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Category Archives: Contradiction

Full of Stars

So I set out to write a bit more on the section on “Force and Understanding” from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – if only to give Alexei something to read when he gets back from break. Somehow, I’ve written a monster, which goes back over much of the ground covered in my previous post on this section, and then struggles through to the end of the chapter. Even for this blog, I suspect that the resulting post is too long to deposit in its entirety on the front page. I’ve therefore pushed the content below the fold.

Since lately I seem to think of Hegel only in relation to film, and since Wizard of Oz illustrations didn’t quite seem to carry me through the end of this chapter last time, I’ve found myself associating to 2001: A Space Odyssey while writing this post – must be Hegel’s discussion of what happens to consciousness when Understanding encounters Infinity. The illustrations used below are fragments of the full images from the gallery of the 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive. It may just be me, but these images seemed somehow appropriate for a discussion of how consciousness moves from its initial experience of itself in an uncertain and tenuous relationship with an external object, through its confrontation with infinity, toward Self-Consciousness.

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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.


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.


I’m very pressed for time today, and am thinking very roughly… I just wanted to pull into greater prominence a small bit of the discussion going on with Andrew Montin in the discussion thread for the Modernities conference paper. While the full discussion is ranging across a number of interesting topics, what I wanted to pull out for exploration here is a vocabulary issue: given how helpful I found the discussion some months back, in which a number of people discussed how they deploy the term “self-reflexivity”, I’m now curious if others are interested in chiming in with how they understand the term “contradiction” in the context of critical theory.

Andrew has asked below whether I am, in a sense, being deeply misleading by hanging onto the term “contradiction”, given how I’ve transformed that term’s meaning. He may well be right, and I’m not attached to any specific vocabulary, but am instead trying to work out how to express a particular constellation of concepts both clearly and briefly. What I want to do here is just toss up some very quick associations, as placeholders perhaps for a much more adequate discussion that I can perhaps take up at a later time.

In terms of the conversation below, Andrew suggests (with the strong caveat that he is not responsible for how I am characterising this discussion – he is simply raising issues I have been meaning to post on for some time, and had therefore reminded me of things I’ve been meaning to say) that I appear to be using the concept of “contradiction” to describe something that doesn’t sound terribly much like the everyday sense of what a “contradiction” would be – where “contradictory” things shouldn’t be able to coexist. Nor does my use of the term sound terribly much like the inflection of the term “contradiction” in, say, second and third generation Frankfurt school critique, which will sometimes speak about some existing social practice or institution undermining its own basis by “contradicting” an immanent logic intrinsic to that practice itself – this position is a particular inflection of Hegel, an attempt to “secularise” Hegel’s notion that some kind of critical standpoint can be located in the progressive, developmental unfolding of an essence over time, and to establish a “necessity” for a critical perspective, by pointing that perspective back to an immanent principle that governs that process of unfolding. While Hegel’s metaphysics would be rejected by Habermas, Honneth and others drawn to this notion of “contradiction”, these traditions still attempt to preserve a sense of the necessity of a particular critical standpoint by grounding that standpoint in an analysis of the immanent logics of certain forms of practice – communication, recognition, etc.

Just to make matters truly confusing, I engage with similar elements of Hegel to those at play in this Frankfurt-style appropriation, but I play fast and loose with Hegel’s concepts (or, to say this more Critical Theoretically, I seek to “embed” Hegel in my own analysis) in different ways. So, to take a couple of quick passages from Phenomenology of Spirit that might be relevant to both concepts of critique and “contradiction”:

The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather, it sees only contradiction in that variety. The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole. But contradiction as between philosophical systems is not wont to be conceived in this way; on the other hand, the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its onesidedness, and to recognize in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments. (2)


The systematic development of truth in scientific form can alone be the true shape in which truth exists. To help to bring philosophy nearer to the form of science-that goal where it can lay aside the name of love of knowledge and be actual knowledge-that is what I have set before me. The inner necessity that knowledge should be science lies in its very nature; and the adequate and sufficient explanation for this lies simply and solely in the systematic exposition Of philosophy itself. The external necessity, however, so far as this is apprehended in a universal way, and apart from the accident of the personal element and the particular occasioning influences affecting the individual, is the same as the internal: it lies in the form and shape in which the process of time presents the existence of its moments. To show that the time process does raise philosophy to the level of scientific system would, therefore, be the only true justification of the attempts which aim at proving that philosophy must assume this character; because the temporal process would thus bring out and lay bare the necessity of it, nay, more, would at the same time be carrying out that very aim itself. (5)

The underlying concept here is that there is some kind of inherent nature that leads “necessarily” through certain moments in the process of its realisation, where the concept of “necessity” here doesn’t mean (I think) that a particular developmental unfolding “had” to happen, but rather that this development can be retrospectively reconstructed as logical – and therefore the prior moments of that development can be posited to exist in some necessary and intrinsic relationship to one another. At the same time, the “inherent nature” that drives the whole process (in a weak, non-causal sense of the term “drive”), and the (reconstructably) “logical” character of the process itself, makes it possible to ground a critical perspective in the “inherent nature” whose existence has only become fully (or, at least, more fully) manifest in the present time.

One way of viewing Habermas’ project would be as an attempted “secularisation” of this kind of argument. So, communicative action (or, for Honneth, perhaps “recognition” or similar categories) has an “inherent nature” – but one that has only become recognisable over time, and through an historical development which we can (reconstructively) recognise as a logical progression. This “progressive” dimension of this historical unfolding (the potential to “order” development logically or rationally) is taken to enable critique to align itself with the expression of “inherent nature” as unfolded in time, and thus to ground critical judgements against forms of perception and thought that less adequately express the most current available insights into this “inherent nature”.

My argument (and deep apologies – this will be fast, furious, and profoundly inadequate) is that Marx represents a very different attempt to “secularise” such moments from Hegel – one that problematises far more of Hegel’s perspective than Habermas – from my point of view – seems to do. I take Marx to be suggesting that capitalism is characterised by something that appears to be an “inherent nature” that possesses certain “logical” characteristics that can plausibly be interpreted as historical developments unfolding over time, even though this interpretation is not strictly accurate even for capitalism itself (I haven’t sketched this argument in full, but preliminary gestures are here – along with scattered points in the surrounding posts in the series).

I unfortunately have very little time to develop the implications of what I’m saying (and I haven’t established this argument as a reading of Marx yet, let alone as a plausible basis for a critical social theory), but just very briefly: one implication, if I can make this sort of argument work, would be that Habermas might be engaging in something that Marx would consider a “fetishised” form of thought: taking something to be an “inherent nature” (albeit an historically emergent nature), and grounding a critical standpoint in this notion of “inherent nature”, when an alternative form of theory might be able to show how this “nature” is much more actively and contingently generated in collective practice – that it represents, not some kind of immanent potential that resides in social practice as some sort of tacit (if weak and non-causal) telos, but simply a potential for us, which we are enacting in determinate ways that can be illuminated via a theory of practice.

This approach significantly muddies the issue of how you ground a critical standpoint – not least because it suggests a need for great caution when endorsing the specific sensibilities that present themselves to us as expressing some “inherent nature”. Once we reinterpret this “inherent nature” to be something more like “the inherent nature of capitalism, so long as we continue to reproduce this social system”, then deriving your critical ideals from this single location may be tantamount to rejecting any forms of subjectivity or practice that actually point beyond capitalism.

And yet – and here we get to the notion of “contradiction” as I’ve tended to use it – my interpretation of Marx is that he argues that capitalism actually generates multiple forms of subjectivity, which point in many different directions, each seizing on different moments of a multifaceted social context without recognising their own partial characters. My suggestion would be that perhaps critical standpoint within the framework I am trying to outline involves a sliding among available perspectives, with the Benjaminian goal of making our history “citable in all its moments” – or if that sounds a bit totalising, at least, more “citable” than it tends by default to be at the present time.

From this perspective, capitalism is contradictory – but this contradiction by itself won’t “resolve” in any particular way: capitalism reproduces itself through a movement over time that is “contradictory” in something like the sense of the passages from Phenomenology above – where, in spite of an immense amount of “development” and the “overcoming” of all sorts of concrete social institutions, the same “inherent nature” still continues to play itself out, and can therefore plausibly come to be read as the “telos” of all this frenetic, coercive “becoming”. It is this “inherent nature” that needs to be overcome, from the standpoint of the sort of critique I am trying to develop, in order to overcome capitalism; and contradiction, within this framework, is the means of the reproduction of a particular society, rather than a way in which that society points beyond itself. Yet Marx also does maintain that that somehow this contradictory process of reproduction does generate determinate potentials to overcome the “inherent nature” that it reproduces. Which brings me to my terminological dilemma of the moment.

The difficulty (well, one of many difficulties) with my articulation around this issue, is that I’m aware of a tension between my vocabulary, when I want to express that:

(1) capitalism reproduces its own “inherent nature” via “contradiction” in this “Hegelian” sense – via a process that presents itself as the unfolding of an historical logic that appears to realise this nature,


(2) capitalism, in reproducing itself, also generates the practical potential for overcoming the endless production of its own “inherent nature” (Benjamin, as usual, has a lovely term for this – something along the lines of “a revolutionary cessation of happening”).

In the conference talk, I used the term “contradiction” to refer to the emancipatory potentials I’m discussing in #2. However, I also need to talk (although I haven’t done this much thus far on the blog, and have therefore been able to bracket this particular terminological dilemma thus far) about the “contradictory” character of capitalist reproduction, in the sense of #1 – where the “contradiction” is understood as an aspect of reproduction.

It will be utterly confusing to use the same term for both concepts – and I think Andrew is right to push on me for whether I ought to be using the term “contradiction” as I did in the talk. And yet, as when we were discussing the concept of “self-reflexivity”, I’m stalled over the question of what would be a better way to express what I need to say. And so I deposit this problem here, for public discussion (or not)… ;-P

This post is woefully, inexcusably inadequate – if it helps, I know – please believe me, I know – that I haven’t demonstrated any of the points I ran through so quickly above. I don’t take what I’ve written as a critique of Habermas or as anywhere close to making the case for an alternative form of theory – I’m just trying briefly to sketch the thoughtspace for a problem in my work (and, in the process, skimming over things so poorly that I will no doubt imply – perhaps accurately – the existence of all sorts of other problems… ;-P). To make matters worse, I’m doing this just as I need to leave for the rest of the day… This should probably be a post for the draft queue… But then I’m worried I’ll never get around to editing it to put it up… So here you have it, for what it’s worth…