Heterology is a subject-oriented and relational mode of thinking. Heterological thinking uses dynamically emerging ideas, observations, and news, and searches for larger constellations. The goal is not just insight, but transformation of subjectivity. The experience of daily life is already a function of the experiencing subject, of which we often know very little. How does the flow of life today, and our fluctuating anticipations of the future, configure these experiences and transformations of subjectivity?
Relational thinking is unavoidable in order to conceptually grasp totalities. But heterological thinking goes further, because it takes “otherness” to be a cornerstone of reality. It uses contradictions, mutually exclusive concepts, that is, concepts that negate each other, and holds them together as complementary expressions of an obscure reality. We posit a given initial object, social fact, or concept (thesis), and then proceed to posit a second term that can be seen as its ‘other’ (hetero-thesis). These two (or three, or more) concepts, taken together, create the conceptual space of the totality, which can then be theoretically determined. The method is not just a play with dialectical negation and mediation: Determining an object, or describing a fact of some kind, will also produce its limitations, its alternatives, its possibilities, and its effects on the whole if it were missing. The intention is to grasp, through a kind of detour, a whole that cannot be understood through concepts in a direct fashion. Language is slippery and produces its own meaning effects, but philosophy wants more because reality resists: What kind of truths shine through all our experiences?
The philosophical use of the term “Heterology” traces back to French and German traditions: Michel de Certeau, Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, and also to Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Rickert. The method described here lives in the philosophical tradition that originated with Heraclitus’ statement “Things keep their secrets.” It grew out of Kant’s epistemological problems with the “thing in itself” (“Ding an sich.”) It learns from Adorno’s micrological gaze, described at the end of “Negative Dialectics.” The words of Gregory Bateson simplify the basic question: What pattern connects the crab to the lobster, and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you?
“Heterology” is also a term used in biology. It indicates the absence of correspondence, relation, or analogy between different parts that are somehow congregated. Heterology is the opposite of homology, which refers to the similarity in structure, for instance due to common ancestors, tribal origins, or functional needs. Wings in different species of birds, language families, behavior patterns related to dominance hierarchies: all these are examples of homologous structures. Is it possible to turn the absence of homology, mere heterogeneity, into a philosophical method? Could this become a form of ontology for the 21st century with highly diverse, and even contradictory, forms of social reality?
The conceptual play with subject and object, identity and difference, sameness and otherness, is not mere formalism: it eventually produces epistemological disruptions, surprise effects in observers and participants. Reconfigurations of the self are triggered by strange encounters, sensual impressions, but also feelings of alienation and loss, occasional glimpses of the real, and exposure to the pervasive struggles of life. We might still be able to recognize ourselves, but who will we have become?