So I set out to write a bit more on the section on “Force and Understanding” from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – if only to give Alexei something to read when he gets back from break. Somehow, I’ve written a monster, which goes back over much of the ground covered in my previous post on this section, and then struggles through to the end of the chapter. Even for this blog, I suspect that the resulting post is too long to deposit in its entirety on the front page. I’ve therefore pushed the content below the fold.
Since lately I seem to think of Hegel only in relation to film, and since Wizard of Oz illustrations didn’t quite seem to carry me through the end of this chapter last time, I’ve found myself associating to 2001: A Space Odyssey while writing this post – must be Hegel’s discussion of what happens to consciousness when Understanding encounters Infinity. The illustrations used below are fragments of the full images from the gallery of the 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive. It may just be me, but these images seemed somehow appropriate for a discussion of how consciousness moves from its initial experience of itself in an uncertain and tenuous relationship with an external object, through its confrontation with infinity, toward Self-Consciousness.
As I mentioned in my previous post on this section, I feel guilty for not grasping this material better, as its subject matter, organisation, and even terminology tracks so closely the themes Marx embeds into his argument about the fetish from the first chapter of Capital (discussed here passim). Yet, where I usually find Hegel clear enough in his stage whispers about the perspective being expressed at particular moments in his text, this section seems – to me, at least – to move confusingly back and forth among the perspectives discussed in previous sections. It seems at times to introduce new perspectives, only then to suggest that these apparently new perspectives pertain to forms of consciousness analysed previously. It also moves in and out of the “for us” of the text with far fewer explicit indications than Hegel usually deploys to mark this transition. While I think I can understand the overarching thrust of the argument here, the strategic thrust of many of the moments along the way – including, unfortuantely for me, the moments I’m going to talk about today – remain very murky.
This textual problem is compounded by the sheer idiosyncracy (to my ears) of the ways in which Hegel refers to the material he is trying to embed: was it normal to discuss (what I assume must be) Kant and Newton in these terms, or was this just as idiosyncratic when Hegel was writing? Unfortunately, I lack the background to know…
So I have a general sense that Hegel is trying to embed certain forms of empiricism, and speak to certain elements in Kant. While he’s at it, he seems to want to draw attention to some tacit homologies between certain forms of scientific and moral discourse. As in the earlier sections, he is trying to do this in a manner that will demonstrate how certain shapes of consciousness generate immanent tensions that point beyond themselves, suggesting the need for their own overcoming. These tensions result, in Hegel’s account, because moments that (for us) arise fluidly within a dynamic relation, moments that therefore interpenetrate and mutually determine one another, are (for the shapes of consciousness analysed here) represented as independent from one another, taken to be the externally-related extremes of a dualism between consciousness and an object outside consciousness.
The consequence, for Hegel, is something like what might arise if a three-dimensional object were mapped into a two-dimensional space (or, as the case may be here, a four-dimensional object mapped into three…): symptomatic distortions that manifest within the dualistic representation, which can be understood to point beyond this dualism, because they can be resolved only once consciousness transcends it, and comes to recognise its own implicatedness in its object. Hegel thus seeks immanently to unfold the necessity for the shapes of consciousness he will associate with Self-Consciousness.
