Mind the Gap. Žižek, Hegel and the Metaphysics of Contingency

There is an old philosophers’ joke that the analytical philosopher always accuses the continental one of being insufficiently clear, while the continental philosopher accuses the analytical one of Being insufficiently. In Zizek’s long awaited book, Less Than Nothing. Hegel and the Shadows of Dialectical Materialism it is possible to feel both things are true at the same time, which is perhaps only appropriate for a book on the dialectics of speculation, materialism and transcendence. It takes up those themes in 14 chapters which divide the book into two parts on Hegel and Lacan respectivelt and which range over German idealism, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, Quantum Physics, Necessity and Contingency and just about anything you can think of in the history of post-Kantian philosophy. The text itself, while complex and challenging, is also highly accessible and with the usual scatological jokes thrown in it is not a particularly difficult read.


What Zizek is trying to do here is to try to reorientate our appreciation of Hegel by, as he says, rejecting the old textbook notion of Hegel as the philosopher of the whole and of totality and the absolute and re-presenting him as someone who sees necessity and the absolute as emerging from the contingent workings of the real. He is trying to get away from the idea of Hegel as a purely teleological thinker, presenting him as someone who sees the endpoint of history in the present moment as a product of the contingent events which have led to this moment. Any teleology is a purely retrospective one. However, what he also tries to make clear is that a retrospective teleology has to also be open to the future, to possibility and process not as a predetermined and inevitable course but as one in which the contingent will continue to create necessity even while recognising that the necessity which emerges from that process is not a necessary necessity, but merely a contingent one. To paraphrase Brian Cox’s latest book on quantum physics, everything that has happened did not have to happen, but now it has, it did.

It is this difficulty of speculating about the nature of what we can know at the same time as thinking about what might become without dropping into the transcendent that represents the greatest problem for any philosopher trying to straddle the gap between epistemology and ontology. As Zizek puts it:

‘The first step in resolving this deadlock is to invert the standard “realist” notion of an ontologically fully constituted reality which exists “out there independently of our mind” and is then only imperfectly “reflected” in human cognition—the lesson of Kant’s transcendental idealism should be fully absorbed here: it is the subjective act of transcendental synthesis which transforms the chaotic array of sensual impressions into “objective reality.”’

This means that what emerges from the book is an onto-epistemic attempt to bridge the gap between what we know and the Ding-an sich. That is why we might say that it is a book about the Metaphysics of Contingency: how did what is come to be and how do we know what it is. This is of course the basis of all culture, thought and philosophy but it is very difficult to unravel the real from the Real. This is because Zizek continues to maintain that although the Real is inaccessible to us due to its basic non-existence it is at the same time always already present in reality. In other words, there is no hole where the whole once was because the hole is part of the whole. The obvious theological implications of this mean that the book also deals centrally with questions of belief, faith and uncertainty and as we can expect with Zizek religion is given a fair crack of the whip even if only to be dismissed as a transcendental attempt to understand the workings of the Real.

Indeed, another possible subtitle for this book might have been Mind the Gap, as what Zizek is trying to do here is to trace the enduring relevance of Hegel to modernity and our alienation from it by way of an investigation of perception within the totality of post-Kantian thought. Although this is a book about Hegel it also has much to teach us about Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and all the other masters of suspicion.

But above all what this book is about is an attempt to try to rescue the transcendental without collapsing into metaphysics. Zizek of course accepts that material reality has a hard-core of existence which is present independently of our perception of it but what he also maintains is that our perception of reality is part of that material reality. The dialectic of epistemology and ontology therefore produces an intertwined reality in which the gap between what we can know and what might be exists as a metaphysics of contingency.  As Zizek said in response to a question from Giorgio Agamben at a conference in 2004


“You know what Einstein did in his relativity theory? He started with curved space as the effect of matter. So, let us say that curved space occurs because something brutally from the outside, like a trauma, intervenes into it. Then he turned it around and claimed that it’s the other way; the only thing that effectively exists is the curved space. And that this transcendent matter curving the space is just our misperception of it. In a parallel way I would claim that, in a Hegelian way, the truth of transcendence is a radical gap in immanence. In this sense I would conditionally, if you ask me at gunpoint, be for immanence. But again I have to resist Kant paradoxically as a philosopher of immanence, where the distinction between transcendence and immanence is projected back into immanence itself.”


Ernst Bloch called this “transcendence without the transcendent” in which the transcendent is always already present within reality but is also not yet perceivable or possible other than as anticipation. The point is that the very process through which necessity arises out of necessity is a contingent process.

