Review of Lenin’s State and Revolution (1917)

Lenin’s State and Revolution, composed during the summer months of 1917 (between two revolutions), is praxis embodied in text. While its content is ostensibly theoretical, the corrosive criticism it contains simultaneously served practical ends. The work may therefore be viewed in two fairly distinct formal lights: first, qua Marxist political treatise; second, qua polemic. But, in true dialectical fashion, Lenin’s two central motifs constitute an inseparable unity. They interweave with one another, sundering apart at one moment only to again coalesce in the next. Lenin distinguishes himself from many other dialecticians in this work, however. For while he remains faithful to the oscillating (even hypnotic) method of presentation that typifies dialectical reasoning, his style nevertheless retains its lucidity. His examination is thoroughgoing, yet the conclusions it yields are unambiguous. It is at once a testament to the author’s political genius as it is to the demands of the times in which it was written, bearing the stamp of irreducible brilliance (contingency) alongside the incumbent historical conditions (necessity).

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Competing Determinisms: Boethius, Kant, and Schelling on the Relation between Fate and Providence

Reading through Kant’s excellent 1795 political essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” last night, I happened across and interesting passage regarding the relation between Fate and Providence. Since this is a topic I became interested in through Schelling’s discussion of it in his 1802 Philosophy of Art, it captured my attention with exceptional force. It runs as follows:

The mechanical process of nature visibly exhibits the purposive plan of producing concord among men, even against their will and indeed by means of their very discord. This design, if we regard it as a compelling cause whose laws of operation are unknown to us, is called fate. But if we consider its purposive function within the world’s development, whereby it appears as the underlying wisdom of a higher cause, showing the way towards the objective goal of the human race and predetermining the world’s evolution, we call it providence.[1]

The italicized words are his own, so let it not be thought that I am reading any undue emphasis into his meaning. And, while its mention must be regarded as transitional, a remark made in passim, so to speak, it nonetheless reveals an interesting philosophical tradition underlying the distinction between the two forms of determinism. According to this tradition, Fate operates efficiently/ætiologically (as a causa efficiens), while Providence functions purposively/teleologically (as a causa finalis). This difference was first introduced to discursive prominence by the sixth-century philosopher Boethius, who in his masterpiece The Consolation of Philosophy writes that

[t]he generation of all things, and the whole course of mutable natures and of whatever is in any way subject to change, take their causes, order, and forms from the unchanging mind of God. This divine mind established the manifold rules by which all things are governed while it remained in the secure castle of its own simplicity. When this government is regarded as belonging to the purity of the divine mind, it is called Providence; but when it is considered with reference to the things which it moves and governs, it has from very early times been called Fate.[2]

In other words, viewing the determination of objects and persons, from the standpoint of Fate, their sequence seems wholly natural, impersonal. Conversely, its interpretation as an effect of Providence would have the succession proceed in a spiritual, personal manner.

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Reflection on Kant’s First Two Critiques

I just finished reading Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Having thus reached another benchmark on my journey through the major works and essays of Immanuel Kant, I feel this is a good space to pause and reflect on the substance of Kant’s thought.

Apart from the obvious rigor and judiciousness with which Kant undertook his first two Critiques, the nobility of the man’s thought cannot be too highly esteemed. The distinctions he draws, however tedious, are central to the feasibility of his system. It works as a functioning whole, despite its unfortunate dualisms and the murky connection which ostensibly unites them (“freedom,” according to the second Critique).

So, without going too much into the specifics of Kant’s argumentation (an exhaustive discussion would prove far too long for popular presentation), a few words might be said about the general “direction of fit” in his first two major works.

