Zizek on Hegel’s “Absolute Knowing”


This is why to be a Hegelian today does not mean to assume the superfluous burden of some metaphysical past, but to regain the ability to begin from the beginning.

Slavoj Zizek

All determinate being is relational, things only are what they are in relation to otherness, or, as Deleuze put it, perspectival distortion is inscribed into the very identity of the thing. The Real is not out there, as the inaccessible transcendent X never reached by our representations; the Real is here, as the obstacle or impossibility which makes our representations flawed, inconsistent. The Real is not the In-itself but the very obstacle which distorts our access to the In-itself, and this paradox provides the key for what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing.”

And is not what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing” (Wissen, not Erkenntniss or knowledge) the end-point of these reversals, when the subject stumbles upon the final limitation, the limitation as such, which can no longer be inverted into a productive self-assertion? Absolute Knowing thus “does not mean ‘knowing everything.’ It rather means— recognizing one’s limitations.”  “Absolute Knowing” is the final recognition of a limitation which is “absolute” in the sense that it is not determinate or particular, not a “relative” limit or obstacle to our knowledge that we can clearly see and locate as such. It is invisible “as such” because it is the limitation of the entire field as such— that closure of the field which, from within the field itself (and we are always by definition within it, because in a way this field “is” ourselves) cannot but appear as its opposite, as the very openness of the field. The dialectical buck stops here: the subject can no longer play the game of the “experience of consciousness,” comparing the For-us with the In-itself and thereby subverting both of them, since there is no longer any shape of the In-itself available as a measure of the truth of the For-us.

Absolute Knowing is a name for the acceptance of the absolute limitation of the circle of our subjectivity, of the impossibility of stepping outside of it. Here, however, we should add a crucial qualification: this acceptance in no way amounts to any kind of (individual or collective) subjectivistic solipsism. We must displace the In-itself from the fetishized “outside” (with regard to subjective mediation) to the very gap between the subjective and the objective (between For-us and In-itself, between appearances and Things-in-themselves). Our knowing is irreducibly “subjective” not because we are forever separated from reality-in-itself, but precisely because we are part of this reality, because we cannot step outside it and observe it “objectively.” Far from separating us from reality, the very limitation on our knowing— its inevitably distorted, inconsistent character— bears witness to our inclusion in reality.1

—Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism