The full text of the PAMLA conference paper on Hegel

If reading close analyses of Hegel is the sort of thing you dig, I’ve included the full text of my conference paper below (“Another Sphere and Science: Aesthetics and Difference in The Science of Logic“). Otherwise (and it’s probably otherwise) skip and I’ll be posting on other stuff soon (working on this little sucker took most of the weekend). I’ve been debating in my mind whether to post this for half the day…but I do think more serious academic work should be available free online.




I’d like to make one introductory remark, to explain why I wrote this paper and how it relates to contemporary literary theory. I have been, as I’m sure many of us have been, excited by the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Jacques Derrida (among others) on such concepts as heteroglossia, which is the idea of many unreconciled voices within a text, and difference. At the same time, I was concerned that the political and philosophical critique of the “whole” – the whole text, the whole nation, and so on – which is also frequently the major critique of Hegel – misunderstands both Hegel and the necessary conditions for literary criticism and the constitution of the political. This paper is a first step towards a politically and philosophically responsible recuperation of totality, though aesthetics, without a corresponding loss of difference.

At the penultimate moment of Hegel’s Science of Logic, the narrative does not, as one might expect, confine itself to summing up the principles and movements which comprise its progress. Instead, Hegel asserts that “pure truth as the last result becomes also the beginning of another sphere and science” (843)—different, presumably, from the main body of the Logic. Hegel does little more than “indicate this transition” when he writes “the Idea freely releases itself (cf. Nietzsche’s Untergang) in its absolute self-assurance and inner poise” (843). What does it mean for Hegel to speak of another sphere co-existent with his re-evaluation of classical logic, and how does this further extension of the system represent a release of the Idea from itself? The key to this question is the Hegelian notion of “positedness.” Positing is a free act of imaginative determining, in the form of art and even personality, and is the essential content of the absolutely undetermined Notion (sometimes translated Idea). The seemingly anti-Hegelian and anti-philosophical modes of finite, aesthetic thinking are present in the Logic itself, where the text employs concrete metaphors, and when it uses narratives of something happening to explain what always-already is. I hope to demonstrate, in opposition to more deterministic readings of his work, that Hegel’s concept of “positedness” shows his appreciation for difference as a manifestation of freedom.

Positedness first appears not as such, but rather as a contradiction in Hegel’s method. The first chapter, entitled “Being,” declares that because both Being and Nothing in their pure state are without form or differentiation “pure being and pure nothing are, therefore, the same” (82). Hegel takes care to use the same adjectives to describe both: for example, he describes both pure Being and pure Nothing as possessing “emptiness.” He considers the sensuous appropriation of the abstract concepts, in which Being is represented by illumination and Nothing by darkness, and comments “one can readily perceive that in absolute clearness there is seen just as much, and as little, as in absolute darkness” (93). But then he retains these impure sensuous conceptions as a mixture: “it is only darkened light and illuminated darkness which have within themselves the moment of difference and are, therefore, determinate being” (93). In this way Hegel distinguishes himself from Heraclitus, who pretends to do away with being and nothingness, but actually does the opposite — he retains a “substratum in which the transition takes place; being and nothing are held apart in time” (84). This substratum preserves the notion of a genuine difference between the two concepts. Hegel, by contrast, uses a deliberately false and therefore unstable opposition of Being and Nothing in order to express the world of “darkened light” which is manifest to our senses.

Hegel implies that these illegitimate notions of Being and Nothing as light and darkness, or more generally pure presence and pure absence, are connected to the differentiated world of determinate being. In order to explain the subsistence of these “vanishing” moments he introduces the concept of positedness, appropriately enough at the beginning of the chapter on “Determinate Being.” Positing has several meanings in the Logic. Firstly, it means the attribution by thought of any property to any object; to generalize from this to a multiplicity of properties inhering within a single object, one can say that in Hegel the process of constituting an object is always “positing,” that is, the momentary substitution of the “object” for the real, undetermined totality. Hegel writes: “only that which is posited in a Notion belongs in the dialectical development of that Notion to its content” (110). Returning to the initial example of light and darkness, these sensuous categories are “posited” or projected into the abstract identity of Being and Nothing, and out of this emerges a concrete metaphor for dialectical complementarity. At the same time, Being and Nothing do not disappear into the symbolic example of “light” and “darkness” simply because this example is true to experience. How the construction of the example differs from the truth of Being and Nothing will be considered later, in the discussion of essence. For now, the argument runs thus: in order to generate the internal tension of opposites which produces the dialectic, it is necessary to determine (that is, posit) division and conflict within what is really a contiguous phenomenon, and represent this contradiction in concrete terms through metaphor.

