Wednesday, August 9, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Orthodox Psychotherapy by Hierotheos S Vlachos

There is a recurring problem with attempting to evaluate, particularly in an academic context but also in whatever ‘neutral’ position one might convince themselves they represent, the claims of experiential religion. There is no more obvious example of this problem than the attempt to evaluate, and even to some degree to understand, the tradition of spiritual exercises of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here we cannot apply the Crowleyan “try it and you’ll see what happens” as a fix, for the Orthodox commentators clearly reject any instrumentalist or technical interpretation of hesychia. What is missing for them in these interpretations is grace and the keeping of Christ’s commandments; it is not as if these dogmatic points will come of their own accord when one is far enough along on the path of stillness and asceticism. To even set out on the path recommended by Hierotheos S Vlachos and others, one must already accept not only the tradition but the Church itself, as an institution.

This is not a criticism of the method (if it can even be called a method!). It is only to express the difficulty an outsider feels when engaging with the text Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers, even if that outsider is highly sympathetic to ascetic and mystical practices.

A good example of the well-nigh infinite chasm between the ‘external’ and the ‘internal’ interpretations of the activities, as we might term them, comes towards the end of the book, with the question of faith and its relation to knowledge of human origin. Externally, faith is a kind of fidelity, a belief. If we are sympathetic to the tradition, we can extend ‘belief’ to include not only propositions (which are ‘unprovable’ to the secular amongst us) but a way of life; so ‘fidelity’ really is a preferred term. But internally, for the Orthodox hesychast, faith is “that light by which grace dawns in the soul and fortifies the heart by the testimony of the mind, making it undoubting through the assurance of hope” (St. Isaac the Syrian, qtd. 340). The very terms of the explanation, and perhaps even of the experience itself insofar as concepts or words can be ascribed to experience, cannot even be expressed externally. For the secular reader, these are so much nonsense.

This is where it becomes difficult. For the various sorts of mystical universalism, the problem is soluble via the route of experience. What works works, and there may be different ways to interpret it but fundamentally enlightenment is untouchable by interpretation; this is the route of the ‘pure consciousness event’. But for institutional religion, this route has been foreclosed. This leads, or can lead, to two results: first, all other claims of mystical experience in other traditions and contexts can be ascribed to, say, the devil, or otherwise denigrated as incomplete or not truly salvific; or second, all other claims of mystical experience in other traditions can be chalked up to lies.

With the overwhelming evidence of similar experiences across vast epochs and differing dogmas, the institutional approach to mystical experience as expressed in Orthodox Psychotherapy is put in this very difficult position. The non-mystical religions or approaches to institutional religion (say, your typical Roman Catholicism or exoteric Protestantism) are themselves in a difficult position, but quite a different one. For them, there is no necessary tension between experience and dogma, only that between dogma and reason. The Eastern Orthodox Church effectively destroyed this conflict at the Ecumenical Council of 1351 with the triumph of hesychasm as championed by St. Gregory Palamas (despite the lamentations in Orthodox Psychotherapy with regard to the contemporary loss of the culture of hesychasm among the people and even the monks). Now the question – and the same goes for mysticism in the Roman church – is what to do with mystical experience when it does not match the accepted dogma.

This is the tension: God is ineffable, and yet we have a very clear list of what He doesn’t like, which includes fornication, bodily comfort, and so on. Whence comes the list from out of the, ineffability? How can such a translation be effected? Surely, we find no theory here aside from appeal to revelation, which is all well and good so far as it goes.

This is where I would want to claim the superiority (in this restricted sense) of certain Eastern religions over Christianity, for mystical experience and further revelation need not be silenced or cause for heresy. Thelema, the religion founded by Aleister Crowley, also fits into this category. There, it is not that God has a particular list of likes and dislikes, but that, for particular people to find God, they need to take particular measures that fit their personality, life situation, and general place in the cosmos. Here, the path to divinity is relativized by the actuality of the Absolute rather than absolutized thereby, as it is in Orthodox Psychotherapy, despite the appeals to the individuality of the aspirant with regard to the recommendations of the spiritual director.

For God to be Absolute, one must, at least potentially, be able to find Him in all things. Now, whether the strict and externally-given morality of the Orthodox tradition works, at least for some, is, I think, obvious – it certainly does, but it suffers from dogmatism despite its best efforts at flexibility.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

We Have Always Been Gnostic (Final Draft)

We Have Always Been Gnostic:
An Essay on the Notion of Overcoming

by

E.C. Quodlibet

I
Every philosophical theory is an attempt to come to grips with a spiritual impasse, with a set of facts or experiences that underlie it like a disease to a symptom. The history of Western philosophy can be conceived as a series of increasingly radical and self-authorizing conceptual responses to what is fundamentally non-conceptual. With each theoretical revolution, each hasty overturning, each claim of a philosophical “overcoming”, thought entrenches itself further into the quagmire of abstract dishonesty. Finally it makes itself inextricable, establishing an irrefutable, singular hegemony that is operative both institutionally and in the individual thought patterns of so-called philosophers.

The primary spiritual impasse of Western civilization (and to a certain degree of Eastern too) was indicated several millennia ago by a doctrine now reviled as heretical: Gnosticism. To be clear, Gnosticism is not directly the impasse itself; it is merely a doctrine that boldly stared this impasse in the face. This impasse qua spiritual fact of experience is nothing other than dualism.

Dualism! What horror! Overly-sophisticated minds will ask: “Have we not already overcome such nonsense? We have long since surpassed gnosticism, which was mired in insoluble philosphical difficulties; it cut up the world in two, so no wonder it could not put it back together again!” A profound mind must declare our dualism to be a naive problem, for how else are the rational heirs of the Enlightenment to guarantee their progress? While my predecessors were persecuted and relegated to the madhouse, if not the afterlife, I cannot be so suppressed. The perennial truth of this so-called naive problem emerges within every age, commanding an unsurpassed fascination for those whose eyes remain unclouded by thinking.

Pathology this is not; the “modern” philosophical response, on the other hand, is fundamentally neurotic. On the basis of this analysis we shall justify a rather startling thesis: We have always been Gnostic.

II
This thesis must be explained. A “spiritual fact” has been indicated, but what is this fact? In particular, what is the facticity of dualism? What finally, is the mode of being of a spiritual impasse, an impasse that exists in such a way? Only after considering these preliminary questions can the thesis of our perennial gnosticism be engaged.

Dualism is inherent in the structure of our experience. Indeed, what could be clearer than the distinction of time and space? Or that of spirit (or mind if one prefers) and matter? Do not stop me and indicate the many logical problems of exclusionary dualism, for that would be to miss the point. First admit the apparent immediacy of dualism to consciousness, all the while refraining from translating the experience into a discursive philosophical problem. The directly perceived difference between presence to oneself and absorption in theoretical concerns ought to easily manifest merely by means of this refraining.

Although Bergson proposed perhaps the most convincing such dualism (due directly to its immediacy and untranslatability into theoretical problems), Descartes certainly provided the best known example, namely the distinction between thinking and extended substances. Note that for Descartes, despite this partial theoreticization of the issue, there remains no theoretical or logical resolution of the problem of relation between the two substances.

To say that dualism is a fact is to say that it is there regardless of our thinking about it. Whether we think ourselves out of it or not, it remains in its facticity, right before us. Do we not encounter the temptation, even as philosophers, to interpret reality as insufficient, and indeed to turn up our noses at its very vulgarity? Where is our simplicity, our naivete? Must we immediately set to changing the world? Either way, the world must be dualist for us to seek its transformation into something else, and we shall see the true nature of this “transformation” soon enough. It is the great victory of contemporary philosophy to have ruthlessly established the binary opposition inherent in everything. Each “overcoming” of binary thinking is later found to be fully as binary as its unfortunate precursors, only perhaps more subtly so – we would say more deviously.

Dualism is thus properly speaking not a philosophical orientation but an immediate fact.

