Nightmare Noumena

Vince Garton made an excellent post on the subject of Hegel. Garton paints Hegel as someone attempting to escape the “chaos of phenomena” which seemed to have quite literally haunted his nightmares:

“To dispel the gloom, Hegel constructs a golem of cold rationality. A famous footnote to the Philosophy of Right proclaims that the Idea, which is the State, ‘marches through history.’ Its gait is the dialectic; it takes strides of negation and negation of negation, one foot in the particular, the other in the universal. We are led to believe that it is organic, smoothly balanced.

This, as Adorno pointed out in his essay on the ‘Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy,’ is a lie. The golem is a monster, lumbering lopsidedly. Its particularity is shriveled, its universality swollen to grotesque proportions. What is deviant, what is heterodox, what is unreasonable: all of these are crushed beneath its limp. And the darkness is infecting it. The State proclaims, ‘there is no other god besides me,’ even as its face is defiled with blood and fire.”

Vince likens the realm which Hegel attempts to banish with the golem of the state to the Gnostic Yaldabaoth, a horrific realm created by the tainting of the transcendent light. However, this is not what is particularly interesting about Garton’s post. The interesting insight he makes is this:

“If Yaldabaoth is the figure of gloom, the infection of the pure light of the One, this says nothing of the purity of the darkness itself. Indeed, in the Gnostic universe, it is only light that needs to worry about a descent into the gloom. The cold darkness of nihil, by contrast, is deep and unending. Yaldabaoth’s realm is merely the portal: there are stranger things that lurk in the abysses, noumena, as Kant termed them, but noumena that move beneath their cloak of imperception. The defeat of Yaldabaoth comes not, as Hegel thought then, from the luminary State that dissolves the ‘chaos of phenomena,’ the triumphant Idea. Yaldabaoth dies in the fangs of the noumena themselves.

The fear of the chaos of phenomena, dissolves for those who are content to live among the noumena. Yet Vince does not go into a detailed discussion of how this fear arises in the first place. Lets trip out any characterization of noumena-positing philosophy as dark or scary. The fear of the chaos of phenomenon does not usually arise from any fear of Lovecraftian horrors, though the anthropocentrism Lovecraft upends is a definite root of the problem. The golem emerges out of several self-created philosophical problems, but at their heart is the bifurcation of nature. The bifurcation of nature is what gives rise to the dark triad of unreformed subjectivism, correlationism, and finally Absolute Idealism. It is only in a world in which man and nature are so torn from each other that such ideas become necessary to have coherent pictures of the world. Arguing against the bifurcation is beyond the scope of this article, I wish merely to trace some of the causes and to discuss what is possible without it.

The bifurcation of nature is in short the splitting of nature into primary and secondary qualities, though it is slightly more complex. The divesting of man from nature begins with the simple attributing of certain qualities such as colors to the human mind alone, but as Shaviro notes it is merely the first step on a slippery slope:

“It is only when our experience has been sundered in two that we could ever think of the need for a correlational structure in order to put it back together again. Modern Western thought, from Descartes through Locke and on to Hume, partitioned the world between primary and secondary qualities, or between objectively extended objects, on the one hand, and merely subjective “psychic additions” (CN 29), on the other. This culminated in the crisis of Humean skepticism, which Kant resolved by arguing that the unknown realities “out there” must be organized in accordance with the conditions imposed by our minds. We have viewed the world through a correlationist lens ever since.”

After Kant, it is only a short step to Hegel and Absolute Idealism. Modern philosophy creates its own monster, and it appears to those trapped within its circle that the only way out is to abolish the nightmare phenomena is to install a pretender god in place of the noumena. The problem is entirely self created; it is only a problem because of commitments to earlier philosophical traditions and ideas. The bifurcation is an idea so deeply rooted in many minds that they do not see how another way is possible, for no recourse to noumena is possible with it. The idea of secondary qualities seems so intuitive to the modern mind that suggesting that colors exist whether there is someone to see them or not seems quite ridiculous. But once the bifurcation collapses and man plunges back into nature the golem’s legs collapse with them.

The Anselmo Effect

The effect that Shaviro notes (citing Whitehead) is what I call the Anselmo Effect. This takes its name from the titular character of The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious. Anselmo, fearing that his wife might be unfaithful, asks his friend Lothario to attempt to seduce her. Lothario at first refuses, but eventually agrees. While at first his wife’s faith is proven, no evidence is enough for Anselmo. Eventually, Lothario and his wife actually do fall in love, and Anselmo loses not only his love, but also his life, not because of his wife being unfaithful, but due only to his reckless curiousness.

Philosophy from Descartes onwards plays the role of Anselmo. Descartes, Locke, and Hume all attempt investigations to find certain knowledge, as Anselmo, but are armed with faulty principles that they unconsciously inherited from the Greeks, just as Anselmo has a faulty notion of his Wife’s fidelity. These include the notion of the subject-predicate mode of expression being an accurate reflection of a reality (leading to the disastrous notion of substance which Hume rightfully criticized) and the sensationalist doctrine of perception, in which a subject passively receives bare sensa which are devoid of any relations, either to other objects or to the receiver.