The further significance of positing is that it gives objects and phenomena self-sufficiency. This is a corollary of its status as a process of division. In order for an object (such as “Being”) to come into conflict with another object in any meaningful sense, it must have an independent existence. Hegel usually refers to this independence as “indifference.” The interrelation of two phenomena or objects may be transparent to logical thought, and yet, that interrelation must be expressed as a “sublation” or overcoming of indifferent difference. Otherwise the affirmative movement of sublation would be merely a static unity. Hegel writes, “As determinate beings [objects] are indifferent to each other, but this their affirmation is no longer immediate, each relates itself to itself only by means of the sublation of the otherness which, in the determination, is reflected into the in-itself” (125). Self-sufficiency is the result of a posited difference founded upon a contradiction, or the relation of an object to its other.

Thus, self-sufficiency is necessarily unstable because it is posited. The discrete object is continually threatened with dissolution. Under the heading “Contradiction resolves itself,” Hegel writes, “The result of contradiction is not merely a nullity. The positive and the negative constitute the positedness of the self-subsistence. Their own negation of themselves sublates the positedness of the self-subsistence […] [Objects] destroy themselves” (433). Here the entire process of division and reunification is succinctly presented. First, the object divides into contradictory parts. This is a fruitful division. On the most abstract level, it is the division of Being and Nothing which produces the entire determinate universe. To take a more concrete instance, it is the exchange of capital leading to “very much multiplied capital” (429). The division is based on opposite pairs of positive and negative, where the positive is the overt quality, and the negative the opposite or implicit “other.” Therefore: “in one of the moments the determinateness is posited and in the other it is only implicit” (200). Immediately afterwards, the implicit other re-emerges as the interrelation of the object and its other, nullifying the formative limit of the object and destroying it from within.

What is remarkable is not, as might be supposed, that these moments of self-sufficiency are superseded: that follows necessarily from the way the object is constructed. An object is the “incomplete” expression of a unity in which its complementary opposite has been temporarily reduced, even repressed, to the status of implicit presence. Rather, what is surprising is that the self-sufficient object should exist at all, since its nature is plainly untruth. Hegel says as much when he introduces “essence:” “Essence is being that has been sublated in and for itself; what confronts it is only illusory being. The illusory being, however, is essence’s own positing” (393). The dialectical complement of the true essence of things is the ephemeral “Appearance” of their posited identities.

What develops from this definition of “positedness” is a critique of the systems of Spinoza and Plato. This critique is not a critique of the parts of the system, because Hegel readily appropriates both the pure Form from Plato and the theory of substance from Spinoza. However, he opposes the conclusions each philosopher draws from his system. Both Spinoza and Plato derive a theory of moral necessity from their discovery of essence: this is Plato’s theory of the pure illumination of the “Good,” metaphorized in the famous allegory of the cave, and Spinoza’s concept of sub specie aeternatis, or action in accordance with the plan of the universe. Hegel has already implicitly rejected the idea of the good as pure illumination, in his discussion of sensuous counterparts to Being and Nothing. He goes on to criticize Spinoza on the grounds that the “unveiling of substance” necessitates a “manifested or posited identity, and thereby the freedom which is the identity of the Notion […] substances now have essentially the status of an illusory being, of being moments” (581). In other words, when the Form or universal “substance” merges with the concrete, it does so as positedness, as self-contradiction, diversity, and change, rather than as internally consistent necessity. These properties are not corruptions of essence, but rather fundamental expressions of the freedom inherent in the Notion.

This critique of deterministic necessity cannot be subverted in the name of fixed laws. For example, it might be natural to conclude that Hegel’s notion of Becoming applies to falling objects according to the law of gravitational acceleration, with the law itself remaining a constant. Hegel describes the “defect” (504) of the gravitational constant in this way: “The determination of time—that is, time as it is commonly imagined—does not itself imply its relationship to space, and vice versa […] the one comes only externally into relation with the other, which external relation is motion” (505). That is, it is not possible to assign a pre-existence to a law which is realized in the motion of determinate objects in a process of Becoming, because it would be nonsensical to speak of the law existing outside of the situations it describes. Furthermore, the synthesis which it produces of time and space is an imposed or posited synthesis external to both, and therefore utterly dependent on the troublesome posited object. Hegel prepares this demonstration by noting, “this connection of having no connection alone constitutes the thing” (494). Thus, although law is a “stable image” (503) of the world of Appearance, it is nonetheless “identical with itself in positedness or in the self-dissolving self-subsistence of Existence” (503). Laws are as much a product of perception, and as much of an indispensable reduction of the real, as are objects.

