Self-Negating and Self-Transcending Self-Reflection
Self-reflection in the Middle Ages was pursued to great speculative heights, particularly by philosophers in the Arabic-Aristotelian tradition that saturated Dante’s intellectual ambience. They emphasized a positive side of self-reflection as true knowledge and as a way of realizing one’s immortality, albeit not necessarily for an individual so much as for universal mind. This approach, too, decisively shapes Dante’s philosophical thought in his treatises and perdures as a horizon of his total vision. For Dante, however, consonant with the Bible, true self-knowledge passes finally by way of death and a descent into hell entailing a complete deconstruction of ego-self—before it leads upward to resurrection in an individual body and to immortal life and light.
Dante takes on board this darker, deeper heritage of self-reflection as a deliberate exercise in dying. Self-reflection is prone to melancholy and death—as Ovid’s rendering of the Narcissus myth makes crystal clear. The bitter fate of Narcissus prefigures the nihilistic destination of philosophy and therewith of self-reflection in the Western speculative tradition wherever self-reflection is carried out as sufficient unto itself and without rupture opening it to an Outside. However, another possibility based on employing the imagination in self-reflection animated by blind contact and openness to an unfathomable Other points reflection in quite another direction. Dante manages to encompass and unite
This abundance is made evident by Giuseppe Ledda, “Animali nel ‘Paradiso’,” in La poesia della natura nella “Divina Commedia,” ed. Giuseppe Ledda (Ravenna: Centro Dantesco dei Frati Minori Conventuali, 2009), 93-135.
both of these tendencies looming at the aurora of modern thought in its multivalent potential. He thereby dramatizes the profound ambiguity of self-reflection.
Two modern philosophers, Hegel and Heidegger, distinguish themselves as having continued in the tradition of making reflection on human mortality fundamental to the task of philosophy. Heidegger explicates human existence or Dasein, “Being-there,” as essentially Being-unto-death (Sein-zum-Tod). And Hegel’s Absolute is based on reflection on the nullity of our sensuous being as enshrined in the rites of Ceres observed even by the beasts: they are not mesmerized by the things before them but rather “eat them up” (“zehren sie auf”), as he charmingly puts it in Chapter 1 of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Only such concrete realization of the finitude of human existence enables it to complete itself as an infinite whole, a completed circuit of self-reflection. The apparently objective reality of things is eaten up by time and is turned by conscious reflection into an event that can be made to reflect on itself—in and through language. This reflection, then, is no longer bound by time; instead, it has a structure complete in itself as self-reflection.
Hegel is the modern thinker par excellence who would bind everything into a comprehensive system by the bond of self-reflection, but he also exposes its limits in the mortal creature. Heidegger stands at the departure point launching into postmodern thinking, where self-reflection breaks down and becomes obsessed with its insurmountable inability to be complete on its own terms alone. Self-reflection shows itself to be but a means of approach to what is not the self and not reflection either as we know them.
Plying self-reflection to the limit of discovering an Absolute that pries reflection open to its Other is the feat we saw Dante’s lyrical language performing in Part I. In Part II, we traced self-reflection forward to its modern realization eventually in a techno-scientific apocalypse, but we also discerned in Dante the premises of an alternative modernity in which self-reflection points outside itself to relate to an Other in a religious dimension. In secular modernity, self-reflection becomes merely a means of constructing a self-enclosed sphere of immanence rather than (as for Dante and his tradition) a challenge placing us face to face with unassimilable alterity. Our now post-secular times enable us once again to see this other legacy that was there from the origins of modern thought with Dante. We aim in Part III to comprehend this alternative in terms of the (theological) mystery of language by considering later philosophical elaborations of what was first manifest intuitively in Dante’s invention of a self-reflexive lyrical language that reflects transcendent divinity. In what follows, philosophical formulations of this dialectic alternate with
This is argued influentially by Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), especially Appendix II: “L’idée de la mort dans la philosophie de Hegel.”
Self-Reflection and Modern Self-Forgetting 193 analyses of its historical instantiations as illuminated by or as radiating from Dante’s Paradiso.
Our mastering all reality as our resource so that we see only ourselves and our own needs and purposes reflected everywhere disenchants the world and produces a dead natural order consisting merely of matter in motion. This is our modern, Enlightenment heritage. However, selfreflection can also be the means by which we gain critical distance on this production of an ersatz world of formal, linguistically defined, spectral (non-)entities. By transcendental self-reflection, we can take critical cognizance of our own intellectual process in producing this grid of dead abstractions, and this shows the path leading back to the mystery of life within us and all around us. Self-reflection is the source of a deadening plague of totalizing rationalization—as well as its remedy. It is the pharmakon, if ever there was one—and, in fact, the most indispensable prescription underlying them all.
Our speculative heritage of transcendental self-reflection, of recursively reflecting on our reflection itself, puts self-reflection in a perspective of critical awareness of human limits that lets reality again emerge in its own integrity as preexisting all our relativizing, and finally totalizing, human determinations. Rather than seeing only the same—ourselves— everywhere we look, we see even in ourselves the Unknown and Other. Of course, this maneuver, too, is humanly determined—but in a self-negating and self-transcending mode. Negative theology is a form of reflection par excellence that prepares through radically self-critical self-reflection for encounter with the absolutely Other. Dante’s Paradiso embodies (negative) theology in poetic language that richly reveals self-reflection’s ability to reflect on itself in such a way as to open up to and reflect this Other.