Terry Pinkard’s The Sociality of Reason and Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Restlessness of the Negative are two very different books, despite both being about Hegel. The most cursory glance reveals prose styles and concerns that are all but totally alien to one another, yet they share two major concerns: the social nature of reason or logos, and the unrelenting nature of skepticism or negativity.
The Sociality of Reason: Hegelian Preliminaries
In Pinkard’s reading, the Phenomenology is a socio-historical theory of knowledge. More specifically, it is a history of what Europe has taken to be authoritative for itself; what sort of reasons have counted as justification for belief? Reason – or really, Spirit – is a set of self-reflective practices which compete within social spaces to produce the most coherent worldview. The claim is that only a socio-historical account of knowledge can solve the epistemological problem of how knowledge claims can match up with their objects.
Asking about how knowledge claims match up with their objects immediately brings up skepticism in two ways. First, are knowledge claims even capable of grasping their objects? This anxious question is the grounding force of “generalized” skepticism. In fact, answering this skeptic is the whole point. Second, and more importantly, generalized skepticism is not only the concern, it is the result.
That is, if ideas are an intermediary between us and the world, how can we compare our ideas to the world? It looks impossible to refute the skeptic without a self-certifying idea (e.g. certainty, necessity, infallible knowledge) and a self-certifying idea to move from that idea to others. There are many candidates (e.g. indefeasibility) and the issue would be “which one is the real ground of knowledge?” Answering that would take a [German] science. But it seems that science is not possible, because it would be just one more claim, and so would have to ground itself. And different communities make different claims, e.g. religious feeling vs. scientific empiricism.
In such cases, neither side is capable of convincing the other. And we can’t just say the other side does not measure up to our claims, because of course they can say the same to us. Since each side makes assumptions, they are all only appearances, or perspectives. Further, even our own account of our appearances is itself an appearance; even skepticism must be seen as an appearance.
A theory of knowledge needs to describe what appearances and skepticism are. Let’s deal with appearances/perspectives first. Appearances are “‘formations of consciousness,’ . . . forms of life that have come to take certain types of reasons as authoritative for themselves.” (5/14) Reasons are authoritative when they are mandatory for the agent. This continues Kant’s move away from Descartes: away from certainty (our hold on claims) to necessity (the hold claims have on us). A form of consciousness is both its reasons and how it articulates these reasons to itself. These grounding reasons are the essence of a consciousness, and a consciousness’s essence is its object. The Phenomenology examines how each formation of consciousness takes its reasons to be authoritative, how people just find a form of life ready to hand in their worlds. To look at accounts as appearances is to take them at their word, and not to presuppose one is better than another.
It looks like we are headed to vapid relativism – this is what Hegel called the pathway of despair. If science is an infinite regression of justifications, it undermines itself. The solution is to subject views to an internal test. To do that, we use a set of standards, either implicit or explicit. For Pinkard’s Hegel, these standards are internal to consciousness, because we take a thing to be X on the basis of authoritative reasons. But are the reasons we take as authoritative really such? Are the reasons satisfactory on their own terms? Do they achieve their own goals?
There are two kinds of doubts about reasons. First, are the reasons authoritative? Second, is the account of their authority in order? This skepticism is the self-generating negativity of a consciousness; negation is determinate negation, i.e., the specific ways a specific set of reasons undermines itself. Science needs an account of the relation between reasons and negativity.
Self-consciousness is not internal awareness – it is taking a place in social space. We take a place in social space when we give reasons. Within social space, we assert things and give reasons for them. Social space is mutual reason giving. A main feature of social space is the set of “ground rules” for justification. Those ground rules are taken as both descriptive and proscriptive. They appear necessary, and when they undermine themselves, they lose that necessity.
All forms of self-consciousness have a mediated (or inferential) structure. Recognition is mediated by shared authoritative reasons – by how people see themselves in light of those reasons. Hence, Pinkard claims “Spirit. . . is a self-consciousness form of life that has developed various practices for reflecting on what it takes to be authoritative for itself in terms of whether these practices live up to their own claims and achieve the goals that they have set for themselves.” (8/17-9/18)
Spirit is not a metaphysical entity but a relation among persons. Dilemmas arise when a social formation does not achieve its own goals, and we set about convincing ourselves that they do work, via things like tragic drama, religious practice, and philosophical reflection.
There’s more to a form of life than justification, but what makes a distinct form of spirit is a nexus of three things: people’s accounts of themselves, what affirms their life, and how they reassure themselves. Either the accounts succeed or fail, in which case a new form of life is required. Treating knowledge dialectically brings history into it, but has pitfalls; it could just end up as a defense of tradition. To avoid that, we need a dialectical history of self-consciousness.
The Phenomenology is a history of how social spaces justified themselves, which amounts to a history of rationality. It is not that later spaces were destined to follow earlier ones, but about how they worked out their deficiencies. This is the Phenomenology‘s dialectical progression: a form of life generates its own skepticism or negativity. A new form appears that creates its own skepticism. It is not a causal necessity, rather more like the necessity in a line of argument. Just like an argument might not be completed for various reasons, a historical progression might not be completed either.
In the first three chapters, the problem is stated in epistemological terms, not historical ones. The argument for a historical account arises from the failure of non-historical accounts. The appeal to direct awareness required support by “impersonal reason,” but that turns out to be a social formation. In the first chapters, Hegel is arguing for a historical account without presupposing its necessity. In other words, we see how “the mandatory nature of some norms involves an account of their role in a complex set of reflective and non-reflective social practices – ‘Spirit’ – and this can only be historical.” (14/23) To understand the development of a historical practice is to understand the development of its norms. Not a causal account, e.g. modes of production – but an account of norms as norms. How norms succeed or fail on their own grounds. Spirit, self-reflecting practice, makes history. The theory of knowledge must be historical; the history of claim making developed within practices for reflecting on practices, and what it means to be a ground of knowledge, and what it means to be a rational agent.
The Restlessness of the Negative: The World Needs Truth, not Consolation
Jean-Luc Nancy’s thinking relies to an almost extraordinary degree on playing on every last sense of the words he uses, not least the word sense itself. This brief introduction will focus on his description of negativity and the subject.
Sense (in as many senses of the word as you like) no longer lies in the “religious bond of a community, and knowledge is no longer organized into a meaningful totality.” In other words, sociality no longer assures human relations, and knowledge is always fragmentary, the mere knowing of objects and procedures.
Rather than a closed teleological movement leading to a final, absolute knowledge, Nancy reads Hegel as claiming that the world is an endless series of displacements that cannot be gathered up into an identity, a displacement that can’t ever reach a supreme signification. Those who try to find a final signification end up with sentimentality or fanaticism. Hence, “An absolute negativity of the Absolute appears to constitute all experience of this world and its consciousness of itself.” This isn’t a statement of epistemological skepticism, which would be a withdrawal from the world, but rather ontological finitude. It is a consciousness and an experience.
The upshot is that we moderns continue to be the unhappy consciousness. This isn’t miserableism; “But this world needs truth, not consolation.” The world needs to find itself in that negativity – and it can’t do this with a negativity that is simply covered over.
There can’t be a self which precedes the movement of negativity, because it is a relation; our experience is of separation. The terms of “relating self to self” are not given. Hegel wants to think how knowledge of the self is knowledge of the non-given. He says, “The Hegelian subject is not to be confused with subjectivity as a separate and one-sided agency for synthesizing representations, nor with subjectivity as the exclusive interiority of a personality.” These are moments of the subject, but not the subject. The subject is what dissolves all substance, anything “capable of coming to rest in itself and taking undivided enjoyment in its mastery and property.” If you don’t get this, you don’t understand Hegel; you’ve substituted an ideological subject, whether communist or Liberal. The subject is what it does, and what it does is experience the negativity of substance – that is, the concrete history of the world as a loss of reference and an ordered world.
However, it is also a becoming world in a new sense; immanent and infinite. There is only this world, with no other sense than the movement of negativity without closure. That history – time – i.e. the concrete existence of negativity, is the finite revealing itself in the infinite work of negativity, the restlessness of sense or the concept. It does not seek itself – that would make it an end in itself. It “effectuates” itself. The world is not a result and it does not have a result; the world results in its own movement. “Ordeal, misery, restlessness and task of thought: Hegel is the witness of the world’s entry into a history in which it is no longer just a matter of changing form, of replacing one vision and one order by some other. . . but in which the one and only point – of view and order – is that of transformation itself.”