It should come as no surprise that both Gillian Rose and Hegel lurk in the background of Rowan Williams’s recent Gifford Lecture series. In his third lecture, “No last words: language as unfinished business”, Williams offers a tantalizing note about Hegel and how the self only is through time, conversation and encounter.

To know myself… is to be involved in a narrative exercise. I don’t look for a timeless true self at the heart of all I do or say, but I do look for a sequence of encounters that I can narrative.”

Borrowing from Stanley Cavell, Williams continues,

“The reason we cannot say what the thing is in itself is not that there is something that we do not in fact know, but that we have deprived ourselves the conditions for saying anything in particular.”

That is, the search for thing in itself is a search to escape from language. We can’t talk about what something is like when we’re not talking about it. We can’t talk about an object in a way that avoids the staking of a position, and the opening of an intelligible future of debate and exchange. We can’t surprise the object when it’s not expecting to be looked at. And this in desperately condensed form is of course arguably what the entire argument of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is all about it…

It’s not, to labor the point again, that there are unrepresentable realities that would ground what we say if only we could get at them. It’s that the way we know and understand is by representing and risking the form of our representation and shared discourse as time unfolds.