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It’s been a while since I posted anything, so I will put up some thoughts about Hegel that I have been kicking around. I recently re-read the Phenomenology of Spirit (the fifth or sixth time) and the role of Absolute Knowledge in relationship to Hegel’s ‘logical’ works seems clear to me, if counter-intuitive for the contemporary mind. Quine approvingly quotes the slogan “Ontology recapitulates philology” in Word and Object, and this is apt for considering the Hegelian doctrine that logical theory works in the metier of “absolute knowledge”. Brandom for one spends very little time talking about absolute knowledge, but the Hegel journeymen out there surely remember the sections where Hegel connects his metaphysical logic to absolute knowledge, and have wondered what this really meant.

I think what this means is that logic displays the tools the individual mind has for ‘taking over’ thought of the past and present. And, courtesy of the Phenomenology, there is a lot of ground to cover. I used to wonder what differentiated the material covered in the section on “Spirit” from that covered in “Reason”: and, for a couple of years, my answer has been (variously formulated) that the chapter on spirit introduces, in its meditations on the metaphysics of morals, the “Great Moral Fact”: the space opened up by a morality of intersubjective recognition includes all of humanity’s rational conduct, all the wonders of the ancient world and all the terrors of the modern world.

“Spirit” is the “Great Moral Fact” of the holistic importance of all literature for descrying moral prospects in the present. Whereas it remains controversial whether the Quine-Duhem thesis that ‘the unit of empirical significance is the whole of science’ really portrays scientific research correctly, Gadamer’s unpacking of Hegel’s account of Bildung should make us comfortable with Hegel’s gigantic span of world-history considered under the heading of Spirit, “The I that is a we and the we that is an I”. The roots of literature in the historical experience of peoples really offer the ultra-modernist no escape from an historical depth to complement and counter-act the spurting excitement of a collected present. (Dante and Jonathan Franzen are together on this track.)

Purifying the “natural” approach of religion to this whole of humanity’s doings, Hegel’s logic, in its ‘absolute’ character which merely reflects self into self, takes its myriad forms and topics addressed because the individual’s experience of the Great Moral Fact of world culture and literature necessarily takes the form of individual cogitations and velleities. In a Kantian spirit, Hegel’s logic “projects” world-history (which it cannot be innocent of) onto modernity (which it cannot escape). The secondary efforts at elucidating this connection, the “moral” or social sciences, require that this encounter between Man and Civilization be kept in mind more or less whole. (I do not think any of this ought to be too shocking to experienced Hegel hands, but it goes some of the way towards explaining seemingly baroque features of the Science of Logic).

The self is the model of a concept, Hegel said.

Oh yeah? Hegel said that?

Yes and no. Hegel’s model for a concept in this sense is the Kantian category, which he says is “both self and being”. That is to say, when reasoning categorially one is cognizing the world in a way that can easily become part of an apperceptive self. Concepts are the “selves” of objects, with “being-for-self”, insofar as they figure in a Kantian story about how the world is being open to rational cognition on the part of a human individual. Consciousness as we experience it can never leave the bounds of this kind of cognizability, nor does Hegel’s Seyn leave the ‘rational metrics’ of a subjective dialectic.

Frequently in the Phenomenology Hegel describes Für-sich-sein as equivalent to “being for us”, the rationally developed intellects. This is no monadological story about how everything has ‘wings’; rather, Hegel’s concepts show how close reason must stay to cognition for objects to ‘make sense’. Hegel’s own accounts of human action then build on this, where more complicated Sitten or “mores” have a ‘built-in’ grasp of the objective world. Perhaps Hegel’s system is “nothing but a new presentation of the Kantian” in this sense; the famous “contradiction in the object” is not really to be found in it.


“The moon landing was faked because American losers say it is. He’s dancing because they paid him a lot of money to cleverly simulate biophysical capabilities humans do not have on Earth. A brilliant hoax, but then we blew it and carelessly lost the 45 video tapes containing evidence of the most brilliant practical jokester of all time.”

