Apologies for the somewhat belated posting. I’d planned on typing this out last night, but had a sudden onset of food-borne nausea. It was the food or seeing Boston beat Cleveland in Game Six of the Eastern Conference semis. Either way, I was too ill to type.
Speaking from experience, if understanding the ins and the outs of German idealism is difficult to attain, articulating this understanding so others might understand better is even harder. Not only do the ideas themselves require patience in order to tease them out adequately, one must also be patient with the necessary repetition for these ideas to be so teased. There is, in short, no getting around the house-of-mirrors effect inherent to thinking about Hegel. Whether you derive joy or frustration from this, patience is required all the same.
Consequently, it is no surprise that Gabriel very deliberately paces this section, ‘1. The Appearances – Hegel on Reflection’. We know from our History of Philosophy textbooks, aka Common Knowledge, that the upshot of Hegel’s is an all-encompassing (universal) Absolute. While there is a certain ring of truth to this characterization, Gabriel attempts to demonstrate that what is typically lost in this flattening out of Hegel’s thought is actually so crucial as to make the “upshot-version” of Hegel ultimately inadequate to understanding what he was really on about. What we miss, rather, is that what Hegel means when he tosses out ideas like “totalization” is actually quite different from that which most of the post-Hegelian world has developed a reasonable allergy. (I would add here that the difference is actually really quite subtle; but perhaps a crucial subtlety. More on this a little further down.)
To appreciate the precision of Hegel’s thought, Gabriel explains, one must first understand the philosophical problem (or, as we’ve seen pop up in the comments already, the philosophical “conversation”) with which he was engaged: namely, the problem of the subject.
In the course of modern philosophy from Descartes through empiricism to Kant, the concept of substance preceding or transcending the subject’s grasp got lost. At some point, in particular in Hume, the self threatened to dissolve into a bundle of representations because it also lost its substantial status as a unitary soul. The idea behind this development is simple, yet it is missed by most of the contemporary debate about dream and reality and accordingly about the problem of the external world: if the self represents itself, it ipso facto becomes a dream-like experience, i.e. an appearance of itself. (p. 30)
The problem, then, is that the subject’s “appearance of itself” can never be unmediated. It is never simply “itself,” but rather an “appearance of itself.” Gabriel illustrates this nicely by appealing to contemporary cinema’s fascination with itself. Such a film, for example, might depict the cameras and the crew filming the very scene about the cameras and the crew filming the scene — or perhaps you would might have a camera filming nothing but itself in a mirror — and yet all this still would be a mediated appearance of the actual cameras and crew, rather than the cameras or crew in-themselves. The problem then:
If our relation to determinate objects in the world, i.e. our relation to substances, is conceptually mediated and, therefore, presupposes the possibility of getting it right or wrong, then we cannot rule out for any supposed representation of a substance that we are misled by its appearances. . . . Now, if we relate to ourselves and our position with the meshwork of potentially true beliefs, i.e. if we have beliefs about ourselves, we eo ipso assume a position towards ourselves in which we might get it wrong. (p. 30)
Kant understood this better than most: that “if the self was a substance, our cognitive access to it would have to be the grasp of a substance. Yet, our cognitive access to any substance is fallible insofar as it has to represent the substance in question.” (p. 31) If you’ve ever labored through the First Critique and couldn’t figure out what Kant was trying to say or do, basically, that’s it. For Kant, we can only ever know substances/phenomena, which we understand by way of conceptual categories. (When there is no conceptual category, the result isn’t merely misunderstanding or ignorance; there is, rather, no experience at all.) Everything we know has to be “conceptualized,” even those things we suppose we’re “de-conceptualizing” (even avowedly ineffable things like, say, God).
What distinguishes Hegel from Kant is that the latter, in the words of Gabriel, is “optimistic” that even an attempted conceptualization of the in-itself does not actually affect the in-itself. It remains, as it were, untouchable and unthinkable. Merely a regulative idea — i.e., just beyond all possible conceptual categorization, and (at best) that toward which categorization aspires.
