In this blog post, I want to argue that political texts have intrinsic meaning. By this I mean that we should be essentialists about the meaning of political texts (hereafter just “text”).
Being an essentialist about a text’s meaning means that one holds that a text possesses a finite set of attributes that are necessary for its identity and function as a meaningful piece of work. This should immediately appear controversial to some. It is a widely held view that the meaning of a text is to be understood in a fundamentally anti-essentialist manner. The meaning of a political text is in no way necessarily given, on an anti-essentialist account of meaning. On this view, the meaning of a text is contingent on a range of varying epiphenomenal factors (external, secondary factors). It is very popular to say, for instance, that the meaning of a text “changes” when it is interpreted in different contexts.
Anti-essentialism is a very popular view of textual interpretation, but I want to argue that it is wrong. The main argument I want to give for this is that if we deprive texts of intrinsic meaning, they cannot be shown to have any determinate rational content. It is impossible for a text to be “committed” to anything if it cannot have determinate rational content. Further, I want to argue that the only way for a text to be able to be assessed rationally is if it possesses intrinsic meaning. The only way for a text to have determinate rational content is if it possesses intrinsic meaning.
I Dialectical Monism
What I am putting forward is very radical. The picture of public rationality and political discussion that I am putting forward is radically monist. This means that I am asserting that the sphere of political discussion and action that humans inhabit is fundamentally unified. I assert that when it comes to political discussion and action, we inhabit one world, and one world only. There are not, as post-modernists assert, multiple different “realities” or social spheres. The political ontology that I am offering up here is one where all discussion and action occurs on the same level.
On this account, if the conditions were right, it is a very real possibility that every human should be able to make themselves intelligible to one another. The conditions that satisfy the mutual intelligibility of political agents would be the conditions of rationality. The universe of political discussion and action is therefore guided by one standard of rationality. This is a totalising philosophy. This is another feature that sets this system of textual interpretation apart from a post-modern one. Post-modern philosophy resists grand narratives and totalising structures. They do this for many reasons, a famous one being that totalising structures are necessarily oppressive, or lead to one being open to be tricked by illusions and contradictions. I’d like to resist that judgement about totalising philosophies. I argue that there is no way to escape subscribing to some or other assumptions about what the total world is like, in order to say something in particular. Hegel calls this “demanding the universal”. Hegel says that every particular argument you make is built into a complex background network of related judgements and assumptions. Having a rigorous account and analysis of these systems, building into a total system, ensures that what you are saying in particular is rational.
The standard of rationality I have in mind for ensuring that political agents can be made mutually intelligible to one another is lifted straight from Hegel. “Absolute negation” is the standard of rationality. Hegel says negation is some entity being related to something it is not. The concepts of otherness and negations are mutually supporting. When an entity is undergoing a moment of negativity, Hegel says it is undergoing change. Absolute negation is when an entity can determine itself through something which it is not, without being alien to that other entity (Ikaheimo, 2011: 160). Hegel also calls this freedom. Hegel argues that absolute negation is the standard of rationality for any kind of political discourse because it shows some entity or judgement can withstand contradiction without losing its identity. Something can withstand otherness without being destroyed. One can immediately appreciate how powerful this kind of standard of rationality is. As we shall see below, Hegel offers up the perfect metaphilosophy for understanding they key issue of our time: intersectionality.
It turns out that humans have the potential to be the perfect kind of entity in the universe, thanks to this standard of rationality. If humans are able to undergo absolute negation with one another, they are free. The more perfect the process of absolute negation, the more perfectly free humans are. The specific kind of process that humans go through in order to achieve absolute negation is called self-consciousness (Ikaheimo: ibid). Another name for Hegelian self-consciousness is intersubjective recognition. Humans have the ability to determine themselves through others by recognising others, that is, by relating themselves to others intersubjectively. Terry Pinkard puts a Kantian spin on this process, and says that this is a process of social legislation. I want to disagree with this characterisation. Self-consciousness is fundamentally anti-liberal and anti-pragmatic. The picture of meaning and human agency that Hegel is putting forward is fundamentally ontological. This means that Hegel is not merely trying to say something about what humans do, but what they and the universe are like. Hegel says that self-consciousness only manifests itself in social and cultural institutions, and is not a process of mere social legislation or mere “giving and asking for reasons”, as a follower of Wilfrid Sellars might put it. Hegel calls the social and cultural institutions that humans create in an attempt to govern the imperfect processes of absolute negation Spirit. When humans have social institutions which can facilitate self-consciousness perfectly, they have the perfect kind of society. Humans will be perfectly free.
