Likeness and Difference

Updated: Aug 16


Royce, Josiah. Essay. In The World and the Individual 2nd series, 46–53. 2nd. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913.


And first as to the Likenesses and Differences of Facts. The logic of the relations of likeness and difference first came to our notice when we were dealing with the problem of Realism in our former series of lectures. We became better acquainted with the bearing of the general concept of Being upon these relations in the course of the Ninth and Tenth lectures of that series. Here we have to deal with the topic still more at close range. Every student of these problems knows that likeness and difference are two aspects of the world that simply cannot be sundered even by the utmost efforts of abstraction. In a sense, any two objects that you recognize as real, or as possible, have points of resemblance. In a sense, also, any two objects, however nearly alike, have differences. Moreover, if you detect a difference between two objects and are asked in what respect the two differ, or are asked for what is often called the “point of difference,” a moment’s reflection shows you that what you name in your answer is not only a point of difference, but also a point of agreement or resemblance between the two objects. Two artists differ in style or in degree of skill. That is, they also agree in both possessing style or skill. Two solids differ in contour. That is, they both have contour, and in so far are alike. No skill of abstraction ever enables you to sunder the likenesses and the unlikenesses of facts, so as to place the two aspects of the world apart in your conception. Each depends upon the other. Where you estimate degrees of likeness and difference, and call objects ‘‘more” or “less” different, you get further illustrations of the same principle. For two objects do not grow appreciably “more” different, for your usual fashion of estimate, merely by losing points of agreement. What you may often call a “very wide,” or even the ‘‘widest possible” difference, comes to your consciousness in connection with contrasted or opposed objects, such as complementary colors, violent emotional changes, conflicts of will, and the like. But in such cases the difference is recognized as resting upon similarity. The complementary colors are more obviously contrasted than a color and an odor would be. Joy and grief, rage and gentleness, love and hate, are alike in being emotions, and the contrasted emotions of each pair resemble each other in being of the same more special types. Wills can differ or conflict by virtue of their relation to the same objects. On the other hand, where points of difference between objects multiply until we no longer recognize the correlative agreements, the objects in question become disparate for our consciousness. And disparity means at once the possession of so many differences that we can no longer recognize what they are, and a kind of secondary appearance of vague likenesses; since all objects whose relations we cannot clearly make out tend to lapse into a sort of blur in the background of our consciousness. There are countless differences amongst the miscellaneous objects that one sees in a crowded market-place, in case he himself is not seeking for the wares, or caring for the buyers and sellers. One observes that these differences are in one sense endless. One also observes that all this seems much alike to him; because it all means crowd and confusion, and leaves him ‘‘indifferent.’’


Herewith, however, we come to a point in the theory of our consciousness of likeness and difference which is, in my opinion, of critical importance for our whole doctrine about the particular facts of the world, and for our final interpretation of the problem of the individual. The likenesses and differences that we observe in facts are not merely thrust upon us without our consent or connivance. They are the objects of our attentive Interest. And they obviously vary with this interest. Nowhere more clearly than in case of our consciousness of likeness and difference do we see how significant the will is in determining what we shall regard as actual.


To attend, namely, is to take note of differences (and consequently of resemblances) which, were we inattentive, we should ignore. To turn our attention from certain facts, is to disregard differences of which we were before taking account. Now we are here speaking of attention, not as of a causally efficacious psychological process (for cause and effect concern us not yet), but as of one aspect of that relative fulfilment of purpose in present consciousness of which I have all along spoken. That to which we attend interests us. In attending to a sound, to a color, to an abstract conception, we find our purpose in some degree fulfilled by the ignoring or observing of some specific likenesses and differences. And the correlated likenesses and differences which appear before us in the observed facts are such as the direction of our attentive interest in some measure favors.


The world of facts is thus not merely given as like or different; it is at any moment regarded as possessing the correlative likenesses and differences to which we then and there attend. In fact, that reaction to our world, of which at the last time we spoke, is in great part an attentive attitude of the will, and is in so far a regarding of that to which we attend as more definitely different from the background of consciousness than it otherwise would be. It is perfectly true that we are not conscious of creating, i.e. of finding our purpose presently fulfilled in, more than a very subordinate aspect of the differences and correlative likenesses that we at any moment observe in the facts of our world. That is because of that relatively “foreign” character of the facts of which we spoke in defining the Ought. But it is also true that the more closely I observe, and the more carefully I submit myself to the requirement ‘‘to see the facts as they are,” the more surely it is the case that the attitude of my attention in all this process of observation does, in its own degree, determine what differences amongst facts shall come to my observation. Careful measurement, for instance, that most characteristic of the processes upon which exact empirical science is based, involves a typically objective, “self- surrendering,” submissive attitude of attention. Yet, on the other hand, we must insist that just this attitude, observant as it is of certain small differences which our less exact activities ignore, finds what it seeks, and what otherwise gets forced by outer nature upon nobody's observation, viz. precisely these small differences themselves, which meet our intent to be exact. What ex- perience shows us as to the quantitative aspect of the world is, not that such differences exist wholly apart from our own or anybody’s attention, but that the attentive will to measure does find a successful expression of its purposes in experience, so that a conscious- ness of small differences in lengths, times, masses, etc., comes to be recognized, where untrained and careless attention had ignored every such difference. Here, too, then, the fact observed is the fulfilment of our intent to observe that kind of fact.


In general, we may say: Likenesses and differences are not recognized by us as aspects of the world existent wholly apart from any of our specific purposes, but as correlative to certain tendencies of our will, i.e. to certain interests, which are fulfilled in recognizing these specific sorts of likenesses and differences which we come to observe. In the concrete, then, we must say, our intelligent experience involves at every step an interest in regarding facts as like or as different. This interest wins its way; and herein consists one aspect of the expression of purpose in fact which is characteristic of our own view of Being.


Most clearly this correlation of fact and purpose appears in all our Classifications. To classify is to regard certain facts as different (just because we find that to us certain differences are important), and certain objects as in a specific sense alike (because our interest in their like- ness predominates over our interest in making certain possible sunderings). What classes your acknowledged world of fact contains, your own interest in classification obviously cooperates in determining. Hence the possibility of the well-known and endless disputes over whether our classifications in science stand for the truth of things, over whether our general ideas represent ‘‘external realiies,” and over the other historically significant problems of the theory of Universals. From our own point of view, these controversies get a very simple solution. Of course all classification is relative to the point of view, varies with that point of view, and has value only as fulfilling the purpose of whoever classifies. And, nevertheless, the question. How ought I to classify? has an objective meaning in precisely the sense in which any question about the facts of the world has meaning. Just now, when I classify mankind into two groups, you who hear me, and the rest of humanity, the classification fulfils a purpose of mine. It involves emphasizing certain presented or conceived differences, and regarding as equivalent certain facts that, from another point of view, could be subdivided or contrasted. The question whether this classification expresses anything ‘‘objective,” anything bearing on the “true nature of things,” is simply the question. How far is my momentary purpose in classifying thus an explicit and conscious expression of a certain infinitely wealthy purpose? This larger purpose comes to my present consciousness in the form of the assurance that I ought to acknowledge humanity and the universe, together with all that infinite wealth of meaning which my present thought of these objects even now hints to me, —and hints to me as that complete expression of my will which at every moment I am seeking.


The true problem about the objective validity of my classification is then the problem of the Ought, only here considered with reference to the question, What ought to be regarded as different or distinct, and what as equivalent, and in what respect. This is a teleological problem. It is to be solved, if at all, upon the ground of a consideration of the relation of this moment’s passing purpose to the whole world-purpose of which it is a hint and a fragment. God distinguishes what it pleases him to distinguish. The logical as well as the moral problem is, Does my will accord with God’s will?


So much, then, for Likeness, Difference, and Classification in general. The sum is so far this : Likeness and Difference are inseparable aspects of the world. Their recognition, and their very existence, are correlated with the interests which they fulfil. We express our own interests in them by means of our classifications, whose objective truth depends upon the significance of the will that makes.

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