III
Why is it that philosophy finds itself menaced by this fact of dualism? The fact of dualism constitutes a spiritual impasse for philosophy, against which thought is powerless. Philosophy cannot openly acknowledge this impasse without rendering itself superfluous, without transmuting its careful demonstrations of the overcoming of subject and object, mind and matter, into so many worthless linguistic games. Not one conceptual unfolding of a “subject-object” has ever produced the dissolution of an actual subject or object into one another. The problem is not our knowledge or understanding, much less our belief. The problem lies deeper still.

Just as fundamentally as we experience the reality of dualism, we experience its disconcerting and uncomfortable nature. There is something sinister in the fact of duality. Do not the two deserve to be one? Have they not earned it by their stoic resistance to every pitiable scientific and theoretical advancement that the combined might of humanity has ever wrought? The disease is spiritual – perhaps it is even impossible to disentangle the impasse of dualism from the intuition of a fallen humanity. The longing for transcendence is perennial, and it is not difficult to see why.

Philosophy attempts to deal with these feelings by transposing the fact of dualism into propositional form, as explicit concepts or positions, which it then proceeds to expose as logically contradictory or theoretically insufficient. These theoretical problems are then taken as reason to either reject the fact of dualism completely, denying that it ever existed, or, what is almost the same thing, develop a theoretical solution that contorts the original duality and leaves it behind. This approach is just as absurd as if philosophy set out to overcome the experience of the color orange by declaring it a mere mix of red and yellow.

The problem, as Wilhelm Reich knew too well, is the issue of meaning: Can we interpret away that which is fundamentally not of the order of interpretation, that which lies beyond discourse? This was the path taken by the early Freud. Once the repressed was made conscious, by way of the analyst’s interpretation, the neurosis was supposed to dissolve. But the problem of experience can in no way be resolved by developing a new “concept” of experience. Thought thus runs up against the wall of mind, or better, of spirit. The philosophical attempt to solve the theoretical surrogates of spiritual fact has in reality left that impasse far behind. Even more importantly, it blinds us to the very fact of the impasse and therefore to one of the most fundamental elements of spirituality. The unresolved has become the repressed. “Conceptual overcoming” is the true name of a degrading philosophical materialism.

Reichian analysis had to rescue bioenergetic processes from their obscure death at the hands of Freudian discourse. Today, we must likewise rescue experience, and thereby spirit, from philosophical discourse. Philosophy has the same relation to the facts of spiritual experience as character armor has to stasis-neurosis. This does not mean, however, that a rejuvenated practice of philosophy is hopeless; a holistic, therapeutic approach remains possible. Wilhelm Reich notes: “An autonomic function can be objectivized by practice and in the end be made subject to conscious control” (The Cancer Biopathy 186). Let us return to our dear Gnostics, who miss us already, I am sure.

IV
The Gnostics believed, among other things, that material existence was tantamount to the imprisonment of the spirit. Creation as such was folly; in Gnostic theology we attend to a distinction between the Demiurge, a sadistic creator rather akin to the evil genius conceived by Descartes, and the True God who neither creates nor was created. The former’s servants of ignorance and disinformation are the archons, the prison guards of manifestation. And yet there is a divine spark lost in matter, longing to return to its home. There is still hope for the spirit.

Gnosis is the possibility of this hope, and the key concept of the Gnostic system. Only by gnosis can the bonds of matter be destroyed. Gnosis, or “knowledge”, can be effected only by the spirit. The more one is identified with the body – where “identification” means something more than assent or proposition – the less free one becomes. If one is an animal, a body, then one is an automaton. In contrast, the more one identifies with spirit, the more one becomes what one truly is, the more free does one become. The spirit is pure freedom, unfathomable in its transcendence. All that separates the Gnostics from our most sublime mystics is the final reversion of absolute transcendence into absolute immanence; but one cannot blame them for this small mistake, upon which however everything turns.

But why is the emanation of matter such folly for spirit? The Gnostic emanations, like their counterparts in Neoplatonism, proceed from the One, through various higher spheres, and down to depths in degradation, finally to melt away into slime and chaos. With each step in this process, there is a restriction, a determination. Freedom, here equated with indeterminate singularity, decreases with each step. When matter is finally reached, with its attendant mythology of Sophia’s folly and the Demiurge’s deception, one is hard pressed to deny its evil. While the Neoplatonists treated evil as an illusion, so that not even the lowest forms of matter were truly evil, the Gnostics confronted this degradation head-on.

This Gnostic inclination to struggle with evil, to face it head on, can be contrasted with the Neoplatonic addiction to intellectual distinctions. Plotinus, and his successors after him (save perhaps a one), sought a monism in the grips of which all contradiction disappeared. Moving away from the existence of evil as a fact of spiritual experience, the Neoplatonists pioneered a fundamentally incomplete system of mysticism (in the words of Bergson). Now, this is not to say the Gnostics moved beyond them; rather, the Neoplatonists walked backwards from the starting line, and it was not for them to enter Paradise.

Philosophy has followed in the footsteps of Plotinus, and neither of them have cleared the way to even begin. The baleful seductions of conceptual overcoming have led them both astray. No, for a real overcoming we must look not to Neoplatonism, and certainly not to modern philosophical character-neuroses, but to Gnosticism, and above all, to our own inherent but repressed Gnostic experience, and therefore our Gnostic being.

V
Fortunately for us, the same extreme dualism found within Gnosticism is present, or so claim the philosophers of the contemporary period, in basically every thought and system whatsoever with which they disagree. Are we then modern-day Gnostics, despite our best (theoretical) efforts?

We, like the Gnostics we spurn, are believers in dualism, at least deep down. And, also like the Gnostics, we want to escape the deterministic and reductionist nature of opposition. And we too are not convinced by mere conceptual games; no, our malaise in unassailable by means of thought. But if we knew we were so close to Gnosticism, and perhaps always had been, things would be much simpler. We have taken the path of the Neoplatonists, though we think ourselves far more clever; but the problem is the same. Rigorously said: We have always been Gnostic, though we have always repressed this fact.

The Gnostics refused to reduce their experience to the One, though of reductionism they have never ceased to be accused. Rather, they confronted the contradiction and rejected the siren song of synthesis. Before us lies a similarly important task, and it is perhaps the only element of modern-day philosophy that can survive our archaic therapy. We must become Gnostic once again, not yet in practice but first in theory. The stasis we suffer, the shrinking both of life and away from life, only feeds the philosophical disease. Discourse is not the last step of our journey, but merely the first.

The means of overcoming our sick relation to overcoming can only lie in the complete avoidance of the theoretical attitude that leads to the rejection of primary contradictions; there must be, furthermore, no synthetic moment of escape. For a real overcoming of dualism, a thoroughly dualistic character is required. It cannot be fought by the philosophical weapons. Propositional projectiles pierce it not, and the swords of analysis shatter upon the real.

The entire project of philosophy as we know it is, therefore, an ill-conceived attempt to work out in theory what has been left behind in practice, like the patient who insists they are cured as soon as they connect their dream to a childhood trauma; it is indeed the patient who already knows the proper interpretations, along with the analytic theory itself, who is often the hardest to cure. Each repetition of the problematic takes on a negligibly different emphasis. The history of philosophy, its “progress”, is nothing but this repetition termed “overcoming”. The first step to waking up is admitting that one is asleep, and has always been asleep. Woe to the partisans of death, those who shut themselves up in fortresses of discourse, simultaneously isolated and colonizing, thinking they are alive! The nihilism of discourse moves in place, constantly mutating but everywhere remaining the same, its evil greatest when it insists on its own ability to act, when it dismantles the border between itself and reality.

We need not torture our bodies in the name of spirit. We need not put the cosmos to the torch. Our goal remains to pass beyond the gates of this all-too-vulgar dualism that keeps us mentally enslaved. Although the Gnostic is a far cry from the true mystic, the quest for unification requires a decisive and holistic division, which must be made in full earnestness. To be a Gnostic is to take the first step on the path of spirit, to swear an oath that one day we will not need to be a Gnostic anymore. For then the goal shall be reached.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Summer (and Beyond) Reading List

In the off chance that someone might benefit from this (and to keep track myself), I am posting my summer reading list in a few categories.

NOTE: There is no way I am going to read all of these, but this is the 'plan' nonetheless. I will read as much as I can, though obviously this will bleed over into the next academic year. It's a long-term reading program, in other words.