The central question of Kant’s famous work The Critique of Pure Reason is: “How do you know you’re not already dead?” Kant’s own formulation “How is synthetic a priori knowledge possible?” is less perspicuous for some reason, but as I will explain the basic notion is the same. Now, Kantian idealism about the “realm of appearances” differs from Cartesian skepticism in two ways: even if we don’t really know which is which, waking life and dreams are discontinuous, and the cogito can not provide a foundation for empirical knowledge — Descartes’ answer to that problem in the Meditations, that material objects which can be clearly and distinctly conceived can be created by God, essentially anticipates that of the occasionalists (and suffers from the same drawbacks).

The question of whether I myself have actually ceased to live, and if my current experiences (which seem continuous with those I’ve had over my lifetime) are actually the work of a Creator in an afterlife of some sort, is one that comes to my mind sometimes; I think it’s a question really worth reflecting on, as the seemingly real character of one’s existence is not necessarily a guarantee of its reality. Or is it? Actually, Kant’s basic answer to the question is something like this: “In distinction to a priori truths that must hold in any case possible, the coherence of one’s impressions of physical objects in space — and thoughts about those objects and thoughts about those thoughts through the time of one’s life — is the only possible criterion of experience’s validity, and thusly the foundation of experiential invariants.”

If one’s experiences fail to have a “lawlike” character (perhaps in the moral realm as well as the physical, eh?) they are non-genuine and anything may very well be possible, including that you are dead or losing your mind while dying. However, some people have disputed the neatness of these distinctions, and one might view Hegel’s adaptation of this postulated Kant in the Phenomenology as a way of coping with the fact that “coherentist” accounts of experience are continually being undone by various forces — sometimes quite completely — and the possibility that people are already well on the way to an Elysium he secretly didn’t believe in.

Back to the “rough ground” for a minute (although more properly speaking said ground is soggy, soggy and cold). There’s been a lot of enthusiasm recently for Quentin Meillasoux’s theory of the “ancestral”, the material aspects of the world which are epistemically inaccessible to us and thusly fall outside a Kantian “correlationist” view of the relation between the mental and the physical. Without speculating on Meillasoux’s theory before I’ve gotten around to carefully reviewing it (twenty dollars is a lot to spend on an afternoon’s reading), I’d like to generalize the thought as it is stated and apply it to other dimensions of time and to consider the relationship of Marx to his German forebears in that light.

For the sake of the argument, consider a thumbnail sketch of Platonism: Plato was the inventor, not only of the “truth as correctness” much bemoaned by the later Heidegger, but of the ideal: the Socratic dialogues are the first place in Western literature where the question of establishing what is really the case, what is really good, what is truly true gets raised. The Ionian ‘physicists’ do not ask these questions; the various religious prophets of the Near East, including the interpreters of Greek civic gods, had no time for them. The same cannot be said for Leibniz, Kant and Hegel. The reintroduction of Plato’s works into the Western intellectual milieu helped give form to Leibniz’ early attempts at “logistic”, and Kant’s self-professed crypto-Wolffianism surely takes the form of an attention to rationalistic surety about the purchase of concepts of totality on the realm of “appearances”.

Hegel maintains all of this Platonism, but within the more precisely established bonds of intersubjectivity, or Geist. For Hegel all ideals, including the ideals of religion, realize themselves in community standards and practices. We can cheer this as a ‘precursor’ of pragmatism (although why exactly equalibertarians were ever supposed to be enthusiastic about Metaphysical Club member and Peirce’s good bud Oliver Wendell Holmes is mysterious to me); that’s not, however, the only thing it is. Rather, Hegelian intersubjectivity is a form of actualist presentism about norms and the non-normative powers that underwrite them: he probably would not even go so far as to say “the truth is what is fated to be agreed upon by all”, holding that philosophy only “comprehended its time in thought” and failure to make peace with the signposts of the age was indicative of a lack of conceptual acuity.

