13 December 2006

Hegel's Conception of Essence

I also get nervous discussing Hegel as he's been the object of such scorn in French theory. Frankly I find Deleuze's Hegel unrecognizable and suspect that it's Kojeve's Hegel that's being addressed; though Deleuze, as a student of Hyppolite's, was certainly in a position to know better. I suppose I'm not the first to have this sort of love-hate relationship with Hegel. For me, Hegel's account of essence in the Science of Logic is especially interesting as it so nicely develops an ontology of relation, paying special attention to features of self-reflexivity. This can be seen with special clarity in The Encyclopaedia Logic (trans Geraets, Suchting, and Harris). In the opening paragraph of the second division, Hegel writes:
Essence is the Concept as posited Concept. In Essence the determinations are only relational, not yet as reflected strictly within themselves; that is why the Concept is not yet for-itself. Essence-- as Being that mediates itself with itself through its own negativity [relation to otherness]-- is relation to itself only by being relation to another; but this other is immediately, not as what is but as something-posited and mediated [related].-- Being has not vanished; but, in the first place, essence as simple relation to itself is being; while on the other hand, being, according to its one-sided determination of being something-immediate, is degraded to something merely negative, to a shine [or semblance].-- as a result, essence is being as shining within itself. (175)
For instance, when we shift from a naive perspective of everydayness to say a sociological perspective, we have made the shift from the doctrine of being to the doctrine of essence. The former perspective sees the actions of a person as immediate qualities of their character and being, whereas the sociological perspective encounters the person as the expression of a history, material conditions, and cultural practices within which they emerge or are constituted. That is, these relational features come to "shine" or be reflected in the person the researcher observes. In an important Zusatze to this paragraph, Hegel articulates this point a bit more clearly. Hegel writes that:
When we speak of 'essence', we distinguish it from being, i.e., from what is immediate [or in-itself, without reference to another]. In comparison with essence, we regard being as a mere semblance [something to be explained, grounded]. But this semblance is not simply 'not'; it is not an utter nothing, rather it is being as sublated.-- The standpoint of essence is in general the standpoint of reflection. The term 'reflection' is primarily used of light, when, propograted rectilinearly, it strikes a mirrored surface and is thrown back by it. So we have here something twofold: first, something immediate, something that is, and second, the same as mediated or posited. And this is just the case when we reflect on an ob-ject or 'think it over' (as we also say very often). For here we are not concerned with the ob-ject in its immediate form, but want to know it as mediated [for instance, when we come to treat a slip of the tongue as expressive of unconscious desire rather than a simple error]. And our usual view of the task or purpose of philosophy is that it consists in the cognition of the essence of things. By this we understand no more than that things are not to be left in their immediate state, but are rather to be exhibited as mediated or grounded by something else. he immediate being of things is here represented as a sort of rind or curtain behind which the essence is concealed.

Now, when we say further that all things have an essence, what we mean is that they are not truly what they immediately show themselves to be. A mere rushing about from one quality to another, and a mere advance from the qualitative to the quantitative and back again, is not the last word; on the contrary, there is something that abides in things, and this is, in the first instance, their essence. As for the further significance and use of the category of essence, we can recall first at this point how the term 'Wesen' is employed to designate the past for the German auxiliary verb 'sein' [to be]; for we designate the being that is past as 'gewesen' [elsewhere, in the Science of Logic, Hegel will famously say "wesen ist gewesen", alluding to the historical nature of essence]. This irregularity in linguistic usage rests upon a correct view of the relation of being and essence, because we can certainly consider essence to be being that has gone by, whilst still remarking that what is past is not for that reason abstractly negated, but only sublated so at the same time conserved. If we say in German, e.g., 'Caser ist in Gallien gewesen' ['Caesar was in Gaul'], what is negated by that is just the immediacy of what is asserted about Casear, but not his sojourn in Gaul altogether, for indeed it is just that which forms the content of this assertion-- only it is here represented as having been sublated.