I will try to write as much as I can about this stuff, either as commentary/reviews, or some of my own elaborations. I hope to post on this blog more frequently in the coming months, as well as write a paper or two that I can have in my back pocket to submit to conferences when any relevant ones roll around.

Platonism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, &c.:

  • Hermetica
  • The Nag Hammadi Scriptures
  • Vlastos - Platonic Studies
  • Cornford - Plato's Cosmology
  • Pseudo-Dionysus - The Complete Works
  • Plotinus - The Enneads
  • Iamblichus - On the Mysteries & The Theology of Arithmetic
  • Veldman - Theurgy and Numbers
  • Proclus - The Elements of Theology
  • Kupperman - Living Theurgy
  • Hadot - Plotinus: The Simplicity of Vision
Phenomenology & Philosophy:
  • Leeuw - Religion in Essence and Manifestation
  • James - The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • Bergson - Creative Evolution
  • Scheler - Ressentiment
  • Gebser - The Ever-Present Origin
  • Steinbock - Phenomenology and Mysticism
  • Obeyesekere - The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience
  • Reich - Ether, God & Devil / Cosmic Superimposition; The Mass Psychology of Fascism; The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality; The Sexual Revolution
  • Husserl - Cartesian Meditations; Ideas
  • Guenon - East and West; The Crisis of the Modern World; The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times
  • Stirner - Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (probably English and German)
Miscellaneous Occult (including some more in-depth re-reading):
  • Bruce - Astral Dynamics
  • LaBerge & Rheingold - Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming
  • Webb - Uncle Setnakt's Essential Guide to the Left Hand Path; Mysteries of the Temple of Set; Uncle Setnakt's Nightbook; The Seven Faces of Darkness
  • Flowers - Hermetic Magic
  • Crowley - Liber E; Liber O
  • Leitch - The Essential Enochian Grimoire
  • Carroll - Liber MMM
Logic & Mathematics:
  • Priest - Introduction to Non-Classical Logic
  • Goldblatt - Topoi: The Categorial Analysis of Logic
Fiction & Poetry:
  • Fowles - The Magus
  • Machen - The White People
  • Blackwood - Ancient Sorceries
  • Ashton-Smith - The Dark Eidolon
  • Blake - Complete Poems
  • Coleridge - Complete Poems
  • Rilke - Selected Poetry (Bilingual)



Sunday, February 5, 2017

We Have Always Been Gnostic (Version 3)

We Have Always Been Gnostic:
An Essay on the Notion of Overcoming

by

E.C. Quodlibet


I
Every philosophical theory is an attempt to come to grips with a spiritual impasse, a fact of experience and of being that underlies it like a disease to a symptom. The history of Western philosophy can be conceived as a series of increasingly radical conceptual responses to what is a fundamentally non-conceptual realm. With each theoretical revolution, each hasty overturning, each claim of a philosophical “overcoming”, thought entrenches itself further into the quagmire of the disearnest and the merely abstract, until finally it makes itself inextricable, establishing an irrefutable, singular hegemony, whether institutional or on the level of self-discipline.

The primary spiritual impasse of Western civilization (and in all likelihood Eastern too) was indicated several millennia ago by a doctrine now reviled as heretical: Gnosticism. To be clear, Gnosticism is not directly the impasse itself; it is merely a doctrine that boldly stared this impasse in the face. This impasse qua spiritual fact of experience is nothing other than dualism.

The common man will stare and blink, while the self-sure followers of so-called enlightened opinion will raise a great cry of displeasure—oh! To hear such dreadful news! But worst of all, and most unforgivable by far, is that the professional philosophers will smugly sneer, as if to say: “Gnosticism? A system of unjustifiable dualities… and religious ones at that? Have we not already overcome such a failure of thought? Is this not rather a dogmatic distortion of reality?” While I gladly and perhaps morbidly acquiesce to life in the madhouse, it is common courtesy (all will surely agree) that the offending message at least be conveyed at some length, if not taken entirely seriously.

These facts justify a rather startling thesis: We have always been Gnostic.

II
This thesis must be explained. Before turning to Gnosticism as a response to dualism, we should first examine dualism itself, and only then why it constitutes an impasse. What could warrant us to assert dualism as a fundamental fact? Fortunately, philosophy has already done much of the legwork in identifying and demonstrating the ubiquity of binary opposition, on which dualism is based.

Binary opposition is an opposition of contrast based upon two possibilities: X versus not-X, we might say. Often this not-X is given a positive name, which does little to obscure the binary nature of its relation to X: body and mind, spirit and matter, self and other, &c. Further complicating the matter, but by no means changing its essential characteristics, is the possibility of stratification: a number of different binary oppositions can each be accepted and placed into some kind of order, either a hierarchy or an organization of spheres or realms in which different oppositions have their places. For example, one might quibble over whether “green or not-green” applies to ideas; ideas may not be the sort of thing that could be either green or not-green. In the case of disparate spheres of application, the rule is dictated by ordinary language or various specifications thereof; in the case of a hierarchy, any number of logical or metaphysical principles may be at play.

It is the great victory of contemporary philosophy to have ruthlessly established the binary opposition inherent in everything. Each “overcoming” of binary thinking is later found to be fully as binary, only perhaps more subtle – we would say more devious.

So much for binary opposition; now what of dualism? Dualism is precisely when a binary opposition establishes itself over all other binary oppositions (and indeed everything whatsoever), in a way so as to encompass them and subordinate them to itself. It is a binary opposition that is inescapable, such that it leaves no middle ground, neither gap nor glut. Descartes proposed the clearest example of modern dualism in the form of thinking and extended substances, neither of which could have any (theoretical) relation or resolution with regard to the other.

Dualism is properly speaking not a philosophical orientation but an immediate fact. Even the philosophers should agree to this, since they claim to have a way out, namely the overcoming of dualist distinctions in the realm of theory. It is the heritage of critical philosophy to find the truth or essence behind the appearances, where “truth” here would indicate in some cases the resolution of a perceived tension, in other cases a forced encounter with a further mediation external to the appearance at hand. Yea, philosophy itself has taken up dualism as a fact, but one to be overcome by means of thought. But has any concept of a “subject-object” ever produced the dissolution of the subject into the object or vice versa? No, the problem is not our knowledge, much less our belief. The problem lies deeper still.

III
Why is it that philosophy finds itself menaced by this fact of dualism? It will be seen that to give power to this fact is to render the typical philosophical response to the problem hopeless.

Just as fundamentally as we experience the reality of dualism, we experience its disconcerting and uncomfortable nature. There is something sinister in the fact of duality; this is why it is an “impasse”. Do not the two deserve to be one? Have they not earned it by their stoic resistance to every pitiable scientific and theoretical advancement that the combined might of humanity has ever wrought? Indeed, something is amiss; there ought not be two. Ought there then be one? The impasse begs to be overcome.

The repugnance to dualism is not merely theoretical; it is not as if we must transpose our dualist reality into propositional form and proceed to discover the logical difficulties brought about by binary opposition, though of course that can be and has been done. There is something else at work, something not assimilable to the regime of discourse, a psychological or even biophysiological side to the impasse. Indeed, this is its wellspring, the energy source of philosophical activity itself, at least insofar as that philosophy is in the critical-discursive mode that has largely characterized its modern manifestations.

The problem, as Wilhelm Reich knew too well, is the issue of meaning: Can we interpret away that which is fundamentally not of the order of interpretation, that which lies beyond discourse? This was the path taken by (at least the early) Freud. Once the repressed was made conscious, by way of the analyst’s interpretation, the neurosis was supposed to dissolve. But the problem of experience can in no way be resolved by developing a new “concept” of experience. Thought thus runs up against the wall of mind, that is, of spirit. The problem becomes insuperable when we transmute the dualist fact into logical or conceptual form and from there attempt to solve it via conceptual or even linguistic manipulation. In reality, this process has left the impasse far behind.

On the one hand, a philosophy that did not posit a duality at least provisionally fundamental, a duality to be “overcome”, would not yet even be a philosophy, but would remain a dogmatic theology. On the other hand, a philosophy that actually faced the fact of dualism could also not remain a philosophy, could not continue to philosophize in good faith. But in what could this confrontation consist, if we are to produce a proper notion of overcoming, and even thereafter to overcome?

