Hegel's Grammatical Ontology
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Hegel's Grammatical Ontology

Vanishing Words and Hermeneutical Openness in the 'Phenomenology of Spirit'

Jeffrey Reid

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Hegel's Grammatical Ontology

Vanishing Words and Hermeneutical Openness in the 'Phenomenology of Spirit'

Jeffrey Reid

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Reading The Phenomenology of Spirit through a linguistic lens, Jeffrey Reid provides an original commentary on Hegel's most famous work. Beginning with a close analysis of the preface, where Hegel himself addresses the book's difficulty and explains his tortured language in terms of what he calls the "speculative proposition", Reid demonstrates how every form of consciousness discussed in The Phenomenology involves and reveals itself as a form of language. Elucidating Hegel's speculative proposition, which consists of the reversal of the roles of the subject and predicate in such a way that the copula of the proposition becomes the lively arena of dialogical ambiguity and hermeneutical openness, this book offers new onto-grammatical readings of every chapter of The Phenomenology. Not only does this bring a new understanding to Hegel's foundational text, but the linguistic approach further allows Reid to unpack its complexity by relating it to contemporary contexts that share the same language structures that we discover in Hegel. Amongst many others, this includes Hegel's account of sense-certainty and the critique of the immediacy of consumer culture today.

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Informazioni

Anno
2021
ISBN
9781350213616
Edizione
1
Argomento
Philosophy
Chapter 1
SENSE-CERTAINTY: “HERE” AND “NOW” AS VANISHING WORDS
In the beginning was the word. Or is it the sign? Which comes first? My onto-grammatical reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology depends on a crucial distinction: the difference between the linguistic sign and the word, and how they are related. In order to make the distinction, we must introduce other key players in the Phenomenology’s language game: the proposition (or sentence = Satz), the form of judgment (Urteil), subject, predicate and the verb “to be” that relates one to the other, otherwise known as the copula. Sense-certainty puts all these linguistic elements, first introduced by Hegel in his Preface’s reflections on speculative language (M59-66/W3, 56–62), into play. I discussed the “speculative sentence” above, in my own Preface to the present book. However, in the chapter on Sense-certainty, we begin to appreciate the ontological dimension of speculative grammar, how the Subjekt is meant in both a linguistic and psychical way, that is, as pertaining to selfhood, and how the predicate is related to it as an object against which the subject measures itself. In Sense-certainty we will see that such an encounter is not moot, that in acting as the object in which the subject predicates itself, the predicate is indeed “acting.” As the reflection of subjective determination, the predicate is already inchoately intimating an agency of its own.
Further, Hegel’s first chapter (and ours) helps us begin to appreciate the ethical ramifications of his Phenomenological grammar. Because the discursive features that I just mentioned have real being (are ontological), they therefore take place in the world in a performative fashion, mediate our ways of being together, and hence have ethical import. Let us begin with a brief overview of the Sense-certainty chapter.1 Then, I will show how it lends itself to the linguistic reading that I am putting forward, where vanishing words are meaningful. In the subsequent chapters, I will not always proceed this way. However, in Sense-certainty, Hegel’s argument hinges so evidently on linguistic elements, that its outline is immediately pertinent to the onto-grammatical reading.
Sense-certainty presents itself as the richest and truest form of knowing. According to its way of apprehending the world, we seem to experience a rich diversity of things that are given to us immediately, through our senses, in each instance of our lives, in space and time. These sensuous things strike us as absolutely certain, in an unreflected fashion. We do not have to think about them. Things are, and they strike us as such immediately, in all their apparent diversity. We will discover, however, that things are not as they appear. What appears as rich and variegated is actually impoverished and bland. What appears immediately as most certain reveals itself to be the least true.
In sense-certainty, we seem to experience objects immediately, and this immediacy seems to guarantee the truth of this form of knowing. Hegel wants to show us that this immediate certainty is not as simple as it appears. In fact, it involves a dynamic relationship between two terms: the self and a certain type of objectivity, that is, a certain way of experiencing the world. The mutual involvement between these two terms implies that each one actually determines what the other is, and thus the truth of what appeared as an immediate form of knowing turns out to be an act of reciprocal mediation. To the extent that we grasp this dynamic inter-dependency of subject and object, we will come up with a new, richer object of knowledge, the object of perception, which is dealt with in the next chapter. There, we will discover a more involved, reflected relation between our object of knowing and ourselves as knowing subjects. However, first, we must come to see that, as a form of knowledge, sense-certainty is deficient.
