I. The Quest for an Absolute

The start of the nineteenth century is a time of great beginnings. In what was then a relatively obscure work, a contemporary writer put it quite well:

Besides, it isn’t hard to see that our time is a time of birth and of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world that it up to now lived in and represented, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the work of its own transformation. Indeed, it is never at rest but always engaged in moving forward… The frivolity as well as boredom that disrupt the existing order, the vague presentiment of something unknown, are harbingers that something else is in the wind. The gradual crumbling that didn’t change the physiognomy of the whole will be cut short by the sunrise, which in a flash will reveal the shape of the new world.

The writer was G.W.F. Hegel. The text, his preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Legend has it he penned the preface the night before Napoleon defeated Prussia at the battle of Jena in 1806. In fact, it took Hegel much longer—the preface wasn’t finished until early 1807—but he did (as he himself says in a famous letter) see Napoleon riding through the streets of Jena the day before the battle took place, the “world-soul on horseback.” No doubt, as Hegel, lost in the crowd, watched Napoleon riding past, he must’ve had the sense of “something in the wind,” of an impending dramatic change about to revolutionize the world. Of course, at this distance in time, we can only imagine what it’s like to feel yourself on the threshold of such a pivotal moment. But if we can’t access it directly, we need to approach it indirectly, through other sources. And to do that, we need to look elsewhere.

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Thinking, then, about other media from the same period that offer other ways of accessing the experiential, we could probably do worse than turn to another contemporary work in which something of this sense of dramatic change in process seems to be conveyed: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat Major, Op. 73, nicknamed the “Emperor”:

From the massive opening orchestral chord (1st in a sequence of 3) with the piano in accompaniment, it’s clear that we’ve embarked on a great voyage of discovery, something the ensuing ornamental passagework by the piano does nothing to dispel. But perhaps the most striking feature of the passage is precisely that the whole of it is something more than just rhetoric: that in fact it forms the foundation of a remarkable development. For the same 3 chords (with different piano decoration) will return at the start of the 1st movement recapitulation. Yet even this is only a start.

Because the entire opening is merely a prelude to the main theme, which only emerges many measures later. But once it does emerge, it, too, becomes subject to a similar kind of development. As the eminent Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper so nicely puts it in his recent Beethoven biography: “The main theme of the first movement is decorated by a turn, but this figure is then developed symphonically, reappearing well over a hundred times during the movement and providing one of the finest examples of Beethoven’s habit of treating a seemingly decorative figure as a main motif for development” (Beethoven, p. 197). From all these instances, we can infer a hidden or tacit principle of development. And that principle is that nothing is lost. Everything, in other words, will ultimately be taken up again. And not only taken up but elaborated on, worked out more fully—which is to say: made into material for development.

Beethoven, Piano Con. 5, 1st mvnt, opening. Emil Gilels, piano/Cleveland Orch. cond. George Szell

To get the fullest sense of how development works in Beethoven, however, we need to fast forward to the end of the 1st movement of the “Emperor,” where he brings matters to a magnificent close:

Almost any listener will immediately recognize a device Beethoven employs even more memorably in the last movement of his 9th symphony: the gradual progression of a march-like theme from pf to ff, which is accompanied by a gradual increase in instrumentation and likewise an increase in the complexity of the theme. But the end of the 1st movement of the “Emperor” is a bit different: instead of the progressive “onward & upward” quality of the march-like theme we get a kind of “falling” theme, the initial piano sequence touched ever so lightly and with plenty of sustaining pedal, then, once other orchestral elements begin to accompany, repeated downward scale progressions that are always dynamically amplified as they near their end. Of course, once you’ve gone down, if you want to do it again you need to go up first. Interestingly, the way Beethoven does it is to give the piano a “boost,” so to speak, from the orchestra: for every “upward” movement the piano is accompanied by a strong push from woodwinds + other orchestra sections, but the “downward” scale progressions that follow these tend to be performed by the piano alone, or so highlighted that it appears to be playing alone. It’s as if the piano needs orchestral help to overcome the force of gravity every time it tries to ascend, whereas the downward scale progression comes naturally. Then, just before the end, Beethoven gives the piano an opportunity to do one last downward scale progression which really announces the end, as it were. What are we to make of all this? I suggest that the downward turn is meant to convey the force of necessity. And if we think of its repeated appearance toward the end of the movement, we can read it as an attempt on Beethoven’s part to frame his movement as one that comes to a necessary close. Finally, if we look back on the whole 1st movement from beginning to end, the fact that it should end this way can’t help but imply that he wants us to see it all as a single instance of necessary development.

But if Beethoven’s “Emperor” offers one instance of necessary development, it would be highly significant if we could find others in fields far removed. That would give us some reason to think of the concept of necessary development as perhaps characteristic of the period as a whole. Here, however, I don’t just want to suggest it was something “in the air.” No—I think we can make a much stronger claim. First of all, because the concept of necessary development isn’t one of those vague notions like a pantheistic concept of God, or a concept of social or class hierarchy. Instead, it’s very explicitly formal: you can see exactly how it works in a Beethoven score. And that means it can be grasped much more fully and hence might be transferred in very tangible ways from one field to another. In other words, I think we can see it as exerting an active influence on thinking within a given field. So an idea of necessary development emerges within a given field and, because it’s formal, can be grasped and applied to a very different field. In this way, then, we get fields in an interactive relationship to each other. Furthermore, because an idea like that of necessary development is formal, it has the capacity not just to influence thinking within a field but even to structure that entire field. Here, then, we obtain a sense of the power or significance such a concept might have. It remains for us to ascertain whether such applications in fields so very different from that of Beethoven’s “Emperor” can in fact be found.

But if we want to see fields within the Romantic era as interactive, it makes sense to look at those which tangibly affect each other. Earlier, we caught a glimpse of Hegel, lost in the crowd, watching Napoleon ride past on his way to the plateau above Jena. Unquestionably, Napoleon was on everybody’s mind during the years that followed those of revolutionary turmoil. And the way Napoleon impressed himself on the collective mind of Europe above all else was by war. In the early years of the nineteenth century, as we know, the Grande Armée achieved victory after victory and, in the process, changed the map of Europe. And at the heart of that process, making it all possible, lay a new idea of military tactics, one by which these victories were achieved. So it would be significant if here, at the very eye of the storm, we could discern something of that same concept of necessary development which we’ve already witnessed with Beethoven.

Beethoven, Piano Con. 5, 1st mvnt, conclusion. Emil Gilels, piano/Cleveland Orch. cond. George Szell

Here the 1st point to make about Napoleon’s battle scheme is that it involves a narrative or story. As he himself once said: “every battle has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” At first glance all this might seem too obvious, hence not worth talking about. Of course every battle has a beginning, middle, & end: a battle is an event that takes time, and so has a duration. But any event with a duration will have a beginning, middle, & end. Yet while this seems to be true invariably for some events (the growth cycle of a plant, for instance), it doesn’t have to apply to battle categorically. In fact, we know of an instance where Frederick the Great noticed his opponent attempting to shift formation, attacked him just at the moment of formation-shift, and so managed to create confusion and ultimately to disrupt the enemy formation. Here, then, we don’t have a distinct beginning/middle/end but just the interruption of a process (formation-shift) which produces a decisive outcome. So by asserting the need for a definite beginning/middle/end, Napoleon appears to be saying a battle doesn’t just have a duration but a distinct shape. What kind of shape, though, would this be? Typically, we think of the middle of a story as consisting of complications, which the end has to resolve. But if the middle is about complications, we might say a story doesn’t just have linear sequence. Instead, complications means a story gets bigger, more involved—and that would imply it has a development of some kind. So now we have a hint of the same idea we found earlier in Beethoven. A musical motif, no matter how seemingly casual, doesn’t just get put out there. Instead, it gets taken up, and becomes thereby the subject or object of a development. As a result, more elements get drawn into the story. And that means that when we finally arrive at the end the outcome will be more massive in effect, because more elements were involved.

The 2nd point to make about this battle-scheme is that it has to involve not just development, but something like necessary development. Any time you have complications you’re obviously increasing the potential for uncertainty. In other words, the more complications, the harder to ensure a particular outcome. Yet clearly the outcome, no matter what the complications are, is always supposed to be the same. And that suggests there has to be a necessary link between complications and outcome—regardless of what the particular variations are, the outcome always has to be victory for the Napoleonic forces. But that in turn would seem to imply the necessity of a particular outcome is somehow built into the complications, that collectively what these complications do is to necessitate the desired outcome. Put in another way, we might say what Napoleon does is to defer the end or outcome, by allowing complications to arise during the middle phase. Clearly the rationale for this is to try to bring about a bigger payoff: the more elements or enemy forces you can manage to draw into your game, the bigger your victory will be. More involvement, a bigger “draw,” is all very well and good. But the bottom line is still the same: no matter how fancy or involved the development, you still have to win. And so we come to the question of what in the exact unfolding of Napoleonic maneuvers makes that possible.

In phase 1 of the Napoleonic scheme, the key move has to do with the placement of his advance guard. Typically, before a battle, Napoleon would tend to leave a single corps out in front by itself, seemingly unprotected and hence vulnerable to enemy attack. The temptation, for the enemy commander, is to attack and overwhelm this apparently solitary corps and so improve his odds for the major battle ahead by reducing Napoleon’s numbers. And that’s precisely what Napoleon wants him to think. Because as soon as the enemy commander jumps at the bait, so to speak, Napoleon will then immediately rush up all his nearest corps to support the one under attack. But they won’t just support it from behind, like a reserve—instead, these other corps extend the front by deploying on either side of the corps under attack, which almost forces the enemy to commit more troops just to avoid being overwhelmed by a flank attack on either side of the corps initially committed. So here we can see how quickly and almost inevitably a minor skirmish escalates into major conflict. Once the enemy commander opts to go after Napoleon’s single corps, it’s almost impossible to avoid committing more troops—the quick appearance of Napoleon’s support corps forces the enemy commander to throw in more troops just so his own initial attack group won’t be lost. As a result, the enemy gets more and more firmly locked into engagement. Now while from appearances so far the playing field might look roughly even, it really isn’t—after all, Napoleon himself carefully selected where the engagement would take place, which will have unforeseen but extremely important consequences.

In phase 2, the most important moves are precisely those that can’t be seen by the enemy: the end-around move by the enveloping force that will later attack the enemy flank and thereby force a formation-shift, and the gathering of the “masse de décision” (ominous name) behind Napoleon’s right flank. Here’s where the advantages of Napoleon’s choice of ground for the battle become evident. Because, typically, he will have chosen ground with a slight rise that will help to conceal his end-around move. Nonetheless, he doesn’t simply leave it to the rise of ground to do all the work of concealment—his use of a cavalry screen is meant to ensure the enemy doesn’t manage to figure out what’s going on. Nor does he leave the enemy a lot of time to think about it, either. Instead, he keeps the enemy busy by pressing forward with those corps already engaged (which blocks off any kind of withdrawal or redeployment on the enemy’s part), and by bringing a fresh corps into play at the right end of his line, which forces the enemy to commit reserves to meet what could otherwise develop into a dangerous flank attack. In this way, all the enemy troops get committed, which is crucial for phase 3 of the attack. Because now the enemy won’t be able to bring up any reserve to meet the unexpected moves Napoleon intends to make in phase 3. But the enemy commitment of its last reserves was largely necessitated by the pressing forward of Napoleon’s already engaged corps and by his introduction of a new corps on his right flank. To have failed to respond to either of these moves would have led to a serious weakening of the enemy position. So while the concealed moves of phase 2 prepare for the outcome of phase 3, the mounting attack by the rest of the Napoleonic corps more or less forces a step-up in commitment from the enemy.

