Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Coffee and Spirit

So, in a flashback to last summer, I’ve been working on Hegel in the coffee shop. My habit when working on a difficult text is to photocopy or print out the section on which I’m intending to write, so that I can scribble over the text and in the margins, while working up how I want to characterise the argument. I also, though, carry the entire text with me in book form, so that I can flip around in sections I haven’t printed out (and I often scribble on this text too – I just try not to obliterate it with notes in the same way I do with my printouts).

So I’m at a table, printouts scattered all around me, scribbling madly on one page, and with the book sitting neglected in an outside corner of this chaos, when an older couple wanders in. I can see them staring at me – this isn’t unusual, and it’s probably somewhat inevitable to attract some attention when sprawling papers all over a table in a public space. After a few minutes, the gentleman wanders over: “Excuse me, could I borrow your book?”

Looking up, “Uh… sure.” I figured that he must know the text, but he volunteered, “I was curious what this was, because I’ve never seen the word ‘phenomenology’ before”. I volunteered a three-word suggestion for contextualising the term, and he said, “Could I take this back to our table for a bit?” I said sure, figuring he’d have a quick flip through and then bring it back.

Instead – and this was just unspeakably cute – he pulled his chair over beside his partner’s, and they sat there for a good forty-five minutes, reading through bits of the preface, pausing often to share impressions. I couldn’t hear much – the coffee shop plays music, and they were speaking quietly. I caught isolated words and phrases – “Oh! It’s philosophy!”… “Nature”… “Science”… “This isn’t easy…” They kept at it, long enough that I stopped trying to eavesdrop and went back to my own reading. Finally, the man wandered back over, somewhat regretfully returning the text: “That’s some difficult stuff!”

Given the lack of progress I feel I’m making, in trying to decide how to write on the section on Force and Understanding, I’m inclined to agree…

9 responses to “Coffee and Spirit

  1. Alexei December 17, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Cute story N!

    And you have my sympathies — force and understanding is perhaps the chapter I have the most difficulties with, even though it strikes me as one of the most fundamental moments of the Phenomenology. May I ask what you’re trying to work through?


  2. N Pepperell December 17, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Hey Alexei – I’ve been meaning to get back to you over at Larval Subjects, but have had limited net access, and so haven’t gotten to it yet.

    On Force and Understanding, I’m running into a couple of problems. The first is that, essentially, the first chapter of Capital, on which I’ve been writing very heavily, unfolds basically its own equivalent take on the parallel discussions in the Logic. This doesn’t seem to cause problems for me when glossing, say, the sections on Perception or Self-Consciousness, but for some reason seems to create immense “interference” when I try to describe what Hegel is doing in this section – perhaps because the issue of the supersensible world (where universal law emerges from the apparently random flux of the world of appearance) and of the relation of Value to its necessary Expression in the Form of Exchange Value (which parallels Hegel’s discussion of Force and its necessary Expression in the Law of Force) is in many respects more central to Marx’s argument than some of the issues that crop up in the other sections Marx is spoofing, and so I get distracted, contrasting what Hegel is doing, and what Marx is doing – both noting what Marx is doing to Hegel in Capital, and also how Marx is disagreeing with Hegel in Capital. So one consequence of this is that it’s more difficult for me to concentrate on this text in its own right, bracketing my interest in Marx.

    Aside from this, I could benefit from a greater knowledge of the science (in the modern sense of the term) of the time, and therefore a sense of what Hegel is trying to embed. I take the major “target” of the section to be Kant – and so an argument about why you might get a divided perception of noumena and phenomena, even though Hegel will reject this perception – positioning it as symptomatic of Understanding, and as something transcended by Self-Consciousness. But there are lots of small moves along the way, in the course of making this argument, where I feel like a more detailed knowledge of on-the-ground intellectual history would be really helpful in making sense of why Hegel makes this argument in the specific way that he does. The steps involved in the argument about the inverted world, for example – I can follow them (I think…), but the moves just seem strange and unmotivated, and leave me with a sense of sort of hearing half of a conversation. Part of this, as I said above, is that Marx also makes use of the concept of an inverted world – and I feel that I have a fairly clear sense of what he’s doing with this concept, and why he uses it, and the greater intuitiveness (to me) of these sorts of arguments in Marx may be getting in the way of my understanding what Hegel is doing on a detail level…

