Why Hegel Should Matter for Speculative Realists (Despite What Deleuze Thinks!)
As time goes on, I realize, to my continued curiosity, that I am part Hegelian. What an embarrassment! Few things could be more unfashionable to admit, nor more likely to make people consider you as somehow suspect in various ways.
Before getting into the fascinating symptomatology of this very fact, let me cut to the quick, namely, why I think Hegel is incredibly important for speculative realism as a whole, and the impasses in contemporary philosophy that this movement seeks to address.
Early Hegel: Beyond Correlationism and Materialism
In his early, pre-Phenomenology of Spirit work, The Difference Between the Fichtean and Schellingian System (1802), Hegel’s puts forth many of the same points made by speculative realists today.
What is this argument? In short, that Kant, and Fichte after him, view the world through the lens of subjectivity, that which we today, following Meillassoux would call ‘correlationism.’ The reverse, namely, materialism, is also suspect. Granted, Hegel distinguishes between naive versions of both subjectivism and objectivism, which he calls ‘dogmatic subjectivism’, and more subtle forms thereof (which he calls ‘subjective subject-object’, in the case of Kant and Fichte), as well as ‘dogmatic materialism’ and more subtle forms thereof (which he calls objective subject-object, in cases like Locke).
Point is, however, you end up with antinomies or aporias either way you slice the dualist pie.
Go the route of Kant, and you end up with the peculiar attempts to suture the gaps which Hegel then details. Kant’s notion of the schematism notoriously reproduce in miniature the aporias of his whole project. For Kant, the schematism is that which, via categories such as space and time, links concepts of the understanding and intuitions of sense, or essentially, form and matter. The problem is that this reproduces the same form/matter distinction then within the schematism itself, in a way that Kant is unable to resolve in a satisfactory manner. As Deleuze describes nicely in his book on Kant, Kant’s own hesitations, revisions, and unclarities in regard to the passages on the schematism in both versions of his first critique indicate precisely the sticking point this issue was to Kant. These then reappear, in mutated form, in the various issues surrounding normativity and judgment in his third critique.
Either way, and as many have argued, when Kant needs to get out of an aporia, he brings in the deux ex machina, no matter how conceptually disguised. Here he is the inheritor of Descartes, who brings in God as that which links res cogitans and res extensa, a non-exorcized remnant of medieval occasionalism, or his pineal gland, which like Kant’s schematism, simply reproduces the aporia in miniature. If God is the macro solution to the binary aporia, and the pineal the micro solution, it seems then that perhaps the problem would be fractal, reproducing itself at higher and lower levels of scale, unless there were ultimately some aspect of what is, in either direction, which in non-dualist fashion, could unite what is otherwise torn asunder.
Fichte simply reproduces these dilemmas with his famous difficulties with the Anstoss, the primal stuff which ‘checks’ the ‘I’, that rouses it, frustrates it, the irreducible ‘Not-I’ within it that prevents its closure. Fichte simply takes this to hall-of-mirrors levels, but it’s the Kantian problematic, if slightly differently framed.
So says Hegel, and Pinkard’s biography does a wonderful summary of these points. The alternative, however, is not much better, and Locke (and Hume with him) run into related aporias, such as how to account for that which binds and associates the primaries of perception, a problem which also then occurs, fractally, as it were, up and down the levels of scale. While certainly the term ‘factal’ is much more modern (Mandelbrot coined it this century), the notion is ancient (and certainly part of the modern western tradition via Leibniz), the insight here is clear: dualism creates aporias in whatever it touches.
Hegel Encore!, Or, Fidelity to Excess
This is why Hegel sees a way out in the works of Schelling. This is, of course, before Hegel has really articulated his own point of view, and Schelling works here as a stand-in for his own developing position. But for Schelling, and later Hegel, the Absolute is that from which subjective and objective aspects of the world emerge. The Absolute grounds the subjective and objective poles, it is that from which they come about, to which they return, of which they are aspects, etc.
How could we get out of the correlationist circle presented by Kantianism, or the materialist circle presented by empiricism, both which find inheritors in today’s thought? For Hegel, once we see the aporias which occur from any mode of thought that starts and grounds things from the subjective or objective side, we are faced with a choice. Either accept these aporias as the limits of knowledge. Or speculate. And specifically, speculate on that which could account for both of these. And this is precisely what Schelling calls the Absolute.
This is the point at which the contemporary movement ‘speculative realism’ finds itself. Tired of subjectivism approaches which limit philosophy to the antinomies of consciousness, philosophy finds itself wanting to re-engage with contemporary science, but without the ideologies of scientism and naive forms of materialism. A realism, yet a speculative one, one which seeks to find that which both subjectivism and materialism in their various forms miss.
From there, we start from experience, a phenomenon which is then sliced into subjective and objective poles by experience itself. And perhaps into other categories, poles, etc. And from here, the necessity of any particular set of categories falls aside, and we are left with the abyss of not knowing where to start which we encounter in Hegel’s famous difficulties in knowing how to start the Phenomenology of Spirit, as articulated in it’s preface. Time, perspective, culture, all that the reified categories that dualism had used to shore up the subject-object distinction, even if in severely modified Kantian form, come crashing down, and the flood waters of new possibilities for thought and the world enter into philosophy. Philosophy of and as history, anthropology, science, etc., all the perverse particularities that Kant was so careful to try to keep at by in his moral philosophy. Once subject and object come crashing down, so much of the history of western thought goes with it. And so much new possibility opens up.