In phase 3, the key moves are the sudden enveloping attack by the concealed Napoleonic corps (which forces a hurried formation-shift by the enemy) and, once the enemy line has gotten overextended, the powerful thrust by the “masse de décision” aimed at just the spot where the enemy line is weakest. These moves virtually necessitate the outcome of the whole affair. Once the surprise envelopment gets underway, the enemy has no choice but to shift formation. Not to do that would result in an immediate collapse of his entire line, with the new Napoleonic corps able to attack the enemy from behind. But once the enemy commander’s opted to extend his line so as to meet the surprise attack on his rear, there’s no way he can possibly hope to have enough troops to resist the powerful attack on his weakened front by the “masse de décision.” And, to ensure the complete breakdown of any resistance, Napoleon even precedes the frontal attack by his “masse de décision” by a massed artillery bombardment that can’t help but sweep away any last attempt to preserve formation in face of the new attack. But if the 2 key moves of phase 3 inevitably bring about a breakthrough by the “masse de décision,” it should now be equally clear how the ground for these was largely prepared by what came before. Specifically, it’s the extension of the front and its reinforcement that really pin down the enemy and force a commitment of reserves, which makes possible the unopposed end-around maneuver (Napoleon called it the “manoeuvre sur les derrières,” the “maneuver on the rear”). In this way, then, the particular complications of the middle help to necessitate the end.

Finally, it seems only appropriate that we should come back at the end of our journey to where we began—which is to say, to Hegel and, specifically, to his preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. After all, he was the one who, lost in the crowd at Jena, watched Napoleon ride past and felt the world-historical significance of what was to come: the breakdown of the old, and the beginning of a new order. So we might ask whether it’s possible to discern a similar process in the Phenomenology: the establishment of what we might call a necessary development.

We begin with a preliminary remark and its clarification. 1st, the preliminary remark, from the Preface:

In my view, which can be justified only by the exposition of the system itself,everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.

Actually, what the text literally says is: “not as Substance, but equally as Subject.” In other words, everything looks forward proleptically to the end, to its final phase as Subject. Then, the longer exposition:

…the living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what 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, and is for this reason the splitting up of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its opposite [the immediate simplicity]. Only this self-restoring sameness, or this reflection in otherness within itself—not an original or immediate unity as such—is the True. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes the end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual. (A.V. Miller trans., slightly modified)

from David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Macmillan, 1966)

By way of clarification, we might consider the following schema:   Briefly, in positing or asserting itself—in beginning to exist, you might say—Substance becomes something different from what it was in its original, inchoate state, becomes something other than its initial self. But in this process of self-othering it’s no longer the same as itself. To really become itself, then, it has to negate both diversity (its difference from itself) and its original state of immediate simplicity. The way it does that is by a process of self-relation through which it discovers the sameness within its difference at each stage from itself. In this way, it comes back to itself, but now as Subject rather than Substance. After this brief, compressed précis, what Hegel does next is to try to explain the process. Once again, as before, he offers a preliminary remark:

The True is the whole. But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development.

Then, the exposition of development as a process:

For mediation is nothing beyond self-moving self-sameness, or is reflection into self, the moment of the ‘I’ which is for itself pure negativity or, when reduced to its pure abstraction, simple becoming. The ‘I,’ or becoming in general, this mediation, on account of its simple nature, is just immediacy in the process of becoming, and is the immediate itself.

Here the key point to emphasize is “self-moving self-sameness.” By which Hegel means, roughly, that Substance moves itself—in other words, that its change, its process of becoming, isn’t impelled by anything other than itself. This point is crucial, because it’s what makes possible its self-sameness within that process of self-moving. It moves itself, and so changes, but in this change, this transformation, because the movement comes from itself, it always remains the same as itself, in effect because it carries itself or its content in its movement from what it was before to what it becomes next, which is what Hegel calls the process of simple becoming. Hegel considers this process simple becoming because in that process the whole of Substance is transformed, with nothing left over, left behind. But all the while—because it’s taken its whole self with it—Substance retains its self-sameness. By way of illustration, we then get an example, which crucially helps to explain what Hegel means by negativity:

Though the embryo is indeed in itself a human being, it is not so for itself; this it only is as cultivated Reason, which has made itself into what it is in itself. And that is when it for the first time is actual.

