Christianity As A New Humanism – Historical, Theological, And Philosophical Reflections On The Bible, Hegel, And Robert Musil, Part 2 (Kurt Appel)

The following is the second installment of the second contribution to a series of articles corresponding to chapters of the book Preis der Sterblichkeit: Christentum und Neuer Humanismus (Freiburg im Bresgau: Verlag Herder, 2015), edited by Kurt Appel, translated by Rachel Thomas.  English editor, Carl Raschke.  This volume of essays constitutes represents one of the major works in the new Catholic “cultural humanism” from Central Europe.  The first installment of this article can be found here.  The introduction to the series by Kurt Appel can be found here.

Second Transition – From the Contingency of Existence to the Body of God

The world as mirror of the self and its shattering/ breaking/ cracking – Consciousness, Self-consciousness, Reason and Spirit in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit[1] (hereafter PhS) is arguably the last great historical philosophical blueprint of our era and a writing in which projections, masks, and transitions are of paramount importance, as indicated earlier.  As a point of departure, it picks up where the story of the paradise ends and other texts of fundamental importance to Europe (the story of Abraham, the Odyssey, the Aeneid) have all begun, where wanderers venture forth by routes unknown.

The route of phenomenology is at first glance a journey of despair, and as will be shown, does not have a “happy ending”.  Hegel’s point of departure in the Phenomenology is the (modern) self, which attempts to locate itself and its reflection in the world that is opposed to it, in order to gain power over itself (and others). The fundamental theme of ​​Hegel’s early writings, or Jugendschriften, is that the self expresses itself in its relations with others and its encounters in the world — and thus the self is fundamentally intersubjective, and is always situated “between” the individual and the general self[2].

This notion plays a prominent role in the Phenomenology.  The self sees the world as a mirror in which it is to discover itself. Hegel identifies various stages on this journey of discovery, all of which share the same fate: the self is ultimately unable to find itself in them. The self experiences itself as detached,  as negative in relation to the world it encounters. At the same time, however, the world of the self is not simply a static object; it changes shape in every new figuration.

One might say that in every approach of the self to the world, the latter expresses itself as the new experience of the loss of the former. “Self” and “world” (and “language”) are correlative entities. The world is linguistically and mentally mediated as a world-encounter, and the result is a permanent withdrawal of the self, which cannot find itself in the world, while language echoes the reverberation of this withdrawal experience. Within this indefinability of the self to itself, the world and the self have a radically temporal structure. Thus “time” is not a collection of definable moments within a chronological series, nor a substratum of any event-particles upon which it is based.  Time is the detachment that the self experiences in its encounter with the world in which it is trying to situate itself.

Therefore, every view of the world is a temporal form of detachment. Fundamentally, the self is that which remains location-less with respect to its world and experiences itself as separate. The world is a projection screen for the configurations of various experiences of loss, time as the process of this detachment. Negativity as the perpetual transition of the self and of its constructions of the world and death as the most radical experience of self-detachment are interpenetrating spheres which in turn, as it will be later shown, lead to the idea of God.

At this point it should be emphasized once again that,  the self is not an object nor a worldless subject, but rather a linguistically and intellectually[3] (culturally- intersubjectively) mediated encounter with the world (while the world is the linguistically and intellectually mediated encounter with the self).  All of these encounters end in radical failure because the self finds no place in this world to which it might hold onto.

Let us focus on some selected stages of the process of the self (not) finding itself.  The self attempts to find itself in the unmediated singularity of sense-certainty, but is subject to a process of constant disappearance. Then comes the attempt to locate itself (self-reflection) in the object world of perception, which fails due to the dialectic of the unity of the object and the plurality of its qualities. Next, the attempt is made to locate itself in the law-based world of reason, in whose fixed and constant laws the law of life can not be represented in all its movement[4]. The self also encounters the attempt to locate in the desire of the living, which can never be satisfied because the ultimate desire is directed not towards a finite object but towards “living” itself in all its detachment.

The next stage is locating the self in work as the desire characteristic of a living self-consciousness that is “inhibited” by the object.  However, the self is unable to find itself in the products of labor. This is followed by the self then trying to locate itself by retreating into stoic detachment from the world, through which the self finds itself in an entirely abstract-relationless form, before attempting to locate itself in the skeptical negation of what it encounters. A particularly significant passage is the self’s attempt to locate itself in the melancholy desire of unity with the elusive infinite unchanging (as is especially manifested in today’s pop music — as a replacement for traditional mysticism — which marks a constant longing for unity with a unreachable vanishing point). The self then “grounds” the alterity of this realm of the unchanging infinite and searches for itself in the unchanging physical, chemical, and biological structures of being.