The Critique of Pure Reason deals with theoretical cognition. It moves from objects given to us by sensory intuition and proceeds to the categories of our understanding and their derived principles by which we make such objects intelligible. The second Critique, by contrast, deals with practical volition. It proceeds from the moral law prescribed by our will to a formal principle (the famed Categorical Imperative) to fundamental concepts of good and evil and then finally to the world of sensibility, which we hope to effect by our rational action upon it. This can be (analytically) organized as follows:

First Critique: Noumenal source of intuition → Sensibility (Aesthetic) → Pure concepts or categories of the understanding (Logic) → Natural principles

Second Critique: Noumenal source of volition → Moral principles → Pure concepts of the understanding (good and evil) → the Sensible world

An interesting incongruity lies between the implied noumenal sources in each case. (The difficulty in any positive description of these sources is obviously compounded by the fact that Kant claims that we cannot say anything about their constitution). In the first case, it would appear that the objects in-themselves (apart from our cognition of them) are the causa noumena of objective appearances. In the second case, it would appear that the transcendental freedom of the will is the causa noumenon of the moral law. Might this be a contradiction? It is difficult to say, because Kant only allows for noumena to occupy a purely negative place in his exposition.

FWJ Schelling, color photograph

Man as an irony within nature

Schelling and the
presence of evil

IMAGE: Color photograph of FWJ Schelling

Western philosophy after Augustine traditionally accorded to evil a merely negative ontological status. That is to say, evil was considered to be the result of a privatio boni, or privation of goodness. Evil’s essential feature thus appeared in this model as absence. One might well have asked: “What specifically is absent from evil?” — to which it would be answered that evil indicates a lack of the universal goodness contained in God’s original creation. Evil was thought to stem from the imperfections inherent in created substance and the negativity this entailed (“the so-called malum metaphysicum,” as Schelling chided),[1] a postlapsarian fragmentation resulting from the first act of moral evil, or sin.

This explanation was meant as a monistic solution to the theodical problem of the origin of evil. It aimed to preserve God’s predicate omnibenevolence without resorting to a Manichaean dualism.[2] This conception of evil further allowed for the development of modern theodicy, a genre perhaps best represented by Leibniz’s eighteenth century masterpiece.[3] For now the appearance of evil could be seen as only setting the stage, so to speak, for the realization/revelation of the greater glory of God. The drama of this struggle with evil was severely curtailed, however, for the divine victory (the apocatastasis) was already guaranteed from the beginning — or from eternity, rather. The faithful could rest at ease, assured that Providence would prevail. Continue reading

The Tragically Sublime: Schelling’s Metaphysics of Fate and Freedom in his Philosophy of Art

The discovery that man’s actions fail to produce their intended results, that the world does not bend itself to his will — this is the first instance of his spiritual alienation.[1] For herein lies the recognition that the world is not of man’s making, the understanding that nature obeys laws utterly removed from his desires. Such laws, insofar as they are intelligible, do not yet threaten mankind’s claim to freedom as such. Their necessity is only empirical. That is to say, the limitations they impose are of a merely physical character. In this respect, these laws do not jeopardize man’s moral autonomy. Rather, they are seen to possess a sort of brute factuality, an objective regularity. So long as man exempts himself from their mechanism, his freedom is preserved. His actions would thus simply be subject to material constraint.[2]

Another necessity presents itself to experience, however, of a far more sinister aspect. This necessity, by contrast, appears irreconcilable with man’s sense of free will. Its source is likewise external (heteronymous), but its precise origin remains shrouded in obscurity. As such, its machinery is wholly incomprehensible.[3] Where the one necessity persists in universality, the other exhibits itself as entirely particular.[4] In other words, the determinations of the first sort are understood to follow a consistent, uniform pattern; conversely, those which issue from the second variety seem hopelessly arbitrary, catastrophic. The apparent indeterminacy of the latter’s foundation does not alter its necessity, however. Its dictates must not, for this reason, be thought any less binding. On the contrary, the decrees of this invisible necessity govern the outcome of men’s actions with irresistible effect, deciding their fortunes without their consent.

This latter necessity is commonly referred to as fate. Qua absolute necessity, it is the essential annihilation of human freedom. Our activities are thus revealed in their impotence: we are not the masters of our destiny. It is on this account that the intuition of fate is always accompanied by a distinct feeling of horror. The moral freedom we so fervently assert as essential to our subjectivity is contradicted outright by the objective necessity of fate. Each side (subjective and objective alike) claims total sovereignty, and can scarcely tolerate its opposite. Yet both seem to contain an equal degree of reality. How can this be? To admit the one would surely be to negate the other. Are these two sides not incommensurable?

