Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Science of Logic Reading Group: Opening Discussions

The in-person reading group in Melbourne meets tomorrow to discuss the Prefaces, Introduction, and section on “With What Must the Science Begin” from Hegel’s Science of Logic. Before that meeting, I wanted to contribute at least in a preliminary way to the discussion that has taken place at Perverse Egalitarianism and what in the hell…, in relation to the Prefaces and Introduction. The specific posts are linked below. Alexei from Now-Times, rob from around these and other parts, and perhaps Tom from Grundlegung have each expressed an interest in contributing something to the discussion at some point – and it wouldn’t surprise me if the in-person reading group lingers over these materials for more than a week, or returns to them later. The current post is therefore intended simply as an intervention into an ongoing discussion.

A quick preliminary. In spite of appearances, I generally keep personal things off the blog – just a brief deviation here to say that it’s been a bit of a rough day, in the midst of a rough period, and so what follows may be a bit… rougher theory than usual… 😉 I had wanted to weave a bit around what you folks have written, but am unfortunately a bit internalistic in my writing tonight, and am not making the sorts of explicit connections I would like with your contributions to this discussion. Please know that I am reading, and enjoying the posts very much, and will hopefully be able to pick up on the next round of discussion with more cross-connections, energy, and insight.

Preface to the First Edition

Reading Hegel’s first Preface reminded me of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment – of their concern with how enlightenment contains the immanent risk of collapsing back into myth, as it embarks on a corrosive process of demythologisation and, in its passion to undermine metaphysics, erects a new mythology of the factual, of the “given”, that, ultimately, devours the critical urge of enlightenment itself.

Hegel’s solution would not be one Horkheimer or Adorno would endorse. Still, Hegel here grapples with a similar intuition that there is a dark side to the programme of demythologisation. Hegel can’t restrain his sarcasm when he describes how the enlightenment presents itself as a leap from darkness into newfound clarity:

having got rid of the dark utterances of metaphysics, of the colourless communion of the spirit with itself, outer existence seemed to be transformed into the bright world of flowers – and there are no black flowers, as we know. (3)

black flowerHegel has already outlined the immediate costs of this shift – again in terms that reverberate through Horkheimer and Adorno’s work: the cost of enlightenment is the Kantian sacrifice “that the understanding ought not to go beyond experience” (3). The fear that going beyond the given will entail a lapse back to myth – in Hegel’s terms, the fear that “the cognitive faculty will become a theoretical reason which itself generates nothing but fantasies of the brain” – is linked explicitly in Hegel’s text with the flattening of rationality into instrumental reason:

the cry of modern educationists that the needs of the time demanded attention to immediate requirements, that just as experience was the primary factor for knowledge, so for skill in public and private life, practice and practical training generally were essential and alone necessary, theoretical insight being harmful even (3)

The older metaphysics has not survived this transition. Theology has retreated to the study of historical forms, submerged itself into the platitudes of common sense, or sunk into frank irrationalism. Logic lingers on, but in a hollowed out and instrumental form – a procedure without content, indifferent to substantive truth so long as the proper steps have been followed.

There are gestures here that sound romantic. Hegel notes the loss of those sacrificed by their community so that their lives could be dedicated to contemplation. He talks of blessedness, of temples that have lost their holy of holies. The target of this criticism, however, is one Marx would share: the reduction of all of life to the practical processes involved in securing the means of living. He decries the absence of something that can raise itself above the relentless focus on what is functional. He asks what, after the death of older forms of metaphysics and theology, will hold out the potential for transcendence – for critique.

