Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


Some aspects of the recent discussion of Brandom have led me to read a bit more of Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel, which has led me in turn to think again about some dropped tangents from last summer’s reading group discussion of Phenomenology. I had meant to write much more on Phenomenology than I was able to do at the time, but have instead largely incorporated the stray thoughts that emerged from that reading, into some of the work I’ve been doing on Marx. Marx, of course, was directly engaging with the Science of Logic, rather than with the Phenomenology, when he was writing Capital – one of the reasons I’ve been so gestural and, in a sense, sloppy when pointing Marx’s strategy back to Hegel’s work, has been my awareness that it would make more sense, and be more intuitively persuasive, in terms of Marx’s own statements about his work, to raise these sorts of claims about textual and analytical strategy in relation to a discussion of the Logic. Fortunately, I seem to have conned a few stray souls who will be trapped in Melbourne over the holidays into working through the Logic with me – perhaps now creating the beginnings of a tradition of summer Hegel reading, but in all events instituting something more immediately practical for me than it likely will be for the other participants… ;-P

Still, turning back to Phenomenology as I have been over the past couple of days, it’s easy to be struck once again by certain similarities connecting the concerns and style of this text, with the sorts of moves Marx makes in Capital. I’ve been looking back particularly at the sections on Perception and Force & Understanding. It feels somewhat strange now, reading these sections, which have shaped the sorts of claims I’m making about Capital and which in particular sensitised me to the sorts of subtle textual cues that hint at the different perspectives or voices being expressed in particular moments of Marx’s text, to see now how this reading of Capital then reacts back and distances me from Hegel’s text in turn. I don’t intend specifically to develop this line of thought here, but I did want to take the opportunity to toss up a few scattered notes on these sections, while I’m thinking about them – I’ll start tonight with the section on Perception, and hopefully follow up soon on the section on Force and Understanding – although, given that I’ve promised to write on these sections before, this may be a somewhat tenuous offer… ;-P

The section on Perception takes over from the discussion of sense-certainty (Joseph Kugelmass has ensured that I will never be able to think of Hegel’s sense-certainty discussion without thinking of Spaceballs – I’m not sure whether to thank or criticise Joe for this apparently indelible association), which sought to demonstrate that a shape of consciousness that understands itself to be bound to sensuous immediacy – bound to “the This” – instead expresses its direct opposite: universality. I’ve discussed how this argument unfolds in greater detail previously.

Perception, by constrast, starts with the universal – but a universal it experiences in terms of two moments that are immediately distinguished from one another: a universal “I”, confronting a universal “object”. In one of his many stage whispers designed to keep readers from losing themselves in the shape of consciousness being analysed at particular stages in the text, Hegel reminds his readers that “for us”, looking at perception from a standpoint not immanent to perception itself, the “I” and its “object” exist in a logically necessitated relation, and represent two different forms in which the same process can appear, depending on whether this process is viewed from the perspective of pointing out and indicating (the “I” or process of perceiving), or whether this process is viewed from the perspective of a “simple fact” (the ”object” perceived). “We” grasp the essence of perception to be the universal as principle, and “we” see that perception fails to grasp the logical necessity that connects the “I” to the “object” as different moments or perspectives of the same process. Perception, however, sees the “I” and the “object” as only contingently related, and thus parcels out the distinction between essential and nonessential between these moments, treating the moments as indifferent to one another – and, in terms of the shape of consciousness analysed here, initially taking the “object” to be essential, and indifferent to whether it is perceived or not by the “I”, while the “I” is taken to be inessential and variable – more contingent than the object it perceives.

Hopefully readers will forgive me the tangent that this is where Marx starts Capital: with objects that present themselves as “things” “outside us”, whose material properties we can “discover” over time. These material properties are associated with use value, which presents itself as the invariant – in Hegel’s terms, the “essential” – substance of wealth, regardless of that wealth’s social form. That social form is contingent, nonessential, and historically variable – the “I” that understands itself to be only contingently and accidentally related to the material “object”.

Marx opens Capital in this way, I would suggest, to express that he has set himself a problem analogous to Hegel’s: how can we grasp the necessity that underlies this apparent contingency? How can we understand the intrinsic interconnectedness of this particular kind of “I” – the sort of consciousness whose self-understanding is expressed at the beginning of Capital – and the particular kind of “object” to which that “I” addresses itself – a material world that is understood as intrinsically disenchanted and indifferent to human perception? What sort of process involves the constitutions of such “I’s” and such “objects” as moments in its dynamic unfolding?

Okay. Back to Hegel. Hegel needs to unfold the “for us” of the text from within the categories available to the shapes of consciousness being analysed: otherwise, his own analysis would be applied to its object from the “outside” – it would be only contingently connected, rather than expressing a logical necessity that justifies Hegel’s approach as more than one among many possible duelling assertions, each dogmatically claiming superior access to some privileged perspective that stands outside what is being analysed. Hegel’s notion of science is bound together with his advocacy of this kind of argument:

For science cannot simply reject a form of knowledge which is not true, and treat this as the common view of things, and then assure us that itself is an entirely different kind of knowledge, and holds the other to be of no account at all; nor can it appeal to the fact that in this other there are presages of a better. By giving that assurance it would declare its force and value to lie in its bare existence; but the untrue knowledge appeals likewise to the fact that it is, and assures us that to it science is nothing. One barren assurance, however, is of just as much value as another. Still less can science appeal to presages of the better, which are to be found present in untrue knowledge and are there pointing the way toward science; for it would, on the one hand, be appealing again in the same way to a merely existent fact; and, on the other, it would be appealing to itself, to the way in which it exists in untrue knowledge, i.e. to a bad form of its own existence, to its appearance, rather than to its real and true nature (an und für sich) . For this reason we shall here undertake the exposition of knowledge as a phenomenon. (76)

Instead, Hegel wants to demonstrate the logical necessity, the intrinsic interconnectedness, of the shapes of consciousness he analyses, such that his own position emerges as a determinate negation, rather than an abstract or sceptical rejection, of what he criticises:

The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. To make this comprehensible we may remark, by way of preliminary, that the exposition of untrue consciousness in its untruth is not merely a negative process. Such a one-sided view of it is what the natural consciousness generally adopts; and a knowledge, which makes one-sidedness its essence, is one of those shapes assumed by incomplete consciousness which falls into the course of the inquiry itself and will come before us there. [Note: Hegel is self-conscious here that his form of presentation is not adequate to the analytical principles he is, as a service to the reader, outlining here, and he therefore flags very explicitly that he does not intend to exempt, even the programmatic sorts of statements he makes here, from the sort of analysis he is calling for in this passage.] For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into the same abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79)

Motivated by his concept of critique, Hegel shifts from the “for us” of his commentary on perception, to the question of what can be unfolded immanently from perception itself. He determines perception initially as a shape of consciousness that starts from the opposition between the “object” and the “I”, taking the “object” to be essential and indifferent to its perception, and the “I” to be insubstantial, inconstant, and inessential. In Hegel’s account, perception provides the determinate negation of sense-certainty, expressing sensuous, immediate universals that escaped expression in sense-certainty, which, confined to pointing to some immediate particular that is “meant”, instead managed only to express the negation of immediate particulars – the “most universal of all possible things”.

In perception, however, the “object” shows itself to be mediated by presenting itself as a “thing with many properties”. Here, and not in sense-certainty, sense knowledge can be expressed – not in the form of apprehension of an immediate particular, but instead in the perception of sensuous, immediate universals: the determinate properties an object possesses. Perception, in Hegel’s account, understands each property possessed by an “object” to be only self-related and indifferent to other properties. These properties are in turn differentiated from what Hegel calls “pure self-relation” – “Thinghood” – as a “medium” within which these properties coexist without affecting one another. Perception thus retains and repositions the “Here” and the “Now” discussed originally under the perspective of sense-certainty, as a medium for sensible properties – as a “Thing”.

Hegel next argues that, if determinate properties were truly as indifferent to one another as they are taken to be in this initial perspective, these properties would actually be indeterminate – properties become determinate and distinguishable from one another, not from residing indifferent to one another within the simple unifying medium of “Thinghood”, but instead as properties positioned in relation to other properties as their opposites. This relation of opposites, however, falls outside the simple unifying medium of “Thinghood”, pointing to a different sort of unity – a “repelling”, excluding unity, a moment of negation – which Hegel calls the “One”.