For the idealist F.W.J. Schelling, this paradox was definitive of the human condition. Indeed, it was viewed as the central problematic at work in transcendental philosophy, since the very possibility of this philosophy rests on the presumption that free will exists. In his 1800 System of Transcendental Idealism, Schelling explains the connection between freedom and fatal necessity as “a relationship whereby men through their own free action, and yet against their will, must become cause of something which they never wanted, or by which, conversely, something must go astray or come to naught which they have sought for freely and with the exertion of all their powers.”[5] Schelling here confirms much of what has been hitherto described: namely, that one’s free actions engender unimaginable consequences, regardless of intention; moreover, that the real results of his endeavors appear totally divorced from their ideal basis.

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Note Concerning the Metaphysical Structure of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

In reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason today (I’m attempting my first reading of it in toto, from cover to cover), I had a revelation as to the structure of the “Transcendental Logic” section of the book’s greater “Doctrine of Elements.” It came to me that the subdivision of the “Transcendental Logic” into “Transcendental Analytic” and “Transcendental Dialectic” corresponds respectively to the classic philosophical distinction between general metaphysics (metaphysica generalis) and special metaphysics (metaphysica specialis). There is no doubt in my mind that others have reached this insight before me. Nevertheless, its truth struck me with such force that I feel compelled to publicly elaborate on it, to speak out loud. In all honesty, it dawned upon me in a manner akin to what Kant would have derided as an “intellectual intuition” (though his Idealist successors would not discourage me from this claim).

The pure categories of the understanding, which Kant deduces in the “Transcendental Analytic,” fall under what is traditionally described as general metaphysics. There are twelve categories, which fall under the broader classifications of Quantity (Unity, Multiplicity, Totality), Quality (Reality, Negation, Limit), Relation (Substance/Accidence, Causality, Community), and Modality (Possibility/Impossibility, Existence/Non-existence, Necessity/Contingency). If my memory is correct, these are the categories. Some of the wording might be slightly off. In any case, however, Kant argues that these pure concepts, transcendentally deduced, may be validly applied to objects given to us by the manifold of intuition (via the Transcendental Æsthetic). Determinations which rely upon their proper conceptual application are held to be mathematically (in terms of Quantity and Quality) constitutive and dynamically (in terms of Relation and Modality) regulative, though in the latter case these dynamics are nonetheless empirically constitutive. These, Kant argues, metaphysically ground the legal (i.e., lawful) possibility of any future science.

Conversely, the ideas of reason, which are the subject of the “Transcendental Dialectic,” relate to the three venerable sciences of special metaphysics: 1) psychology/pneumatology, 2) cosmology, and 3) theology. In the second book of the Dialectic, entitled “Dialectical Inferences,” each of the three chapters respectively matches up with these disciplines. The “paralogisms” deal with transcendental psychology, the celebrated “antinomies” deal with transcendental cosmology, and the “ideal” deals with transcendental theology. Since Kant believes that these “sophistic” sciences of speculation transgress the bounds of possible experience (taking them beyond the limits of space and time), he declares that their so-called insights amount to nothing more than illusion. Nevertheless, he reminds us that human reason naturally elicits speculation on these matters, almost ineluctably, and that a rigorously critical attitude must be adopted in order to guard against its seductions.

The relation of ancient skepticism to Hegel’s problem of the criterion in the Phenomenology of Spirit

Image: Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s
Le retour de Marcus Sextus (1799)

