Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Hegel and Marks

So LMagee and I met yesterday for our second discussion on Hegel. Two posts will be forthcoming from this discussion – one from me, on some elements of the argumentative structure of the first several sections of Phenomenology, and one from LM, who will comment specifically on the lordship and bondage discussion. I think that both of us intend our posts more in the spirit of notes-in-progress than of polished commentary, since we would both like to revisit these sections from the standpoint of having worked our way through the piece as a whole. Ideally, I should post my piece, followed by LM’s. In practice, this may not happen, as I’m trying to finish some marking, and there’s something absolutely surreal in moving back and forth between assessing first-year undergraduate work, and trying to make sense of Hegel… I don’t think the order of posting will have a serious effect on anyone’s ability to follow the discussion, since the posts will of course be written by people approaching the text from two different directions, and since my comments will be more about the form of the argument than its contents.

The form of the argument did occupy much of our discussion yesterday, with LM feeling the triadic structure of the text was an arbitrary imposition on the content being analysed, and therefore inclined to perceive the text as a series of deductions from a problematic premise. My suggestion was that the form of argument was not, strictly speaking, deductive – since the whole point of an immanent approach would be to justify the point of departure in the course of the analysis, rather than rely on a “ground” that sits essentially outside the analysis. I understand the triadic structure as something like a fractal – an underlying structure whose existence is demonstrated again and again at various levels of abstraction, where the argument moves by suggesting that, without an understanding of this structure, it becomes impossible to make sense of many phenomena. If this has been done successfully, a competing theoretical approach cannot simply attack the “ground”, as it might attack a first principle – it must instead demonstrate that it can unfold an analysis without reference to the same structure, while still making sense of as many phenomena as the approach being criticised. We went back and forth on this issue in our discussion, and LM followed up afterward, eventually emailing the link to the Hegel article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which, I have to admit, I still haven’t read, so I’m not sure if this link was meant to point to a refutation of my position ;-P). LM did, though, gradually warm to Hegel’s triadic structure in the course of evening researches, first emailing the following from the Stanford article:

Hegel’s logical triads are often regarded as expressions of an artificial and functionless formalism, but it should be remembered that in the later nineteenth century, no less a logician than Charles Sanders Peirce came to a similar idea about the fundamentally *trinary* structure of the categories of thought.

And then later, with what I take to be both chagrin and pride:

I have to note with some irony that my thesis table of contents *happens* to have nine chapters, coincidentally structured as three sets of three… Great minds…

These aftershocks aside, I have to say that the discussion was an extremely enjoyable one – there’s something deliciously surreal about reading individual sentences from this text, and trying to make sense of what the hell is being said, while in a mundane environment that keeps tossing you back into an everyday context where you wonder what people in neighbouring tables must be thinking, when you read out – and what’s more seem engaged by – passages like:

The Here pointed out, which I keep hold of, is likewise a this Here which, in fact, is not this Here, but a Before and Behind, an Above and Below, a Right and Left. The Above is itself likewise this manifold otherness–above, below, etc. The Here, which was to be pointed out, disappears in other Heres, and these disappear similarly. What is pointed out, held fast, and is permanents a negative This, which only is so when the Heres are taken as they should be, but therein cancel one another; it is a simple complex of many Heres. The Here that is “meant” would be the point. But it is not: rather, when it is pointed out as being, as having existence, that very act of pointing out proves to be not immediate knowledge, but a process, a movement from the Here “meant” through a plurality of Heres to the universal Here, which is a simple plurality of Heres, just as day is a simple plurality of Nows. (108)

It was a glorious discussion, which I’m looking forward to continuing online, and when we meet again next week – to talk about Reason…

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5 responses to “Hegel and Marks

  1. L Magee January 11, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    On the contrary, with the impromptu acapella being performed by the waiters, it was we, not the other Consciousnesses around us, who sat on the right side of Reason. Although it had never occurred to me before that Aufhebung required two rounds of Coke and one Lemon Lime and Bitters as its pre-conditions. I am still digesting – no pun intended – your notion that Hegel departs so radically from traditional philosophy in the sense of developing a system from first principles. This seems a radical if well-founded reading; my sense, such as it is, is that there remains a leap of faith to follow Hegel down his particular schema, regardless of the explanatory power of it. It is enough to envision other possible schemas – could there not be a fourth aspect to consciousness, for instance, aside from sense-certainty, perception and understanding? – to feel that this one remains highly contingent, without necessarily positing a better alternative. But… quite likely I am still not “getting it” here, at least with reference to the nature of the immanent critique – I look forward to arriving, later rather than sooner, at “Absolute Knowing” in this regard. My overall impression is one of being intoxicated by a particular argumentative movement, which seems overwhelming convincing as I follow it, but which seems like a distant dream once I walk away. Till next week…

  2. N Pepperell January 11, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    OMG!!! I had forgotten!!! How could I forget something like that!!! (Apologies to anyone trying to lurk the discussion – there was a literally indescribable performance from a member of the wait staff while we were trying to unpack a particularly dense section of text – it was a sort of “you had to be there” moment of atmospheric anarchy erupting around our discussion…)

    In terms of whether my reading is “radical” – to be honest, I’m not deliberately trying to read the text in an unusual way (and am sufficiently ignorant of the academic apparatus on the text as to have no real idea whether my reading is at all unusual). Basically, I’m just trying to take seriously what he says he’s trying to do, which is to elaborate a system that will move beyond subject-object dualism: if you’re trying to do this in any serious way, you’ve just eliminated your ability to posit a priori grounds, from which you then claim to deduce whatever else you want to argue. Hegel’s many stage whispers on the form of his presentation, and its potential tension with the content of his claims, suggest that he is wrestling with the need to come up with a completely different form of philosophical argument that will be compatible with his intentions. So, to me, the text reinforces this reading on a number of different levels. If I’m up to it, I’ll try to write on this at greater length when I do a more formal post.

    In terms of whether you could criticise this approach by positing hypothetical alternative schemas – sure, you can posit as many hypotheticals as you like. The question is whether you will thereby have provided someone else with a persuasive case for listening to the hypotheticals you pose… 😉 Part of the challenge posed by this kind of approach is that the approach itself claims to make sense of its opposition – thereby laying down the challenge that, if you want to criticise it, your competing approach must also make sense of the way it perceives the world.

    So, for example, Hegel tries to make sense of the tendency to see the world in terms of subjects and objects – even though he will also claim that further analysis demonstrates this not to be accurate perception: subject-object dualism becomes, in a way, “comprehensible” or “intuitively plausible”, even though it isn’t actually correct. To tackle Hegel – assuming you were still trying to do so within an immanent approach yourself – you would have to show why this triadic perception is itself plausible, and yet can be seen as incorrect once we take your fourth dimension into account, etc.

    You could of course reject immanence – but doing so means positing that there is some element of your system that, essentially, lies outside the grasp of your own analysis. Once you take this step, you are always vulnerable to an immanent approach that could account for whatever element you place beyond analysis, and thereby make your approach look (at best) unnecessarily metaphysical… But I’m sure this point is too abbreviated to make sense in such a condensed form…

    I personally think that the value of a concept of immanence is that it can eliminate metaphysical elements from philosophical accounts – and, at least at this stage in my reading, Hegel retains many metaphysical elements (and reads, in a sense, as an attempt to figure out how it might be possible to preserve these, against the challenge posed by the recognition that certain kinds of immanence are possible). He is interesting to me, though, in having tried in a very serious way to think through the logical implications of immanence for the form of philosophical argument… (Not to suggest that this is the only reason he’s interesting, just that this is a particularly important aspect of his work, for me…)

    In any event: I hope you don’t feel obligated to wait for me, before you post your thoughts. I’ll try when I do post to fill in some of these gestural points in more detail – although I reserve the right to get distracted with tangents and minor issues as, like you, I get intoxicated by the text… ;-P

  3. L Magee January 12, 2007 at 1:18 am

    Well, I begin to see the sorts of problems into which I’m lead by posing a “fourth dimension”, given the trouble I’m having with just the three of them. Life seemed easier, back when there was two… or even one… or none at all… Intuitively it stills seems to me Hegel shares a considerable amount with someone like Spinoza (starting with: they are roughly equivalent on a scale of incomprehensibility), and indeed, with Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. There is something about system building which, however much you try to do away with a priori grounds, still requires they be there somewhere. When I said “radical”, I meant more that you are finding Hegel making a more radical break with the philosophical tradition – which indeed he may do. Nevertheless it seems to me that attempting to do away with a particular dualism does not mean doing away with a priori grounds – it means finding these grounds elsewhere, in this case in a method which demonstrates how each term of the dualism is mediated through a third term. This “artificial and functionless formalism” is, at the level of method, similarly “axiomatic” to the geometric method of Spinoza. From this method, the whole system can be deduced, even though there are no first principles announced as such. To be sure, the assumption of a particular method for philosophical reasoning is not de facto metaphysical; it simply is posited, a hypothetical move, to see what comes of it. If it leads to a better explanatory account, so much the better for it. But I don’t think for Hegel, this method is simply a ladder you can throw away having gotten to where you’re going – it is anything but “functionless” in this sense, and has an ontological valency just as fundamental as the Cogito or experience for other systems. Hence it would be possible to tackle Hegel, not by hypothesizing some greater and more convincing “fourth dimensional” system (God forbid), but by pointing just to the arbitrariness of any system which iterates, over and over again, through a fixed scheme. Isn’t this scheme ushered in from some transcendental place?

    Caveat lector – I look forward to your promised next installment. It’ll be some days before I can gather any cogent thoughts on Lordship and Bondage, I’m afraid.

