The Presence of Phenomenology: Hegel and the Return to Metaphysics

By McGowan, Todd | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2013 | Go to article overview

The Presence of Phenomenology: Hegel and the Return to Metaphysics


McGowan, Todd, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Jacques Derrida deconstructs not just certain figures in the history of philosophy but the entire Western philosophical tradition. But in order to properly understand the reach of deconstruction, one must examine its origins, origins that focus not on the metaphysical tradition but specifically on phenomenology. As many proponents of deconstruction have recognized, locating the emergence of deconstruction in Husserlian phenomenology allows us to obtain a better grasp of the deconstructive project. One such proponent, Joshua Kates, explains that "not only does phenomenology turn out to be the smithy in which deconstruction's tools were forged, but in it [...] Derrida initially discovered the motive for this entirely singular enterprise" (xvi, emph. Kates's). Even as it works against Husserl's own texts, Derrida's project is also Husserl's project.

But in my view the significance of deconstruction remains within the orbit of phenomenology, even when Derrida attempts to extend it further (as he will through out his intellectual career). The great problems that deconstruction engages--such as the lack of a pure origin and the impossibility of presence--are problems specific to phenomenology, not, as Derrida will imply, to metaphysics. It is no accident that Derrida's most theoretically compelling deconstructions occur when he addresses phenomenology, which is itself an attempt to think beyond the metaphysics of presence. It is, I will contend, the very effort of phenomenology to go beyond metaphysics that unleashes the theoretical difficulties and aporias that give rise to deconstruction. Even though--or perhaps because--deconstruction emerges out of phenomenology, it is fundamentally the deconstruction of phenomenology, not of metaphysics, and grasping this allows us to accomplish a return to the metaphysical questions that the last two centuries of thought seemed to have put to bed.

If it becomes clear that deconstruction targets metaphysics for the sins of phenomenology and that metaphysics is not a project of reconciliation or mastery, then the politically urgent project becomes not the deconstruction of metaphysics but its reconstruction. My contention is that the metaphysical project, at least as it manifests itself in the culminating figures of German Idealism (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel), already grasps the impossibility of pure presence and rejects the identification of being with presence. Presence--and this is why Derrida takes pains to deconstruct it--would be a moment of reconciliation, a moment when (through, say, the act of knowing) the split in being disappears.

The very possibility of metaphysical speculation--speculation about foundations-- depends on the acceptance of a division within being. Plato acknowledges this when he divides the world into ideas and appearances, even though he subsequently attempts to heal this split by refusing to grant appearances any ontological status. But with his distinction between the thing as it appears and the thing in itself, Kant theorizes a split within being that no amount of mediation can heal. Even though they specifically reject the thing in itself, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel all remain firmly within this Kantian conception of being, which is why Robert Pippin can discuss "Hegel's completion of Kant's project" rather than its overturning or reversal (16). The later German Idealists not only accept the Kantian split but insist on it even more vehemently than Kant himself.

Through his conception of absolute knowledge, Hegel paradoxically affirms the insurmountability of the absence that haunts being. No matter how much we know, the theory of the absolute has it, we will always encounter a limit to our knowledge that results from being's lack of identity with itself. In the final chapter of the Science of Logic, Hegel notes, "The absolute idea [...] harbors the most extreme opposition within" (735). If the absolute idea represents the endpoint of the metaphysical project, then that project aims not at mastery, but at avowing the impossibility of an ultimate mastery.

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