As I have repeatedly remarked, the “foundation” of my ontology is difference. My basic claim is that if something makes a difference, then it is. Or as I articulate it in the ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference.” The first point to note is that when I begin from this hypothesis, I am not making a normative claim or a value judgment. “Making a difference” should not be understood as a synonym for “being important” or “being valuable”. Nor am I making the precious claim that everything is important or special or unique. There are very small and minor differences, but they are no less for this. All I am saying when I assert the ontic principle is that to be is to make differences. Note, when I say that to be is to make differences, I am taking no stand on whether or not a being makes a difference to you or me or any other living being in the universe. In short, the phrase “making difference” should not be elided into the phrase “making a difference to…” Even if a being is not observed, even if a being does not act on any other being, it nonetheless produces differences purely in and through its being. It is for this reason that I claim that objects are activities or doings.
The question, then, is what exactly is meant by “difference”? I am still trying to work this out. However, I think one key point to keep in mind is that difference should not be confused with distinction. In ordinary language we often say “x differs from y”. Or we say that to differ is to not be something else. Under this view, difference is treated as a comparative term, and is run together with the concept of distinction.
When I evoke the concept of “difference” I am not evoking difference in the sense of comparison between two entities, nor in the sense of distinctions. In my view, difference is a condition for comparisons, and is also a condition for distinctions, but difference as such is prior to comparisons and distinctions.
In order to get a sense of what I’m trying to get at when I evoke difference, imagine a purely auditory universe consisting of only a single note, held at the same frequency, for all eternity, without beginning or end (here I’m thinking of certain glosses C.S. Peirce gives in explaining his category of “firstness”). This universe has no chairs, no rocks, no instruments, no particles, no zebras, no cities, etc. It consists of this single note and this single note alone without variation or change. In such a universe, this note would not differ from anything else because there would be nothing but this note. Moreover, in this universe, this note would not differ to anyone because there would be no one there to hear it.
Nonetheless, I contend in such a universe, this note is a difference. It is the difference of precisely this frequency and no other. It is of no importance that it is not distinguished from anything, nor that is not observed by anyone. It is nonetheless this difference in the full positivity of its being. In thinking of difference in this way, I am clearly indebted to Deleuze. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes,
Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it. It as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be ground… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (28)
When Deleuze criticizes the difference “between” two things, he is referring to difference conceived of as comparative difference and difference as distinction. Neither of these are difference as Deleuze conceives it. Both of these remain at the level of epistemology, as things can only be compared or distinguished by reference to an observer. By contrast, what Deleuze is after is ontological difference, or what he calls “unilateral distinction”, a difference in itself that acts or makes itself.
Much later in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze outlines three features of difference in itself. First, Deleuze tells us that difference or intensity is the unequal in itself (232). The qualification of the “in itself” is important. The difference of ontological difference is not an inequality for you or me. It is an irreducible inequality within being itself. For this reason, Deleuze will claim that ontological difference is affirmative. Where a distinction is based on negation insofar as it compares one thing with another thing it is not, ontological difference is compared to nothing, but rather is the difference that it is.
This second point about the affirmative nature of difference becomes clearer a bit later when Deleuze provides examples to illustrate his point. As Deleuze writes, “…a temperature is not composed of other temperatures, or a speed of others speeds, …[rather]…each temperature is already a difference, and [those] differences are not composed of differences of the same order but implies series of heterogeneous terms” (237). These two examples, I believe, are absolutely crucial for understanding the concept of ontological difference. A temperature would still be exactly the temperature it is, regardless of whether there were any other temperatures to compare it to. It is a difference in itself, not in relation to something else. Likewise with speed. Difference is therefore not distinction, but rather the prior ground of distinction or that which precedes any and all distinction.