In sense-certainty, the object presents itself to me immediately as an absolutely singular thing, whose singularity I denote by adding the indexical “this.” The thing of sense-certainty is always “this thing,” if indeed I am to capture the essential singularity of the sensuous experience. For, here, in this presentation of raw empiricism, things always strike me singularly, as events, and the relation between the “I” and the object of the senses is consequently unique or singular. As well, the experience of this singular thing is always for a singular “I.” When I refer to “this tree” that I see before me, I am involved in an exclusive relationship with the thing that I mean. The exclusive nature of my relationship to the sensuous thing reflects its singularity back on me. Thus, the singular object is always for the singular I. The I that means “this tree” is always “this I” and no other, allowing Hegel to play on the German word “Meinen” (= to mean/to point out and the possessive pronoun “mine”). The object that I mean or point out, when I say “this,” is always for me or exclusively mine. We might say that in sense-certainty, a pure “this” (this object) presents itself immediately to the singular “I,” which is another “this” (this me). Consequently, the always singular object of the senses brings about a singular self who experiences or knows that object. At this point, we can use “object” and “thing” (Ding) interchangeably, since they are thoroughly indeterminate in the immediacy of the experience.
In order to explore the truth of the relationship, Hegel allows to play out the dialectical method that he announces in the Introduction to the Phenomenology (M85-7, W377-80), one where “the ambiguity of truth” (M86) produces “two objects” (ibid.). We will come to see how such Zweideutigkeit (ambiguity) is a fundamental feature of the onto-grammatical project. However, generally, the ambiguous dialectic involves first seeking essential truth (in-itself) in the object of knowledge, then, not finding it in this unilateral aspect, searching for it in the subjective process of knowing, which is then taken as a “second” object. In the current context, Hegel first inquires whether the truth (aka the essence or the in-itself) that our knowledge seeks lies in the object of the senses. Inevitably, it does not. Then he looks at whether the truth resides in the knowing subject itself, where it also does not. Finally, we discover that the truth resides in the dynamic and ambiguous inter-relation between the subject and the object, in their mutual mediation, which is then conceived as a new object of knowing, in Perception (along with a “new” subject who knows it).
To begin, we must therefore look at the object (M94/W3, 84). Is the object essential? Does the object in-itself hold the truth? Is it really the truth in-itself? In other words, does the object that strikes my senses carry its truth with it, striking me with its truth as it strikes my senses? No. What strikes my senses is not really the singular object that I mean but rather a pure “thisness.” In other words, the singularity of the sense object can only be captured when I refer to it as “this object.” Any and every sense object always presents itself to me as a “this,” under the banner of a general demonstrative term that linguistically contradicts the supposed singularity of the object to be known. In other words still, the “this” is the only way to determine the singularity of the object/thing that is to be known, and “this” is totally indeterminate. Consequently, the question that we should be asking ourselves, according to Hegel, is not “what is the object?” but, rather, what is the “this” that allows me to mean the individual object? Regarding the object, the “this” represents how it presents itself to the knowing subject in terms of time or space, that is, in terms of “here” and “now.” Hegel then analyzes these two components of the “this” in order to discover if there is anything in “here” and “now” beyond the indeterminate generality of “this.”
This singular thing presents itself in time. What seems certain is that we know something through the senses as appearing before us now. The “now” is essential to the certainty with which the object immediately strikes us. I know what it is because I see it now. Nothing could be more certain. If the tree that I witness is not before me now, it is not “this tree.” But Hegel asks us to perform an experiment. At night, say “now is night” and then write it down. “Truth cannot lose anything by being written down,” remarks Hegel (M95), in what must surely be the most ironical statement found in the Phenomenology of Spirit! For, as we will see, already in Sense-certainty and further throughout the Phenomenology, this act of “writing down,” of putting into words, is indeed the privileged way to reveal the actual meaning of any knowledge experience.
Here, when the next morning, we look at the paper that we have written on, and read that “now is noon,” we see that the statement on the paper is false. Language shows us that the “now does not preserve itself” (M96), or, rather, the fixed content of the now does not preserve itself. The same word, “now,” means two different things: both last night and today. In fact, all that is left is the general, indeterminate “now,” the universal “now” of the word itself. Language shows us that the truth of the word “now” and hence of our experience of the singular, sensuous object as immediately present in time is just as fleeting as the original “this” that we began with. As soon as I think or say, “now is the tree,” the “now” is no longer the tree that I mean (or meant!). The punctual “now” of that experience breaks down into an infinite number of “nows” and finally, into a general, even universal “now” (M107/W3, 89).
