The Two Ends of Philosophy
15 September 2021
Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) mit Studenten, Lithograph, Franz Kugler; Image credit: WikiMedia Commons.
The topic of the end of philosophy dominates European philosophy from Kant onwards: Kant designates his critical approach as a prolegomena to a future philosophy (metaphysics); Fichte talks about “doctrine of science (Wissenschaftslehre)” instead of philosophy; Hegel saw his system as no longer just philo-sophy (love of wisdom) but knowledge itself; Marx opposed philosophy to study of actual life. Today, we not only live in an era of the proclaimed end of philosophy, we live in an era of the double end of philosophy. The prospect of a “wired brain” is a kind of final point of the naturalization of human thought: when our process of thinking can directly interact with a digital machine, it effectively becomes an object in reality, it is no longer “our” inner thought as opposed to external reality.
The End of Philosophy in Science
The topic of the end of philosophy dominates European philosophy from Kant onwards: Kant designates his critical approach as a prolegomena to a future philosophy (metaphysics); Fichte talks about “doctrine of science (Wissenschaftslehre)” instead of philosophy; Hegel saw his system as no longer just philo-sophy (love of wisdom) but knowledge itself; Marx opposed philosophy to study of actual life; etc. till Heidegger whose motto was “the end of philosophy and the task of thinking.” My first thesis is that there is a deep paradox in this fact. It is only with Kant’s revolution, with his notion of the transcendental, that philosophy came to itself. Is it not that, ultimately, philosophy as such begins with Kant, with his transcendental turn? Is it not that the entire previous philosophy can be understood properly - not as the simple description of the "entire universe," of the totality of beings, but as the description of the horizon within which entities disclose themselves to a finite human being - only if read "anachronistically," from the standpoint opened up by Kant? Is it not that it was Kant who also opened up the field within which Heidegger himself was able to formulate the notion of Dasein as the place in which beings appear within a historically determined/destined horizon of meaning? (I am well aware that Heidegger would never accepted to use the term “transcendental” for his approach since “transcendental” is for him irreducibly branded by the notion of modern subjectivity. Inspite of that, I keep this term since I think it remains the most appropriate one to indicate the idea of a horizon within which entities appear to us.)
There are, of course, numerous reactions to the claim that philosophy is over: we have in the last decades attempts to resuscitate pre-Kantian metaphysical ontology. Already the status of Deleuze’s thought is ambiguous: while Derrida is the ultimate historicist deconstructionist, does Deleuze not deploy in his great works (from Difference and Repetition on) a kind of global vision of reality? And is Badiou’s “logic of the worlds” not a kind of a priori of all possible realities – in a conversation with me, he characterized his “logics of the worlds” as his dialectics of nature? Then comes Quentin Meillassoux and the “object-oriented-ontology” with its new “theory of everything” (Graham Harman) which conceives humans as one among the objects. Although, in my view, Harman simply deploys yet another transcendental vision of reality, this certainly is not his intention. In contrast to these returns to ontology, I think that after Heidegger such thinking is no longer possible.
The gap between reality and its transcendental horizon concerns the universal structure of how reality appears to us: which conditions must be met for us to perceive something as really existing? In this way, we can avoid the reproach that philosophy is an illegitimate vision of the universe not grounded in scientific research: transcendental thought doesn’t speculate about all of reality, about how reality really is in itself, it just concerns itself with how we in our actual lives accept something as really existing. “Transcendental” is the philosopher’s technical term for such a frame which defines the coordinates of reality; for example, the transcendental approach makes us aware that, for a scientific naturalist, only spatio-temporal material phenomena regulated by natural laws really exist, while for a premodern traditionalist, spirits and meanings are also part of reality, not only our human projections. The ontic approach, on the other hand, is concerned with reality itself, in its emergence and deployment: How did the universe come to be? Does it have a beginning and an end? What is our place in it?
Prior to Kantian transcendental break, philosophy was a view-notion of the totality of beings: how is all of reality structured, is there a highest Being, what is the place of humans in it? Thales is usually named as the first philosopher, and his answer was: water is the substance of everything. (Note that he says water and not earth, the usual mythic reply!) As already Hegel noted, water as the ultimate substance is not the empirical water we see and feel – a minimum of idealism is already at work here, Thales’s water is an “ideal” entity. This short-circuit stands for the inaugural gesture of philosophy: one particular element stands for all.