Perhaps we could say that Marx had something like Meillasoux’s idea of epistemically inaccesible reality in mind when conceptualizing the proletariat, although in the direction of the non-espied future rather than an ancestral past. The proletariat is fated to rule the world, according to Marx, because they simply are the forces of the future at work today: the elements of practice and revolt we do not understand today, working an effect on contemporary society at a non-conceptual level, will determine the normative concepts of tomorrow — not an “originalist” fidelity to an ‘originary’ source of insight. So perhaps we should think of Marx’s favored name for his project, “historical materialism”, in some such robustly metaphysical way.

The Hegel scholar Terry Pinkard has made his long-awaited translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit available online, in en face and English-only formats. Professor Pinkard’s page also includes pictures of Hegel and other turn-of-the-century notables (such as the smokin’ hot Susette Gontard). Also of note: the tsk-tsk-don’t-distribute online presence of Robert Brandom’s forthcoming book on the Phenomenology, A Spirit of Trust.

(Thanks to Continental Philosophy for the Pinkard link)

I’m feeling pretty sharp today, so I’ll try my hand at formulating a thought which has been knocking around in my head for a few days: an interpretation of Hegel’s claim in the Philosophy of Right that freedom can only be realized within a Stand or “estate”. In his lectures on ethical philosophy, John Rawls dismisses the significance attached to this by Marxists and other radical democrats: he claims it is no more than the vaguely communitarian commitment undertaken by those of us who play particular roles in US society.

I disagree; I think, based on details of Hegel’s life which I think are insufficiently appreciated, that Hegel is much more Foucauldian than Rawlsian at this juncture in his thought. Hegel’s strained friendship with Hölderlin, who went mad after involving himself in a plot to assassinate the Elector of Württemburg, is famous: some circumstances of Hegel’s political life during his Berlin years are less well-known, though reported in Terry Pinkard’s fine biography. During his time in Berlin, when he acquired the reputation of a pro-Prussia “stuffed shirt” which would follow him beyond the grave, Hegel was actually secretly on good terms with some student revolutionaries (Pinkard does not give details as to their program, but one suspects these were the precursors of the nationalist revolutionaries of 1848).  Of what significance is Hegel’s “fellow-traveling” for considering his political philosophy?

Well, Michel Foucault identified the early 19th century as the birth of a “disciplinary” social technology for controlling the lives of the masses: prisons, workhouses, and hospitals all assumed similar forms as places where people were “normalized” to regimented daily habits. Foucault does not go as far as analyzing the state itself in these terms, but I see little to prevent us from considering “reactionary” regimes like Prussia, the Second Empire, and modernizing Russia as implementing disciplinary regimes with respect to their citizens: most notably, in developing a modern apparatus of secret police and detention facilities to monitor and stow away enemies of the crown.

Viewed in this light, Hegel’s “conservatism” is something like practical advice to young Germans not to follow the example of Hölderlin, but rather to view the repressive state apparatus as something one gets equilibrated with independently of abstract freedom, the limited freedom of the particular individual and his subjective interest. Could there be a positive estimation of Hegel’s advice, a construal that makes such a state like the “productive” powers Foucault analyzed? Yes.

Perhaps what comes out in the radical’s struggle to avoid unjust punishment for sedition is the real relation between them and the state power, a translation of their utopian schemes into the real forces at work in contemporary society. Certainly those of us who have spent the Bush years on the outside looking in, or quite a long time inside corrective facilities of some type looking out, have reason to hope that it wasn’t “just some silly mistake” that kept us out of the “mainstream” — rather, that what is being forged in these trials is something like the Greek symbolon; a “perfect fit” between the individual’s hard-won political stance and the agency of government, or a somewhat less tangible but real connection between their faculties and the indefinite “realm of reason”.