This overarching narrative sounds well and good (to me, at least…) until I try to follow Hegel’s argument into the trenches… Peering into the intricacies of the text, I suddenly find it much more difficult to grasp why Hegel believes he has demonstrated that certain immanent tensions must arise – or even what he is trying to say those tensions are. The rationale behind the moments of the text becomes in places quite opaque. My own uncertainty then makes me tentative about interpreting the text. I’ll confess, however, to feeling just the slightest bit better, having run across the following comment from Tom Rockmore:
The section “Force and Understanding,” longer than the two sections “Sense-Certainty” and “Perception” combined, is a good deal more complex, even by Hegelian standards, approaching, in the account of the inverted world, the limits of human comprehension. Even the main line of thought is not always obvious. (from (1997) Cognition: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 49)
Apparently, then, it isn’t just me…
But enough diversion. Let’s get into the text. In the previous post, I discussed some of the ways in which the three sections – on Sense-Certainty, Perception, and Understanding – were linked to one another, such that Hegel’s discussion traces a line of flight, or path of development, in which each successive shape of consciousness transcends the previous in certain respects, while also continuing to reconstitute, in a new form, an underlying dualistic split between consciousness and its object. In other words, Hegel seeks to demonstrate the ways in which each new shape of consciousness is a determinate negation of the previous shapes. As a determinate negation, each shape of consciousness is therefore not an abstract “nothing” or a pure rejection of what came before. Instead, each shape has a positive content, sedimented out of its encounter with what has been transcended in order to reach its current point. (It becomes clearer, later, how tacit this sedimented content can be: in later sections – for example, in the critique of Fichtean idealism in the discussion of Reason – Hegel’s analysis hinges on an argument about how consciousness takes its current state as a “given”, and is not explicitly aware of how that given has come to be given. By contrast, Hegel sees the “scientific” status of his own method to lie in its ability to reconstruct the immanent development that provides the condition of possiblity for the genesis of shapes of consciousness that other approaches must simply posit as starting points.)
Sense-Certainty is therefore positioned in Hegel’s account as the search for certainty through submersion in some immediate “this” that is “meant”. What is “meant” proves elusive for consciousness, however, and so the search for Sense-Certainty is restless, driving consciousness toward the recognition that its truth must lie, not in the immediate, but in the universal. Perception takes up from this point, as the negation of Sense-Certainty – but a determinate negation, with the positive content of seeking certainty in universals conditioned by sense experience. In Hegel’s account, this search also proves restless, driving consciousness toward a recognition that unconditioned universals – universals unbound from sense experience – should become its object. Understanding takes up from this point, as the determinate negation of Perception, with the positive content of seeking universals that exist beyond sense experience.
Hegel hints that the negation of Perception already suggests a more adequate form of transcendence than Understanding provides – a transcendence that would involve an unconditional universal that dissolves distictions of content and form, being-for-self and being-for-other, consciousness and object. Understanding, however, cannot yet achieve this kind of transcendence, as it reconstitutes the split between consciousness and object, taking the object still to be something that resides outside consciousness, taking consciousness not to be implicated in the development of its object. This incomplete transcendence thus re-establishes in a new form the dualistic distinctions that have already driven the negation of Perception. Understanding, the text suggests, will therefore also be a “restless” process for consciousness, one that will once again fail to ground the certainty that consciousness seeks in this new form.
Hegel opens the discussion of Force at this point. Paralleling the earlier discussion of Perception, Hegel suggests that the universal, for us, is one dynamic process that is nothing more than the undivided plurality of diverse universals, all mutually permeating one another while also independent – a process that moves through self-negating moments of medium and independent elements. This entire dynamic process is Force. For Understanding, however, the entire process is not represented as such. Instead, the constituent moments are taken in isolation from the process. The Expression of Force therefore captures the moment when Force takes the form of independent elements; Force Proper captures the moment when Force takes the form of a withdrawal from expression. From this starting point, Understanding then begins a restless spiral in which it assumes various configurations in its search for certainty, only to discover that its dualistic starting point drives it endlessly around a restless circuit that cannot be overcome until consciousness recognises its own implicatedness in its object.
The circuit followed by Understanding begins from a position that takes its object to be a sensuous, objective Force. The distinctions above – between the Expression of Force, and Force Proper – are taken to be distinctions in thought alone and, as such, to be inessential to the sensuous object. Hegel argues that this configuration will prove unstable: Understanding will be driven to shift from taking its object to be sensuous, objective Force, to taking its object to be a supersensible inner being of things.
