The Trajectories of German Idealism (2)


Following from my last post I want to argue that German Idealism is a project that takes the genesis of the abstract as engine and problem for philosophical practice and for practice taken more generally. Assuming Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel accept Kant’s critique of dogmatic metaphysics but want to evade his methodological dualism as a stopping point, then they must appeal to a kind of non-naive structuralism but one that is generative (or genetic as the literature often puts it) thus the importance of mathematics and logic for each of them albeit differently manifested. The nature of their go-to concepts are thus situated and powered by argumentation crafted in the fires of skepticism: for Fichte it is the ‘magic circle’ of consciousness, for Schelling it is the derivation of ideality from nature, and for Hegel it’s the labor of spirit or consciousness across the charred fields of history. To relate this to Quentin Meillassoux’s well-worn critique of correlationism it is perhaps unsurpising that German Idealism marks the historical tipping point from weak (that there may be things in themselves but we cannot directly access them) to strong (there are no things in themselves and we only have access to the relation between subject and object) correlationism.

I would argue that the generic orientation shared by German Idealist thinkers of a skepticism-hardened abstraction is not a historical triviality (one would think their influence alone would question this) especially given the penchant (particularly in a certain strain of French theory) for weak ontologies. In many sense weak ontology is simply the positivized inverse of Meillassoux’s weak correlationism. Rather than attempting to reestablish the ground for a scientifically updated epistemology, weak ontology seems to take for granted that being is charged with a certain kind of knowability – that epistemology is branded with a Kantian sterility not worth repeating.

The strange character of weak ontology is evident in Badiou, Meillassoux, and Tristan Garcia to name a few (and no doubt numerous others I’m forgetting or am not aware of). In a general sense weak ontologies are ontologizations of epistemological theories that acquire the ‘purchasing power’ of dogmatic metaphysics by jettisoning appeals to substance. [An aside – had I the background a discussion of Meinong would be particularly interesting here given both Garcia’s utilization of him and Quine’s comments on him in relation to Plato’s beard.] It appears then that, unlike German Idealism but not too far from its shores, that weak ontologies absorb the problems of skepticism but at the level of the entire discourse – the uncertainty of the thinker’s position is total but there is no reason to fear since there is contingency of various degrees. That is, where I would argue German Idealism broadly construed attempts to investigate how deep structures work through us, weak ontologies expand local facthoods into ontological footholds. John Van Houdt’s essay “The Necessity of Contingency” is particularly helpful in seeing how the latter problem falls between Hegel and Meillassoux. On this last point Markus Gabriel’s relation to Meillassoux is particuarly interesting. Gabriel takes Schelling’s unprethinkable being (das unvordenkliche) as the generator and spielraum (play space) of facthood non-all but writ large – ie that everything is a fact and facthood is what ontology boils down to connecting Schelling (though not always by name) to analytic thinkers such as Frege. There’s a brief interesting post on Gabriel and Schelling here.

An important and interest aspect of Gabriel’s work is levels of reality on the one hand but his emphasis on flatness (a flatness that, as I understand it, is determined by sense-horizons or fields of sense). In this regard realness is neighborhood-specific yet everything is ‘a fact’ and is ontologically real in that sense. Here Gabriel can be viewed as a kind of unintentional bridge between weak ontology and German Idealism. Whereas weak ontologies speak to neighborhoods determining their own realness, there would seem to be, again in very different ways, a historical progression which determines a history before its spatialization ontologically. It is this due to this historical dimension as appearing to hypostisize an all too human dimension, that Meillassoux throws German Idealism to the garbage pail of Strong Correlationism. Whether this fits the German Idealists is debatable (esp if you take into account the assumption that one must start from within the synthesis of idealism in order to work one’s way out of it) but the claim appears particularly interesting in light of the analytic uptake of Hegel which I glossed over last time.

As Pete suggested (several years ago now) Brandom, and McDowel could be classified in an expanded Meillassouxian spectra as deflationary realists. How would this relate to weak ontology? The problem of Meillassoux is that his alignment of German Idealism as the tipping point into strong correlationism disregards the both the genetic synthesis of the project coming from various incomplete grounds. As far as I can see there is no notion of construction or synthesis in Meillassoux’s account (or Badiou’s for that matter) and instead there is a reliance upon punctual eruptions of different regimes of being. I think this is evident both in Meillassoux’s virtualization of the emergence of life as well as Badiou’s open hostility to the biological sciences (as Adrian Johnston has repeatedly pointed out). Against this Schelling and Hegel in particular maintain a non-substantive monism which through certain sense of continuity allows for the operations of the sciences on philosophy without philosophy becoming its peon. Marx and others take this connectivity criticality as overstating the power of ideality and thereby replace the connective tissue of a non-substantive monism with an obvious choice, that of the social. Is the deflationary realism of analytic Hegelians the move to Marxism but shifting social substance to the pragmatism of the social training of norms?

Though as Ray Brassier’s recent talk on accelerationism, Jacques Camatte, and Endnotes pointed out, communialization as such becomes ontologized (in a fashion similar to Zizek’s ontologization of the blank subject in my last entry) thereby placing the cause (as real contradiction) within the social that must be somehow broken to reach an exteriorized horizon of capital. As Brassier notes it is thereby not surprising that other calls to communization often advocate a form of atavistic primitivism/separatism whereby society must be sacrificed to find some originary social bond prior to the advent of exchange value. Yet this move is temporally and anthropologically misguided,

In the next (and final?) part I want to argue that in fact the genetic account, taken with the importance of the genesis of abstraction in German Idealism, actually points less to the crude humanism that Marx and Althusser lamented, but more towards a crude cognitivist account of species being. The argument being that the highly formal theories of self-consciousness in German Idealism are attempts not only to speculatively explain the emergence of consciousness but how the understanding of the emergence of consciousness is recursively injected into philosophical and non-philosophical practices.


