The Great Anxiety of Influence of Post-Structuralism: Jean Hyppolite’s “Logic and Existence” (1952) as Vanishing Mediator
If there’s one great anxiety of influence that permeates all of post-structuralism, one which has become a vanishing mediator nearly forgotten in today’s world of theory, yet one which haunts our every move, it’s Jean Hyppolite’s 1952 text Logic and Existence.
Never heard of it? And if you’ve heard of it, never figured it was worth reading? Hardly a surprise. It’s a text that it’s been important for all contemporary theory to forget. Because it’s the grandaddy of the transition from structuralism to post-structuralism, the big pink elephant in the room of French post-structuralism and with it, contemporary theory. What’s more, if it’s becoming increasingly clear that, as Foucault said, our century may oneday be known as Deleuzian (and certainly Deleuze’s influence seems to only increase over time), then the importance of Hyppolite cannot be overstated, since Deleuze is the wayward son of Hyppolite that needs most to be contextualized in relation to this anxiety.
The Wayward Sons of Hyppolite: Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault
Who are the wayward sons of Jean Hyppolite? None other than Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Lacan. A little context may be in order before moving to Hyppolite’s actual ideas, just to show my contention of his influence is not unfounded.
If you read the early seminars of Lacan, Hyppolite is sitting right there, asking questions, and the influence of Kojeve’s Hegel on Lacan is well known. By mid-century, Hyppolite’s reading of Hegel had replaced Kojeve’s as the dominant one in France, and Hyppolite’s reading was radically anti-humanist, perfect for the age of structuralism (Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Althusser) and epistemologie (Canguilhem, Bachelard, Koyré), the dual birthing ground of post-structuralism. Increasingly Hyppolite’s Hegel is the one that influences Lacan, rather than Kojeve’s,
And in several crucial transitional, essays for Jacques Derrida, ones in which he wrestles with Hegel, Hyppolite shows up in the footnotes, which should perhaps hardly surprise, because Hyppolite supervised Derrida’s first doctoral thesis, on Husserl’s Origin of Geometry.
As for Deleuze, Deleuze took Hyppolite’s courses on Hegel in his student days at the Sorbonne, and Hyppolite eventually supervised his thesis on Hume, later published as Deleuze’s first book and dedicated to Hyppolite. Deleuze’s review of Logic and Existence is in many ways his first salvo against his nemesis, namely, Hegel, but it is really Hyppolite in Hegel’s clothes that Deleuze tries to tactfully both acknowledge yet also work around. And Deleuze’s crucial work The Logic of Sense is, in some senses, and among many other things (including Deleuze’s major book on language, ethics, psychoanalysis, and Stoicism), a book-length refutation of Hyppolite’s crucial rereading of Hegel via the notion of ‘sense’, a reading which dominates Logic and Existence.
Beyond Deleuze, Hyppolite directed Foucault’s early 1949 diplôm thesis “The Constitution of a Historical Transcendental in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit,” and Hyppolite was on the committee to which Foucault defended Madness and Civilization. And Foucault takes over Hyppolite’s chair at the College de France, and speaks glowingly incisively of his influence on him and the problematic of thought in the early seventies. And Foucault’s quotes on how Hyppolite helped determined the agenda of that age, and paved potential avenues out of Hegel’s treacherous grasp, will have been legendary.
If the first set of vanishing mediators in twentieth century French thought, described in my last post, are Husserl, Heidegger, and Kojeve’s Hegel, that set of influences that helped kill off Bruschvicg and Bergson and birth the phenomenological side of existentialism, then the second vanishing mediator, and massive anxiety of influence, especially in the case of Deleuze, is Hyppolite’s Hegel. For while, as Paul Ricoeur famously argued, it was Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, those three ‘hermenteuts of suspicion,’ who helped give birth to post-structuralism, these three figures never vanished, they were very much on the surface, unlike the structuring present absence of Hegel. Deleuze describes time times around 1968’s Difference and Repetition as one of “generalized anti-Hegelianism.” After 1968, with Hyppolite’s death that year, while Hegel was dealt with in a variety of early post-structuralist texts, from there to largely vanish from the agenda. But he was there at the birth of post-structuralism from structuralism, as much as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and perhaps in ways we’re only now starting to understand as we gain some distance from post-structuralism and begin to think of ways forward.