To trace this movement – from the conceptual to the “objective” supersensible – Hegel opens his discussion of inciting and incited Forces. Hegel has previously determined Force as a dynamic process, unfolding through moments whose intrinsic mutual interconnection Understanding does not fully grasp: here, he asks how Understanding sees or represents this process. He argues that Understanding represents the dynamic relationship of Force, in terms of the interaction of two opposed forces – in terms of an inciting force, that draws out the expression of the incited force. Hegel argues that, once this step is taken, the unity of force has come to be represented as something existing outside force; the essential being of force, taken initially as an inner being, is here repositioned as something outside force itself. Hegel argues that this representation attempts to treat one moment of Force as essential, and another moment of the same Force as an external entity, and as inessential. Yet this dualistic representation does not adequately capture the unity of Force.
Hegel next moves to a discussion of the ways in which what are dualistically posited as “two forces”, instead can be seen to involve the “reciprocal interchange of characteristics”, in which each opposed force in turn plays the role of universal medium to the other, each gives the other the role of universal medium, and therefore each has the same essential character: these two opposed forces, in other words, must be seen as moments of the same force, in motion, consisting of independent entities that are, however, not fixed in external opposition to one another, but rather consist precisely in their dynamic movement toward one another. Hegel points here again to the dissolution of the distinction between form and content, this time in the dissolution of the distinction between Force and its Expression. This attempt to take Force and its Expression as distinctions in thought thus leads, not to a stable ground, but instead to the restless reciprocal movement of the play of forces.
Confronted with this result, Understanding moves from taking its object to be a sensuous objective force, to taking its object to be the inner being of things. The object thus becomes something that does not exist immediately for consciousness, but rather something which consciousness must discern through the intervening play of forces – through the veil of Appearance. In Hegel’s account, this shift carries ambivalent potentials: on the one hand opening the possibility for consciousness to recognise its object as the implicit universal; on the other hand, leading consciousness to mistake this universal for an inner being of the object, and thereby engaging in a merely abstract negation of the sensuous world. In Hegel’s words:
There consciousness has before itself in objective form the things of perception as they truly are, i.e. as moments turning, without halt or separate subsistence, directly into their opposite, the “one” changing immediately into the universal, the essential becoming at once something unessential, and vice versa. This play of forces is consequently the development of the negative; but its true nature is the positive element, viz. the universal, the implicit object, the object existing per se.
The being of this object for consciousness is mediated through the movement of appearance, by which the content of perception and the sensuous objective world as a whole, get merely negative significance. There consciousness is turned back upon itself as the truth; but, being consciousness, it again makes this truth into an inner being of the object, and distinguishes this reflection of things from its own reflection into self: just as the mediating process likewise is for it still an objective process. This inner nature is therefore for it an extreme placed over against it. But it is on that account the truth for it, because therein, as in something essentially real, it possesses at the same time the certainty of its own self, the moment of its own self-existence. But it is not yet conscious of this basis [its self-existence], for the independence, its being on its own account, which should have the inner world within it, would be nothing else than the negative process. This negative process, however, is for consciousness still objective vanishing appearance, and not yet its own proper self-existence (Fürsichseyn). Hence the, inner is no doubt taken to be notion., but consciousness does yet know the nature of the notion. (143)
This transition sets up an object that, Hegel argues, takes the “form of a syllogistic inference”, in which the relationship between Understanding and the inner being of things is mediated by a sphere of appearance. This inner, supersensible world is taken to be a realm of timeless reality that, however, stands as an external object outside of consciousness. It is for this reason, Hegel suggests, that the inner world seems to be a “beyond” – a barren void devoid of both objective sensuous and mental contents. Stepping outside the insights available to Understanding, Hegel argues that this conclusion follows only given the initial dualistic premise. If, instead, the sphere of appearance is understood to be the medium in which the implicit universal arises, and as a moment in the process of consciousness, then the “void” does not arise. Understanding, however, still posits a dualistic division between itself and the inner being of things, and takes appearance to be a mediating agency extrinsic to, and therefore only arbitrarily connected with, both Understanding and to inner being. This starting point generates symptomatic limitations – including the perceived barrier separating consciousness from the inner world of things.