For Kant the uncanny structure of the self’s elusiveness, i.e. the subject’s nothingness, ultimately opens a space for consolation and hope: if, in principle, we cannot figure out who or what we really are (our substance), we are at least entitled to believe as if we dwelled in an intelligible realm of pure freedom ruled by God. (p. 32)
It is to this very aspiration, however, that Hegel, through Fichte especially, bases his objection. Simply put, where this non-conceptualizable “nothing” (the essential / the in-itself) for Kant is just beyond the epistemological limits of experience, it is internalized for Hegel as an ontological condition for experience. The problem, as Gabriel explains, is that Kant posits the essential “over against the inessential without reflecting the constituting act separating the essential from the inessential.” (p. 34) That is to say, the essential is “essential” only when it is set against the inessential — i.e. the “illusory” stuff of our concepts and experience. As a result, “Reality is not out there, but the result of an operation which distinguishes illusion and reality. Without this distinction, the term ‘reality’ does not make sense.” (p. 34) Far from being “the totality of mind-independent objects extended in space and time,” substantial reality, then, is a product, or the end result, of a process of “reduplication” — that is, the process of producing representations of itself.
The ultimate example of this is what happens at the zero-level of Being — absolute self-subsistence, absolute freedom, and free of all concept & category. What happens here Hegel calls “the movement of nothing to nothing, and so back to itself.” (qtd. p. 40) That is to say, a nothing becomes-itself only by virtue of its (self-represented, and thus self-conceptualized) nothingness. Precisely this movement, the negation of nothing (as absolute self-subsistence), constitutes the being of nothing.
Being only is as the movement of nothing to nothing, and as such it is essence; and the latter does not have this movement within it, but is this movement as a being that is itself absolutely illusory, pure negativity, outside of which there is nothing for it to negate but which negates only its own negative, which latter is only in this negating. (qtd. p.40)
Which is to say, in the simplest terms, there is no transcendent One outside illusory experience. The subject’s substance/reality/essence, rather, “is only retroactively posited in the process of the self’s constitution.” (p. 41) Where there is no illusion, there is no existence; and where there is no existence, there is no subject. Claims of necessity are borne of contingency: i.e. they “presuppose the discipline of rules and therefore of rule-following practices in order to make sense for finite creatures like us.” (p. 44)
It may be objected — and has been — that Hegel is setting up his own necessary, totalizing truth, and is thus contradicting himself. Gabriel’s rebuttal is worth quoting & discussing in the comments:
Hegel’s assertion that being ultimately amounts to nothing other than the universality of the Notion means that there cannot be anything outside of logical [i.e. reflective] space. Logical space does not exist; it is not an entity, but a continual manifestation of actuality. . . . There is no metaphysical hyper-theory; there is only a meta-theory which spells out the conditions for there not being metaphysical hyper-theories of the beyond. Accordingly, Hegel’s Science of Logic is not designed to form an ultimate hyper-theory which transcends discursive finitude, but on the contrary investigates into the nature of determinacy or finitude. To be sure, Hegel says such things as the ‘the finite sublates itself by virtue of its own nature, and passes over, of itself, into its opposite.’ But this does not mean that the movement of sublation ever terminates in a final statement of sublation. The finite only transcends itself into another finite position. (p. 46)
For my part, as I argue in a forthcoming essay in Anthony’s co-edited volume, I’m increasingly not so sure what the practical pay-off is of this ontological investment. Which is to say, yes, Hegel radicalizes Kant, but I’m not altogether sure that Kant’s Third Critique doesn’t effectively get him roughly to the same place as Hegel. After all, neither denies the Absolute Subject: it’s contingently necessary for Kant, sure, and necessarily contingent for Hegel; but whether it comes at the beginning or end of the process, both insist on the priority of its becoming (i.e., that it is not a static imposition from beyond) and highlight the participatory nature of this becoming. What does ontology offer, then, beyond “getting it right”?