The Divided Mind. Part Two: Scepticism

But what is that which is one going to prehend? Seeks, buzzling is brains, the feinder.

The howtosayto itiswhatis hemustwhomust worden schall.A darktongues, kunning. O theoperil! Ethiaop lore, the poor lie. He askit of the hoothed fireshield but it was untergone into the matthued heaven. He soughed it from the luft but that bore ne mark ne message. He luked upon the bloomingrund where ongly his corns were growning. At last he listed back to beckline how she pranked alone so johntily. The skand for schooling.

With nought a wired from the wordless either.

- James Joyce, ‘Finnegans Wake’, 1939

As night descends the children, Shem, Shaun, Isabel and her twenty eight friends, the rainbow girls or the flower girls depending upon context, are playing in front of the inn; they are engaged in a kind of a guessing game more like a riddle than a quiz; and upon being presented with the riddle three times and twice being unable to answer Shem finally departs in disgrace. Revelling in his discomfort the girls dance in rings around and around Shaun, for the solution to their riddle is heliotrope and an unriddled Shaun at sunset is the rising son for these heliotropic Floras, flower girls and rainbow girls four times over in a leap year with the addition of Isabel to their number. What can the answer be? The feinder, Shaun the devil, foiled as a fiender, fiend, fireplace’s fender, (the dreamer sleeps in a bedroom with a fireplace remember), German for enemy, he stares at the fireshield, sighs, looks upon the bloomingrund flowers, and listens listed again in vain for the voice from on high then sinks into a subnesciousness (the kitchen below the bedroom of the dreamer): he sod down with the roust of the meast, bitterly recalls the primal scenre the last time the sight and sound of a woman agitated him this way; the fender the finder, seeks in vain, buzzling his brains like an earwig in an ear; and though the four apostolic old men, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are called upon to help they can offer none.

‘Two Young Girls Among the Flowers’, 1912, Odilon Redon

The girls, or Issy answer: You must speak with a dark tongue (secret language of ogham, early Medieval alphabet used primarily to write the early Irish language and later the Old Irish language), and you must write cunningly. The girls endeavour to give him a suggestion: O theoperil! Ethiaop lore, the poor lie. Beware of God (theo); the rainbow covenant was a poor lie. It will pore again. And heliotrope is contained in the anagram o theoperil and in Ethiaop lore if we disregard the a the indefinite article; Holytroopersm, Heliotrope, Isabel’s colour, that of her twenty eight sun-turning friends; and Heliopolis, a city in Egypt, also Dublin as the Irish nationalist Tim Healey, (1855–1931), referred to it. He asked for help from the hoothe cloven hoof fireshield (a picture on the fire preventative safety drop in the inn) but his request was submerged into the Matthew guided heaven, matthued is the colour of a Matt to walk upon, and he sought, soughed rather, a soft thought, from the air, luft, but that bore neither Mark nor message. He looked, Luke, upon the flower blooming ground where only his corns were growing/growning, until at last he came to the beckoning waters, the girls, and asked how she pranked so jauntily, John, upon which she replied; the scandal for schooling, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge that is. The skand for schooling. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker is a skand, a disgrace, and the twenty eight girls go to school.

And there was no response from the divine: With nought a wired from the wordless either.

What is it that I am trying to apprehend? He seeks, the fiend buzzing his brains to prevent access, the would-be finder. How do I say to Mr. It Is What It Is … an adaptation of I am what I am I am what It am … given I can only use words? אֶהְיֶה אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר , ’ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh … also ‘I am who I am’, and … ‘I am what I am’ and … ‘I will be what I will be’ and ‘I create what and whatever I create’ … Exodus 3:14: God replied to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you’. John 8:58: ‘Truly, truly, I tell you’, Jesus declared, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’ Revelation 1:8: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and was and is to come — the Almighty’.

In other words, I have only words … how do I access the wordless … how do I access God?

Jean Baptiste van Loo, (1684–1745), ‘Moses vor dem brennenden Dornbusch’, (‘Moses and the burning bush’)

A question that preoccupied St. Augustine of Hippo, ((354 AD — 430 AD), in his Confessions. How does the finite self discover the infinite God, or how does an infinite God get discovered in a finite self? How may we decipher God’s action in producing this created world in which such personal histories, and mayhap such revelations too, actually come to pass? And thus he embarks upon an exploration of man’s way to God, a way which begins in sense experience but rapidly passes beyond it, through and beyond the wondrous mystery of memory to the indescribable encounter betwixt God and the soul in a man or a woman’s innermost subjective personhood. And the passage from the Wake above He askit of the hoothed fireshield but it was undergone into matthued heaven …. etc. …. echos with the questions that Augustine asked: ‘And what is this God? I asked the earth, and it answered: ‘I am not’; and the things in it said the same. I asked the sea and the deeps and creeping things, and they answered: ‘We are not your God; seek above us’. I asked the winds and the whole air with its inhabitants answered me: ‘Anaximenes was deceived; I am not God’. I asked the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars. ‘Not’ (say they) ‘are we the God whom thou seekest’.’

Anaximenes, (c. 586 — c. 526 BC), pre-Socratic philosopher, an empiricist who asserted that aer, or pneuma the breath of life, was the primary substance out of which all natural things are made: ‘Just as our soul … being air holds us together, so pneuma and air encompass (and guard) the whole world’.

Augustine departs from his memories of the past to then delve into the inner mysteries of memory itself, thereby reviewing his motives for his written confessions, and seeking to chart the path by which men and women come to God he is delivered into the intricate analysis of memory and its relation to the self and its powers; and the journey will continue up until a moment whereupon the process undergoes a reversal and humanity has looked as deeply as could be into the mystery of creation upon which hang all of our history and our experience; hence the problem of time, for in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,and the whole round of creation is related to the point where we can view the drama of God’s enterprise in human history on the vast stage of the cosmos itself, for the Creator is the Redeemer and Humanity’s end and the beginning of everything meet at a particular period. Augustan eventually came to the view that almost the sole cause of his intellectual dumbfoundedness in matters religious was his headstring materialistic prejudice that if God existed he had to exist in a body, and thus had to have extension, shape, and finite relations. He recalls how the Platonists delivered him from such materialism and instructed him as to how to think of spiritual and immaterial reality, and so to become able to conceive of God in non-dualistic categories; thereby for a moment communing with the One of Plotinus, (204 AD — 270 AD), the Divine Unity.

‘One Night Museum’, Rene Magritte, 1927

Which reminds me of a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s, Beyond Good and Evil:

‘Anyone who has looked deeply into the world will probably guess the wisdom that lies in human superficiality. An instinct of preservation has taught people to be flighty, light, and false. We occasionally find both philosophers and artists engaging in a passionate and exaggerated worship of ‘pure forms’. Let there be no doubt that anyone who needs the cult of the surface this badly has at some point reached beneath the surface with disastrous results. Perhaps there is even an order of rank for these wounded children, the born artists, who find pleasure in life only by intending to falsify its image, in a sort of prolonged revenge against life — ‘We can infer the degree to which life has been spoiled for them from the extent to which they want to see its image distorted, diluted, deified, and cast into the beyond — considered as artists, the homines religiosi would belong to the highest rank. Entire millennia sink their teeth into a religious interpretation of existence, driven by a deep, suspicious fear of an incurable pessimism; this fear comes from an instinct which senses that we could get hold of the truth too soon, before people have become strong enough, hard enough, artistic enough. Seen in this light, piety — the ‘life in God’ — appears as the last and most subtle monstrosity produced by fear of the truth; it appears as the artists’ worship and intoxication before the most consistent of all falsifications, as the will to invert the truth, the will to untruth at any price. Perhaps piety has been the most potent method yet for the beautification of humanity: it can turn people into art, surface, plays of colours, benevolence, and to such an extent that we can finally look at them without suffering’.

