Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

With What Must the New Year Begin?

chaoscopeA post for midnight, to confirm a tradition, and to kick off the reading group discussion for this year: some brief, very preliminary reflections on the section on “With What Must the Science Begin?” from Hegel’s Logic of Science.

Hegel begins this section by situating its question in time: “It is only in recent times that thinkers have become aware of the difficulty of finding a beginning in philosophy” (88, emphasis mine).

Earlier periods, Hegel argues, set out a principle – a determinate content – of philosophy, understood either as an objective beginning of everything, or as a criterion of the nature of cognition. In comparison to these determinate contents, the subjective moment of philosophy – and thus the form of philosophy and the question of where to begin – were regarded as accidental and arbitrary, as lacking any necessary relationship to philosophy’s content. Questions of truth or ground seemed to be questions of content – of ontology – alone (89).

Modernity is distinctive in being concerned with how the principle – the determinate content – of philosophy could be established non-dogmatically. To ontology, then, epistemological questions have been added. Hegel points here to a triad of problematic possibilities that have emerged in response to this epistemological anxiety: first, the mirrored antinomies of dogmatism and scepticism, which share the notion that beginnings can never be more than arbitrary decisions, but then divide over whether they accept or reject this move; next, what Hegel regards as an even more fundamental retreat – the attempt to displace method and logic by the appeal to inner revelation. Against these possibilities, Hegel puts forward a fourth option: the subjective moment of philosophy must be recognised as an essential moment of objective truth; the form of philosophy must be united with its principle; the process of thinking must be the process of unfolding the principle (90).

Hegel’s approach, however, alters the sorts of questions that can be answered, outside the unfolding of the philosophy itself. Hegel can stage whisper what his answers will be – pointing to the form the philosophy ultimately will take. To his opening question of whether the beginning of philosophy is mediated or immediate, he can answer:

…there is nothing, nothing in heaven or in nature or mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation, so that these two determinations reveal themselves to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them to be a nullity. (92)

Stated this way, though, the answer appears dogmatic – a raw ontological assertion. The adequate demonstration of this answer requires the unfolding of the system as a whole. To abridge this process – to ask how the system will address questions, aside from watching these questions and their responses unfold immanently within the system itself – is a performative contradiction:

…to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, at least not in a scientific manner… (92)

But what does it mean, to unfold a system immanently from a starting point? How is it possible to generate the starting point itself, reflexively, by unfolding its own potentials, in a way that loops back to demonstrate that starting point to be non-arbitrary – non-dogmatic – non-decisionistic?

Hegel foreshadows his answer. He discusses the starting point that he will actually use, in this work, in his system. A starting point that is the result of the “science of manifested spirit”, which began from “empirical, sensuous consciousness”, and led to the “Idea as pure knowledge” (93). He describes this result, this starting point, as without distinction, as simple immediacy – but as simple immediacy that contains a reference to its distinction from what is mediated. He describes it as “being and nothing else, without any further specification or filling” – but as being that has arisen – that has come to be, through a process of mediation that has suspended itself (93-97).

The Science of Logic picks up from this result, taking the result as it presents itself, immediately, without presupposing anything else: “its only determination is that it is to be the beginning of logic, of thought as such” (95, 98). Again Hegel notes the risk of apparent dogmatism: this beginning “can also be regarded as arbitrary”, precisely because it is abstract and does not presuppose anything, is not determined in relation to anything else, is not mediated by anything, and does not have a ground (98). The beginning is immediacy itself – pure being (99).

Hegel has already indicated that other questions must await the unfolding from this beginning – ruling out the concept that metatheoretical comments at this stage could do justice to the nature of the argument, or adequately explain how this beginning will be immanently grounded through the unfolding of the system. Wait, he has said – and will say a number of times again. Be patient. See. There is no answer aside from the unfolding. This is, in fact, a central substantive claim of his approach.

But metatheory tempts him. Perhaps some preliminary gestures will be useful. He sounds impatient with himself for not being able to resist such moves – “preliminary prejudices”, he calls them, and dismisses them from the outset as moves that have no place within the science itself (100).

Yet these preliminary prejudices contain some of the most interesting commentary in this section. He begins by criticising the suggestion that philosophy could only begin with a hypothetical, an interpretive gamble whose outcome is not initially known. Hegel rejects this position, but – as always with his critiques – he also derives something from it: he associates it with an important insight. Specifically:

… progress in philosophy is rather a retrogression and a grounding or establishing by means of which we first obtain the result that what we began with is not something arbitrarily assumed but is in fact the truth, and also the primary truth. (101)

It’s difficult to paraphrase Hegel here in a way that would add anything to his formulations – readers will hopefully forgive me a further quote:

… absolute spirit which reveals itself as the concrete and final supreme truth of all being, and which at the end of the development is known as freely externalizing itself, abandoning itself to the shape of an immediate being – opening or unfolding itself [sich entschliessend] into the creation of a world which contains all that fell into the development which preceded that result and which through this reversal of its position relatively to its beginnning is transformed into something dependent on the result as principle. (102)

So here the starting point, the beginning – the principle – is also the result, the end, of the very process unfolded immanently from that from starting point. For Hegel, this renders the starting point non-arbitrary – non-dogmatic – as it provides the beginning from which can unfold a world which itself unfolds this beginning, which generates this principle.

[If anyone has wondered why I use the ouroboros as a site logo, this conception of critique is the reason… 😉 Although, via Marx, I would argue that a process that would enable this form of critique, is itself the process that must be overcome – this form of immanent theory is something that, if critical, aims to abolish itself, along with its object… But these aren’t thoughts I can develop adequately here… Back to the text…]

At this point in the narrative, Hegel does something extremely interesting – something somewhat unexpected. He draws a distinction between form and content. Specifically, he distinguishes between the particular beginning of the Science – his content, his principle (which is also meant to be form) – and this conception of the form of critique:

The essential requirement for the science of logic is not so much that the beginning be a pure immediacy, but rather that the whole of the science be within itself a circle in which the first is also the last and the last is also the first. (102, emphasis mine)

In another author, this sort of move wouldn’t be so striking. And there are ways to interpret this statement without contradicting Hegel’s overarching argument. Hegel is so sensitive, though, to moves that suggest that something is arbitrary or inessential – he is so focussed on the unity of content and form. In such a context, this sentence opens the trace of a potential: has Hegel quite captured what he thinks he has captured, if even his text contains threads of a divide between his content – his principle – and this form? Marx will tug on such threads to unspool his own immanent critique, in Capital.

Hegel moves on from here to provide further details of the movement of this kind of critique: the beginning, although it may appear arbitrary or one-sided at the outset, will itself be shown to be a mediated result and, through progressive determinations, will lose its apparent one-sidedness. The inferences made from this beginning point are not abstract negations or rejections of the starting point, but are instead further – less abstract, more detailed – determinations of the beginning. The beginning is therefore preserved in everything that follows from it, in and through a process of transition and negation – indeed, the process of transition and negation, ultimately, is the process through which the beginning is constituted and preserved. For this reason, the beginning is actually not known at the beginning: it is fully determined only in and through the fully developed system. For this reason, as well, the beginning is not arbitrary, provisional, or hypothetical: it is the only possible beginning from which the totality that generates such a beginning can unfold. (103-107)

Hegel moves on from here, away from this more “essential” requirement, and back into the specifics of his… particular beginning. He foreshadows elements of the argument to come, providing the sorts of preliminary justifications whose validity he has also repeatedly ruled out, and engaging in skirmishes with a few other approaches. I’ll leave this material aside for the tonight – hopefully the post is substantive enough at least to open discussions for the new year 🙂 I have a little one wanting to play with sparklers, now that it’s dark enough to see them – I’ll set this post to go live at midnight.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in discussions here over the past year – I have benefitted more than any of you could possibly know from these engagements, and I hope we have opportunities to have many more such discussions in the coming year.

[Note: image @sandyckato]

13 responses to “With What Must the New Year Begin?

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  4. Tom Bunyard January 4, 2008 at 9:48 am


    and happy new year. I look forward to seeing what you come up with; I managed to make my way through the Encyclopaedia Logic over the summer, and am currently having a breather before squaring up to the S of L – but I’ll certainly be interested in seeing your comments.

    …and I rather liked your exposition in the text above. I’ve found Houlgate’s The Opening of Hegel’s Logic enormously helpful in clarifying Hegel’s strange ‘presuppositionless’ starting point; what do you make of his stuff?

    Also, would it be possible to throw in a couple of questions based on my own reading of the Encyclopaedia Logic? Not that I’m in any way eager to go back to those bastard syllogisms, but I’d be interested to run a few things past you.



  5. N Pepperell January 4, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Hey Tom – Sorry you got held in moderation (should only happen on a first post). Running at the moment, but just quickly: more than happy for you to post questions and add another perspective on what’s going on from your readings – among other things, my reading is probably overdetermined a bit from social theoretic concerns, which helps with visualising some things, but not so much with others… I was just last night reading through the section on Appearance and, while it’s probably slightly clearer than the pass through the equivalent material in the Phenomenology of Spirit, I still find it very difficult to grasp the “necessity” of some of the moves (as in, the basic “fractal” of the argument is clear enough to me – if nothing else, that gets beaten into you after a while… ;-P – but not why certain connections are made in the specific order that they are…). But yes, please jump in whenever.


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