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Category Archives: Negations

Scratchpad: How Must the Science Begin? (Not This Way, Surely…)

*sigh* This is awful. But I’m tired of looking at it, I need to move on now and write other things, and dumping it on the blog seems the best way to draw a bright, embarrassing line under it, and force myself to move on. Some version of this piece in the near future will be much better. It has to be. But that’s not going to happen this week. So below the fold this goes – a sort of framing mini-chapter, intended to do roughly the same work that the “Fragment on the Textual Strategy of Capital post did for the blog series on Capital, now that I’m finally ready (as I had mentioned wanting to do in the blog series) to outline this argument a bit more adequately, with reference to the work I’ve been doing on Hegel’s Science of Logic. My problem with this piece isn’t so much how it reworks these specific arguments – it’s more with everything else that somehow sneaked in along the way, with how many unintegrated layers this text seems to have acquired in its very brief life, and with the many sections where I know – please trust me, I know – I need to develop further what I have said, but where every time I add something, it just seems to make everything that much worse…

So below the fold it goes. Good riddance, for the moment at least…

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Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

Still not comfortable tossing online my attempted overview and consolidation of the work I’ve been doing on this section. At the moment, I’m struggling with how to articulate something in relation to the concepts of abstract labour and commodity fetishism. I thought perhaps I could get back into the series on the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, by thinking out loud a bit about what Marx means by the following comment, from the section on commodity fetishism:

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

So what is the peculiar social character of this labour?

It’s not unusual for interpreters to gloss this section in terms of the sentence immediately following:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.

If this sentence is emphasised, the “social character” of the labour that produces commodities, seems to consist in that this labour is undertaken by private individuals or groups of individuals. Yet it’s clear from the section just below this in the text – Marx’s playful discussion of Robinson Crusoe – that he doesn’t hold that private or individual labour, just by dint of being private or individual, is necessarily fetishised:

All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.

The key phrase here is “intelligible without exertion”: the central question that opens the issue of the fetish for Marx is why it should be necessary to discover the existence of value, and why the determination of value by socially average labour time should be a “hieroglyphic” only deciphered through the detection of lawlike properties beneath the seemingly random flux of everyday experience:

It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from accumulated experience alone, the scientific conviction springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. And why? Because, in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.

It is important to understand that Marx does not take for granted that societies should be subject to laws whose existence, nature, and practical origin is not immediately transparent to participant social actors. Marx provides a number of examples toward the end of this chapter, running through social arrangements that are good and bad, emancipatory and oppressive – but all regulated through means that are “transparent” to participant social actors and “overtly social”, whether in the form of custom, force, or self-governance by free members of an emancipated community. That capitalism should be characterised by non-overt laws whose “objective” character obscures their origin in social practice, is therefore part and parcel of its distinctive character. A theory that presupposes that there should be such non-overt laws, and then sets out simply to uncover them, misses a significant aspect of the puzzle that capitalism poses.

Back with the original passage, Marx continues:

Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers.

Above Marx said that “The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.” By itself, that could imply that “social labour” was simply a conceptual abstraction: add up whatever private individuals empirically do, and you arrive at total social labour – regardless of the subjective isolation and privatisation of the individuals and groups whose efforts are collected into this aggregate. We already know from the examples used earlier in the chapter that Marx doesn’t mean this: not all labour empirically expended gets to “count” as “social labour” for purposes of the reproduction of capital. Hand loom weavers operating in the period of the power loom, producers whose products do not form a use value for sufficient numbers of others: the empirically-expended labour of these private producers, regardless of time and energy actually expended, does not fully “count” as part of social labour.

The privatisation of empirical labour, then, is not itself the “peculiar social character of the labour that produces [commodities]”. Rather, privately-conducted empirical labouring activities are a sort of process that takes place prior to the point at which “the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society”, while “the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange”. Commodities (rather than simply use values) are produced only in and through this coercive process that culls the efforts empirically expended in production, winnowing down to a smaller subset of those labouring activities that get to count as part of the labour of society (from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital). This winnowing process is manifested by the exchange of goods, with the proportion in which goods exchange revealing how much, and what kinds, of the empirical effort thrown into production, becomes successfully incorporated into “social labour”.

The “peculiar social character of the labour that produces [commodities]”, therefore, is the result of this process – the outcome – the coercive, unintentional and blind collective judgement of social actors who are not deliberately attempting to achieve any specific vision of what will count as “social labour”, but whose actions nevertheless do result in “reducing” empirically-undertaken labouring activities, down to what “counts” as social labour for purposes of the reproduction of capital.

Marx is trying to distance us from this process – to denaturalise it – to get us to see it anthropologically, in its alienness and exoticism. His evocative metaphors are attempts to recapture the sense of strangeness we lose in taking our own context for granted. Our collective behaviour, he argues, is equivalent to acting as though there there is some supersensible world of social labour – “human labour in the abstract”, he has earlier called it – that is not identical with the sum total of the empirical productive activities that we collectively undertake in aggregate. Marx speaks of commodities as “social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses”, and of exchange value “expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object” (i.e., not the amount of labour expended in the object’s empirical production) (italics mine). We elevate our collectively chosen empirical labouring activities by behaving as though they partake in this supersensible world – by allowing them to “count” as part of social labour to the extent that they produce goods that we collectively treat as the bearers of an homogenous supersensible essence – by treating these goods, in other words, as though they have “value”.

This supersensible world haunts our empirical activities – exerting a coercive force on them that generates certain lawlike effects, which allows us eventually to deduce the presence of this otherwise intangible realm, by following its indirect traces in immediate empirical experience. Its presence must be deduced because it does not align directly with our empirical activities: “social labour” is not the sum total of all labouring activities that private individuals empirically carry out; “value” cannot be discerned by examining the physical object that will bear value in the social process of exchange. The supersensible realm constituted in social practice thus possesses a counterfactual character in relation to immediate empirical experience, and its presence is therefore initially easy to miss in the apparently random flux of individual decisions, empirically diverse productive activities, and the ever-fluctuating proportions in which goods exchange.

Marx will argue that this “supersensible world” that gives commodity-producing labour its peculiar social character, and whose constitution exerts such coercive effects on empirical activities, nevertheless arises nowhere else aside from the flux and change of the immediately empirical realm: a major goal of Capital, across all three volumes, is to account for how such a process might unfold. His argument about commodity fetishism – and here he traces back over ground Hegel covers in the discussion of appearance and essence from The Science of Logic, and in the sections on Perception and Force and Understanding from the Phenomenology of Spirit – is targeted at forms of thought that fail to recognise that the supersensible “essence” of value arises only in and through the apparently random and contingent flux of the world of “appearance” – and that there is therefore a necessary relationship (so long as capitalism is sustained) between “appearance” and “essence”, contingency and law, form and content, what we take to be historical and what we take to be natural, in capitalist society. Paralleling Hegel’s argument about essence and appearance, Marx suggests that the supersensible, counterfactual, non-immediate character of “social character of labour that produces [commodities]” creates an immanent temptation to regard “form” and “content” as only externally and arbitrarily connected with one another – and to understand “essence” and “appearance” as subsisting in two different substances or worlds, one arbitrary and subject to change, and the other timeless and transcendent.

Revisiting the opening passages of Capital will place a more concrete spin on the mystical-sounding Hegelian language in play here. Marx opens Capital with an argument that commodities can be defined as containing use value and exchange value. These two parts of the commodity are described in terms of a form/content distinction:

Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

The relationship between the content or substance of use value, and the form of exchange value, is posited here as arbitrary: “in the form of society we are about to consider”, the social form of wealth involves exchange value – by implication, this social form is different in other societies, while the material substance of use value remains a timeless and untouched content, in and through these arbitrary fluctuations in social form.

By the time Marx reaches the argument about the fetish, if not before, we know that these opening passages are intended to be examples (among others in this chapter) of fetishised thought: that they do not reflect Marx’s own perspective, but a perspective that “presents itself” within capitalism, which has a certain “social validity”, but which can be criticised from the standpoint of other perspectives that are also immanently generated within the process of the reproduction of capital. This doesn’t mean that Marx will simply reject such forms of thought. His goal is rather to render available the insights of various immanently-generated perspectives, by locating them in relation to the process of the reproduction of capital, and by casting light on their relationships with one other and with everyday forms of social practice. He argues:

The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.

Hegel somewhere comments that the joke is that things appear as they are. Marx’s argument about the genesis of the fetish follows a similar insight. He therefore attempts, not to dismiss the fetish – to reveal it to be a mere illusion or a sort of cognitive defect that can be cast aside by shining the cold light of objectivity on capitalist society – but rather to account for its plausibility: why this form of subjectivity? Why this experience of self? Why this experience of world? How might we understand the non-arbitrary character of this set of habits for apprehending this social configuration? How might we grasp this as something “real” – but real “for us”? Note Marx’s phrasing in the following passage:

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. (italics mine)

Marx’s criticism here is not that social actors are operating under an illusion, e.g., that things have entered into social relations, and persons into material ones. His criticism is that political economy does not go far enough in understanding how we have collectively constituted such a situation – and in exploring the implications of this situation from the “inside”, to see what potentials this situation holds. Marx then pairs this with a practice-theoretic notion of the ways in which forms of perception, thought, and embodiment are constituted and shaped in determinate ways by our everyday practical experience of such a social world – among many passages:

The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour, have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.

In this and similar passages, Marx is suggesting that we are collectively enacting a situation in which everyday experiences render it plausible to experience our selves and our world in terms of material receptacles that partake in a single, uniform, homogeneous, supersensible substance, and intuitive to think in terms of immediate, empirical, sensuous entities whose apparently random movements are governed by supersensible lawlike forces. The practical social experience that “primes” us to be receptive to resonant forms of perception and thought is, however, prone to being misinterpreted as an experience of an asocial, “material” world, for determinate reasons: it is unintentional; it involves forms of coercion that are genuinely impersonal, abstract, and “counterfactual” in relation to immediate empirical experience; the lawlike operations of the supersensible realm are coercive and drive determinate forms of change in the realm of immediate empirical experience, thus rendering the realm of immediate empirical experience visibly contingent and “overtly social”, and reinforcing, by contrast, the sense that coercive laws arise in an asocial realm independent of human practice, etc.

From this perspective, both parts of the opening definition of the commodity – use value and exchange value – as well as the relation between these parts, are all equally “historical”. This claim will seem counter-intuitive, given the abstract and universalistic “materialist” meaning Marx has given to use value in the opening passages: surely it is in fact the case that material wealth is the substance of all wealth, whatever the social context? How could such a claim ever be historicised? But the movement of this chapter already suggests the determinations that lurk beneath the surface of this apparently asocial universal: how is it that we have available to us a general category for “material wealth as such”? Why does such a category originate only in certain circumstances, if it is truly such a timeless universal? And what of the “secular” character of such a category – the ability to segment off a “material” world understood as intrinsically devoid of social determinations, even if we should then project social determinations onto this void: from what standpoint does this become clear to us? How have we suddenly managed to step far enough outside our own social determinations, to recognise the intrinsic secular materialism of the natural world?

To treat such insights as “discoveries” – as timeless truths that have, quite unaccountably, suddenly become apparent to us, as if on the strength of our rational acumen alone – is, tacitly, to treat the standpoint from which the theory is articulated as a negation: to take the theorist to be speaking from a position of neutrality or objectivity that contains whatever universal content happens to be left behind, once all arbitrary particular contents have been stripped away. Other times held superstitious, culturally-conditioned visions of an anthropomorphised nature: we do not. Other eras made strange social distinctions between types of labour, but we now understand that all forms of labouring activity are united in being expenditures of human physiological energy. Etc. Marx explicitly and repeatedly mocks the political economists for such views: it is implausible that he engages in this form of critique himself.

So what is he doing instead? My suggestion is that he is trying to keep multiple perspectives simultaneously suspended in critical focus at the same time. He is not simply targeting his critique to secure the abolition of the “overtly social” elements of capitalism such as exchange value: he is trying to understand why certain dimensions of social practice sudden become visibly and overtly dimensions of social practice – why it becomes so clear that these are arbitrary and potentially contestable dimensions of collective life. At the same time, he is not basing his critique on purportedly more timeless “material” dimensions of nature or social life – nor is he simply trying to assert that what we take to be timeless, isn’t really timeless at all: he is trying to understand why certain dimensions of social practice come plausibly to appear as asocial – in part due to how they interact with, and mutually differentiate themselves from, other dimensions of social practice that are constituted as visibly contingent and overtly social. In the mix is the nucleus of an argument about how we might become “primed” in social practice – in our everyday experience of a dimension of social life that we experience as asocial – to search for certain qualities in nonhuman nature (and perhaps to be relatively less sensitive to other qualities), with ambivalent consequences for nature and for human society.

Does this mean, then, that Marx would reject, for example, the notion that something like “use value” could be said to be the material substance of wealth in all human societies – or, to state the question more generally, that he would repudiate the notion of making comparisons across historical time? I think the answer is clearly no – he would, and often does, make historical and comparative analyses that deploy contemporary categories. To do this, however, is to look out at the past with our eyes, to ask our questions, to make, in Benjamin’s terms, a “tiger’s leap” into the past, hunting for resonances with our own moment. The target of this sort of critique is not so much to undermine historical comparisons, as to ensure that we don’t miss an opportunity to grasp something about how our own society is constructed in practice: to ensure that we are attentive to possibility that there may be some special sense in which our society enacts “use values” as a general category of collective practice – some sense in which our society is really, as a matter of practice, so indifferent to the particular forms in which labour is expended and the types of products that are produced and consumed, that a “universal” category like “use value” obtains a practical reality for us that might explain the social plausibility or intuitiveness of such an abstract concept. To ignore the sense in which “use value” is uniquely and particularly a category of capitalist society is thus also to lose a source of insight into our contemporary situation, by mistaking a practically-constituted indifference that enables a universal category to arise as a kind of “real abstraction”, for a mere “conceptual abstraction” that takes itself to reflect an isolated cognitive process of generalisation from concrete particulars.

There is an argument here, in other words, about the ways in which categories that seem purely “material” – categories that seem to lack anthropological determination and that seem to be genuinely universal and non-specific to social context – are the categories that, for Marx, most purely express the most distinctive elements of the distinctive form of sociality characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism steps forward here as a society whose distinctive form of anthropological determination consists in its apparent freedom from anthropological determination – in its “disenchanted” character, its “secularism”, its “materialism” (which isn’t to say that Marx views capitalism as a purely secular form of society – “materialism” isn’t the only thing Marx is trying to ground – but he is nevertheless interested in capturing the fetishised character of even these apparently sober and scientific forms of thought). Certain kinds of universals and abstractions have a real, practical existence to which Marx is trying to draw attention: he wants to treat such things, not as negations or as what remains when determinacy and particularity have been stripped away, but as positivities in their own right, as actively constituted in collective practice, hiding in plain sight under the guise that they are nonspecific to any particular human society.

If I am correct, and this kind of argument is in play, then this greatly complicates the question of how to understand Marx’s critical standpoint. He won’t simply be criticising exchange value, for example, as the arbitrary social form that is contingent in comparison to the transhistorical “material” reality of use value. He won’t simply be criticising the strange social form of labour in capitalism, against the standpoint of labour understood as the expenditure of physiological effort. Both poles of the various dichotomies he tosses out in the course of unfolding his analysis in Capital are, I am suggesting, equally subject to critique. By the same token, however, critique in this context doesn’t automatically mean rejection: the critique is immanent to its object; Marx isn’t relying on an untainted Archimedean point from which he will claim to gaze at capitalism from “outside”. Critique within this framework involves grasping the interrelations among immanently-available perspectives – and then actively appropriating the resources those perspectives make available, in ways that react back on the reproduction of capital.

Thus the distinction between use value and exchange value, for example, can be wielded critically – without this requiring that the use value pole of this dichotomy be taken as an asocial “material” universal: it suffices that capitalism make immanently available a perspective that continuously suggests that wealth could be founded on material abundance, rather than on value. This critical insight does not depend on the metaphysics of what Marx sometimes calls “naive materialism” – on the claim that “material” realities are somehow more “true” than socially-constituted ones. It can be important not to rely on such naive materialist claims. To take an example that runs through the subtext of this chapter: the argument about the (accidental) social constitution of a kind of human equality. If the “material” (physiological) equality or identity of human beings were taken as the standpoint from which the ideal of social equality were asserted, this would actually step back behind insights gained (however coercively) from the experience of enacting a kind of human equality solely by force of collective practice. Biological difference could become the arbiter of social practice – a position that can be criticised, perhaps somewhat ironically, from the standpoint of insights generated in genuinely oppressive circumstances in which diverse labouring activities are all reduced to the common denominator of value. Marx wants to overcome this destructive process of reduction – but he also treats this process as one that has taught us something, however unintentionally, about the ability to enact something like equality through a purely social process that ignores material differences. This process of immanently mining potentials associated with different moments in the reproduction of capital can continue from here – for example, into critiques of the particularly abstract visions of equality that have tended to emerge in these circumstances – and on and on.

