Contradiction

Contradiction is a kind of logical judgment of error in things said. It applies when things said are either syntactically or semantically incompatible with one another. To be incompatible is to be incapable of “properly” coexisting in a single context or unity of apperception. Aristotle strongly emphasized this normative aspect of the principle of noncontradiction.

In the syntactic case, the concern is with purely formal rules for the well-formedness of expressions. A syntactic contradiction would be something like “A, and also not-A”, where either A and not-A have both been explicitly said, or both are implied by things that have been said. In this case, we need know nothing at all about the meaning of “A”. We are only concerned with generic rules for the application of logical operators like “and” and “not”.

In the semantic case, contradiction involves the specific meanings of concrete expressions, applied together to some one meant reality. Unlike the syntactic case, background knowledge is essential to judging whether or not meanings can compatibly coexist. We may also think we know the whole story when we don’t. New facts or understandings may change our generalizations and schemas of classification. (See also Interpretation; Error.)

Nothing follows from the principle of noncontradiction alone. Given some inputs, we can judge whether or not they are contradictory — by rigorous analysis in the syntactic case, and up to some level of practical confidence in the semantic case.

Hegel sometimes used the word “contradiction” in an idiosyncratic, highly metonymical or metaphorical way, straining language to the breaking point as part of a larger effort to draw out the complexities and subtleties involved in applying logic to concrete meanings and the real world, when no vocabulary existed for many of the subtleties involved. (See also Three Logical Moments.)

Some people, mainly Marxists, have talked about real-world conflict and social injustice as “contradictions” objectively existing in the world. Conflict and injustice are very real, but it is a misunderstanding of Hegelian dialectic and an inappropriate mixing of levels to associate them directly with contradiction. (See also Contradiction vs Polarity.)

Especially since the mid-20th century, many authors have pointed out common errors and issues associated with too-easy assumptions about identity. (See also Aristotelian Identity.) The Žižekian school has developed a sophisticated variant of the old talk about objective contradictions, by explaining it largely in terms of the issues with identity. If this were just a new metonymical or metaphorical usage in the style of Hegel, we could simply note that “contradiction” is being said in a nonstandard way, and move on. But unfortunately, the Žižekians have gone further, and also claimed that the logical principle of noncontradiction ultimately fails to hold, even though this logical (or illogical) claim is not necessary to address the social concerns that according to them need to be addressed, or to explain the things that according to them need to be explained. (See Split Subject, Contradiction.) We have to be very careful in moving back and forth between very different levels of analysis like this.

Just as on an interpersonal level we can reduce conflict by omitting those too-easy assumptions about identity, omitting those assumptions with respect to things said — and thus making more distinctions — also greatly reduces the potential for logical contradiction.

It is a category mistake to talk about contradiction driving events. Actual change does not result in contradiction either. Different things are true at different times, and the explanation for that is not “contradiction” but change.

Why is this important? The simple answer is that denial of the principle of noncontradiction allows someone to argue absolutely anything, including nonsensical and false things, and to sophistically respond to any refutation by simply introducing more inconsistency. This rejection of responsibility effectively ends the possibility of dialogue.

There ought to be no conflict between social criticism and the possibility of dialogue. Social criticism should be based on shareable, rational analysis. It may be unreasonable to suppose that all social issues can be resolved through dialogue (see Stubborn Refusal), but I do think all those concerned with doing something about those issues ought to be able to resolve their differences through dialogue.

I think Brandom has made an epic contribution in this area by finding a new way to simultaneously affirm — as Aristotle implicitly anticipated long ago — both the world’s recalcitrance to mastery and identity and its fundamentally rational, intelligible character. (See also Self-Evidence?)

Acts in Brandom and Žižek

Both Brandom and Žižek recognize what Brandom has called the “world’s stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”, and yet hold out for the possibility of transformative action.

Brandom ingeniously secures the practical reality of choice through the indirect route of an Enlightenment idea that we can only be bound by values to which we have at least implicitly committed ourselves. The recalcitrance of the Real prevents this from becoming a subjectivism, specifically by virtue of his complementary thesis that the meaning of our commitments is not up to us. But actively taking responsibility for things beyond our power turns out to indirectly have a kind of efficacy. Retrospectively, this may change meant reality.

A lengthy article by Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner discusses agency in Žižek from various angles. This account at least is happily free of the Badiouian narrowing of consideration to a few inflationarily conceived “exceptional” acts that afflicts some of the Žižekians (see “Hard” Kantianism?). The concern is with acts in general, and subjectivity in general. Here I can find a good deal more common ground.