When a 'Wesen' is spoken of in ordinary life, it frequently only means a comprehensive whole or an essential sum; we speak in this way, for instance, of a 'zeitungswesen' [the press], of the 'Postwesen' [the postal service], or of the 'Steuerwesen' [the taxation system], etc., which simply amounts to saying that the things that are part of these are not to be taken singly in their immediacy, but as a complex, and then further in their various relations as well. So this linguistic use involves just about the same content as essence has turned out for us. (176)
The metaphorics deployed in this passage are beautiful, and, no doubt, the fan of Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 will find much to delight her literary palate in Hegel's reference to the postal system. From a Deleuzian standpoint, this passage is of interest insofar as it shows how far Hegel's understanding of mediation is from the subordination of the individual being to abstract and formal categories such as Kant's categories of the understanding. More interestingly, it indicates the manner in which the entity is to be thought in terms of a network of concrete material relations, or as belonging to a complex or system.

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Anonymous Rochenko said...

Good post. I think maybe the key to understanding Hegel is what his critique of naturalism (in the broadest sense, including sociological explanation) amounts to (which means reading the Logic of the Concept).

On Deleuze and his interpretation of Hegel, you might find this post of mine interesting?

December 14, 2006 1:52 AM  
Anonymous Mark Crosby said...

Off the RSS feed here, allow me to belatedly remark..

Hegel sez: "Essence is the Concept as posited Concept". What is a Concept compared to a thought? Is it a feeling? an image? a proposed proposition as proposed? Such concepts are not self-evident to my way of thinking..

Hegel sez: "When we speak of 'essence', we distinguish it from being, i.e., from what is immediate [and] we regard being as mere semblance". You speak of "shift[ing] from a naive perspective of everydayness to say a sociological prespective [as a] shift from the doctine of being to the doctrine of essence". Hegel sez that "the task or purpose of philosophy is that it consists in the cognition of the essence of things". Plane of reference of what we know rather than plane of consistency of what we do or are?

I don't KNOW, Sinthome, but I SENSE something slippery here.. "Philosophy", Santayana sez in his the Preface to REALMS OF BEING, "is ... the measure of life". This makes MUCH more sense to me than "cognition of the essence of things"! Santayana's sublation of essence from SCEPTICISM & ANIMAL FAITH is ALMOST the opposite of this "cognition of the essence of things" in that it is the sense of relations. Or maybe it just sounds more sensible to me in English..

This ties in nicely with what I happened to be reading when your "Question of Breaking With Doxa Today" popped up (Henry Samuel Levinson's SANTAYANA, PRAGMATISM, AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE section on "Hegel and _The Life of Reason_" - if you believe it ;) Most of what Levinson writes is derived from Santayana's 1902 essay, "Two Idealisms: A Dialogue in Limbo".. "I believe it makes more sense to interpret _The Life of Reason_ as more Hegelian than classical in its preoccupations and problems ... part of a basically Hegelian strategy to get leverage on the failures of the modern philosophical tradition... Hegel's PHENOMENOLOGY can be read as offering a spiritual discourse that accepts the contingency of everything, including itself [and] lets readers abandon the quest for objectivity".

And dealing more directly with 'doxa' (sounding almost Zizekian ;) Levinson adds: "Characterizing the location of philosophical discourse as limbo ... picturing philosophy as conversation with the living dead - rather than as coming into the presence of some Sacred Idea or Objective or Reality - makes philosophy a discipline of selective transmission of traditional wisdom" (122-123).

Allow me to slip away with this:
Far, far beyond the putative conzones
Of love and summer. The assassin sings
This warmth in the blood world for the pure idea,
This inability to find a sound,
That clings to the mind like that right sound, that song
Of the assassin that remains and sings
In the high imagination triumphantly
- Wallace Stevens, _Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas_

December 14, 2006 8:11 AM  
Anonymous Craig said...

I suspect your suspicion (i.e., Kojeve) is correct - it's all about negation and desire for K. Problem being, of course, that K's Hegel is filtered through Queneau's transcriptions of the lectures. (With the exception, perhaps, of the footnote to the second edition being the only "authentic" Kojeve in the lectures.)

December 16, 2006 12:43 PM  

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