However, thought remains wholly conditioned by it. The unresolved becomes the repressed.

Reichian analysis had to rescue bioenergetic processes from their obscure death in Freudian discourse; today, we must likewise rescue experience from philosophical discourse: “An autonomic function can be objectivized by practice and in the end be made subject to conscious control” (Reich, The Cancer Biopathy 186). Let us return to our dear Gnostics, who miss us already, I am sure.

IV
The Gnostics believed, among other things, that material existence was tantamount to the imprisonment of the spirit. Creation as such was folly; in Gnostic theology we attend to a distinction between the Demiurge, a sadistic creator rather akin to the evil genius conceived by Descartes, and the True God who neither creates nor was created. His servants of ignorance and disinformation are the archons, the prison guards of manifestation. And yet there is a divine spark lost in matter, longing to return to its home. There is still hope for the spirit.

These beliefs led to two superficially opposed positions that nonetheless concealed a deeper unity: asceticism and libertinism. The denial of the flesh can take two forms, and herein is the truth also of hedonism, its reverse. Asceticism represents the wholesale turning away from matter in the name of spirit; libertinism, for its part, represents the minimization of the importance of matter, for the spirit is the only reality, so what does it matter whether all forms of carnal activities are pursued? The deeper unity of the two opposite practices, expressed in two opposite discourses replete with corresponding reason and argument, is here revealed.

The functional identity of asceticism and libertinism flows from a deeper source: gnosis, the key concept of the Gnostic system. Only by gnosis can the bonds of matter be destroyed – with the grace of God of course. Gnosis, or “knowledge”, can be effected only by the spirit. The more one is identified with the body – where “identification” means something more than assent or proposition – the less free one is. If one is an animal, a body, then one is an automaton. In contrast, the more one identifies with spirit, the more one becomes what one truly is, the more free does one become. The spirit is pure freedom, unfathomable in its transcendence. All that separates the Gnostics from our most sublime mystics is the final reversion of absolute transcendence into absolute immanence; but one cannot blame them for this small mistake, upon which however everything turns.

Causality, on the other hand, proceeds from the higher to the lower, where eventually it melts away into slime. Hence the basis of gnosis in spirit and not in matter, no matter how complexly organized. But why is the move towards matter a deterioration? The Gnostic emanations (Aeons), like their counterparts in Neoplatonism, proceed from the One, True God, &c., through various higher spheres, and down to depths in degradation. With each step in this process, there is a restriction, a determination. Freedom, here equated with indeterminacy and singularity, decreases with each step. When matter is finally reached, with its attendant mythology of Sophia’s folly and the Demiurge’s deception, one is hard pressed to deny its evil. While the Neoplatonists treat evil as an illusion, so that not even the lowest matter is truly evil, the Gnostics confront this degradation head-on.

Is not Restriction the Word of Sin (as the minister of Hoor-paa-kraat has revealed to us)? In their cosmic anticipation of this doctrine, the Gnostics expressed a highly sophisticated understanding of determination. The Gnostics knew the restriction of matter as sin, and indeed matter is the contraction of spirit, this separation in the heart of being. Plotinus laid aside this difficulty, believing that an imperfection in reality was merely an imperfection in thought. His successors took up that methodology and endlessly produced intellectual distinctions, none of which produced one iota of progress until Iamblichus overcame the discourse and restored the place of theurgy to the Neoplatonic tradition.

Philosophy has followed in the footsteps of Plotinus. Even when it stretches itself out towards practice, towards experience, it is in the manner of Iamblichus, that is, from the perspective of an accomplished resolution. Iamblichus himself may have truly effected this overcoming, but the same cannot be said of his latter-day imitators. No, for a real overcoming we must look not to Neoplatonism, and certainly not to modern philosophical character-neuroses, but to Gnosticism, and above all, to our own inherent but repressed Gnostic experience, and therefore our Gnostic being.

V
Fortunately for us, the same extreme dualism found within Gnosticism is present, or so claim the philosophers of the contemporary period, in basically every thought and system whatsoever with which they disagree. Are we then modern-day gnostics, despite our best (theoretical) efforts?

We, like the Gnostics we spurn, are believers in dualism. And, also like the Gnostics, we want to escape the deterministic and reductionist nature of that opposition. And we are also not convinced by mere conceptual games; no, our malaise in unassailable by means of thought. But if we knew we were so close to Gnosticism, and perhaps always had been, things would be much simpler. We have taken the path of the Neoplatonists, though we think ourselves far more clever; but the problem is the same. Rigorously said: We have always been Gnostic, though we have always repressed this fact.

The Gnostics thought not to reduce, though of reductionism they have never ceased to be accused. Rather, they confronted the contradiction and refused the siren song of synthesis. Before us lies a similarly important task, and it is perhaps the only task of the current philosophy that can survive our archaic therapy. We must become Gnostic once again, not yet in practice but first in theory. The stasis we suffer, the shrinking both of life and away from life, only feeds the philosophical disease. Discourse is not the last step of our journey, but merely the first.

The means of overcoming our sick relation to overcoming can only lie in the complete avoidance of the theoretical attitude that leads us to reject primary contradictions; there is, furthermore, no synthetic moment of escape. For a real overcoming of dualism, a thoroughly dualistic character is required. It cannot be fought by the philosophical weapons. Propositional projectiles pierce it not, and the swords of analysis shatter upon the real.

The entire project of philosophy as we know it is, therefore, an ill-conceived attempt to work out in theory what has been left behind in practice, like the patient who insists they are cured as soon as they connect their dream to their childhood trauma; it is indeed the patient who already knows the proper interpretations, along with the analytic theory itself, who is often the hardest to cure. Each repetition of the problematic takes on a negligibly different emphasis. The history of philosophy, its “progress”, is nothing but this repetition termed “overcoming”.

The first step to waking up is admitting that one is asleep, and has always been asleep. Woe to the partisans of death, those who shut themselves up in fortresses of discourse, simultaneously isolated and colonizing, thinking they are alive! The nihilism of discourse moves in place, constantly mutating but everywhere remaining the same. For gnosis we must first know ourselves to be Gnostic, and who knows where we shall go from there.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

We Have Always Been Gnostic (Draft 2)

We Have Always Been Gnostic:
An Essay on the Notion of Overcoming
 
by

E.C. Quodlibet



I
 
Every philosophical theory is an attempt to come to grips with a spiritual impasse, a fact of experience and of being that underlies it like a disease to a symptom. The history of Western philosophy can be conceived as a series of more and more radical conceptual responses to what is a fundamentally non-conceptual realm. With each theoretical revolution, with each hasty overturning and each claim of a philosophical “overcoming”, thought entrenches itself further into the quagmire of the disearnest and the merely abstract, until finally it makes itself inextricable and has established an irrefutable and even singular hegemony, whether institutional or on the level of self-discipline.

The primary spiritual impasse of Western civilization (and probably of Eastern, too, but for now the thesis must be restricted pending further researches), can be summed up in one word: Gnosticism. To be clear, Gnosticism is not directly the impasse itself; it is merely a doctrine that boldly stared this impasse in the face. This impasse qua spiritual fact of experience is nothing other than dualism.

The common man will stare and blink, while the self-sure followers of so-called enlightened opinion will raise a great cry of displeasure—oh! To hear such dreadful news! But worst of all, and most unforgivable by far, is that the professional philosophers will smugly sneer, as if to say: “Gnosticism? A system of unjustifiable dualities… and religious ones at that? Have we not already overcome such a failure of thought? Is this not rather a dogmatic distortion of reality?” While I gladly and perhaps morbidly acquiesce to life in the madhouse, it is common courtesy (all will surely agree) that the offending message at least be conveyed at some length, if not taken entirely seriously.

These facts justify a rather startling thesis: We have always been Gnostic



II

What allows for the assertion of this fundamental fact of dualism? Dualism itself, first of all, allows for a number of manifestations, not all of which are equivalent translations of one another: mind and body, spirit and matter, infinite and finite, self and other, &c. These oppositions are, in fact, embedded deeply in the structure of language as such, not this or that language, but in all structuring activity whatsoever.