24 Responses to Mind the Gap. Žižek, Hegel and the Metaphysics of Contingency

  1. […] of Ernst Blog has posted the TOC for Zizek’s forthcoming Less Than Nothing, as well as a review. Posted in Zizek. Leave a Comment […]

  2. specularimage says:

    Reblogged this on Specular Image.

  3. Chris Horner says:

    That’s an excellent review -thanks. I wish I had my hands on a copy of the book!

  4. evangottlieb says:

    Yes, thanks very much for this lucid and helpful synopsis! Makes me quite excited for the book.

  5. Hello,

    Something that might help in the reception of Zizek’s work is if he or you would publish a short introduction, a few pages perhaps, that doesn’t assume that the reader already has some interest in Hegel, or Lacan, or Zizek. I know many intelligent and literate people who aren’t yet interested in these authors. Is there some reason why they should be interested, other than the fact that these authors have “influenced” lots of other authors (about whom potential readers might ask the same question)?

    I myself have written about Hegel in the way I’m suggesting, so I have reason to think that it can be done. But I don’t often see it done by “Continental philosophers,” who seem in general to write for each other, and not for the general public.

    Best, Bob Wallace

  6. More specifically, what does it mean to “project the distinction between transcendence and immanence back into immanence itself”? What is the “radical gap in immanence”? Please explain in a way that doesn’t assume that I’m already familiar with these terms.

    Bob W

    • Anonymous says:

      Bob, sorry, I didn’t respond to this before.What this means is that the traditional dualist view that there is an ideal transcendent (Kantian, religious, whatever) which is distinct from real existing reality can only be overcome by realising that the transcendent is actually part of the real. In other words there is no gap between the two distinct things but the gap that there is exists in radical form within reality itself. this is kind of the central point of the whole book actually: that what we perceive as being something separate to real existence is actually part of real existence in the same way that space doesn’t exist as anything but its curved form because space is gravity. Gravity is not something outside of reality but emerges from it. Equally, transcendence emerges out of the real rather than pre-existing it in some teleological or ideal form.

      • Peter Thompson says:

        That was me, Peter Thompson, not anonymous. Don’t know why it did that.

      • Peter Thompson says:

        ah, now I do

      • Thanks, Peter. Hegel writes at Science of Logic (Miller trans.) p. 149 that “It is not the finite which is the real, but the infinite.” (He’s referring of course to a “true” infinity, not a “bad” one.) I take this to mean that what is truly “real” (_real_ is the German word) is truly infinite. And I think it’s reasonable to suppose likewise that what (truly) “transcends” is the (true) infinite. From this it follows that what’s truly real is what truly transcends. In which case, rather than being “part of the real” (as you put it), the transcendent _is_ the “real” (in Hegel’s sense of “real”). I know that this is a challenging thought, for most of us today, and consequently it’s not a popular interpretation of what Hegel is saying. But I would hope that a detailed discussion of Hegel on “transcendence” etc. would examine the “Quality” chapter of SL with some care, as this seems to be his key text on these issues. I agree with Zizek that the transcendent can’t be “something separate to … existence,” since something that’s separate is (as such) not infinite, but bounded. That is Hegel’s critique of the bad infinity. But it doesn’t follow from this that the transcendent is “part of … existence.” Rather, the transcendent would have to be a transcending of the immanent (the merely “existing”) by itself, as Hegel describes the true infinite at pp. 145-6 as “a transcending of the finite” so that it “_contains_ its other” (the finite). That is, the transcendent “contains” (rather than, as you put it, being “part of”) the finite, the existing. The transcendent is the immanent’s transcendence of itself. Certainly transcendence doesn’t “pre-exist” the immanent. But it doesn’t follow from this that the transcendent is “part of” the immanent. Rather, it’s the immanent’s genuine transcendence of itself. And Hegel’s entire system shows how such self-transcendence of the immanent takes place. I dream of the day when this may dawn on Zizek.

    • Peter Thompson says:

      Bob, I take your point on the transcendence/real difference but my feeling is that you are treating it rather statically, as if there was a transcendent and a real which were not in constant movement dialectically playing off and into one another, so that the transcendent emerges out of and is constituted autopoietically by the real and the real is therefore also the process of transcendent. I think if we put this processual dynamic back into the apparent dichotomy then we actually move closer towards each other’s positions.