At this point, however, the text pivots. This corrosive sceptical process is suddenly associated with the birth pangs of a new creative idea. This new idea, Hegel argues, indeed appears attenuated and rigidly formal in comparison with the richness of the old idea. In the moment of transition, rigid formalism reflects the intensity and the fanaticism of the struggle against the fully developed old. This moment, however, is passing – the new idea ready to come into its own. It is now both possible and necessary for the principle of the new idea to be elaborated in systematic form – a prospect that, for Hegel, will overcome dry formalism and allow the new idea to be grasped in its living detail. In Hegel’s words:

In its first manifestation, such an idea usually displays a fanatical hostility toward the entrenched systematisation of the older principle; usually too, it is fearful of losing itself in the ramifications of the particular and again it shuns the labour required for a scientific elaboration of the new principle and in its need for such, it grasps to begin with at an empty formalism. The challenge to elaborate and systematise the material now becomes all the more pressing. There is a period in the culture of an epoch as in the culture of the individual, when the primary concern is the acquisition and assertion of the principle in its undeveloped intensity. But the higher demand is that it should become systematised knowledge. (7)

Here, Hegel moves into the territory that will draw down Adorno’s ire – this move, for Adorno, amounts to an attempt to reconcile in thought, what could only be reconciled in practice: it is not possible to systematise away, what Adorno, following Marx, regards as real contradiction. Better Kant, Adorno at times will argue: at least his work leaves the raw contradiction exposed and unresolved.

Hegel sees his work straddling a transition – from Understanding, to dialectical reason. “Understanding”, Hegel argues, “determines, and seeks to hold the determinations fixed; reason is negative and dialectical, because it resolves the determinations of the understanding into nothing; it is positive because it generates the universal and comprehends the particular therein.” (9) He refers here to a “self-construing method” required for philosophy to become “an objective, demonstrated science” (9) – and points to the Phenomenology of Spirit as an instantiation of this method.

He then connects the Phenomenology to the Logic by arguing that Consciousness is “spirit as a concrete knowing” – intriguingly, a knowing “in which externality is involved” (10). He then argues that the “the development of this object, like the development of all natural and spiritual life, rests solely on the nature of the pure essentialities which constitute the content of logic.” (10) The meaning of this is worth attempting to grasp a bit better as we move through the text.

Preface to the Second Edition (partial comment)

If the first Preface reminds me of Horkheimer and Adorno, the second causes me to think of Brandom – unfortunately an association less provocative in its narrative implications than the one to Dialectic of Enlightenment, used to structure my reflections above. I hear a great deal of Brandom’s Hegel in this text, but I’ll leave this as a fragmentary observation for the moment, perhaps to be picked up if other readers of Brandom have any thoughts.

Hegel begins with a strangely apologetic tone: the task is utterly new – a completely new beginning is required, in order “To exhibit the realm of thought philosophically, that is, in its own immanent activity or what is the same, in its necessary development” (13). Yet there is still a history to this subject. And we should perhaps discuss it. It has, in fact, on some occasions been useful. Hegel diminishes this usefulness – dry bones, he claims, into which his system must breathe life. A resurrection, then, as Mikhail noted in one of his posts on the Introduction – but is there perhaps also a sort of sheepish awareness that this isn’t quite the virgin birth of the new idea?

Languages store forms of thought. German, apparently, stores them exceptionally well (there is a nice discussion on this passage between Nate and Le Colonel Chabert, under Nate’s post on this section). Nate is right to pick up on the complex and strange movements in this paragraph – something about it reminds me of Marx’s discussion of the political economists, value, and Dame Quickly: Hegel seems unable to communicate clearly “where to have it” – what the ontological status of the phenomena he is describing might be. In a few quick sentences, language figures as the bearer of categories – and thus of logic – sometimes clear, sometimes mixed together and confused, but embedded into the deepest recesses of human nature, constitutive, the suggestion is, of human nature. Or is that only formally speaking? Or perhaps supernatural? It depends on the aspect being considered – the relationship held in prominence at that moment in the passage. In any event, we’ll move on quickly to discuss the usefulness of particles, and leave these discussions of language, logic, and human nature behind. While having a good mixture of logical expressions in a natural language is useful, philosophy needs no special vocabulary of its own – because philosophy is not treated, here, as any kind of driving force, but rather as something that mines and systematises a much more general movement in culture:

The advance of culture generally, and of the sciences in particular, gradually brings into use higher relationships of thought, or at least raises them to greater universality and they have thus attracted increased attention. (14)

Philosophy may mine insights from general culture, but it nevertheless contributes something pivotal: it tarries with the familiar, dwells on the taken for granted. What Hegel calls “natural thinking” – impatient – satisfies itself with mere acquaintance with its objects (16). Philosophy, starting with Plato and Aristotle, breaks with this, and begins to open the possibility for a movement from mere acquaintance, to “intelligent apprehension” (17).

Hegel takes an interesting historical and sociological sidestep here. In Aristotle’s voice, he notes that philosophy requires a certain level of material comfort – something available, Aristotle notes, in Egypt due to the specialisation of a priestly class. After a quick interlude back in Hegel’s own voice – which in the structure of the text suggests that it ought to be taken as a gloss on Aristotle’s comment – Hegel is back again to Aristotle, this time talking about the nature of man being bondage, except in the science that is not studied for its utility.

In between these Aristotelian bookends, Hegel shelves a bit of his own content. Adorno rears his head again for me here: I can almost hear Adorno ask – did you see how quickly Hegel moves from Aristotle’s fairly frank discussion of the class basis of philosophical thought, into something that is subtly not a gloss on this concept? Let’s hear what Hegel says in his own words:

As a matter of fact, the need to occupy oneself with pure thought presupposes that the human spirit must already have travelled a long road; it is, one may say, the need of the already satisfied need for the necessities to which it must have attained, the need of a condition free from needs, of abstraction from the material of intuition, imagination, and so on, of the concrete interests of desire, instinct, will, in which material the determinations of thought are veiled and hidden. In the silent regions of thought which has come to itself and communes only with itself, the interests which move the lives of races and individuals are hushed. (18)

The need for material security remains in this passage – but cottoned over, submerged back into one of those mixtures Hegel seems to frown upon, in his discussion of natural languages. “The human spirit” needs to have travelled a long road, Hegel argues, suggesting a somewhat disembodied variant on Aristotle’s theme. Thought freed from need, in Hegel’s version, moves not in the temples of a priestly class, but rather in “the silent regions of thought”.

Hegel moves from here to talk about something like a sociological inversion. For Aristotle, freedom from want, freedom to concern oneself with logic – with something that contemplates thoughts in their abstraction, and thus with no aim to practical utility – seemed to offer a path for humans to reach for something beyond the human, for something outside the cycle of bondage that defined most of human existence. In Hegel’s time, by contrast, logic had become something taught to youth – to persons not ready to join in practical affairs, and thus regarded as having nothing better to do, than contemplate abstractions. This reversal – this modern valorisation of the practical – has reacted back on the teaching of logic itself, reconfiguring it as a means by which children could prepare themselves for more utilitarian ends.


It’s gotten very late – I’ll need to break off here, with a great deal of the second Preface left to go, and the Introduction still untouched. My apologies especially to Nate and Mikhail for not having been able to write more – or to draw your pieces more explicitly into what I have already written. Hopefully the whimsical nature of these comments won’t be too irritating – this is how I read, how I work myself into a text, but it’s not necessarily the best way to write about the experience, and it doesn’t exactly generate what one might call considered comments on Hegel (or Adorno, or the other folks I mention in passing), but rather my very raw reaction and association to this text, written more or less as I moved through it tonight – admittedly not on a first read, but very much without any settled or established “reading” I might eventually develop of this text.

Time to sleep… Take care all… 🙂

3 responses to “Science of Logic Reading Group: Opening Discussions

  1. Pingback: » Science of Logic Reading Group: Beginnings

  2. Pingback: Hegel’s Science of Logic: Preparing for Being « Now-Times

  3. Pingback: » Science of Logic Reading Group: Countdown

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