Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


I’m very pressed for time today, and am thinking very roughly… I just wanted to pull into greater prominence a small bit of the discussion going on with Andrew Montin in the discussion thread for the Modernities conference paper. While the full discussion is ranging across a number of interesting topics, what I wanted to pull out for exploration here is a vocabulary issue: given how helpful I found the discussion some months back, in which a number of people discussed how they deploy the term “self-reflexivity”, I’m now curious if others are interested in chiming in with how they understand the term “contradiction” in the context of critical theory.

Andrew has asked below whether I am, in a sense, being deeply misleading by hanging onto the term “contradiction”, given how I’ve transformed that term’s meaning. He may well be right, and I’m not attached to any specific vocabulary, but am instead trying to work out how to express a particular constellation of concepts both clearly and briefly. What I want to do here is just toss up some very quick associations, as placeholders perhaps for a much more adequate discussion that I can perhaps take up at a later time.

In terms of the conversation below, Andrew suggests (with the strong caveat that he is not responsible for how I am characterising this discussion – he is simply raising issues I have been meaning to post on for some time, and had therefore reminded me of things I’ve been meaning to say) that I appear to be using the concept of “contradiction” to describe something that doesn’t sound terribly much like the everyday sense of what a “contradiction” would be – where “contradictory” things shouldn’t be able to coexist. Nor does my use of the term sound terribly much like the inflection of the term “contradiction” in, say, second and third generation Frankfurt school critique, which will sometimes speak about some existing social practice or institution undermining its own basis by “contradicting” an immanent logic intrinsic to that practice itself – this position is a particular inflection of Hegel, an attempt to “secularise” Hegel’s notion that some kind of critical standpoint can be located in the progressive, developmental unfolding of an essence over time, and to establish a “necessity” for a critical perspective, by pointing that perspective back to an immanent principle that governs that process of unfolding. While Hegel’s metaphysics would be rejected by Habermas, Honneth and others drawn to this notion of “contradiction”, these traditions still attempt to preserve a sense of the necessity of a particular critical standpoint by grounding that standpoint in an analysis of the immanent logics of certain forms of practice – communication, recognition, etc.

Just to make matters truly confusing, I engage with similar elements of Hegel to those at play in this Frankfurt-style appropriation, but I play fast and loose with Hegel’s concepts (or, to say this more Critical Theoretically, I seek to “embed” Hegel in my own analysis) in different ways. So, to take a couple of quick passages from Phenomenology of Spirit that might be relevant to both concepts of critique and “contradiction”:

The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather, it sees only contradiction in that variety. The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole. But contradiction as between philosophical systems is not wont to be conceived in this way; on the other hand, the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its onesidedness, and to recognize in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments. (2)


The systematic development of truth in scientific form can alone be the true shape in which truth exists. To help to bring philosophy nearer to the form of science-that goal where it can lay aside the name of love of knowledge and be actual knowledge-that is what I have set before me. The inner necessity that knowledge should be science lies in its very nature; and the adequate and sufficient explanation for this lies simply and solely in the systematic exposition Of philosophy itself. The external necessity, however, so far as this is apprehended in a universal way, and apart from the accident of the personal element and the particular occasioning influences affecting the individual, is the same as the internal: it lies in the form and shape in which the process of time presents the existence of its moments. To show that the time process does raise philosophy to the level of scientific system would, therefore, be the only true justification of the attempts which aim at proving that philosophy must assume this character; because the temporal process would thus bring out and lay bare the necessity of it, nay, more, would at the same time be carrying out that very aim itself. (5)

The underlying concept here is that there is some kind of inherent nature that leads “necessarily” through certain moments in the process of its realisation, where the concept of “necessity” here doesn’t mean (I think) that a particular developmental unfolding “had” to happen, but rather that this development can be retrospectively reconstructed as logical – and therefore the prior moments of that development can be posited to exist in some necessary and intrinsic relationship to one another. At the same time, the “inherent nature” that drives the whole process (in a weak, non-causal sense of the term “drive”), and the (reconstructably) “logical” character of the process itself, makes it possible to ground a critical perspective in the “inherent nature” whose existence has only become fully (or, at least, more fully) manifest in the present time.

One way of viewing Habermas’ project would be as an attempted “secularisation” of this kind of argument. So, communicative action (or, for Honneth, perhaps “recognition” or similar categories) has an “inherent nature” – but one that has only become recognisable over time, and through an historical development which we can (reconstructively) recognise as a logical progression. This “progressive” dimension of this historical unfolding (the potential to “order” development logically or rationally) is taken to enable critique to align itself with the expression of “inherent nature” as unfolded in time, and thus to ground critical judgements against forms of perception and thought that less adequately express the most current available insights into this “inherent nature”.

My argument (and deep apologies – this will be fast, furious, and profoundly inadequate) is that Marx represents a very different attempt to “secularise” such moments from Hegel – one that problematises far more of Hegel’s perspective than Habermas – from my point of view – seems to do. I take Marx to be suggesting that capitalism is characterised by something that appears to be an “inherent nature” that possesses certain “logical” characteristics that can plausibly be interpreted as historical developments unfolding over time, even though this interpretation is not strictly accurate even for capitalism itself (I haven’t sketched this argument in full, but preliminary gestures are here – along with scattered points in the surrounding posts in the series).

I unfortunately have very little time to develop the implications of what I’m saying (and I haven’t established this argument as a reading of Marx yet, let alone as a plausible basis for a critical social theory), but just very briefly: one implication, if I can make this sort of argument work, would be that Habermas might be engaging in something that Marx would consider a “fetishised” form of thought: taking something to be an “inherent nature” (albeit an historically emergent nature), and grounding a critical standpoint in this notion of “inherent nature”, when an alternative form of theory might be able to show how this “nature” is much more actively and contingently generated in collective practice – that it represents, not some kind of immanent potential that resides in social practice as some sort of tacit (if weak and non-causal) telos, but simply a potential for us, which we are enacting in determinate ways that can be illuminated via a theory of practice.

This approach significantly muddies the issue of how you ground a critical standpoint – not least because it suggests a need for great caution when endorsing the specific sensibilities that present themselves to us as expressing some “inherent nature”. Once we reinterpret this “inherent nature” to be something more like “the inherent nature of capitalism, so long as we continue to reproduce this social system”, then deriving your critical ideals from this single location may be tantamount to rejecting any forms of subjectivity or practice that actually point beyond capitalism.

And yet – and here we get to the notion of “contradiction” as I’ve tended to use it – my interpretation of Marx is that he argues that capitalism actually generates multiple forms of subjectivity, which point in many different directions, each seizing on different moments of a multifaceted social context without recognising their own partial characters. My suggestion would be that perhaps critical standpoint within the framework I am trying to outline involves a sliding among available perspectives, with the Benjaminian goal of making our history “citable in all its moments” – or if that sounds a bit totalising, at least, more “citable” than it tends by default to be at the present time.

From this perspective, capitalism is contradictory – but this contradiction by itself won’t “resolve” in any particular way: capitalism reproduces itself through a movement over time that is “contradictory” in something like the sense of the passages from Phenomenology above – where, in spite of an immense amount of “development” and the “overcoming” of all sorts of concrete social institutions, the same “inherent nature” still continues to play itself out, and can therefore plausibly come to be read as the “telos” of all this frenetic, coercive “becoming”. It is this “inherent nature” that needs to be overcome, from the standpoint of the sort of critique I am trying to develop, in order to overcome capitalism; and contradiction, within this framework, is the means of the reproduction of a particular society, rather than a way in which that society points beyond itself. Yet Marx also does maintain that that somehow this contradictory process of reproduction does generate determinate potentials to overcome the “inherent nature” that it reproduces. Which brings me to my terminological dilemma of the moment.