Dualism is the transposition of this logico-grammatical structure of binary opposition onto the metaphysical plane. This is not an activity that we necessarily set out to engage in, nor is the metaphysical aspect necessitated by that logico-grammatical structure (take for instance certain “primitive” peoples, who, notwithstanding many structural similarities, have a widely divergent lived metaphysics). There is a moment of contingency in the relation between language and the underpinnings of reality we take to be constituted on the basis of that language. At the same time, this is different from the way we represent that constituted reality via language, this last representation also being subject to great contingency, so great in fact that most systems and concepts of philosophy can be produced in the interval.

Above all, then, we act and experience these binary oppositions, often in spite of philosophical or scientific beliefs; the two registers are fundamentally different in both orientation and source. It is the philosophical gambit that this third register can wrap back around and overwrite the second, or in some cases even the first one (not that these registers are the only ones, nor are they strictly hierarchical; but the model suffices for now).

The problem, as Wilhelm Reich knew too well, is the issue of meaning. Can we interpret away that which is fundamentally not of the order of interpretation, that which lies beyond discourse? Of course, I do not claim that philosophy necessarily sees itself as doing this, but there is a certain type of philosophy obsessed with a kind of “overcoming” that justifies the current critique. The problem of those other, anti-dualistic (as distinct from non-dualist) philosophical projects is their lack of self-awareness of dualism as a problem or fact in the first place; we leave them therefore to one side.



III

There is something dastardly, something sinister and disconcerting, in the fact of duality; this is why it is an “impasse”. Do not the two deserve to be one? Have they not earned it by their stoic resistance to every pitiable scientific and theoretical advancement that the combined might of humanity has ever wrought? Indeed, something is amiss; there ought not be two. Ought there then be one? The impasse begs to be overcome.

Theoretically, a one is already a two, and therein we have three; by means of this can we prove any metaphysical doctrine at all as we like, discovering structures up even to our very own favorite numbers (that is to say, arbitrarily high). Lacan was partial to the number 3, as was Hegel (or was it 4 in the end?), whereas Descartes preferred 2; those who have preferred 1 are too numerous to name. Crowley has a unique solution to the issue.

But more important than these theoretical considerations is the question of how these numbers come to be posited. It is typically in response to a primary datum, that is, that of binary opposition, that these theoretical positions are taken. It is in order to do away with the problems and contradictions brought about by dualist metaphysics that, for example, Hegel requires the third dialectical moment of unity in difference. Hindu scholastic philosophy (that is, taken as an exercise of textual commentary and not as a spiritual practice; this can of course only be done in earnest by those unfamiliar with the tradition), to take another example, dissolves the transient and contradictory nature of self and not-self into the unity of Brahman. A system of philosophy that did not at any point posit a duality as at least provisionally fundamental would not yet even be a philosophy, but would remain a dogmatic theology.

But do these theories fix our problem of dualism? In point of fact: No, they merely add a further, conceptual layer atop the bedrock of dualist perception. By thought alone, that which is beyond thought cannot be overcome. Philosophy reveals its hidden idealism and blind faith in itself when these facts are understood; and yet, in the name of a true idealism of spirit, we must provide a corrective. We must begin from the 2, but where are we to go from there, and with what method are we to travel? Let us return now to our dear Gnostics, who miss us already, I am sure.


 
IV

The Gnostics believed, among other things, that material existence was tantamount to the imprisonment of the soul (or spirit, depending on translation and tradition). Only by gnosis, an activity of the deep Self that freed the soul from the material bonds of time and space – with the grace of God of course – could one hope to escape. Determination is here taken to be evil, and thus we have a rather sophisticated understanding of the intersections of embodiment and freedom. The Gnostics took their dualism more seriously than the Neoplatonists, who for their part attempted a reconciliation; Plotinus is another example of the merely conceptual overcoming of dualism, whereas Iamblichus in his spiritual project was perhaps at bottom not so different from the Gnostics on this front, that is, of real overcoming.

Becoming-spirit can be effected not otherwise than via the spirit itself, via gnosis. The material body is a restriction; the more one is determined by matter, and especially by the body, the more unfree one is. In contrast, the less bound to matter one is, the more free, the more is one identified with what one truly is, that being the spirit or soul, which is in itself nothing other than pure freedom, unfathomable in its transcendence.

In their metaphysics, the Gnostics took the logic of dualism to its true and inevitable conclusions; the same extremity is present, so claim the philosophers of the contemporary period, in each and every dualism… to this we can only agree, and perhaps smirk if we are feeling particularly cheeky. Good and evil – are they not also facts of our experience, quite in spite of our disagreements over their objective status and their sphere of designation?

Is not the word of sin restriction (as the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat has communicated to us)? By way of cosmic anticipation, the Gnostics knew this, and thus declared matter to be equivalent to sin. In this they are not far off, for matter is the regime of separation, in fact just is a metaphysical separateness, a self-splintering of being, that is, mind in its broadest sense as beyond thought.

And yet we have not entered the misty lands of Advaita, fond of which though you readers might be. The purity of the soul is such as to have no object, to have no separation, but it is not to be thereby empty or featureless, as if it were nothing at all from its own perspective; and from ours? Here is the riddle of duality and non-duality, which can be solved – though not here – by a non-philosophical concept, namely the unilateral duality of the professional philosopher Laruelle. More simply, and certainly more comprehensible, we can take a page from Henri Bergson, to suggest the updated gnostic position as that of pure virtuality, an immediate wholeness of self which cannot be sundered, and a oneness of will; is this not a far cry from the annihilation of the aspirant (in ego? In soul?), which may nonetheless be one way of describing to the profane the process by which true gnosis is achieved. But beware, for as always and ever, the description is not the thing, and in the mistaking thereof there cometh hurt.



V

Are we then modern-day Gnostics, despite our best (theoretical) efforts? Can we really not overcome the antinomy of being in propositional calculus? Well, why would it ever possibly be reasonable to suppose such a mode of attack? Have we really strayed so far?

We, like the Gnostics we spurn, are believers in dualism. And, also like the Gnostics, we want to escape the determining and reductionist nature of that opposition. And we are also not convinced by mere conceptual games; no, our malaise in unassailable by means of games, save only the Cosmic Game on which many more essays could be written and yet of which nothing substantial thereby could ever be said; which, in other words, must be played.

The Gnostics thought not to reduce, as is often alleged of them. Rather, they confronted the tension, nay even the outright contradiction, directly, in the process of which confrontation is all power given. And what followed from this blasphemous empiricism? In fact, we are in a good position to find this out, being the good (post)moderns we are, and thus constantly confronting precisely the same issue even after all this time. The only difference, and it may not apply in all cases (though we do look to the academy with scorn on this point), is hypocritical and disearnest discourse that is always at odds with the consciousness of them who speak it. Would that they speaketh not...

The means of “overcoming” our centuries-old dualism is first of all a complete avoidance of the entire theoretical problematic of overcoming, i.e., that of our anti-dualism! It cannot be fought by these weapons: propositional projectiles pierce it not, and our analytical swords shatter as if upon stone. I therefore cannot help but be convinced that the project of contemporary philosophy is an ill-conceived attempt to work out in theory what has been left behind in practice, and thereby to convince oneself that one has overcome that past. Each repetition of this problematic takes on a negligibly differing emphasis, and indeed these often “overcome” one another. But the solution has been with us for millenia: Instead of this extraordinary psychological self-harm, this ever-more-tortured and self-flagellating exercise in nihilism, why not sit awhile, in silence and without disturbance? In truth, it seems so vastly preferable that I cannot imagine why its cause is so infrequently taken up. And the goal is quite the same.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

We Have Always Been Gnostic: An Essay on the Notion of Overcoming (Draft 1)

We Have Always Been Gnostic:
An Essay on the Notion of Overcoming 

by
E.C. Quodlibet


I

We have always been gnostic, whether we want to believe it or not. Philosophy as such, upon which our civilization is undoubtedly based, whether by subconscious mytho-historical accretion or by the all-too-conscious over-emphatic mass psychological upheavals of the short twentieth century, has its ground, fundamental origin, and sole possible justification, in the gnostic tradition, or better, on the gnostic promise and its corresponding outlook.