I believe that Hyppolite’s Hegel needed to be forgotten for post-structuralism to be born. And perhaps needs to be remembered for us to move beyond post-structuralism. For I think Hyppolite’s Hegel was equally what helped formed post-structuralism, as well as what it reacted against, giving rise to a pretty standard Oedipal style ambivalence. But what was so powerful and dangerous about Hyppolite’s Hegel?
Examining Hyppolite’s Hegel: Language, Sense, and a touch of Heidegger
A few quotes from Hyppolite’s 1952 text Logic and Existence, a text published when half the post-structuralists were still Hyppolite’s students, will suffice I think to explain to any student of post-structuralism why I’ve gone through all the groundwork above. For what Hyppolite did with Hegel was, after adding a touch of Heidegger, read him completely through language. And as we all know, post-structuralism completed the ‘linguistic turn’ initiated by structuralism.
Hyppolite’s Hegel is a theorist of language whose theses are the perfect culmination of the structuralist program, and the perfect zygote from which to give birth to post-structuralism – over fifteen years ahead of schedule. Hyppolite’s Hegel was infused in the post-structuralist thinkers during their student days, permeating their theoretical pores, so to speak. Not only is it the mirror reverse, the specular double of the post-structuralist program, it is the only thing that can actually be seen as uniting its disparate trends, for it is Hyppolite’s Hegel that they all had to kill off. The ghost of Hyppolite’s mirror is the vanishing mediator of post-structuralism, its uncanny doppelganger.
And it was worth despising to them all, because, via language, Hyppolite’s Hegel ‘ate’, in a sense, the entire world, and precisely via his notion of sense itself. For Hyppolite, there was nothing that existed that was not sense. All post-structuralism had to do was reverse this, then go its separate ways, allowing the various philosophies of difference to then branch out into, among other things, history via Foucault, literature via Derrida, philosophy via Deleuze, etc.
The Claustrophobia of the World as Text
So let’s look at a few quotes to give us a sense of what Hyppolite’s really like. For example, here’s a good quote in which we see a proto-Deleuzian focus on immanence: “. . . Hegel’s dialectical logic, like the logic of philosophy, is the expression of this doctrine of complete immanence” (this quote from his 1949 text, even earlier still, on Hegel’s Phenomenology, ctd in ix in Lawlor’s introduction to Logic and Existence).
Or check this quote out, in which we see the emphasis on thought as torsion, which shows up in Lacan in his turn to Möbius strips and topology in his later work, as well as some proto-Foucaultian/Blanchotian insights on the ‘non-thought’ seemingly thrown in for good measure:
“Here we get to perhaps the decisive point of Hegelianism, to this torsion of thought through which we are able to think conceptually the unthinkable . . . we cannot emerge from the Logos, the Logos emerges from itself by remaining itself; since it is the indivisible self, the Absolute, it thinks the non-thought. It thinks sense in its relation to nonsense, to the opaque being of nature.” (LE, 26-7)
And here we begin to see precisely why they needed to not only use Hyppolite, but also kill him off, to bury him like the (psychoanalytic) primal father he was. Because Hyppolite’s Hegel of the Logos is suffocating, he makes us feel claustrophobically strangled by a sense of sense from which there is no escape. After all, where can one run from being. especially when it’s so sensible?
