Meaning and Difference

I already figured out that some aspects will be challenging in this part. Reading through the course material once, making notes and preparing the next exercise, I stumbled over a few statements in the course material that I really didn’t understand well.

A few quotes (Open College of the Arts, 2016):

  • ‘Resemblance accounts for difference by degree – visual difference, but meaning requires difference of kind – a verbal difference.’ (p. 96)
  • ‘ Resemblance.. stops short of meaning and yields only information.'(p. 96)
  • ‘Difference is information within a differentiating system.’ (p. 99)

This is raising questions for me:

  • Why is information provided by resemblance not meaningful?
  • What makes verbal difference superior to visual difference?
  • How does this relate to meaning? What distinguishes meaning from information from signified?
  • Any relevance to visual arts?

I mapped the information from the course material (pp.94 – 99) with some other data, to ‘see’ :

Stefan513593 - Part 4 - Meaning, Difference and Information

Fig. 1: Stefan513593 – Part 4 – Meaning, Difference and Information


Semiotics and Meaning

Some further researches on Semiotics (Chandler, 2017)

Meaning arises out of the interaction between system and context’  – Raymond Tallis

According to the structuralists and Saussure language is constituted of signifiers and signified, a referential system within a language system. As a linguist he did not make references to an external reality and stated that ‘in language there are only differences’ (Chandler, 2017, p. 21). Further, Saussure emphasized oppositonal differences, binaries as ‘they are what the others are not’ (ibid). Saussure made a significant distinction between langue and parole.  Langue as the system of potentialities, a code system based on social conventions that becomes actualized by parole, the ‘speech act’. Parole is placing it into context.

One key aspect in understanding differences in semiotics is for me the emphasis of context. All potentialities of language alongside endless semiosis would result in mere nonsense utterances if signs (e.g. words) are not establishing intented meaning that requires ‘a familiarity with an appropriate interpretative system’ (ibid, p.178)

The other aspect, extended by Jackobson, is code. Language is a code system, a system of differentiation.

Chandler explored further the relationship between a literal approach and a more figurative approach to meaning. The literal one related to denotation, the informational, the factual message, meaning as what is said. The figurative, e.g.tropes, providing meaning ‘beyond the information given’ (J. Brunner, 1973) by saying one thing and meaning another. Tropes can be considered as rhetorical code in the differentiating language system.

Information and the map

Some background on Bateson’s view of difference and information from the key chapter ‘Form, Substance, and Difference’:

Bateson was an anthropologist and engaged with cybernetics, information and system theory, theories about information processing and regulative circuit systems. Overall, Bateson’s conception of an immanent mind as not only located in the body but beyond in external pathways. The individual mind is part of a larger mind, comparable to God. He challenged heavily a notion of separation of body and mind, of intellect and emotion.

In understanding his conception of difference, one need to see his focus on causality. He compares the physical ‘real’ world where ‘forces and impacts’ are the causes resulting in effects. Whereas, in communication and in mind, difference is the cause for effects.

“A difference which makes a difference” – Bateson

His famous quote ‘a difference which makes a difference’ (Bateson, 1972, p.453) relating to information need to be seen in context of Bateson’s conception of causality and pathways of energy resp. of transformation of difference. By that, any difference outside is ‘travelling’ and been transformed into effects in the mind. He compares this with the trope of the map and the territory, coined by Korzybski, where not the territory as such but difference as elementary ideas are transformed onto the map. The latter a representation (visual) of a representation (retinal) of a territory. The territory is in Kant words the ‘Ding an sich’. It can not be reached.

The actions are triggered by the map, thus the differences on the map make a difference on the human motoric system.

I find a sidenote by Bateson crucial for future understanding: that all difference denote a classification and therefore hierarchic (ibid, p.457)


  • I can see a relation between Saussure’s langue and Bateson’s difference, as both are built on a conception of potentialities that need to be actualized as a selection process, to make a difference. Either through spoken messages, or through neural actions in the mind or through motoric actions of the body.
  • Information, as Bateson saw it, is an effect of differences, selected for a purpose.
  • Bateson would possibly argue that verbal differences and visual differences are different. But, I cannot see a reason why verbal differences are superior to visual differences as the course material states.
  • The differentiating system (e.g. the territory) is inaccessible, only through representations in a context e.g. signs (words, icons) can it provide meaning and give information (e.g map).



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