I toss out these examples only as gestures, without claiming they are central to how Marx perceives his specific critical standpoint in this text – my point is simply to give a sense that Marx’s analysis begins to unfold a fairly wide range of immanently available perspectives, all of which, as currently deployed, play some role in the reproduction of capital – all of which are therefore “tainted” or implicated in the reproduction of what Marx wants to overcome. This implicatedness, however, doesn’t mean that critique is impossible: we can still make our own history – just not in conditions of our own choosing. Marx is attempting to illuminate some of the potentials embodied in these circumstances we haven’t chosen, to open up a greater possibility for effective political self-assertion in the future.

I need to develop all of this in much further detail, and link it together with the materials I’ve written in earlier sections. My energy is flagging tonight, so I think I’ll break off here – with apologies that I suspect much of this could be much more clearly stated, and with better support from the text. 😦 As much as I’ve written in this series about Marx’s terminology and textual strategy, I find that I am struggling a great deal over my own presentational choices over how to present this material in a cogent way. Working back through the relevant sections of Hegel has helped in some ways – mainly in terms of giving me a better appreciation for how deeply Marx is playing with Hegel’s work in these sections. Reading Hegel is never particularly good for encouraging clarity of expression, though… ;-P I’m not hitting what I’m trying to say with the essence/appearance discussion in particular (sorry to Tom about that in particular). That, and I’m still just struggling to express what I think Marx means by concepts like “abstract labour”, “value”, and the “peculiar social character of labour” in capitalism. A bit frustrated at my own lack of clarity here… Hopefully I’ll do a bit better next time…

Links to previous posts on Marx below the fold: Read more of this post

Sublated Confusion

Evidently, I take great pleasure in seeing other people confused by the same things that confuse me. In the library today, where I was not doing research on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I nevertheless kept finding myself in the stacks, near places where works on Hegel were shelved. As I wandered past, titles would distract me, and I found myself opening books to the sections where they tried to explain the section on Force and Understanding. In most cases, the result was a sort of summary – the sort of move where you can tell that an author has simply thrown up their hands at the text and gone, “Right then! There’s no making sense of this. Time to paraphrase!” (Lest this comment appear critical, I’m sympathetic to this strategy and, in context, think it’s an entirely appropriate response…)

My favourite randomly-retrieved comment on the section, though, comes from Robert Pippin’s (1989) Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness, where Pippin provides a very nice account of the strategic intent of the section, but still can’t resist expressing a measure of exasperation at the form in which Hegel presents his argument:

It is at this point that Hegel summarizes both the realist and empiricist theories of account giving by saying that both of them generate the problem of an inverted world. The worlds in question are the “supersensible” and “sensible” worlds, or what we might more generally call the “empirically independent realities of force” and the “empirically undetermined legislation of law,” versus the manifold of sensible appearances. To the extent that such realities and such legislation are empirically independent, they simply invert the sensible world into something else and do not explain it (the classic case being Plato’s forms and Aristotle’s objections); to the extent that they are not independent, to the extent that the empirical manifold is the sole criterion of knowledge, the sensible world “inverts itself,” is unintelligible without the supersensible world (itself already caught on the first horn of the dilemma).

Now, to claim that the “true” world, whether supersensuous or sensuous, turns out to be an inverted world, “really” sensuous or supersensuous, respectively, is quite an unusual way of framing the dilemma described at the start of this section. But despite Hegel’s extreme formulations of the point (the sweet is sour, punishment is revenge, etc.), I think that that dilemma is what Hegel is talking about, and the inverted world section simply generalizes and restates that dilemma in as paradoxical a way as Hegel can devise. But what the reader is totally unprepared for is Hegel’s quite baffling, extremely compressed account of the origin of such a problem and his sudden, equally baffling, shift of topics.