Many have argued that Hegel then reinstalls something highly problematic, namely, the Prussian state, a totalizing conceptual machine that leaves no residue behind, absolutely terrible gender and familial politics, if not worse. Hegel is famous as the young political radical, enamored of the French revolution, who became an apologist for the authoritarian monarchy. And yet, he is also the ground from which Marx sprang, and the argument as to whether the radical kernel can be extracted from the reactionary shell, and if such metaphors and descriptors are apt, is as old as Hegel himself. We will not solve them here.
But whether or not one agrees with either Hegel or Schelling’s speculations as to what occupies this middle zone (as well as the highly contentious language of ‘the Absolute’), or the conceptual, natural-philosophical, political, or world-historical conclusions they draw therefrom, it seems clear to me that their approach to the question is similar to that which has brought about the ‘speculative realist’ movement in philosophy.
And it seems clear to me that their insight as to the potential of this zone is as relevant to us as ever. Just because they may have engaged in what may be called an early form of speculative realism, in relation to the science and politics of their day, and in ways that we may find inadequate, does not mean we need to do this in the same way. Whatever flaws one attributes to Hegel and Schelling, particularly in relation to their politics, I’m not convinced that these flaws are inherent to their foundational gesture, but rather, they choices they made afterwards.
For the foundational gesture is one of radical possibility. It is a gesture which moves beyond the categories one currently has, and starts and ends from the in-between. To the extent that either Hegel or Schelling became regressive after, or perhaps were even beforehand, is perhaps the extent to which they did not fully follow through on the power of their own insight.
And perhaps that is part of the true power of this insight as such. Any attempt to be faithful to that which goes beyond all categories and conceptualizations is always doomed to fail. And yet, it seems to me the only reason to do philosophy, the task of philosophy as such, perhaps, as well as science, ethics, politics, etc. We will always fail in our attempt to be faithful to this. But how we fail, and the honesty of our attempts at fidelity, is perhaps precisely what is most important about such a project.
To use a Lacanian turn of phrase, one which finds its own grounding in later sections in the Phenomenology itself, perhaps Hegel and Schelling’s only sin is to have given way as to their insight. The trick then, it seems, would be not to give way, but rather, to say ‘encore!’ Without, that is, reifying the difference between the insight and what it produces.
Beyond Hegel’s Bad Rap
As I’ve argued before, I think Hegel has a bad rap. He is much maligned, but infrequently read, and less understood. And this makes sense, perhaps. Deleuze, in many senses the patron saint of contemporary Continental theory, hated Hegel, said so frequently, and even failed to write a book on his nemesis as he did with Kant. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think this is due to an enormous ‘anxiety of influence,’ conscious or not. I’m also hardly the only one to think that what Deleuze hated most about Hegel was in fact Kojeve, and that we’ve gotta see that there’s more to Hegel than this.
Beyond Deleuze, I also think that what one critic said of Marx’s writing, this “his words are like bats – neither bird nor rodent”, applies doubly to Hegel. Hegel is the first real ‘process philosopher’, his terms mutate function and meaning depending on where they are in his argument. This makes him supremely misquotable, and liable to misunderstanding.
It makes sense to me that the more one reifies ones concepts, the easier they are to understand, while the opposite is true of process theorists, like Hegel, Whitehead, Peirce, and (gasp, in the same sentence even!) Deleuze. One needs to trace the movement of their concepts, and move with them, rather than define them, fix them, etc.
I’m not saying that there’s not much that’s really problematic about Hegel. But I do think he’s been radically sold short by contemporary philosophy, including Deleuzianists and speculative realists, and that we miss much that may be valuable, helpful, and interesting in the process. Besides, if we tried to sift the good from the rest in Hegel, we’d certainly be with some good company, Marx included.
Some have said that no matter what road one goes down in philosophy, one will eventually find that at the end of that road, they finally see Hegel smiling at them, knowingly. It is without question that this is how Hegel wanted to be seen, and thank-goodness this isn’t the case. There is still the possibility for newness under the sun, and always will be. This is perhaps what Hegel missed, and that to which we must be true.
But there is much to learn from one who tried to think not only his own thought, but all the others as well. Hegel’s approach was encyclopedic in a grammatical sense, it attempted to understand the grammar of philosophy as such, and to put together an encyclopedia for it, along with all possible modes of thought. Dualisms of many sorts are included in this, and learning how Hegel got around them is something from which we could learn much.
What’s more, learning to understand Hegel’s failures to encompass all possible thought can perhaps teach us much about the pitfalls that may be relevant to our own projects and times. For it is here, perhaps, where Hegel gay way as to his desire.
But to the extent that Hegel starts from a place so similar to that at work in contemporary speculative realism, perhaps it is more than just his failures that are worth examining.