The usual modern reproach is that this short-circuit performs an illegitimate jump into universality: in its meta-physical speculations, philosophy proposes a universalization without proper empirical study and justification. Only today, with “theories of everything” in physics, are we gradually approaching a serious scientific answer to “big” questions, and this means the end of philosophy. In the last decades, technological progress in experimental physics has opened up a new domain, unthinkable in the classical scientific universe, that of the “experimental metaphysics”: “questions previously thought to be a matter solely for philosophical debate have been brought into the orbit of empirical inquiry.” (1) What was till now the topic of “mental experiments” is gradually becoming the topic of actual laboratory experiments – exemplary is here the famous Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky double split experiment, first just imagined, then actually performed by Alain Aspect. The properly “metaphysical” propositions tested are the ontological status of contingency, the locality-condition of causality, the status of reality independent of our observation, etc. This is why, at the very beginning of his The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking triumphantly proclaims that »philosophy is dead.” (2) With the latest advances in quantum physics and cosmology, the so-called experimental metaphysics reaches its apogee: metaphysical questions about the origins of the universe, etc., which were till now the topic of philosophical speculations, can now be answered through experimental science and thus empirically tested…
Although Habermas and Heidegger are big philosophical opponents, they share the basic transcendental approach which poses a limit to scientific naturalism. One can say that Heidegger brings philosophy to its conclusion by radicalizing the transcendental approach: he strictly distinguishes between reality (entities) and the horizon within which reality appears
Upon a closer look, we, of course, soon discover that we are not yet quite there – almost, but not yet. Furthermore, it would have been easy to reject these claims and demonstrate the continuing pertinence of philosophy for Hawking himself (not to mention the fact that his own book is definitely not science, but its very problematic popular generalization): Hawking relies on a series of methodological and ontological presuppositions which he takes for granted. Merely 2 pages after the claim that philosophy is dead, he describes his own approach as “model-dependent realism,” based on “the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it /…/ the quality of reality”; however, “if two models (or theories) accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other; rather, we are free to use whichever model is most convenient” (3) … if there ever was a philosophical (epistemological) position, this is one (at a rather vulgar one at that). Not to mention the further fact that this “model-dependent realism” is simply too weak to do the job assigned to it by Hawking, namely to provide the epistemological frame for interpreting the well-known paradoxes of quantum physics, their incompatibility with our common sense ontology. However, in spite of all these problematic features, one should admit that quantum physics and cosmology do have philosophical implications, that they do confront philosophy with a challenge.
Here one should be absolutely clear: these accounts are, in spite of their imperfections, in a certain sense simply and rather obviously true, so one should abandon all obscurantist or spiritualist reference to some mysterious dimension that eludes science. Should we then simply endorse this prospect and abandon philosophy? In philosophy, the predominant form of resistance to the full scientific self-objectivization of humanity which nonetheless admits science’s achievements is the neo-Kantian transcendental philosophy (whose exemplary case today is Habermas): our self-perception as free and responsible agents is not just a necessary illusion, but the transcendental a priori of every scientific knowledge. For Habermas,
the attempt to study first-person subjective experience from the third-person, objectifying viewpoint, involves the theorist in a performative contradiction, since objectification presupposes participation in an intersubjectively instituted system of linguistic practices whose normative valence conditions the scientist’s cognitive activity. (4)
Habermas characterizes this intersubjective domain of rational validity as the dim4ension of “objective mind” which cannot be understood in terms of the phenomenological profiles of the community of conscious selves comprised in it: it is the intrinsically intersubjective status of the normative realm that precludes any attempt to account for its operation or genesis in terms of entities or processes simpler than the system itself. (Lacan’s term for this “objective mind” irreducible to the Real of raw reality as well as to the Imaginary of our self-experience is, of course, the big Other.) Neither the phenomenological (imaginary) nor neurobiological (real) profiling of participants can be cited as a constituting condition for this socially “objective mind.”
The End of Philosophy in Transcendental Historicity
Although Habermas and Heidegger are big philosophical opponents, they share the basic transcendental approach which poses a limit to scientific naturalism. One can say that Heidegger brings philosophy to its conclusion by radicalizing the transcendental approach: he strictly distinguishes between reality (entities) and the horizon within which reality appears – he calls the gap between the two “ontological difference.” For example, reality appears to us, moderns, differently than to premodern people for whom reality was full of spiritual agents and deeper meanings – in modern science, there is no place for this dimension, “real” is only what science can measure and quantify.
When I was young, I remember that an old dogmatically-Marxist handbook for philosophy that was used in high schools characterized Heidegger as an “agnostic phenomenalist” – stupid but true. Heidegger is “phenomenalist” in the sense that his ultimate horizon is the transcendental mode of appearance of entities, and he is “agnostic” in the sense that he ignores the status of entities prior to or outside of their appearance within a certain transcendental disclosure of being. To put it in a brutally simplified way, Heidegger’s true problem is not Being but the status of the ontic outside a horizon of Being. (This is why some partisans of object-oriented-ontology are right to replace “ontology” with “onticology.”) This is why, when Heidegger talks about god, he limits himself to how divinity appears to us, humans, in different epochal disclosures of Being. In this sense, Heidegger obviously deplores the rise of the “god of philosophy,” the abstract notion of causa sui:
This is the right name for the god of philosophy. Man can neither pray nor sacrifice to this god. Before the causa sui, man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this god. (5)
Again, the question here is not which figure of god is more true, it is strictly about different epochal appearances of god. And, similarly, in spite of his newfound respect for religion, Habermas, Heidegger’s great opponent, insists that we are required to adopt an agnostic attitude to religious beliefs – agnostic, i.e., leaving the question open, not excluding the existence of god. (6)
Today, we thus not only live in an era of the proclaimed end of philosophy, we live in an era of the double end of philosophy. The prospect of a “wired brain” is a kind of final point of the naturalization of human thought: when our process of thinking can directly interact with a digital machine, it effectively becomes an object in reality, it is no longer “our” inner thought as opposed to external reality. On the other hand, with today’s transcendental historicism, “naïve” questions about reality are accepted precisely as “naïve,” which means they cannot provide the ultimate cognitive frame of our knowledge. For example, Foucault’s notion of truth can be summed up in the claim that truth/untruth is not a direct property of our statements but that, in different historical conditions, different discourses produce each its own specific truth-effect, i.e., it implies its own criteria of what values as “true”:
The problem does not consist in drawing the line between that in discourse which falls under the category of scientificity or truth, and that which comes under some other category, but in seeing historically how effects of truth are produced within discourses which are neither true nor false. (7)
Science defines truth in its own terms: the truth of a proposition (which should be formulated in clear explicit and preferably formalized terms) is established by experimental procedures which could be repeated by anyone. Religious discourse operates in a different way: its “truth” is established through complex rhetorical ways which generate the experience of inhabiting a meaningful world benevolently controlled by higher a higher power. So if one were to ask Michel Foucault a big metaphysical question, like “Do we have a free will?”, his answer would have been something like: “This question only has meaning, it can only be raised within a certain episteme, field of knowledge/power which determines under what conditions it is true or false, and all we can ultimately do is describe this episteme.” For Foucault, this episteme in what in German it is called Unhintergehbares, something behind which we cannot reach.
A scientist may snap back: OK, but cannot a historical anthropology describe how, in the course of evolution, different shapes of episteme arise out of tradition and concrete social circumstances? Does Marxism not provide a quite convincing account of how new ideologies and sciences emerge in a complex social totality? Habermas is right here to insist that we cannot get out of the hermeneutic circle: the evolutionary explanation of human cognitive faculties already presupposes a certain epistemic approach to reality. The result is thus that a parallax is irreducible here: at some obvious “naïve” realist level, it is clear that humans evolved out of a vast field of reality; however, the circle of including ourselves into reality cannot ever be fully closed since every explanation of our place in reality already relies on a certain horizon of meaning – what to do here?
