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HEGEL'S EPISTEMIC TURN-OR SPINOZA'S?

Heidi M. Ravven
Abstract: This paper takes issue with Slavoj Zizek's constructed opposition be-
tween Spinoza and Hegel. Where Zizek views Hegel's non-dualistic relational
epistemology as a substantial improvement over Spinoza's purported dogmatic
account of a reality which is external to the perceiver, I argue that Hegel inher-
ited such an epistemology from Spinoza. Ultimately, it is Spinoza who provides
Hegel with the conceptual tools for knowledge of the "transphenomenal" within
the context of human finitude.
In a recent essay, Slavoj Zizek portrays Hegel in contrast and even in opposition to Spinoza.!
The focus ofZizek's opposition between the two is Hegel's epistemic turn beyond Kant. He
places Spinoza at the most primitive stage of a triad (Spinoza-Kant-Hegel) which he suggests
recurs in history in different forms. It is, he says, a version of the more basic triad paganism-
Judaism-Christianity. In contrast with Pierre Macherey who in the second edition of Hegel ou
Spinoza argued that "one cannot avoid the impression that Spinoza had already read Hegel
and in advance answered his reproaches;'2 Zizek advances what he calls "a consciously old-
fashioned Hegelian reading of Spinoza" that amounts to a "radical anti-Hegelianism."3 This
position would seem to go beyond even Hegel's own assessment of Spinoza. For Hegel in the
History of Philosophy proposed not an opposition between his own and Spinoza's philosophies
but instead insisted that all true philosophy, all truly modem philosophy culminating in his
own, begins with Spinoza. Zizek proposes, however, that Spinoza represents in Hegelian terms
the most primitive philosophical position, the origin from which philosophy must depart to
be philosophy. "In a way," he writes, "the triad Spinoza-Kant-Hegel DOES encompass the
whole of philosophy" (emphasis in So what is this reading of Spinoza that places
him not only prior to (and thus intellectually less advanced than) Christianity but even inferior
in worth and adequacy to the Judaism from which it sprang?
Zizek places Spinoza in the category of the pre-Kantians who could merely make "a
naiVe attempt at 'absolute knowledge,' at a total description of the entire reality."5 Kant's
epistemic breakthrough, Zizek suggests, is exactly what is missing in Spinoza since for
Kant, "the transcendental is irreducibly rooted in the empirical/temporal/finite, it is the
transphenomenal AS IT APPEARS WITHIN THE FINITE HORIZON OF TEMPORAL-
ITY. And this dimension of the transcendental as opposed to noumenal is what is missing
in Spinoza" (emphasis in original)6 Zizek elaborates upon this claim by explaining that
what Kant means is that "phenomenal reality is not simply the way things appear to me"
but instead "designates the way things 'really' appear to me, the way they constitute phe-
nomenal reality."7 Thus, pace Hegel himself, Zizek maintains that "it is only with Kant
... that true philosophy begins." Even more: "Ultimately, philosophy as such is Kantian,"
(i) 200..'1. Idealistic Studies. VolLlme ..'1..'1. "'LIes 2-3. ISSN 0046-8541. pp. 195-202
196 IDEALISTIC STUDIES
Zizek insists.
8
Hegel's contribution to the furthering of this Kantian revolution, according to
Zizek, consists in his departure even further from Spinoza toward a deeper and more radical
Kantianism. It is not that Hegel returns to Spinoza and the spirit of Spinoza, as Deleuze
and others have suggested. So Hegel's "insight into how the path towards truth is already
Truth itself, into how the Absolute is precisely-to put it in Deleuzian terms-the virtuality
of the eternal process of actualization,"9 Zizek says, amounts to a more complete purging
of philosophy of remnants of Spinoza than even Kant was capable of or envisioned. For
"in transpos[ing] the incompleteness, openness, the surplus of the virtual over the actual
... into the thing itself' Hegel moves beyond a Kant who, in Zizek's estimation, "remains
all too Spinozean: [for] the crack-less, seamless, positivity of Being is just transposed [in
Kant] into the inaccessible In-ltself."10 And this move, according to Zizek, is what Hegel
means by his difference from Spinoza, encapsulated in his famous epigram that for himself
the Absolute is not only Substance as it was for Spinoza but Subject as welL
ll
But is Zizek's reading of Spinoza correct? Indeed Hegel faults Spinoza for holding that
Substance was not also Subject. Why then does Hegel maintain at the same time, and in
contrast to Zizek, that (true, modern) philosophy begins not with Kant but with Spinoza?
What is Hegel discerning in Spinoza that Zizek seems to have missed? I argue in this pa-
per that Zizek's misjudgment is rooted in his (mistaken) claim that Spinoza's philosophy
represents the paradigmatic standard pre-modern relation of ontology and epistemology.
While Zizek's understanding of Spinoza's ethical theory as the complete rejection of any
deontological dimension and of his political psychology as rooted in primitive group emotions
is quite astute and goes beyond the standard versions, his reading of Spinoza' s metaphysics
and epistemology is not only dated but even a caricature of a dated position. And unfortu-
nately upon this caricature, rather than upon his more nuanced understanding of Spinoza's
psychology, Zizek's assessment of the relation between Spinoza and Hegel depends. For
Zizek is simply wrong when he proposes that Spinoza is among those philosophers who
held a "traditional opposition between epistemology and ontology" that amounted to a
conception of "scientific investigation [as] engaged in the difficult path of getting to know
objective reality, gradually approaching it ... while reality just IS out there, fully constituted
and given."12 And thus Zizek mistakenly surmises that Hegel must be distancing himself
further from Spinoza in attempting to be more Kantian than Kant when he holds that
"our painful progress of knowledge, our confusions, our search for solutions-that is to
say: precisely that which seems to separate us from the way reality really is out there-is
already the innermost constituent of reality itself."I3
The burden of the rest of this paper will be to show that, pace ZiZek, when Hegel makes
the claim, in Zizek's words, that "our process of approaching constituted objective reality
repeats the virtual process of Becoming of this reality itself," he is building on Spinoza
rather than distancing himself further from him. Zizek is right that Hegel does not return to
Spinoza in order to return to "rehabilitate the old Leibnizean metaphysics" to overcome the
Kantian gap between knowledge and But he is wrong that Hegel's inspiration stems
from Kant alone and arises as an urge to further distance himself from Spinoza. A careful
reading of Spinoza suggests, instead, that Hegel found resources in Spinoza's philosophy
for just the resolution of the Kantian gap that he proposed. For Spinoza's innovations arose
in his own struggle to overcome and resolve the epistemological and ontological problems
HEGEL'S EPISTEMIC TURN-OR SPINOZA'S? 197
of Cartesian dualism, problems not without Kantian parallels to those that confronted Hegel.
So I propose here that Hegel can be seen as out-Spinozaing Spinoza as much as out-Kanting
Kant. And Spinoza can rightly be understood as having helped Hegel out-Kant Kant.
I will argue in behalf of these two points: First, Spinoza's doctrine of divine immanence
has this implication for epistemology: Our thinking is not fundamentally about a reality out
there; it is not our mental approximation of that metaphysical Beyond, as Zizek assumes.
Instead, our thinking is one of the infinite expressions of being itself, namely, modally in
us. IS And it is of one of the infinite expressiolls of being itself, namely, first and foremost
about our body. Thus our thinking is the modal unfolding of substantial thought in liS, as our
body is of substantial extension. Since we are the psychophysical process of maintaining and
enhancing our internal stability or equilibrium (the conatus), we are not a thing that thinks
or contains thoughts about an external reality. We are the self-organizing energy distributed
in this thinking and in (and of) this body that is a modal expression and particularization
and localization of the divine thought and extension. Thus scientific knowledge does not
reach out to know an absolute beyond us but instead, approaches it first where it is most
available, namely, within us and as ourselves. How far then is it to go the next step as Hegel
did and propose that the developmental path of thought within us is a development within
substance itself, namely as subject, and not merely a modal version of it?
