Monday, 5 March 2012

A voyage to Hegel

I feel like a tourist, looking at quaint old ruins and being struck by the surrealism of the past. Yet, trotting about, careful not to stumble, I think: "This was once the capital of the empire from which Marx and Nietzsche sprung... and all those great thought-friends of mine in the Frankfurt School". 

Yes, I've been reading the Phenomenology (in the recent Swedish translation by Brian Manning and Sven-Olov Wallenstein). So many marvels. No matter how many times I read it, I'm struck with the beauty of famous passages like:
Frivolity as well as the boredom that open up in the establishment and the indeterminate apprehension of something unknown are harbingers of a forthcoming change. This gradual crumbling which did not alter the general physiognomy of the whole is interrupted by the break of day that, like lightning, all at once reveals the edifice of the new world. (§11; this translation is from W. Kaufman's Hegel: Texts and Commentary, University of Notre Dame Press 1977:20)
Like a tourist, I stop in front of the well-known theoretical landmarks. Here's one: the criticism of the semblance of immediacy – just one single little thought, but without it, there would have been no Lukács, no Adorno and no (worthwhile) ”criticism of ideology”.

I am predictably charmed by the parable of the master and the slave. So much like an unhappy love story. But one persistent doubt lingers: why would the master ever really want to be recognized by the slave? I remember that Charles Tilly in a text quotes Stinchcombe's "agreeably cynical" treatment of legitimacy, in which the assent of the governed plays a miniscule role: “The person over whom power is exercised is not usually as important as other power-holders” (Tilly 1985:171). I agree. Throughout history, masters have usually worried about recognition by peers or by important figures in their own ingroup, while caring little for the opinions of social inferiors or defeated opponents.
There's a tension at the core of the work, which I believe is the source of its magnetism. Hegel was the first to see philosophy both as a system and as the organic totality of its self-contradictory history. The latter is likened to the development of a plant in which the flower refutes the bud, only to be refuted in turn by the fruit, but in which the parts nevertheless forms an organic whole.
This tension is reproduced as the tension between the ideas of the phenomenology and the logic, or between the movement towards absolute knowledge and a philosophy that already presupposes its achievement. Can the phenomenology be written at all without presupposing the standpoint of the logic? Conversely, if history, the process of becoming, cannot be separated from the final truth, can the latter exist at all as a separate branch of knowledge?

This tension is both productive and inescapable, since it produces Hegel's central insight: that the true is history, the entire history of Spirit’s becoming, including all of its diverse shapes (”The true is the whole”).

Using this insight, Hegel historicizes earlier philosophies, showing them to be but moments or roadstations on the way of the Spirit's development. What distinguishes him from a mere historian of ideas is the fact that he, in a last movement, declares this history itself to be the true philosophy.

The final sublation that produces absolute knowledge is therefore not yet another stage following after the previous historical process, but this very history itself, including all its negations and contradictions. To realize this is also the key to solving the riddle of alienation. Alienation is not just a negative loss of self, but also something positive, a part of Spirit's self-constitution. Spirit not only alienates itself, but also recognizes itself as the agent of its own alienation, thus sublating and redeeming it. Conquering alienation is not a return into the putative immediacy of the self. To put it tersely, it consists in recognizing that truth is history, and history is me. Since truth consists of history in its entirety, it must include the negative moments too, including alienation. ”Absolute knowledge” consists in recognizing oneself in this history.

This is in line with the Zizekian interpretation of Hegel, which stresses that "the 'synthesis' is exactly the same as the anti-thesis; the only difference lies in a certain change of perspective, in a certain turn through which what was a moment ago experienced as an obstacle, as an impediment, proves itself to be a positive condition" (Zizek 176). The ”synthesis” is not attained by discarding the ”antithesis”, but by realizing that negativity as such has a positive function, as a ”determinate” moment in the progress of Spirit.

One might object that to affirm history – including the alienation brought about by state, capital or religion – can mean two very different things. Firstly, it might mean affirming it as something to be overcome and relegated to the past, a mere stepping stone to a wholly different or even Utopian society – this is the interpretation favored in most strands of Marxism, in which communism is pictured as a stage following capitalism and wholly different from it. But secondly, it may mean letting the things persist precisely as they are and instead merely change the "perspective", as Zizek puts it, so that one becomes able to recognize oneself in capital, state, religion and other alienated structures. Which interpretation is correct? My hunch is that Hegel would lean towards the latter, Zizekian interpretation, but with an important proviso: namely that even if capital, state and religion are allowed to continue to exist as they are, the very insight that they are created by us humans (i.e. Spirit) suffices to transform them beyond recognition. A capitalism  or a state with such ”self-knowledge” would no longer be able to exist as a separate, "natural" (Naturwüchsig) or autonomous realm above people. It would have to "come to its senses" and this very self-awareness would by necessity transform or modify it. 

