6. The Demystification of the Concept

Lifting the Spell of the Concept


         All philosophy, even Hegel’s, is vulnerable to the general objection that it inevitably takes concepts as its material and so has prejudged any question in favor of idealism. No philosophy, not even an extreme empiricism, can drag the hard facts in by the hair and deliver them up like anatomical specimens or experiments in a physics lab; no philosophy can paste the individual things into a text, the way some kinds of painting entice philosophy into thinking it might. But that argument, in its formal universality, takes a fetishistic view of the concept, just as the concept construes itself naively when on its home turf: as a self-sufficient totality against which philosophical thinking stands powerless. The truth is that all concepts, even philosophical ones, open up onto the non-conceptual, because they are themselves moments of reality, which compel their creation, mostly for purposes of mastering nature. However conceptual mediation appears to itself from the inside—the primacy it gives to its sphere, without which, it is said, nothing can be known—this must not be confused with what such mediation is in itself. It gets this appearance of existing-in-itself from the movement that lifts it up out of reality, a reality into which it is all the same wedged. Philosophy has no choice but to operate with concepts: one must neither turn this into a virtue—the concept’s primacy—nor, conversely, treat the critique of this virtue as a summary verdict on all philosophy. The insight, however, that philosophy’s conceptual character is, though inescapable, not absolute is mediated by the concept’s very texture and complexion; it is not a dogmatic, let alone a naïvely realistic proposition. Concepts like that of “being” at the beginning of Hegel’s Logic emphatically signify, in the first instance, the non-conceptual. They mean, in Emil Lask’s words, beyond themselves. Their meaning includes the idea that they cannot make do with their own conceptuality, even though they enclose the non-conceptual inside themselves as their meaning and so tend to assimilate it, thereby getting trapped in themselves. Their content is at once immanent or mental and ontic or transcendent. They are able to break free of their fetishism when they become self-conscious about this. Philosophical reflection assures itself of the non-conceptual in the concept. If it did not, the concept would be, as Kant has it, empty, finally not even the concept of anything at all and so void. Philosophy pulls the blindfold from its eyes when it recognizes as much and puts paid to the autarky of the concept. The concept is concept even when if refers to being, but this cannot change the fact that it is woven into a non-conceptual whole; once reified, it does nothing but seal itself off from that whole, though reification is of course what produces the concept as concept. The concept is a moment like any other in dialectical logic. There survives in the concept its mediation by the non-conceptual, by virtue of its denotation, which for its part is the concept’s foundation. The concept has two characteristics at once: to refer to the non-conceptual, just as every definition of concepts in traditional epistemology ends up requiring non-conceptual, deictic moments; and, contrariwise, as the abstract unity of the onto gathered under it to distance itself from the ontic. To change conceptuality’s orientation, to turn it in the direction of the non-identical, is the hinge of negative dialectics. The non-conceptual in the concept has a constituent character. The identity compulsion that the concept carries with itself when undetained by such reflexion should melt away in the face of this insight. The concept finds a way out of the appearance of self-identity as a unit of meaning when its takes stock of its own meaning.

-Translation last updated, March 18, 2019