Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Essences

The dialectical approach is usually seen as trying to locate the phenomenon-to-be-analyzed in the totality to which it belongs, to bring the wealth of its links to light, and thus to break the spell of fetishizing abstraction: from a dialectical perspective, one should see not just the thing in front of one, but this thing as it is embedded in all the wealth of its concrete historical context. This, however, is the most dangerous trap to be avoided: for Hegel, the true problem is the opposite one, the fact that, when we observe a thing, we see too much of it, we fall under the spell of the wealth of empirical detail, which prevents us from clearly perceiving the notional determination that forms the core of the thing. The problem is thus not that of how to grasp the wealth of determinations, but, precisely, how to abstract from them, how to constrain our gaze and teach it to grasp only the notional determination. We should thus totally reject the pseudo-Hegelian commonplace according to which the Understanding deals with simplified abstractions, while Reason understands things in all their complexity, in the endless intricacy of their mutual relations which only makes them what they are.

Another commonplace tells us that, when engaged in a struggle, we automatically adopt a partial or particular standpoint, while the universal standpoint has to be elevated above the melee of passionate commitments. Hegel's authentic position inverts both these commonplaces: it is the Understanding that insists on the endless complexity of a situation, always pointing out that things are more complicated then they appear ("on the other hand..."), while Reason is the power to simplify, to isolate the essential feature, the one which really matters in a complex situation. Furthermore, this isolation does not emerge out of a distanced"objective" analysis, but through our engaged ("partial") approach to reality. It was Heidegger who elaborated this feature apropos language when, in his reading of "essence or Wessen" as a verb ("essencing"), he provided a de-essentialized notion of essence. Traditionally, "essence" refers to a stable core that guarantees the identity of a thing. For Heidegger, "essence" is something that depends on the historical context, on the epochal disclosure of being that occurs in and through language, the "house of being." His expression "Wessen der Sprache" does not mean the "essence of language" but the "essencing," the making of essences that is the work of language.
language bringing things into their essence, language "moving us" so that things matter to us in a particular kind of way, so that paths are made within which we can move among entities, and so that entities can bear on each other as the entities they are... We share an ordinary language when the world is articulated in the same style for us, when we "listen to language," when we "let it say its saying to us."
For a medieval Christian, say, the "essence" of gold resides in its incorruptibility and sheen, which made it a "divine" metal. For us, it is either a flexible resource to be used for industrial purposes or a metal appropriate for aestheic purposes. For Catholics, similarly, the castrato voice was once the very voice of the angels prior to the Fall. For us today, it is a monstrosity. This change in our sensitivity is sustained by language, hinging on a shift in our symbolic universe. A fundamental violence inhabits this "essencing" ability of language: our world is given a partial twist, it loses its balanced innocence, one partial color gives the tone of the Whole.

Hegel's formulation is very precise here: the reduction to signifying "unary feature" contracts actual;ity to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (Idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is. "Potentiality" is thus not simply the name for the essence of a thing as actualized in the multitude of empirical things of this genre (the idea of a chair as a potentiality actualized in empirical chairs). The multitude of the actual properties of a thing is not simply reduced to the inner core of this thing's "true reality"; what is important is that it accentuates (profiles) the thing's inner potential. When I call someone "my teacher," I thereby outline the horizon of what I expect from him; when I refer to a thing as "a chair," I profile the way I intend to use it. When I observe the world around me through the lenses of a language, I perceive its actuality through the lenses of the potentialities hidden, latently present, within it. In other words, potentiality appears "as such," becomes actual as potentiality, only through language: it is the appellation of a thing that brings to light ("posits") its potentials. In short, impartial observation gets caught up in the "bad infinity" of complex features, without being able to decide on the essentials, and the only way to arrive at true universality is by way of reasoning that is sustained by practical engagement.
- Slavoj Ziziek, "Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism"

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