Wanting to write a post on Hegel’s understanding of ground, I’ve been reviewing the Science of Logic and Encyclopaedia Logic. I came across the following marvellous zusatze discussing the relation of ground and the sophists and thought I’d post it here. Hegel writes:

When we say that ground is the unity of identity and distinction, this unity must not be understood as abstract identity, for then we would just have another name for a thought that is once more just that identity of the understanding which we have recognized as untrue. So in order to counter this misunderstanding, we can also say that ground is not only the unity but equally the distinction of identity and distinction, too. Ground, which we encountered first as the sublation of contradiction, therefore makes its appearance as a new contradiction. But, as such, it is not what abides peacefully within itself, but is rather the expulsion of itself from itself. Ground is ground only insofar as it grounds; but what has come forth from ground is the ground itself, and herein lies the formalism of ground. The ground and what is grounded are one and the same content; and the distinction between them is the mere distinction of form between simple relation to self and mediation or positedness.

If ground is the unity of identity and distinction, then this is because, as Deleuze argues in the first chapter of Difference and Repetition, something emerges from the ground as itself and distinguishes itself from that ground. Ground expells itself from itself insofar as it produces effects. For instance, electricity as ground produces a series of electrical effects. Ground is “formal” at the outset in the sense that the initial posited ground is identical to what is to be grounded. For instance, I say wine makes me sleepy by virtue of its dormative properties. No genuine cause is given. Hegel continues:

When we ask about the grounds of things, this is precisely the standpoint of reflection that we mentioned earlier (paragraph 112 Addition); we want to see the thing in question duplicated as it were: first in its immediacy and secondly in its ground, where it is no longer immediate. This is indeed the simple meaning of the so-called principle of sufficient reason or ground. This principle only asserts that things must essentially be regarded as mediated.

I think this passage shows just how distorted Deleuze’s critique of Hegelian mediation is. When Hegel here talks about mediation (he uses the term in other senses elsewhere) he is talking about causes or grounds. For Deleuze individuated beings would be thoroughly mediated in Hegel’s sense in that we must refer to a problematic context or horizon as the sufficient reason of the thing (cf. chapters 4 & 5 of DR). The virtual itself is a form of mediation. Continuing:

Moreover, in setting up this law of thought, formal logic gives the other sciences a bad example, since it asks them not to take their content as valid in its immediacy; while, for its own part, it sets up this law of thought without deducing it and exhibiting its process of mediation.

Here we get glimmerings of phenomenology or the return to the things themselves. The problem here seems to be akin to what we find in neuroscience. The neuroscientist looks for the way in which mental phenomena are mediated (caused) by brain events, without pausing to first elaborate the content of these conscious structures for themselves. As such, it begins from a series of unfounded assumptions as to the nature of the phenomena to be explained that may or may not be true. Hegel goes on to say:

With the same right that the logician asserts when he maintains that our faculty of thinking happens to be so constituted that we must always ask for a ground, the doctor could answer that people are so organised that they cannot live under water when he is asked why a person who falls into the water drowns; and in the same way a jurist who is asked why a criminal is punished could answer that civil society is so constituted that crime cannot be allowed to go unpunished.

Hegel makes a joke. The point here is that these are not real explanations at all, but only beg the question. However, as Hegel points out in the Science of Logic, these “tautological grounds” (as he calls them) are nonetheless a necessary moment in inquiry as they mark the site of something to be genuinely explained. In short, with this first moment of ground, tautalogical ground, the object or state of affairs is no longer taken in its immediacy, but as differing from itself and therefore in need of an account or explanation. Thus, while the explanation given is here vacuous, it is a step along the way towards genuine philosophical or scientific elaboration. Continuing,

But even if we prescind from the demand, addressed to logic, that it should furnish a grounding for the principle of sufficient reason or ground, still it must at least answer the question of what is to be understood by “ground”. The usual explanation, that a ground is what has a consequence, appears at first sight to be more illuniating and accessible than the determination of this concept that was given above. But if we go on to ask what a consequence is, and we get the answer that a consequence is what has a ground, then it is clear that accessibility of this explanation consists only in the fact that what in our case has been reached as the result of a preceding movement of thought is simply presupposed in that explanation. It is precisely the business of the Logic, however, to exhibit the thoughts that are merely represented, and which as such are not comprehended nor demonstrated, as stages of self-determining thinking, so that these thoughts come to be both comprehended and demonstrated.

Hegel gives a nice example of what he has in mind here in his discussion of Zeno in the first volume of his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. There he makes the surprising claim that philosophy first became genuinely philosophical not with Thales, nor with Parmenides, but with Zeno. This is because Zeno had properly discovered the concept in the sense that he saw that despite the evidence of all experience and the sense, motion nonetheless had to be demonstrated in its concept or for reason. The passage is well worth reviewing. Hegel goes on to say,

In ordinary life, and equally in the finite sciences, we very frequently employ this form of reflection with the aim of finding out, by its use, what the situation of the ob-jects under examination really is. And although there is nothing wrong with this way of looking at things, so long as it is only a matter of the immediate housekeeping needs of cognition, so to speak, still it should be noted at once that this method cannot provide definitive satisfaction, either in a theoretical or in a practical regard. his is because the ground still has not content that is determined in and for itself; and in consequence of that, when we consider something as grounded, we obtain only the mere distinction of form between immediacy and mediation. Thus, for instance, when we see an electrical phenomenon and ask for its ground, we receive the answer that the ground of this phenomenon is electricity; but this is simply the same content that we had before us immediately, translated into the form of something internal.

Thus in the first step towards unfolding grounds, a shift in form takes place– a shift from the form of immediacy which treats the object as self-same and identical to itself, to conceiving the object as mediated or having a ground or cause outside of itself. The problem is that the content remains the same in both instances, and we do not yet have the object genuinely differing from itself.

Now, of course, the ground is also not just what is simply identical with itself; it is also distinct, and for that reason various grounds can be offered for one and the same content. So, in accordance with the concept of distinction, that diversity of grounds no leads to opposition in the form of grounds for and against the same content.– Suppose, for example, that we consider an action, let us say, for arguments sake, a theft. This si a content in which a number of aspects can be distinguished. Property has been violated by the theft; while the thief, who was in need, has obtained the means for the satisfaction of his wants. It may be the case, too, that the person from whom the theft was made did not make good use of his property. Well, it is certainly correct that the violation of property which has taken place is the decisive point of view before which the others must give way; but this decision is not entailed by the principle of thought according to which everything must have a ground.

Skipping ahead,

We may also remark at this point that to go no further than mere grounds, especially in the domain of law and ethics, is the general standpoint and principle of the Sophists. When people speak of ‘sophistry’ they frequently understand by it just a mode of consideration which aims to distort what is correct and true, and quite generally to present things in a false light. But this tendency is not what is immediately involved in sophistry, the standpoint of which is primarily nothing but that of abstract argumentation. The Sophists came on the scene among the Greeks at a time when they were no longer satisfied with mere authority and tradition in the domain of religion and ethics. They felt the need at that time to become conscious of what was to be valid for them as a content mediated by thought. This demand was met by the Sophists because they taught people how to seek out the various points of view from which things can be considered; and these points of view are, in the virst instance, simply nothing but grounds. As we remarked earlier, however, since a ground does not yet have a content that is determined in and for itself, and grounds can be found for what is unethical and contrary to law no less than for what is ethical and lawful, the decision as to what grounds are to count as valid falls to the subject. The ground of the subject’s decision becomes a matter of his individual disposition and aims. (Geraets, Suchting, Harris, pgs. 188-191)

In the transition from tautological ground to what Hegel calls real ground, we find not only a transition from a mere difference in form, but also a difference in content. For instance, when I explain why wine makes me sleepy due to alchohol and how alchohol reacts with my body, I am no longer tautologously repeating the content to be explained (“dormative qualities”), but have now encountered the content of ground differing from what it grounds. However, with the emergence of real ground we encounter the figure of the Sophist, for the Sophist is the one who shows both that all real grounds can be contested and that more than one real ground can be posited for anything to be grounded.

It seems to me that this perfectly describes the situation of postmodern relativism and its uncanny twin, neoconservative cynicism. The postmodern relativist shows how it’s impossible to establish any ultimate ground, all the while implicitly contradicting herself in arguing that “culture” is the tautological ground common to all different disputes about grounds. Is this not exactly what is being said when Wittgenstein tells us that all engagement with the world is mediated by different “language games” or when Foucault shows us how epistemes the sort of knowledge we produce. Of course, the evidence amassed by ethnography and linguistics is, at this point, indisputable such that there can be no question of dismissing it or treating it as false. We are subjects individuated in cultural fields that relate to the world in and through cultural fields. The question is rather one of how, given this, a potent truth is possible.

The neoconservative cynic, by contrast, proceeds by casting doubt on any proposed grounds, such as the way in which the Administration uses minor statistical deviance to cast doubt on global warming, or the way in which tobacco companies use statistic to cast doubt on the claim that smoking causes cancer. This form of sophistry, I think, has been far more corrosive to the public sphere, for as Hegel points out above, any choice among grounds becomes a matter of individual preference. The neoconservative practice of casting doubt on all grounds has turned information and news into something consumed on the basis of personal preference and decisions of what is likable or unlikable, undermining the very possibility of civil discourse as there’s no longer a shared world for persons to discourse about. For instance, the news consumed by participants on the blog Free R-publ-c (I really don’t want their traffic) is almost entirely different than the news consumed over at Dailykos, making it almost impossible for there to be any discussion between the two groups of participants. All one can do today is assert and stand by ones assertions, without possessing a common world that might decide between different assertions. What we have then, today, is a massive struggle over grounds and what counts as a ground and whether there are any grounds at all. The question then becomes one of how to escape this endless to and fro of proposing grounds, critiquing grounds, and contesting grounds that is ineffective and functions to promote the very thing it disputes.