Here’s a good quote to show his indebtedness to the late Heidegger, and in fact, Hyppolite generally enters the history of philosophy books as the one who read Hegel in a Heideggerean fashion:
“Language is the Dasein [être-là, Hyppolite’s translation of Hegel’s ‘determinate being’, bestimmtes Sein, a term which has the word ‘voice’ hum through it via the German word Stimme] of spirit . . . this knowledge becomes Absolute when it knows itself as such, that is, when it is no longer only a dialectical discourse of man on being or on man’s destiny, but when it is a discourse of being . . . in which being presents itself completely as sense and sense as being . . . man is only the intersection of this knowledge and this sense. Man is consciousness and self-consciousness, while at the same time natural Dasein, but consciousness and self-consciousness are not man. They say being as sense in man. They are the very being that knows itself and says itself . . . dialectical discourse is a progressive conquest of sense” (LE, 19-21).
The use of Dasein here is of course striking, but so is his use of the term ‘sense’. That term dominates Logic and Existence, it is the one that Hyppolite starts the text with, as he reads a relatively obscure passage from Hegel on sense, and uses it as a key to read the rest of his corpus as a discourse on language. Granted, there is an enormous amount in Hegel’s texts to support this reading, beyond this one passage, particularly in Hegel’s many disquisitions on language throughout The Phenomenology of Spirit. But Hyppolite certainly mines the passage on sense for all it’s worth, using it to to tie together all Hegel’s ideas on language with those on logic and being.
This reading comes to fruition in the crucial second chapter of Logic and Existence, in which we see the full linguistic side of Hyppolite, the site of his deep influence on proto-post-structuralism. First, in relation to this, some more torsion:
“The sensible interiorizes itself, turns itself into essence, being becoming Logos, and the interiority which in itself is the nothingness of being, its disappearance, exists, however, immediately, in the exteriority of language and the exteriority of living speech . . . The sensible itself interiorizes itself into thought, and thought exteriorizes itself into language . . . Thus, by thinking itself, thought always thinks being, and, by thinking being, it thinks itself.” (LE, 27).
We can see here at once the seeds of a post-structuralist approach to language, but in reverse, Jameson’s famed ‘prison house of language’ turned into a spider’s web from which there is no escape, as if making use of all the slipperiness that post-structuralism would later use, but against it. Very often, all one needs to do is substitute the word ‘language’ or ‘text’ for ‘absolute’, and one feels like one is reading Derrida, but a Derrida even more deviously airtightly terrifying, if that is possible, than Derrida himself. Il ny’a pas du (hors) texte, indeed!
As someone who learned philosophy in the age of post-structuralism, I find reading Hyppolite at once an amazing ‘aha’ moment, and yet he also makes me feel a bit ‘icky.’ Something about him is too close to home, unheimlich, his philosophy of difference combined with the no-way out logic of suffocating closure is nearly liberating, but ultimately, terrifying. Almost, at least, because his use of these terms is too slippery, too Hegelian, to be quite that . . .
In a later passage from this chapter, we see Derrida’s argument from Memoirs for Paul DeMan, on memory in Hegel, sketched in inverse by Hyppolite (who is of course mentioned in Derrida’s text). Here’s some Derrida in inverted form, right from Hyppolite:
“Errinnerung [interiorizing memory] exists only through Gedäcthnis [exteriorizing, memorializing memory]: the interiorization of that about which one speaks exists only through the complete exteriority of the one who speaks. This exteriority, the open system of language and speech, is thought in itself (Gedächtnies=Denken [past participle of denken is gedacht]), the thought that turns itself into a thing, a sensible being, a sound, while the thing itself is negated, interiorized into thought. Language’s memory, with all its complex articulation, is the identity of being and thought.” (LE, 29)
What we see here is as terrifying in its closure as it is ingenious in its deft torsion, presenting a Möbial surface with language on one side, being and the world of things on the other, and the subject as the torsion. Lacan couldn’t have said it better.