On the other hand, they [the ethical substance and its laws] are not something alien to the subject. On the contrary, his spirit bears witness to them as to its own essence, the essence in which he has a feeling of his selfhood, and in which he lives as in his own element which is not distinguished from himself. The subject is thus directly linked to the ethical order by a relation which is more like an identity than even the relation of faith or trust.

Hegel, Philosophy of Right

“History continually effects totalisations of totalisations” — Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason

One of the blogs I’m currently very interested in is Metalogic is Ethics, run by a graduate student in Philadelphia. John and I agree about the importance of formal concerns to “Continental” issues, and we are both thankful for the liberalizing influence of Badiouianism on that interface without quite having the grateful consciousness of disciples. Something we’ve discussed is the significance of second-order logic for considering dialectics: although I doubt anyone ever completely agrees with what I say, hopefully this work-up of my position on that topic will mark out an area broad enough to be occupied by a group larger than a party of one.

To put it mildly, formal logicians are not Hegel fans; going back to Russell’s turn away from British Idealism, formal logic has been informally defined as everything Hegel’s “logic” was not. The closest any formal thinkers have gotten to appropriating Hegelian themes is “dialetheism”, the Australasian philosophical movement which holds that paraconsistent logics (which have rules for reasoning with contradictions that are more sophisticated than the traditional “principle of explosion”) demonstrate that it’s coherent to believe there are real contradictions, “contradictions in the object” as a traditional dialectician might say. People like Graham Priest have mentioned Hegel in connection with this project, as well they might; but I think the real story of Hegel and logic is a little bit more complicated than simply accepting dialetheism. The story begins, as well it might, with Plato.

I’m no Plato scholar, but I imagine it’d be an uncontroversial observation that Platonic dialogues operate in this fashion: Socrates gets one of his interlocutors to produce a description of an Idea, and then they collectively reason about the consequences of that Idea for reasoning with Ideas generally, and the consequences of reasoning with Ideas generally for the employment of that Idea. This is clearly a “second-order” process of reasoning, but those less familiar with formal logic may not know there’s no need to leave “second-order” as an inexact descriptor: there is “second-order” logic. First-order logic allows the reasoner to quantify over objects in the universe of discourse, which produces universal and existential statements about the application of predicates to those objects: second-order logic allows one to quantify over those predicates, producing universal and existential statements about predication in general.

Sounds great, huh? In fact, using second-order logic one can describe all mathematical concepts without resorting to set-theoretic axioms, as Frege did with his second-order logic, his “laws of the laws of nature”. Or at least you could, if that didn’t produce paradoxes like Russell’s “set of all barbers that shave themselves”. Some people have recently tried to salvage Frege’s logicism from the paradoxes (by restricting his Basic Law V), but that’s not quite what I want to talk about here — although his mathematical “platonism” may shed some light on the original article, he was certainly no dialectician. No, what I aim to talk about is the relationship between Platonic and Hegelian dialectics in light of second-order considerations.

Between Plato and Hegel, we have Kant’s “Transcendental Dialectic”, his logic of metaphysical illusion. Unlike the understanding, which operates by subsuming intuitions under concepts (much as constants are included in the extension of predicates), Kant’s Reason works with Ideas (concepts involving totality, the unconditioned, and the perfect) and gets entangled in antinomies and contradictions on account of their character. I guess you could anachronistically characterize Kant as a Quinean of sorts, interested in restricting theoretical cognition to “first-order” concepts of the understanding, and I think that would not be an unreasonable way to gloss the influence of modern science on modern philosophy which culminated in his work.

Hegel accepts the results of Newtonian physics, and the constraints of experimental method on philosophy of nature: but unlike Kant he held no truck with skepticism, and wanted a modern version of Plato’s productive dialectic. Consequently, Hegel returned to the second-order, and his dialectic is much more nearly a process of moving back and forth between orders of abstraction than cookie-cutter application of a “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” schema. That contradictions seem to occur in this process is perhaps an indication of the fact that this second-order reasoning falls prey to the affliction of any formal system powerful enough to generate the principles of mathematics, incompleteness: the interrelation between dialectically demonstrated truths cannot be systematized axiomatically.

