Saturday, 11 April 2015

Hegel, Waszek and Adorno: What rose? What cross?

The Preface to the Philosophy of Right contains three famous lines: about the identity of the rational and the actual, about the "rose in the cross of the present", and about Minerva’s owl flying at dusk. All are enigmatic and have been subject to numerous interpretations.

Here I will turn my attention to the rose in the cross of the present. The passage reads as follows:
What lies between reason as self-conscious spirit and reason as present actuality, what separates the former from the latter and prevents it from finding satisfaction in it, is the fetter of some abstraction or other which has not been liberated into [the form of] the concept. To recognize the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to delight in the present – this rational insight is the reconciliation with actuality which philosophy grants to those who have received the inner call to comprehend, to preserve their subjective freedom in the realm of the substantial. (Hegel 1991:23)
This is a remarkable passage. It contains several clues as to what Hegel means by reconciliation. Apart from the statement about preserving "subjective freedom in the realm of the substantial, there is also the helpful hint that reconciliation means overcoming an "abstraction" that prevents spirit from recognizing itself in the "present actuality". Above all, there is the enigmatic line about reconciliation implying an ability to recognize "the rose in the cross of the present". What does this mean?

The temple of the Rose Cross, 1618
The image evoked by this phrase is rich. The pairing of the rose and the cross appears to have been inspired by the Rosicrucians. The conventional interpretation tells us that the rose is wisdom and the cross suffering. The image of the cross also suggests a link to the Christian tradition according to which redemption is gained through the suffering and death of God, the most negative and absurd event possible from the point of view of a believer. Even when shed of its religious connotations, this imagery suggests that Hegel is putting reason to a tremendously difficult task, namely to find meaning in a suffering so absurd that it seems to disrupt the very idea of meaning. This is supported by Hegel's own hand-written lecture notes: "The present appears to reflection, and especially to self-conceit, as a cross (indeed, of necessity) - and philosophy teaches [us] to recognize the rose - i.e. reason - in this cross" (quoted in Hegel 1991:391 fn27). Added to this is the strong claim that such a reconciliation will enable us to actually delight in the suffering of the present. As if to underline this element of delight, Hegel tells us: "Here is the rose, dance here!" - his own alternative translation of "Hic Rhodus, hic salta" ("Here is Rhodes, jump here"), which is made possible by the fact that rhodus can mean either Rhodes or rose in Latin, while salta can mean either jump or dance.

So the meaning of the "rose in the cross" would be that comprehending the rationality of the seemingly negative will enable us to delight in the present? Fine so far, but the riddle is still not entirely resolved. The crucial question still remains as to how more specifically we are to think of the role of the negative on the road to this reconciliation. Aren't there two ways of interpreting this role? On the one hand, the negative can be conceived of as a stepping-stone, as a suffering that drives spirit or mind onwards in its development and which is then, retrospectively, made meaningful as a necessary moment in this development and thus redeemed as something "positive". To clarify how this works, we can think of how the experience of a crippling, traumatic loss can make a person more considerate of others and less selfish. It is easy to image such a person saying that "the loss made me a better man". We can also think of how the horrors of the world war symbolized by "Auschwitz" or "Hiroshima"  generated a widespread commitment that such horrors must never again be repeated and in that sense became constitutive of the widespread pacifism and aversion to racism characteristic of the postwar order.

On the other hand, the negative can also be thought of as an endpoint, as a kind of non plus ultra which spirit must accept as it is rather than try to overcome. Once we experience the present as a "cross", our task would then not be to think our way out of suffering or escape it by "changing the world", as Marx urged us to do, but to find peace in this very present itself, and to delight in it despite the suffering. The death of a loved one, for example, is not something we can possible overcome. The only way to reconcile ourselves to it is by recognizing the pain as incurable, as a loss that will mark us for the rest of our lives.