This entire searching process ends with one of the Phenomenology’s key propositions, which has modern-day biologistic parallels in light of the identification of the self with gene and protein sequences or neuronal processes. “The self is an object thing”[5]. This proposition is important. On one level it indicates a total absurdity (a so-called “infinite judgment” in which the sphere of subject and predicate are divided), inasmuch as the mind can find itself in a materially conceptualized entity. For example, the neuron wave of the brain will only refer to the color “red” only when a linguistic act of translation by the “self” takes place. Likewise, the proposition also holds together the “harshest” contradiction within such an “is” statement. This reflects the fact that the “self” becomes concrete only in the radical transition between “spirit” and “matter”. In other words, the realm of spirit finds expression in the fully contingent material realm and conversely, to the extent that it is abstracted from all its definite forms, the purely material world is a reflection of spirit.

Hegel’s odyssey does not end here. The self, which does not experience any recognition as a subject in its object, now tries to locate itself in a practical succession of events, for instance, in eroticism or in an expression of moral virtue through which it believes it can force the course of the world run according with its will. One of the most interesting attempts at self-discovery occurs in the “intellectual animal kingdom”. This world is characterized by anself which no longer places itself in certain modes of the world and forms of being, but instead is determined by its absolute flexibility. It is a self that defines the difference inherent in self-consciousness through its ability to withdraw itself as required from any given world configuration, and replace it with a new, opportune one. It finds its identity in this adaptation and ultimately in its “work”, from which it has the ability to be distinguished from it. This results in a world of entirely opportunistic adaptability with the consequence that the world loses all substantial content insofar as this content becomes only a more representative representation of the self, which is constantly distancing itself from a self that thus becomes unassailable.

This total “relativization” and “liquefaction” of these encounters as mirrors of the intangible self is characteristic of the capitalist money economy, in which nothing has any intrinsic value and everything is subject to a constant revaluation (in this respect, every criticism of relativism must be accompanied by a critique of capitalism!). This is expressed figuratively in the city of Los Angeles, as a synonym of the modern city, which is pure periphery without a center, pure distance, and non-relatedness. In order to some way to still present itself in this system, the self assumes an arbitrarily changeable brand identity, whose only characteristic is its “non-content” and its pure formality as a brand.  At the same time, it is a characteristic feature of this stage, that everyone declares his or her own work or its replaceable brand as if it were universally valid.

In its abstraction this content is no longer content-able, but asserts its claim of debteveryone, and in its formality, becomes a standard for all selves .

An example of this can be found in the recent debate on defining or guiding culture (Leitkultur), which are not content-able (no knows what this culture ought to be). It’s only purpose is to subject people to complete abstract-formal labels and demands (which Hegel has pointed out in the Law-checking Reason), that revolve solely around the exclusion of the other as the content by which the self gives itself identity.

The next stage in which the self strives to locate itself, is what Hegel calls “spirit.”

The self is characterized in this stage by the notion that the self surpasses itself into a universal, whose content is never fully understood — which as an expression of the universal the self transcends every definition, that is every characteristic (just as the individual “self” cannot ultimately be located in any kind of properties). The singularity of the self and the universality of the ethical community, which is the setting the self find itself in the spirit, seem to completely coincide. According to Hegel, this community through which the self is universalized is based on the genealogical family on the one hand, and on the other the polis, both of which derive their self-understanding from a common (biological) genealogy of self-consciousness.

For Hegel, neither form means the arrival of the self to its long sought out identity, but rather the forms of death in which the self can only find itself as dead. In other words, the polis, or sta as well as the genealogically oriented family as the basis of a community are forms of the recognition of the dead, not of the living – hence the supreme importance of war (polis) and burial of the dead (family) in these two forms of community. Both forms are not justified by the living because the living self is distinguished by a contradiction, by an ultimate non-relatedness, which can not find any corresponding expression in these genealogically structured forms of dealing with the world. Therefore the self can not be recognized in its vitality / liveliness.

However, as the self “resists” this non-reference, the dissolution of its embeddings as its truth in the structure of (biological) family and polis, it finds itself only as an absolutely unrelated, isolated “point”, in complete discontinuity with the world and every relationship to it.

Today, many “pre-modern” cultures seem to suffer these experiences — insofar as they understand themselves as genealogical and draw their self-understanding from this “natural” community, but are undermined to everything and everyone by the individuality of the modern self and its ability to distance itself from anything and everything. On one hand, the only way they can defend themselves is by demonstrating their ethical substance, whose characteristics are in fact entirely resistant to identification, since they are prior to all predication — with various abstract subjects (headscarf, veal sausages, etc.)[6] and then defend these identities as if they were one’s own.