The common man will stare and blink, while the self-sure followers of so-called enlightened opinion will raise a great cry of displeasure—oh! To hear such dreadful news! But worst of all, and most unforgivable by far, given the circumstances and privileged intellectual position of the group in question, the professional philosophers will smugly sneer, as if to say: “Gnosticism? A system of unjustifiable dualities… and religious ones at that? Have we not already overcome such a failure of thought?” While gladly and perhaps morbidly acquiescing to life in the madhouse, it is common courtesy (all will surely agree) that the offending message at least be conveyed at some length, if not taken entirely seriously, since that is in this day and age far too much to ask of the scholarly busy-bodies of the academy.

But you, friends, are (thankfully) not the academy; let us, then, in any case, proceed. 


II

The worst enemy of thought is existence; the worst enemy of thinking is being. It is a case where the genus and the species are hopelessly confused: Is it thinking that is a species of being, or being a species of thinking? Or is there an infinite gulf between them, never the two to meet? No philosophical answer is really any good, since all of them turn upon conceptual definition or transformation and in no wise furnish anything that could be considered concrete.

But less us step back: Why this dichotomy? Who established it and why ought we to pay it any mind? But we do pay it mind, quite without any sophistical artifice. Our language itself is riddled with the dualism (one particularly potent form of which is mind-body), and the most common form of logical or grammatical relation (if not the most common than at least nonetheless ubiquitous) is the binary opposition, itself the basis of the dualistic mode of thought.

Dualism is the transposition of this logico-grammatical structure onto a metaphysical plane. Mind and Matter – is this opposition not our constant companion? Indeed, a great many notable philosophers have made it their lifework to criticize, and in some cases even to brutally annihilate, this our fact of experience; it is already clear that a merely philosophical (and by this I mean a merely discursive, as will become clear) solution can only come to naught against the rocks of that very same experience.

And yet, there is something dastardly, something sinister and disconcerting, in this state of affairs. Do not the two deserve to be one? Have they not earned it by their stoic resistance to every pitiable scientific and theoretical advancement that the combined might of humanity has ever wrought? Indeed, something is amiss; there ought not be two. Ought there then be one?

But a one is already a two; and thereby we have a three; by means of this can we prove any metaphysical thing at all as we like, up even to our very own favorite number (and many people are partial to their birthdays, for instance, quite a high number with year and all). Nay, best to stop it while we can and settle on a first layer so to speak. Shall we, like the Christians, offer up a 1 = 3? While this is certainly a valid formula, it is reliant on a dogma that forces its extension beyond the necessary means for statement. Let us say, with Crowley, 0 = 2. Here we have nothing less than the non-duality of duality and non-duality. Indeed a terrifying proposition, let us leave this to soak in the basin of the brain and return to our gnostics, who miss us already, I am sure. 


III

The gnostics believed, among other things of course, that matter was imprisonment of the soul (or spirit, depending on a complex history of translation and connotation) and that only by gnosis, a spiritual/intellectual/soulful activity (though certainly not a discursive one, for which it is nowadays liable to be mistaken, even by such admirable writers on mysticism as Vladimir Lossky) that allowed for the liberation of the true self. A dualism, then, like that of the neoplatonists, except that here the dualism has a stronger sense: it is not merely mind versus matter as two planes, but mind versus matter as good versus evil. The gnostics took the logic of dualism to its true and inevitable conclusions (this same extremity is present, so claim the philosophers of the contemporary period, in each and every such dualism… in this we can only agree, and perhaps smirk if we are feeling particularly cheeky).

Becoming-spirit can be effected not otherwise than via the spirit itself, via gnosis. The material body is a restriction; the more one is determined by matter, and especially by the body, the more unfree one is. In contrast, the less bound to matter one is, the more free, the more is one identified with what one truly is, that being the spirit or soul, which is in itself nothing other than pure freedom, unfathomable in its transcendence.

Why is matter restriction? Is not the word of sin restriction (as the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat has communicated to us)? By way of cosmic anticipation, the gnostics knew this, and thus declared matter to be equivalent to sin. In this they are not far off, for matter is the regime of separation, in fact just is a metaphysical separateness, a self-splintering of being, that is, mind (knowing which we have now answered the earlier question as to the genus-species confusion).

And yet we have not entered the misty lands of Advaita, fond of which though you readers might be. The purity of the soul is such as to have no object, to have no separation, but it is not to be thereby empty or featureless, as if it were nothing at all from its own perspective; and from ours? Here is the riddle of duality and non-duality, which can be solved – though not here – by a non-philosophical concept, namely the unilateral duality of the professional philosopher Laruelle. More simply, and certainly more comprehensible, we can take a page from Henri Bergson, to suggest the updated gnostic position as that of pure virtuality, an immediate wholeness of self which cannot be sundered, and a oneness of will; is this not a far cry from the annihilation of the aspirant (in ego? In soul?), which may nonetheless be a way of describing the process by which true gnosis is achieved. But beware, for as always and ever, the description is not the thing, and in the mistaking thereof there cometh hurt.


IV

Are we then modern-day gnostics, despite our best efforts? We, like the gnostics we spurn, are believers in dualism. And, also like the gnostics, we want to escape the determining and reductionist nature of that opposition. And we are also not convinced by mere conceptual games; no, our malaise in unassailable by means of games, save only the Cosmic Game on which many more essays could be written and yet of which nothing substantial thereby could ever be said; which, in other words, must be played.

And then there is the case of scientism: is a contrived and unconvincing monism any better? Such a thing must be a reductionism, despite the inevitable protestations of an impossibly-articulated physics, positively overflowing with positivity (in the form of an imperious positivism). The gnostics thought not to reduce, as is often alleged of them. Rather, they confronted the tension, nay even the outright contradiction, directly, in the process of which confrontation is all power given. And what followed from this blasphemous empiricism? In fact, we are in a good position to find this out, being the good (post)moderns we are, and thus constantly confronting precisely the same issue even after all this time. The only difference, and it may not apply in all cases (though we do look to the academy with scorn on this point), is hypocritical and disearnest discourse that is always at odds with the consciousness of them who speak it. Would that they speaketh not...

The means of “overcoming” our centuries-old dualism is… not to overcome it! The author is every day more convinced that academic philosophy attempts to work out spiritual dilemmas by morbidly and obstinately reliving civilizational traumas, with each repetition taking on a negligibly different emphasis; the solution to this ever-more-tortured and self-flagellating exercise has been with us for millennia. Instead of this extraordinary psychological self-harm, why don’t you sit awhile, in silence and without disturbance of any kind, of body, mind, or otherwise? Doesn’t that sound much nicer anyway? And the goal is quite the same.

From Ought to Is: The Productivity of Negation as Speculative Reversal


(I think this was my best seminar paper last quarter. Speculative reversal has always been an intriguing topic for me. Please excuse the compulsive use of Zizek, once again...)

