The fantasy of a hard boundary

The history of every hitherto existing society is the history of attempting to do away with the irreducibility of human decision-making. From the appeal to the inscrutable demands of the gods to the pious submission to the logic of the market, human beings have always been desperate to offload their responsibility for themselves onto some external agency. The newest variation on this theme is that once we hit the limits of earth’s carrying capacity, we will be forced to make fundamental changes to our collective behavior and norms.

This impulse is understandable, because the technologies for consciously directing our collective human decision-making are all laughably inadequate. Collective decision-making has historically consisted of a small group of people claiming a right to power and most people “deciding” to submit to them, often in ignorance of the fact that their power isn’t immutable. Even when people want to change the situation, the powerful often have violent means at their disposal. Great minds from Anselm to Hobbes have claimed that even decisions made under duress are technically free, since you could always go ahead and die, but even if we grant that disturbing premise, we have to agree that this minimally “free” decision to stop resisting in the face of violence does not match up to our ideal of freedom. In any case, the combination of violence and submission is unlikely to lead to very good decisions, from a collective perspective.

Hegel may have believed that the events of his era ushered in the possibility of a more transparent and deliberate form of collective decision-making (called “Spirit”). Maybe he was even right about that! But in any case, we have collectively chosen not to take it up (using the familiar combination of self-assertion, violence, and passivity). And now the car is on fire, with no driver at the wheel, and all we can hope is that market incentives will drive nihilistic corporate leaders to doom fewer of us than we currently project.

So the fantasy that Mother Nature herself will step in and correct us is appealing, but it’s also nonsense. We human beings do have limits, above all our embodied finitude. In that sense, we can’t just do whatever we want indefinitely, because we will destroy ourselves. But we can destroy ourselves. There is no hard boundary that brings us up to the point of destroying ourselves but stops us just shy of the mark. When Mother Nature pushes back, we can collectively decide — most likely through some combination of power politics, passivity, and violent coersion — to just go ahead and die.

Doubtless we wouldn’t decide that if we had a truly transparent collective deliberation on the matter, and maybe we will luck out and choose something else when push comes to shove. But whether we do develop effective means of collective deliberation or else just luck out, in neither case will it be because some external agency forced us to. It will be our collective decision, because our collective responsibility for ourselves is inescapable.

A Hegelian footnote to Nancy

In the acknowledgments to the collection The Birth to Presence, Nancy confesses that he has not always found it possible to provide bibliographical references for his quotations: “Some readers may take this to be oversight or a blameworthy hastiness, even if the reference is to a well-known text. (‘What is “well-known” isn’t known at all,’ writes Hegel; I know this sentence well, but I don’t know where to locate it in the Phenomenology of Mind.)”

For various reasons, this confession has always stuck out in my mind — it is a reminder of the greater fussiness of English publishers with regard to quotations, and the irony of the specific quotation in question is of course striking. Hence I believe that during the course of my year-long tutorial over the Phenomenology, I would have noticed the quotation if it actually appeared. And my evidence for this bold claim is that I did in fact notice it when I came across it in Addition 2 to paragarph 24 of the Encyclopedia Logic (pg. 59 in the Hackett edition):

In this way the Logic is the all-animating spirit of all sciences, and the thought-determinations contained in the Logic are the pure spirits; they are what is most inward, but, at the same time, they are always on our lips, and consequently they seem to be something thoroughly well known. But what is well known in this manner is usually what is most unknown.

What do you think, readers? Is this most likely the passage Nancy had in mind, or is there a closer match elsewhere?

Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic: InterCcECT reading group

InterCcECT will host a series of reading groups this summer, and the first focuses on the beginning of Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic (Prefaces and Sections 1-18). Join us Friday, 6 May, 2:30pm at the south loop’s Little Branch Cafe, 1251 S Prairie Ave (Roosevelt “L”). Drop a note to interccect at gmail if you need the readings (we are using the Hackett Classics Edition/ Translation). As always, contact us to propose events, and follow us on Facebook for frequent links.

Thoughts after spending a year with The Phenomenology of Spirit

As I’ve often mentioned, I’ve spent the last year working through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in an independent study with a student who is a committed Marxist and thus very highly motivated to understand Hegel. To weigh in on a recent online controversy, I’m going to say that we shouldn’t ban independent studies, because this has been incredibly rewarding for both of us. I am increasingly committed to doing a reading group on Hegel’s Logic this summer, mainly for the sake of striking when the iron is hot — and because I think I have grasped the inner necessity of the project of the Logic in terms of what Hegel is doing.

I read the Phenomenology as an attempt to cure individualism. We see a variety of attempts by the subject to grasp the world purely individually, punctuated by abortive intersubjective encounters (the master-slave dialectic, most famously). A basso continuo throughout is the recurrence to language — already in “Sense-Certainty,” language is the crucial lever for undermining the pretenses of immediate knowledge (“here,” “now,” “I”), and it comes back at all the most important turning points in the argument. The main narrative culminates in an intersubjective encounter that, through the mediation of language, provides both the beautiful soul and the man of action with access to a dimension that exceeds the individual (both individual moral judgment and individual action and intention), that dimension that Hegel calls Spirit. Finally, the subject has become substance — the bare self-assertion and self-reference of the individual is given its genuine content in the social reality that shapes the subject and confers meaning on the subject’s action.