Okay. All these words, and I think I’ve still only reached roughly the same point as the previous post on this chapter… Apologies for the backtracking – side effect of working out interpretations as I write… Hopefully through all this repetition I’ve been able to refine a few points and correct a few missteps; perhaps I’ve also introduced some new problems… In any event, let’s see whether I can push a bit further into the text.
Hegel next moves into a more detailed analysis of what Understanding finds in the play of forces – which are its direct concern, albeit not its object. He repeats elements of his earlier analysis, reminding the reader that what are initially taken to be two opposed forces, instead resolve into moments of the same process – dissolving the distinction between the two forces and, in the process, undermining the distinction between content and form. Hegel argues that Understanding seeks to uncover the “simple” or unitary truth within the endless flux and change that is the play of forces, and as a result discovers difference as universal – which Hegel calls the Law of Force, and which he characterises as a “stable presentment or picture of unstable appearance”. The inner, supersensible world is thus taken to be a “kingdom of laws” (148-149).
For Hegel, however, this is only a preliminary and transient moment in the circuit of Understanding, for this kingdom of laws contains difference in only an indeterminate way – as a plurality of laws, not grasped in any intrinsic relationship to one another, which Understanding – striving, as always, for simple unity – then seeks to unify into the law of universal attraction. Hegel views this form of unification, however, as self-undermining. He argues that unification of other laws into the law of universal attraction achieves something universal – but only at the cost of abstracting away from the specific characters of the laws being “unified”. As a result, the determinate moments of those laws do not form part of the content captured by the law of universal attraction. Instead, the law of universal attraction expresses as its content only that “everything has a distinction for everything else” – which Hegel calls the “bare concept of law itself” (150).
Hegel finds ambivalent potentials in this attempted unification. On the one hand, Understanding moves beyond the superficial conclusion that the flux and change manifest in the play of forces, means that everything is accident and chance – Understanding declares all reality to be “conformed to law”. On the other hand, Understanding reconstitutes another form/content distinction, opposing the formal, abstract universal law of attraction, to the other laws supposedly unified within the law of attraction, which as a result are taken to be mutually indifferent entities with no intrinsic determinate relationship to one another or to the universal. Understanding therefore does not, for Hegel, grasp the immanent necessity of the law. Once again, Understanding has violated its own principle, which is to search for simple unity, by reconstituting a dualistic opposition between universal law, which Understanding takes, one-sidedly, as a unity, and other determinate moments, which it takes to fall outside the law and whose specificity therefore escapes the bounds of the unity that Understanding can grasp. Transcending this situation would require overcoming the form/content dualism and grasping the ways in which the universal is generated nowhere else but through the dynamic interactions among its moments. This step, however, would carry consciousness beyond Understanding.
So long as Understanding reconstitutes this dualism, the law is present to Understanding in a dual form: on the one hand, as law in which differences are expressed as independent moments; on the other hand, as law in the form of a simple unity withdrawn into itself. As with similar dualities Hegel has outlined in earlier sections, this duality points beyond itself, suggesting the need for its own transcendence. Hegel explores this point by drawing out the limitations of law taken to be either of these dualistic poles in isolation.
First, he looks at law in the form of a simple unity – what he calls law as “force in general”, understood to be sufficiently abstract to absorb the distinction between inciting and incited force – using the example of electricity. Hegel argues that simple electricity, conceptualised as force, cannot express difference per se – within the law. Difference, in the form of notions of positive and negative electricity, is not grasped as part of the essential nature of electricity: positive and negative electricity are spoken of as properties electricity possesses, and may be described as “necessary”, but this is a purely verbal “necessity”, not capturing any intrinsic relationship between the notion of electricity, as the simple unity of force, and its being, its expression in positive and negative forms. From this starting point, it is possible to treat the relationship between being and notion as arbitrary, or to invoke other, external, factors to account for the relation – and thus move away from simple unity and back to a plurality of laws. The attempt to grasp law in terms of the simple unity of force therefore cannot capture the necessity of the relationship between law and force, notion and being – pointing to unintegrated elements that fall outside the bounds of this kind of simple unity (152).