This is essentially an overintellectual mode of inquiry. I do not mean to paint a picture of ivory-tower intellectual philosophers, these men were all great and intelligent thinkers. They merely inherited a mode of thought that had developed over time and were either unaware or thought it was simply obvious. This is a trap that anyone could fall into:

“Hume and Locke, with the overintellectualist bias prevalent among philosophers, assume that emotional feelings are necessarily derivative from sensations. This is conspicuously not the case; the correlation between such feelings and sensations is on the whole a secondary effect. Emotions conspicuously brush aside sensations and fasten upon the ‘particular’ objects to which— in Locke’s phrase— certain ‘ideas’ are ‘determined. The confinement of our prehension of other actual entities to the mediation of private sensations is pure myth. The converse doctrine is nearer the truth: the more primitive mode of objectification is via emotional tone, and only in exceptional organisms does objectification, via sensation, supervene with any effectiveness. In their doctrine on this point, Locke and Hume were probably only repeating the mediaeval tradition, and they have passed on the tradition to their successors. None the less, the doctrine is founded upon no necessity of thought, and lacks empirical confirmation. If we consider the matter physiologically, the emotional tone depends mainly on the condition of the viscera which are peculiarly ineffective in generating sensations (Process and Reality 141).”

The problem with this mode is that it lends itself to only examining clear and distinct perception. The philosophers, seeking clear and distinct principles of knowledge, focused themselves on what is clear and distinct in experience but this sadly obscured the most important factors of experience where causality. Focusing on what Whitehead termed Presentational Immediacy leads straight to the Humean crisis, for it limits us to a solipsism of the present that lacks neccessary connection. This can only be escaped by the path of transcendental philosophy. The idea of non-sensuous perception, or what Whitehead terms causal efficacy, is discussed at length elsewhere by Shaviro. Whitehead claims that by examining the more primordial modes of experience (such as immediate sensory memory), which are vague and indistinct, we can escape the Humean crisis of skepticism without recourse to Kant. In order to do this, it is necessary to abandon our desire for clear and distinct things to be the only basis for inquiry. Otherwise, like Anselmo, our search for clarity will obscure the plain facts.

The modes of thought that lead to the Humean crisis then are then threefold. First, the Bifurcation of Nature into primary and secondary qualities, that is qualities inherent in objects, and mere psychic additions. Secondly, the distrust, misunderstanding, or avoidance of non-sensuous perception. Finally, the abandonment of Locke’s somewhat inconsistent doctrine of things determined to ideas. These things may not seem immediately related, but it is only when we think in terms of primary and secondary qualities that non-sensuous perception are easily forgotten, and all of them ultimately stem from the subject-predicate mode of expression. This mode of expression forces us to think in terms of a substrate with essential being which only undergoes accidental changes. The subject is thus conceived of as a passive receiver, and sense-impressions as his qualities. The bifurcation of nature is already implicit in such a division. Locke’s pseudo-Platonism offered a possible path out, but as it was deemed inconsistent with the rest of his doctrine, it was subsequently abandoned by Hume. The history of post-Cartesian philosophy is the history of suppressed premises. That is, premises which could have offered radical solutions to the philosophical problems of the time, but out of either prejudice or thoughtlessness, were discarded and deemed unworkable. Had they taken up these premises, they would have discovered much earlier the Empiricist thought of thinkers such as Whitehead and Deleuze.

Indeed, without questioning the grounds of the crisis, one is, like Anselmo, forced to continue down the path of doubt. Following Kant, we ask constantly how we can know. It seems a noble question, but inevitably Kant’s epistemological solipsism leaves us in a position where we face several dilemmas from which there seems no escape. Empiricism seems like it can no longer do if we want to escape. It is unreliable and has to be grounded in thought somehow, rather than thought grounded in experience. Thought and experience are split. In fact, the experiential quality of thought is often entirely forgotten. A methodological dualism emerges in which thought becomes the arbiter of everything. Humans are identified with thought, and sensory experience has been proven so faulty that nothing can be done with it to obtain metaphysical truths. To even be able to theorize at all from here the Phenomenology of Spirit becomes necessary. Reason has to perform dialectical leaps in order for us to get out of our heads and conquer the chaos of phenomena, a chaos which thought itself has created. A recourse to empiricism now seems like it can only lead to a postmodern scientism which cares nothing for truth and reduces all thought to its utility, unless thought can ground itself in Wissenschaft. Unless we can rescue an anthropo/logocentric subject it seems like the world will be divested of all value and truth will pass into myth. Hegelians are responding to what appears as a legitimate problem.

To get right answers though, we have to be asking the right questions. Vince typically uses this slogan in regards to politics, but it applies to philosophy as well: “Let Go.”

As has been said earlier, providing a detailed critique of these modes of thought is too large a topic for this article, entire books have been written about the subject. Hopefully, the reasons why some find a pathological aversion to post-critical thought are now more illuminated. For those interested, I find that the work of Alfred North Whitehead provides a possible escape route from these modes of thought as is evident from my choice of quotations. Whitehead’s strategy is to unsuppress the forgotten premises, and to make every philosopher from Locke to Kant sing a remarkably different tune. Footnotes2Plato explains this route beautifully:

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism possesses an immunity to post-Kantian skepticism, since it arises out of a radically embodied characterization of sensory experience. Empiricism, for Whitehead, does not mean paying attention only to raw sense data devoid of necessary connections, as in Hume. Like Kant, Whitehead has a more textured conception of fact, or what is given to us experientially prior to cognitive operations of any sort. Time and space, as Shaviro points out, are not categories of the understanding added to experience after the fact, but the inner and outer modes of intuition given as our immediately felt connection with the body and the world. Of course, our intuitions of space and time are not entirely immediate, since we feel these with the body and so experience them through the mediation of our perceptual organs. But these organs are experienced by us immediately, and the flow of sensation through the nerves of our own body is clear evidence of causation. The raw sensa, or bare universals, that Hume mistakenly assumed were the atoms of perceptual experience are actually a later cognitive abstraction.

What is required to banish the phenomena of our nightmares is not to explain them away with the dialectical light of reason, but merely to rub our eyes and politely interrogate them. Perhaps then we will discover that they are not so terrifying at all. In fact, they may be just like us.