Second, Spinoza explicitly argues, and at length, that knowledge is not of an external
object out there but necessarily always of the relation between self and world, and more
of self than of world. That relation is that which constitutes both the content and the
occasion of knowledge rather than any mental mirroring of an external reality. Meta-
physical knowledge is self-knowledge because the absolute is operative within us both in
thought and in extension and not just outside us. But the only way we get to approach it is
through our internal relation to it, an internal relation occasioned, however, only by and
in encounters with what is external to us. And we are that relation because we are not a
thing that thinks but the thinking itself-and the process of maintaining material stability.
Substance discloses itself to us only in the relation between the outer and the inner, that
is, in the encounters between the two. What we can come to know, and it is there alone
that the possibility of knowledge discloses itself, is the relation between self and object
as the latter impinges on self and changes it. We know the world only through the effects
it creates in liS. The beginning of knowledge arises from the impingement and is only of
the impingement and what follows from it and what it follows from. Spinoza explicitly
says that this is both how we know and also how we can be sure that the world is know-
able, that things are as we sense them, as he puts it. They are as we sense them because
how we sense them is the relation that constitutes the reality we're trying to know-and
that we are. While perception initiates knowing, it does not complete it. Has not Spinoza
in this anticipated the rudiments of Hegel's conception of knowledge as located in the
relation between subject and object, self and other, and thus himself gone beyond Kant? I
think we have here in the Ethics an incipient Hegelian posture, one brought to enormous
fruition in Hegel's works from the Phenomenology on. I find it surprising that this clearly
stated position of Spinoza's in the Ethics-it is not a mere implication or inference to
be drawn-has not been widely recognized and also seen as a source of inspiration for
lIegel" epistemic turn beyond Kant.
198 IDEALISTIC STUDIES
Now to the details. Regarding the first point: For Spinoza, the mind fundamentally
and first of all, minds the body, its own body. That is what he means by his claim that the
mind is the idea of the body: "the object of the idea constituting the human mind is the
body.''l6 This claim is the basis of the corollary that Spinoza draws: from this "it follows
that man consists of mind and body, and the human body exists according as we sense it"
(my emphasis)Y That is to say, if we keep in mind that the primary object of our mind is
our own body and not an external object, its perception cannot but be true. How could it be
otherwise? It represents to itself its own body-state. Thinking is the body made conscious;
it is the consciousness of the body and hence in so far as it confines itself to perception
(Spinoza's, "imagination") without drawing further conclusions therefrom, it cannot err,
Spinoza contends. "The imaginations of the mind looked at in themselves, contain no error;
i.e. the mind does not err from the fact that it imagines, but only in so far as it is considered
to lack the idea which excludes the existence of those things which it imagines to be present
to itself."18 Spinoza characterizes true ideas as those that agree with their ideatum (EIAx 6).
The agreement in question is not the standard correspondence of our thought to an external
world which it is both separate from and also, in some sense, mirrors. Instead it is an agree-
ment of the idea with that of which it is the idea, namely, its mental representation of its
body state, a state that appears to us, however, only in the impingement of external objects
upon us (see below). The agreement is then between the expression of the body state (the
corporeal images) and our idea of it, which is to say our understanding of it, which latter
can be either imaginative or rational-more about that distinction below.
Hegel follows and develops this Spinozist conception of truth. For Hegel, just as for
Spinoza, both sides of the agreement are within the subject. What has oft been considered
the quintessential Hegelian insight,19 we discover was pioneered by Spinoza. It is that
it is the world as we experience it, as it acts upon us, that is captured by our thinking. It
is its internal effects upon us for both Spinoza and Hegel that we are always theorizing,
and which our thinking must be adequate to. For both Hegel and Spinoza, solipsism is
avoided because the world is neither our subjective construction nor a reality completely
outside us and hence unavailable to us. It is instead a real impingement, or as Hegel puts
it, it offers resistance. Hegel gives an account of truth in these terms in the Introduction
to the Phellomenology of Spirit (<Jl<Jl 84-87). He famously writes:
If we designate knowledge as the concept, but the essence or the True as what exists,
or the object, then the examination consists in seeing whether the concept corre-
sponds to the object. ... But the essential point to bear in mind throughout the whole
investigation is that these two moments, "concept" and "object," "being-for-another"
and "being-in-itself," both fall within that knowledge which we are investigating .