This kind of system has strong links with Spinoza. Hegel argues that imperfect “forms of consciousness” (imperfect structures of intersubjective recognition) are real, but they are not true. This is what Hegel means when he says frequently that something is real, but at the same time false. He means that that entity does not accord properly with the demands of the Absolute Idea, the standard of rationality of absolute negation.
So embedded in this argument I am about to make about texts having intrinsic meaning is a political ontology which puts forward the very real possibility that humans can achieve a perfect society. I suggest this is the society Marx was imagining. Hegel’s metaphysics is completed by Marx. The society which will best facilitate self-consciousness is communism. The four kinds of “estranged labour” that Marx talked about in the 1844 Manuscripts are an articulation of Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness. So is the concept of commodity fetishism in Section 4 of Chapter 1 of Capital.
II Deducing Intrinsic Meaning
I do not mean to simply offer up this political ontology and argue that because this political ontology is attractive, I must therefore be right about texts having intrinsic meaning. I am certainly open to doing that, but I want to do more than just that. I want to show that this popular idea that texts do not have an essential meaning is false. Further, I want to show that if we examine the movement of the arguments for anti-essentialism, we can see that it is necessary that we conclude that texts have intrinsic meaning. By examining the structure of anti-essentialism, not only will we be able to show that it is false (in the sense of absolute negation), but that the logical conclusion of anti-essentialism is an essentialist theory of meaning of texts.
A The Romantic Genius: The Beautiful Soul
“Reason” is the third chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). We can reconstruct Hegel’s general argument in this chapter in order to show that texts have intrinsic meaning. The chapter “Reason” deals with the change in structure of self-consciousness that went on during the Enlightenment, right up until Hegel’s day. But in this chapter Hegel only deals with the effects of the Enlightenment at the level of individual consciousness. So if one reads the Phenomenology and stops at the end of “Reason”, they will only have an abstract understanding of absolute negation. You will not know the full story. Hegel is famous for this sort of philosophical exposition. He ascends from the most particular to the most general, incorporating more and more parts of his total system until he reaches the top. We would normally take the most general and sweeping pronouncements of a theory as an abstract summary of its overall upshot, but for a Hegelian or a Spinozist this is the theory at its most concrete. Hegelian systems are organic systems. This means that all the previous levels of the system are still preserved at the top, they’ve just reached their most perfect deduction at their highest level of generality. The lower levels have shown that the top is true. This is a fundamentally Aristotelian idea, and although Spinoza is not a fan of organicisim, Spinozist philosophy holds onto the same kind of theoretical exposition.
The second and third parts of “Reason” deal with morality. The first part of “Reason” dealt with natural science. If you follow the development of the first part of “Reason”, and you agree with Hegel’s argument, you will agree with Hegel that the disenchanted picture of the universe that natural science puts forward doesn’t offer us a complete picture of the universe. That’s beside the point right now.
The final moments of “Reason” offer us the answer to how it is possible for texts to have intrinsic meaning, and how this picture of meaning emerges out of anti-essentialism. Hegel discusses the dialectic of the “beautiful soul” in the final moments of Reason. In this part of the Phenomenology, Hegel is concerned to demonstrate how it is possible for there to be any kind of determinate ethical content in an individualistic human society. How is it possible for society to exist as a collection of atomised individuals, and yet have stable and coherent systems of morality?
Hegel examines the dialectic of an extreme form of individualism not unlike the individualism of today’s neoliberalism: the picture of the “genius” put forward by Romantic philosophers. Hegel calls the Romantic genius the “beautiful soul”. The label is clearly meant as a criticism. The beautiful soul will at once be recognisable to to the seasoned internet user. The beautiful soul is a contradictory form of self-consciousness. The beautiful soul holds that there is only one stable form of moral law, or moral duty, and that is the beautiful soul’s own conscience. We can immediately see how this relates to a discussion about the intrinsic meaning of texts. The content of the moral duty to which the beautiful soul holds themselves, therefore, is not found in the moral law to which they are committed, but in their own conscience, their own opinion.
Any kind of moral law or duty is therefore not essential to the rationality of morality. It is not an external thing outside the interpretation of the Romantic genius. In what will seem like no surprise at all, Hegel says this kind of understanding of the meaning of morality leads to a contradiction: the beautiful soul is either a moralist or an ironist, according to Terry Pinkard (1996: 214).