While we’re at it, though, let’s see some proto-differànce, which Hyppolite describes using a reading of negation of any particular he calls ‘dissolution’:
“Dissolution, either as investigation of pure immediacy or as rejection of all communication (which amounts to the same thing), is only that which haunts all the particular figures of consciousness [in The Phenomenology of Spirit], and this dissolution, this non-sense is then the truth of the rejection of mediation” (LE, 13).
And this haunting threatens to rise up at any moment just when we think we have ‘presence’:
“We really believe that we grasp singular, immediate being as singular . . . We believe that we grasp what is richest, but what remains of this experience for us is only the consciousness of our poverty. We see the singular transforming itself into the universal, and unique being passing into nothingness as the nothingness of all determinations . . . we nevertheless always remain in the universal without ever being able to say anything other than the universal . . . Sensible consciousness does not therefore reach what it believes it reaches, or at least what it only intends . . . it believes it takes hold of an indivisible intuition of its being which is below language [when it apprehends itself in self-intuition, the reverse of intuiting an object], but all the other “I”‘s claim to have the same intuition . . . Thus sensible singularity expresses itself truly through its own annihilation. It passes away, it becomes, it negates itself . . . If we posit it [immediate singularity] we see it dissolve immediately. Fundamentally, it is dissolution. If this dissolution is understood, if it is sense and discourse, it is genesis as well as annihilation; it is mediation . . . this cycle is endless.” (LE, 14-5)
Here we see the birthplace of differànce and deconstruction, and to our surprise, perhaps, its ghost whispers the name Hyppolite.
Giving Post-Structuralism a Second Death, or, Hegel Towards Speculative Realism
There’s so much more here, the inverted world of post-structuralism on its head, the philosophy of difference turned into philosophy of identity (of difference and identity, this being Hegel, of course!), it just keeps going. And we then see perhaps in Hyppolite some of the truth of post-structuralism, namely, that language is for it, just as much as it was for structuralism, a prison-house.
Only Deleuze, it seems to me, has found a way out of this prison house, described so carefully in his anti-Hyppolite tract(atus), The Logic of Sense. And yet, there is so much of Hyppolite in there, Deleuze’s approach to a complete immanence of difference as differentiation is not so far from Hyppolite’s pure immanence of difference-in-identity/identity-in-difference, if not in content, then certainly in form. Or is it? Much hinges on this question, and yet, it has perhaps not been such a pressing question, at least until the generation which is now trying to find a way past post-structuralism.
As Zizek has deftly argued in several texts, building upon Jameson’s original deployment of the term ‘vanishing mediator’, restoring awareness of a vanishing mediator usually becomes essential when one wants to finally move beyond a paradigm in dominance. This is why, as Zizek argues, the father must always ‘die twice’, first in the imaginary, then in the symbolic. Hyppolite was killed off once, but his ghost has continued to haunt post-structuralism in its absence. And to kill off post-structuralism, we now need to get this ghost, right here, in the flesh, and give it a second, symbolic death. Give it peace, lay it to rest, in a manner which Zizek has tracked in the double-death of the undead in countless horror films.
But how do we do this? By restoring Hyppolite’s Hegel as the birthplace of post-structuralism, as the original prison house of the (post)structuralist linguistic turn. And once we restore this Hegel to his rightful place, we can retrieve what has needed to be repressed by post-structuralism, namely, the fact that Hegel’s insights can help take us beyond the constitutive exclusions which have structured the post-structuralist problematic itself.
Once this operation begins, we see the reemergence of a new Hegel, this other side of Hegel, a radical Hegel, coming through in Jean-Luc Nancy and Fredric Jameson’s recent books on Hegel. Beyond the caricature of Hegel which was really Jean Hyppolite holding a mirror up to the language of the times.
What happens we kill this caricature off, a caricature perhaps not only of Hegel, but of Hyppolite as well? We can, perhaps, learn from both to help us think ways beyond post-structuralism, and perhaps, as I have argued in other posts, towards some sort of speculative realism.