Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Holding Our Thought in Time

Klein BottleSo 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 – 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.]


3 responses to “Holding Our Thought in Time

  1. L Magee January 2, 2007 at 1:27 am

    Thank you for a wonderful introduction (to a Preface… At this rate, like Tristram Shandy, we might never get beyond the section on “Self Consciousness” – which would leave us unfortunately deprived of both “Reason” and “Spirit”). I have a long and lengthy remark to add, hopefully to further the reading group discussion (though they may be of no use to anyone else):

    In reference to your concluding remarks, particularly “our time be experienced and practiced as a transition”, it seems to me we remain held within the Hegelian sense of history as much as ever. Perhaps, perversely, we are so used to the sense of flux, revolution and change that “Frivolity and again ennui” are actually symptoms, not of an “established order of things” but rather of the historical accommodation to the constancy of being in “a period of transition”. Of course it might be argued that a hidden constancy underlies the apparent transition, as a unity underlying difference – but still some account might need to be made of what exists at least as a sense, with reference to technology, politics, the environment and other areas, of both the constantly expressed “singularity” of present times, and the mundaneness of these singularities. Indeed the sense of singularity is almost an essential part of any contemporary historiography – it is hardly possible to describe the history of philosophy, technology, the economy, without some particular reference to the present’s clear distinctions from the past. In what sense then is it possible to be aware of a present as anything but a break with the past, without falling at the same time for the naive opposite position, that of an idealised continuity with the past? Your remarks about “unsympathetic times” notwithstanding, it is doubtful to me that contemporary skepticism as such does much to dispel other contemporary moments, perhaps more prevalent, which echo Hegel’s idealism both positively – in the sense of technology, globalism and late (and corrected, so as to be more benign) capitalism, as triumvirate forces of a renewed and revitalised Enlightenment, leading us forward, past cultural and historical difference, to an egalitarian, free and even unified future; and negatively – in the sense of the dystopic inversion of that idealism. Your point is about Hegel particularly, and no doubt his deterministic version of history remains suspect to analytic and continental strains of philosophy alike; but it strikes me that all too easily the Hegelian positions are reasserted elsewhere, under different banners, and without being acknowledged (for instance, in both the eulogising and demonising of technology and its role in human history). Yet precisely in the absence of such acknowledgment – in the simple assumption that we are collectively beyond Hegel and the post-Hegelian interpreters, Marxist or otherwise – the fulfillment of teleology is itself negated, and prospect of progression, however conceived, is lost in the endless repetition of a tired debate (“Are we progressing or regressing? Are we more or less moral? Will the future be better than the present”, and so on – questions which continue to underwrite contemporary discourse, both academic and otherwise). The task of “developing a firmer grasp of what would be required to construct an historically immanent social theory”, founded upon an historical “process of empathy”, a task which might be presumed to constitute progress of some kind, has also to run counter to the continued air of judgement of history and future that pervades this debate. In other words the task requires, it seems to me, not dismissing out-of-hand the apparently out-dated sense of history’s purposiveness – perhaps the position of naive postmodernism – but rather finding how the present continues to invoke this sense, as though even in an age which has dispensed with explicit metaphysics, there still must be a transcendental invisible hand, guiding us through the ages, leading us somewhere, for better or worse.

    On a separate front, the idea that “Hegel rejects as models for scientific philosophy because they would involve imposing an extrinsic classificatory system or analytical procedure” seems to run counter to the dialectic itself – which is nothing if not a procedure, although perhaps it could be argued as immanent rather than “external to” the objects of a scientific philosophy. I’m not sure how, if at all, this apparent contradiction is resolved, or whether I’m missing something more vital here.

  2. N Pepperell January 2, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Beautiful – thank you. My thoughts are in several places this morning, as I’m also preparing a response to your Derrida-Searle piece, so apologies in advance if this (or that) bit of writing isn’t terribly focussed…

    It’s funny, thinking my response to your comment here, just after re-reading your piece on the Derrida vs Searle debate, as the juxtaposition made me highly conscious of the degree to which I had written the Hegel piece with certain – very specific – conversations in mind. Of course, posted here for the world to see, there’s no reason for anyone else to choose the read the piece with those same conversations in mind – or even to be aware that those conversations had ever taken place. As you raise in your DvS piece (I realise other lurkers can’t read it yet, but all will be clear – or, to be consistent, perhaps I should say all will be unclear in a different way ;-P – when the piece goes live on the blog tomorrow…), there are fundamental issues of whether readers are in any way “responsible” for interpreting texts in light of the contexts in which they were written – or, in Derrida’s terms, of the degree to which this is even possible…

    But enough meta-commentary…

    I do agree, of course, that there are many positions that – Hegelian in any overt way or not – still do put forward triumphalist narratives about the march of human progress (or regress) through history. Such narratives are most likely far more dominant than the sort of critical narrative I was putting forward, that would be sceptical of the tacit metaphysics behind such approaches.

    When I was writing, I was thinking of people who would share my aversion to metaphysics – and I was also taking a stance: arguing, in effect, that our historical experience provides us with the basis for rejecting metaphysical narratives about history, whether or not we choose to make full use of that experience (whether, in Benjaminian terms, we choose to cite history in all its moments…) when we articulate our narratives about our experiences through time…

    But I absolutely agree with you that “all too easily the Hegelian positions are reasserted elsewhere, under different banners” – and that, to use the language I drew from Hegel above, my points above were essentially made “in anticipation” of a proper critical theory that would need, not only to explain why we should be “over” this conception of history, but “how the present continues to invoke this sense” of history. I’ve issued the promissory note – I haven’t yet paid the bill… 😉 But I think you’re absolutely correct in your statement of the key theoretical/historical problem to be resolved.

    On Hegel’s concept of “science” – yes: I thought you’d be interested in this. I’m actually hoping that some better informed lurkers might leap in and let me know if I’ve just pulled some comments out of context from Hegel’s text (although I’ve made similar arguments about the use of the term “science” in other 19th century authors, and how the shifting meanings of this term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have driven some very strange appropriations of earlier texts…).

    I’m not completely sure that I share the notion of dialectic as a procedure – but I’ve always been a bit fuzzy on how other people use the concept of the dialectic: it often sounds quite alien to me, what other people do with the concept – which suggests to me that I’ve somehow acquired an idiosyncratic interpretation, probably from reading relevant texts autodidactically… So in part I’m engaging in this reading in a quite open way: I want to see how the concept seems to be used in the text… And since, as you put it, I’m still reading in a state where I lack both reason and spirit, anything I say now is likely to be both dull and naive… ;-P

    I do, though, have a reasonable fluency with concepts of immanent theory, and I therefore did perk up at Hegel’s criticisms of formalism and of what I tend to call “classificatory” approaches to theory, in particular – I’ve written things here on the issue, commenting that I’ve never actually understood how “theory” has come to be so closely identified in the social sciences with classificatory systems, to which my reaction has always been quite similar to the critique Hegel outlines: that the systems might have some practical value, but that they always appear essentially arbitrary to me – I don’t find them “illuminating” and in a very fundamental sense am always confused about what other people see in such approaches. This isn’t at all to elevate my position: I’ve just never seemed to “get” classificatory theory, and I’m quite conscious that this may reflect some kind of deficiency on my part…

    I was also quite interested in reading the critique of mathematics as a model for philosophy as, again, I’ve made similar critiques (gesturally). Here, though, it didn’t feel to me as though Hegel was quite hitting the mark (and I say this with full awareness that I might regret this statement later… ;-P) – I think there is a critique to be made, but I don’t think it’s quite expressed in the text, and I suspect there is also a conflation going on, between a criticism that could be made of particular concepts of proof or deductive reasoning, on the one hand, and what I suspect is a quite distinct criticism of the focus on quantitative objects of analysis, at the expense of grasping qualitative transformations. But I really haven’t worked through the text well enough to articulate this – or to be sure I’m not just misunderstanding the point…

    I’m hoping to use this text, among other things, to provoke myself into developing a better vocabulary for expressing what it means for a theory’s categories to be historically immanent – how this contrasts to classificatory theory. To me, there’s a clear intuitive distinction – and that’s a significant problem, as I can’t expect anyone else to share my intuitions, and as errors of thinking hide quite readily in what seems most intuitive to us… So I’m hoping I can externalise and, so to speak, alienate my thinking on this issue a bit…

    But it will be interesting to revisit the issue of “science” as we move through the text, to see whether my reading of the term in the preface was just misconceived…

  3. Pingback: » Assembling an Abstraction

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