For Žižek, our desires are not our own, but the split in the subject that makes us never fully ourselves also connects us with the social. A subject is contrasted with subjectivation. Although passive, alienating subjectivation is inescapable, it also can never be complete. A subject is positively constituted by its own nonidentity or “impossibility” (i.e., impossibility of complete identity with itself). According to Vighi and Feldner, “this decentred kernel of otherness embodies my self-consciousness, the only place where I have a chance to locate the truth about myself”. The conscious activity of individuals is said to be not free, but we can nonetheless accomplish a free act through identifying with the destabilizing effect of what is “in us more than ourselves”. They argue that Žižek does not hypostatize an abstract negativity in the way that I think Sartre did.

Žižek himself wrote that “To ‘pass to the act’ means to assume the risk that what I am about to do will be inscribed into a framework whose contours elude my grasp” (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 31). This connects agency with the Lacanian Real. He also wrote that freedom corresponds to “my ability to choose/determine which causes will determine me. ‘Ethics’, at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility” (The Parallax View, p. 203).

So, despite huge differences in approach and terminology and Žižek’s negative comments about Brandom, on this question at this level of abstraction, there is a similar practical import.

“Hard” Kantianism?

Kantian Deeds (2010) by Henrik Jøker Bjerre is a book-length argument for a Žižekian Kant, with extensive, relatively polite polemical discussion of Brandom and John McDowell. Non-Žižekian readings of Kant are labelled “Soft”, while a Žižekian reading is introduced as a uniquely “Hard” Kantianism.

The main ingredients seem to be an identification of Kantian freedom with voluntarism; literal endorsement of Kant’s argument that reason necessarily leads to antinomies, as a segue to Žižekian contradiction; and a Heideggerian argument for the importance of metaphysics and the question of Being. Bjerre combines these in an attempt to justify claims for the importance of an extraordinary, “extra-moral” morality in Kant alongside ordinary morality. Ordinary morality is made to sound more like social conformity.

Each part of the above summary seems wrong to me. Here I won’t repeat contents of the above-linked articles that give some of my reasons.

While I welcome the elementary insight that Kantian morality involves more than rule-following, there seems to be no real textual basis in Kant for the “extra-moral” morality of a nonrational “surplus” of the deed that this book imports or invents. Simultaneously, the breadth and substantiality of Kant’s actual discussions of “ordinary” morality is much diminished, in order to leave a bigger territory for the putative extra-moral.

Dominik Finkelde’s Excessive Subjectivity: Kant, Hegel, Lacan, and the Foundations of Ethics (2017; German edition 2015) continues along a similar path. “To put it plainly, for Kant the subject is either premoral or extramoral” (p. 8). If Kant said anything suggesting that, I would attribute it to his rather pessimistic view of human nature, not to any endorsement of arbitrariness. We are treated to the spectacle of a Kant made to sound like a Badiouian decisionist. Again, a “deed” presented as fundamentally irrational is everything, and this is supposed to be the way to social emancipation. This is illustrated by a description of Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to sit in the back of the bus as effectively a Badiouian disruptive “event” leading to a new arbitrary “truth”. Never mind that racial segregation in the U.S. was an obvious, egregious violation of ordinary Kantian respect and universality, which any truly honest person could see as irrational all along. Rosa Parks’ action was not at all arbitrary, but rather full of meaning.

Neither social emancipation nor philosophy benefits from all this metaphysics and all this apologetic for arbitrariness. Moreover, the denigration of reason and ordinary ethics as inherently “conservative” weakens the real basis of emancipation. (See also Kantian Will; In Defense of Ordinariness.)

Split Subject, Contradiction

The Žižekians, referencing Lacan, like to talk about a “split subject” that is noncoincident with itself. In broad terms, I think this is useful. What we call subjectivity is divided, and lacking in strong unity. (See also Pure Negativity?; Acts in Brandom and Žižek.) But it seems to me that if we try to speak carefully about this, we should not then go on using singular articles like “the” or “a”.

I tend to think subjectivity is not just fractured or un-whole, but also actually consists of a complex overlay of different things that we tend to blur together. In particular, it seems clear to me that a common-sense, biographical “self” whose relative unity over time is trackable by relation to the “same” physical body — or by Lockean continuity of memory — is not the same as what we might in a given moment view from a distance as an individualized ethos, or up close as a unity of apperception. This is, I believe, the same distinction that Brandom discusses in terms of sentience and sapience.

Ethos and unity of apperception, and their constituent values and conceptions — the very things that most properly say “I”, and play the functional role of an ethical “subject”, or of a subject of knowledge — are profoundly involved with language, social relations, and what Lacan in his earlier work called the Symbolic and the “Other”. These instances of sapience are pure forms whose identity can only be expressed in terms of sameness of form — nonempirical, but inseparable from a larger ethical world — and simultaneously intimate to us, but by no means strictly “ours”. (See also Self, Subject.)

Where I am still a bit torn is that I also feel that emotions — which I’ve been locating on the former, “self” side — are fundamental to subjectivity as a whole, but I have theoretically separated them from the main locus of transcendental ethical and epistemic subjectivity, even though they play an essential role in making it possible. One logical solution would be to say this just means subjectivity as a whole is more than just ethical and epistemic. Another would be to say that there is a separate kind of emotional subjectivity. I’m not entirely satisfied yet, because I think feeling combines these, but the noncoincidence of our factual selves with our ethical and epistemic being seems very important in understanding how we overcome empirical limitations.

The Žižekians will perhaps remind us that they were not talking about a split between self and subject, but about a split within the subject. I think we habitually overstate the degree of unity and identity we attribute to selves, subjects, and things in general, so I’m fine with that, too. They also want to expand this into a general “ontological” point, which I see as a semantic point.

Perhaps the Žižekians are more comfortable talking about “a” or “the” subject in part due to their doctrine of the ubiquity of contradiction. Todd McGowan in Emancipation After Hegel (2019) nicely distinguishes the Žižekian notion from the old confusion between contradiction and conflict or polarity — and from immediate self-contradiction — but still wants to maintain that the standard logical law of noncontradiction ultimately “refutes itself”, and that Hegel thought this as well. This argument combines a laudable awareness of some of the practical issues with identity, with a logically invalid use of the distinction between explicit and implicit self-contradiction.

Hegel meditated profoundly on the difficulties of applying logic to meaningful content and to real life. He strained language to the breaking point trying to express his conclusions.

On the frontiers of mathematical logic today, the so-called law of identity has been replaced by a requirement to specify identity criteria for each formally defined type, and identity in general has been weakened to isomorphism. (See also Form as a Unique Thing.)

Real-world applications of strong identity typically involve loose “extensional” reference to things assumed to be the same, and a lot of forgetting. The linchpin of old “identity thinking” was inattention to difficulties of formalization from ordinary language — basically an illegitimate moving back and forth between formal and informal domains, resulting in lots of homogenizing confusion of things that ought to be distinct. Weaker, “intensional” assertions about identity as specifiable sameness of form make it the exception rather than the rule. What come first conceptually are distinctions within the manifold, not pre-synthesized things already possessed of identity. Where things are not the same to begin with, contradiction — far from being omnipresent — is not even potentially at issue. (See also Self-Evidence?)

Meanwhile, Sellars and Brandom have revived material inference about meant realities in contrast to formal logic, which deals with purely syntactic relations between presumed extensional “things” with presumed identity. Things Kant and Hegel said about Understanding and Reason can be nicely understood in terms of the relation between syntactic inference about symbolic terms standing for formless extensional “things” and substantive, material inference about the actual form of meant realities. Especially in the reading of Hegel, not having the resource of this distinction available now seems positively crippling.

Finally, Aristotle, who originated the law of noncontradiction as a kind of ethical imperative, and stands in the background to all of Hegel’s discussions of logic, was himself rather cautious and tentative about applying identity to real things, and in his logic was also mainly concerned with (composition of) material inferences, which have more to do with the actual form of things .

Hegel never violated Aristotle’s imperative not to say opposite things about the same thing said in the same way. What he did was to constantly point out the gap between reality and traditional semi-formal logic applied to ordinary language — not to encourage us to reject logic, but rather to refine and sublimate it. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic.)

Pure Negativity?

I’m still hoping to arrive at a more constructive engagement with the Žižek school of contemporary Hegel interpretation. Žižek’s reading is more “metaphysical” than the Aristotle-and-Brandom-inspired one I’ve been developing here, and I’m not fond of his penchant for showmanship, but there is a broad proximity of concerns. I’m looking now at Sbriglia and Žižek, Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism (2020). The unusual “materialism” at issue here is openly proclaimed to be a development of German idealism. The contributors seek to distinguish themselves from other recent currents of so-called “cultural materialism”, “new historicism”, “new materialism”, and “object-oriented ontology”. I’ve briefly reviewed one of the representative works from which the Žižekians want to distinguish themselves.