In introducing the method by which his Phenomenology of Spiritis to proceed, G.W.F. Hegel addresses the epistemological “problem of the criterion.” [1] The criterion problem, it turns out, inheres in all finite determinations of truth. For Hegel, the internal contradictions it engenders serve to demonstrate the essential inadequacy of all relative (versus absolute) forms of cognition. It thus facilitates the dialectical unfolding of consciousness as it speculatively approaches Absolute Spirit. This, put simply, is the stated goal of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Beyond examining its merely functional role in this work, however, the reader might observe the way in which the problem of the criterion directly emerges from the context of a discussion of skepticism,[2] which appears in the Introduction. Hegel’s procession from the topic of skepticism to criticism is no accident; indeed, its logic can be seen to mirror his understanding of their historical relation. Did not the historic problem of the criterion arise out of the resolute skepticisms of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, after all? Comparing the remarks in Hegel’s Introduction with some of the pertinent philosophical digressions in his later Lectures on the History of Philosophy, the connection between the logical order of his argument and the history of the event may be further established. Reflexively, this then has recourse to his phenomenological treatment of Skeptical self-consciousness in the second section of the earlier work, in which Hegel dismantles its principle of one-sided negativity by applying the critical method which ancient Skepticism had itself inspired.

Our investigation can thus be understood to contain two integrally related parts. The first claims that Hegel’s movement from the issue of skepticism to the problem of the criterion in the Introduction to the Phenomenology is tacitly modeled after their historical succession. Evidence supporting this assertion will be gathered from his interpretation of Skeptical philosophy in the History of Philosophy. This part of the inquiry is thus of a hermeneutic aspect. Conversely, the second part is oriented critically (one might say “autocritically”) back to Hegel’s answer to the problem of the criterion in the Phenomenology. We will assess the way in which the distinctive brand of self-relating skepticism he develops therein is then applied to the Skeptical self-consciousness as its object, both phenomenologically and historically.

It must be noted from the start that the two parts of this study simultaneously follow from and ground one another. At first glance, the reciprocity of this relation is bound to confuse the reader. But this operation is not as confounding as it may initially seem, and demands no great dialectical rigor. To begin with, Hegel’s methodological solution to the criterion problem presupposes his high regard for ancient Skepticism’s critical enterprise, as well as his concurrent dissatisfaction with its epistemological nihilism. If he did not take seriously the implications of skepticism’s problem of the criterion, he could forego the negativity of dialectic altogether. Hegel would have no reason not to relapse into the dogmatic metaphysical positivism that held sway before the appearance of the Kantian philosophy. On the other hand, if he had not objected to ancient Skepticism’s stubborn disbelief, he would have been comfortable with its purely negative result. Hegel’s critical method, which we seek to apply back to his own system, would thus seem to require that our prior hermeneutic claim be accurate. Oppositely, however, his historical interpretation of skepticism, on which our hermeneutic is based, can equally be seen to presume the critical apparatus he develops in the Introduction to the Phenomenology. Whatever the actual order in which they fell, for the purposes of this essay their logic will coincide. As such, the consequences of each will be borne in mind throughout. Continue reading

Adorno’s critique of Hegel’s theodical philosophy of history in Negative Dialectics

“Our intellectual striving aims at realizing the conviction that what was intended by eternal wisdom, is actually accomplished in the domain of existent, active Spirit, as well as in that of mere Nature. Our mode of treating the subject is, in this aspect, a Theodicaea — a justification of the ways of God — which Leibnitz [sic] attempted metaphysically, in his method, i.e., in indefinite abstract categories — so that the ill that is found in the World may be comprehended, and the thinking Spirit reconciled with the fact of the existence of evil.”[1]

— Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History

“The earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz, and the visible disaster of the first nature was insignificant in comparison with the second, social one, which defies human imagination as it distills a real hell from human evil.”[2]

— Adorno, “After Auschwitz,” Negative Dialectics

It has often been remarked that the twentieth century saw an end to the time-honored genre of theodicy. The senseless destruction of world war, the systematic genocide of peoples, and the advent of nuclear weaponry — all these conspired to cast doubt on the theodical belief in God’s redemption of creation, as well as the congruent Enlightenment belief in the inherent perfectibility of man.[3] Of these horrific events, Auschwitz became the modern synecdoche for man’s capacity for moral evil. For the Frankfurt philosopher and critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, it served to “cure” him of Hegel’s optimistic philosophy of history, perhaps the most grandiose of the philosophical theodicies. Moreover, the historical event of Auschwitz shattered his faith in Hegel’s logical (atemporal) correlate: the speculative reconciliation or amelioration of dialectical contradiction. The idea of a logical progress to the absolute fueled by the annihilation of non-identical (metaphysical) concepts and an historical progress built on similar (only physical) premises – in which the violent means of both are justified by the absolute telos they help facilitate – seemed to Adorno morally perverse. His opposition to the theodical logic of totality would thus structure much of the thought expressed in his later work, especially Negative Dialectics. Or so it will be argued.

