Jean Hyppolite's earlier Genesis and Structure of Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Spirit' was a commentary on Hegel, preserving Hegel in its entirety. The intention behind Hyppolite's new book is quite different. Investigating Logic, Phenomenology, and the Encyclopedia, Hyppolite starts from a precise idea to make a precise point: Philosophy must be ontology, it cannot be anything else; but there is no ontology of essence, there is only an ontology of sense. Here we have, it seems, the thesis of this essential book, whose style alone is a tour de force. If Hyppolite's thesis 'philosophy is ontology' means one thing above all, it is that philosophy is not anthropology. Anthropology aspires to be a discourse on humanity. As such, it presupposes the empirical discourse ^/"humanity, in which the speaker and the object of his speech are separate. Reflection is on one side, while being is on the other.
Seen in this light, understanding is a movement which is not a movement of the thing; it remains outside the object. Understanding is thus the power to abstract; and reflection is merely external and formal. It follows that empiricism ultimately sends us back to formalism, just as formalism refers back to empiricism. "Empirical consciousness is a consciousness directed at preexistent being, relegating reflection to subjectivity." Subjectivity will thus be treated as a fact, and anthropology will be set up as the science of this fact. Kant's legitimizing subjectivity does not change the essential point. "Critical consciousness is a consciousness that reflects the knowing self, but which relegates being to the thing-in-itself." Kant indeed achieves the synthesis of the identity of subject and object—but only an object relative to the subject: the very identity is the synthesis of the imagination and is not posited in being itself. He goes beyond the psychological and the empirical, all the while remaining within the anthropological. So long as the determination is only subjective, we cannot get outside anthropology. Must we get outside it, and how do we do so?
These two questions are in fact one question: the way to get outside is also the necessity to do so. To his credit, Kant's insight is that thought is presupposed as given: thought is given because it thinks itself and reflects itself, and it is presupposed as given because the totality of objects presupposes thought as that which makes understanding possible. Thus, in Kant, thought and the thing are identical, but the thing identical to thought is only a relative thing, not the thing-as-being, not the thing-in-itself Hegel, therefore, aspires to the veritable identity of what is given and what is presupposed, in other words, to the Absolute. In his Phenomenology, we are shown that the general difference between being and reflection, of being-in-itself and being-for-itself, of truth and certainty, develop in the concrete moments of a dialectic whose very movement abolishes this difference, or preserves it only as a necessary appearance. In this sense, the Phenomenology starts from human reflection to show that this human reflection and its consequences lead to the absolute knowledge which they presuppose.
As Hyppolite remarks, it is a question of "reducing" anthropology, of "removing the obstacle" of a knowledge whose source is foreign. But it is not just at the finish, or at the beginning, that absolute knowledge is. Knowledge is already absolute in every moment: a figure of consciousness is a moment of the concept, only in a different guise; the external difference between being and reflection is, in a different guise, the internal difference of Being itself or, in other terms, Being which is identical to difference, to mediation. "Since the difference of consciousness has returned into the self, these moments are then presented as determined concepts and as their organic movement which is grounded in itself." How "arrogant," someone will say, to act like God and grant yourself absolute knowledge. But we have to understand what being is with respect to the given. Being, according to Hyppolite, is not essence but sense.
Saying that this world is sufficient not only means that it sufficient for us, but that it is sufficient unto itself and that the world refers to being not as the essence beyond appearances, and not as a second world which would be the world of the Intelligible, but as the sense of this world. Certainly, we find this substitution of sense for essence already in Plato, when he shows us that the second world is itself the subject of a dialectic that makes it the sense of this world, not some other world. But the great agent of substitution is again Kant, because his critique replaces formal possibility with transcendental possibility, the being of the possible with the possibility of being, logical identity with the synthetic identity of recognition, the being of logic with the logical nature of being—in a word, the critique replaces essence with sense. According to Hyppolite, the great proposition of Hegel's Logic is that there is no second world, because such a proposition is at the same time the rationale for transforming metaphysics into logic, the logic of sense. 'There is no beyond' means there is no beyond to the world (because Being is only sense); and that there is in the world beyond to thought (because in thought it is being which thinks itself); and finally, that there is in thought no beyond of language.
