“Differential Ontology” examines the inner nature of beings by developing a concept of difference as foundational, rather than thinking of difference as merely an observable contrast between self-identical beings.
The essentialist tradition attempts to determine the inner nature of beings by locating certain self-contained and self-identical properties. To think in this way, however, presumes that each being’s inner nature is constituted on its own and apart from any other beings. Difference is thought in substantive terms, as though it is simply a dissimilarity between two beings existing in and for themselves.
Conversely, “differential ontology” understands the inner nature of beings to not be constituted independently of and in isolation from others. Rather, this nature is wholly constituted by virtue of the nexus of relations in which a being is embedded. Difference, then, is constitutive of the very inner nature of beings and not merely an external contrast between them.
Therefore, difference, or the constitutive nature of the differential relation to alterity, is originary, while identity is delusory. If ontological investigation desires to adhere to its project of arriving at the most basic, fundamental understanding of the nature of existence, perhaps one of its objectives will need to be attaining concepts not on the basis of identity, but on difference.
“Differential ontology” is a term that may be found particularly in the works of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, process philosophy, and the ideas of “emptiness” and “dependent origination” in Buddhism.