I have been posting occasionally on the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze because I think his work is important regarding questions about how to live and how philosophy contributes to answering those questions. (Here is a post summarizing what I find attractive about his approach.) However, Deleuze thinks questions about how to live are at bottom questions about how to conceive of the nature of reality in general. Ethics requires an ontology. Thus, we have to confront basic questions in metaphysics if we are to think clearly about how to live.
This post will be a bit in the weeds. But when dealing with thinkers as dense as Hegel and Deleuze a journey through a thicket is unavoidable.
When I last visited Deleuze, I was ruminating on his objections to traditional classification schemes, influenced mainly by Aristotle, that organize reality into categories such as genus and species. Recall that for Aristotle, we define something by placing it in a more general category. An apple is a kind of fruit, a fruit is a kind of plant, which is a type of living thing, etc. This is a very useful classification scheme until we get to the most general category—Being. How do we define Being? There is no more general category to place it under and thus Being can’t be defined, leaving metaphysics with no foundation and the differences between various ways of Being unexplained. In addition, and perhaps more importantly for Deleuze, Aristotle’s classification scheme leaves out differences that characterize individuals rather than types of beings. The characteristics of an individual apple are treated as irrelevant since they tell us nothing about apples in general. According to Deleuze, our intellectual tradition does not take differences seriously unless they are part of some larger identity.
Before looking at how Deleuze wants to handle the role of differences in giving an account of the basic structure of reality, we need to be assured that the history of philosophy since Aristotle hasn’t succeeded in correcting the gaps in Aristotle’s picture. According to Deleuze there have been two promising attempts—one by Gottfried Leibniz and one by Georg Hegel. But they both fail, thus creating the need for Deleuze to save the day. I discussed Leibniz here.
Hegel aimed to correct Aristotle by preserving what was right about Aristotle’s classification scheme but completing it by incorporating all differences into his account. For Hegel the meaning of terms is not exhausted by their definition as members of genera and species but from the process, the movement, of thought itself. Ideas are not just given. They undergo a process, a movement of thought, and when we trace that movement, we discover that our ability to represent reality is not finite, is not limited. When we grasp this infinite movement of thought we can represent the totality of what exists incorporating all those differences that Aristotle’s metaphysics leaves out.
Hegel’s main idea as that all experiences generate a contradiction. Consider the simplest experience possible—an experience of “this—here—now.” For instance, an current experience of a blue, spherical splotch. In the next instant, I might experience something different, an irregular green splotch that contradicts the first experience. The contents of consciousness come and go. I no sooner have an experience than it is replaced by a contradictory experience. Now one might imagine a consciousness that consisted of nothing but a series of this-here-now experiences with no attempt to link them or find meaning in them. But that is not human consciousness. If all I have available is an experience of this-here-now, I have no way of holding on to that experience or making sense of it. The rich sensory details vanish. Consciousness intends more than this-here-now but has no resources to carry out the intention, no way of answering the question “what is here now?” To capture the richness of experience consciousness must synthesize, pull together, a series of unities and differences so we can see “this-here-now” as a blue ball, the same blue ball we experienced yesterday, and the subsequent “this-here-now” experience as a green tree that has always been in the back yard. From this analysis Hegel draws the conclusion that we can never have a non-conceptual, non-linguistic experience. Consciousness is thoroughly conceptual and we can never be aware of anything that isn’t immediately organized conceptually as a representation, a subject with a predicate. Thus, any experience of this-here-now, which Hegel calls sense-certainty, is, via contradiction, elevated to a higher stage of perceptual knowledge and so on until we reach the highest stage of knowledge—philosophy’s contemplation of the absolute.
In his Science of Logic, Hegel then uses this dialectic of contradiction to directly address the limitations of Aristotle’s metaphysics. He begins with the most general concept, the concept of Being, which recall was problematic for Aristotle. Pure, undifferentiated Being, that is, Being with no features, is the simplest concept. But this is inadequate because without features there is no way to differentiate Being from nothing. The concept of Pure Being is empty and abstract. In order to differentiate Being, we have to introduce the concept of a determinate being, a being that does have features. Hegel argues that Being becomes a determinate being through the concept of limit.