Once the existence of Spirit has been phenomenologically adduced from the perspective of the subject — through twists and turns that, shall we say, vary in their persuasiveness and apparent necessity — we then turn, in the “Religion” section, to the phenomenology of Spirit, the appearance of Spirit to itself. This section recapitulates the previous development in a certain way — which makes sense, since the overarching thesis governing every development was “it was Spirit all along!” — but from a new perspective. We learn that Spirit first becomes self-aware through the “picture-thinking” (Vorstellung) of religion, paving the way for Hegel’s remarkable interpretation of Greek culture in terms of “religion as art.” Christian theology begins to overcome that mere “picture-thinking,” but Hegel believes we must carry it forward in conceptual form, because only thereby can Spirit become fully conscious of itself. While “picture-thinking” is a necessary and legitimate mode of thought, it necessarily obscures the movement of thought itself, insofar as it presents the object as though it were something foreign to the thought of it. Only the concept (Begriff) allows thought to simultaneously grasp the object and the fact that it’s grasping it.

And that, apparently, is the project of the Logic — a conceptual-discursive account of what religion was trying to do via “picture-thinking.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

Hegel’s Kilogram: an InterCcECT lecture

What maps can relay the convergences and divergences, the topoi and the antagonisms, of philosophy and science?  How might the very terrain of modernity take different shape if these maps were recast?

InterCcECT is delighted to present “Hegel’s Kilogram,” a lecture by Nathan Brown, Director of the Centre for Expanded Poetics at Concordia University.   Join us Thursday 14 April, 4:30pm, at the gallery of our generous partners Sector 2337, 2337 N Milwaukee Ave (Blue Line: California).


Hegel’s Kilogram: On the Measure of Metrical Units
Hegel’s theory of measure, articulated in the Science of Logic, was developed shortly after the foundation of the metric system in the late 18th century. The establishment of physical standards for the meter and the kilogram, fabricated and archived at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres in 1799, illustrates Hegel’s understanding of measure as “the concrete truth of being” in a curiously salient way, demanding consideration of the relation between scientific accuracy, metaphysical speculation, and material particularity. The metric system instantiated universal standards of measure in singular physical objects, themselves created through meticulous measurement practices, thus dramatizing the problem of grounding in relation to both particular metrical units and the practice of science in general.
What is at stake, conceptually and empirically, when these inaugural units are themselves redefined? Since the 1960s, key standards of the International System of Units (SI) have been redefined on the basis of numerical constants, such as the speed of light (c) and the elementary charge (e), rather than physical objects. This paper considers ongoing efforts to redefine the kilogram unit on the basis of the Planck constant, focusing in particular on Watt Balance experiments carried out at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. These experiments offer a fascinating contemporary case study of the problem of measure. Considering both their empirical operations and their conceptual implications, I argue that the redefinition of metrical units is a key site for thinking not only the imbrication of epistemology and ontology, but also for understanding the history of modernity at the crux of science and philosophy.


Before and After, mark your calendars:


April 4  Henry James, Media Archaeologist

April 15 German Philosophical Aesthetics

April 18 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

On the reading of Hegel

As regular readers of this blog may recall, I have been doing a tutorial on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit with a Shimer student all this school year. Last semester, we got up to the end of Reason, and now we’re working our way through Spirit. The later portions are not as familiar to me, so I’ve tried to keep a couple readings ahead — but in the last week, I completely plowed through the whole remaining text, along with the Hyppolite commentary.

This Hegel binge may be justified on pedagogical grounds, but it was hardly necessary. As I reflected on what motivated me to take the plunge, I recalled previous times that I’d read through the Phenomenology and realized that I always turned to Hegel during times of transition in my life. The first time I tackled the whole thing was at a time when my first post-college roommate had moved out of our apartment and I was waiting on new roommates. The second time was the summer before I started at Shimer. And now, in the wake of finishing a major project and as I’m casting about for a new one, yet again I feel the pull of Spirit….

The really decisive moment came during Hegel’s exposition of the Trinity in the Revealed Religion section — suddenly poking at this little article about Augustine and Coates no longer felt satisfying at all. I needed to start thinking more seriously about the next big project, on the Trinity. And retrospectively, my work on Hegel heretofore appeared as work on my Trinity project, which it had always been in itself but had now become for itself. The transition became the destination itself, where I had always been and could now securely remain.

So anyway, I’m going to take advantage of my fresh reading of the Phenomenology to read some Hegel secondaries I’ve been meaning to read for a while. If anyone has a recommendation on Hegel and theology (or specifically Hegel and the Trinity), I’m all ears — while at the same time being not all ears and being the very mediation between the two states.