From Ought to Is:
The Productivity of Negation as Speculative Reversal

I. Introduction
There are certain places in Hegel’s system where he appears to reach a dead end, a fundamental and insurmountable obstacle to his thought, something that valiantly resists further determination. In each case, however, Hegel finds a way to proceed, persevering to the end. While this can be taken as an indication of an imputed teleology, it is far more instructive to examine precisely how these moments are resolved in concrete cases. One such case is the so-called Master Argument of the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, centered in §141. In this argument, Hegel takes the two apparently dead-end concepts of conscience (dead end of morality) and the good (dead end of abstract right) and rescues not just any concept, but what is more or less the primary concept of the entire philosophy of right, Sittlichkeit (ethicality), from the ruins.
The way Hegel presents this proof in §141 is far from crystal clear, but we can immediately see the importance of several key concepts or themes by which the proof is supposed to work: indeterminacy seems to be the key that allows Hegel to specify conscience and the good, while the ought-structure of those concepts seems to allow for their identity and thus the transition. In this paper, I will argue that these features can be understood under the rubric of speculative reversal, a process that transforms something external to the object/concept into its definition and innermost determination. Speculative reversal actually appears twice in the Master Argument in rapid succession: first, in the transformation of the indeterminacy of conscience and the good into determinate indeterminacy; and second, in the positing of those two concepts (now determinate indeterminacies) as identical, via the imputation of the gap or lack of the ought-structure into the determinacy of Sittlichkeit itself. This second reversal can therefore be seen as Hegel’s movement from ‘ought’ to ‘is’ and therefore as one part of the solution to the problem of normativity present in the philosophy of right; the other side of which is the movement from ‘is’ to ‘ought,’ which already occurred back in the derivation of right itself. Sittlichkeit can thus be read as a kind of unity of ‘ought’ and ‘is,’ with the Master Argument as the glue holding it all together. In slightly different terminology, Hegel prefigures the definition of Sittlichkeit:
the unity and truth of these two abstract moments – the thought Idea of the good realized in the internally reflected will and in the external world; so that freedom, as the substance, exists no less as actuality and necessity than as subjective will; – the Idea in its universal existence [Existenz] in and for itself; [the sphere of] ethical life.1
The question of how such a unity can come to be, and what that unity might mean, is the aim and goal of this paper.
First, I will examine the concepts of indeterminacy and systematicity, that is, the set-up of the problem that Hegel solves via the Master Argument, which is itself a fleshing-out of the above-quoted passage. This section will focus on the apparent total breakdown of the dialectic and the inability for Hegel to progress; it is the moment of negativity and indeterminacy. Second, I will show how this utter negativity is not a dead end but an opening for the possibility of a first speculative reversal, namely the one that has “already been accomplished in itself,” the designation of indeterminacy as the very determinacy of both conscience and the good.2 Third, I will indicate the second speculative reversal necessary for the Master Argument, the transition from ‘ought’ to ‘is’ and the positing of Sittlichkeit as the unity of conscience and the good qua determinate indeterminacies; this is the reversal of their gap or distance from one another (signified by the ought-structure) from a failure or externality into something positive, that is, into their truth. Finally, I will provide some more general commentary on the function and import of speculative reversal.

II. Indeterminacy & Negativity
Indeterminacy presents perhaps the primary obstacle for the progression of the Hegelian system, as well as the primary material on which it works; in broad strokes, it is not unreasonable to hold that the system progresses from the indeterminate to the more determinate via successive determinations (what is a Hegelian proof but just this sort of concretizing of determinations, the making-explicit of what was previously merely implicit?). In a different vocabulary, this is also the move from the abstract to the concrete, where “concrete” designates the unity of various determinations that are lacking in the (relatively) abstract.3 This section will examine indeterminacy through its connection to conscience and the good, before turning to the systematic crisis those indeterminacies create.
Hegel writes that the good “merely ought to be” and that conscience “merely ought to be good.4 In the same remark, Hegel informs us that is apparently in the nature of the finite to contain its opposite within itself, though as finite it also remains one-sided and incomplete with regard to this opposite (we might say the opposite is merely implicit, when it ought to be explicit); this is what Hegel here calls being “posited in their negativity.” As one-sided, the good merely posits that it ought to be actual; the very nature of the concept is this fundamental lack with regard to its being. And similarly, conscience (what Hegel also refers to as “subjectivity” since it is on the side of morality) ought to be good; its innermost essence is to lack the good.
And yet in their finite and one-sided determination, neither of them (conscience and the good) are positive; it is necessary to understand first this negative moment before imagining them as positive entities whose “oughts” are their positive contents. If this step is not grasped, then the reversals which follow it are muddled or possibly even missed completely. This is precisely what Hegel seems to mean when he declares that their identity has already been accomplished “in itself.”5 It is often the case, as I think it is here, that the reader of Hegel thinks the philosopher has leaped ahead and left them utterly behind, when in actuality he is thinking far too slowly for them. The dwelling in negativity is precisely such a moment. We cannot seem to get a grip on how to determine the categories any further, and it at first appears as a failure of thought, strictly speaking a systematic defect.
After having gone down both avenues, abstract right culminating in the good, and morality culminating in conscience, there would seem to be nowhere else to go. The final categories of both avenues are empty, indeterminate, and utterly lacking in measure.6 Just to sufficiently reiterate this point: the indeterminacy of conscience and the good consists in their complete lack of ruling out anything at all as an instance of right. Neither ends up providing any kind of guidance whatsoever, and in fact the criteria indicated by both of them end up as wholly subjective and arbitrary as the bare arbitrary will itself. While certainly in some sense these concepts are more determinate, being as they are the result of over a hundred paragraphs of systematic proofs, still they have not overcome this fundamental problem.7
What are the implications of this properly systematic crisis? The dialectic has been reduced to well-nigh utter indeterminacy, when its entire goal has been precisely the opposite. It has come so far, and yet is more indeterminate than ever before.8 Has the whole thing merely resulted in failure, a reversion to its beginning? Or is there some specificity that might save us? It is important to see the extent and danger of this question, the threatening power of negativity, the apparent, utter emptiness of all the determinations of thought up to this point, in order to appreciate the genius of Hegel’s solution. So: tremble!9

III. The First Reversal: Determinate Indeterminacy
In the 1817 Encyclopedia, Hegel is even more direct on the negativity of this point of the dialectic, describing it as a collapse into nothingness that must itself be negated; one way of putting Hegel’s solution is the “nullification of nullity.”10 This section will explicate this movement through the lens of speculative reversal, that exemplary Hegelian move that transforms an apparently epistemological lack into a positive ontological characteristic. Slavoj Žižek has written extensively on speculative reversals in Hegel (often also derived from Hegel’s doctrine of the “infinite judgment”), and so I will turn to him for an analysis of that process.
Žižek explains the reversal as follows, first in terms of infinite judgment (though we shall see how this can be generalized):
Hegel’s version of the “infinite judgment” is thus different from Kant’s—there is a negation of negation (of the Rabinovitch type) at work in its most famous example, “the Spirit is a bone”: (1) the Spirit is a bone; (2) this is nonsense, there is an absolute contradiction between these two terms; (3) well, the Spirit is this contradiction.11
We can see here how contradiction and negation are transformed into something positive, not a lack in our understanding of the thing, but precisely the innermost nature of the thing itself. Žižek goes on to describe the importance of this kind of reversal for the dialectical process itself, something worth quoting at length:
This reversal-into-itself—the shift in the status of what-is-at-stake from sign to Thing, from predicate to subject—is crucial for the dialectical process: what first appears as a mere sign (property, reflection, distortion) of the Thing turns out to be the Thing itself. If the Idea cannot adequately represent itself, if its representation is distorted or deficient, then this simultaneously signals a limitation or deficiency of the Idea itself. Furthermore, not only does the universal Idea always appear in a distorted or displaced way; this Idea is nothing but the distortion or displacement, the self-inadequacy, of the particular with regard to itself.12
Now, with regard to the Master Argument of the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, we can discern the same structure at work. From a purely negative lack, or even an epistemological error (we can’t seem to figure out what comes next, or what to posit), conscience and the good come to be understood in positive terms; their determinacy is their very indeterminacy.
We see now that the indeterminacy of conscience and the good is of a very different order than the bare indeterminacy of, say, pure being. As determinately indeterminate, conscience and the good are systematically locatable; in other words, although indeterminate (they cannot provide any actual criteria for the judging of right), conscience and the good fail in a determinate way; this determinate way is nothing but their ought-structure. Hence, we can say that not all negativities are the same, and different negativities may be productive in very different ways.
When Hegel writes that the second reversal (the derivation of Sittlichkeit) has already occurred “in itself,” I believe he is referring to this, that by the same ought-structure, conscience and the good have both been reduced to determinate indeterminacy. All that remains is to posit the identity of these concepts, which is precisely the function of Sittlichkeit itself.