‘Church Tower at Domburg’, 1911, Piet Mondrian

Interestingly, the early Augustine was a systematic sceptic employing a sceptical method of doubt to confront epistemological issues centuries before René Descartes, (1596–1650), did the same. In On the Trinity he argues that the mere fact that he doubts and has various other mental occurrences proves his own existence:

‘…who would doubt that he lives, remembers, understands, wills, thinks, knows, and judges? For even if he doubts, he lives; if he doubts, he remembers why he doubts; if he doubts, he understands that he doubts; if he doubts, he wishes to be certain; if he doubts, he thinks; if he doubts, he knows that he does not know; if he doubts, he judges that he ought not to consent rashly. Whoever then doubts about anything else ought never to doubt about all of these…’

Later, in Contra Academicos, Augustine was to set his sights upon specific claims made by the sceptics; that appealing to truthlikeness or plausibility is coherent, (response: truthlikeness cannot function alone as a standard since one cannot know that something is like the truth without also knowing the truth itself; that sceptics are wise, (response: sceptics cannot be wise, since wisdom requires knowledge of some sort); that nothing can be known; and finally scepticism leads to tranquility, (response: scepticism leads away from tranquility rather than towards it given that it puts one at odds with the morals of the rest of society which in turn in all probability will lead to conflict). Providing an adequate response to the third point is somewhat more tricky. The sceptic argues that a wise man must retreat to scepticism since nothing can be known, an inability that arises in virtue of the fact that knowledge of a truth, at least as understood by certain Stoics (see the previous part in this series), is only possible if that truth could not possibly be caused to appear mentally by something different than what it is in fact caused by. If an internal mental image or concept of a tree’s being beside a house could be caused by a dream then the tree’s being beside the house cannot be known, even if the tree is in fact beside the house; and given such stringent causal requirements no appearance, the sceptic supposes, could ever meets such a strict standard, and so it follows that nothing at all can be known. Augustine, however, did indeed think that such a standard could be met; and thus he embarks once again upon uncovering propositions about which doubt is an utter impossibility. Consider the following four disjunctive statements, about which we can be certain:

  1. There is either one world or not.
  2. If there is not just one, the number of them is either finite or infinite.
  3. Our world is disposed as it is either by the nature of bodies or by some plan.
  4. The world always did exist and always will, or it started to exist and will never stop, or it did not start in time but will have an end, or it started and will not last forever.

These truths are logical disjunctions, and no one can confuse a likeness of something false with them; we can thus certainly know something about the physical world, unless the sceptic can convince us that such exhaustive, disjunctive propositions can be confused with, or have a likeness of, what is false. To which the sceptic will respond with the usual recourse to the external world, our senses are fallible, how do we know the external world exists? Such disjunctive statements about the external, physical world all assume the existence of an external world, and thus they cannot be known to be true if the external world itself cannot be known to exist, and so Augustine’s disjunctions can indeed be mistaken for what is false, and thus this particular argument against comprehensive skepticism will be unsuccessful. To which Augustine responds that things seem to him, that these seemings constitute the world, that seemings are required in order for error to occur, for were it otherwise what is there to be mistaken about? And since the possibility of error is the main catalyst for sceptical doubt, scepticism requires the admission that things seem; for Augustine it is impossible to doubt that one has mental content, even if one might have doubt about whether this content corresponds to anything external to the mind.

‘Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina’, 1952, Salvador Dali

Later, Augustine will draw upon his theory of illumination to provide the foundation for certainty, that is to say, illumination is required for all our knowledge, that the notion of unity, (that is to say, simplicity, not being composed of parts), cannot come from the senses. Indeed, for Augustine, no ideas comes from the senses; the soul produces within itself ideas in response to what it sees going on in the body, but this is what does not happen in the case of the idea of unity; the soul that is attentive can observe most carefully what is going on in the body, but it will find no occasion there to produce an idea of unity. Hence, the idea of unity cannot come from the senses, in a more radical way than that of simply no idea comes from the senses; for to discover through what means the soul comes to have the notion of unity, it is of no avail to turn to the senses for even part of the answer. And so it is that for Augustine God’s Divine Ideas serve as the guarantors of certainty, functioning as they do much in the manner of Plato’s, (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BC), Forms.

And here we reach an important lesson; from the sceptic to the advocate of illumination Augustine remained constant to the same superficial kind of reasoning with unsurprisingly the same results. How so? Well, the early Augustine employed a Cartesian sceptical method of doubt to defeat scepticism and is therefore open to the sames objections that are levelled at Descartes; everything is to be doubted whereby doubt a species of thought, a thinking thing, be it Augustine or Descartes, is thereby entirely operating upon the plane of thought, and with no reference to the world the end result is God. John McDowell, (1942 — ), characterises this, in a critique of idealism generally, as ‘a frictionless spinning in a void’, whereby a realist’s belief in an independent external reality plays no part in the explication of epistemic practices. Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), makes the same point through an analogy:

‘The light dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space. Likewise, Plato abandoned the world of the senses because it posed so many hindrances for the understanding, and dared to go beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of pure understanding’.

Without the air resistance beneath its wings the dove would plummet to the ground. Add to this the wisdom that lies in human superficiality of which Nietzsche spoke, and the philosophers, in this case Augustine, passionately and exaggeratedly worshipping pure forms, in this case the Platonic forms that Augustine helped himself to, and the result is not a defeat of scepticism but just the opposite; David Hume’s, (1711–1776), reaction against it, a radical empiricism whereby all ideas derive from experience, or are legitimate only within the application of experience; an empiricism that Hume himself acknowledges ends up with scepticism. The defeat of radical scepticism (because of course I need not mention that both philosophy and science are driven by scepticism of a kind) requires a rejection of Augustinian and Humean superficiality; we need to go into these issues more deeply.

‘Forest and Dove’, 1927, Max Ernst

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, (1770–1831), and I here take up where I left off at the end of the first part, pointed out that to begin with, the anti-rationalism of the sceptic may not be apparent, for the sceptic can claim that he or she is merely aiming at the kind of ‘freedom of thought’ that the Stoic was searching for, since he or she is prepared to question everything, even that there is a world in which rational satisfaction may be found; instead, the sceptic believes we can achieve a peaceful, healthy, satisfactory life by dropping rationalistic aspirations and dispassionately following appearances. Hegel writes:

‘In Scepticism, now, the wholly unessential and non-independent character of this ‘other’ becomes explicit for consciousness; the [abstract] thought becomes the concrete thinking which annihilates the being of the world in all its manifold determinateness, and the negativity of free self-consciousness comes to know itself in the many and varied forms of life as a real negativity’.

Hegel then endeavours to demonstrate, however, that this ‘freedom of thought’ is illusory: for, once the sceptic has accepted that everything can be doubted and thus that thought cannot take us beyond appearances, he or she ends up declaring that thought is in fact powerless and turns back to the senses; at the same time, by holding that everything we know is mere appearance, he or she implicitly retains the idea that if thought could take us beyond the sensible realm, it might achieve a higher kind of knowledge. Hegel therefore argues that the abstract rationalism of the sceptic in fact leads into a despairing anti-rationalism, as the sceptical consciousness convinces itself that rational satisfaction is impossible for us.

‘The sceptical self-consciousness thus experiences in the flux of all that would stand before it its own freedom as given and preserved by itself. It is aware of this stoical indifference of a thinking which thinks itsel, the unchamging and genuine certainty of itself … At one time it recognises that its freedom lies in rising above all the confusion and contingency of exitence, existence, and at another time equally admits to a relapse into occupying itself with what is unessential. It pronounces an absolute vanishing, but the pronouncement is, and this consciousness is the vanishing that is pronounced. It affirms the nullity of seeing, hearing, etc., yet it is itself seeing, hearing, etc. It affirms the nullity of ethical principles, and lets its conduct be governed by these very principles. Its deeds and its words always belie one another and equally it has itself the doubly contradictory consciousness of unchangeableness and sameness, and of utter contingency and non-identity with itself. But it keeps the poles of this its self-contradiction apart, and adopts the same attitude to it as it does in its purely negative activity in general. Point out likeness or identity to it, and it will point out unlikeness or non-identity; and when it is now confronted with what it has just asserted, it turns round and points out likeness or identity. Its talk is in fact like the squabbling of self-willed children, one of whom says A if the other says B, and in turn says B if the other says A, and who by contradicting themselves buy for themselves the pleasure of continually contradicting one another’.

The truth of scepticism is being played out here and there is no stable terminus; the truth of scepticism is going further than stoicism which was more consistent; scepticism is inherently inconsistent and not just in the matter of certain conundrums that Hegel could have brought up here but does not; for instance, being sceptical about being sceptical. Rather, empirical consciousess plays its part in the direction towards scepticism, the flux of that which is presented as essential it experiences by saying that it is not eessential, the world, life and so on, this formless shapeless empirical flux; which is to say there is an emphasis upon contingency a la Hume; and freedom through negating the outside world becomes conscious of its own freedom. In certainty of itself consciousness works inside itself to make this possible, this conflict between the empirical and the universal is played out within the person, this ‘absolute dialectical unrest’ in consciousness itself, as everything experienced is grasped in terms of thought, and the world is for us and yet we cannot unify it, and this consciousness is nothing other than a confused ‘medley of sensuous and intellectual representations whose differences coincide’.

Jackson Pollock, ‘Search’, 1955

It is not simply the world that is contradictory in the absence of any principle of order; this is occurring within consciousness itself, this dizziness of a perpetual, self-engendered disorder. Whereas the stoic placed the world at a distance in order to control his or her desires or whatever, the sceptic no longer has that recourse, for sceptical consciousness possesses a dynamism, chaos is allowed to enter and sceptical consciousness admits to this. Consciousness is empirical by virtue of the fact that it can experience itself; I have experience of myself writing this article, that incorporates empirical matters; and it can also have experience of other consciousnesses, as I will have when I read your comments to this article, something I am looking forward to. However, to return to Augustine briefly, according to the goodly saint only God knows us perfectly, we do not. And these are contingent matters, they are not universal, my writing my article is a fact about me and cannot stand for consciousness in and of itself. And scepticism being empirical takes its guidance from what has no reality for it, from what is an erratic flux, the experience thereby being of a lack of essence. That is to say, it is meaningless, why is it thus and not thus? From which existentialists were to derive their notions of absurdity and anxiety, but this, as Hegel well knew is the experience of unessentiality as self-consciousness loses the very univeral that it thought it had gained through the negation of everything.

Sceptical consciousness grasps itself as empirical with a universal side to it; it can stand for everybody, In the Wake the protagonist is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, H.C.E., which at one point in the narrative stands for Here Comes Everybody. For what I am as the reality of humanity the universal has to become real, as it does in the sceptic while falling back into contingency, and a contingent contingency at that, a thoughtless rambling back and forth. What am I? Why am I here? Is what I am doing, spending time on LinkedIn, the meaning of my life? A not uncommon condition with which people are beset; one need not be a philosopher to fall into scepticism. And thoughts are real, thought is active, and the freedom to be what one is becomes a recognition of a lapse into the unessential subsequent to a rise above contingency. I think great and noble thoughts while engaging with Lady Philosophy, then I watch ‘Captain Marvel’ on DVD while thinking should I not be reading Hegel instead? The unessential content of my thinking vanishes while pronouncing this very vanishing. And as for ethical principles being nullified, such principles are grounded upon something that can be questioned as the sceptic does from his or her own ethical standpoint. The empirical versus the contentless universal, and deeds belie each other as both sides are aware of it as an achievement in the heart of self-consciousness, which is to say, contradiction maintains a separation of these two poles but in an inconsistent way. You say blue. I say red. You say read St. Augustine. I say read Hegel. The scepticism of Pyrrho of Elis, (360 BC — c. 270 BC), whereby every argument is opposed by another and the sceptics resemble annoying bickering children perpetually contradicting themselves, a perspective one would only chose to remain in were one to find it a diversionary amusement, as it may well be, for a while, or because of despair, there is no way out; and yet there is.

