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.

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