Hegel then moves to an analysis of the other dualistic pole – to laws in which differences are expressed as independent moments – to argue that this is no more adequate for grasping the necessary relationship between notion and being. Here Hegel uses the example of the law of motion, noting the way in which motion is broken up into time and space, distance and velocity – each of which is treated as an independent entity, indifferent to all others. No necessary connection is established between these moments – they are not grasped as referring to one another in any essential way. This problem, moreover, is not overcome by the “unification” of the law of motion into the law of universal attraction, as the law of universal attraction is an abstraction that does not preserve these distinctions within itself (153).
From this foundation, Hegel argues that Understanding makes pivotal distinctions – recognising isolated instances of the dynamic movement of independent, but mutually interpenetrating, moments whose interaction generates the universal. For Understanding, however, these distinctions are not inherent or essential to the object, but instead are taken to fall only within Understanding. Hegel argues that this results in Understanding grasping a “merely verbal” necessity – carrying out a “rehearsal of the moments which make up the cycle of necessity” – engaging in a process that Hegel calls Explanation. Explanation, for Hegel, expresses a law, distinguishes the law’s inherently universal element as force – but then denies the essential character of this distinction, by asserting the intrinsic unity of the content of force and law (154).
For Hegel, Understanding therefore engages in a tautological process that derives from its dualistic starting point: having divided consciousness off from an object posited to be external to consciousness, Understanding maintains the timeless unity of the object, and pushes all process, all distinction, back into Understanding itself. In the process, however, Understanding becomes acquainted with absolute change – the same change previously manifested in the play of forces, through which Understanding initially sought to peer, in order to glimpse what it took to be a timeless supersensible realm. Here, however, the restless process of self-cancelling change does not lie outside the supersensible realm, but within it (155). This gives rise to a new understanding of the law, in both the sphere of appearance and the inner supersensible world. Here, the restless change of the play of forces in the realm of appearance, is not juxtaposed to the timelessness unity of the supersensible realm. Instead, Understanding sees the realm of appearance giving rise to self-negating distinctions, or unity, while in the supersensible inner realm, identity becomes generative of inconstancy and difference (156). With this, Hegel opens the discussion of the inverted world. The “kingdom of laws” – the first attempt to grasp the inner world – opposed the supersensible world to the endless flux of appearance, rejecting appearance from inner being; the inverted world, by contrast, reestablishes the intrinsic relation of inner being and the sphere of appearance.
Here Hegel moves rapidly through a range of examples from physical and moral theory – what is black becomes, in the inverted world, white (is the reference here to something like absorption vs. reflection of light?); good intentions can invert the inner significance of what might appear to be a crime; etc. (157-159) Hegel notes that, superficially, the inverted world might seem a simple antithesis of the kingdom of laws, such that one could be taken as a sphere of appearance or as the world as it is for another, while the other could be taken as inherent being or the world as it is for itself. This conclusion, would, however, miss the significance of the inverted world – which is that the confrontation with this world has the result of undermining fixed distinctions between inner and outer, appearance and supersensible, or similar dichotomies that arise from assigning difference to separate substances. Reconstituting such a dichotomy would simply drive Understanding back to one of the earlier configurations, which would start the circuit once more, leading again to this point.
With the inverted world, then, the sensuous idea of keeping distinctions embodied in different substantive elements can finally be overcome. Contradiction can finally be grasped, as “the opposite of an opposite”, the situation in which “the other is directly and immediately present within it[s opposite]” (159-160). With this notion of the opposite of an opposite – of the opposite that encompasses its other – Hegel opens the discussion of Infinity.