Norbert Waszek clearly prefers the latter reading. Linking the passage about "the rose in the cross" to the passage about "the tremendous power of the negative" in the Preface to the Phenomenology, he claims that the meaning of the former is that reason must “tarry with the negative” rather than try to overcome it. Here is the relevant passage from the Phenomenology:
... this is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure "I". Death... is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength... But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself... Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called the Subject. (Hegel 1998:19)
The linkage between the two passages is underpinned by the word "death" which - as Walter Kaufmann (1977:51 n29) points out - probably alludes to crucifixion and resurrection. Based on this linkage, Waszek claims that Hegel’s image of the rose signifies “a qualified ‘Yes’ to reality... but the qualification contains nothing less than all evil and suffering” - a fact that Waszek believes betrays a “congeniality with Meister Eckhart” (Waszek 1988:5). Waszek goes on to criticize both "rationalist humanism" and "revolutionary Marxism" for being unable to "drink the cup that Hegel drinks of". While the rationalist philanthropists will squirm and the Marxists refer to their utopia, “only Hegel did not falter”. This is also why he believes that Hegel's rose in the cross of the present remains "the ultimate challenge" in today's world in which “optimistic rationalism could not withstand the disasters of this century” and “Marxism betrayed the youth the followed it so eagerly” (ibid. 5f).

Waszek's interpretation is impressive. There is an undeniable appeal in this image of Hegel as a thinker preaching that our only way to come to terms with suffering and regain ourselves is through a form of self-sacrifice, through the power of "looking the negative in the face" and willingly risking one's entire being in the process of letting oneself be reshaped by the experience of evil and suffering.

But at the same time there is something wrong with this interpretation. To bring the problem into view, we can recall that Hegel in the passage about the "rose in the cross" describes reconciliation as a "reconciliation with actuality". Actuality, as any reader of Hegel knows, has a very specific meaning. Hegel is quite explicit that "actuality" is not to be confused with the messy empirical reality in which he happen to live and suffer. This is what renders his famous statement that "what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational" understandable. It is far from being an arrogant assertion that the empirical world we're living in is wholly rational. The actual is not everything that empirically exists, but only that which exists in conformity with reason. As he puts it in the Philosophy of Right, “nothing is actual except the Idea” (Hegel 1991:20) (for more about what Hegel means by the Idea, see this post).

This means that when Hegel speaks of the "cross of the present", this present must be understood not as our present empirical reality but as actuality, i.e. the Idea as realized today. To recognize oneself in the Idea does not necessarily imply any acceptance of all the suffering we are experiencing. On the contrary, it may very well mean that we reject the present reality of suffering in the name of the Idea. This is where a crack opens up in the argument where the Marxists and even the "rational humanists" criticized by Waszek can walk back in. From a Hegelian standpoint, it is quite possible to recognize the rose in the cross in the present and still strive to change empirial reality.

Let us return to the passage about the "tremendous power of the negative". While Waszek stresses the importance of finding wisdom not in overcoming suffering but in reconciling oneself to it, the passage can also be given a quite different reading. Tarrying doesn't mean staying for ever. It is precisely by tarrying with the negative that thought can move ahead. The negative is the "energy of thought" that spurs it onwards, determining the development of its concepts. To return to the example of the postwar order, it is by thoroughly recognizing the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima - rather than averting one's eyes to them, pretending that a simple return to the prewar is possible - that a new postwar "subject" can be forged that will "never again" commit such crimes.

What we end up with here is thus the very opposite of a "reconciliation with suffering". The point of tarrying with the negative is not to surrender to an ugly reality of genocide and mass bombings, but to let oneself be reshaped by the horror of that reality so that one will become like a new person, committed to changing that reality.

Not surprisingly, this latter interpretation is preferred in critical theory. Commenting on Hegel's passage on the "tremendous power of the negative", Adorno stresses the crucial role of the negative as an impetus of criticism that allows thinking to break out of the given and liberate itself from the "bad positivity" of the merely existing.
In the Preface to Phenomenology [Hegel] still characterized thought, the arch-enemy of that positivity, as the negative principle. The road to this is the simplest of reflections: what does not think, what surrenders to visibility, is inclined toward the badly positive… (Adorno 1973:38)
We can note here how diametrically opposed Waszek's and Adorno's interpretations are. The former reads Hegel as a mysticist affimer of suffering while the latter turns him into a critic of the status quo. While Adorno reads the "tremendous force of the negative" as a motor of criticism, Waszek turns it into a disempowerment of such criticism by reading criticism as a sign of weakness, an inability to stand suffering and to drink "the cup that Hegel drinks from".

So whose interpretation is right? Answering that question is not easy. As I've already argued, I believe that the interpretation of the "cross" as real empirical suffering cannot be sustained. Such an interpretation would require us to identify actuality with the empirically existing, a move which in turn would force us back to the old reading of Hegel as an arrogant conservative who really believed that everything empirically existing was rational. If we want to avoid that, we must concede that the suffering symbolized by the cross cannot simply be identical with all the suffering we experience in empirical reality. On the other hand, we cannot overlook the many passages - in Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of world history for instance - where Hegel is clearly preoccupied with real empirical suffering. Are we dealing then with an inconsistency in his system, a crack or an ambiguity that testifies to the impossibility of his project?

As far as I can see, there is only one interpretation that solves the riddle, namely to view the negative as the real, empirical suffering that accompanies the realization of the Idea. The prime example of such suffering offered by Hegel is the revolutionary terror of the French Revolution. It is well known that he criticized this revolution for its attempt at realizing abstract freedom which made it descend into a "fury of destruction" (Hegel 1991:38). Despite this, he kept affirming it as a necessary moment in the march of reason. In the Phenomenology he celebrated it as a "break of day that, like lightning, all at once reveals the edifice of the new world", and he reportedly continued to toast for it his entire life (Harris 1993:26). Considering how central this revolution was to Hegel and how often he returned to it in his writings, one might consider it to be his main model of negativity - and thus, indirectly, also for the "cross". As Losurdo points out, in his youth Hegel even used the "actual as rational" formula about it which later reappears in the Philosophy of Right (Losurdo 2004:32-28). At the very least this example shows us that his words about tarrying with the negative in no way implies political quietism or accepting the status quo. Rather, it means affirming a historical moment out of which a new order is born.

If this interpretation of negativity is correct then finding the "rose in the cross" is not possible in regard to all situations, but only in regard to certain historical moments when empirical reality moves closer to the Idea. This seems to be a decisive difference between Hegel and the religious attitude of constantly being able to detect holiness in everything in the manner of Meister Eckhart.

This means that Adorno is almost certainly more right that Waszek in regard to how "the tremendous power of the negative" should be interpreted. Before ending, however, I should also say something about the differences between Hegel and Adorno. In a sense, Adorno can be said to insist precisely on the empirical suffering neglected by Hegel. This includes all those shocks, disasters and setbacks of history that never contribute to the overall meaning of human history. Hegel pays no attention to such ruptures, probably because they seem irrelevant in regard to the development of Spirit. 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. Adorno, by contrast, holds on to all those moments when there is no rose to be found in the cross of the present. Neither Hegel nor Waszek dares to drink from that cup.

The tremendous power of the negative


Adorno, T. W. (1973) Negative Dialectics, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Harris, H. S. (1993) "Hegel's Intellectual Development to 1807”, pp 25-51, in Frederick C. Beiser (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right (ed. Allen W. Wood, tr. H. B. Nisbet), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1998) Phenomenology of Spirit (tr. A. V. Miller), New Dehli: Shri Jainendra Press.

Kaufmann, Walter (1977) Hegel: Texts and Commentary, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Losurdo, Domenico (2004) Hegel and the Freedom of the Moderns, Durham: Duke University Press.

Waszek, Norbert (1988) The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel’s Account of ’Civil Society’, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Hegel and Fine: Sublation means concretion

One of the passages in Robert Fine's Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt (2001) contains a beautiful definition of sublation:
'Sublation' (Aufhebung) is the name Hegel gives to the movement from the simple and abstract to the complex and concrete…. The relation between the simpler forms and the more complex is not merely one of progression, as if the state is a ‘higher form of right’ than individual personality; still less is it one of transcendence, as if the emergence of the state somehow makes individual personality redundant; nor is it one of reconciliation, as if the state resolves the conflicts and contradictions that previously tore civil society apart. The use of the term ‘sublation’ indicates a relation between preservation and transcendence in which both sides are kept in mind: it indicates that the contradictions present within the simpler forms of right are preserved as well as transcended in the more complex. (Fine 2001:33)
As the references to state and civil society indicate, this passage occurs as part of Fine's discussion of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. This is a work where Fine's definition works perfectly, the entire work describing a movement from the most simple and abstract forms of right towards the complex, concrete forms of right embodied in the modern family, civil society and the state.

As is well known, what Hegel means by the concrete is not closeness to empirical facts as opposed to conceptual constructions (a “chair” is thus not more concrete than “furniture” since all concepts taken in isolation are equally abstract). Instead concretion is what you gain when you add determinations to a concept, capturing more and more of its aspects until you arrive at what Hegel calls the Idea, the concept in its full concretion. Abstract is simple and isolated while concrete is complex and embedded in determinations. To get a sense for what Hegel is doing, compare with Marx’ Capital. Here Marx works out his central concepts such as "commodity", "labour" and so on by gradually illuminating their mutual relations in the course of the exposition. The result is a concrete model of capitalism that captures something essential about our present society without corresponding exactly to empirical reality. In Hegelian terms, one might say that he presents the Idea of capitalist society.

Fine's definition helps us come to terms with the well-known riddle of how the sublated contradictions can simultaneously be preserved and transcended. Such a simultaneity is hard to fathom if seen as a logical operation, but begins to seem almost natural and self-evident if we change perspective and view sublation simply as a movement of thought towards a more concrete and complex grasp of our object. Almost all objects are complex in the sense that they are determined in multiple ways that at first sight appear contradictory; yet at the same time all these determinations of course coexist in sustaining the object. The fact that a person is a loving father may, for instance, be "negated" by duties related to his occupation that prevent him from spending much time at home - yet both parenthood and occupation form part of what determines him as a concrete person. Such a person may well be plagued by pangs of conscience, but in many cases he will also have developed a modus vivendi that helps him manage his life and to secure a measure of understanding from family members, colleagues and friends. In this way, the demands of parenthood and occupation can be seen as things that are not just negative but also productive or constitutive. They produce our "Idea" of this person and the way he manages his life.

I'm also attracted to Fine's definition since it suggests that dialectics as a whole can be viewed as a movement of thought that unfolds by adding concretion. Dialectics is what happens to thought as it closes in on the idea from an abstract starting point, each moment of "negativity" implying added concretion. There's a simple - almost seductive - beauty to this idea, which helps us discard many connotations of the term "dialectics" which are not very helpful in grasping the Philosophy of Right. Thus dialectics has been viewed as a logic through which thought arrives at new findings, as a principle of historical development, and also as a way of justifying the present social order as rational.

Using Fine's definition it becomes clear that dialectics cannot be a deduction or logical derivation, nor a description of a historical development. Hegel himself confirms this in the Philosophy of Right, where he is explicit about the fact that dialectics cannot produce anything like a new conclusion or finding. The initial abstract concept is never abandoned, but merely enriched. The endpoint is not new, but is already given in the form of the modern political order. The latter is already historically present and merely needs to be comprehended.
The Idea… is initially no more than an abstract concept. But this initial abstract concept is never abandoned. On the contrary, it merely becomes continually richer in itself, so that the last determination is also the richest… One cannot therefore say that the concept arrives at anything new... What we obtain in this way… is a series of thoughts and another series of existent shapes, in which it may happen that the temporal sequence of their actual appearance is to some extent different from the conceptual sequence. Thus, we cannot say, for example, that property existed before the family, although property is nevertheless dealt with first. (Hegel 1991:61)
Again and again, Hegel stresses that his only task is to comprehend the present. Philosophy is thus simply “its own time comprehended in thoughts” (ibid. 21). The truth concerning right, ethics and the state is already here, he writes, but it needs to be comprehended (ibid. 11). Similarly, to return to our example of the conflict-torn father, there is clearly no logical necessity leading from parenthood to occuption; nor is there anything that says that there is only one way to deal with the contradiction. All we can say is that all these moments were necessary in order for this person to become what he is. The only necessity we can discern is retrospective.

Fine's definition thus helps us get a clearer grasp of the "necessity" that ties the Hegelian whole together. As mentioned, this can neither be logical necessity in a strict sense, nor a historical causal necessity. Nevertheless, it does make sense to speak of a certain form of necessity to any movement of thought that earnestly tries to comprehend "its own time". Seyla Benhabib remarks in one of her articles that Kant uses the word "necessity" in a way that appears strange to us today because he lived in a time before people were aware of any difference between the natural and the human or social sciences (Benhabib 1988). The same could be said for Hegel. Today, many of us would probably say that human or social phenomena need to be grasped through methods that involve some form of hermeutical procedure or interpretation. Hegelian dialectics too seems to conform to this hermeneutical model in the sense that it retrospectively tries to understand "our times". Thus it is "necessary" to pay attention to civil society to understand the modern, rational state. To use our example of the father, the contradiction of work and parenthood was "necessary" to make him the person he is.

If dialectics is disconnected from logical or causal necessity, then it also becomes more historically open-ended. It simply closes in on whatever happens to be actual, endeavouring to comprehend it as concretely as possible, but without ever saying that this is the way things must be or that they can't change in the future. This also means that dialectics cannot really be used to justify the present order. This may seem surprising since Hegel has so often been charged with glorifying the Prussian society of his time. But if dialectics simply consists in grasping the actual state of the idea concretely, then it is bound to do so in regard to any present, regardless of how good or bad it is. An example of the consequences of this interpretation comes when Fine discusses Hegel's views about the modern political system of representation and the many exclusions and limitations that accompanied this system.
It was not Hegel’s opinion that women ought to be excluded, nor that the democratic element ought to be supervised by state officials… This is just the way things are in certain forms of representative government once we view it stripped of its mystique. This is the reality of representation in the modern state. (Fine 2001:64f)
He was not an apologist for this order, Fine argues, since he merely let his dialectic move towards a goal that was given by history, namely the Idea as it was manifested in the society of his times. The dialectic is stripped of all connotations of deduction or justification. It simply approaches the concrete, ending up in “the way things are”.

One might object to my interpretation that if the endpoint of dialectics is the present state of an Idea that merely needs to be grasped in a more concrete fashion, then dialectics is no method at all. Isn't it just be a technique of presentation, whereby the reader is guided from an abstract starting point towards a fuller and more concrete comprehension of that complex Idea? But this is not necessarily so, at least not if we take Hegel on his word when he says that the Idea hasn't yet been fully comprehended. There are almost more determinations to add. Dialectics can be seen as the means whereby we move closer to this comprehension without ever achieving it fully. It would then be more than a matter of exposition. In dialectics, thought strives towards an Idea that preexists it objectively but whose full concretion still eludes it.

A second objection. This interpretation might make sense when applied to the Philosophy of Right or Capital. In both of these works, the dialectic is a matter of tracing relations between concepts and thus gradually achieving a fuller and more concrete picture. Neither is it really concerned with depicting historical development. But how does this interpretation fare when applied to Hegel's other works - such as those that clearly work with a historical or developmental dialectic, like the Phenomenology or the lectures on the philosophy of world history? A similar problem can be discerned in Marxist thought, where dialectics is used not merely to explain the workings of capitalism but also the course of history. In view of this objection, one would probably have to recognize that the interpretation I'm offering here mainly works for one kind of dialectic - the kind referred to by Taylor as "ontological" as opposed to the other "historical" form of the dialectic (Taylor 1979, Ch I:8).

A third objection also deals with change, but from another angle. If dialectics is wholly disconnected from justification, simply closing in on whatever stage of its development the idea happens to have arrived at, can Hegel then never criticize what is, the Idea as concretely unfolded? Does he have to accept the exclusion of women from political representation, for example? The kind of criticism that he does seem to allow for is highly limited - namely either a criticism of concepts for still being too abstract or a criticism of reality for failing to live up its Idea. In any case, in Hegel the Idea in itself seems immune against criticism, no matter defective it might appear. To use his own simile, it is the "cross" in which reason must find the rose.

The interpretation of dialectics I have presented here is attractive but it also has some problematic implications. I will come back to them later, in a few entries which I promise to post soon. The first of them will deal with the rose in the cross.


Benhabib, Seyla (1988) “Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought”, Political Theory 16(1):29-51.

Fine, Robert (2001) Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt, London: Routledge.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right (ed. Allen W. Wood, tr. H. B. Nisbet), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles (1979) Hegel and Modern Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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