Hegel's insistence that alienation too must ultimately be affirmed is the background of his famous portrayal of the subject as "the tremendous power of the negative” (p75, §32). The subject is the power to break out of what is given. To Hegel, this is essentially the power of thought, of the mind. That, to be sure, is a form of idealism. Surely, one might object that shocks, disasters and setbacks – all the things that hit us from outside the purview of consciousness and which Adorno and Jameson call ”history” – also liberate us from givenness, and usually with an even more ruthless and "tremendous" power than thought. Hegel pays no attention to such ruptures, probably because they often appear so meaningless, so purely destructive. To him, the negative always remains contained within what can retrospectively be appropriated in thought by Spirit. The negative is affirmed, but only to the extent that Spirit is able to discover itself in the negative (p76, §32). Hence, the negative is never really the rupture or catastrophe itself, but the voice which Spirit lends this rupture or catastrophe. Herein resides, I believe, the basic difference between Hegel's dialectics and Adorno's "negative dialectics".

This containment of the negative to the realm of thought has curious consequences. In the same passage as where Hegel describes the subject as the ”power of the negative”, he also likens it to death, but it is clear that this is death in thought alone - the death of a previous shape of Spirit, not physical death. Yet history, of course, consists also of real people who die real deaths. Such people only figure peripherically in Hegel’s account and only to the extent that their deaths can be redeemed and made meaningful (as in the discussion on the family, divine law and the bosom of the earth, §445-462). In the trajectory drawn by Hegel, nothing really dies in vain, since whatever is essential is gathered up in history and lives on in Spirit, as part of its truth. At this point, the reader may be forgiven for raising the objection: won't a single person who’s died in vain refute this philosophy?    

I fully agree with Adorno: Hegel is almost right, but in the end he opts for identity. This is notable above all in his insistence that Spirit, as its final stage of development, culminates in ”science” (e.g. pp 540f, §797-798), and in his relentless attacks on Romantic Schwärmerei. The end must be the concept, from which there is no legitimate exit. But isn’t this delimitation against the concept’s exterior also non-dialectical?   

In connection with this, one might ask: what is necessity to Hegel? To begin with, it is a necessity of thought (of the concept), so it’s not a matter of natural laws. But even as a necessity of thought, one can imagine two quite different types. Firstly, necessity might mean that history is predetermined (in the manner of a logical calculation). This notion of necessity tends to become important in certain forms of Marxism, especially those that rely on a deterministic or mechanistic view of history as leading inexorably towards a future communist society. But secondly it might mean something looser, something like a retrospective insight – by an imagined Spirit looking back on its own history, saying: ”In order to be the one I am today, all this was necessary”. This could be called a more ”voluntaristic” interpretation of necessity, since it tends to portray the Spirit’s final achievement – its recognition of itself in the entirety of history – as an active choice of affirming this history as its fate. Such an act of retrospective appropriation of the past might recall cetain strands of existentialism (e.g. the Heideggarian ”authentic” self).

Reactions against Hegelian necessity likewise tends to take two forms. On the one hand, there are those, like Popper, who concentrate their fire on the idea of history progressing through logical necessity, as in historical determinism. On the other, there are those who feel that today's condition is one of confusion. There are no owls flowing, or there are too many. History is not over and we are still stuck in doubt. Spirit looks back on its past, saying: "Truth is, perhaps, history. But history is not me". What is so claustrophobic in Hegel is that he thinks his job is done.      

That the latter camp is where I feel most at home goes without saying. Dialectics still remains in such a state - a dialectics of awakening, as Benjamin put it, and a negative dialectics too.

There is a fine anecdote according to which Hegel planned a revision of the Phenomenology in 1831, but broke off his corrections midway through the preface, noting: ”Eigenthümliche frühere Arbeit, nicht Umarbeiten” - peculiar early work, not to be reworked! Perhaps Hegel himself was unable to recognize himself wholly in his past? Was this decision to let the "peculiar" text remain as it was a recognition of the role it had played in the development of his own thought? Or was it, instead, more like the decision to preserve a ruin whose meaning can no longer be fully recalled?

Farewell, then, autobiography of the Spirit! Ruins, yes. Perhaps a little like these in the old painting by Herman Posthumus from 1536.


Hegel, G. W. F. (2008[1807]) Andens fenomenologi (tr. of Die Phänomenologie des Geistes by B. M. Delaney & S.-O. Wallenstein), Stockholm: Thales.

Tilly, Charles (1985) “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, pp 169-191, in P. B. Evans & D. Rueschmeyer & T. Skocpol (eds) Bringing the State Back In, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zizek, Slavoj (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso.

1 comment:

  1. I would certainly prefer to read more foreign non fiction which were translated from Swedish translation to english, or in any languages.Because in that way I could have an idea what do people think,feel or their culture is.When we read books from a foreign country it seems like travelling in that country through the stories plot.We could recognize how they have been living afar from our own culture.


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