Maybe that’s tendentious — but there’s an interesting feature of second-order logic which I think is quite illuminating for considering Hegel and Hegelianism. “Standard semantics” for second-order logic is incomplete, but the logician Leon Henkin (who developed the proof of first-order completeness which is commonly taught today) devised a “Henkin semantics” for second-order logic which is complete. Henkin semantics only allows second-order statements over defined first-order totalities: this is similar to the restriction in the Zermelo-Frankel “axiom of comprehension” which replaced Frege’s unrestricted law of comprehension. If we consider Hegel as second-order, perhaps Henkin semantics is a good “model” of Left Hegelianism (where dialectic reasoning is preserved but only in reference to “real abstractions”, concepts that are incarnated by material realities); Right Hegelianism preserves the full expressive power of second-order dialectic (Henkin second-order logic is no more expressive than first-order logic), but at the cost of rational cogency and lack of “mystification”.

I’m definitely floating with the universe by the end of this line of thought, but there is a more recent “dialectical” concept that reminds me very much of another thought I independently had about two approaches to logic and geo-linguistic correspondences to them. One of Sartre’s major concepts in his Critique of Dialectical Reason is the “practico-inert”, elements of social organization which are resistant to the subjective projects of praxis and form the ground of social struggle. Now, in 1970s logic a distinction was made between “Western model theory” and “Eastern model theory”; the former being exemplified by the work of Alfred Tarski and his students at Berkeley, the latter being exemplified by the work of Abraham Robinson and his students at Yale.

In pure logic there’s not much heavy weather to be made over this distinction; both Tarski and Robinson were from Central Europe (by way of Palestine and Britain in Robinson’s case), and Robinson had quite happily taught at UCLA. However, I think the distinction is not without its geographical aptness. Western model theory was more heavily “logical”, and focused on the significance of models for definitions of logical consequence and other “abstract” features of logic. Eastern model theory was more heavily “mathematical”, and focused on the significance of models for proving things about mathematical theories and other “concrete” formal phenomena. This parallels a distinction in discursive styles between the western and eastern US. In the West, people have traditionally been quite fond of solecism and sophistry as devices for getting points across indirectly, whereas in the East there’s more of a focus on ineliminable realities bound up with noble sentiment: a Western raconteur might be “temporarily disabled” by a stunning woman, whereas an Easterner might be discomfited by the plight of personally aggressive people with “disabilities”.

It seems to me that this “Eastern model theory” seems to capture the presence in language of the practico-inert which Sartre touches on at one point, the crude and tasteless plays on words you just can’t get away from, low “interpretations” of signifiers which distract us from drawing the appropriate conclusions. But lest this seem to be mere provincial boastfulness, I will mention that the reason people don’t use this distinction in logic anymore is that all new work in model theory today is “Eastern” model theory, leading to Wilfrid Hodges’ redefinition of the subject as “universal algebra minus fields” rather than Chang and Keisler’s “universal algebra plus logic”. And, like Sartre says, as undesirable as many aspects of the practico-inert are from the standpoint of revolutionary subjectivity it’s a fundamental existentiale of sociality which you can’t get away from.

Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is John Holbo’s complaint about Zizek’s use of the word “cogito” to refer to a thing, rather than an argument. Now, I probably have read less Zizek than Holbo (after a certain point I determined that perfecting my Lacanese would not be viewed as conducive to wellness), but I think in Continental context this complaint is slightly disingenuous: everybody does it. Specifically, both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty use “cogito” without a definite article to refer to an indelible structure of subjectivity, rather than talking about “the cogito” which one finds valid or invalid, compelling or irrelevant. Adam Kotsko told Holbo this was Zizek’s position, too: “‘Cogito’ does not name the argument, but one aspect of subjectivity, which Zizek takes to be more originary and important: namely, the sheer abyss of self-relating negativity.”