Hegel hints in various passages that more is to be said – but not at this point in the analysis (remembering, again, that he seeks to unfold his points immanently from perspectives available at each moment in his analysis). At this point in the text, he determines the “Thing” – the “object” of perception – in terms of three mutually-determining perspectives: a “universality, passive and indifferent” that unites constituent elements or “matters”; a simple negation that excludes opposite properties; and the multiplicity of properties, in relation to the first two moments. Hegel slides among these three immanently-unfolded perspectives, examining how the “Thing” is constituted in perception:

Taking the aspect that these differences belong to a “medium” indifferent to what is within it, they are themselves universal, they are related merely to themselves and do not affect each other. Taking, however, the other aspect, that they belong to the negative unity, they at the same time mutually exclude one another; but do no necessarily in the shape of properties that have a separate existence apart from the “also” connecting them. The sensuous universality, the immediate unity of positive being and negative exclusion, is only then a property, when oneness and pure universality are evolved from it and distinguished from one another, and when that sensuous universality combines these with one another. Only after this relation of the unity to those pure essential moments is effected, is the “Thing” complete. (115)

Hegel argues that consciousness is perceptual, to the extent that it takes this “Thing” as its object, and assumes an attitude of pure apprehension. Having thus unpacked moments of perception, with reference to perspectives on the “object” (or the “simple fact” perceived), he then moves to an analysis of perception viewed from the perspective of the “I” (or the process of perceiving).

In Hegel’s account, the “I” of perception directs itself to this complex “object”, assuming that truth can be found in the apprehension of the object. The “I” takes its “object” to be essential, but takes itself to be variable and non-essential – it takes its own relation to the “object” to be a contingent happening, and therefore worries that it might perceive the “object” wrongly and deceive itself as to the nature of the object. Perception takes the criterion of truth to be selfsameness – correspondence with an “object” that is taken to be selfsame. Any perceived nonidentity of the object is interpreted as due to a flaw in the process of perception – a flaw in the contingent perceiving “I” – not as something that might express a nonidentity of the “object”. Yet Hegel has just determined the “object” as nonidentical – as immanently pointing to multiple perspectives across which consciousness will therefore necessarily slide in the process of perception. The result of the apprehension of such an object is therefore not the fixed knowledge that the “I” of perception expected to find, but rather a restless movement around a circuit that nowhere provides a stable ground. Hegel then rapidly sketches the path followed by consciousness on confronting this circuit, first taking into itself – into the perceiving “I” – characteristics it had previously attributed to the “object”, and then taking as its object the process it had previously divided into the separate moments of the “object” and the “I”, and then attempting to secure the identity of the “object” by allocating the object’s contradictory moments to different things.

Hegel argues that each of these perspectives fails to secure the desired non-contradictory and selfsame “object”, but rather points necessarily back toward the perceptual object’s essentially relational character: the attempt to posit an object whose essential nature lies in what that object is “for itself”, indifferent to the process of perception, is undermined by the ways in which the form of universality associated with the perceptual object is conditioned by its derivation from sense knowledge, which introduces an intrinsic nonidentity that sits in tension with the reach of perception toward universality. As in his discussion of sense-certainty, Hegel follows the reach, rather than the grasp, of perception, arguing that the whirling restlessness characteristic of the movement of perceptual consciousness points to the necessity to transcend perception, in search of “unconditioned absolute universality”. In this way, perception immanently points beyond itself – to understanding.

More on subsequent sections as I have time. The posts on Phenomenology were never as organised or gathered into a series as the recent series on Capital has been. I have never aimed to present a coherent narrative on this work, and so the posts are much more scattered, both stylistically and conceptually. For the curious, some compilations of links back to previous Hegel discussions can be found in these older posts.


3 responses to “Perception

  1. Joseph Kugelmass December 15, 2007 at 7:00 pm


    Sorry I’ve been away! It’s been an odd time around here, leaving me with little opportunity to write as I would like. My pleasure in your still remembering the reference to Spaceballs really has no bounds, because I think well-made comedies have vast amounts of thinking coming to us in the compressed and/or surreal form of jokes, and this thinking is so immediately intuitively available to us (so we laugh) that sometimes it is insufficiently unpacked.

    I am delighted with the small but numerous changes you’ve made to your blog design; it is striking, and easy to navigate with the eye.

    As for the content of your post — I’m interested to know how you see the process of “reification” in the context of this fluid and non-self-identical structure of perception. Obviously, through reification, you have the (possibly “illusory”) arrestation of perception. Despite the fact that commodities fluctuate in value, suggesting that they are not self-subsistent, it seems as though capital attempts to hide the apperception of valuation by making price a guarantee of the identity of the object. In other words, oil may cost $1.50 per gallon, or $3.50, but at every point its price vouches for its existence independent of the perceiver, and thus, oddly enough, alienates the perceiving subject from her own agency, precisely because the worrisome fluidity of the object is disguised.