Beyond fulfilling a merely hermeneutic duty, however, we shall bracket our exposition of Adorno’s critique of Hegel, framing some pertinent metacritical questions along the way. For instance, the following questions will be asked: How apt is Adorno’s criticism? Is it fair for him to accuse Hegel of failing to give a proper account of the suffering endured throughout history? Was it not Hegel, after all, who so famously described history as “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized”?[4] Finally, is it valid to suggest that a methodological procedure used in determination (Hegel’s so-called “positive dialectic”) gives rise to the political logic of extermination? Continue reading

The absolution of Spirit: Hegel and the speculative infinite

How does one think infinity? The question seems at first to place an unreasonable demand for provisioning an answer; the structure of the human mind immediately appears finite, conditioned. Yet one soon discovers that it is reason itself which places this demand. Man is irrepressibly driven by his rational faculty to apprehend the infinitely unconditioned ground(s) upon which the finite phenomena of experience are grounded. Limitation is anathema to the most primordial desire of humanity. For nothing is more human than to reject the human — to reject finitude and become God.
The spiritual epic of man is thus guided by his cognitive romance with the Absolute, qua true infinity. In the course of its unfolding, philosophers have variously located the metaphysical domain of infinity as either belonging to the structure of the world or the mind. Classical (pre-Kantian) metaphysics naïvely sought infinity in the predicate structure of the world, a world it had imparted with universality by virtue of its deductions. In other words, infinity was for this metaphysics a mere predicate in its determinations, and bore no necessary relation to its subject apart from its copular attachment (God is infinitely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, etc.). Rationalist ontology, pneumatology, cosmology, and theology were borne of its efforts. But cracks began to emerge in its objective edifice, and soon Hume arose to shatter the great deductive systems of philosophy. Only with Kant was universality rehabilitated, and even then only at a price. The phenomenal world was recognized for its objective finitude, but infinity was subjectively retained in the pure (a priori) faculties of the understanding. Within this categorical matrix, objectivity was granted to judgments which arranged the manifold of intuition under the twin categories of universality and necessity.[2] Objective laws could be hoped to have infinite application to finite phenomena. But even then this infinity was strictly formal, hence empty, having been methodologically stripped of empirical (a posteriori) content.[3] The philosophers of subjectivity (Kant, Jacobi, Fichte) had correctly diagnosed the dogmatism of the objective infinite, but the infinite they had replaced it with remained definite in its separation from the finite.

Both such conceptions of infinity (objective and subjective alike) ultimately fell short for Hegel. The objective infinity of being and the subjective infinity of thought each failed in its non-relation to finitude, i.e. its abstract isolation from infinity’s negative. The former thought the world all too gracious in its accommodation of the human mind; the latter, by contrast, “sen[t] man to feed upon husks and chaff.”[4] Always seeking some mediating ground between two dialectical opposites, Hegel hoped to recast abstract infinity and abstract finitude into the concrete unity of the speculative infinite, or the infinitum actu of Spinoza. The notion of the “true” or “good” infinity of speculation recurs throughout Hegel’s mature works, from his early collaboration with Schelling in Faith and Knowledge (1802) to the final edition of his Encyclopedia Logic (1831), his last published work. This is hardly a coincidence. For in Hegel’s estimation, “the true infinite is [my italics] the absolute Idea” — the grounding principle of all genuinely philosophical knowledge.[5] As such, a grasp of this immanent feature of Hegel’s thought is central to an appreciation of his philosophy. With reference to the pertinent texts that deal with this topic, its fine points might be thoroughly excogitated. As the concept takes shape, the speculative implications of its particulars will be briefly discussed, wherever appropriate.

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