. . . For consciousness is, on the one hand, consciousness of the object, and on the
other, consciousness of itself; ... Since both are for the same consciousness, this
consciousness is itself their comparison; it is for the same consciousness to know
whether its knowledge of the object corresponds to the object or not.
20
Hence for both Spinoza and Hegel knowledge is self-knowledge but a self-knowledge
that as such reaches beyond solipsism and mere subjectivity.
Now if we add to Spinoza's insistence that all knowledge is rooted in and an expansion
of self-knowledge, his commitment to divine immanence, a universe without a metaphysi-
HEGEL'S EPISTEMIC TURN-OR SPINOZA'S? 199
cal break between the divine and the human, the one and the many, or as Spinoza most
likes to put it, between God and nature, we get the full force of his epistemology: It is the
availability within the human mind of metaphysical knowledge through its coming to know
its own body as itself an expressioll of the divine. "The essence of man is constituted by
definite modifications of the attributes of God," namely, our body and mind.
For the being of substance does not pertain to the essence of man (preceding Pr.),
which must therefore (Pr. 15, I) be something that is in God, and which can neither be
nor be conceived without God; i.e. all affection or mode which expresses the nature
of God in a definite and determinate way. (my emphasis)21
Knowledge therefore consists in tracing (causally) what we now know to be the expression of
God in us to its foundations in the divine essence, i.e., in the attributes. And in fact that is exactly
the way that Spinoza characterizes the highest knowledge, scientia intuitiva, namely as knowl-
edge of the essence of the individual in the divine attributesY This is possible because,
There is also in God the idea or knowledge of the human mind, and this follows in God
and is related to God in the same way as the idea or knowledge of the human body.23
Because "nothing can happen in [our] body without it being perceived by the m i n d " 2 ~ (by the
identity of mind and body and by the definition of mind as the idea, or consciousness, of the
body), knowledge of au r own body in God is the source of, and guarantees the possibility
of, the knowledge of God or metaphysical knowledge. Spinoza's metaphysics suggests a
very different epistemology from the one Zizek ascribes to him.
Yet the reinterpretation of the Cartesian subjective turn just described is only part of
Spinoza's response to Cartesian solipsism. His further answer to solipsism is his claim that
while knowledge begins with the body, it is not restricted to it. For while the "imagination
indicates the present disposition of the human body more than the nature of an external
body,"25 it nevertheless also grasps an external object.
The idea of any mode wherein the human body is affected by external bodies must in-
volve the nature of the human body together with the nature of the external body26
"Hence it follows," Spinoza infers in the first corollary to the proposition just cited, "that
the human mind perceives the nature of very many bodies along with the nature of its own
body." And "secondly, the ideas we have of external bodies indicate the constitution of our
own body more than the nature of external bodies."27 This is the second point I wish to argue
against Slavoj Zizek, namely, that for Spinoza knowledge is of the relation between ourselves
and the external world; it is of their impingement. As such it is accessible and necessarily
accessible. This is Spinoza's answer to Cartesian solipsism and it is a starting point for
Hegel's epistemic move beyond Kant. For Spinoza, as for Hegel, this knowledge ultimately
is capable of yielding metaphysical truths because it is an expression of God within the hu-
man and can be traced back to its divine origins. What differs in Spinoza and Hegel is the
way in which Substance discloses and embodies its expressions empirically and as a result
how they come to be known. For Spinoza modal expressions can be traced back via series
of causes (both natural laws and series of individual efficient causes) to the attributes. The
relation of self and impinging object can come to be understood as an expression of scientific
laws and not only within a web of personal and cultural imaginative associations.
200 IDEALISTIC STUDIES
For Hegel, the Phenomenology suggests instead that substance unfolds as ego, as the integra-
tion into memory of the experiences of a subject, a universal subject projecting itself into and
embodying itself within the world and then introjecting and reconciling to its original intentions
its developed and not entirely predictable self-expressions. Hegel describes it thus:
The living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, which is the same, is in
truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is the mediation
of its self-othering with itself. This Substance is, as Subject, pure simple negativity .
