Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Deflating Modernity (Part 2): The failure of Hegel's axiomatics

Hegelian axiomatics makes its case in the trial of history 

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After defining the "economic" side of M, Habermas proceeds to tackle M's superstructure. The preeminent figure of this post is G. F. Hegel:
Hegel was the first philosopher to develop a clear concept of modernity (p. 4). Hegel used the concept of modernity first of all in historical contexts, as an epochal concept: The new age is the modern age. (PDM p. 5)
What's Hegel's secret? He has the audacity to call his time "new" (circa 1807). That's it.

I- Hegel is axiomatizing his present!

How do you prove that's sunny when it's (in fact) sunny? Just point to the sunny realm around you with your index finger. Facts don't need proof.

Hegel makes his epoch look as a historic necessity (with the help of good ol metaphysics).

In this post I try to show that both justifications are redundant. First, since any epoch is "new" in comparison with the previous epoch and "old" when compared with the subsequent one, Hegel's own epoch is at best trivially different than any previous epoch. Second, since history is basically and ultimately about real events, Hegel's hijacking of history by metaphysics to justify history's march to self-discovery is, from the start, a redundant project.    

As a paradigmatic German Romantic, Hegel presents his epoch as inevitable, the incarnation of the  "will of the spirit" (Geist).

Two generations later, when Marx shook off his Hegelian influences, he castigated Hegel and the Young Hegelians in The German Ideology (with this caustic paragraph).
The Hegelian philosophy of history is the last consequence, reduced to its "finest expression," of all this German historiography, for which it is not a question of real, nor even of political, interests, but ... as a series of "thoughts" that devour one another and are finally swallowed up in "self-consciousness."
I do not dispute that Hegel sees his present as a new epoch. In fact, his inclination to see it that way is generational (for example, the so called Jena Circle).1 For Paul Redding this inclination harks back to the beginning of German Idealism:
Idealists from Leibniz to Hegel sought to accommodate and incorporate the modern life together with the distinctive role given to  individual subjectivity within it. This German Idealismus might be better described in terms of a increasing attempt to locate general phenomena with the modern subjective conception of consciousness. (p.4)
II- Hegel's historic argument 

Let's look at the Hegelian "new" as simply and factually as possible:

For something to be new, it has to be different from the old.

Imagine a moment X0 which precedes a moment X1,
Necessarily, X0 ≠ X1 (since they are different),
Therefore we can call X1 "new" and X0 "old."

Relatively, Xis "new," compared to X0, but it's also "old" compared to X2. And the same will happen for each Xi.

In conclusion,

Θ There is nothing unique about X1 other than being trivially "before" of "after" any Xi.

Of course, Hegel would disagree.
It is surely not difficult to see that our time is a birth and transition to a new period. The Spirit has broken with what was hitherto the world of its existence and imagination and is about to submerge all this in the past. (PDM p. 6).
The reason Hegel rejects Θ is that he needs more than just a "new" epoch.

He needs this "new" epoch to last for ever! (more of this later).

M can be as oracular as Greek mythology and prophetic as the Pentateuch!

III- Habermas defense of the "new" as "oppositional"

I'd like to continue Habermas train of thought in PDM:
In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel used these expressions to classify the German Christian world... the division still usual today (e.g, for the designation of chairs in history departments) into Modern Period, Middle Ages and Antiquity could take shape only after the expression "new" or "modern" age lost its chronological meaning and took the oppositional significance of an emphatically "new" age. (PDM p. 5)
Habermas borrows this idea of "oppositional" as opposed to "chronological" from respected German historian Reinhart Koselleck, who coined the term Sattelzeit to denote a conceptual transformation which takes place between 1750-1850. We cannot go deep into Koselleck's monumental theory of Begriffsgeschichte in his Futures Past On the Semantics of Historic Time.

(take a look at this essay by Jan Werner Müller as an intro).

Even as Koselleck builds his idea of "conceptual history" (or Begriffsgeschichte) he brings back  chronological aspects —as he anchors these conceptual transformations. Koselleck's point is that the historical experience of time and its meanings during the 1750-1850 period shifts from "timeless" (before M) towards "forward looking-anticipatory" during M. (Coincidence, Hegel belongs to this time).

There is a problem with Koselleck idea of Sattelzeit, though. How could "new" be oppositional without being implicitly chronological? Put differently: How could one address "opposition" (Entgegensetzung) in Hegel, between concepts referring to historic events without implicitly acknowledging change? And how can one acknowledge change without chronological time?

Hegelian dialectics is about "moments." For example, in his famous definition of Being & Nothing resolving in Becoming in his Wissenschaft der Logik, Hegel uses the term Übergehen, traslated by Wallace as "passage" (in German Gehen implies the idea of motion).

