. If we now want to talk of
identity in the sense of personal identity, or the identity of an institution or system,
the same law holds.

For a different, more political discussion of this issue in the context of Eastern Europe, see Matutk
This insight can be used to criticise Levinas understanding of the Other as something absolute, as
opposed to Derridas understanding of the other as something more general. See Cornell (1992: 68

Complex Identity

After discussing some of the general philosophical aspects of difference on a

microlevel, an attempt can be made to see how they translate to the macrolevel of
persons and groups of persons. The argument is based on the assumption that the
general characteristics of complex systems (that they are constituted through non-
linear interaction, that they operate in a state far from equilibrium, that they have the
capacity to self-organize, that they have emergent properties etc.) are applicable to
systems on different scales. Although these characteristics do not allow us to pin
down the behaviour of any specific system at a specific time, they do help us to
understand some of the dynamics of complex systems, as well as providing reasons
for why it is so difficult to model them.

The basic claim is the following: If, generally speaking, the meaning and function of a
component in a complex system is the result of relationships of difference, this would
also hold for social systems. In this context then, the notion meaning can be used to
indicate the identity of the system. Thus, the identity of a person or an institution is
the result of constrained differences. Identity is therefore an emergent property
resulting from the diversity in the system, and not something which exists in an a
priori fashion. It is therefore mistaken to think of diversity as something that exists in
the difference between already established identities. Identity is the result of diversity,
not the other way round.

This allows us to say a few things about social identity. In the first place, such an
identity could be constructed from relatively few components, but it will then be
somewhat lean and shallow. The more diversity there is involved in the construction
of the identity, the richer it will be. A rich identity does not imply that such an identity
is open, general or vague. This is exactly the nature of a lean identity. A rich identity
is also richly constrained. It is more specific, and at the same time more nuanced.
Take the example of a self-reliant minority. Such groups may tend to derive their
identity by recycling internal, well established differences, and by excluding outside
influence. This may easily result in a lean identity. If, however, a minority finds its
identity in a rich interaction with other groupings, such an identity will not only be
richer and more specific, but it will also be more resilient. The closing down of the
borders of a system normally leads to a pathology.

This insight can be supported by what Peter Allen (2001) calls the law of excess
diversity. A system should not only have the requisite variety it needs to cope with
its environment (Ashbys law), it should have more variety. Excess diversity in the
system allows the system to cope with novel features in the environment without
losing its identity as long as one remembers that identity is now a dynamic concept
which is subject to change (see below). What is more, if a system has more diversity
than what it needs in order to cope with its environment, it can experiment internally
with alternative possibilities. The capability to experiment may just be another word
for being creative. Thus viability, resilience, even survival, are notions intimately
linked with creativity.

Another aspect of identity can be illuminated from the perspective of diversity. If

identity is the result of diversity, and if differences are constantly being moved around
in feedback loops and imposed from outside the system as the context changes, then

identity is by definition a dynamic concept. Identity can, off course, be quite stable,
but if it gets locked in (by ignoring, for example, important changes in the
environment, or by deciding not to interact with other systems), such a fixed identity
will most definitely be detrimental to the system. At the same time, this does not
mean that the identity of a system should change indiscriminately. Even if identity is
dynamic, there should be an appropriate tempo of change. It is not possible to
provide general guidelines to what this tempo should be since it will differ in different
contexts. There is, however, a flag to be waved at this point: many analyses of
complex dynamic systems in the social sphere tend to emphasise adaptability, and
therefore argue for rapid change. It could be argued that, as a generalisation, this is
wrong. In order to maintain any identity whatsoever, and not to merely reflect its
environment, a system must change at a slower rate than its environment. It can do
this, and still cope with a changing environment or rather, cope with it better only
if it has an excess of richly constrained diversity.


Diversity is a necessary condition for complexity. Nonetheless, such diversity does

not lead to a fragmented identity, but to an identifiable and richly textured one.
Descartes was supposed to have said that travel broadens the mind, but it does not
deepen it. From the perspective of complexity he was wrong. Broadening and
deepening go hand in hand. New experiences are simultaneously constraining and
enabling. The identity of a person is constituted through its interaction with others
(Cilliers and De Villiers 2000). The identity of an organisation is the result of both its
internal diversity and of its interactions with diverse other institutions.

If the upshot of all this is that diversity should be fostered, is this a process without
risk? Certainly not. In the first place, there may be certain differences we want to
resist. We would not want to condone racism, for example, just because it is different
from non-racism. The fact of the matter is though, that we can resist racism, for
example, much more effectively from a richly nuanced position, i.e. a position
informed by difference, than by merely rejecting it. The difference we want to reject
must be subjected to the play of difference in such a way that a resilient resistance to
it can be developed. That is not something which can be accomplished in an
instantaneous fashion.

To embrace diversity may also not always be comfortable. Change can be

challenging, and may lead to conflict. But the choice between diversity and a pure
sameness makes itself. If you choose sameness, you will die.


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