Here is where the subject enters into the exposition of the system. In order for the Notion to express itself as illusory being, as positedness, spirit (which is the only substance that generates itself and acts under its own power) must assume a finite form in the subject and through him in “the untrue being of the objective world” (756). The objective world is posited by subjectivity, as Hegel explains in a discussion of Kant:

All unifying of representations demands a unity of consciousness in the synthesis of them. Consequently it is this unity of consciousness which alone constitutes the connection of the representations and therewith their objective validity […] In point of fact, the comprehension of an object consists in nothing else than that the ego makes it its own, pervades it and brings it into its own form, that is, into the universality that is immediately a determinateness. (585)

The potential for determinate being which is native to essence is realized through the action of conscious positing: “When it is comprehended, the being-in-and-for-self which it possesses in intuition and pictorial thought is transformed into a positedness; the I in thinking pervades it” (585). The power that consciousness wields as an “actuality of infinite power” (770) and the drive towards freedom inherent in the Notion combine in the posited or illusory synthesis of creative expression.

Hegel gathers together the whole of posited, determinate being together under the banner of “creative power”: “The isolated subsistence of the finite which earlier was determined as its being-for-self, and also as thinghood, as substance, is, in its truth universality […] one of its own differences. Herein consists the creative power of the Notion” (605). The universality of the Notion depends upon its free and creative expression in the finite universe, in a manner that represents self-difference (what Hegel calls the “assumed ground of division” [804]) as “personality” (824). Had Hegel not established the relationship between essence and positedness, “personality” might seem a strange climax to an investigation of truth. As prepared by the earlier sections of the Logic, however, personality stands in the same relation to the “soul” (824) as illusion and appearance to essence. It is the visible, determinate form of the inner agency of the Notion. It is exemplified in creative works of art and religious allegories of the absolute Idea.

Nevertheless Hegel’s conception of the Notion remains very far from a Derridean free “play” of representation that contains a merely facetious reference to essence. Subjectivity in finitude is never a constant—personality is not stable, because like objects and laws it is subject to dissolution. The subject experiences this as a painful alienation from herself:

Since each of the essential moments of its unity is realized as a separate totality, the Notion is sundered into an absolute disparity with itself; and since, all the same, it is absolute identity in this disharmony, this living being is for itself this disharmony, and has the feeling of this contradiction, which is pain. (770)

Echoes of this moment can be found in Jacques Lacan’s description of the infantile “mirror stage.” According to Lacan, an infant first “playfully experiences” the relationship between his own body and the persons and things around him (Ecrits 3), then suffers a growing disillusionment that sours into aggressiveness, as the revelation of his body leads to a realization of his limits. Similarly, the Hegelian drive towards personality and the creative power of the spirit are effects of truth predicated on essence, which seeks to express the absolute Idea. Therefore the dialectical movement of untruth in positedness is experienced by the subject as the painful loss of totality and eternity, and as the unveiled inadequacy of her efforts to rest in the truth.

Alienation and pain do not have the last word in The Science of Logic; self-conscious existence begins with pain, and comes through knowledge to assurance, if not to finality or perfect joy. In what subjective spheres, then, does the Notion realize itself as diversity and finitude? Hegel suggests the following; “Nature and spirit are different modes of presenting its existence, art and religion its different modes of apprehending itself and giving itself an adequate existence. Philosophy has the same content and the same end as art and religion; but it is the highest mode of apprehending the absolute Idea […] the derivation and cognition of those modes is now the further business of the particular philosophical sciences” (825). The Notion attains an adequate existence in the untrue world through the formal developments of art, religion, philosophy, and personality. These, in turn, are sublated by philosophy. Yet Hegel’s own system would suggest that the derivation and cognition of the modes of the absolute Idea is inseparable from the creative activity of artistic and religious consciousness. The work of reintegrating the human “shapes of real and ideal finitude as well as of infinitude and holiness” (825) into the truth of the absolute Idea can never be a finalizing labor, since art and all related positings present essence as multiplicity, the way it truly exists in the realm of appearance. If the task of logical thought is to sublate and enfold these traditions, then the realization of the Hegelian project would be to find in created beauty the rigor of the absolute — and to see, in the contradictions of diversity, a reciprocal freedom.