      • Peter, Hegel writes that “It is not the finite which is the real, but the infinite.” That is, the only true “reality” is the infinite. And I suggest that he likewise holds that the only true reality is _transcendent_. If this is correct, then there cannot be, as you put it, “a transcendent and a real which are in constant movement dialectically playing off and into one another.” There cannot be such a thing because the transcendent and the real are _identical_ with each other. Hegel has shown through his critique of the “finite” in the Quality chapter that only the transcendent (the infinite) deserves to be called “real” at all.

  7. Peter Thompson says:

    Yes, it’s a fair point and I will have a think about how best to approach it.

  8. Simon says:

    I think Lacan sums up Zizek’s point quite nicely in his Rome Discourse: “[T]he effect of full speech is to reorder past contingencies by conferring on them the sense of necessities to come.” (Ecrits, 213)

  9. Psicanálise e a transferencia…

    […]Mind the Gap. Žižek, Hegel and the Metaphysics of Contingency « Ernst Blog[…]…

  10. Chris Isherwood says:

    Very nice ‘in a nut-shell’ review! Your last remark: “transcendence without the transcendent”…kind of reminds me of Kant’s “purposiveness without a purpose” or Benjamin’s idea of ‘pure means’ i.e. means without an end. The deadlock of ‘mythic violence’ is broken via the ‘Real’ of ‘divine violence’… I recently read David Bohm’s book ‘Unfolding Meaning’. It has some nice echoes with what you were saying about Zizek’s interest with Quantum Physics. On another note, Mikhail Bahtin’s idea of heteroglosia was also highly influenced by Eintein’s theory of relativity. I find it so fascinating how ‘hard’ science is meshing now with the so-called ‘humanities’. Will continue to follow your blog! Two Zhumbs up!

  11. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Chris for those references. I will try to incorporate them. Science has always required literature to get its head round the ineffable: big bang, black hole, red shift, etc. all highly literary and uncertain phrases.

  12. TheFold says:

    It is difficult to give up on transcendence. Indeed, as you note, Zizek speaks of how Hegel folds it into what is immanent. Zizek does a nice job of unfolding what is surprising about immanent thought. What is immanent is not immediate. It does not come first. Belief in the transcendent comes first. It is only with the dialectic that this first one-sided or ‘real’ thought becomes immanent as one of the ideal moments of a dialectic. It is refreshing to find a thinker who takes Hegel’s dialectic seriously.

    • grizoo2 says:

      You capture succinctly the movement of the dialectic as mirrored in the ‘Unhappy Consciosness’ phase of Phenomenology of the Spirit.

  13. judijasa says:

    A phycisist would say that he is trying to do what statistical mechanics did to mind the gap between mechanics and thermodynamics. The latter taking the role of the formerly trascendent –afterwards becoming an immanent-trascendent–. Is just that in this case, we don’t know what the ‘thermodynamic’ theory is, but we try at least to claim the possibility of its existence (which inevitably leads to a conflict between the opennes and closeness of the epistemolog(y)/(ies) leading to it/them). In fact there is a very interesting analogy between the relation of immanence and trascendence from quantum physics: one is able to create ‘one particle’ of type A from ‘many particles’ of type B (not any A nor any B, though.). The ‘one particle’ takes the role of the trascendent while the ‘many particles’ takes the role of the immanent. And by iteration one can create a tree of particles where in order to go from one particle to any other you have to follow a series of ‘constructions’ and ‘deconstructions’. This tree ilustrates the combinatoric richness of reality. Is not absolute richness though, and to apply this abstraction into the rich high-level phenomenologies of the biological realm is… well let say that we have to learn how to do this under very limited processing and data capabilities.

    • Peter Thompson says:

      that is an interesting post, thanks, and I think I understand what you are getting at. where does this new Higgs-Boson (if that’s what it is) fit into this analogy? Is it the one particle or the many? Or is it both?

      • judijasa says:

        I don’t know much about the Standard Model. My insight comes from the interplay between quantum field theory and condensed matter theory. I was not referring to any especific particle and/or field. In condensed matter physics we study the excitations of matter (like a propagating wave in a physical medium). We model ‘matter’ as an ordered array of particles (electrons, atomic nuclea, etc.). The point is that when you have such an array, particles no longer look like particles, they rather look as a new vacuum or as you put it, like a modified space (although is not geometry what is modified in this case). And it is on top of this new vacuum that excitations (a.k.a. effective particles or quasiparticles) emerge. Some physicists have even tried to describe fundamental particles as excitations of some more fundamental discrete structure of space, but that’s another story.

  14. Aaron Gibson says:

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