So as promised (funny how I seem able to keep certain promises, but not others… ;-P): a bad post on the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, written to satisfy LM’s infectious tease that suggested this was a new year in need of an appropriately symbolic commemoration…
I probably should tuck the content below the fold, as this post is somewhat long, and I’m not really sure how a post this primitive could spark discussion, even among the two of us still around to workshop this text on Wednesday… (I suppose, from LM’s point of view, this post might at least provide some ammunition to take into that discussion – a compensation for tipping me off about Popper some weeks ago… ;-P) But in this quiet time of the year, and with this post no doubt soon to be overshadowed by the more interesting revisitation of the Derrida-Searle debate in a couple of days, I’ll refrain from trying to hide my undercooked reading… ;-P
Anyone wanting to double-check the context for the passages I quote below, who doesn’t have a copy of Phenomenology ready to hand, can consult one of the many online versions of that text. Quotations and paragraph references below are taken from the version at gwfhegel.org – mainly because that’s the first source I stumbled across – and, for those interested, is formatted for side-by-side display of English and German texts.
Okay. Since I’m extremely unlikely to go beyond the most obvious points in this reading, I’ll try to focus on stating the obvious as clearly as possible (this approach has the beneficial side effect of making it much easier for someone to criticise me, if what I take to be “obvious” is, instead, obviously wrong… ;-P). I’ll also quote quite a lot of Hegel’s own text – if for no other reason than to give a sense for how I’m interpreting specific passages – and perhaps as a small demonstration of how some words, at least, do not seem to speak for themselves… ;-P
Hegel tells us, repeatedly, how to read the preface: we should read it, he instructs, as a performative contradiction. Although Hegel wishes to tip his hand and foreshadow the implications of his approach, he warns us from the first paragraph of the risk that the form of philosophical presentation might be inadequate to its content:
In philosophy, on the other hand, it would at once be felt incongruous were such a method made use of and yet shown by philosophy itself to be incapable of grasping the truth. (1)
He then repeats this admonition periodically throughout the text, worrying that his form might in places appear dogmatic:
When we state the true form of truth to be its scientific character – or, what is the same thing, when it is maintained that truth finds the medium of its existence in notions or conceptions alone – I know that this seems to contradict an idea with all its consequences which makes great pretensions and had gained widespread acceptance and conviction at the present time. A word of explanation concerning this contradiction seems, therefore, not out of place, even though at this stage it can amount to no more than a dogmatic assurance exactly like the view we are opposing. (6 – italics mine)
And stressing in other places that his claims only anticipate the more thorough grounding that needs to follow:
What is here stated describes in effect the essential principle; but cannot stand for more at this stage than an assertion or assurance by way of anticipation. The truth it contains is not to be found in this exposition, which is in part historical in character. (57 – italics mine)
He also flags the kind of presentation that would be required in order to render the form of presentation adequate to its content:
Abolishing the form of the proposition must not take place only in an immediate manner, through the mere content of the proposition. On the contrary, we must give explicit expression to the cancelling process; it must be not only that internal restraining and confining of thought within its own substance; this turning of the conception back into itself has to be expressly brought out and stated. This process, which constitutes what formerly had to be accomplished by proof, is the internal dialectic movement of the proposition itself. This alone is the concrete speculative element, and only the explicit expression of this is a speculative systematic exposition. Qua proposition, the speculative aspect is merely the internal restriction of thought within its own substance where the return of the essential principle into itself is not yet brought out. Hence we often find philosophical expositions referring us to the inner intuition, and thus dispensing with the systematic statement of the dialectical movement of the proposition, which is what we wanted all the while. The proposition ought to express what the truth is: in its essential nature the truth is subject: being so, it is merely the dialectical movement, this self-producing course of activity, maintaining its advance by returning back into itself. In the case of knowledge in other spheres this aspect of expressly stating the internal nature of the content is constituted by proof. When dialectic, however, has been separated from proof, the idea of philosophical demonstration as a matter of fact has vanished altogether. (65 – note that this analysis continues for several subsequent paragraphs that I have chosen not to reproduce here…)
How are we to understand such passages? Why is the form of presentation so important? Why is it so apparently problematic to “cut to the chase” – to state, clearly and directly, the conclusions or principal claims of this approach?
