Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Man Behind the Curtain

Following the yellow brick roadSo the other day, I was blaming Joseph Kugelmass for the fact that I now can’t think of Hegel’s discussion of sense-certainty without associating to Spaceballs. I will have to blame myself, however, for the fact that the section on Force and Understanding causes me to think of The Wizard of Oz. My only excuse is that this association surely seems inevitable, given how the previous chapter provides a narrative that consciousness is propelled into Understanding via its confrontation with the whirling maelstrom that results when it seeks certainty through Perception, while this chapter closes with a scene in which consciousness finally steps behind the curtain of appearance – to realise that it was itself behind the curtain all along. Random associations aside, let’s see if I can make some sense of at least a small slice of this material.

I’ve discussed with Alexei in the comments to another post, how difficult I find this chapter in particular to read. I think this problem derives partially from how much time I’ve spent recently on the first chapter of Capital. As I mentioned in the previous post on Perception, Marx opens Capital roughly where Hegel begins the section on Perception, and then moves on to spend the bulk of the rest of the first chapter discussing themes that Hegel addresses in the chapter on Force and Understanding (along with some gestures to material Hegel includes in his material on Self-Consciousness). Marx’s argument about the fetish therefore involves an intricate, tacit metacommentary on Hegel’s approach to similar themes – and, as a consequence, my recent work, trying to tease out the nature of Marx’s argument, seems to be creating a fair amount of “interference”, as I now go back now to try to make sense of these parts of Hegel.

My work on Marx can’t be the only thing causing problems for me, however, as I’ve been procrastinating on writing about Hegel’s discussion of Force and Understanding for longer than I’ve been working intensively on the first chapter of Capital. Even though I generally find Hegel’s voicing clearer than Marx’s – in the sense that Hegel is generally more explicit about the perspective from which he is speaking at any given time – something about this particular section seems to blink in and out of focus for me. Hegel seems to me to loop several times in this section back through the shapes of consciousness he has discussed in earlier sections, without always clearly delineating these retrospective moments from the discussion of moments distinctive to Understanding – and sometimes without clearly delineating all of these things from the “for us” perspective he intends the reader of the text to adopt. As a result, I think I have a handle on the overarching argument, but many smaller-scale moves don’t seem to be falling neatly into place for me. Whether this is an intrinsic problem with this section or, as seems more likely, an intrinsic problem with me, every time I sit down to write on this material, I end up putting the text aside, deciding that I’m not yet sufficiently comfortable with my grasp of the material to write on it at any length. This post therefore represents an attempt to break through this long-standing logjam – without claiming that I’ve somehow achieved a breakthrough in terms of the clarity with which I now apprehend the text. Corrections are therefore most welcome.

Okay. Since this section, I think, loops back through points from the previous two sections, a few words on what binds these sections to one another might make a useful starting point. These three sections – on sense-certainty, perception, and understanding – each unfold within a space where consciousness takes its object to be something outside itself, which consciousness regards as separated from its own process of experience or apprehension. The “for us” of the text – the perspective meant to express the point of view of the reader, which Hegel will also sometimes refer to as the position that remains implicit for whatever shape of consciousness is being analysed at a given point in the text – is meant to grasp, throughout, that what consciousness takes to be distinct entities – an object, a process of apprehension, and a medium connecting the two – are simply moments of the same dynamic process that assumes these particular forms. This dynamic movement uniting these moments, however, is not yet apparent to the shapes of consciousness being analysed here. In each section, Hegel therefore tries to show, both how the moments in a dynamic process could present themselves to consciousness in the inadequate configuration analysed in that section, and also how consciousness’ own confrontation with the immanent limitations of such inadequate configurations, could drive it closer and closer to the “for us” of this text.

While Hegel traces a development of consciousness through each section, in each of these initial developments, consciousness fails to recognise its own implicatedness in the development of its object: consciousness takes its object to be a thing outside itself – as something essential, on which certainty can be grounded, and to which consciousness is opposed as inessential. The qualitative character of that “thing” – of the object – shifts with each stage, and consciousness along with it. But only when consciousness finally transcends Understanding does it confront the truth that it has all along been its own object – that what had previously presented themselves as opposed extremes (subject/object, being-for-self/being-for-other, form/content, etc.) had been moments in the same dynamic process.

Dorothy looks out the window into the tornadoEach section therefore tells a story of consciousness running up against immanent limits that it then transcends, while still preserving insights achieved via the confrontation with the impasse being overcome. Thus the search for sense-certainty, which attempts to achieve certainty through immersion in some particular “this” that is “meant”, leads consciousness to the realisation that such immersion aims implicitly at its opposite: universality emerges as the immanent truth of sense experience, and consciousness steps back from identifying certainty with some particular that is “meant”. Perception, which takes up from this insight, entails a search for certainty via the apprehension of universals conditioned by sense experience. This search in turn also leads, not to certainty, but to a perpetual restless movement that points consciousness toward the need for inherent universals not conditioned by sense perception. Understanding then takes over from this point, and searches for supersensible universals. Yet Understanding also reconstitutes, on this higher level, the problematic divide between consciousness and its object – taking unconditioned universals still as an object apart from consciousness. Understanding thus results in another unstable and restless configuration, which will drive immanently toward its own transcendence in the recognition by consciousness of its implicatedness in its object – in Self-Consciousness. The section on Understanding explores how such a transcendence unfolds.