Thrown back on itself,  the self’s next attempts to locate itself in its own completely abstract and contentless claim of validity. The first form of this claim is the ownership of private property, which is based on an act of exclusion and is secured by the law (specifically, property law). In this way, however, the self experiences more and more its opposition to others and to the world, which finally, in the second form of the claim to validity (namely, education) passes over into its antithesis. The hallmark of education is the alienated world which the self experiences through an impenetrable subject-object opposition, which has become such a prominent feature of our own thinking.

On the one hand, this contrast is radicalized to the extent of a completely transcendent deistic God detached from the world, together with a world-independent (Cartesian) subject, and on the other the subjectless and godless object-world of our present day. The self is set against the world as “negativity”, experiencing the object-world are a pure nothingness, and in this way substitutes an imaginary world as its replacement. The self find itself reflected in its own thought process, in its intellectuality.

Hegel calls this state “insight”. Here can be found the second fundamental theorem of the Phenomenology – “the object is self”, which must be read in addition to the aforementioned notion that “the self is an object”, in order to understand self (subject, spirit) and object (substance, matter) as pure transition into one another. In any case, in this stage, the entire world is taken back into the conception of the self and loses all intrinsic value and “aura”.

First, the world come to be viewed from the perspective of its usefulness for the self, and finally morphs into a pure projection screen for the self’s semantic emptiness, one which has destroyed all reality. The culmination of this corrosion of the world is “absolute freedom and terror”. According to Hegel, the terror of this stage ends the European project, which is why the Phenomenology marks an end to all philosophies and theologies of history, which was also how Hegel’s understood his own book as well. The world as an autonomous entity has retreated fully into the projection of self-emptiness, which in the Hegelian version, reflects its unease as absolute nothingness. One could again use an image for this figure – the perpetuum mobile, the fully self-contained machine that expresses the secularized metaphysical God.  A machine in which nothing can penetrate from the outside and that is completely intangible in the truest sense of the word.

At this next stage, alienation is taken to an extreme and what remains is death as predicate-less absolute, an absolute nothing (nihil negativum) into which everything returns. It is important to note that at this point, the death presented here has nothing in common with human death (nor with animal death), which as seen at the end of the story of paradise, signifies withdrawal as a mask that protects against absolute emptiness of the human will to totality. This death, on the other hand, is the pure, meaningless emptiness, freed from every aura. At most this emptiness clings to our finger like a diamond ring as the last echo of the past and the life burned in the crematoria, or in the form of preserved corpses that give us a bit of a thrill. Politically this stage corresponds, for example, to the absolute nihilism of National Socialism[7].  And it differs in this pure nullity from fascisms whose content derives from the virtual return into family-genealogical structures of an ethos that has become the fiction of our post-Enlightenment era.

This form of nothingness, entirely devoid of meaning, not only destroys all content, but also its history. Absolute freedom, which as negative freedom is no longer related to any object, also detaches itself from all historical or genetic ties. Hence, Europe can no longer fall back on its ancient Christian-Jewish heritage.  Instead it the product of a terror inherent in the destruction of all content, a terror manifested in the French Revolution ,and on a much more massive scale in National Socialism.

There is the second “form” of this absolute nothingness – virtualization as the expression of pure reflection, which no longer knows any “outside”, or any reality. It therefore obvious that the European spirit has plunged itself into this virtual nothingness.  We encounter this phenomenon in academic discourse, where topics discussed amount to “nothing” substantial; in the economy, in which human beings are merely floating around as a mere abstract phantasm within a virtual array of figurations; in the transformation of the earth’s fossil resources into fuel; and in anthropological discourse, where human beings wander around as strange, heteronomous zombies.  Consider the jubilation expressed by academic authors in certain journals once they have “discovered” that human beings are merely functions of one kind of neural or physical mechanism, or that other species are but aberrations.

The virtual world manifests itself through the complete interchangeability of temporal trajectories and the arbitrary repeatability of temporal moments – for example, when the video recording replaces the event, as in many modern weddings. This obliteration of any temporal trajectory leaves no place for the new, because in this machine every component has become superfluous as a result of its random interchangeability.  Young people, as those who are “not yet” while remaining “future”, are thus completely deprived of their place and remain, at best, as a virtual and ghostly ideal of a society which has become juvenile.

The final blow wielded by this machinery is  to replace life with the cybernetic control circuit. In this manner the tragic, but at least protective, mask of human death falls away, to be replaced not by life, but the pure mirror of virtual nothingness. The question remains as to whether this turns of events brings to an end the European epoch, or perhaps the human project itself.

Hegel, however, adds an epilogue to this “nothingness”, namely (Kantian) “morality” and the “conscious”. According to Hegel, “morality”, as an non-descriptive abstraction and an unalterable imperative, is sublimated terror (just as work is sublimated desire). But it also has the tremendous attribute of having found a form of universality — everyone is equally subjected to moral law — that does not need to be defined as a genealogical or utilitarian project (as, for example, in the nepotism so prevalent in Austria, which is a travesty of the genealogical-familial-specific community).

