In a previous post I attempted to work through Deleuze’s thesis that stupidity is a transcendental structure of thought, an illusion internal to thought, similar to Kant’s transcendental illusions produced in and through reason. In intervening days I’ve continued thinking about this, trying to think more specifically about what challenges thought, making it so difficult to think. It seems to me that this question is not only vital to the more remote concerns of philosophy such as those belonging to metaphysics and epistemology, but also to concrete issues in politics and ethics. Once again it is necessary to emphasize that stupidity, if it is a sort of transcendental illusion, would not be a cognitive failing resulting from poor development or inadequate neurology. Neurologically, one could be quite intelligent and still be embroiled in stupidity. On the other hand, I don’t particularly like the word “stupidity”, though I confess that I gravitate towards this word as I see so much of it in the world about me. I suppose that says something about the structure of my desire. Hopefully no one will cleverly lay me bare in terms of Hegel’s logic of the beautiful soul.

In his magnificent Commentary to Hegel’s Science of Logic, David Gray Carlson writes,

…the Understanding– what passes as ‘common sense’ –is, at first, oblivious to the mediateness of concepts. “The understanding determines and holds the determination fixed.” Accordingly, the unmediated… becomes a self-identical entity… because the immediacy of the concept is taken as the whole truth of it. The understanding therefore “abstracts” a part and calls it the whole. Abstraction “means to select from the concrete object for our subjective purposes this or that mark without thereby detracting from the worth and status of the many other features left out of account.” (20)

It will be recalled that for Deleuze stupidity was to be thought as an inability to conceive and pose problems, or draw distinctions. Stupidity is a certain way of tarrying with identity. As always it is worthwhile to remember that Deleuze uses the term “problem” in an idiosyncratic way. For Deleuze a problem-multiplicity-Idea is not a negativity or absence of solution, but instead the ontological ground of individuation or the field out of which an entity is individuated. Although Deleuze would strongly object to this language, problems mediate solutions (entities) and give them their sense. Darwin, for instance, discovered this during his journey on the Beagle with regard to finches and other species.

When Hegel speaks of immediacy, abstraction, and self-identity, he seems to refer to something similar with regard to the understanding. Take the following passage from Hegel’s famous article “Who Thinks Abstractly?“. There Hegel writes,

I have only to adduce examples for my proposition: everybody will grant that they confirm it. A murderer is led to the place of execution. For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer. Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man. The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome? How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better! This is the corruption of morals that is prevalent in the upper classes, a priest may add, knowing the bottom of things and human hearts.

One who knows men traces the development of the criminal’s mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer! After all I remember how in my youth I heard a mayor lament that writers of books were going too far and sought to extirpate Christianity and righteousness altogether; somebody had written a defense of suicide; terrible, really too terrible! — Further questions revealed that The Sufferings of Werther [by Goethe, 1774] were meant.

This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.

For Hegel, the criminal is here treated in terms of immediacy, and consequently as self-identical. The criminal is reduced to his status as a criminal and this property is treated as an intrinsic property of what he is. For instance, we can imagine a neuropsychologist studying the brain or DNA of the executed criminal, searching for that elusive property that determines his identity. Indeed, millions of dollars are spent every year for precisely such research projects. Additionally, this relation to the criminal is “abstract” in the sense that it reduces the being of the criminal to a single property– “criminality” –relating to him as if her were devoid of other properties. This, according to Hegel, is the work of the understanding.

In constrast to the work of the understanding, dialectical and speculative reason unfolds the mediations that are involved in the notion. In the case of the criminal, these “mediations” refer to a history, a genesis, involving family, education, the social order, and so on. Indeed, this is the secret of Hegel’s various dialectics: Each time one begins with something taken as immediate and self-sufficient, and then it is unfolded to that point where the mediations and otherness are found necessarily dwelling within it. All of these ideas are familiar to anyone who has worked with the various social sciences, so I am almost embarrassed to repeat them. However, what is interesting here is the way in which Hegel emphasizes how these mediations conceal and erase themselves in the determinate being. Moreover, it is striking that as various forms of dialectical thought have risen into prominence in the last two centuries– often forms of dialectical thought much at odds with Hegel such as Deleuze’s ontology –the push-back has been to erase mediation altogether. The political and ethical stakes of mediacy are obvious. They certainly don’t favor a particular orientation. At any rate, Deleuze and Guattari put the illusion of the immediate nicely in Anti-Oedipus:

Let us remember once again one of Marx’s caveats: we cannot tell from the mere taste of wheat who grew it; the product gives us no hint as to the system and the relations of production. The product appears to be all the more specific, incredibly specific and readily describable, the more closely the theoretician relates it to ideal forms of causation, comprehension, or expression, rather than to the real process of production on which it depends. (AO, 24)

The task of dialectical thought, then, is to reveal how these mediations are at work in immediacy or how immediacy is mediated, or yet again how the immediate contains the other within it. As Carlson so nicely puts it, “Dialectical Reason merely expresses what was previously hidden” (29). I purposely leave the details of this task vague and open as it will differ from field to field, so we will have to develop, as it were, tools on the ground and must see the very process of producing these tools as a result of the way in which our own immediacy is mediated. That is, it must not be forgotten that the actor and observer is herself a part of this process.

There is a sort of transcendental illusion at the heart of experience itself that invites relating to the world in a particular way at the level of praxis which is borne of the detachment of “immediacy” from its mediations. This can be seen at the level of therapy where a psychological disorder is seen as a part of the self-identity of the suffering patient, such that the social and family context are ignored. It can be seen in the way certain questions are posed in the field of genetics, where the interactive relation of organisms to the environment are ignored. It can be seen in a series of presuppositions revolving around the war on terror, where it is assumed that terrorists are simple things that can be simply eradicated, thereby ignoring the social field out of which terrorists emerge or are individuated. It can be seen in United States education reform policies, where it is assumed that teachers are broken and the problem can simply be solved through more extensive training and testing, thereby ignoring shifts in the social world. Examples could be multiplied. In all these instances immediacy and self-identity are privileged, subtracting mediation from the thought of the thing.

Stupidity would thus be something that perpetually haunts thought and practice as we are perpetually presented with the world as a series of immediacies. In a luminous passage from Matter and Memory, Bergson writes,

…if my body is an object capable of exercising a genuine and therefore a new action upon the surrounding objects, it must occupy a privileged position in regard to them. As a rule, any image influences other images in a manner which is determined, and even calculable, through what are called the laws of nature. As it has not to choose, so neither has it any need to explore the region round about it, nor to try its hand at several merely eventual actions. The necessary action will take place automatically, when its hour strikes. But I have supposed that the office of the image which I call my body was to exercise on other images a real influence, and, consequently, to decide which step to take among several which are materially possible. And since these steps are probably suggested to it by the greater or lesser advantage which it can derive from the surrounding images, these images must display in some way, upon the aspects which they present to my body, the profit which my body can get from them. In fact, I note that the size, shape, even the color, of external objects is modified as my body approaches or recedes from them; that the strength of an odor, the intensity of a sound, increases or diminishes with distance; finally, that this very distance represents, above all, the measure in which surrounding bodies are insured, in some way, against the immediate action of my body. To the degree that my horizon widens, the images which surround me seem to be painted upon a more uniform background and become to me more indifferent. The more I narrow this horizon, the more the objects which it circumscribes space themselves out distinctly according to the greater or lesser ease with which my body can touch and move them. They send back, then, to my body, as would a mirror, its eventual influence; they take rank in an order corresponding to the growing or decreasing powers of my body. The objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them. (20-21)

I’ve always had a certain fondness for Bergson’s theory of the perception-image. For Bergson, perception is possible action. Put more forcefully, I perceive that which is within my power to act upon. Bergson refers to it as “virtual action”. Consequently, Bergson speaks of increasing and decreasing powers of my body. My perception is a coordination between the action of the body and the world that gives itself to that body, as if in a reflected mirror. Here, of course, Bergson discovers in his own way the thesis of the identity of subject and object developed by Hegel in the Phenomenology.

In this connection it could be said that the question of the relation between the immediate and the mediate takes on a special urgency. For the question of what is given as immediate is a question of that upon which one can act or that which one can affect and be affected by. As such, the question of overcoming stupidity is also, not surprisingly, a question of acting well… Which has little or nothing to do with being well behaved.