    Don’t know if this helps clarify where I’m stumbling – and apologies if these sorts of questions are just really naive…

  3. Alexei December 18, 2007 at 1:22 am

    (I’m on the run, N, so please excuse my rather uncollected remarks)

    I feel precisely the same way about Force and Understanding as you do! If it’s any help, Harris’ Big commentary, Hegel’s Ladder, vol 1 does fill in some of the historical background, although I’m not sure he fills in enough of it to give you a view from ‘on the ground.’ The basic upshot of Hegel’s argument, I think, is the distribution of labour between the understanding and reason, through which Hegel attempts to motivate Reason’s philosophical claims over the understanding (the Speculative unity of force and understanding as a totality, namely the Notion of Life as presented at the beginning of the next section).

    this said, however, there’s so much going on in this section that’s it’s really hard to pin down just one argument. Ultimately the problem is that force is identical with its expression in a law, and the law is given by the understanding. Hence the “inversion:” the understanding observes what it injects, to speak roughly, into the phenomenon, and then obscures its active roles in the phenomenological constitution of its observation.

    Anyway, I really need to run! hope this isn’t too incoherent! And no need to worry about the conversation with Sinthome — it seems to have petered out on its own.


  4. Mikhail Emelianov December 18, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    great story! i don’t think i would have been comfortable giving the book as i always feel the need to apologize for books others cannot understand with silly stuff like: “well, you know, it’s a very specialized book for… specialists, don’t feel bad, it’s a difficult read even for me etc etc”

    i read my derrida at a local coffee shop a lot, it’s a scene if i read Glas with my French copy as well, so i have these two square books open and several columns in each, i think i look very talmudic…

    i have a rather unrelated but still “while we’re on Hegel” question – i was using Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling last semester and it seemed to me that his discussion follows H’s PhG very closely in terms of all the issues of resignation, despair and references to Greek tragedy (Agamemnon) and then H’s (Christian) solution vs. K’s (Christian) solution – i’m not sure if this is making any sense but i was wondering if you came across a good source that would compare PhG and Fear and Trembling?

  5. N Pepperell December 18, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    Mikhail – Sorry you were held in moderation – it’s only supposed to do that the first time someone posts, but is occasionally temperamental…

    What I find most awkward is when people try to strike up a conversation about what I’m reading. I was a tram stop some months back, reading Difference and Repetition, and someone wandered over and went, “Hmm… Difference and Repetition… So… What’s that about?” I did the same self-conscious thing – I said something like: “Oh, it’s something I have to read for uni”. I’ve had more threatening situations on occasion, being seen reading Marx out and about (“You a commie or somethin’?!”). My favourite tram book story, though, came from reading The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology. The curious onlooker saw the title incorrectly, and went, “What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of anyone thinking a dispute was a good thing! What kind of crazy stuff are you reading?!”

    Unfortunately I’m no use on your Kierkegaard question – perhaps others will have some suggestions…

    Alexei – Many thanks for the suggestion – for the moment I’m adopting the brute force strategy (which I’m sure will lead me to write something of which I’ll be deeply embarrassed in very short order, as I do more proper research over the summer) – but I will definitely have a look at your recommendation when I go on my planned Hegel commentary binge over the summer (I’m conscious of tone here – if I sound sarcastic, I’m not, seriously: I have a commitment to participate in an event on Hegel in February and, even though I’m actually going to be presenting on Marx for that event, nevertheless this summer is devoted to some rather extensive Hegel exploration for me…).

  6. IndieFaith December 18, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    That story is much more encouraging than my recent experience.

  7. N Pepperell December 18, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    lol – yes, I suspect I’ve had a few experiences like that too – but I’ll reassure myself with whatever opposing experiences I can find 🙂

  8. Mikhail Emelianov December 19, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    N., i think i will have to reread PhG during the break as i am using Fear and Trembling in my upper-level seminar in the winter and i think with my rekindling of interest in Big H i might benefit from a comparative reading…

  9. N Pepperell December 19, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    As you’re reading, perhaps you can wander over and correct the things I’ve been writing… I’m still hoping to put up a few more notes on Phenomenology before we get into Science of Logic over the summer (LM tells me he has ordered his copy – conveniently delaying the beginning of our summer reading until the book arrives in the mail… ;-P).

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