Me being me, and books costing what they cost, instead of checking this out in the Zizek corpus I’m going to invite the reader to consider what seems like the relevant part of Hegel’s oeuvre: I think that Hegel’s doctrine of the “idea” amounts to an attempt to defuse what Hegel called philosophy’s not assenting “to the concept of Cartesian metaphysics, that being and thinking are in themselves the same, not to the thought that being, pure being, is not a concrete reality, but a pure abstraction; and conversely that pure thinking, self-identity or the essence, is partially the negative of self-consciousness and therefore being, partially as immediate simplicity is nothing other than being: thinking is thinghood, or thinghood is thinking.”

Of course, the Idea is the adequate concept, or the thought which is equally a reality, so it could be argued Hegel has simply definitionally brought Descartes into line with his views: but I think the further contours of the Idea’s development show the signs of some hard thinking about problematic aspects of Cartesianism. Hegel identifies life as the immediate ideal sphere, and purpose (Zweck) as the immediate form of the idea. What makes these ideal? After the demolition of vitalism and the rise of teleosemantics they certainly seem like unproblematic natural phenomena which hardly require such a treatment. Well, what Hegel is doing is collecting together all the things which exhibit reflexivity: thinking can only truly equal being if that being is objectively reflected into itself, i.e. already capable of in some way addressing itself — making phenomena which are “one-sided” and merely are, lacking the ability to articulate themselves, only spurious entities.

In other words, it seems to me that he is picking out a class of “objectively spiritual” things which might very well deserve the mass term “cogito”, since they are not merely phenomenal experiences suggesting self-conscious unity, but phenomena which contain self-conscious unity in their “objective” constitution, reinforcing the weak point of Cartesianism’s inability to justify the human mind oriented towards the world of others: Hegel has decentralized Cartesianism, distributing the force of the cogito as argument to all points in the human world. Perhaps this is Zizek’s intention as well.

A dictum familiar to experienced “Hegel-watchers” is Hegel’s notion that the monism of Spinoza represented a “natural” metaphysics, being the system which would first occur to the philosophical novice before the problem of subjectivity came into view. I’d like to offer a conjecture about the “effective history” of Spinozism which might serve as a historical counterpart to Hegel’s pronouncement: it seems to me that Spinoza’s ontology set tasks for the philosophy of mind which obsoleted “early modern” philosophy’s efforts in that regard, and that “Spinozism” consequently served as a very real constraint on the character of their 18th and 19th-century replacements.

Early modern philosophy is full of “ad hoc” solutions to the problem of mind-body interaction; Descartes’ famous pineal gland, occasionalism, “pre-existing harmony”. Spinoza’s dual-aspect theory is very different from these: not only in the apparent character of his solution, which is not terribly popular at the present time, but also in its “external” concomitants. Now, today the question of physicalism is commonly posed in terms of networks of physical law which are universally applicable, with the problem being the clarification of mind’s status under those laws. But Spinoza’s was the first modern philosophy to totalize the question of physical law: since all is one, the law governing Nature must be universal and exceptionless.

By the time “Spinozism” became a familiar charge, the “providential” stories about how mind interacts with matter were no longer tenable; the way a universally connected nature could be maintained without falling into “atheism” became a defining task for Idealism and its successors — Wittgenstein said “the human body is the best picture of the human soul”, but perhaps this is true not only insofar as the individual body is the individual mind’s expressive medium, but also insofar as body in general is the paradigm case of intelligible order. I don’t think it’s too much to say that the modern figure of totality, familiar to us from Hegel and “Hegelian Marxist” thought beginning with Lukacs, owes a substantial debt to a Spinoza more explicitly honored elsewhere.