For the past few days I’ve been completely inundated with marking, along with ongoing contentious “political engagements” that have been eating up a good deal of my time. Unfortunately it doesn’t look as if my schedule is going to let up until mid-April, so I’m not in the best of moods at present. To make matters worse, it’s been four weeks since the job interview and I’ve still heard nothing. At this point I have no idea what to think and am thoroughly perplexed. This week is Spring Break for the University, so I suspect I won’t hear anything for at least another week. I’m trying to tell myself that I just didn’t get the job so I don’t think about it.
During this time I’ve been vaguely thinking about Hegel’s critique of Kant’s thing-in-itself and his discussion of grounds, conditions, and existence in the doctrine of essence. I am not quite sure why I find this particular moment of the Science of Logic and Phenomenology so significant, though I do believe that it resonates with a good deal I’ve written about individuation with regard to Deleuze and interactive constructivism in biology. More intriguing yet, Hegel’s account of essence rejects all transcendence in favor of appearances. For Hegel there isn’t one thing, essence, and another thing, appearance. Rather it is appearance all the way down and there is no further fact “beyond” the appearances that is hidden and that must be discovered or uncovered. Hegel will say, “Essence must appear” (EL, paragraph 131). The real surprise is that the mediation of essence is a reference to another appearance, not a distinct ontological entity to be contrasted with existence. As Hyppolite recounts, “The great joke, Hegel wrote in a personal note, is that things are what they are. There is no reason to go beyond them” (Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, 122).
This is a striking claim that immediately draws my thought to Lacan’s discussion of objet a in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. There Lacan recounts the story of two artists named Zeuxis and Parrhasios, locked in competition with each other to see who is the better artist.
In the classical tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasios, Zeuxis has the advantage of having made grapes that attracted the birds. The stress is placed not in the fact that these grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that even the eye of birds was taken in by them. This is proved by the fact that his friend Parrhasios triumphs over him for having painted on the wall a veil, a veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning towards him said, Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it. By this he showed that what was at issue was certainly deceiving the eye (tromper l’oeil). A triumph of the gaze over the eye. (103)
The lesson to be drawn from this little parable is that the cause of desire– not the object desired –is precisely this engima of what is behind the veil or curtain. As Lacan will recount elsewhere in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, we can be naked precisely because we wear clothing. “Doesn’t that woman know she’s naked under those clothes!” (Incidentally, it’s amusing to note that in Descartes’ second meditation, he describes the faculty of judgment as that faculty that distinguishes the superficial appearances of an object or its outward garb, from the object rendered naked and revealing its true nature. I suppose these metaphors suggest themselves when you’re locked in a snowed in cottage for days on end. I sympathesize). It is easy to see how this functions at the level of the political and even pedagogy, where the leader and the teacher are experienced as containing some enigma that evokes desire. Many of us, for instance, are familiar with that student who obsesses over what it is that we desire, asking endless questions regarding what we’re looking for. The truth of the matter is that we ourselves aren’t entirely sure what we’re looking for. That aside, we’re here seen as containing some precious and hidden object that evokes desire.
Metaphysics, too, has its veils. These veils can be the inaccessible transcendent beyond of God or the Infinite, revealed in experiences of the sublime, perhaps, that can never be reached, or essence beyond appearances, or Kant’s thing-in-itself that can never be known, the Levinasian Other, etc. Philosophy since its inception in Thales has been a-theistic in the precise sense that it has been premised on a militant rejection of these fetishes, instead approaching the world immanently and explaining it in its own terms. Even the God of Descartes or Spinoza is a shining moment in the history of a-theism, a rendering immanent of what superstition posits as big-daddy in the sky. Kant represents a regression with regard to his antinomies and his limitation of knowledge to make room for faith. Of course, this project has only ever been imperfectly realized and the mystics and peddlers of the fetish always return with new beyonds, but philosophy marches on and explodes the fetish. Right now we just happen to live in a particularly dark period of the fetish… At least in the United States.
It is in relation to this project that Hegel’s critique of the Kantian thing-in-itself is of particular interest. David Gray Carlson does a nice job recounting this critique in A Commentary to Hegel’s Science of Logic.
According to Hegel, both Being-in-itself and Being-for-other are intrinsically bound up with one another. This portends that the inner is outer. The in-itself as isolated, however, is Kant’s noumenal thing-in-itself, of which Hegel is a sharp critic. “[T]he proposition that we do not know what things are in themselves,” Hegel complains, “ranked as a profound piece of wisdom” (SL, 121). Things are “in themselves” if all Being-for-other is purged. We perceive in a given thing only its Being-for-other, “the indeterminate, affirmative community of something with its other” (126). Therefore, Kant insisted, we can have no idea what the thing-in-itself is. Hegel strongly disagrees.
