Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Moderation / Chair: Jeff Bernard
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Unity Through Diversity.
Dialectics - Systems Thinking - Semiotics

Wolfgang Hofkirchner (Vienna)(*)


Summary: "Unity through Diversity" (Bertalanffy) may be considered the system-theoretical equivalent of the sociological term "conviviality" (Illich). I will apply this notion to the sphere of cultures in the global society said to come about and develop a typology of cultural discourses in which "unity through diversity" seems the preferable option. I will discuss this typology not only from a system-theoretical perspective ("evolution of system hierarchies"), but also demonstrate the appropriateness of dialectical considerations ("the particular and universal") and philosophical/semiotic thoughts as well ("thirdness", Peirce).


Ich werde zeigen, daß wir nicht mehr sinnreich leben und arbeiten können, wenn die Werkzeuge und Institutionen, die dem einzelnen das Recht, die eigene Kraft auf schöpferische Weise einzusetzen, beschneiden oder ganz nehmen, nicht von der Allgemeinheit kontrolliert werden.

(Ivan Illich 1998: 29)

According to Illich, "conviviality" refers to relations among humans, to the relationship between humans and nature, and to the relation between humans and technology. It denotes a certain state of these relations - a state which cannot be achieved unless the general public assumes control over the tools so as to allow for the creative power of the individual. Since the general public is to safeguard the individual, the idea of "conviviality" includes the idea of reconciliation of unity and diversity. It is this normative idea of unity-through-diversity that deserves attention when applying "conviviality" to the level of world society.

I will discuss dialectical, system-theoretical and semiotic aspects of unity-in-diversity before addressing its implications for world society. And in order to find common ground when discussing dialectical, system-theoretical and semiotic aspects, I will make use of a typology of ways of thinking.


1. Unity and diversity in ways of thinking

How to conceive of the relationship of unity and diversity turns out to be of utmost importance, since the design of our common future depends on it. There are two possibilities. Either one of the opposites is over-emphasized or both are reconciled. While the first case may be perceived as subjugation under a strict rule or as "anything goes", in the second case the opposites are deemed necessary for each other. It is this last case unity-through-diversity refers to, which may be looked upon as the leitmotif of the work of the founder of the general system theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy (cf. Gray/Rizzo 1973).

Relating unity and diversity is closely linked to ways of thinking. Ways of thinking can be seen as ways of considering how to relate identity and difference.

There are, in terms of ideal types, several ways conceivable:

Thus we can distinguish between four ways of thinking, which reveal distinct perspectives of identity and difference and by that of unity and diversity as well:


2. The dialectic of the particular and the universal

A relationship is usually called "dialectic" if, firstly, the sides of the relation are opposed to each other; secondly, both sides depend on each other; thirdly, they form a relation that is asymmetrical. Regarding the relationship of the particular and the universal, only the integration-and-differentiation way of thinking makes it a dialectical one.

Reductionist unification would reduce the particular to the universal by stating "The Particular is (nothing but) Universal", and assuming that the universal is the necessary as well as sufficient condition for the particular. This is true of all kinds of subsumption. They overlook what goes beyond that which subsumes. Unification by projection would project the particular onto the universal and postulate "The Universal is (nothing but) Particular", thereby meaning that the particular is not only necessary, but also sufficient to yield the universal. This holds for those illusions that extend what is in common to a realm where it is not. The dissociative way of thinking would dissociate the particular from the universal by presuming "The Particular and the Universal are Disjoint", and would, in doing so, insinuate that both notions contradict each other. This leads to letting the particular fall apart, since there is no unifying bond. Either of these three ways of thinking is one-sided, because by relying on the formal-logical figure of necessary and sufficient conditions or of contradiction it focusses on the mutual dependence of the sides or on being opposites, and does not comprise the full range of what is characteristic of any dialectical relation.

It is only the fourth way of thinking that integrates as well as differentiates the particular and universal. Its point of view may be formulated "The Particular Sublates the Universal" - "sublation" in the threefold Hegelian sense denoting suspending, saving and lifting altogether:

The concrete universal is the unity that overarches the diversity of the particular.


3. Theory of evolving system hierarchies

The dialectic of the particular and universal easily translates into system concepts.

