19 September 2010

Unpacking: A Close Reading of Thesis 18 from the Preface of Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit"


Thesis #18 of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is one of the more difficult and important sections of the Preface.  I must have struggled with it for a good 45 minutes or so, and I'm sure that there's still something I'm missing.  But here it is in its entirety; although I'm sure out of context it will be even more baffling.
18.  Further, the living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is in the mediation of self-othering with itself.  This Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity, and is for this very reason the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its antithesis [the immediate simplicity].  Only this self-restoring sameness, or this reflection in otherness within itself--not an original or immediate unity as such--is the True.  It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual.  (Hegel 10)
Oddly enough, just writing all that out sort of helped clarify a lot of things for me that were still bothering me after I put the book down last night.  But anyway, here is the analysis from the back of my book:
18.  True Substance is a being that truly is Subject, i.e. which only is itself in so far as it alienates itself from itself, and is then able to posit itself in and through what is thus alien.  It cannot exist as a simple, positive starting-point, but only as part of a self-departing, self-returning movement, which both negates itself in indifferent, external otherness, and then reasserts itself as the negation of all such otherness.  (Hegel 497)
Okay, so one of the assumptions inherent in this is that Truth, as a Substance in the universe, can only be expressed in parts subjectively, using a person as a channel, using many people, in discussion and argument to figure it (Truth) out completely, at least for the moment in which the discussion is taking place.  This is at least my very brief understanding what phenomenology is all about: something only existing when it is noticed by another existing something, outside itself.  That is what I think Hegel means by "simple negativity" for truth as a subject: it only can know what it is by knowing what it is not.  Otherwise it would still be an "immediate simplicity," the opposite of a "simple negativity," and would only be a small fraction of the fleeting Substance of Truth.
The "Immediate Simplicities" are the subjective points that each of the people in the picture are making to each other.  By cancelling out what is not part of the truth (which may have been part of an older truth), they are able to reach an understanding between their two opposing sides of an argument.  This is where the "bifurcation" (the division of something into two branches) takes place, and this momentary version of the truth is realized.  Then the truth will go back to inform the people again, so that they can use it for a later argument to discover what the truth is at that later time.  And this entire cycle is what The True is, completely, from the very beginning to the very end, which will continually repeat itself, since the truth is never set in stone, is never absolute, but must constantly be figured out.  Only by this complete cycle in its totality, by the spirit of truth realizing itself as a result of realizing what it is not, can a truth be established as truth.
I think I may have just been illuminated about what the name of my blog means.



Works Cited:
Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

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