. . . Only this ... reflection of otherness within itself ... is the True. It is the process
of its own becoming .... Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be
spoken of as a disporting of Love within itself.28
Yet in both cases and because of related metaphysical and cosmological claims (arising in
part in answer to versions of subjectivity), knowledge is of self in its relations, relations that
come to be constitutive of self and of self in God. I have argued elsewhere that for Spinoza
from his earliest writings to the latest the individual is never atomic but always extends
beyond its narrow boundaries into its relations.2
9
It is this individual self in its relations as
they expand beyond the local personal and historical context to infinity through science that
is the object of knowledge for Spinoza. Thus the claim that knowledge is of one's own body
and mind and the second claim that knowledge is of the self in its encounters and relations
are not conflicting but amount to the same claim when we come to understand Spinoza's
conception of the individual. For the individual, Spinoza tells us, is not a thing but a ho-
meodynamic state, a stable arrangement of parts, a self-organizing, self-integrating process
which allows for growth and change while maintaining identity (coherence) and stability.30
It is thus expansive to its relations and by its encounters. And just below his explication of
what he means by individual, in the second Scholium to Proposition 13 of Part II, Spinoza
famously describes the composite individual that is made up of an organization of simpler
individuals until one arrives at "the whole of Nature as one individual whose parts ... vary
in infinite ways without change in the individual as a whole." From this very discussion of
the composite nature of body, Spinoza turns to draw epistemological conclusions.
First of all, "the human mind," he tells us, "is capable of perceiving a great many things,
and its capacity will vary in proportion to the variety of states which its body can assume."
We know our body only through its responses to the world and insofar as it is capable of the
most nuanced response to the world. For "the human mind has no knowledge of the body,
nor does it know it to exist, except through ideas of the affections by which the body is af-
fected."3l Moreover, "the mind does not know itself except in so far as it perceives ideas of
the affections of the body."32 We recall in this context that 1. N. Findlay aptly remarks that
for Hegel, if we "remove the way truth affects us ... nothing at all remains"33-a remark
we find as fitting for Spinoza. What Spinoza refers to as the ways that the body is affected,
Hegel regards more generally as experience, and proposes a science of experience, or a
Phenomenology. Our idea of our body (which is our mind), Spinoza insists, "is not simple
but composed of very many And these ideas are never of the unaffected, internal
state of the body proper but of the relation between our body and that which is external to
it that affects it. For "the idea of any mode wherein the human body is affected by external
bodies must involve the nature of the human body together with the nature of the external
body."35 Hence "the idea of these modes will necessarily involve the nature of both bodies
HEGEL'S EPISTEMIC TURN-OR SPINOZA'S? 201
(AxA, I). So the idea of any mode wherein the human body is affected by an external body
involves the nature of the human body and the external body."36 Yet neither knowledge of
its own body nor of the external body is adequate but rather confused.
37
Spinoza in the two
Corollaries to Part 2 Proposition 16 draws this conclusion for epistemology: "Hence it fol-
lows that the human mind perceives the very nature of many bodies along with the nature
of its own body" but in doing so "the ideas that we have of external bodies indicate the
constitution of our own body more than the nature of external bodies."
In the following propositions, Spinoza goes on to describe how the relational nature
of cognition operates on the imaginal level through association and memory.38 Later he
will delineate how reason grasps knowledge (and intuition completes that process) as a
relation of self to its genetic causes (ultimately in the attributes) which are more consti-
tutive of (the essence of) our individual self than the (current state of the) self per se.