The Wizard of OzHegel has a great deal of fun with Understanding – positioning the gratification consciousness receives from it as a form of unintentional and misrecognised intellectual onanism. The reader – a voyeur looking in on Understanding’s distinctive pleasures – is meant to recognise that consciousness is enjoying itself in this activity – however much consciousness may protest that it engages in chaste contemplation of some external object, discerned with great effort through the veil of sense perception:

Understanding has, indeed, eo ipso, done away with its own untruth and the untruth in its object. What has thereby come to view is the notion of the truth as implicit inherent truth, which is not yet notion, or lacks a consciously explicit existence for itself (Fürsichseyn), and is something which understanding allows to have its way without knowing itself in it. (133)


This process or necessity is, however, in this form, still a necessity and a process of understanding, or the process as such is not the object of understanding; instead, understanding has as its objects in that process positive and negative electricity, distance, velocity, force of attraction, and a thousand other things–objects which make up the content of the moments of the process. It is just for that reason that there is so much satisfaction in explanation, because consciousness being there, if we may use such an expression, in direct communion with itself, enjoys itself only. No doubt it there seems to be occupied with something else, but in point of fact it is busied all the while merely with itself. (163)

The man behind the curtainThe question then becomes how consciousness can move through the experiences Understanding provides, to achieve the explicit realisation of its own implicatedness in its object. Hegel’s argument here is complex, and I am certain I won’t come close to doing it justice. He begins by stage whispering that the unconditioned universal – although achieved through the negation of perception – has the positive significance of establishing the unity of existence-for-self and existence-for-other, which, for Hegel, involves a unity of form and content. Through Understanding, however, consciousness cannot fully grasp this unity, because it still takes the unconditioned universal as its object – as an extreme opposed to itself. As a consequence, a distinction of form and content is reconstituted in Understanding. The remainder of the chapter explores the permutations of this form/content distinction, in order to unfold an account of how this distinction should finally be overcome.

Hegel first discusses Force (for us) as a dynamic process comprised of a movement through moments of dispersion into independent elements, which Hegel calls the Expression of Force, and moments of withdrawal back into unity, which Hegel calls Force proper. Understanding initially holds Force and its Expression in immediate unity – taking the distinction between these moments to exist only in thought. Yet these distinctions obtain objective existence in the movement of the interaction between Force and its Expression – for Force, understood as the inner, inherent being of things, lying behind the random flux of perceptual experience, must express itself, and this expression presents itself to consciousness initially as the interaction of two forces – one an inciting or attracting force that draws out the inner essential being of the other, enabling this inner being to be expressed. Yet to describe the interaction in this way is to adopt a one-sided perspective, for the interaction is reciprocal: each of the two forces serves as the inciting force that allows the inner essence of the other to be expressed and, in turn, expresses its own inner essence in response to the other’s incitement. This interaction between Force and its Other therefore involves a reciprocity or tautology that drives toward the realisation that these “two” forces are really one and the same – that force has no existence apart from its expression; that form and content are unified; that what are taken as distinct forces are moments of a dynamic unity.

Hegel uses his analysis of force to unfold a distinction between force as substance, and the true inner being of things. The play of forces now becomes the realm of Appearance – which Hegel positions as a development of the negative, in the form of a restless process of moments turning into their opposites, but with a positive content: the universal – here, however, positioned in the form of the object existing per se, with truth conceptualised as the inner being of the object. This true inner being, however, is taken to exist in a mediated relationship to consciousness, which can directly access only the realm of appearance. Understanding thus seeks to pierce the play of forces in order to discern the stable background that is now taken to be real and true – but also taken to be a negation of sensible world, such that the object of consciousness has come to be a supersensible realm lying beyond the sensuous world of appearance.

(A very quick aside: readers of the series on the first chapter of Capital may already have recognised that these are more or less the same moves Marx makes when analysing the category of Value – which he presents as a category of a supersensible realm that cannot be detected by immediate empirical observation, as a category that necessarily expresses itself in the Form of Value (exchange value), as something that appears initially to be a distinction in thought, but then is realised in the form of universal laws that emerge from the apparently random flux of the process of exchange, etc. Marx deploys the discussion in Capital to overtly similar effect to Hegel’s analysis here – embedding a kind of “Kantian” sensibility in his analysis of the reproduction of capital – while also tacitly offering a metacommentary on Hegel’s work as a buried subtext.)