The answer lies in the kind of critique Hegel seeks to make of competing approaches – a critique that involves embedding conflicting philosophical approaches within an overarching historical vision that seeks to grasp the development of philosophy as an organic process, one in which philosophical systems “contradict” one another in the specific sense of displacing one another over time, but in which each contradictory element still represents a necessary moment within a dynamic unity. Hegel’s approach represents a form – not, I would suggest, the only possible form – of an immanent approach to philosophy – of an attempt to account for how philosophical insight might be grounded without assuming a sharp ontological divide between thinking subjects and objective truth.
From Hegel’s particular understanding of an immanent perspective, static notions of the truth or falsehood of philosophical systems can be criticised with reference to how they obscure our awareness of the historical necessity of particular systems, how they keep us from perceiving particular systems as intrinsic moments within a dynamic historical process whose movement simultaneously presupposes, contradicts, and surpasses superceded forms of philosophical thought. Yet simply asserting such a critique – baldly laying forth this conclusion as a verdict, as a stance – falls behind the very kind of historical insight other approaches are being criticised for lacking. As Hegel notes:
The easiest thing of all is to pass judgments on what has a solid substantial content; it is more difficult to grasp it, and most of all difficult to do both together and produce the systematic exposition of it. (3)
Once philosophy moves to a position that claims itself to be embedded and immanent, the weight of philosophical analysis shifts. The most difficult problem comes to be, not arriving at a conclusion or judgment, but accounting for how that conclusion or judgment becomes immanently available. Understanding the process of philosophical thought immanently – in Hegel’s terms, as a form of mediation, rather than as either a beginning or an endpoint – becomes a central philosophical concern.
In the preface, Hegel thus repeatedly worries that, by flagging what other positions miss – where they fall short – he participates in a form of argument that itself falls afoul of the content of his critique. So Hegel criticises, for example, both sterile formalism – which attempts to categorise experience with reference to external categories that are not immanent to the experience being analysed – and, its mirror image, the attempt to embrace experience directly, in what Hegel calls “unbroken immediacy” (4) – arguing that both approaches fail to ground their judgments, because they neglect the problem of mediation. Yet Hegel is troubled by his presentation of this critique, because its content – the emphasis on immanence and mediation – sits in an awkward contradiction with the form in which the critique is expressed. He therefore struggles against his own text, repeatedly reminding the reader of the work that will need to be done before this critique can be adequately grounded within the framework he intends to unfold. He foregrounds that he must ultimately achieve a more consistent and adequate account of the critiques he can offer here only in the form of promissory notes. Later, via a more adequate exposition, he must pay the bill – by demonstrating how his own position – his ability to perceive the immanent and historical character of philosophical insight, and thus ground his judgments of competing approaches – has itself been immanently achieved.
But this discussion is making me feel that I am failing in my goal of presenting obvious points clearly… ;-P I’ve mentioned in other discussions that I seem to have terrible difficulty expressing this point (which, at its core, also applies to notions of immanence that otherwise share very little with Hegel’s conception)…
Rather than persisting with my lack of clarity on this point, I’ll break the discussion here and, since in a post I lose all hope of covering this text in an adequate way, just quickly gesture at one further issue that might be of interest in the reading group discussion: the peculiar understanding of “science” that serves as a kind of normative ideal for philosophy in this text. Hegel’s concept of “science” – and I won’t go into detail on this issue here, but only flag the point – appears integrally and, in light of subsequent social theory, interestingly bound together with the search for a form of universal that can grasp the particular within itself. “Scientific” thought is thus contrasted, in this text, to forms of thought that invoke more abstract notions of universality – expressed, for example, in abstract formalism, syllogistic logic, or mathematics – approaches that Hegel rejects as models for scientific philosophy because they would involve imposing an extrinsic classificatory system or analytical procedure that, because it is external to experience, could never connect the subject to its object in anything other than an arbitrary way. The concept of “science” seems to align most closely with the study of organic processes and of history – understood in terms of their need to grasp a kind of unfolding, immanent, developmental logic. Philosophy reaches the status of a science, in Hegel’s account, when it ceases to apply external forms of thought instrumentally to what are conceived as distinct and passive objects of analysis, but instead wields analytical categories grasped through the analysis of its own immanent position within an unfolding developmental trajectory.
Hegel’s appeal to notions of a developmental logic of history has fallen on unsympathetic times – both in the sense that we are now much more sceptical of whether such a developmental logic could be said to exist, particularly cross-culturally and across the long sweep of human history, and in the sense that we have learned to be wary of claims that aligning ourselves with such a logic would be a desirable moral goal. If, as Hegel suggests, “it is the nature of truth to force its way to recognition when the time comes” (71), then perhaps history has driven us past the moment when we could be seduced by the prospect of philosophy as a project of “holding our time in thought”, or as a project that would entail aligning ourselves with some unfolding logic of history.
At the same time, however, elements of Hegel’s critical perspective continue to resonate: many of us accept, I suspect, the thesis of immanance – and, like Hegel, are then caught up in the logical implications of this thesis for the form of philosophical argument in which we need to engage to be adequate to this insight. Many of us would also value, I suspect, alternatives to empty formalism – and yet also reject the mirror image of formalism, expressed in claims to privileged access to direct revelation. These shared concerns drive us to continue to think about how we might conceptualise subjects as the subjects of their object – and how we might grasp, self-reflexively, the ways in which our own historical experiences have made it possible for us to achieve these insights at this moment in time. We can therefore still recognise key elements of Hegel’s questions in ourselves and in our times.
Perhaps it is possible – and this is the question I would like to suspend in the background as the reading group continues to move through this text – to preserve much of what is valuable from Hegel’s approach, while moving away from the idealism that sees the present time as the culmination of a purposive and meaningful historical trajectory. If we no longer believe that we can – or should – seek to hold our time in thought, perhaps our current goal should be to ask how we might hold our thought in time: how we might best recognise the debts our philosophy owes, not to a long-term, linear form of historical progress that has incrementally generated cumulative knowledge that we can now harvest, but to a complex and contradictory contemporary historical moment whose unintentional insights we may need to appropriate with great caution. Perhaps, as Benjamin suggests, such an appropriation might require:
…a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly. Among medieval theologians it was regarded as the root cause of sadness… The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor… There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.
What might it look like to appropriate Hegel within an approach that seeks to brush history against the grain? How might we seek to acknowledge our great debt to our historical experience, while also viewing recent history as both nonrandom and blind? What might it mean to grasp historical patterns, not as something pointing us toward perfection, or as something whose realisation we should seek, but as constitutive moments of a mindless juggernaut that – although devoid of all meaning and intention – has generated the potential for us to break with a particular practice and a specific experience of history? Hegel argues:
…it is not difficult to see that our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto prevailing, and with the old ways of thinking, and is in the mind to let them all sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation… That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown – all these betoken that there is something else approaching. The gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.(11)
In what senses can our time be experienced and practised as a transition? In what senses can it be experienced and practised as a break? A path into both questions, perhaps, lies in our developing a firmer grasp of what would be required to construct an historically immanent social theory. And this is, perhaps, not an altogether inappropriate task for reflection on a symbolically-laden new year’s eve… 😉
[Note: Klein bottle image reproduced from Wikipedia, where the image has been licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License. For more information, please visit the image’s Wikipedia page.]