  4. N Pepperell January 12, 2007 at 10:57 am

    There are a few distinguishable issues here (and I’ll apologise in advance for what will probably be a bit of a murky attempt to back my way into them – my son managed to injure himself yesterday – nothing serious, although a bit frightening when it happened, but the result was that I spent much of the night as a living pillow for a squirmish three-year-old, so I haven’t had much in the way of quality sleep…).

    First is that Hegel in a sense must share a great deal with his predecessors, because he understands himself as trying to embed what they do in a more powerful system. Once he sets out on an immanent approach, it becomes self-contradictory for him to dismiss competing approaches out of hand – this is why he agonises so much in the Preface when his text seems to take this dismissive form: he is aware that a different form of critique is actually required, one that will not just criticise competing approaches for being “wrong”, but that will instead convict them of something more like confusing a moment for a totality…

    That said, I don’t think Hegel can build a system on a priori grounds, if he wants to overcome a subject-object dualism. You’re right that he still needs a ground – but one of the things that is so interesting about him is his recognition of what happens to the concept of a ground, once you try to do away with the subject-object dualism itself. The ground has to become something that is itself immanently generated – and therefore cannot stand outside to serve as an a priori. This doesn’t by any means suggest that the ground is some kind of ladder you can throw away once the process is complete – quite the contrary: the fact that a ground is immanent actually makes it specifically non-arbitrary, as it’s an intrinsic element of the relationships being analysed. This is, again, why Hegel is so worried that his beginning will of necessity “appear dogmatic” and arbitrary, and why he keeps indicating that what he says early on must be understood as an ancipation of what is to come: he is acutely aware that his starting point will seem random – he must then attempt to establish its non-randomness (in his version, its necessity) – in the course of his analysis. If he’s successful (and I’m not here trying to suggest that he is) the result is the exact opposite of abstract formalism, which imposes an arbitrarily chosen set of analytic categories on its object: Hegel would claim that the categories he has chosen are necessarily the only categories in terms of which one could make sense of the whole. This is why those categories are… er… grounded grounds, rather than a priori ones… ;-P (I’m really much too tired to try to explain this… ;-P)

    You could of course try to show that Hegel’s categories are, in spite of his best intentions, still actually arbitrary impositions – but, to do this rigorously, you’d have to deal with his actual argument (which, unfortunately, is the entire megacorpus…) that seeks to defend their non-arbitrary character. Just asserting that they are arbitrary places us in a kind of “is not – is too” game, which Hegel isn’t playing, because he has shifted (and, I think, lifted) the burden of argument by stating that it’s no longer sufficient just to declare that someone else is wrong: you must also demonstrate why their particular brand of wrongness was necessary – how your own account can make sense, not simply of truth, but also of error…

    The stakes of this might become a bit clearer when thinking about this, not simply as an abstract philosophical argument, but also as an interpretive system for making sense of intellectual and social movements in the world around us: we can declare as often as we like that a particular movement is founded on fantasy, is making claims that can’t be substantiated, etc. Such declarations, however, bring us no closer to grasping why such movements arise, why their ideals seem to have resonance on a mass scale, etc. One of the reasons I think Hegel has been so attractive to critical social theory in particular – to attempts not just to understand the world, but to change it – is that his approach suggests some means for getting into these issues (although, that said, most critical theoretic appropriations of Hegel don’t take full advantage of this potential…).

    So: I do actually think Hegel was a fairly radical break with the philosophical tradition, but a break that wanted to encapsulate and preserve the insights that tradition had generated. I also think that, in spite of what I’ve been writing above, Hegel retains a strong metaphysical core – and I’m still trying to make up my mind, as well, about how consistent he is to the ideals implied in his own statements about the required form of the philosophical argument…

    To me, a critique of the metaphysical moments would ideally involve a competing theory that could cover similar ground, without the same metaphysical presuppositions. Doing this, I suspect, would also remove much of what Hegel regards as “necessary” about the historical movement he analyses (my own notion is that the discussion would shift to something more probabilistic, and less deterministic – that we’d be talking about the ways in which particular kinds of subjectivity and objectivity become more likely in particular historical moments, including forms of subjectivity like that expressed in Hegel’s work, which perceive history to be characterised by an ineluctable logic of development… etc. But here I really am just too tired to make any sense… ;-P).

    So I guess my point is that I might agree that Hegel’s scheme is far more arbitrary than he wants it to be – but I don’t find it persuasive to argue that this is because it has been “ushered in from some transcendental place”: I accept enough of what Hegel has proposed to want to explain his position in a more determinate (in the sense of qualitatively specified) way. I want to make sense of why he fails to make sense, in the specific way in which he fails… 😉

    I remember at one point, when I tried to explain this to someone, they burst out in frustration: “So, let me get this straight: it’s not good enough for you to just say ‘This guy’s an idiot’ – no, you have to explain why he’s an idiot, and why his idiocy is of this specific kind.” I think that sums it up pretty well, actually… ;-P

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