The core of a yet-to-be-developed evolutionary system theory is a stage model combining diachronous and synchronous aspects of systems evolution.

Different system dimensions refer to different system phases or different system levels. The phases are a characteristic of the metasystem transition, which brings the system about. The phases materialize in levels, which make the system hierarchical:

Since evolutionary system thinking will consider the original entities as systems themselves, the emerging system is called the metasystem.

After the emergence of the metasystem three different levels making up the remains of the previous transition express a supersystem hierarchy:

Hierarchy means that the higher level, while depending on the lower one, shapes the latter.

Applying the idea of the dialectic of the particular and universal, metasystem transitions can be regarded as yielding ever more concrete universals that build the base for ever more particulars on higher levels in the system hierarchy. That is, given a meta- and/or supersystem, the entities (as well as the relations they enter) that play the pre-elementary role during the process of preparation for the unfolding of the system and that later on play the elementary role once the system is established form the common ground of the system. Hence they form the universal. This universal, however, is differentiated: the entities, when being pre-elementary form, the abstract universal, the entities, when being elementary, form the concrete universal.

The universal is at the same time identical to the unity and the particulars with diversity. So it can be stated that in the course of evolution unity is enriched by growing diversity.


4. The semiotics of firstness, secondness and thirdness

The evolutionary systems stage model, in turn, easily translates into semiotic terms.

Firstness, secondness and thirdness are the core of triadic semiotics after C.S. Peirce (e.g. 2000a: 345 pp., 2000b: 159):

In terms of evolutionary systems, firstness refers to the individual phase or the intra-systemic level, secondness to the interactional phase or the inter-systemic level, and thirdness to the integrational phase or the supra-systemic level. It is worth stressing that, while it is only the latter phase in which the qualitative leap to the emerging system is accomplished, and while it is only the latter level by which the so-called downward causation is exerted, it is only thirdness in which there is a relator producing the relation of the relate to the correlate, and by means of that producing relate as well as correlate. That is to say, thirdness plays the same extraordinary and unique role in triadic semiotics as integration and hierarchy do in evolutionary system theory.

Introducing the dialectical terms of particular and universal, firstness, along with secondness, may be considered abstract-universal, while thirdness may be considered to include the particular and the concrete-universal. Thirdness describes a concrete which inheres the particular shape of the universal by setting up the relation.

Introducing the terms of unity and diversity, things in the state of firstness or secondness are diverse without there being a common bond. The unity of the diverse is established only by thirdness.

In summation, there is a strong parallel between the notion of the dialectic of the particular and universal, the evolutionary systems stage model, and the semiotic concepts of firstness, secondness and thirdness. Seen from the perspective of that way of thinking that integrates and differentiates at the same time, they translate into each other and reveal the same basic figure of unity-through-diversity.


5. The one and the many in world society

It makes sense to apply this dialectically, system-theoretically and semiotically based idea of unity-in-diversity (which underlies the notion of conviviality) to the field of the partitions of humanity (which - for reasons of simplicity - I will refer to in terms of cultural identity) that, due to global challenges that endanger the species as a whole, and must be met by a single set of intelligently co-ordinated actions, are in the point of forming a unit on a planetary scale. It may serve as a normative idea that guides the measures to be taken to advance world society. Conviviality is thus a prerequisite of alleviating global challenges.

In this respect the plurality of cultural identities represent the so-called many (see Hofkirchner 2002). The question is how one of the many relates to another one and how the many relate to the oneness that is made up of all the manifold. Is the world society to become the common denominator of the various identities? Or is one of the many the only one? Or are the many merely summands of the individual? Or do the many participate in a one that goes beyond them?

In order to determine the idea of unity-through-diversity it is worth excluding what it is not like. According to the four ways of thinking dealt with in the first section, three of them do not qualify for a proper foundation of the kind of cultural intercourse that is needed for consciously constructing the common future.

The reductionist way of thinking in intercultural discourse is called "universalism". Cultural universalism reduces the variety of different cultural identities to what they have in common. Identities are homogenized by a sort of melting pot which was named "McWorld" (Barber 2001). Modernism, that is, the strive for human rights, democracy and capitalism based on the same mode of metabolism carried out by the same technology everywhere is universalistic - shimmering between a claim to liberalism and pompous imperialistic behavior as it is witnessed by its adversaries. In either case it gets rid of the richness of cultural identities, the many are reduced to a shallow one; there is no diversity in the unity.

