Why Heterology?

There is a short and a long answer to this question:

The short answer is captured in Gregory Bateson’s simple 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 looks for the patterns between things that don’t fall into similar categories, it is a contextual and dynamic way of thinking, and it is self-reflective enough to include the thinking subject.  Heterology emerges when philosophical thinking accepts that it cannot grasp totalities directly (concept like World, Nature, Psyche, Infinity, or the Absolute). Nevertheless, we cannot just be silent, we want to develop a language that attempts to grasp these concepts and relates them to each other. The name represents a program, but don’t expect completion. 

The long answer leads us deep into the history of ideas. The term “Heterology” is not a household name in philosophy, but it has a rich history and strong potential as a bracketing term for our complex contemporary outlook.  The term has been used in different contexts with varying meanings. Here are some of the main definitions:

  1. Heterology and Dialectics: The philosophical use of the term “Heterology” has roots in French and German traditions, including the works of Michel de Certeau, Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, as well as Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Heinrich Rickert. The neo-Kantian philosopher Rickert even suggested to counter Hegelian dialectics with a “heterological method,” because it is not so easy to reconcile reality into a rational system. A heterological method is grounded in the philosophical tradition that originated with Heraclitus’ statement, “Things keep their secrets,” and grew out of Kant’s epistemological problems with the “thing in itself” (“Ding an sich”). It also learns from Adorno’s micrological view, described at the end of “Negative Dialectics.”

  2. The Problem of Identity: In linguistics and logic, heterology refers to words that do not describe themselves. It is often discussed in contrast to autology, which refers to words that do describe themselves. For example, the word “short” is considered an autological word because it is a short word itself. On the other hand, the word “long” is a heterological word because it does not describe itself (the word “long” is not long).  This concept is related to the Grelling–Nelson paradox, which arises when considering whether the word “heterological” is itself heterological or autological. If “heterological” is autological, then it describes itself, which means it should be heterological. However, if “heterological” is heterological, then it does not describe itself, which means it should be autological.

  3. Heterology as the Study of Otherness: In social sciences and cultural studies, heterology is a term coined by French philosopher Georges Bataille to describe the study of the “other” or the “different.” It encompasses the exploration of the aspects of human experience that are often marginalized, repressed, or considered taboo in society, such as violence, eroticism, and the sacred. Bataille used the term to challenge conventional knowledge and to emphasize the importance of understanding and acknowledging the existence of the “other” in shaping human culture and experience. In this context, heterology is associated with the idea of transgression, the crossing of boundaries and the exploration of the limits of human experience. It is often used as a critical approach to dominant cultural norms and values.

  4. Heterology and Homology: In biology, homology refers to traits inherited by two different organisms from a common ancestor. For example, the wing of a bat and the arm of a human are considered homologous structures because they derive from a common evolutionary ancestor. Heterology, although less commonly used in biology, could refer to structures that are different and have different origins but may perform similar functions (more typically described as analogous structures, such as the wings of birds and insects). Homology and heterology are related through their mutual engagement with the concepts of similarity and difference. While homology seeks connections and commonalities, heterology challenges these connections by highlighting the diverse, the disparate, and often the marginalized or suppressed aspects of cultural or biological phenomena.
    Both concepts are crucial for a comprehensive analysis of any field—be it biology, culture, or philosophy—as they provide a dual perspective that facilitates a deeper understanding of how entities are related to each other and how they stand apart.

We live in a strange world, and the more we know, the stranger it becomes. How do we account for this realization? Heterology is a concept aimed at capturing this strangeness. It will therefore have to engage with the fallout: We will continually be surprised by discoveries that lead to epistemological disruptions and new paradigms. Subject and object are not so different in the end, observers and participants can trade places. We are also strangeness to ourselves. Reconfigurations of the self are triggered by weird encounters, sensual impressions, feelings of alienation and loss, occasional glimpses of the real, and exposure to life’s pervasive struggles. Will we be able to recognize ourselves in the end? 


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