“The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.”
As of late I have been concerned less with the defect of materialism, or idealism for that matter, than the positive dimension of idealism alluded to here, its concept of activity. Specifically I have been thinking about the role of activity, or action, in The Phenomenology of Spirit. These thoughts are occasioned by a partial reading of some of the hits (“Sense Certainty,” Self-Consciousness”) for the purpose of teaching. On of the thing that struck me in rereading these sections is the way in which activity often necessitates the dialectical reversal. Transforming how the situation appears to how it actually is, from the in-itself to the for-itself, or rather the in and for itself. This can be seen most clearly in the section on Self-Consciousness, in which it is work that transforms the slave.
But action, at least some kind of activity, also appears as the transforming force, somewhat arbitrarily I might add, in the section on sense-certainty, where it is the act of writing that transforms the apparent richness of sense-certainty into an empty universal. Once “Now is day” is written down, materialized in paper, it becomes subject to the vicissitudes of time, becoming false as day turns to night.
Hegel explicitly acknowledges this gap between thought and action, in which action negates the thought which is its precondition in the section on “Scepticism.” As Hegel writes of Scepticism: “Its deeds and words always belie one another and equally it has itself the doubly contradictory consciousness of unchangableness and sameness, and of utter contingency and non-identity with itself.” Now if scepticism is in part a becoming conscious of the dialectical process itself (to quote Hegel: “Sceptic consciousness is the very experience of the dialectic. But whereas, in the preceding stages of the phenomenological development, the dialectic occurred, so to speak without the knowledge of consciousness, now it is its deed”), then this gap between consciousness and action now becomes explicitly manifest as well. From this point forward consciousness struggles with its non-identity with its own activity.
Now this is just a thought, but certain questions follow: First, what would this mean for a reading of Hegel, for a reading of a thought of practice in the Phenomenology in its various instantiations, from the work of the slave to Antigone’s ethical action? Is it possible to extract a thought of practice that is something other than conscious intent, but also perhaps something other than the cunning of reason? Second, what would this mean for a rethinking of the Hegel/Marx relation? In The German Ideology Marx reference the difference between what one says and what one does against German Idealism. As Marx writes: “Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet one this trivial insight.” More importantly, Marx relies on this non-identity between thought and action to articulate the social relations underlying “commodity fetishism.” As Alfred Sohn-Rethel writes of commodity relations: ‘The consciousness and the action of people part company in exchange and go different ways.’ Fetishism is not something we think, we all claim that commodities are unique with their specific use values, it is something we do, we act as if they are concrete instantiations of value. Finally, could we extract form Hegel’s phenomenology a description of contemporary forms of scepticism and cynicism?