Jean Hyppolite's book is a reflection on the conditions of an absolute discourse; and in this respect, those chapters on the ineffable and on poetry are crucial. The same people who chitchat are those who believe in the ineffable. But if Being is sense, true knowledge is not the knowledge of an Other, nor of some other thing. Absolute knowledge is what is closest, so to speak, what is most simple: it is here. "Behind the curtain there is nothing to see," or as Hyppolite says: "the secret is that there is no secret." We see then the difficulty which the author emphatically underlines: if ontology is an ontology of sense and not essence, if there is no second world, how can absolute knowledge be distinguished from empirical knowledge? Do we not fall back into the simple anthropology which we just criticized? Absolute knowledge must at one and the same time include empirical knowledge and nothing else, since there is nothing else to include, and yet it has to include its own radical difference from empirical knowledge. Hyppolite's idea is this: essentialism, despite appearances, was not what preserved us from empiricism and allowed us to go beyond it.
From the viewpoint of essence, reflection is no less exterior than it is in empiricism or pure critique. Empiricism posited determination as purely subjective; essentialism, by opposing determinations to one another and to the Absolute, leads only to the bottom of this limitation. Essentialism is on the same side as empiricism. On the other hand, however, the ontology of sense is total Thought that knows itself only in its determinations, which are moments of form. In the empirical and in the absolute, it is the same being and the same thought; but the empirical, external difference of thought and being has given way to the difference which is identical to Being, to the internal difference of Being that thinks itself. Thus absolute knowledge is in effect distinct from empirical knowledge, but only at the cost of denying the knowledge of non-different essence. In logic, therefore, there is no longer, as there is in the empirical realm, what I say on the one hand and the sense of what I say on the other—the pursuit of the one by the other being the dialectic of Phenomenology. On the contrary, my discourse is logically or properly philosophical when I speak the sense of what I say, and when Being thus speaks itself. Such discourse, which is the particular style of philosophy, cannot be other than circular. In this connection, we cannot fail to notice those pages Hyppolite devotes to the problem of beginning in philosophy, a problem which is not only logical, but pedagogical. Hyppolite thus rises up against any anthropological or humanist interpretation of Hegel. Absolute knowledge is not a reflection of humanity, but a reflection of the Absolute in humanity. The Absolute is not a second world, and yet absolute knowledge is indeed distinct from empirical knowledge, just as philosophy is distinct from any anthropology. In this regard, however, if we must consider decisive the distinction Hyppolite makes between Logic and Phenomenology, does the philosophy of history not have a more ambiguous relation to Logic?
Hyppolite says as much: the Absolute as sense is becoming; and it is certainly not an historical becoming. But what is the relation of Logic's becoming to history, if 'historical' in this instance designates anything but the simple character of a fact? The relation of ontology and empirical humanity is perfectly determined, but not the relation of ontology and historical humanity. And if as Hyppolite suggests finitude itself must be reintroduced into the Absolute, does this not risk the return of anthropologism in a new form? Hyppolite's conclusion remains open; it opens the way for an ontology. But I would only point out that the source of the difficulty, perhaps, was already in Logic itself. It is indeed thanks to Hyppolite that we now realize philosophy, if it means anything, can only be ontology and an ontology of sense. In the empirical realm and in the absolute, it is the same being and the same thought; but the difference between thought and being has been surpassed in the absolute by the positing of Being which is identical to difference, and which as such thinks itself and reflects itself in humanity. This absolute identity of being and difference is called sense. But there is one point in all this where Hyppolite shows his Hegelian bias: Being can be identical to difference only in so far as difference is taken to the absolute, in other words, all the way to contradiction. Speculative difference is self-contradictory Being. The thing contradicts itself because, distinguishing itself from all that is not, it finds its being in this very difference; it reflects itself only by reflecting itself in the other, since the other is its other. This is the theme Hyppolite develops when he analyzes the three moments of Logic: being, essence, and the concept. Hegel will reproach Plato and Leibniz both for not going all the way to contradiction: Plato remains at simple alterity; and Leibniz, at pure difference.
This supposes in the very least not only that the moments of Phenomenology and the moments of Logic are not moments in the same sense, but also that there are two ways, phenomenological and logical, to contradict oneself. In the wake of this fruitful book by Jean Hyppolite, one might ask whether an ontology of difference couldn't be created that would not go all the way to contradiction, since contradiction would be less and not more than difference. Hyppolite says that an ontology of pure difference would restore us to a purely formal and exterior reflection, and would in the end reveal itself to be an ontology of essence. However, the same question could be asked in another way: is it the same thing to say that Being expresses itself and that Being contradicts itself? While it is true that the second and third parts of Hyppolite's book establish a theory of contradiction in Being, where contradiction itself is the absolute of difference, on the other hand, in the first part (the theory of language) and throughout the book (allusions to forgetting, remembering, lost meaning), does not Hyppolite establish a theory of expression, where difference is expression itself, and contradiction, that aspect which is only phenomenal?
Source: Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953-1974)