Heidegger gave to the transcendental approach an existential turn: philosophy as transcendental-phenomenological ontology does not inquire into the nature of reality, it analyses how all of reality appears to us in a given epochal constellation. In today’s age of techno-science, we consider as “really existing” only what can be an object of scientific research – all other entities are reduced to illusory subjective experiences, just imagined things, etc. Heidegger’s point is not that such a view is more or less “true” than a premodern view, but that, with the new disclosure of being that characterizes modernity, the very criteria of what is “true” or “false” changed… It is not difficult to grasp the paradox of such an approach: while Heidegger is perceived as a thinker uniquely focused on the question of Being, he leaves totally out of consideration what we understand by this question in our “naïve” pre-transcendental stance: how do things exist independently of the way we relate to them, independently of how they appear to us?
Is, however, this enough? If the transcendental dimension is the irreducible frame or horizon through which we perceive (and, in a strict Kantian sense which has nothing to do with ontic creation, constitutes reality), how can we move beyond (or beneath) the couple of reality and its transcendental horizon? Is there a zero-level where these two dimensions overlap? The search for this level is the big topic of German Idealism: Fichte found it in the self-positing of the absolute I (transcendental Self), while Schelling found it in the intellectual intuition in which subject and object, activity and passivity, intellect and intuition immediately coincide.
The gap between reality and its transcendental horizon concerns the universal structure of how reality appears to us: which conditions must be met for us to perceive something as really existing?
Following the failure of these attempts, our starting point should be that the zero-level of reality and its transcendental horizon is not to be sought in some kind of synthesis of the two but in the very rupture between the two. Since today scientific realism is the hegemonic view, the question to be raised is: can the transcendental dimension be accounted for in these terms? How can the transcendental dimension arise/explode in the real? The reply is not a direct realist reduction but another question: what has to be constitutively excluded (primordially repressed) from our notion of reality? In short, what if the transcendental dimension is the “return of the repressed” of our notion of reality?
Man as a katastrophe
This, then, is our deadlock: we have two ends of philosophy, the one in positive science occupying the field of old metaphysical speculations, and the one with Heidegger who brought the transcendental approach to its radical conclusion, reducing philosophy to the description of the historical “events,” modes of disclosure of Being. The two do not complement each other, they are mutually exclusive, but the immanent insufficiency of each of them opens up the space for the other: science cannot close the circle and ground in its object the approach it uses when analysing its object, only transcendental philosophy can do it; transcendental philosophy which limits itself to describing different disclosures of Being has to ignore the ontic question (how are entities outside of the horizon of their appearing to us), and science fills in this void with its claims about the nature of things. Is this parallax the ultimate stand of our thinking, or can we reach beyond (or, rather, beneath) it?
Although Heidegger is the ultimate transcendental philosopher, there are mysterious passages where he ventures into this pre-transcendental domain. In the elaboration of this notion of an untruth /lethe/ older than the very dimension of truth, Heidegger emphasizes how man's "stepping into the essential unfolding of truth" is a "transformation of the being of man in the sense of a derangement /Ver-rueckung - going mad”/ of his position among beings." (8) The "derangement" to which Heidegger refers is, of course, not a psychological or clinical category of madness: it signals a much more radical, properly ontological reversal/aberration, when, in its very foundation, the universe itself is in a way "out of joint," thrown off its rails. What is crucial here is to remember that Heidegger wrote these lines in the years of his intensive reading of Schelling's Treatise on Human Freedom, a text which discerns the origin of Evil precisely in a kind of ontological madness, in the "derangement" of man's position among beings (his self-centeredness), as a necessary intermediate step ("vanishing mediator") in the passage from "prehuman nature" to our symbolic universe: “man, in his very essence, is a katastrophe – a reversal that turns him away from the genuine essence. Man is the only catastrophe in the midst of beings.” (9)
However, at this crucial point where in some sense everything is decided, I think that we should make a step further with regard to Heidegger’s formulation – “a derangement of his position among beings" -, a step indicated by some other formulations of Heidegger himself. It may appear clear what Heidegger aims at by the quoted formulation: man as Da-Sein (the “being-there” of Being, the place of the disclosure of Being) is an entity irreducibly rooted in his body (I use here the masculine form since it is at work in Heidegger). With a little bit of rhetorical exaggeration, one can say that Heidegger’s “no Being without Being-There as the place of its disclosure” is his version of Hegel’s “one should grasp the Absolute not only as Substance but also as Subject.” However, if the disclosure of the entire domain of entities is rooted in a singular entity, then something “deranged” is taking place: a particular entity is the exclusive site at which all entities appear, acquire their Being – so, to put it brutally, you kill a man and you simultaneously “kill Being” … This short-circuit between the Clearance of Being and a particular entity introduces a catastrophic de-rangement into the order of beings: because man, rooted in his body, cannot look at entities from outside, every disclosure of Being, every Clearance, has to be grounded in untruth (concealment/hiddenness). The ultimate cause of the de-rangement that pertains to Da-Sein thus resides in the fact that Dasein is by definition embodied, and, towards the end of his life, Heidegger conceded that, for philosophy, "the body phenomenon is the most difficult problem":
The bodily /das Leibliche/ in the human is not something animalistic. The manner of understanding that accompanies it is something that metaphysics up till now has not touched on. (10)
One is tempted to risk the hypothesis that it is precisely the psychoanalytic theory which was the first to touch on this key question: is not the Freudian eroticized body, sustained by libido, organized around erogenous zones, precisely the non-animalistic, non-biological body? Is not THIS (and not the animalistic) body the proper object of psychoanalysis? Heidegger totally misses this dimension when in his Zollikoner Seminare, he dismisses Freud as a causal determinist:
He postulates for the conscious human phenomena that they can be explained without gaps, i.e. the continuity of causal connections. Since there are no such connections 'in the consciousness,' he has to invent 'the unconscious,' in which there have to be the causal links without gaps. (11)
This interpretation may appear correct: is it not that Freud tries to discover a causal order in what appears to our consciousness as a confused and contingent array of mental facts (slips of tongue, dreams, clinical symptoms) and, in this way, to close the chain of causal links that run our psyche? However, Heidegger completely misses the way the Freudian "unconscious" is grounded in the traumatic encounter of an Otherness whose intrusion precisely breaks, interrupts, the continuity of the causal link: what we get in the "unconscious" is not a complete, uninterrupted, causal link, but the repercussions, the aftershocks, of traumatic interruptions. What Freud calls “symptoms” are ways to deal with a traumatic cut, while “fantasy” is a formation destined to cover up this cut. That’s why for Heidegger a finite human being a priori cannot reach the inner peace and calm of Buddhist Enlightenment (nirvana). A world is disclosed to us against the background of an ontological catastrophe: “man is the only catastrophe in the midst of beings.”
But, again, here we have to risk a step further: if man is the only catastrophe, does this mean that, prior to the arrival of humanity, there was no catastrophe, that nature was a balanced order derailed only by human hubris? (By catastrophe I don’t mean ontic disasters like asteroids hitting the earth but more radical de-rangement of the entire network of forms of life.) The problem is that if man is the only catastrophe “in the midst of beings,” and if beings are only disclosed to us as humans, then the very space of non-catastrophic beings that surround humans is already ontologically grounded in the catastrophe that is the rise of man.
Beyond the Transcendental
Now we face the key question: is man as the only catastrophe in the midst of beings as exception, so that if we assume the impossible point-of-view of looking at the universe from a safe distance, we see a universal texture of beings just not deranged by catastrophes (since man is a catastrophe only from his own standpoint, as the exception that grounds his access to beings)? In this case, we are back at the Kantian position: reality “in itself,” outside the Clearing within which it appears to us, is unknowable, we can only speculate about it the way Heidegger himself does it when he plays with the idea that there is a kind of ontological pain in nature itself. Or should we take this Heidegger’s speculation seriously, so that the catastrophe is not only man but already nature in itself, and in man as the being-of-speech this catastrophe that grounds reality in itself only comes to word? (Quantum physics offers its own version of a catastrophe that grounds reality: the broken symmetry, the disturbance of the void quantum oscillations; theosophical speculations offers another version: the self-division or Fall of Godhead itself which gives birth to our world.)
if man is the only catastrophe, does this mean that, prior to the arrival of humanity, there was no catastrophe, that nature was a balanced order derailed only by human hubris? (By catastrophe I don’t mean ontic disasters like asteroids hitting the earth but more radical de-rangement of the entire network of forms of life.)