But if all this works to clarify the process of becoming or development, what Hegel still hasn’t made clear is why that process occurs—in other words, what drives it, what makes it happen. Only when he does that do we begin to get a sense of what makes this kind of development necessary. And because of both the subject of that development—nothing less than the “I” or self—and because of its quality or nature as a necessary development, we’ll see how this Hegelian scheme would ultimately become the model for so much of the thinking about development in the West for the first half of the nineteenth century. First, however, as before, a preliminary remark:

What has just been said can also be expressed by saying that Reason is purposive activity.

And now for the exposition:

…purpose is what is immediate and at rest, the unmoved which is also self-moving, and as such is Subject. Its power to move, taken abstractly, is being-for-self or pure negativity. The result is the same as the beginning, only because the beginning is the purpose; in other words, the actual is the same as its Concept only because the immediate, as purpose, contains the self or pure actuality within itself. The realized purpose, or the existent actuality, is movement and unfolded becoming; but it is just this unrest that is the self; and the self is like that immediacy and simplicity of the beginning because it is the result, that which has returned into itself, the latter being similarly just the self. And the self is the sameness and simplicity that relates itself to itself. (pp. 9-12 for all the above passages)

Here the key point is result = beginning because beginning = purpose. Beginning = purpose means that “the immediate [i.e., the beginning], as purpose, contains the self or pure actuality within itself.” How does it do that? It does that because the self or pure actuality that it contains within itself consists of the drive toward purposive activity. In other words, even within Substance, the initial, inchoate state of what will ultimately become Subject, what we already have is the drive that will finally lead it to actualize itself as Subject. Nor is this drive something separate from Substance, i.e., something injected into it or imposed on it from without. Instead, what Hegel says is that purpose is “what is immediate and at rest,” which identifies it with Substance. But what makes that identification possible? For Hegel, the key point is that Being and thought aren’t ultimately different from each other. On the contrary, he sees them as different aspects of Substance. So instead of a static sense of what is, we get a sense of ontology, of being or the essence of things as inherently poised to move. In effect, its essence is a potency that’s poised to move because that essence isn’t just the ground or being of what is, but the purposive force that produces becoming. Put in another way, we might say that thought is purposive activity because in order to realize itself it can’t just be, it has to think itself. And because thought and being are fundamentally identical, that means that being, too, has to become in order to realize itself. So the process by which it becomes itself can be seen as one of necessary development, because all it does in this process is to become what it was inherently. Here, then, we get a glimpse of the force of the Hegelian model: because it could say that what the “I” became was something inherently within itself, the process by which it became that could come to be seen as the model for all development. So it was that, at the very end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche could look back at this Hegelian model and talk in his Ecce Homo about “how one becomes what one is.” His work offers eloquent testimony to the force of that model, and to why it would prove so difficult to overcome.

Schema for the entire lecture series:   This schema will, hopefully, give some idea of the entire trajectory of the series. I’ll have more to say about it in later talks, but for now, briefly, you see the beginning with Substance ⇒ Subject, followed by the primacy of subjective over objective as we move toward 1850 (the mid-century, & center-point of the schema). Ca. 1850 we witness a split between subjective & objective (Subjective ≠ Objective), then an internalization of the objective within the subjective (symbolized by o & s), which will lead to a fragmentation of the objective and its complete containment within consciousness by the end of the 19th century (blue shaded portion). Afterward, when we come to Modernism, we get a new ordering of these fragments of the objective within consciousness, which we can interpret as experiences = temporal moments, hence fated to pass away. Modernism tries to preserve these through a spatial ordering, which more broadly described becomes a spatialization of time.