39
In both cases knowledge is of the relation between self proper and its relations; and this
relational thinking is the self and not a self that thinks. But in the first case, that of the
imagination, the relations do not explicate the true constitution of the self but merely its
local context, what Spinoza calls "the common order of nature." "Hence It follows [from
the inadequacy ofthe ideas (and ideas of the ideas) ofthe affections of the body to provide
us with knowledge of our body or mind] that whenever the human mind perceives things
after the common order of nature, it does not have an adequate knowledge of itself, nor
of its body, nor of external bodies, but only a confused and fragmentary knowledge."40
Yet adequate knowledge is also relational, but it is of a different object, namely, of the
full causal system of which my mind and body as they are affected at any given point are
the effects. It is that relational system of which my mind/body are a locus of awareness, a
location in the full web of causal relations and layers, which I can come to know-thereby
understanding myself in God. That full knowledge (being) is intuition; its mediate stage is
reason (wherein the proximate cause is known); but imagination gives only local awareness
(being) not any insight into the causal system. Hegel suggests otherwise and here he parts
company with Spinoza. For memory and history, and not just the view from eternity of
causal science, as for Spinoza, are constitutive of the Absolute itself, Hegel claims, and
not just of our local experience of duration. For Hegel even our intellectual development
from the most na"ive and narrow standpoint to the most nuanced and encompassing, and
not only the final achievement, is the stuff of spirit. Nevertheless, for Spinoza, and not just
for Kant and Hegel, knowledge begins with "the transphenomenal as it appears within the
finite horizon of the temporality." And for Spinoza, and not just for Hegel, thought seeks
a truth within itself that yet leads outward to the world.
Hamilton College
Notes
1. "Hegel Against Kant," forthcoming in a volume of papers first delivered at the conference
at the UCLA Jewish Studies Center in February, 2003. "After Spinoza: Judaism, Modernity, and
the Future of the Multitude."
2. Zizek, 1. The page numbers refer to the manuscript version of the paper.
3. Zizek, 1.
4. Zizek,2.
202 IDEALISTIC STUDIES
5. Zizek, 11.
6. Zizek, lO. Zizek comments that this description of the Kantian position depends on Foucault's
understanding of it via his notion of the "empirico-transcental doublet."
7. Zizek, II.
8. Zizek. II.
9. Zizek, 13.
lO. Zizek, 13.
11. See, e.g .. "Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit," 'II 17.
12. Zizek, 12.
13. Zizek, 12.
14. Zizek, 14.
15. E2plOcor.
16. E2p13.
17. E2pl3cor.
18. E2p 17schol.
19. Edward Hundert, for example, makes the claim that "Hegel ... realized as no one before
him that both these 'moments,' both things and thoughts, fall within the institution we are investigat-
ing" (Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Neuroscience: Three Approaches to the Mind [Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1989], p. 48).
20. Hegel's "Phenomen%gy of Spirit," trans. A. V. Miller. with Analysis of the Text and Fore-
word by 1. N. Findlay (Oxford University Press, 1977), ~ l ' I I 84-85. my emendation of the Miller
translation, pp. 54-55.
21. E2plOcor and dem,
22. E2p40Scho12.
23. E2p20.
24. E2pI2.
25. E4pIschol.
26. E2p16.
27. E2p16cor2.
28. Preface to the Phenomenology. A. Y. Miller translation, p. lO.
29. See my "Spinoza's Individualism Reconsidered: Some Lessons from the Short Treatise on
God. Man. and His Well-Being," in lyyun: Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 47 (July 1998), pp.
265-292 (republished in Spinoza, ed. Yirmiyahu Yovel and Gideon Segal, eds. [Ashgate: Aldershot,
2000], and also in volume 1, Context, Sources, and Early Writings, Routledge Critical Assessments
of Leading Philosophers: Spinoza, ed. Genevieve Lloyd, 2001).
30. E2p13 Lemma 5.
3!. E2pI9.
32. E2p23.
33. Miller, p. 505, note to ~ l 7 3 .
34. E2p15.
35. E2pI6.
36. E2pI6dem.
37. E2p24 and p27.
38. On the identity of imagination and memory in Spinoza. see my "Spinoza's Rupture with
Tradition: On Ethics Vp39s," lyyulI: Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 50 (July 2001). pp.
295-326 (and republished in Jewish Themes ill Spinoza's Philosophy: A Collectioll of Essay, ed.
Heidi M. Ravven and Lenn E. Goodman [Albany: SUNY Press. 2002]).
39. See "Spinoza's Individualism Reconsidered."
40. E2p29cor.