However, according to Hegel the terroristic element of this morality consists in the fact that the contingency of nature cannot be “freed”; it remains a projection of the self, which finds itself in the validity of the abstract moral judgement. Finally, as the final stage in the development of Geist, or “spirit”, conscience as is treated by Hegel as an internalized moral judgment, that is internalized terror.

According to Hegel, at the end of chapter on conscience, the self-righteous judgment “collapses”, because the self has now found itself as a result of ascending to (not fully derivable) further epistemic level; it learns that the secure site of its judgement, from which it is condemned the (contingent) other, was a projection. That is, despite all its impregnability and intangibility, its location was merely virtual.  The self “sees” that which it condemned in the other, namely its finitude and contingency, is in reality the withdrawn, non-controllable place of its own self, or, as Hegel puts it in the Science of Logic, at the transition from essence to conceptual logic, expresses the fact that “being-in-and-for-itself” is a presence.

Through this insight, the contingency of the other becomes forgiveness and the self begins to let go of its validity. This happens precisely at the moment when it leaves behind its own virtual and secure place of judgement, from which it had withdrawn.  From this vantage point, we can define the nature of forgiveness. It is not the activity of the self opposing another (I forgive you), in which the self occupies an absolute place of the self opposing the other (and finds itself again in self-righteousness). Forgiveness arises from the insight that the contingent place of the other was already forgiven in my forgiveness.

In other words, through an act of recognition, by “becoming other to itself”, something which, speculatively speaking, has already happened. Crucially, when it looks for itself — through this relocation out if its fictitious location, out of its judgment, which was the reflection of its own existence — the self actually loses itself and thus also loses the world as a projection screen. Through this experience of “become other to itself” the self is no longer able to project itself into the other and it must therefore abandon the attempt to find itself in the world.

So now according to Hegel, the pure virtuality characteristic of our tendency to distance ourselves from everything and everything is distinguished by the possibility of a different perception, one that does not regard the world as a mirror of itself. But the question remains, how this step of relocation should be understood. If it is to be deduced theoretically, it would be another self-projection and not a transient moment. In this respect, we cannot simply identify “causes”. However, according to Hegel, there is a deeper way of looking at this transition.

Kurt Appel is Professor of Fundamental Theology in the Catholic Faculty as well as director of the Center for Religion and Transformation at the University of Vienna.  He is the author amnog many monographs of Zeit und Gott: Mythos und Logos der Zeit im Anschluss an Hegel und Schelling as well as Dem Leiden ein Gedächtnis geben with Johann Baptist Metz.

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[1]The following is quoted from G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit, in: ders., Werke 1-20 (stw 601-620), eds. by E. Moldenhauer and K. M. Michel, Frankfurt a. M. 1986, vol. 3.

[2]In the case of Hegel, the ego is neither abstractly individual nor abstract collectively, but always as a transition from the individual to the general. This is evident not least in the language which precedes the individual and which is shaped by him at the same time.

[3]Here, it must at least be pointed out that the phenomenon of language is not limited to the articulated language or sign language of the deaf, but occurs where beings give each other meaning. It should also be pointed out that the “spiritual” is not to be understood as a sum of subject relations. Rather, in Hegel the (general) mind and (singular) subject are in an interaction which transcends every fundamental-succession relation. For this reason, intersubjectivity is only to be thought of in the dialectic of the mind and the subject

[4]From Hegel’s point of view, life is not only the consequence, but also the cause of the Anorican law-world (and self-consciousness is the basis of both), since the simple distinction of the law as a difference (and thus in its true meaning) self-distinction of life is. This self-distinction, as distinct from itself, signifies, in turn, self-consciousness, which as the ego differs from its world and refers to it as a difference. This means a radical difference to today’s evolutionary theories, in which self-consciousness is viewed as a consequence of life and life as a result of inanimate nature. See also K. Appel, Zeit und Gott. Myth and logos of the time following Hegel and Schelling, Paderborn 2008, 264 -269.

[5]Specifically, the theorem is: “… and what is actually said is expressed here in the sense that the being of the spirit is a bone” (cf Hegel, PhdG 260).

[6]There seems to be in fact, a complete arbitrariness of such themes, which are presumably derived from some traditions, but without having a relationship with the culture that supports these traditions. / drawn from tradition but one that there is no underlying culture that supports these traditions.

[7]National socialism is thus neither adequately represented in its peculiarity nor singularity, nor can it be deduced simply from the course of development outlined here. It is, however, also to be understood as a phenomenon of a radically nihilistic “possibility”, as it has developed in modern times.

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