In a debate with a theology student, Richard Dawkins (12) said that he takes seriously what departments of theology are doing when they are engaged in the research of historical origins of a religion and its development – we get here a solid anthropological study -, but he doesn’t take seriously when, for example, theologians debate the exact nature of transubstantiation in a Christian ritual (the miraculous change by which according to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dogma the eucharistic elements at their consecration become the body and blood of Christ while keeping only the appearances of bread and wine). I think, on the contrary, that such debates should also be taken extremely seriously and not reduced to mere metaphors – they not only allow an access to the basic ontological premises of theology, they can also often be used to throw a new light onto some Marxist notions. Fredric Jameson was right to proclaim predestination the most interesting theological concept for Marxism: predestination indicates the retroactive causality which characterizes a properly dialectical historical process. In a similar way, we should not be afraid to search for the traces of meta-transcendental (dialectical materialist) approach in theosophical speculations of Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme or F.W.J. Schelling.
If we endorse this option, then we have to draw the only consequent conclusion: every image or construction of “objective reality,” of the way it is in itself, “independently of us,” is one of the ways being is disclosed to us, and is as such already in some basic sense “anthropocentric,” grounded in (and at the same time obfuscating) the catastrophe that constitutes us. The main candidate for getting close to how reality is “in itself” are formulas of relativity theory and quantum physics – the result of complex experimental and intellectual work to which nothing corresponds in our direct experience of reality… The only “contact” we have with the Real “independent of us” is our very separation from it, the radical de-rangement, what Heidegger calls catastrophe. The paradox is that what unites as with the Real “in itself” is the very gap that we experience as our separation from it. (The same goes for Christianity where the only way to experience unity with god is to identify with Christ suffering on the cross, i.e., with the point at which god is divided from himself.) And this move of experiencing the gap itself as the point of unity is the basic feature of Hegel’s dialectic – which is why the space beyond Heidegger’s thought that we designated as the space beyond the transcendental is the space to which Hegelian thought belongs. This is also the space for thinking which cannot be reduced to science – here is Heidegger’s own ambiguous formulation of this obscure point:
I often ask myself – this has for a long time been a fundamental question for me – what nature would be without man - must it not resonate through him in order to attain its ownmost potency. (13)
Note that this passage is from the time immediately after Heidegger’s lectures on The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics from 1929-30, where is also formulated a Schellingian hypothesis that, perhaps, animals are, in a hitherto unknown way, aware of their lack, of the "poorness" of their relating to the world - perhaps, there is an infinite pain pervading the entire living nature:
if deprivation in certain forms is a kind of suffering, and poverty and deprivation of world belongs to the animal's being, then a kind of pain and suffering would have to permeate the whole animal realm and the realm of life in general. (14)
So, when Heidegger speculates about pain in nature itself taken independently of man, how can we read this claim without committing ourselves to anthropocentric-teleological thinking? The answer was indicated by none other than Marx who, in his introduction to Grundrisse, wrote:
Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc. Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known. (15)
In short, to paraphrase Pierre Bayard, (16) what Marx is saying here is that the anatomy of the ape, although it was formed earlier in time than the anatomy of man, nonetheless in a way plagiarizes by anticipation the anatomy of man. There is no teleology here, the effect of teleology is strictly retroactive: once capitalism is here (emerging in a wholly contingent way), it provides a universal key for all other formations. Teleology resides precisely in evolutionary progressism where the key to the anatomy of man is the anatomy of ape. Alenka Zupančič pointed out that the same holds for Lacan’s il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: this doesn’t mean that in nature, among apes and other animals, there is a harmonious (instinctually regulated) sexual relationship, while with the arrival of humans disharmony explodes. There is no sexual relationship already among apes etc., their complex mating rituals demonstrate this, but this disharmony remains “in itself,” it is a simple fact (probably experienced as painful), while with humans the failure is registered as such, “for itself.” In this sense the pain in nature points towards the symbolic order that registers it. (17)
the claim “Hegel is a dialectical materialist” should be read as a new version of the speculative statement “the Spirit is a bone”: taken directly, the claim is an obvious nonsense, there is an infinite gap between Hegel’s thought and dialectical materialism – however, Hegel’s thought is precisely the thought of this gap.
