312. (Sebastian Rödl)

Whenever I write here on the work of the philosopher Sebastian Rödl, as I have done several times before, I wonder whether I am not breaking my own rule, to write on literature and critics, and not, for instance, on music or film. I have stretched that rule, writing about Tillich or Hannah Ginsborg’s aeshetics, but in both cases, it has been in relation to literature, and in the case of Irad Kimhi, the post was largely on, once more, Rödl.  Rödl does not purport to write on aesthetics; he is absorbed by metaphysics, by salvaging it from empiricism, by recuperating, adjusting, and re-deploying the arguments of the German Idealists, Kant in the earlier work, and Hegel in the later work, along with the Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Parmenides, Plato) they passionately read.

In 2018, the same year as his most recent book, Self-Consciousness and Objectivity appeared, Rödl published an essay, “Logic, Being, and Nothing,” in Hegel Bulletin. The essay is continuous not only with Self-Consciousness and Objectivity, but also, more narrowly, with the final pages of Categories of the Temporal. 

The essay is, in its essence, a reading of the opening of Hegel’s Science of Logic, a work that comprised the subject of a seminar taught by Rödl at University of Pittsburgh; more broadly, it interprets the first moves of Hegel’s work through Rödl’s rehabilitated German Idealism (that rehabilitation itself a consequence of his reading of Hegel), emerging from an analytical tradition of Frege, Anscombe, McDowell, and (though he appears here only as a “version” of himself) Wittgenstein.

I cannot attempt to outline or distill what is already condensed and rapid (I imagine it is the seed of a further book), but I can illustrate a central theme or insight of the second half, where the engagement with Hegel is strongest:

All thought thinks itself, knows itself to be a thought, when it thinks anything at all; and when thought would think itself absolutely, it must think nothing at all; in so doing, it is thinking itself to not-think-anything-that-is, and so it contains within its self-consciousness of itself in absolute form the opposition of nothing and being.  To think itself absolutely, it must think nothing; to think nothing, it negates being, and so gives rise to the thought of being, in general (not being determined here or there). In a theological concept, we can imagine God, “I am what I am,” where God is absolute self-consciousness (Logos thinking itself absolutely), and where God implicitly is negating identity with anything else (“I am what I am and not anything, not anything at all, being only what I am”): perhaps a metaphysical version of Barth’s “No!”  In the opposite direction, it can be said that to think being absolutely, is to think nothing at all, since to think being absolutely (not this being or that being) is to think thought itself, in its absolute form, which is itself nothing. Being and nothing are opposed in absolute thought, but also united. They are united in “becoming.” Here the path is most difficult to follow, but crucial is that “becoming” does not transcend “being” and “nothing” as an entity abstracted from both–in that case, it would be impossible for “all” to be “becoming,” suggesting either that “becoming” is a re-instantiation of “being” or else sacrificing, by such a claim, the two terms, “being” and “nothing” upon which “becoming” depends.  I quote:

Precisely because the thought of becoming does not abstract from the difference of being and nothing, and thus is not the thought of being, the recognition of its collapse is not the thought of nothing. As everything flows, all being is lost, always already pushed out. We cannot hold on to anything, for as we try to do so, it has always already disappeared into nothing. But universal becoming is not only being passing away; it is also being arising; not only does being disappear into nothing, ceasing to be; nothing gives way to being, coming to be. In fact, becoming is the unity of these, the unity of Entstehen und Vergehen. Heraclitusflux does not simply stand opposed to Parmenidean being. It registers the negativity that being, and that is, the thought of it, is. Therefore the thought of becoming does not resolve into nothing. Rather, it is the recognition that being as such is negation: it is determinate being, being that is not what it is not, being that excludes, negates, what it is not.

I do not know that I can do much to make Rödl’s claims more salient, but he does offer–even if he doesn’t fully capitalize on–some helpful wordplay: “While it is true that the thought of universal becoming collapses, it does not collapse into nothing.” Instead, becoming is a perpetual collapsing, responding to the perpetual arising into being; “nothing” and “being” figure as forces, or two movements of the same force, defining an axis that is “becoming,” upon which being and nothingness can be known; making it possible to comprehend “nothing” and “being,” “becoming” is Hegel’s “first true universal.” To recognize “becoming” as the first universal is to recognize that being is itself a negation, a denial, a refusal to be something else; and also, though it is not stated here, to recognize that nothing is an affirmation of something that is.

Perhaps this seems like word-play. It is an objection that Rödl takes up halfway through the essay, responding to those who are wary of the absolute abstraction he takes as his subject. After rejecting the empiricist complaint, he turns to one reading of Wittgenstein, a reading that he clearly does not think to be correct (it is the mainline Oxbridge reading, I think):

A more sophisticated rejection of the absolute abstractiona more sophisticated rejection of judgementis the suggestion that in the words in which the absolute abstraction expresses itself language has gone on holiday. This idea emerged from a reading of Wittgenstein, from whom this phrase is taken (cf. PI: § 38) and is associated with the notion that Wittgenstein has succeeded to transcend metaphysics, or philosophy, that his is a form of after-philosophy. The sophisticated rejection rejects as empty the universality of thought thinking itself. It is true, it explains, the opposition of judgement is not comprehended within the concept of what it is to judge. But this is so only because this concept is empty. When we try to put words to this concept, language is celebrating, it is holding a feast. When we see that there is nothing to be thought at this level of generality, we regain our certainty in our particular concrete judgements and their oppositions. In each case, a judgement, for example, snow is white, opposes another judgement, for example, snow is not white; alternatively, it opposes many other judgements, for example, snow is green, or blue, or red. She who judges understands herself to oppose contrary judgements in understanding what it is that she judges, as the case may be, snow is white.

This reasoning rises to the very generality it denounces, saying in each case. If it did not say this, it would provide no satisfaction. Recognizing this, one may raise the sophistication and devise rhetorical strategies of self-effacement: the speech is to dissolve the illusion of its own meaningfulness. This is a futile effort to avoid philosophy, and that is, thought. It cannot but lead to despair, because in every effort to silence philosophy, philosophy will be found to have spoken up all the louder, just like, as Luther describes, every effort to shed sin will be found to be an ever more wicked work of sin. In fact, it is right to associate philosophy with the day of rest, the Sunday, the feast. It requires a cultural-psychological explanation why one might think that the observation that philosophy is language celebrating, language celebrating itself, would indicate that something is amiss with philosophy.

I find this a fascinating response, much more full-throated and poetic than Rödl usually permits himself to be–and revealing of the freight that his reading of Hegel, and his sense of metaphysics carries. The word “Feast,” which he suggests is truer to Wittgenstein than “holiday,” brings with it thoughts of late Heidegger, especially when, in his footnote, he writes that “to hold a feast is not to go away to a place less real than the world of work. It is to gather to mark a centre and source of life and truth.” Whether or not that is the intention, the notion of philosophy as a feast for and of language is one that we meet with in Rödl’s practice as a philosopher, in the works he writes, in the way he writes them–it is one reason I can tell myself that I find reading them invigorating in  a way similar to reading poetry.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s