A strange moment in Hegel

In the middle section of the Phenomenology of Spirit‘s chapter on “Reason,” entitled “The Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness Through Its Own Actuality,” Hegel makes a strange methodological choice. On our journey toward Spirit, Hegel claims, we can take one of two approaches — either study individual reasoning subjects who exist before Spirit emerges and therefore must found it, or else study individuals who have become alienated from some particular form of Spirit. Both, he claims, will amount to the same thing, and “since in our times that form of these moments is more familiar in which they appear after consciousness has lost its ethical life and, in the search for it, repeats those forms [i.e., the forms that precede Spirit], they may be represented more in terms of that sort” (par. 357). What follows is a study of three characters — Faust, Schiller’s Karl Moor, and Don Quixote — whom Hegel believes to embody this modern trend.

There is much that is questionable here. First, we get no demonstration that the pre-Spirit and post-Spirit individualities are the same — he just kind of asserts it. Second, this approach seems to contradict his phenomenological method, because suddenly we’ve skipped to a point where Spirit already exists. Hyppolite suggests that Hegel is aiming for more topical relevance, as in his discussion of physiognomy and phrenology, but it’s not like someone flipping through the Phenomenology in the bookstore would be able to identify the discussion of Don Quixote as such.

The best reason I’ve been able to come up with for Hegel’s approach here is that working through the pre-Spirit forms would inevitably become a boring re-hash of social contract theory. And though I haven’t fully fleshed this out by any means, it occurs to me that if this is what the pre-Spirit treatment would have looked like, then perhaps we can do some of the work ourselves to figure out why Hegel’s post-Spirit sequence would be broadly similar to the pre-Spirit — perhaps we’d go through a sequence of Hobbes (self-interest submits to necessity), Rousseau (spontaneous goodness succumbs to corrupt power structures), and Adam Smith (moral sentiment gives way to rational self-interest, which turns out not to be as selfish as it thought).

Teaching the Phenomenology of Spirit

This semester I’ve had ideal circumstances for teaching Hegel: a very motivated student and a one-on-one setting. My ultimate goal, however, would be to teach a proper course, and I imagine (based on my experience teaching Heidegger) that such a course would be pretty full at Shimer. Here are some of my thoughts on how to organize that.

First, I think it’s absolutely necessary to pair it with Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure. Hegel infamously refuses to cite his sources, and simply providing that context (which includes many texts that Shimer students would have actually read) is invaluable. Hyppolite has his own reading, of course, but so far it seems that he has kept his axes relatively unground. For any given day, then, I’d assign a certain segment of the Phenomenology and the parallel text in Hyppolite.

Second, I don’t think they need to do everything. For the segment on “Observing Reason” (which I had us go through much too slowly this semester, due to my relative unfamiliarity with those sections), I might assign Hyppolite and tell them to scan over the actual Hegel — they should know what goes on and how it recapitulates previous movements from a new perspective, etc., but they can probably get by with just a description. I would also omit “Religion” and — perhaps more controversially — both “Absolute Knowledge” and the Preface. (In any event, I would save the Preface for last if there turned out to be room.) By my math, this would make it possible to do less than 10 pages of Hegel per session on average (assuming three days a week). Even paired with the Hyppolite, the reading load would still be light compared to the Shimer average (30 pages per sesion).

Finally, I think this approach would leave me room for some further secondary essays, where I could incorporate a range of perspectives (particularly feminist and black perspectives) on one of the ultimate Dead White Males.

Three questions on Hegel

Questions that occur to me as the first half of my (hopefully) two-semester tutorial on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit winds through the wilds of “Observing Reason”:

  1. So far, I’ve noted that for Hegel, the “negative” can mean many things. It can mean abstraction (which negates the full richness of concrete content) or determinacy (which implicitly negates other things through its very self-assertion). It can mean negation in the simple sense of rejection or destruction. Best of all, of course, is the self-referential negation which both negates and preserves itself, hence transcending immediate negation in order to introduce the superior quality of mediation. My question: is it actually necessary or helpful to use a single word to cover all of this?
  2. A.V. Miller’s translation of Begriff as “Notion” seems to have few fans. “Concept” is probably better and more natural — but would it be possible to capture a little more of the “grasping” or “gripping” in Begriff? (Presumably he could have used the Latinate equivalent if that were satisfactory.) Something along these lines would emphasize the distinction Hegel is trying to make between Vorstellung, representation or picture-thinking, and the properly philosophical thought that he’s promoting: it’s not a question of seeing or observing or describing (though all those activities remain necessary and legitimate), but of actually grasping. Of course, it’s a weird kind of grasping that seizes hold of living movement by entering into it — which is very different from how we normally think of “concepts.”
  3. Is it possible that Hegel’s critique of physiognomy and phrenology could be taken as a rejection of scientific racism? (Obviously that wouldn’t let him off the hook, but it might make him one of the earliest exponents of the more “nuanced” racism that points to a group’s culture as the source of their dysfunction.)