Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Hegelian Fog

I had intended to write something during the break on The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology – a work over which the reading group discussion has tarried. When we originally met to discuss our agreed selections, I found myself repeatedly supporting my own interpretations with reference to sections of the text that fell outside our collective reading. This gave me an inequitable argumentative advantage (I wish I had a photo of the expression on L Magee’s face at the precise moment when, contesting a quite vehement and unequivocal reading LM had advanced, I read out a fairly unambiguous – for Adorno – quotation from a page that hadn’t been in sections photocopied for the group). And this caused us to decide to reconvene the following week, so that everyone could have the benefit of reading and discussing the same text…

Unfortunately, when the appointed time arrived, both LM and I were under the weather and, moreover, I hadn’t gotten around to photocopying the additional sections for everyone else (evidently, I want to keep these passages to myself…). Our meeting was thus postponed, and G Gollings impounded my text to ensure that some photocopying would actually take place. So, while I had planned to write something on Popper’s concept of science, Adorno’s concept of totality, and my own programmatic understanding of critical theory as it relates to such topics, any post on these subjects will have to wait until my text is returned.

For the last several days, I’ve taken this situation as licence to catch up on a term’s worth of stunted sleep, to read randomly and lightly and, particularly, to bombard LM with emails on any and all associations that have cropped up in my random, light readings – an action I can only interpret as some kind of particularly unfitting punshiment for the extraordinarily helpful feedback LM has been providing lately on my dissertation… But I am beginning to feel guilty for not having done any substantive writing during the break, as well as for not having done any serious reading-group-related writing in some weeks, and thought that now was perhaps the time to resume the dropped arc on Hegel’s Phenomenology.

Hegel seems to be cropping up quite often on this blog lately but, for those wanting a more specific overview of the discussion at hand, the main posts dedicated specifically to Phenomenology (not necessarily posted in this order) include mine on:

The Preface and
The Introduction,

as well as LM’s detailed post on the section on Lordship and Bondage, which provoked such a long response from me that I lifted it out of the comments and published it in a post of its own.

In addition, there have been a number of small posts, some only half-serious, and all in the form of placeholders or unresolved discussions, of which the principal include:

LM’s New Year’s Challenge,
A Discussion of Whether Hegel’s Method Is Deductive and, of course, a post on
Nothing (you know, with me, that nothing – or, more accurately, how nothing is really something – is going to have to enter into the discussion at some point…).

Quotations and citations for all posts in this series are derived from the same online source text, chosen because it allows easy reference to both English and German.

These existing posts suggest that I have left an annoying gap between the introduction and the discussion of self-consciousness – a gap into which, I suppose, some discussion of Hegel’s treatment of consciousness should now be inserted… I confess to having difficulty getting myself back into this thoughtspace – but that’s the challenge of the Phenomenology, isn’t it: getting ourselves into the thoughtspace or standpoint of particular perspectival positions? That, or I’m just mired in what LM has recently called the “Hegelian fog”.

What I thought I would do in this post is just remind myself of the issues LM and I discussed in relation to the section on Consciousness – which, from memory, were mainly (again!) reflections on the structure and argumentative strategy of the text. I’ll then try to follow up in the next couple of days with more substantive commentary on the text itself. I should note that I don’t take notes on the reading group discussions, and so have only my memory (several months old, at this point) of what we discussed. I should also note that, although I am playing off against some questions LM raised at the time, I don’t understand these positions to reflect LM’s current views – I am only recalling such positions here because they provide the easiest means for me to explain the occasion for the sorts of comments I’ll be making below.

First – from a memory that LM should correct as needed – LM voiced quite strongly the feeling that the text in these early sections was quite arbitrary – the arguments clever but, from LM’s perspective, “forced”, driven into a direction that revealed mediation and negation as necessary endpoints to every argumentative turn, the conclusions unconvincing because the path was so obviously predetermined. LM also, I think, perceived the structure of the argument to remain essentially deductive, with the notions of mediation and/or negation functioning as something like a priori concepts from which everything else was to be derived.

