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Gentrifying Hegel

Sean Sheehan

An Introduction to Dialectics, by Theodor W Adorno, Polity, 336 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0745679440

The Oxford Handbook of Hegel, edited by Dean Moyar, Oxford University Press, 880 pp, £97, ISBN 978-0199355228
Hegel on Philosophy in History, edited by Rachel Zuckert and James Kreines, Cambridge University Press, 276 pp, £75, ISBN 978-1107093416
Does History Make Sense?: Hegel on the Historical Shapes of Justice, €49.95, Terry Pinkard, Harvard University Press, 288 pp, ISBN- 978-0674971776
Incontinence of the Void: Economico-Philosophical Spandrels, Slavoj Žižek, MIT Press, 328 pp, £24.95, ISBN 978-0262036818

Adorno, superficially characterised as a mandarin philosopher whose critical sensibilities are too refined for their own good, is undeniably a sophisticated writer; not for the casual reader stuck in an airport lounge and weary of smartphone cruising. His Negative Dialectics is forbiddingly elliptical and the philosophical verve of Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored by fellow Frankfurt School theorist Max Horkheimer, is inseparable from the force of its intellectual arguments. Yet, remarkably, a series of his lectures in 1958 provide one of the most lucid and accessible introductions to Hegel to be found in a spate of new books published on the subject in 2017.

A traditional bedrock of philosophical thinking positions the subject – that’s you and me, folk capable of conceptual thought – athwart things which are outside of the mind yet thought about by the subject. Philosophy at its broadest is concerned, tout court, with the relationship between subject and object, between the concept and the thing.

Bishop Berkeley infamously postulated that reality was a product of the subject’s mind – subjective idealism in the philosopher’s jargon– but we prefer to live in a world where the things that exist for us do not collapse into thought and lose their identity; nor are we unduly discombobulated by realising that thinking about things retaining their identity is, of course, a belief that exists as a thought.

Without going down the Berkeley route, it is generally agreed that the relationship between concept and thing is an intimate and puzzling one. Hegel’s dialectic is based on both the non-identity of the two and, paradoxically, their profound unity. The concept is always in confrontation with the thing and when one undergoes change so does the other, a movement of recoil that gives fuel to the contrary nature of their relationship.

Matter is fundamentally dynamic – quantum physics attests to the truth of this – and there is nothing, says Adorno, “between heaven and earth which simply is as it is”. In addition, at the level of human thought, our knowledge of the world is essentially historical in nature. The conclusion is inescapable: everything exists in a state of movement and must be understood as temporal, never inert or immutable. Hegel’s term “mediation” refers to the way every use of a concept changes when we essay to grasp it.

Truth is not being abandoned by surrendering to a wholesale relativism; rather, that mediation is dictated by the mutable nature of the object and by the process of change that a concept always undergoes within itself. Another Hegelian term, the Absolute, is not some eternal, totalising system but the developed range of interpenetrating and antagonistic relations between subject and object, mind and matter.

The dialectic thrives on contradiction: there is an objective opposition of subject and object – between thought and that which is not the same as thought – and yet, at the same time, an identity of cognition with being. How can this be? Moments of incongruity are sublated (aufgehoben) within a totality that unites two apparently contradictory terms. An intellectually arresting example of this marks the opening of Hegel’s The Science of Logic and it also illustrates how a concept comes to be as a response to a previous inadequacy. Take being, says Hegel, in its most indeterminate and general sense, not a particular being like a laptop, ice cube or whatever, just the abstract and pure idea of being, utterly in itself. When being is thought about like this, long and hard, it gives way to the concept of nothingness because we fail to muster any thought except mere nothingness. This giving-way is a self-grounded movement, not the result of anything from outside; and it works both ways because thinking hard and long about nothingness inescapably brings abstract being to mind.

To equate being with nothingness sounds like silly nonsense given that no two terms are more unalike, opposite to each other. The contradiction can only be solved by positing being that is determinate, that exists. A new concept has emerged, a determinate being that is not nothing. It is something and it exists, there (Dasein), not someplace else and not just being (Sein): a coming-to-be as the result of a ceasing-to-be. Its mediation is its becoming; it has sublated itself.

We’re deep into metaphysical currents here and the thrust of contemporary mainstream Hegel scholarship, associated with American figures like Robert Pippin, Terry Pinkard and others, has been to swim clear of such perilous waters and head for dry, non-metaphysical ground. The ontology has been gentrified, establishing Hegel as a major philosopher of friendly interest to modern thought, and The Oxford Handbook of Hegel is testimony to the highly respectable status of current Hegel studies. The dusty old image of Hegel as a  thinker caught in an over-intricate and totalising web of his own making has been largely overthrown and learning how to read him in relation his predecessors – most especially Kant – has been justly uppermost in much Anglophone commentary.

Pippin’s essay in the Oxford Handbook is exemplary in setting forth the kind of way modern scholarship tackles the Hegelian nexus of thought and reality. He aligns Hegel with his predecessor Kant, whose abiding insight is that spatial-temporal reality is shaped by our mental categories, and argues that there is an a priori logic as well as socially determined conceptualisations that govern our understanding of the world. This sails close to the winds of subjective idealism but an essay by Rolf-Peter Horstmann, in Hegel on Philosophy in History, insists that Hegel never departs from the normal person’s sense that subject-independent objects exist and that an objective reality of phenomena, whether physical, cultural or social, is out there. Horstmann, whose important work is still not available in English, draws attention to Hegel’s basic disagreement with Kant’s view that we can never properly know what objects are really like.

Kant established cognitive limitations to comprehend “the thing-in-itself”, due to our mental sculpting of reality, but Hegel will have none of this. For him there is no such distinction or antithesis. Every object has to possess a unity, says Hortsmann, that distinguishes it from other objects, from what is not itself, even though this unity is a dynamic and internal process. An object realises its concept, not as a fabrication of the human mind but as a process of self-realisation within the object. In this way, objects are their own subjects– and a subject in this sense is the concept. How Hegel works out and develops this is the stuff of his daunting Science of Logic.

For Terry Pinkard, objectivity is the making sense of the world and while this depends on our subjectivity it doesn’t mean that reality is mind-dependent. Our conceptual ability to classify, to name and note patterns, is seen as the necessary condition for making sense of what makes sense. History for Hegel, in Does History Make Sense?, is contingency, but there is a logic and a dialectical development to the way it has unfolded from ancient Greece, through Rome, Christianity, feudalism and the French Revolution. Slavery was an immanent contradiction in the ancient world – freedom was not available to everyone – and this inadequacy was a factor in the birth of a new order of thought. The freedom-loving barbarians from east of the Rhine who toppled Rome came to absorb the moral psychology of Christianity, laying the seeds that would grow into modern Europe. But there is no unchanging core and it is possible that one day freedom will be extended to include non-human primates, cyborgs …

Pinkard, like Pippin, regards Hegel’s concept of spirit as “human collective mindedness” that progresses by developing a self-consciousness, the ability and desire to seek reasons and justifications. Making sense of history is a part of this even though the progress is not always apparent or to be taken for granted: Hegel’s metaphor for this is “the cunning of history”.

Hegel’s dialectic has been decaffeinated by scholars like Pinkard and one has to return to Adorno’s lectures for the radical sense that reality itself is fractured and not a rational whole. The rationality of the world, as a reification and petrification, makes an objectivity which ignores the oppositions within it. Hegel confronts rationality with a dialectic that loosens the rigidity and frees up its own capacity for movement by exposing the tensions within it. No other philosopher has so determinedly promoted this radical Hegel as Slavoj Žižek and he returns to this in his latest book, Incontinence of the Void.

Reality as ontologically incomplete – “why is there nothing rather than something?” he asks – has long been Žižek’s calling card and, he now adds, it is beyond our cognitive capacities not in the Kantian sense but because the contingency at the heart of nature means we cannot know what the ultimate consequences of our interventions will be: climate change and biogenetic science are two pressing instances of this.

The Hegelian dialectic, he stresses, is not teleological but events can be retroactively positioned to make them seem inevitable, developing “naturally” out of the preceding events. By bringing the French psychoanalyst Lacan into the equation, Žižek introduces another dimension which leaves most scholars of Hegel floundering and helps account for the astonishing absence of any reference to Žižek in the nearly nine hundred pages of The Oxford Handbook to Hegel.

We try to make sense of the world through a complex network of linguistic and cultural signs and the Lacanian subject can be seen as an effect of language rather than its cause: we are subjected to the symbolic order. At a deeper level, the subject emerges from the failure to symbolise the void in reality, the incompleteness in the ontological landscape. The subject is this failure, this loss, and comes to be as the result of the kind of self-sublation that was noted in the dialectical recoil between being and nothing at the beginning of Science and Logic. This recoil may have sounded airy-fairy then, and even more so now, but in Incontinence of the Void Žižek returns to an example which, although he does not specifically mention Ireland, can illuminate a pivotal moment in the country’s history. The Irish Revival was constitutive of a sense of national identity that needed to be reclaimed from colonial oppression, a recovering of something lost. But, notwithstanding its experiential authenticity, this awareness of loss by the Irish “is the zero-point” of Ireland’s national identity –‑“prior to it, they [Žižek is referring to movements like the Revival] were not yet a nation”. The sense of loss created the space for the “discovery” of traditions and ancient roots which were created in the very process of returning to them. This does not mean there was nothing before the Revival but it was something heterogeneous and inchoate compared to the national identity that emerged: “there were no origins which were lost, the origins are constituted through the very experience of their loss and return to them”.

Žižek’s new book is no breezy read but, like Adorno’s lectures from the 1950s, it reaches parts of Hegel that are not found or given a tamer inflection in most other commentaries.

1/2/2018

Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).

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