Things are called “in themselves” in so far as abstraction is made from all being-for-other, which means simply, in so far as they are thought devoid of all determination, as nothings. In this sense, it is of course impossible to know what the thing in itself is. For the question: what? demands that determinations be assigned; but since the things of which they are to be assigned are at the same time supposed to be things in themselves, which means, in effect, to be without any determination, the question is made thoughlessly impossible to answer, or else only an absurd answer is given. (SL, 121)
The thing-in-itself is absolute, and furthermore, it is one. That is, once appearance is abolished, but there is but one thing-in-itself in its indeterminancy– not many: “What is in these things in themselves, therefore we know quite well; they are as such nothing but truthless, empty abstractions” (SL, 121). In contrast, Hegel’s analysis has shown the thing-in-itself is concrete. It is the same as being-for-other. (Carlson, 75)
In the Phenomenology, Hegel shows that the distinction between the unkowable thing-in-itself as conceived by Kant and appearances is itself a distinction of understanding, and therefore a product of thought (paragraphs 145-148). It is nothing but the ego’s reflection of itself. That is, the thing-in-itself is identical to the ego, as a substrate divested of all concrete properties or qualities, a pure void as Hegel puts it, and therefore a phantasm of thought much like Zeuxos asking what is behind the veil.
It seems to me that Hegel’s argument here applies to a wide variety of skepticisms common to thought today. Thus, for example, there are versions of linguistic philosophy that argue that we are unable to know reality as it is in itself beyond language. In making this claim, these linguistic philosophies unwittingly reveal their Kantian commitments. Social constructivist thinkers such as Niklas Luhmann claim that we can only ever know the world as a function of our distinctions (which are not in the things themselves), and never the world as it is in itself. Others, perhaps vulgar forms of cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, will claim that we can only ever know the world as we perceive it, not as it is.
Hegel’s entire point is that there is no world as it is, but rather there is only these inter-relationships between being-in-itself and being-for-other. That is, being-in-itself only discovers what it is in relation to being-for-other; for it is being-for-other that evokes the properties of being-in-itself. For instance, iron only reveals its oxidation properties in relation to oxygen. Why should it be any different with mind and world?
The epistemological question is thus poorly posed, abstractly posed, stupidly posed, so long as we think of it as a question of how an independent mind (a mind-in-itself) can know an independent object as it-itself is (a being-in-itself). It is in these interrelations that both the properties of subject and the properties of object come-to-be. Hegel’s conception of the in-itself will thus be one of becoming or coming to be. As Hegel puts it in an important Zusatzen from The Encyclopedia Logic,
If we are to understand by “cognition” the apprehending of an ob-ject in its concrete determinancy, then the assertion that the “thing-in-itself” is beyond cognition must be admitted to be correct, since the thing-in-itself is nothing but the completely abstract and indeterminate thing in general. But, with the same right that we speak of the “thing-in-itself,” we could also speak of “quality-in-itself,” “quantity-in-itself,” and similarly of all the other categories, and this would be understood to mean these categories in their abstract immediacy, i.e., apart from their development and inner determinancy (my italics). So we must consider the fixating of the thing as the only “in-itself” to be a whim of the understanding. But we also have the habit of applying the term “in-itself” to the content both of the nature and of the spiritual world. Hence we speak, for example, of electricity “in-itself” or a plant “in-itself,” and similarly of man or the State “in-itself;” and by the “in-itself” of these obj-jects we understand what they rightly and properly are.