Pinkard explains that
Nothing can count for such a “beautiful soul” unless they let it count for them, and this election of what counts for them is something entirely personal, something that they must decide on their own to do in term of their own basic convictions. This formation of the romantic authentic individual is thus logically led to taking an ironic attitude toward everything, including themselves. Nothing can count as absolute, nothing as definitive unless they, as an individual, elects to count it as such; but the romantic, authentic individual knows that in principle this cannot be a sufficient ground for convincing others of the meritoriousness of what they have elected to count as worthy of belief or action because the others must elect to count it for themselves on the basis of their own convictions. … Thus the romantic agent knows nothing can be final and definitive in a communal sense, and knowing that, they also know that nothing can be final and definitive for themselves, since whatever bonds they put on their thoughts and actions can also be loosened and thrown of by them. The only appropriate attitude therefore is irony, the belief that whatever one believes and takes seriously cannot be final and definitive even for oneself (Pinkard, 1996: 214-215).
The other side of this contradiction is for the beautiful soul to become a moralist:
The other possibility for the beautiful soul is to preserve their moral purity and stick to their convinctions, demanding that the world take the on their own terms or not at all. This beautiful soul cannot be ironic, for that would mean for them that they should abandon their own deepest beliefs. However, a community of such beautiful souls would be unlikely to be able to sustain itself since it would quickly deteriorate into pure confrontation among uncompromising “men and women of conscience” (Pinkard, 1996: 215).
B Social Crystalisations
The one stable locus of meaning for any kind of moral duty for the Romantic genius depends on the perspective of the person being asked to reflect on their conscience. Hegel rightly concludes that this leads to a completely contradictory account of morality. One can immediately see Hegel anticipating Nietzsche at this point. There is no stable or coherent conception of the moral law if all we depend on is the context of someone’s conscience.
Hegel, however, says that we can derive a stable conception of morality if we sublate (forgive me, Richard) the dialectic of the Romantic genius. If we transcend, but preserve these two unstable and contradictory polar opposite accounts of morality, we can achieve a satisfying account of ethical meaning.
The answer that Hegel gives to the dialectic of the Romantic genius is summarised in the last section of “Reason”:
SECTION 437: The distinction, then, of self-consciousness from the essential nature (Wesen) is completely transparent. Because of this the distinctions found within that nature itself are not accidental characteristics. On the contrary, because of the unity of the essence with self-consciousness (from which alone discordance, incongruity, might have come), they are articulated groups (Massen) of the unity permeated by its own life, unsundered spirits transparent to themselves, stainless forms and shapes of heaven, that preserve amidst their differences the untarnished innocence and concord of their essential nature.
Self-consciousness, again, stands likewise in a simple and clear relation to those different laws. They are, and nothing more — this is what constitutes the consciousness of its relation to them. Thus, Antigone takes them for the unwritten and unerring laws of the god —
“Not now, indeed, nor yesterday, but for aye
It lives, and no man knows what time it came.”
They are. If I ask for their origin, and confine them to the point whence they arose, that puts me beyond them, for it is I who am now the universal, while they are the conditioned and limited. If they are to get the sanction of my insight, I have already shaken their immovable nature, their inherent constancy, and regard them as something which is perhaps true, but possibly may also be not true, so far as I am concerned. True ethical sentiment consists just in holding fast and unshaken by what is right, and abstaining altogether from what would move or shake it or derive it.
The ethical reality or ethical substance of the community in which the Romantic genius finds themselves is the intrinsic meaning of their ethical context. Whether or not they agree with the prevailing social rules of their community, they nevertheless acknowledge that those are the rules of their context. Despite their truth, the prevailing ethical social order for the beautiful soul is their ethical reality.
This provides the answer for the intrinsic meaning for political texts. A political text’s intrinsic meaning is the crystalisation of the social context in which it was written. Whether or not we agree with the prevailing attitudes of the society from when a political text issued, the debates and the issues at stake at that time are the intrinsic meaning of a political text. The political landscape of the time that a text was written is the organic unity of meaning within a text.
This helps us “commit” a political text to something, it helps us rationally assess a political text without having to commit it to a static and singular meaning. The meaning within a political text that we are consulting is the ethical substance of its time. This allows us to give it friction against our own ethical reality, the meaning of our own social context.
Yes, the idea that a text as an intrinsic meaning is “simple minded bs” indeed.
Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by J. B. Baillie (1910) (Forgive me for using this version, I wanted to copy and paste the text hahahah).
Ikaheimo, Heikki (2011) “Holism and Normative Essentialism in Hegel’s Social Ontology” in Recognition and Social Ontology.
Pinkard, Terry (1996) Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason.