Navigation: This page '' ---> Main Page. HELP. Contact. About Page.

Identity: From Meaning, not Difference

To make some other point, Luhmann [Social Systems, p.177] tacked onto the end of his sentence, the phrase "... because identity is possible only through difference." Many have taken this as a truism, a truth so obvious that it can be used as an axiom that needs no further explanation nor justification. But is it so?

Of course, at a trivial level, we can say that this bottle is different from that bottle, this tree, from that tree, and each individual thing thus gains an identity as this rather than that. But Luhmann and many other thinkers use the supposed axiom idea more generally.

It certainly seems so when we use language. "It is raining - rather than snowing" gives rain a different identity from when we say "It is raining - rather than dry". As multitudes of business consultants advise, getting us to state what is the opposite to what we mean helps clarify what we mean and bring it out into the open so that others may understand it better.

In human society it seems similarly so. Does not identity as a homosexual gain its force by difference from heterosexuality (and vice verse)? Luhmann, at least, believed so. Does not my identity as a postman derive from the fact that I am not a train driver, a baker or an entomologist?

But if we dig more deeply, perhaps it need not be so in every case. That last example gives a clue: perhaps I can be both postman and entomologist, either both as part-time jobs or one as job and one as hobby. Long since Luhmann gave his example, people today are claiming to be both homo- and heterosexual: bisexual. My identity as a postman does not consist in my not being an entomologist, but rather in what I am doing.

Dooyeweerd, perhaps, offers a deeper understanding of identity is possible, not by virtue of difference but by virtue of meaningfulness. He argues that the identity of something - the type of thing it is - depends on aspects, which are modes of meaning, ways of being meaningful.

For instance, the tree-identity is made possible by the biotic aspect, poem-identity by the aesthetic aspect, identity as a piece of writing, by the lingual aspect, identity as a prime number, by the quantitative aspect, and so on. All these types of thing gain and fulfil their identity by functioning the those aspects - which Dooyeweerd called a qualifying aspect. Tree-identity is possible without any need to differentiate trees from poems, numbers etc.

However, identity requires more than a single aspect to define it. Dooyeweerd introduced the notion of individuality structures for this. An individuality structure, or what Clouser calls a "type law", is a profile of aspects, in which each aspect fulfils different roles in things of that type. An individuality structure not only defines what it is to be of that type but gives latitude and freedom to be the individual of that type different from all other individuals. (See also pages on existence and entities for explanation of Dooyeweerd's notion of individuality structures.)

Dooyeweerd takes the discussion further in two ways. First, he recognises that identity evolves, and cannot be static. The identity is evolves by functioning in the various aspects. So, for example, the identity of a poem evolves as the poet perfects it, functioning in the aesthetic and lingual aspects at least (and actually in all other aspects along with those and supporting those).

Second, he discusses both the inner nature of a thing and also its interlacements with other things, both of which (internal and external) contribute to its identity (see [NC, III, 90-91]).

Both dynamism and internal-external are grounded in Dooyeweerd's notion of individuality structures. Dooyeweerd can offer a very full account of identity by this.

That identity need not require difference echoes the idea that Dooyeweerd's aspects can define Good without the need for Evil (see page on normativity and The Good Each Aspect Brings).

This page, "", is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext, in the style of classic HTML.

Created: 17 June 2019. Last updated: