Similarity, or Beyond Identity and Difference


This essay was written with the intention of exercising the application of the kind of logical reasoning Nāgārjuna, the Buddhist philosopher and practitioner who formalized Mādhyamaka or Middle-Way thought, employs in his “Mūlamadhyamakakārikā”, or “Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”. Greatly motivated by the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom) Sutras, Nāgārjuna employs a sophisticated procedural deconstruction of all forms of ontological, epistemological and psychological extremism, reasoning through the principles of the Middle Way. A systematic reconstruction of his means of reasoning will be available on this blog soon, with specific emphasis of its use value to topics of great social and political concern related to the present moment. This would involve suggestions as to how to transform Marxism such that it loses its Hegelianism without abandoning the dialectic, adjusting for adequacy to “the premises now in existence.” But for now, this essay outlines the general motivation to move beyond thinking based on identity or difference as conditions for sound existence, in favor of a notion here termed “similarity.” 

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On Identity:

Generally today it is often felt that an affirmation of difference and plurality is preferable to an existence based on identity and universality, which is negatively evaluated as being characterized by excessive limitation. This is true, for definition by negation is the underlying basis of any sense of self-identity: what one is, is defined by what one is not. An essential independence from relation to anything different, is what constitutes the condition for a sufficient assertion of self-identity.

Change, or temporal traversion, is the factor which challenges the final assumption of anything grounded upon its own self-identity. The power of time, constituted by the dual expression of destruction of the present moment and creation of the new one, opens up a gap between the two moments. This gap is the space between an entity in one moment and that same exact entity in the next moment. Only by accounting for this gap can the self-identical entity truly endure and sufficiently express itself as self-identical. Yet an exhaustive account of all the ways that this gap can be accounted for leads us to contradiction at every way.

(A) —If the connection between the entity in its state at different moments in time is accounted for by itself, as still existing in between these moments, this leads us to the problem of infinite regress. For if the entity connects itself to itself between every different moment with another instance of itself, we just multiply the amount of causal chains that have to be accounted for. It must establish itself before it establishes itself—this does not hold.

(~A) —If the connection is accounted for by what it is not, then it essentially depends upon what it is not. By being in dependence on another thing to be what it is, it has no ability to endure on its own, so it cannot be said to be sufficiently self-identical with itself.

(A∧~A) —If the connection is accounted for by association with some other thing, it would be dependent on this third thing and no longer can count as sufficiently self-identical. This is because part of its definition would be based on its relationship to this third thing; it shares something with something different, so is no longer defined by negation. So this cannot account for the self-identity of the entity.

~(A∧~A) = ~A∨A —If the connection is accounted for neither by itself nor by an other, then it is not accounted for. This position does not even seek justification for the explanatory gap between the different moments, and in as much as it is positioned as a legitimate justification by way of its mere assertion, it could not even be considered to be contradictory: it would be purely irrational.

So self-identical continuity through time can only appeal to either various forms of contradictory foundations or pure irrationality to account for its endurance through different moments in time. In as much as we do not find contradictory solutions to be truly adequate, and in as much as we do not tolerate irrationality, there is no basis by which Self-Identity can be maintained.

Any claim to self-identity in time must be ruthlessly criticized by the exhaustive interrogation of any of the enumerated logically fallacious bases by which all claims to self-identity grounds itself. Identity has its use in logical reasoning, but Identity has no place in actual life. It goes against life because it challenges time itself to subordinate itself to the requirements of identity. In its attempt to exist, it is as if time itself has ceased. And without the creative vector of time, nothing new emerges and so life itself (the birth of the new) ends.

On Difference:

A process that attempts the establishment of self-identity through time is a process that results in death, as the elimination of the possibility of something new.  In the face of this situation, one may posit the opposing view point: that because there is no self-identity through time, everything is essentially different. Instead of affirming identity and universality, one affirms difference and plurality. By not affirming that which is a violent process towards death, the affirmation of difference does so in the name of life.

Yet instead of solving all of the issues with self-identity, this position seems to multiply them. This is because in order for something to be sufficiently different from something else, it has to first be identical with itself. This must be established in order to ensure that the relation is actually one between different things. So instead of “pure difference”, what we actually end up with is a plurality of self-identical units, bearing the same logically fallacious bases that any appeal to self-identity has. Deceptively, pseudo-difference arises as just a multiple of identity. This ontological anarchy of independent entities all essentially different from one another still operates within the logic of the totalitarian monism is sought to escape from.

So reality cannot be affirmed either on the basis of pure self-identity or pure difference on their own. For self-identity, by way of the insistence of the necessity of its endurance through time, directly goes against life. And pure difference, because of its contingent establishment of disconnected moments, points to no continuity that can be said to be the basis of a life lived —for to live is to experience continuous movement through time.

To the one untouched by the supra-rational sense of a truth beyond thought, some position between the extremes of totalistic self-identity or anarchic pure difference is held. To this one, the only means by which one can affirm life is through the way thought (re)presents it. Bounded by the specific, particular conditions that make up the background of the affirmation, one is limited by other things as to which position to take and how to account for its contradictions, and one is disconnected from any absolute that can sufficiently allow it true continuity through time.

On Similarity:

That the Absolute does not appear in thought without contradiction or unreason is not grounds to abandon it. All this means is that thought, being a derivative consequence of the absolute being, can only point to the absolute, never know it. This Absolute, being the transcendental condition for the possibility of any thought, is what guides the thinking process along. Through the awareness of the limits of logical thought that separates itself from what is being thought, one turns thought unto itself (being self-reflexive), and one can finally point towards the absolute through thought.

Beyond the tetralemma of existence through identity or difference, is the possibility of something truly other that ensures continuity and connection through the creative-destructive flow of time. For us, this can be termed “Similarity“, defined as a relation where everything depends upon everything else to exist. Everything is basically different from everything else, but share in something unique: that their existence is grounded by their relation to everything else. By existing through relation, rather than existing through sheer existence, one ensures the movement of time with continuity of experience, without being defined by the negative (what it’s not) or the positive (what it is).

Neither limited by itself, nor limited by others, this mode of being expresses itself as Absolute. This only thing which is independent from all others and is truly universal, is not even a thing—it is a relation: not the conceptual designation of a relation, but the actual processual relation of being involved with others. A fragile web of life, any single disconnection logically collapses the entire thing. The strength, or logical resilience, of this mode of being is an attribution of its nature as that which attempts no establishment of anything as absolute: its very becoming, which is becoming as being-in-relation, is the Absolute.

Only by relinquishing the tendency to ground oneself on privileged centers, on universal things, can one open up to the truly universal. Only by encouraging complete democratic participation between all things while simultaneously affirming the individuality of them all, can life move on as a play rather than a problem.

The Absolute that can be pointed to through thought is the affirmation of similarity, what Buddhism calls Pratītyasamutpāda, or dependent arising. And because this thought only refers to rather than make claims, it does no ill, logically or really. What it refers to is a relation, and a relation is lived. Thought refers to this absolute from the part it can comprehend, while the other part, must be lived. It is beyond comprehension, not because it is unknowable, but because it is only unknowable to thought. Being beyond comprehension, it is instead directly apprehended as involvement in the life of all others.

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4 thoughts on “Similarity, or Beyond Identity and Difference

  1. The absolute in the Dzogchen tradition is literally called “The Ground”, and while it is beyond conceptual thought and existence/nonexistence, more has been about the Absolute Ground than anything in the mainstream Buddhist traditions or in the Madhyamaka.
    I like your use of the identity/difference dialectic. Perhaps you should consider incorporating or dealing with what Deleuze talks about in Difference and Repetition

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I have heard of Dzogchen, but have not looked into it much yet. What would be a good introduction to it?

      I do want to read Deleuze’s D&R, but not anytime soon since I have to finish what I have planned for the next year before I go into another master work 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In terms of Deleuze, I would actually recommend reading some kind of primer rather than Difference and Repetition itself (never gotten through all the way with that one). Deleuze’s small text on the simulacrum is a good start.

        If you have never read any Dzogchen before (which is really surprising given how much you know about Madhyamaka! But Dzogchen has less to do with Madhyamaka as it is more of an indigenous Tibetan Buddhist tradition) then I would start with a book by Namkhai Norbu called the Crystal and the Way of Light. I would also check out a good translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (The Liberation of Hearing in the Bardo). I like the translation by Robert Thurman personally. But I think Namkhai Norbu is an exceptional author on Dzogchen.

        In terms of really high-level philosophical Dzogchen (which you are definitely prepared philosophically, but is technically ‘tantrically off-limits’ if you received the right empowerment, but I don’t worry about that) what you want is the 14th century master scholar sage Longchenpa. Perhaps his more accessible works such as Kindly Bent to Ease Us.

        Hope you find any of this useful!

        Liked by 1 person

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