A being is what it is—it acquires determinate features—by excluding that which it is not. An apple is an apple because it’s limited in the features it has—it’s round, not square, green, not blue, etc. Furthermore, by acquiring limits, a being not only acquires determinate features, it also excludes what it is not. It places conceptual boundaries such that other entities cannot be apples. It limits the beings that are excluded—they cannot have the features of an apple. Thus, for Hegel, an apple is an apple in part because it is not an orange, and we cannot identify apples without contrasts with beings that are not apples. Thus, this idea of a limit is part of a determinate being, an apple, but also points to something beyond that determinate being as well, all the non-apples that exist.
Notice that the notion of a limit emerges out of the necessary development of the concept of Being itself. In order to distinguish Being from nothing we had to introduce the idea of limit. It was a necessary movement of thought. This is not an idea imposed from outside; it is internally generated from the concept of Being.
However, this notion of a limit contains a contradiction. It determines what something is but also points to where the entity ceases to be. It constitutes the boundary of something but like all boundaries it indicates something beyond it. Included within the essential nature of an entity is a reference to what it is not. The limit both determines the entity whose Being is in question and at the same time determines the entities beyond the boundary as determinate being as well. And this outside is a feature internal to the determinate being itself. It is what allows that being to be determinate, to have features.
It would seem that what Hegel has done here is discover the infinite as a logical extension of the finite. We have an entity that has determinate features which makes essential reference to what is outside the concept of that entity. But then if we analyze that further entity that sits outside the boundary of our original concept, that entity would also by definition be finite since it is limited by the original entity, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, we have an infinite series of bounded entities that seems to follow directly from a finite representation. But Hegel calls this notion a “spurious infinite.” The infinite is defined as that which is beyond limitation but the way we define that infinite is by opposition, by saying what the infinite is not, namely finite. We attempt to determine the infinite as something beyond finite entities, but the intelligibility of this depends on it transgressing a limit as part of the definition. The infinite is itself limited making it finite. (If this makes your head spin, you are not alone)
For Hegel, in order to understand the infinite and the finite we need to see them both as aspects of a larger process which involves a circular movement of the finite into the infinite and the infinite into the finite, a movement that is itself infinite—what Hegel calls the Absolute. This means that everything, all finite entities, are captured in a comprehensive and exhaustive conceptual analysis of an infinite process. (Which I like to call “Hegel’s monster” for reasons that become clear below)
Does this solve the problem of the small and the large? Are all differences really captured within this infinite process?
Not according to Deleuze.
As I noted above, for Hegel a bare sensory experience “this-here-now” is impossible. We immediately want to know what is “this” by bringing it under a general concept. But this means that those singular features of an individual that don’t define it as the kind of thing it is—the blemish on an apple or the quirk in one’s personality for instance—play no role in this dialectical process. This was precisely Deleuze’s worry about Aristotle’s taxonomy. It fails the test of the small. For Hegel, differences have meaning only if they are part of a more general identity. This is what Deleuze will dispute.
Thus, Deleuze will argue that the idea of contradiction on which Hegel’s view depends, cannot adequately describe reality. Deleuze writes:
“Oppositions are roughly cut from a delicate milieu of overlapping perspectives, of communicating distances, divergences and disparities, of heterogeneous potentials and intensities.” (Difference and Repetition, 50/61)
In other words, reality consists of processes in which differences are matters of degree, where boundaries are ambiguous and in continuous variation, and answers to the question “what is x?” are “sort of,” “in a sense, yes in a sense no” or “only under certain conditions.” The idea of contradiction or opposition requires firm boundaries, a clear, unambiguous X from which to generate a not-X. Although reality may sometimes be carved so neatly at its joints, Deleuze will argue that such a picture of reality is at best incomplete. The splendor of the singular is swallowed up in the Absolute bent on stamping out diversity. If you happen to be one of those singular individuals, Hegel’s Absolute looks monstrous.
Thus, Deleuze will argue that Hegel, like Aristotle, fails to take differences seriously. Now, of course, Hegelians and Aristotelians might argue that these minor differences that are not represented by a taxonomy of genus and species are not important. They play no role in the basic structure of reality. It will be the burden of Deleuze’s thought to show why that is mistaken. If he succeeds it overturns 2000 years of metaphysics.
So does Deleuze slay the Hegelian monster? We won’t know until the end of this detective novel.