  2. N Pepperell December 16, 2007 at 11:00 am

    Hey Joe! No need to apologise for being away – it’s been fairly quiet around here for a while, substance-wise, as I’ve been distracted with conference preparations and other things. And thank you for the feedback on the blog design changes – the hope was that it would make things a bit easier to read and use.

    Your question on reification is extremely interesting to me – I posted something on Lukács a couple of months ago, as a placeholder to flag that I wanted to write more on this issue, but I still haven’t gotten around to fleshing out the point that I had in mind. Alexei over at Now-Times posted a CFP link a while back, for a conference on the theme of “Beyond Reification” – I have to admit I’ve been very tempted to submit something for this, although the timing is frankly terrible for me…

    At any rate, all of this is by way of saying that I’ve been wanting to address your question for some time, but haven’t quite carved out the time and space to tackle the issue.

    My very rough response – the thing that was in the back of my mind when I wrote the placeholder post on Lukács, and that I was considering working up for the conference or some other appropriate venue – is that I think the rendering of what Marx was doing with the concept of the “fetish” in Capital, into a concept of “reification”, has probably shifted the analytic emphasis in ways that are simultaneously interesting and productive, but also somewhat problematic. If I can find time to write a longer paper on this, I’d like to tease out some differences between the argument about the fetish, Lukács’ argument about reification, Adorno’s attempt to reposition an argument about reification on the terrain of a psychodynamic theory, and perhaps Sohn-Rethel’s attempt to discuss real abstractions. But I won’t write that paper in the comments to this thread… ;-P

    Basically, the short version of my response has to do with the way in which I don’t actually take the argument about the fetish to be an argument about “illusion”, whereas most approaches that reposition the argument about the fetish as an argument about reification, actually are trying to suggest that something is illusory – that there is an ideology that can somehow be punctured, pierced, or somehow gotten around. Another way of putting the same thing: most approaches that attack their question in terms of reification are, from my point of view, negations, whereas I take the argument about the fetish to be something more like an affirmation (in what I take to be Deleuze’s sense) or what I generally call a determinate negation – an enquiry into why we experience things as we do, which recognises the contingency of that experience, but which – importantly – does not treat that experience as “illusion” for us.

    So I take Marx to be saying something like, “We experience aspects of our world in [x] way. When we back up and look at this, this is really a very strange way to experience our world. So why do we do such a thing? How can we understand the conditions for the genesis of such an experience?” Marx’s answer to this question then tends to take the form of “things appear as they are” – we experience our world in certain ways because, on some level, this is how we are enacting that world. So Marx sets about explaing what is entailed in this enactment. This, though, presents him with a new problem: why aren’t all kinds of people running around, offering the same sort of analysis? This then leads into an analysis of why the form of enactment might not be easily recognised (why, for example, certain things might apear to be intrinsic traits or properties of subjects or objects) – but even this isn’t an analysis of the illusory character of such traits: the traits are “really” there – it’s just that they’re “there” because we’re doing certain things, collectively, to bring them about.

    Many analyses that try to tackle similar questions with reference to the category of reification are instead trying to suggest that, e.g., the traits we misattribute traits to subjects and objects – paradigmatically, that we regard something as “thinglike” when (really) it isn’t. This tends to lead to a form of critique that sort of compares how something is taken, against some notion of how something “really is”. Marx would, I think, actually consider this whole critical move a form of fetishised thought, because it’s sort of doing what the discussion of perception above describes: splitting off an essence to be perceived, from the perceiving subject, and taking the perceiving subject to be more contingent than the essence, and therefore at risk of misperceiving the essence.

    Marx is trying, instead, to ask something more like: how are we enacting a world of things (and a world of subjects)? How are such dichotomies real for us?

    Both approaches allow for notions of contingency and for critical standpoint, but the nature of critique is conceptualised in a very different way – and with, I think, different practical implications.

    Sorry this is so scattered, and hits your question in such a side-on way – hopefully it helps to know that you’ve accidentally stepped into something I’ve been thinking about for other reasons, and so I may be somewhat prone to talk to myself, instead of to what you’ve directly asked… I’m also conscious that this is very underdeveloped as presented – I really should work the issue up into a proper paper – the problem is always finding the time. 😦

  3. Pingback: » The Man Behind the Curtain

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