Along these lines, one can also understand why Kant claims that, in some sense, world was created so that we can fight our moral struggles in it: when we are caught into an intense struggle which means everything to us, we experience it as if the whole world will collapse if we fail; the same holds also when we fear the failure of an intense love affair. There is no direct teleology here, our love encounter is the result of a contingent encounter, so it could easily also not have happened – but once it does happen, it decides how we experience the whole of reality. When Benjamin wrote that a big revolutionary battle decides not only the fate of the present but also of all past failed struggles, he mobilizes the same retroactive mechanism that reaches its climax in religious claims that, in a crucial battle, not only the fate of us but the fate of god himself is decided. Only Hegel allows us to think this paradox.
“Hegel is a dialectical materialist”
Hegel’s dialectic is neither a dynamized transcendental dimension (the succession of all possible ways reality can appear to us, as Brandom and Pippin claim) nor the “objective” dialectical process of reality itself (as Marxist “dialectical materialists” as well as objective idealists claim); its hidden resource is the experience of the irreducible gap that precedes the two. In this way, we can also somewhat clarify the difference between naturalist (“mechanic”) materialism, idealism, and dialectical materialism: “mechanic” materialism covers the wide area from pre-Platonic materialists to today’s scientific naturalism and object-oriented-ontology (even if it characterizes itself as “immaterialist”) – all of them approach reality as something given, ignoring its transcendental constitution; idealism is characterized by the predominance of the transcendental approach; dialectical materialism appears when we move into the obscure domain beyond the transcendental, as it was done by the post-Kantian turn of Schelling and Hegel, by some theosophical speculations (including those of Walter Benjamin), by some tentative formulations of Lacan, as well as by some speculative readings of quantum physics. (18) For a Kantian, of course, such speculations are nothing more than empty Schwarmerei, enthusiastic bla-bla about nothing, while for us, it is only here that we touch the Real.
Why do I call the position towards which all these different approaches tend “dialectical materialism,” a term that is difficult to dissociate from the Stalinist tradition, a term which stands for philosophical ideology at its most stupid, for a philosophy that has no cognitive value but just serves to justify political decisions? Because I think what I have in mind here is ultimately unnameable, there is no “proper” name for it, so the only solution is to use a term which signals as clearly as possible its own inadequacy. In other words, the claim “Hegel is a dialectical materialist” should be read as a new version of the speculative statement “the Spirit is a bone”: taken directly, the claim is an obvious nonsense, there is an infinite gap between Hegel’s thought and dialectical materialism – however, Hegel’s thought is precisely the thought of this gap.
1. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press 2007, p. 25.
2. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, New York: Bantam 2010, p. 5.
3. Op.cit., p. 7.
4. Jürgen Habermas, “The Language Game of Responsible Agency and the Problem of Free Will: How Can Epistemic Dualism be Reconciled with Ontological Monism?,” Philosophical Explorations 10, no. 1 (March 2007), p. 31.
5. Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, New York: Torchbooks 1975, p. 72.
6. See Juergen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, Cambridge: Polity 2008.
7. Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings, New York: Random House 1980, p. 118.
8. Martin Heidegger, Beitraege zur Philosophie, in Gesamtausgabe, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann 1975 ff., Vol. 65, p. 338.
9. Martin Heidegger, „Hoelderlin’s Hymne ‚Der Ister‘,“ Gesamtausgabe 53, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann 1984, p. 94.
10. Martin Heidegger, Heraclitus Seminar (with Eugen Fink), Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press 1979, p. 146.
11. Martin Heidegger, Zollikoner Seminare, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann 2017, p. 260.
12. See ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHoK6ohqNo4.
13. Letter from 11 October 1931, Martin Heidegger – Elisabeth Blochmann. Briefwechsel 1918-1969, Marbach: Deutsches Literatur-Archiv 1990, p. 44.
14. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1995, p. 271.
15. Quoted from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm#3.
16. See Pierre Bayard, Le plagiat par anticipation, Paris: Editions de Minuit 2009.
17. See Alenka Zupančič, What IS Sex?, Cambridge: MIT Press 2017.
18. Fichte’s position is here subtly ambiguous: even when he talks about the absolute I positing the not-I, he is not claiming that the absolute I creates objects in the direct causal sense. The only thing that the subject creates is the mysterious “impetus” which pushes it to “posit” reality, and this impetus is his version of what Lacan calls objet a.