Hegel then performs the same experiment on the “here.” For example, I witness a tree, (M98/W3, 85) but when I turn around and look elsewhere, the tree has gone. No tree is here, but a house instead. In this shift, the only thing that remains is again the indeterminate and general “here” itself. The singular object I meant has lost its meaning. When I attempt to point out the “here,” as I did with the “now,” that is, when I point out this tree here, for example, I am again confronted with a manifold of “heres.” I may point out this tree as the singular one that I mean, but as a singular object, it is only “here” because it is presented in an infinite web of other “heres.” It is above, below, left, right, further above, further below, further left or right, and so on. Again, in physically pointing out the object before me as “here,” the “here” breaks down into an infinity of “heres” and, finally, into universal, indeterminate “hereness,” just as the “now” did. So, the analysis of “here” and “now” confirms the indeterminacy of the “this,” on the side of the object. That is, “this” singular object of my senses fails as an unambiguous object of true knowledge.
Perhaps the truth of the relation of sense-certainty resides in the self. Perhaps the truth (essence or in-itself) of this form of knowledge (of consciousness) takes place in me, in the knowing subject. It is because this tree is the one that I mean, that it is truly certain and true. “Sense-certainty is driven back into the I” (M100/W3, 86), as Hegel puts it. Perhaps the truth of the knowing is in what I mean (meine). The object is certain because it is mine (mein), because I mean it. I indicate it. Now is the day, because I see it. Here, is the tree because I mean it. However, the problem is that my “I” is immediately determined by the here (or the now) that it means! The “I” that is certain of the house is not necessarily the “I” that is certain of the tree. My sensuous experience breaks down into a multitude of singular I’s, each one meaning something different. I may mean a single “I,” but according to the fleeting nature of sense-certainty’s singular experiences, what I say is not what I mean. When I say “I see the tree,” the I is indeterminate. Its meaning evaporates with the thing that it means.
Hegel’s reasoning here may be hard to grasp. It is important to recall that the “I” that we are considering at this stage is the self as immediately experiencing singular objects of the senses and nothing more. We are not talking about self-reflective self-consciousness, for example, but rather of an unreflected immediate form of selfness that simply receives individual objects through the senses as present and certain. In this sense, the “I” that sees and means this tree is nothing other than an I “full of this tree,” we might say. The my-ness or consciousness is entirely given over to what it means, this tree. Consequently, when the singularity of the tree that is meant breaks down into an indeterminate universal, this also reveals the truth about the self that means “this tree.” Given the reciprocal (phenomenological) relation between the knowing self and the object of knowledge, where the knowing subject is always conscious of something and the object of knowledge is always the object of a knowing subject, it should be no surprise that the emptiness of the object of sense-certainty reflects upon and into the knower of that object. This is why Hegel can refer to sense-certainty as a form of consciousness. Here, in the knowing subject, the emptiness of the knowledge experience produces a form of hunger, which spills over into the practical (i.e., ethical) realm. I will discuss this ethical dimension below. First, I want to emphasize and develop the linguistic elements that Hegel presents us with, through his repeated references to “writing down,” “saying,” “describing” (M95, 97, 110).
The things of sense-certainty first present themselves to us as linguistic signs. As I mentioned in the Preface, I have written, in several contexts, on the difference between “sign” and “word” in Hegel, particularly with reference to his discussion of language in the Encyclopedia’s Philosophy of Spirit. Here, I will simply reiterate that although Hegel is somewhat less than rigorous in his use of the terms, he significantly employs the term “sign” (Zeichen) when referring to the pure, empty, indeterminate linguistic signifier. He sometimes uses the German “Name” in the same way. As linguistic signifiers, signs are predominantly natural entities. They are divorced from mind-ful (spiritual) content. They are like “coals and stones” (Letter/Report on state education to Niethammer, W4, 415), which the mind simply finds there, ripe for predicated meaning. While signs may indeed change over time, for example, the English “h-a-t-h” may become “h-a-s” or the German “U-r-t-h-e-i-l” (judgment) may become “U-r-t-e-i-l,” these changes are brought about by usage or, rather, through what the French mean by usage, which implies a gradual wearing away or erosion through repeated use. In Hegel, the transformations brought about in signs are no different from the natural erosion that shapes pebbles in a stream. As natural entities, signs are singular and even stubbornly individual, a difference that I will elucidate further on. Like the things of nature, again for Hegel, they only change reluctantly, and often, very little at all. Children of romanticism, it is hard for us to conceive of natural things as unchanging, ossified, and even lifeless but that is indeed the case for the idealist, for whom lively change is brought about by the agency of thought.
In sense-certainty, my cognitive experience is reduced to the apprehension of linguistic signs: “table,” “chair,” “tree,” “day,” “night.” As such, they are thoroughly singular and thus indeterminate or meaningless, occurring to me in all their inevitability. However, as a subject, I seek to know them, to make them meaningful for me, and to do so, I add the demonstrative pronoun (indexical) “this.” The “this” is meant to elevate the sign to the level of the word, a sign that has been invested with thought or with meaning. This movement bespeaks the essence of Hegel’s idealism: the agency of thought. As we find everywhere throughout the system that he refers to as Science, thought overcomes what it confronts as immediate and natural, negating it, determining it and yet conserving it in a reborn, more spiritual embodiment. The same is true in language, generally. Thought finds readily available linguistic signs and, in investing them with meaning, overcomes their immediate, natural singularity, thus rendering them meaningful words. The distinction between sign and word is fragile simply because the sign is rarely, if ever, encountered in its pure, natural, immediate state. In our world, signs are almost always already invested with meaning and, as such, are words. However, to express the conceptual dynamism of language, its scientific successes, and its necessary failures, it is necessary to comprehend the distinction between linguistic signs and words.
The fragility of the rapport between signs and words is also due to the fact that words never lose their original status of sign. Words need signs like living beings need their bodies and to lose one’s body is to lose one’s life. Words always require their bodily signs. Reciprocally, when life is lost, the body is what is left and, as we will see, this is also a feature of words in their vanishing. The vital and even organic dimension of speculative language will become more evident in later figures of the Phenomenology that we will explore together, unless, of course, you lose patience with me! However, for now, it is crucial to grasp the lively complicity that is at play between signs and words, a complicity that absolutely demands their distinction.
The title of this book refers to words as “vanishing” (Verschwinden), a term that reoccurs constantly, in numerous settings throughout the Phenomenology. This is not an accidental feature, some regrettable transitory aspect of our contemporary world, for example. As we will see in more detail in later chapters, vanishing is an essential feature of what words are. It is what most distinguishes them from signs per se. And this is simply because meaning always outstrips the words that it inhabits. Meaning, as thought, can never be absolutely contained and exhausted in a word. In fact, it is the natural aspect of the inhabited word (its sign/body) that always contravenes its meaningful content, which must spill out beyond it. The word is thus always defined by its finitude, by its vanishing. To the extent that words are alive, their vanishing begins with their utterance. Such vanishing is therefore not something alien and “bad” and limiting that happens to words. Rather, vanishing is a condition for their meaningfulness, which must therefore be construed as hermeneutically open, to the extent that meaning can never be fully captured and enclosed in a finite word. Finally, it is because meaning spills out beyond words, that is, that words are never absolutely definitive, that reinterpretation (of signs) is always possible and, indeed, present. I will return to these ideas throughout the book and hopefully they will become clearer as we put more Phenomenological flesh on their bones. Let us now look more closely at how words and their vanishing apply to Sense-certainty.
As I have shown in more scholarly detail, in the above-referenced article where I relate Sense-certainty to Hobbes’s theory of language and its ethical ramifications, what Hegel is criticizing in his first chapter is nominalist/materialist empiricism. According to this view, there is no distance or difference between the things that I receive in my mind, through my senses, and the words that are attached to them. In both cases, individual “names,” to use Hobbes’s terminology (“Namen,” to use Hegel’s), are tied to individual sense data, and there is no difference between “names” and “words.” For the Hobbesian nominalist, all words are names assigned to singular things that are received through the senses. “Tree” is always “this tree.” Hegel shows the contradiction in this view. The language act that specifies “this tree” does not refer to the singular tree that raw or naïve empiricism claims to know. In fact, what sense-certainty is really grasping is pure thisness, because without the accompanying demonstrative pronoun “this,” what was claimed to be a word (Hobbes’s “name”) is really an empty sign (Hegel’s “Name”), and absolutely indeterminate. What empiricism experiences, what the empirical mind receives through its senses are not significant words but individual signs, which, as I explained above, are thoroughly natural, individual things, empty of any ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Halftitle Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Dedication Page
  5. Contents 
  6. Preface
  7. Chapter 1 SENSE-CERTAINTY: “HERE” AND “NOW” AS VANISHING WORDS
  8. Chapter 2 PERCEPTION: SIGNS AND SOPHISTRY
  9. Chapter 3 FORCE AND UNDERSTANDING: THE AMBIGUITY OF THE COPULA
  10. Chapter 4 SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS: PREDICATED BODIES
  11. Chapter 5 REASON: MODERN INDIVIDUALITY
  12. Chapter 6 SPIRIT: THE HUMAN STORY
  13. Chapter 7 RELIGION AND THE ABSOLUTE OTHER
  14. Chapter 8 ABSOLUTE KNOWING: HERMENEUTICAL OPENNESS AND SCIENCE
  15. Notes
  16. Bibliography
  17. Index
  18. Imprint