Consciousness, in Understanding, takes the world of appearance as a mediation between itself and the inner being of things. The inner world, posited here as something beyond consciousness, presents itself as empty and inaccessible to knowledge. Hegel gestures in passing at approaches that stop at this point – accepting this barren “beyond” as the necessary limit of consciousness. He argues that such approaches fail to recognise that this barrenness derives from consciousness’ taking inherent being as an object outside itself – starting from the position that the inner, true realm is devoid of objective reality (and thus supersensible), and holding the position that it is also devoid of consciousness – leaving only a void that tosses consciousness necessarily back into the phenomenal realm of appearance. For Hegel, this conclusion follows, however, only if we remain bound to Understanding.

Hegel counterposes the position that the supersensible arises only in and through the realm of appearance, such that the play of forces in the realm of appearance, the flux of the sensible realm, is the mediation through which the supersensible inner world is generated. The realm of appearance thus fills what, to Understanding, presents itself as a void, by establishing an inner world through which the sensible world is transcended. At the same time, consciousness, as itself a moment in this dynamic process, is not walled off from an inner being intrinsically beyond itself, but is rather already implicated in its object.

As I write this section, with the text sitting beside me, open, but untouched, this chapter has spontaneously separated itself from the spine, and slithered out of the book and onto the floor: the entire section on Force and Understanding – and only the section on Force and Understanding – has now self-excised from my copy of the Phenomenology. I’m wondering how to interpret this. The silent unweaving of Spirit? Regardless, it’s getting late, and I need to stop for the night – unfortunately at what is probably a slightly misleading juncture (even assuming I haven’t been massively misreading Hegel’s voicing to this point). Worse, I have left myself still to write on the parts of this section that I find most difficult. Still, it would undoubtedly lead to worse results, for me to try to write on this text even later into the night… Apologies if I should have made this decision much earlier than this…

Note that, while my various posts on Phenomenology are working notes, written with long gaps in between and without a strong guiding thread linking the posts, this post does draw on some points developed in earlier posts on the section on Perception and Sense-Certainty. A compilation of links to other occasional posts on Phenomenology are listed in this post.

5 responses to “The Man Behind the Curtain

  1. Dallas Fortworth December 27, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Hegel & Marx. Doesn’t that make you feel all intellectual! At least you’re not proletarian.

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  3. Joseph Kugelmass December 30, 2007 at 4:22 am


    Thanks for the link! Naturally, I was hoping that the terrific images (particularly the eerie film-within-a-film of Dorothy watching the bicyclist, which comes closest to Hegel’s logic) would deliver people to the content.

    I would put the matter only slightly differently, and I wonder if you agree. It’s not so much that consciousness recovers from the error of thinking certain things are outside of it — though that is true — towards the attainment of a closed, internal self-certainty (e.g. the Cartesian model of the knowable, reflexive “formal reality” of thought). Rather, thought discovers itself as something that unfolds through alienation, that comes to know itself through the immanent production of itself as other, as object.

  4. N Pepperell December 30, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Hey Joe – yes – I really wanted to find a clearer still of that scene, but couldn’t uncover one… Good to hear it was clear enough what it was…

    I definitely wasn’t aiming for anything Cartesian in this gloss – my terminology may be a bit weird in these latest posts, as my head is more than halfway in Capital, and so I’m writing these, in part, to work out connections betweeen the two texts – to figure out what Marx is taking from Hegel (and therefore agreeing with and carrying over into his own work), and what he’s spoofing in Hegel (and therefore trying to “criticise”. These are of course somewhat overlapping, as Marx shares with Hegel the concept that you “criticise” something, not in order to toss it out, but in order to establish the conditions of its possibility and therefore render it rationally available. In any event, I’m speaking on a tangent here – I’m not overtly writing on this, and don’t expect readers to get this out of what I’m writing – just explaining why some of what I’m writing may sound a bit odd, in terms of what it emphasises or how it’s phrased.

    The issue of error in Hegel – and in Marx – is weird. I was wincing a bit when writing both this and the subsequent post, as I wasn’t spending any time on the issue that there are no “mere” errors – what’s being described isn’t understood as a “mistake” in any conventional sense – this would strike Hegel, I think, as an “abstract negation”. Instead, he positions perception, understanding, etc., as sort of plausible approximations, aiming toward an endpoint that is more adequate, and from the standpoint of which they can be judged as partial – but not exactly as errors. So I think that term, and the similar terms I use in these posts, are right to make you a bit uneasy. I’ve written on this issue in other places, of course, but I don’t carry it through here explicitly.

    So, yes, your formulation is good – Hegel would probably say it risks implying something more psychologistic than what he has in mind: in other words, he’d probably worry that both of us are using terms that carry risks of Cartesian misinterpretations. But your formulation has advantages over the ones I used in this post.

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