First, he tells us that, given such an inversion, we must

eliminate the idea of fixing the differences in a different sustaining element; and this absolute Notion of the difference must be represented and understood purely as inner difference, a repulsion of the selfsame, from itseld, and likeness of the unlike as unlike. (PhG, 98; PS, 99)

Such language alone should tell us that we are suddenly deep in Hegel’s speculative waters, a fact confirmed by the next sentence: “We have to think pure change, or think antithesis within the antithesis itself, or contradiction.” From here, somehow in the next three pages, Hegel introduces the notions of infinity, life, and the dependence of consciousness on self-consciousness that will dominate much of the rest of the book. In short, this is as important a transition as any in Hegel, and it is unfortunately as opaque as, if not more so, than any other. (pp. 137-138)

Pippin then goes on to try to make some sense of all this – but I figure it’s best to leave all of you in suspense… ;-P (Actually, Pippin suggests looking forward – both the to discussion of self-consciousness around the corner in this work, and also to Book 2 of the Logic – although, to be honest, I was reading through this last night, with the explicit intention of comparing back to the account in Phenomenology, and I’m not certain I think the version in the Logic is much less opaque…)

By the way, for those who have been wondering what happened to the series on Capital, which I was promising to sum up back in December: it has evolved (or at least taken a brief developmental detour) into the recent posts on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic. This happened because some aspects of Marx’s argument seemed to require a quick refresher on Hegel. While I’ll obviously keep blogging on Science of Logic (and perhaps also a few more bits and pieces of the Phenomenology), I’m now – I think – ready to go back to some of the Marx material, in order to try to recast some of what I was writing late last year. Hopefully I’ll find the time for that very, very soon. For the moment, I’m obviously just happy to know that the parts of Hegel that are still confusing me, seem to be generally confusing by consensus – such that my particular confusion is apparently but a vanishing moment of a much more universal confusion… ;-P

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]

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.

And While I’m Talking about Hegel

I also wanted to toss up one quotation from the concluding passages to Hegel’s Introduction to the Phenomenology – with apologies that I’m too tired to explain right now why I think this quote is interesting in relation to the discussion that has been taking place between myself, L Magee, and Andrew Montin, over how Brandom conceptualises “objectivity” (or, perhaps, how Habermas takes Brandom to conceptualise “objectivity”). To avoid possible misunderstandings, I will note briefly, that, in saying the quote is “interesting” in relation to these ongoing discussions, I don’t mean to imply that I think the quote resolves any aspect of this discussion in anyone’s favour. What caught my attention was more that I think Hegel gestures here toward a certain terrain on which Habermas is likely positioning at least some of Brandom’s statements. To me, at least, this leaves standing our open question as to how valid it might be to read Brandom as “Hegelian” in this respect. Since this is likely a somewhat internalist discussion to many readers (even LM and Andrew may wonder why I’m reproducing this quotation, given that I’m not explaining my reasoning), and this quotation is long and will be reproduced without background or commentary, I’ll tuck the quote below the fold. Read more of 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…

What in the hell…

did you make me do, Nate?

I’ll be blaming you when I’m not sleeping tonight… ;-P

What I’ve done here is what I sometimes also do with L Magee (who will, no doubt, be glowering at me for working on this, rather than on Brandom…) – which is to provide your comments in full, in blue text, with my responses interspersed in black. This probably isn’t the most systematic way to respond, but it hopefully increases the chances that I won’t completely drop a major point. A lot of the responses aren’t very adequate – sometimes intrinsically, because the questions are too complicated to deal with adequately without their own full treatment, sometimes extrinsically, because I’m a bit tired and, particularly toward the end, just felt increasingly fuzzy and unclear, and so cut some responses short, hoping I’ve at least written enough to justify claiming to have tossed the ball back into your court… ;-P

For those reading on: since this is a long response to a substantive post, I’ll put the whole thing below the fold. If you haven’t read Nate’s original post, do that first, as I chop his post into pieces in order to respond to it; he was responding to my conference talk here.

Also, I notice as I’m preparing to post this that a conversation has been going on over at what in the hell… on this – I’ll just flag briefly here that I haven’t read that conversation (I wrote this post offline, and am just cutting and pasting it into the blog), let alone addressed whatever it says – that conversation I will need to pick up on over the weekend because, having written this, I’m definitely grounded and not allowed to come out to play again until my homework’s done.

Below the fold for the conversation… (which, I should also add, is rather dramatically unedited – urk!!) Read more of this post