“The Symposium” in Light of Hegel
The structure of being looks a lot like the structure of desire.
Revisiting “The Symposium” in light of Hegel: The aim of desire, according to Plato, is not to merge with or disappear into the object (Aristophanes’ account), but sustain its object—to sustain contemplative access to its object, and ultimately to sustain desire. To sustain the object is to reproduce it in some way. In the earthly and sexual domain, this happens by way of children. In ordinary cave-knowledge, this involves representation. What happens at the level of the contemplation of the forms?
Plato’s idea is that the love of the form of the beauty gives birth to virtue. What this means is that the effect of beauty is to sustain something in us. Here, desire creates psychical structure: not just transient structures associated with temporary acts of knowing, but virtues—persistent dispositions to think, feel, and act in certain ways (compare the development of superego structure in relation to the psychoanalytic object).
The reproduce-not-merge insight is just to say that to that the proper aim of desire is to internalize difference without abolishing it. Hegel’s insight in this respect is that this is just another way of saying “self-consciousness” (the existence of which is predicated on a reciprocal, non-overpowering relation between self-consciousnesses). And self-consciousness turns out to be another way of saying “the world.” The evidence for this is that however much we might embrace epistemological skepticism, a dialectical examination of candidates for the basic unit of being (“The Absolute”) reveals the only thing that will do is not something thing-like, but something formal, and not a part of being but in some sense the whole thing.
This formal candidate turns out to be suspiciously similar in structure to mental structure (including Kant’s categories): we can’t divorce the concept of being-an-entity from that of a relation-to-otherness, and ultimately from the concepts of force, law, causality, and so on. On reflection, these structures converge with the concepts of self-consciousness and desire.
This should be a motivation not to return to the idea that objects-as-appearances are products of our minds, but to try out the idea that subjects and objects are two manifestations of an underlying reality that is structured like self-consciousness, which is to say structured like desire (“for the sake of persistence, please don’t master or merge with me – let’s revolve around each other in a nice mutual-admiration orbit, or sufficiently balance the forces of attraction and repulsion, or sameness and otherness”).
Should we be surprised? Kantian cognitive categories are cribbed from what Aristotle thought he got by paying attention to being, after all. And returning to this from the epistemological side: at the level of knowing, there are important cognitive persistence conditions, which is to say cognitive reproductive capacities. Kant, in fact, is at bottom concerned with the reproductive grounds for the possibility of experience. To structure the manifold (spatially, temporally, causally, logically), to synthesize it, requires holding on to one piece of it even as we move on to another. Establishing a relation requires that the old be preserved alongside the new (consider the phenomenological horizon to an object as we shift our attention between its parts: something must be reproduced at the periphery of attention in order make what is attended to meaningful). But if I’m doing this, a being is doing it; and if a being is doing it, certainly there’s no reason to think that being isn’t doing it, that the world isn’t doing it—all on its own, no assistance from individual subjects required.