It is worth remembering, however, that in an early essay, The Relationship of Scepticism to Philosophy, Hegel drew an essential distinction between ancient and modern scepticism, and while he is hostile to the latter, he is much more positive about the former, largely because it was more thorough, and not merely in the service of putative common-sense philosophy, as he took Humean scepticism to be, and particularly as adopted by its German proponents like Gottlob Ernst Schulze, (1761–1833), one of whose students was Arthur Schopenhauer, (1788–1860), Schulze’s work being reviewed in the early scepticism essay. It is this contrast that explains why even in the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel treats scepticism as a degenerate type of rationalism when focusing upon its ancient form, while in its modern form he is more inclined to see it as an unmitigated anti-rationalism with no such positive side, an anti-rationalism that therefore results in a type of dogmatism, by seeing nothing to question in phenomena.

Having shown how the ancient sceptic comes to feel that thought is both all-powerful and powerless, Hegel argues that ‘in Scepticism, consciousness truly experiences itself as internally contradictory’. It is this duality that comes to be realized in what Hegel terms the Unhappy Consciousness.

Man Ray, ‘Revolving Doors’, 1926

‘ … modest doubt is call’d

The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches

To the bottom of the worst’.

- Shakespeare, ‘Troilus and Cressida’, Act 2, Scene 2

To be continued ….

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ Quotation:

1. prehend = to seize or take hold of

2. puzzle one’s brains = to exert oneself in thought or contrivance.

3. Feind (German) = enemy; fender.

4. worden (Dutch) = to become; and woorden (Dutch), words.

5. Schall (German) = sound, echo; and [ge]worden Schall (German), become echo (sound).

6. kunning = cunning, crafty, artful, sly; and cunnus (Latin), c*nt; and ‘The Secret Languages of Ireland’ by Macalister mentions ‘a dark tongue’ (Ogham) used by two poets to argue without being understood by bystanders, which gave rise to a 10th century story where disputants ‘confound each other with obscure allusive kennings’.

Dunloe Stone 1, County Kerry, Ireland

7. heliotrope

8. Ethiop (Archaic), Ethiopian; and heliotrope; and ‘What is Ethiopian folklore? Wikipedia: ‘Aesop (also spelled Æsop or Esop) (620–560 BC), known only for the genre of fables ascribed to him, was by tradition a slave in mid-sixth century BC in ancient Greece. The place of Aesop’s birth is disputed: Amorium, Phrygia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Samos, Athens, Sardis, Thrace and many others have been suggested. Richard Lobban, Professor of African Studies, has argued that his name is likely derived from ‘Aethiopian’, a word used by the Greeks to refer mostly to dark-skinned people of the African interior. He continues by pointing out that the stories are populated by animals present in Africa, many of the animals being quite foreign to Greece and Europe’. (Karl Reisman).

9. heated fireshield, i.e. fender. .

10. undergo = to go or pass under (obsolete), to subject or submit oneself to; and untergehen (German), submerge, fail.

11. matt-hued = dull-coloured; and Matthew (the Evangelist), Saint, one of the Twelve Apostles, traditional author of the first Synoptic Gospel; and matt, of colours, surfaces: without lustre, dull, ‘dead’.

12. sought = past of seek.

13. luft = left; Luft (German), air; 4 elements (fire, air, earth, water).

14. Mark, (the Evangelist) Saint, traditional author of the second Synoptic Gospel.

15. ne = never; not; nor; and ne… ne (archaic), neither… nor.

16. luke = look; and Luke, Saint, the author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, a companion of the Apostle Paul, and the most literary of the New Testament writers.

17. blooming = that blooms, or is in flower; Blumen (German), flowers; and Grund (German), ground.

18. only; and ongle (French), nail.

19. corn = a hard thickening of the skin (especially on the top or sides of the toes) caused by the pressure of ill-fitting shoes.

20. prank = to caper, dance; to play pranks or tricks, formerly sometimes wicked or mischievous, now usually in frolic; and Prankquean.

21. jointly = together, in union; and jauntily, in a jaunty fashionable manner; and John (the Evangelist), Saint.

22. skand = disgrace, shame.

23. schooling = the action of teaching, or the state or fact of being taught, in a school; Richard Brinsley Sheridan: ‘School for Scandal’.

‘Steeple of Saint Augustin’, Pablo Picasso, 1919




David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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