My position was to point to Hegel’s various stage whispers and comments on the style and argumentative strategy of the text (issues that I explore in greater depth in the posts linked above), and to argue that an immanent philosophical framework – one intended to contest the validity of subject-object dualism (while also explaining the plausibility or attraction of such an approach) – in a sense isn’t “allowed” to engage in deduction from a priori grounds. Instead, the system grounds itself through the unfolding of its own concepts – an argumentative strategy that means, as Hegel flags in the prolegomena, that the presentation will initially appear quite arbitrary, as the plausibility of the concepts can only be demonstrated by seeing what the core concepts allow you to grasp as the system unfolds.

This kind of argument is designed to react back on itself, such that starting points become less and less arbitrary as the argument demonstrates how much can be understood if the system is allowed to unfold in this exact form. As the argument unfolds, Hegel’s system gradually swallows competing modes of thought – showing that it can grasp these alternative approaches to science, philosophy, political theory and other fields – enveloping them within itself, and thus preserving their insights as it also transcends them by grasping what they cannot. Done effectively, the self-grounding character of this kind of argument cannot be refuted by a direct attack on its “ground”, as the “ground” is no longer a starting point from which the rest of the argument derives, but more like a fractal structure that drops out of the argument in each of its moments and as a whole. In this context, refutation needs to assume at least something of the form of the original system – embedding that system, too, as a plausible and yet limited perspective whose contours can be enveloped and transcended within a more powerful form of immanent critique.

Whether Hegel constructs his immanent argument “effectively” in this sense, and therefore requires such an enveloping critique in response, is something that can be explored in later discussion. I think, however, that the basic concept that immanent critique must be self-grounding in this specific sense – that all of the normative or critical standards deployed by a critique must “drop out”, immanently, from its own analysis – is a direct logical implication of the move to transcend subject-object dualism. I think that I see this point made directly in Hegel’s text, in his various reflections on the style and order of presentation. If it’s not there, I would suggest that it should be… ;-P And my assumption that Hegel is intending to create an argument in this form, structures my reading of this text.

The other point I vaguely remember making – much more tentatively – in the discussion with LM was that one possible implication of an immanent critique (and here I do not mean to suggest that this applies necessarily to Hegel’s system, although I’m interested in exploring the issue) could be an argument that the simplest, most pristine and most “universal”, concepts could only become visible, could only become available or intuitive to thought, in a quite complex context characterised by the entire constellation of relationships analysed by the theory. Unlike in a deductive system, where more complex entities are derived or built up from simpler entities, in an immanent approach the simplest entities are moments within a complex system of relationships – they exist – and only could exist, in the form in which the theory immanently grasps them – alongside and in relationship with more apparently complex entities.

This point has a number of complex implications. One is that “universals” – the concepts or ideals that seem the easiest to detach from their context, because they present themselves as having abstracted away all the specific elements of a context – are actually determinately bound to the complex context in which they are moments: they may appear to be what results when determinate content has been stripped away, but their universality is actually a determinate content of its own.

The distinction between “real” and “conceptual” abstractions, which has occasionally occupied this blog over the past several months, is related to this point: immanent universals are “real” abstractions – reflecting a determinate perspective that is generated within a particular kind of context; if we take such immanent universals and cast about with them through history, we sever their immanent character, and deploy these ideals and concepts as nothing more than “conceptual” abstractions – as mere generalisations or thought experiments. This argument thus has some implications for how we might understand how we are tempted to think about the past – militating in particular against the tendency to assume that simpler and more pristine concepts are somehow signs of some more primitive condition, earlier origin, or natural state. More interestingly, the capacity precisely to disentangle a universal from the constellation in which it arose might have some important potentials for practice – for critique in a more transformative sense than is likely implied directly within Hegel’s approach: universals whose determinate character implies they are not intrinsically bound to a particular context can have the corrosive potential to react back against the specific context in which they arose…

There are other implications (as well as a number of important qualifications and clarifications that I should probably make), but it’s getting late, and I’m intending this discussion as a means of working my way back into Hegel, rather than – at this point – as a means of diving off into my own conception of critical theory.

LM is welcome to correct my memory of our earlier discussions, or reprise and update the discussion from the perspective of the further readings we’ve done. I’ll try to write something about Hegel’s actual text in the next couple of days.

3 responses to “Hegelian Fog

  1. Pingback: » Abstract Gestures

  2. Pingback: Another Reader of Hegel « Now-Times

  3. Pingback: » Before the Science

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