Common to all these trends, the Žižek school, and the work pursued here is a rejection of a classic Cartesian Subject. As against the others, the Žižek school and I both also want to nonetheless affirm the importance of subjectivity. While I am not a Lacanian, I also think Lacan deserves serious engagement, and the Žižek school is pursuing that.

Sbriglia and Žižek write that “the self-limitation of the phenomenal that renders matter un-whole, the fact that the phenomenal field is in itself never ‘all’, never a complete, consistent whole, is strictly correlative to subjectivity as such” (p. 10, emphasis in original). Mladen Dolar in his contribution writes, “Subject is rather the very impossibility of substance to be substance” (p. 38). Žižek in his contribution adds, “when Kant asserts the limitation of our knowledge, Hegel does not answer him by claiming he can overcome the Kantian gap…. the Kantian gap already is the solution: Being itself is incomplete…. This dimension gets lost in Fichte and Schelling, who both assert intellectual intuition” (pp. 107-108, emphasis in original). This seems exactly right.

I would add that for similar reasons having to do with criteria of identity, there is an impossibility like Dolar’s (developed by Aristotle himself in the central books of the Metaphysics) for Aristotelian “what it was to have been” a thing to just be the kind of quasi-grammatical substrate that came to be commonly understood by Latin substantia. The above-quoted formulations are a big advance over notions of mere epistemic incompleteness due to the inexhaustibility of a naively conceived in-itself. In my more Aristotelian language, not only do we rational animals never have a completely univocal perspective on the whole, but we should not be afraid to speak of equivocal determination in the real. Equivocal determination is still determination, but it is incomplete.

My only caveat to Sbriglia and Žižek’s formulation would be on the Schellingian sound of “self-limitation of the phenomenal”. It seems to me the Žižek school sometimes wants to put a Schellingian spin on Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” claim, which would be an unfortunate regression. I think Hegel not only wanted to sharply distinguish his perspective from that of Schellingian identity philosophy, but succeeded in doing so.

Sbriglia and Žižek use the picturesque Lacanian language of a “hole in reality” as a defining characteristic of subjectivity, commenting that “the inaccessibility of the transcendent In-itself… is a result of the inscription of the perceiving subject into reality” (ibid). I prefer to minimize implicit identity claims, and thus to say (some) subjectivity rather than “the” subject. In some contexts, I think this is merely a terminological difference. Insofar as they just mean a decentered subjectivity with roots in the unconscious, the formulation seems fine, provided “perceiving” is taken as referring to something like Hegelian “Perception” and higher levels of the Phenomenology, not to something like his intended-to-be-discarded starting point of putative empirical “Sense Certainty”.

I get less comfortable with their talk about “the” subject as an abyss of pure negativity. Here I hear echoes of Sartre. While this is neither a substantial Cartesian-medieval intellectual soul nor even a Husserlian transcendental Ego, talk about “pure” negativity or an “abyss” seems to imply a kind of immanent infinity, albeit stripped of traditional theological associations. Sartre used this kind of metaphysics of negativity to bolster an extreme voluntarist anthropology, ironically transferring claims from old bad theology to the service of a strident atheism. Alain Badiou, who is a significant influence on the Žižek school, began as a Sartrean, and is perhaps the most outspoken extreme voluntarist today. I think it is a disservice to bring Sartre and Badiou into the reading of Hegel. Voluntarism is at root a naked expression of the attitude of one-sided Mastery, and should have no place in a discourse that aims at emancipation. Emancipation cannot come from an imposition of will. It comes rather from the increase of justice through processes furthering concrete realization of the autonomy of reason and mutual recognition. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Claims of immanent infinity may get a bit of added credibility these days, due to circulating complaints against Kantian “finitude”. It is easy to superficially enlist quotes from Hegel that appear to support such complaints. Here I want to explicitly defend the Kantian perspective of the essential finitude of human reality, relating it back to the happily rather than unhappily finite perspective of Aristotle, and supporting that by an Aristotelian-Brandomian reading of Hegel. A perspective of human finitude can also draw on charitable understandings of much traditional wisdom.

