(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
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.
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).
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.
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.