Infinity, for Hegel, is a form in which distinction may be grasped as internal distinction, enabling the law finally to realise its nature as expressive of inherent necessity. It is worth quoting the relevant passage in full:
By means of infinity we see law attaining the form of inherent necessity, and so realizing its complete nature; and all moments of the sphere of appearance are thereby taken up into the inner realm. That the simple and ultimate nature of law is infinity means, according to the foregoing analysis, (a) that it is a self-identical element, which, however, is inherently distinction; or that it is selfsameness which repels itself from itself, breaks asunder into two factors. What was called simple force duplicates itself, and through its infinity is law. It means (b) that what is thus sundered, constituting as it does the parts which are thought of as in the law, puts itself forward as subsisting, as stable; and, if the parts are considered without the conception of internal distinction, then space and time, or distance and velocity, which appear as moments of gravity, are just as much indifferent and without necessary relation to one another as to gravity itself, or again as this bare gravity is indifferent to them, or as simple electricity is indifferent to positive and negative. But (c) by this conception of internal distinction, this unlike and indifferent factor, space and time, etc., becomes a distinction, which is no distinction, or merely a distinction of what is selfsame, and its essence is unity. They are reciprocally awakened into activity as positive and negative by each other, and their being lies rather in their putting themselves as not-being, and cancelling themselves in the common unity. Both the factors distinguished subsist; they are per se, and they are per se as opposites, that is are the opposites of themselves; they have their antithesis within them, and are merely one single unity. (161)
Infinity therefore opens the possibility of grasping a form of self-identity that is nevertheless inherently distinction, a dynamic movement of self-negating distinctions that overcome and reconstitute themselves as moments of an essential unity.
Hegel moves from here to a preliminary discussion of infinity as the nature of life, foreshadowing the opening concerns of the coming section on Self-Consciousness. In terms that are evocative of the ways in which Marx will describe capital, Hegel describes the nature of life:
This bare and simple infinity, or the absolute notion, may be called the ultimate nature of life, the soul of the world, the universal life-blood, which courses everywhere, and whose flow is neither disturbed nor checked by any obstructing distinction, but is itself every distinction that arises, as well as that into which all distinctions are dissolved; pulsating within itself, but ever motionless, shaken to its depths, but still at rest. It is self-identical, for the distinctions are tautological; they are distinctions that are none. This self-identical reality stands, therefore, in relation solely to itself. (162)
All that is solid melts into air… I can almost feel Marx shudder…
At any rate… For Hegel, this move enables philosophy to overcome the anxiety over to how to derive difference from pure essence. This anxiety, Hegel argues, is already a symptom of the form in which the question has been posed – a symptom of a starting point that posits a distinction, and then searches for how to overcome it – that tries to understand unity as an abstraction, confusing unity with a moment in an overarching process, and taking that moment to stand opposed to distinction. Hegel points instead to the need to conceptualise a dynamic process in which diremption and becoming-unity are conjoined. He calls this unity – an “absolute unrest of pure self-movement” – Infinitude, and argues that previous shapes of consciousness were striving, albeit unawares, to this end. The play of forces already suggests it; Explanation opens the way for it to be rendered explicit – and, through this, Understanding enables consciousness finally to recognise itself in its object, and thus provides a preliminary description of Self-Consciousness (162-163).
Understanding can therefore carry consciousness to the threshhold of Self-Consciousness – in a form, however, that cannot do justice to infinitude, as it still attempts to assign distinction to two independent worlds. To transcend the limits of Understanding, consciousness must adopt a new attitude. Hegel will turn next to this attitude, exploring the “long and devious process” that uncovers what it is that consciousness knows, when it is knowing itself (165).
For my part, it’s a very hot, uncomfortable, Melbourne summer day, and I think I’ve processed as much Hegel as I can in one sitting… ;-P Between the heat, and the time it’s taken me to put this post together, I’m well past the point of proofreading – apologies if the resultant errors compound any mistakes of the more intrinsic kind… Happy holidays to all who somehow make it to the bottom of the post… ;-P
Edit: Forgot to put in links to the posts leading up to this one: I’ve previously (though a long while back, and not with the current concerns in mind) written on the section on Sense-Certainty and, more recently, the section on Perception and the initial stab at this section. Links to other occasional posts on Phenomenology can be found here.