I do also think there is an inherently good but distinctly inhuman Hegelian “negative infinity” that can be anonymously intimate to our finite reality and the formation of our values, through the mediation of second nature, without actually being “us” or “ours” or immanent in us. Even if that negative infinity is to be identified with the “pure Self” Sbriglia and Žižek mention from Hegel’s 1805-06 lectures, it should not be identified with any empirical or existentialist or common-sense self. The Žižek school’s way of expressing this is to speak of a “split subject” or a split in the subject. Various strands of traditional wisdom can be seen in retrospect to have bearing on such a distinction as well. Members of the Žižek school would probably eschew any favorable reference to “traditional wisdom” of the kind I am making here as incompatible with academic-leftist credentials important to them, but Hegel himself often showed an irenic and even valorizing attitude on matters of this sort. (See also Acts in Brandom and Žižek; Self, Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Johnston’s Pippin

Adrian Johnston’s A New German Idealism just arrived, and I’m taking a quick look. It is mainly concerned with Slavoj Žižek’s work. But for now, I’m just concerned with chapter 2 — where Johnston launches a broadside against “deflationary” readings of Hegel, particularly the one he attributes to Robert Pippin — and the preface.

Johnston can be forgiven for not addressing Pippin’s 2018 work on the Logic, but I do not understand why he ignores my favorite book by Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy (2008).

There, Pippin dwells extensively on Hegel’s Aristotelian side. Much of interest could be said on what it means to be Aristotelian in a post-Kantian context. Many received views will be challenged by such an examination. (For a beginning, see Aristotle and Kant.) As I have said, I read Hegel as both Kantian and Aristotelian (as well as original).

In any case, Johnston seems to think Pippin in Hegel’s Idealism (1989) was intent on reducing Hegel to Kant. That book was indeed concerned to show a strong Kantian element in Hegel. But I did not think of it as reductive. If anything, I read Pippin’s book as a salutary response to those who want to reduce Hegel to a pre-Kantian, and to read Hegel as rolling back from Kant rather than moving forward from Kant. Because he assumes a bad old subjectivist reading of Kant, Johnston seems to think Pippin’s reading of Hegel necessarily rules out the possibility of seeing a realist side to Hegel.

The whole challenge of Hegel is to understand how it it is possible in his terms to be both Critical and realist, without engaging in logical nonsense. (But see Realism, Idealism.) This sort of thing typically requires significant semantic labor, but the achievement of such semantic elaboration is the whole point. Here I worry where Johnston intends to go with his defense of “undialectical” distinctions in the preface. It is one thing to recognize that Hegel does not intend to just do away with Understanding and its distinctions, and quite another to treat those distinctions as final. (See also Univocity.)

Johnston’s lengthy discussion of the positive value of Understanding in the preface does not address how it relates to dialectical transitions. He mainly wants to defend Žižek’s tactic of presenting forced binary choices at particular moments. In particular cases and circumstances this conceivably can be good pedagogy, but it is the details that matter, and Johnston offers no advice on how we are to distinguish a pedagogically good forced choice from a bad one.

(I suspect Žižek’s tactic may be related to his friend Badiou’s defense of the Maoist “One divides into Two” line, which always seemed like blustering nonsense to me. There have been some very rational strands within Marxism; I do not comprehend why someone as intelligent as Badiou would prefer to apologize for the coarsest and most anti-intellectual, but to a lesser extent Althusser did as well. See also Democracy and Social Justice.)

(Worlds away from this, Brandom has a wonderfully clear account of the nonfinality of Understanding’s particular conclusions, illustrated precisely by its very important positive role in the recognition and resolution of error, in which the operations of the Understanding on its own terms give rise to dialectical transitions at the level of Reason, understood in terms of the revision of commitments and possibly of concepts.)

Johnston also seems to assume there is something necessarily reductive about a non-ontological (or not primarily ontological) reading of Hegel. Again, I don’t see why.

I think Aristotle’s metaphysics was basically a semantic investigation, just like his physics. It is the historic forcing of this inquiry back from the wide universe of meaning onto narrow registers of being and existence that I see as reductive.

Based on the work of Olivier Boulnois on the role of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus in the reinterpretation of metaphysics as ontology, I have come to think that in general, modern emphasis on ontology tends to reflect what I take to be historically a medieval Scotist mystification of things Aristotle approached in clearer terms we should recognize today as mainly semantic. (For what it’s worth, the homonymous use of “ontology” in computer science is also mainly semantic.)

Metaphysics or “first philosophy” or “wisdom” was supposed to help us with higher-order understanding, not to be a place where strange existence claims are made.