Difference (philosophy)

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The word difference ( Latin differentia: difference, difference) is used differently in different philosophical theories and problem contexts. In doing so, there have been various continuities, i.e. similar uses in similar subject areas. Some of these are covered below. Since difference is often used as a counter-concept to identity (what is not identical is different), the meaning of the former often results from the use made of the latter.

Systematic aspects

Both in classical (especially scholastic and early modern ), epistemological (for example: what appears, why and in what way different or how can differentes be recognized) and ontological (i.e.: what is different, namely in the unconscious reality) theories as well In analytical debates since the beginning of the last century at the latest, the expression difference is linked to questions regarding the individuation , identification, constitution and identity of objects and the criteria of the same (not always under these labels) and mereology . Because if you can explain what “makes” something that something is one and the same object, you can also explain what makes two objects different objects. In other words: what it means to speak of difference arises only in the context of certain ontological (or semantic or epistemological) theories. Often, and for a long time, a distinction is made between different types of difference, such as numerical, conceptual or qualitative or essential (for example Duns Scotus when he spoke of qualitatively "colorless" haecceitates ).

If one deals with such questions not within the framework of an ontological realism , but rather an idealism or a transcendental-philosophical or strictly theoretical framework , the problem becomes even more complicated.

Historical aspects

Aristotle (or his translators) uses "different" for the "otherness of things" (Met. Δ9 1018a12) with regard to type, genre or certain relations. It counts the difference to the → predicables .

Thomas Aquinas distinguishes a differentia accidentalis communis (different changing states of the same individual, e.g. child and adult); a differentia numerica (different specimens of the same species, e.g. people from Asia, Africa); a differentia specifica (species-forming difference that distinguishes the species of the same genus) and diversitas (difference between genera that only agree analogously in terms of quantity or quality).

In German idealism , difference is mostly used as an opposite of the central terminus technicus identity .

One of Martin Heidegger's best-known expressions is his talk of ontological difference . This means a difference between being (all the objects in reality) and the mode indicated by the word being , what “makes” that they are. The latter question did not deal with the previous ontological theories at least in the sense that Heidegger gave it, which is why he criticized classical metaphysical theories.

Numerous French theorists since the 1960s have also become known for criticizing large parts of classical metaphysical theorizing because they have fallen too much into a logic of identity , which means, for example, that the individual is conceptualized too quickly (as an object of a certain type identified), so that its individuality and any existing otherness to all classifications, norms and the like is erased. On the other hand, in the context of a metaphysical criticism, the accusation of "identity thinking" can mean a first principle that begins with classical theories, optionally a principle of a metaphysical nature (the one, the good, God, etc.) or a principle of the theory of consciousness (the self-identity, the self-confidence, the self-power of the subject in free and first action, etc.). Such objections are mostly justified in principle or ethically, pragmatically or politically motivated. Whether the relevant classical theories are correctly represented or recorded is mostly controversial. Some of these questions depend on alternative methodologies, for example on conceptual, historical-critical or hermeneutic methods. While Gadamer's hermeneutics, for example, rashly identifies the horizons of meaning between author and recipient, their fundamental difference is emphasized and this is justified, for example, with different epistemic starting positions ( Michel Foucault summarizes their epochal totality under the term episteme ). These discussions are more complicated, more varied and more controversial in their thematic core and their productivity than can be presented here. In any case, difference often appears as a slogan for alternative conceptions: it is about a fundamental difference “of the other” (one of them still different from the first with itself, for example of another person), whereby this same way of speaking is typical in just such capitalization; one often speaks of alterity . In some of the authors, difference is also a precisely used technical term, as one could attribute this to Foucault or Jacques Derrida . From the latter, the word coining différance is known, with which he wants to criticize the occidental-philosophical tradition centered on the spoken word.

Difference ” is spoken of somewhat differently in a precise technical sense in system-theoretical drafts. The analysis of functional differentiations is typical of their more classic versions. Somewhat more recent proposals (prominently represented by Niklas Luhmann and his environment) bring the operation of differentiation to the fore as a fundamental system operation: a system differs from its environment and can only handle units at all if it in turn separates them out by differentiation, etc.

Partly directly influenced by both of the above-mentioned theoretical approaches, partly based on independent traditions, parts of modern sociology or social science or philosophy are interested in social and sociocultural differences, for example with regard to different role models and gender issues . Whether the term “difference” has a specific technical meaning depends on the underlying theories and methods.


  • Difference. In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy .
  • Werner Beierwaltes: Identity and Difference. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1980, ISBN 3-465-01344-1 . treated v. a. Neoplatonic traditions and their reception
  • Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornell, Nancy Fraser: The dispute about the difference. Feminism and Postmodernism in the Present. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1993.
  • Paul Cobben: The Finite Self. Identity (and difference) between Hegel's phenomenology of spirit and Heidegger's being and time. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1999, ISBN 3-8260-1469-3 .
  • Henk de Berg, Matthias Prangel (ed.): Differences. Systems theory between deconstruction and constructivism. Francke, Tübingen / Basel 1995.
  • Gilles Deleuze: Difference and Repetition. Translated by Joseph Vogl. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 1992, ISBN 3-7705-2730-5 .
  • Jacques Derrida: The writing and the difference. Translated by Rodolphe Gasché. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1976.
  • Martin Heidegger: Identity and Difference . Text of the Single issue with marginal notes by the author. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-465-03493-7 .
  • Gregor Maria Hoff: The precarious identity of the Christian. the challenge of postmodern difference thinking for a theological hermeneutics. Schöningh, Paderborn / Munich / Vienna / Zurich 2001.
  • Luce Irigaray: Ethics of Sexual Difference. Translated from the French by Xenia Rajewsky. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1991.
  • Niklas Luhmann: Sociological Enlightenment. Part 4: Contributions to the functional differentiation of society. West German publishing house, Opladen 1994.
  • WH Pleger: Difference and Identity. The Transformation of Philosophical Anthropology in the 20th Century. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1988.
  • Stefan Zenklusen: Adorno's non-identical and Derridas différance. wvb, Berlin 2002.

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