IV. The Second Reversal: From Ought to Is
The move from morality to Sittlichkeit is accomplished by positing of the identity of conscience and the good, and Sittlichkeit just is that unity: “Ethical life [Sittlichkeit] is the Idea of freedom as the living [i.e. concrete] good which has its knowledge and volition in self-consciousness, and its actuality through self-conscious action.”13 From being empty and abstract indeterminacies, the two moments of Sittlichkeit, precisely as moments, have attained concretion. But how exactly are they equated? In particular, how can they be legitimately equated within the confines of a systematic proof?
It is not merely that those two latter concepts (conscience and the good) fail or are mere negativities, but rather that they fail in precisely the same way. If it were merely failure or bare indeterminacy that allowed concepts to be posited as identical (that is, reduced to moments of a third), then any old indeterminacy would be co-moments with any other. In fact, it is their status as determinate indeterminacies that allow conscience and the good to become moments of Sittlichkeit. As higher-order indeterminacies, they are both defined by their finite ought-structure, that is, their lack of measure.
The second reversal therefore consists in the transformation of the gap that separates conscience and the good into the positive determination of Sittlichkeit. Where the gap was previously merely negative, a failure of each side, in Sittlichkeit it attains a positive character, being imputed into the concept itself instead of remaining external to it as some kind of (epistemological) obstacle.
What must be kept in mind, however, is the nature of this posited “identity.” For Hegel, this identity is not a mere equality between the two concepts; it is, as it always must be in Hegel, a (relatively) concrete unity of its moments. In other words, conscience and the good do not collapse and disappear. It is in the reaching out of each toward the other (the mutual ‘ought’) that has been internalized in Sittlichkeit. Alone, each is exactly the same (determinate indeterminacy, abstract universality, and so on), but together they can constitute a new determinacy defined by the very internality of that ‘ought.’ Sittlichkeit does not therefore begin from a simple negativity, but from a highly complex determinacy constituted by the reversal itself, without which only (determinate) indeterminacy is left.
A fruitful way to understand the Master Argument can now be fully stated: It functions by passing from ought to is. As noted, the is-to-ought movement was accomplished back with the explication of the free will; this side of the proof serves to produce a concrete unity of what ought to be and what is, the name for which is Sittlichkeit.14 The resolution is made explicit when Hegel writes that Sittlichkeit has achieved concretion, the distinctions of which “give the ethical a fixed content.”15 This fixed conctent is precisely the overcoming of the emptiness and one-sidedness of the mere ‘ought’ and the mere ‘is.’ Speculative reversal seems to be the tool that solves the problem of internal and external (for the concept), epistemology and ontology, and in this case, ought and is.16
We can now see also how this is the explicit side of the same previous reversal. In both conscience and the good, their finitude implied the opposite was within them, only implicitly so; the first reversal made this implicit requirement explicit, while the second reversal ends with it being explicit simpliciter. This is a doubling (or really just a different vocabulary) that mirrors the movement from indeterminacy, through determinate indeterminacy, once again into straight-up determinacy; here, for clarity, it is from the implicit, to the explicit implicit, and once again to the explicit. While this may seem overly complicated, as noted, it is most likely due to the slowness of Hegel’s thought, stopping and explicating each tiny step in detail, even those that are normally not noticed at all, rather than rushing on ahead and leaving things unexplained.

V. Conclusion
Now that speculative reversal has been isolated as the primary component of the Master Argument, what are its broader implications with regard to the system as a whole? Is the use of such a reversal justified? Isn’t there something fishy going on here?
First of all, it seems that speculative reversal is omnipotent; thought cannot be stopped, even by utter emptiness and indetermination, since that indeterminacy can be posited as the truth of the object rather than a defect. Defects, in general, can be imputed into the object, transforming epistemological difficulties into ontological successes. Reversal, it seems to me, is the systematic formalization of the idea that negation is inherently productive. Rather than explicitly proposing this as an axiom (since Hegel’s generative ontology doesn’t admit of axioms), it is left to emerge when it is necessary, to be used; its power and justification seem perhaps to be shown by its very use and what it allows thought to accomplish. Perhaps it really does come down to this view about negation, that it is legitimate to take negation itself as something positive and thereby as an opening for thought, a possibility for philosophy to continue.
Is this an instance of Leibniz’s law (of the identity of indiscernibles)? Not necessarily, since that law is a generally-stated principle, a law, whereas for Hegel it is not always clear that two indiscernibles will be posited as identical (as moments of a further concept). Rather, in this case the identity of the two concepts was posited because of the determinate indeterminacy of the two concepts, not their mere first-order indeterminacy. It does not seem to be generally the case that Hegel applies the reversal to any indeterminacy whatsoever (which would make all indeterminacies into determinate indeterminacies). But what precisely regulates the appearance of this move, in that case?
On one hand, it seems quite reasonable to think that the ought-is transition (in either direction) can only be resolved in such a manner. On the other hand, there is still the lurking suggestion of teleology here, and I’m not sure that feeling can be overcome by a reader of this argument. When all possibilities of thought have been exhausted, this seems to be the only thing one can do. Therefore, whether one considers it to be a valid move or not depends very much on what one thinks the Hegelian system is doing or is supposed to do. If one holds firm to the epistemology-ontology distinction, then the reversal will most likely appear insane; but if one takes Hegel to be overcoming such distinctions (and I think there is good reason to think this), then speculative reversal is an indispensable theoretical operation.
These are just a few of the issues at stake in the use of speculative reversal in the Master Argument; a more thorough exploration would need to take into account infinite judgment (as an exemplary case of reversal and perhaps its justification) as well as a broader view of precisely what Hegel’s philosophical system is, and how to understand it (whether as a spectator or ‘from the inside,’ so to speak).



Works Cited
Hegel, GWF. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Trans. H. B. Nisbet. Ed. Allen W. Wood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.
---. “Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline,” in Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline and Critical Writings. Trans. Steven A. Taubneck. Ed. Ernst Behler. New York, NY: Continuum, 1990. Print.
---. Science of Logic. Trans. A. V. Miller. Ed. H. D. Lewis. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1969. Print.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative. Trans. Jason Smith and Steven Miller. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London; New York: Verso, 2012. Print.

Notes
1 Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §33.
2 Hegel, Elements, §141. This claim is counter-intuitive, but the two reversals are really parts or continuations of one another; the one merely implicit, the other their explicit positing. Hence, the first reversal makes them identical, while the second posits them as identical, explicitly. This will be further explained in section IV.
3 The two moments of this seem to be developing the concept (as individuality; see Elements §7R, that is, the remark to paragraph 7) and developing the Idea out of the concept (see Elements §2). Unfortunately, I do not have time to treat both of these aspects in depth.
4 Hegel, Elements, §141R.
5 Hegel, Elements, §141.
6 The primary goal of determination in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right seems to be measure. There are many iterations of this search for measure, from the initial lack of “yardstick” in §17 to the continued struggles with Willkur (arbitrariness), all of them failing until Sittlichkeit itself.
7 This point in itself already shows that the dialectic is not a simple progression, but one wracked by a kind of systematically built-in unevenness with regard to its development and its solutions to various earlier-posed problems. More determination does not in itself immediately solve problems at hand; the process may take quite a while, with no end in sight.
8 It may be fruitful to compare the indeterminacy at play in conscience and the good with that of the very beginning of the system in “being, pure being, without any further determination” (Hegel, Science of Logic 82). It is clear that conscience and the good are not merely indeterminate in the same way as is pure being.
9 “Trembling” is a wonderful idea with regard to the negativity of the dialectic; see Jean-Luc Nancy, Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative, 40-45. In particular, see page 44, where trembling is “the finite seized by the infinite.” Here in the Elements, Hegel calls conscience and the good “finite” (§141), which is later contrasted with the “infinite form” of Sittlichkeit (§144). More could certainly be said on the finite-infinite relation to negativity.
10 Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline and Critical Writings, #429. An alternate translation might be “the nothingness of nothing.”
11 Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, 534.
12 Žižek, 535.
13 Hegel, Elements, §142. Unfortunately, it is not entirely possible to cite more from the actual transition paragraph in order to get clear about how the said transition functions. How the proof is supposed to work is left to a minimum.
14 This is precisely the problem of the lack of measure. This lack is overcome only when both sides are complete, when ‘ought’ and ‘is’ are integrated; without this, there can only be a one-sided lack of measure with regard to right.
15 Hegel, Elements, §144.
16 In fact, it seems basically omnipotent. This is an issue that will be implicitly raised, but certainly not solved, in the conclusion.