The situation here is no different than it is in respect to the thing-in-itself generally; that situation is, more precisely, that if we halt at ob-jects as they are merely in-themselves, then we do not apprehend them in their truth, but in the one-sided form of mere abstraction. Thus, for instance, “man-in-himself” is the child, whose task is not to remain in this abstract and undeveloped [state of being] “in itself,” but to become for-himself what he is initially only in-himself, namely a free and rational essence. Similarly, the state-in-itself is still undeveloped, patriarchal State, in which the various political functions implied by the concept of the State have not yet become “constitutionalised” in a way that is adequate to its concept. In the same sense the germ, too, can be regarded as the plant-in-itself. We can see from these examples that all who suppose that what thingers are in-themselves, or the thing-in-itself in general, is something that is inaccessible to our cognition are very much mistaken. Everything is initially “in-itself,” but this is not the end of the matter, and just as the germ, which is the plant-in-itself, is simply the activity of self-development, so the thing generally also progresses beyond its mere in-itself (understood as abstract reflection-into-itself) to reveal itself to be also reflection-into-another, and as a result it has properties. (EL, Geraets, Suchting, Harris trans, 194)
Hegel’s use of the language “reflection-into-itself” and “reflection-into-another” is unfortunate as it implies cognition. However, what he is here referring to is relationships among beings in the emergence of qualities or the nature of things. This becomes clear in his analysis of the category of Existence in the Doctrine of Essence. Hegel begins by pointing out that,
Existence is the immediate unity of inward reflection and reflection-into-another. Therefore, it is the indeterminate multitude of existents as inwardly reflected, which are at the same time, and just as much, shining-into-another, or relational; and they form a world of interdependence and of an infinite connectedness of grounds with what is grounded. The grounds are themselves existences, and the existents are also in many ways ground as well as grounded. (EL, paragraph 192)
Reflection-into-itself thus refers to the internal potentials of things, whereas reflection-into-another refers to the manner in which these potentials are evoked or “brought forth” in relation to others. Hegel clarifies this point in another Zusatzen, when he writes that,
The term “existence” (derived from existere) points to a state of emergence, an existence is being that has emerged from the ground and become reestablished through the sublation of mediation. As sublated being, essence has provied in the first place to be shining within itself, and the determinations of this shining are identity, difference, and ground. Ground is the unity of identity and difference, and as such it is at the same time the distinguishing of itself from itself. But what is distinct from the ground is not mere difference anymore than the ground itself is abstract identity. The ground is self-sublating and what it sublates itself toward, the result of its negation, is existence. Existence, therefore, which is what has emerged from the ground, contains the latter within itself, and the ground does not remain behind existence (my italics); instead, it is precisely this process of self-sublation and translation into existence.
What we have here is therefore to be found in the ordinary consciousness: when we consider the ground of something, this ground is not something abstractly inward, but is instead an existence again. So, for instance, we consider ground of a conflageration to be a lightning flash that set a building on fire, and, similarly, the ground of the constitution of a people is their customs and circumstances of life. This is the general shape in which the existing world is presented initially to reflection, namely, as an indeterminate multitude of existents which, being reflected simultaneously into themselves and into something else, are in the mutual relationship of ground and grounded with regard to each other. In this motly play of the world, taken as the sum total of existents, a stable footing cannot be found anywhere at first, and everything appears at this stage to be merely relative, to be conditioned by something else, and similarly as conditioning something else. The reflective understanding makes it its business to discover and pursue these all-sided relations… (EL, 193)
Elsewhere Hegel argues that it belongs to ground to erase itself. Returning to my previous example of rusted iron, this simply means that the specific interrelation among existents that produced this property disappears in the result. However, Hegel’s point is that if we wish to understand the being of the existent at all, we must understand its “reflection-into-another” or concrete interrelationships with other existents in a world. In short, Hegel’s conception of essence is not that of an abstract and unchanging form common to a plurality of diverse instances (what all particular dogs share in common, for instance), but rather is a theory of individuation conceived in terms of the concrete contextual embeddedness of existents and the manner in which this situation actualizes these potentialities.
Here Hegel shows, very surprisingly, a tremendous proximity to Deleuze’s account of individuation. Indeed, later in the Doctrine of Essence, Hegel will discuss these interrelationships in terms of relations of force, thereby foreshadowing Deleuze’s discussion of force in relation to Nietzsche in his brilliant Nietzsche and Philosophy. Hegel goes on to remark that,
…the reflection-into-another of what exists is not separate from its inward reflection; the ground is the unity of these two, out of which existence has gone forth. Hence, what exists contains relationality and its own manifold connectedness with other existents in itself; and it is reflected within itself as ground. Thus what exists is thing. (EL, paragraph 124))
And what is thing?
The thing is the totality as the development of the determinations of ground and of existence posited all in One. According to one of its moments, that of reflection-into-another, it has in it the distinctions according to which it is a determinate and concrete thing.
(a) These determinations are diverse from each other; they have their inward reflection not in themselves, but in the thing. They are properties of the thing, and their relation to it is [its] having [them]. (EL, paragraph 125)
There is thus nothing behind or beyond the thing, but rather the thing, as Hegel will go on to show, is a negative unity of these properties evoked or summoned in and through dynamic and ongoing interrelations among things. The question of epistemology now becomes a question of immanent ontology, and that of how actualities are evoked in and through interactions in webs of related existents, producing this specific state of affairs here. To overcome abstraction is to think these interrelations in their historical and present contextualities. Things become events and emergences, rather than static substances. But perhaps most importantly, any approach that would heirarchialize one element of these interconnections such as signs, power, economy, language, history, the social, system, technology, nature, brain, etc., is here undermined insofar as each of these moments only discovers what it is in being reflected-into-its-others.