A second strand in intercultural discourse revolves around the way of thinking that overuses projection. It may be called "particularism" or "totalitarianism". Cultural particularism or totalitarianism extrapolates what separates one cultural identity from the rest and construes an imaginary common. It also leads to homogenization. The melting pot in this case, however, was named "Jihad" (Barber 2001) because it is the anti-modern fundamentalism that may be a good example for imposing a certain one out of the many on the rest of them. Here a culture that is accredited with very specific social relations is raised to the level of the ideal, which is to serve as a model for all other cultures to copy. Thus a specific form is built up to be the general norm. Inasmuch as it is something particular that is raised in this manner, it concerns particularism. Inasmuch as it reaches the status of the general norm, it concerns totalitarianism. This results also in unity without diversity.

A third way of conceiving intercultural discourse is "relativism". Cultural relativism rests on the figure of dissociation. By denying any commonality of different cultural identities, it yields fragmentation. The many fall apart. These concepts of multi-culturalism and separatism suit postmodern thoughts. Here each of the many cultures are seen as something with the right to exist and remain free from external interference. Each special case is made into a norm in its own right. Inasmuch as it is one of many that is made into a norm, we may speak of pluralism. Inasmuch as every special case is treated thus, we must however speak of indifferentism. Relativism does not claim general validity, and does not wish to unify anything or anyone. The postmodernist form leaves differences as they are. Anything goes. World society would simply be diversity without unity.

None of these three options suffices. None of them can conceive of a convivial world society. Either the one is regarded as the necessary and sufficient condition for the many. Or the many are considered necessary and sufficient for the one. Or one and many are deemed independent.

Cultural thinking that reconciles the one and the many in terms of unity-in-diversity is only achievable on the basis of the integration-and-differentiation way of thinking. It integrates the differences of the manifold cultural identities and differentiates the common as well. W. Welsch (in Pongs 1999: 243) coined the term "transculturalism", and notions of "glocalization" (Robertson 1995) or "new mestizaje" (a term coined by John Francis Burke in "Reconciling cultural diversity with a democratic community: mestizaje as opposer to the usual suspects"; in Wieviorka 2003: 80) are useful in this context. They may be linked to the concept of reflexive modernism (Beck 1998).

The process of emergence of a new convivial world society may be sketched like this, expressed in terms of dialectics, evolutionary system theory or semiotics: diversity is sublated and leads in an evolutionary leap to a unity-through-diversity which, in turn, enables and constrains diversity so as to make it diversity-through-unity, which thus builds the new base for unity-through-diversity. The many are the universal that undergoes a transformation from an abstract universal without a one to a concrete universal, the one is the particular that colors the universal. World society is located on the macro-level, the partitions of world society which are located on the micro-level take care of the world society in order to preserve humanity. World society is a third that assigns new meaning to its partitions which were a first and its relations which were a second.

© Wolfgang Hofkirchner (Vienna)

(*) This article was written in the context of the research project "Human Strategies in Complexity: Philosophical Foundations for a Theory of Evolutionary Systems" funded by INTAS (The International Association for the Promotion of Cooperation with Scientists from the New Independent States of the former Soviet Union) and the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.


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Hofkirchner, Wolfgang (2002). "Internet and 'Glocalization'". In: Becker, Jörg (ed.). Internet in Malaysia and Vietnam. Hamburg: Deutsches Übersee-Institut, 165-175

Illich, Ivan (1998). Selbstbegrenzung. München: Beck

Peirce, Charles S. (2000a). Semiotische Schriften. Bd. 1. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp

- (2000b). Semiotische Schriften. Bd. 2. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp

Pongs, Armin (1999). In welcher Gesellschaft leben wir eigentlich? Gesellschaftskonzepte im Vergleich. Bd. 1. München: Dilemma

Robertson, Roland (1992). Globalization. London: Sage

Wieviorka, Michel (2003). Kulturelle Differenzen und kollektive Identitäten. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Moderation / Chair: Jeff Bernard
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

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Wolfgang Hofkirchner (Vienna): Unity Through Diversity. Dialectics - Systems Thinking - Semiotics. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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