3 Responses to “The Trajectories of German Idealism (2)”

  1. 1 Melek-Taus

    Reblogged this on Manticore Press.

  2. 2 JTH

    Thanks for this.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether Meillassoux’s project is non-dogmatic in any interesting sense. Certainly it conceives itself as such – as is clear from Meillassoux’s emphatic renunciation of the possibility of returning to pre-critical or dogmatic metaphysics, and in particular his rejection of ancient materialism. And remember that Badiou wrote in the preface to After Finitude that Meillassoux had opened up a new path beyond Kant’s distinction between scepticism, dogmatism and critique.

    By contrast, Iain Hamilton Grant has a good paper sympathetically exploring the prospects for dogmatism after Kant, and it is clear to me at least that the sort of thing he is doing with Schelling – although it would perhaps be derided by Meillassoux as “hyper-physics” (recall that Meillassoux classifies Schelling and Grant as “subjectalists”, i.e. as the enemy) – does nevertheless bear a close resemblance, at least in certain key respects, to speculative materialism.* In other words, although it may superficially seem that Grant is more sanguine towards dogmatism than Meillassoux, the actual content of their positions tells a different story.

    *Regarding the resemblance between Meillassoux and Schelling, I think Gabriel’s rendition of the latter’s theory of judgement/predication is a pretty good gloss on the idea that all absolute necessity is only absolute necessity for us, and hence not absolute – which is the central correlationist trope Meillassoux mobilizes against the subjectalist (and keep in mind that Schelling took seriously the need to escape from the Fichtean circle of consciousness, this being the main historical referent of this trope). But it does lead to some (perhaps thick-headed) puzzles, especially this: if being is contingency, then how can it be that there is necessarily something rather than nothing, as both Schelling and Meillassoux assert? You might try reminding me that it doesn’t follow, from the premise that every individual thing exists contingently, that everything taken together also exists contingently. In response I say: it ought to worry you that this line originally derives from Aristotle, at least insofar as you are worried about violating univocity. For if contingency is what is common to the being of every individual thing, then everything taken together must either have being or not. In the former case it must have contingent being, unless being is equivocal. In the latter case it does not have being, hence does not have necessary being, hence is not a counterexample to the position that being is contingent.

    Without going into any further detail on this point, I will just record my suspicion that if we are truly faithful to the logic of correlationism as deployed by both Schelling and Meillassoux, then the ontology we will end up with is going to look something like that which Hägglund finds in Derrida, for which the absolute is absolute nothingness, or the possibility thereof. This would roughly correspond to an ontologisation of strong correlationism. Although I disagree with your claim that the strong correlationist denies the existence of the thing in itself (which is also Brassier’s reading), I agree that if you ontologise the epistemology of the strong correlationist, then the in itself turns out to be nothing – but in a specific sense: nothing as the possibility of complete annihilation. To reiterate, I deny that the strong correlationist wishes to ontologise her epistemology in this manner, but rather that she wants to fideistically recuperate a positive or ontologically generous absolute beyond the limits of her epistemology of reason or (rational) knowledge.

    Regarding Meillassoux and Gabriel once more, although Meillassoux does not classify his work as transcendental, it does utilise anhypothetical reasoning that can be compared with transcendental argumentation (hence the comparison he draws with Descartes’ procedure, which he claims to recuperate in modified form), and adopts the pretence of having produced an escape from dogmatism, or at least from certain forms of dogmatism. Moreover, like most transcendental projects, speculative materialism seems to involve a bait and switch: presenting itself as refuting scepticism and yet at the crucial moment simply declaring allegiance to some unshakeable axiom or other (in Meillassoux’s case, trust in reason), and letting the questioning end there. Given this, my worry is that speculative materialism is only trivially or uninterestingly distinct from other forms of dogmatism.

    I say the same thing about Gabriel (and indeed about Hägglund – perhaps I’ve been reading Three Pound Brain too much…), who thinks that German idealism gives us the resources to outwit the sceptic on her own terms, and not merely to accept, in Kripkenstein’s terminology, a sceptical solution to scepticism. One explanation for why transcendental philosophers, and Meillassoux, may feel like they’ve uncovered an important strand of non-dogmatism, focuses on the way the German idealists read Kant as an implicit ontologist. The idea is that, if Kant needs some ontology in order to underwrite his critique, then the very overcoming of dogmatism and scepticism immunizes that ontology against regressing into the former even as it avoids the latter. But this raises the immediate question: can we agree on what the ontological commitments of critique actually are? The disagreements here had better not end up being as stubborn as those between e.g. empiricism and rationalism, otherwise the choice between putatively non-dogmatic positions will itself have to be dogmatic. Questions of a similar vein that arise here include: why think that so-called weak ontologies are any less dogmatic, any less underdetermined or ruined in advance by antimonial considerations, than strong ontologies? And: why think that replacing substance with process or event etc. really accomplishes anything viz. mitigating the unacceptability of dogmatism?

  3. 3 Leon

    Perhaps worth noting: the first (lecture) discusses some of the issues involving transcendental forms of German idealism with respect to naturalism, realism, materialism, metaphysics. The second (post) is “orientational” while nonetheless “transcendental.” Thoughts appreciated.

    Leon / after nature

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