Let's take a look at Koselleck's idea of "opposition":
From the concept of the one party follows the definition of the alien other ... This involves asymmetrically opposed concepts. The opposite is not equally antithetical. The linguistic usage of politics, like that of everyday life, is permanently based on this fundamental figure of asymmetric opposition. (FP p. 158)
Koselleck goes in detail over a number of binaries (Helenes vs. Barbarians, Christian vs. Heathens, Mensch & Unmensch vs. Übermensch & Untermensch, etc). At one point he seems to imply that these conceptual oppositions are independent of history:
The following reflections will not be concerned with historical process or the emergence and articulation of dualistic counter concepts, their change, and the history of their likely effects ...  the structure of argument within once historically extant, dualistic, linguistic figures will be examined for the way in which the given counterpositions were negated. (FP p. 158)
This conclusion is not unlike the structuralist preference of synchronic over diachronic. A few paragraphs later, Koselleck dithers to acknowledges that structure,
 ... implies the historical, and vice versa. In this way, the sources can be read in two ways at once: as the historical utterance of agencies, and as the linguistic articulation of specific semantic structures. (FP p. 181)
This admission by Koselleck subverts Habermas' much needed oppositional side of M. The reason Habermas discounts the chronological (diachronic?) is that he wants M to be and not be in time. Not unlike Hegel, though for different reasons, Habermas still finds a return value in defending M's excess of presence.


Since M is still here, (though going through a detour) M's true project still has a future. The strategy is make M last as much a possible while keep deferring it, legitimizing it within the knowledge communities. Derrida has called this practice "Hauntology."
Because the new, the modern world is distinguished from the old by the fact that it opens itself to the future, the epochal new beginning is rendered constant with each moment that gives birth to the new. [...] Within the horizon of the modern age, the present enjoys a prominent position a contemporary history. (PDM p. 6)
Strange that Habermas makes this assertion about Hegel's epoch. Is his pivotal study Lectures on The Philosophy Of History Hegel doesn't talk much about the future. His main concern is the present:
Nothing in the past is lost for it, for the Idea is ever present; Spirit is immortal; with it there is no past, no future, but an essential now. This necessarily implies that the present form of Spirit comprehends within it all earlier steps. (LPH p. 96)
Or here:
In regard to Philosophy, on the other hand, we have to do with that which (strictly speaking) is neither past nor future, but with that which is, which has an eternal existence —with Reason; and this is quite sufficient to occupy us. (LPH p. 104)
IV- Hegel's metaphysical argument for History

We need to come back to Hegel's axiomatization of history. Hegel's metaphysical maneuver has three parts:

1. History is teleological (it exhibits a purpose), 2. History is a process (of progress), 3. History culminates with the Spirit's self-discovery of its own freedom. For the sake of brevity I'm presenting the core of these arguments:

1. teleology,
...and the whole process of History (as already observed), is directed to rendering this unconscious impulse a conscious one (LPH p. 39).
2. process,
Freedom has found the means of realizing its Ideal — its true existence. This is the ultimate result which the process of History is intended to accomplish. (LPH p. 127)
3. self-discovery, 
The destiny of the spiritual World, and — since this is the substantial World, while the physical remains subordinate to it, or, in the language of speculation, has no truth as against the spiritual —the final cause of the World at large, we allege to be the consciousness of its own freedom on the part of Spirit, and ipso facto, the reality of that freedom. (LPH p. 33)
None of these points have any anchor in reality whatsoever.

A candid question: What got Hegel in such a mess?

I'll present Hegel's metaphysical legerdemain in schematic form.

In developing his phenomenological argument, Hegel's project becomes a model of mounting contradictions. He betrays his phenomenological method of gradually allow metaphysics emerge from a careful analysis. Instead Hegel hijacks history for the sake of metaphysics. Here are the redundancies of Hegel's axiomatics:

1. Presentism: "Progress" redundantly points to Hegel's epoch.2
2. Eurocentrism: World history travels from East to West, ending with, obviously, Europe.
3. Christianocentrism: The Christian world is the world of completion (thereby the end of days is fully come).

M's doubtful endurance, its raison d'etre, has been exposed. M's clever buildup from both its "economic" and "oppositional" sides have been uncovered as a patchwork of ad hoc procedures. M presents plenty of abstractions with dubious particulars, conceptual invocations devoid of factual evidence and questionable inferences with poor premises. 

Next post: M's redundant normativity.

1 The Jena circle becomes the center of German Romanticism through its main publication: The Athenaeum. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy describe the circle aptly: "Nor is it simply a circle of friends ... or a "coterie" of intellectuals. It is, rather, a sort of "cell," marginal (if not altogether clandestine), like the core of an organization destined to develop into a "network" and serve as the model for a new style of life. In fact, and without any exaggeration, it is the first "avant-garde" group in history." (The Literary Absolute, p. 8). As Hegel had defined it, "progress" is not an indeterminate advance ad infinitum. "It has a definite aim, that is to say, spirit’s achievement of self-consciousness."

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