The difficulty (well, one of many difficulties) with my articulation around this issue, is that I’m aware of a tension between my vocabulary, when I want to express that:

(1) capitalism reproduces its own “inherent nature” via “contradiction” in this “Hegelian” sense – via a process that presents itself as the unfolding of an historical logic that appears to realise this nature,


(2) capitalism, in reproducing itself, also generates the practical potential for overcoming the endless production of its own “inherent nature” (Benjamin, as usual, has a lovely term for this – something along the lines of “a revolutionary cessation of happening”).

In the conference talk, I used the term “contradiction” to refer to the emancipatory potentials I’m discussing in #2. However, I also need to talk (although I haven’t done this much thus far on the blog, and have therefore been able to bracket this particular terminological dilemma thus far) about the “contradictory” character of capitalist reproduction, in the sense of #1 – where the “contradiction” is understood as an aspect of reproduction.

It will be utterly confusing to use the same term for both concepts – and I think Andrew is right to push on me for whether I ought to be using the term “contradiction” as I did in the talk. And yet, as when we were discussing the concept of “self-reflexivity”, I’m stalled over the question of what would be a better way to express what I need to say. And so I deposit this problem here, for public discussion (or not)… ;-P

This post is woefully, inexcusably inadequate – if it helps, I know – please believe me, I know – that I haven’t demonstrated any of the points I ran through so quickly above. I don’t take what I’ve written as a critique of Habermas or as anywhere close to making the case for an alternative form of theory – I’m just trying briefly to sketch the thoughtspace for a problem in my work (and, in the process, skimming over things so poorly that I will no doubt imply – perhaps accurately – the existence of all sorts of other problems… ;-P). To make matters worse, I’m doing this just as I need to leave for the rest of the day… This should probably be a post for the draft queue… But then I’m worried I’ll never get around to editing it to put it up… So here you have it, for what it’s worth…

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2 responses to “(Self?-)Contradictions

  1. Andrew Montin December 1, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Hi Nicole – just to focus on the following:

    “From this perspective, capitalism is contradictory – but this contradiction by itself won’t “resolve” in any particular way: capitalism reproduces itself through a movement over time that is “contradictory” in something like the sense of the passages from Phenomenology above – where, in spite of an immense amount of “development” and the “overcoming” of all sorts of concrete social institutions, the same “inherent nature” still continues to play itself out, and can therefore plausibly come to be read as the “telos” of all this frenetic, coercive “becoming”. It is this “inherent nature” that needs to be overcome, from the standpoint of the sort of critique I am trying to develop, in order to overcome capitalism; and contradiction, within this framework, is the means of the reproduction of a particular society, rather than a way in which that society points beyond itself.”

    Moishe Postone expresses a similar idea in Time, Labor and Social Domination:

    “By specifying the contradictory character of his own social universe, Marx is able to develop an epistemologically consistent critique and finally to move beyond the dilemma of earlier forms of materialism he outlined in the third thesis of Feuerbach: A theory that is critical of society and assumes humans and, therefore, their modes of consciousness to be socially formed must be able to account for the very possibility of its own existence. The Marxian critique grounds this possibility in the contradictory character of its own categories, which purport to express the essential relational structures of its social universe and, simultaneously, to grasp forms of social being and of consciousness. The critique is thus immanent in another sense: showing the nonunitary character of its own context allows the critique to account for itself as a possibility immanent to that which it analyzes.” (143)

    Postone mentions two kinds of “contradiction” here: the “contradictory character” of the theory’s categories, and the “nonunitary character” of the theory’s context. The former allows for an account of a social configuration from within that configuration, and in just the manner you outline; while I think the latter points to the possibility of an alternative social configuration through the fact that critique is the product of a historical consciousness bound to a particular configuration, and thus “the historical overcoming of capitalism would also entail the negation of its dialectical critique.” My hunch is that these might correspond to the two senses of contradiction you list respectively.

  2. N Pepperell December 1, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    Andrew – Thank you for this. I’ve mentioned on the blog previously that I’ve drawn a great deal from Postone, although I haven’t read him closely since that book came out. I had remembered that he makes a similar argument, but not the specific distinction between “non-unitary” and “contradictory” – I’ve sometimes, though, used “non-identical” in the sense in which “non-unitary” is used in the quote above. Nice suggestion.

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