Tag Archives: G. W. F. Hegel

Pangs of a Time Traveler

Human requirements change. People who lived centuries ago would marvel at our technology, and yet we look beyond our own creations today. The accumulations of the past have entered into Nature, into what we’re now born into. My point is not to say that we’re ungrateful. If we were transported back in time, we would suffer more than peasants because we’re conscious of what is possible. As Hegel might say, we would be suffering from unrealized potential.

The status quo of capitalist society points beyond itself. Even unconsciously we’re aware of what is lacking. The progressive overcoming of our moment requires historical consciousness.

A Retrospective Form of Appearance

[Left:] Cover of Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice, trans. Michael Kandel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999); [Right:] Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel (1831) by Jakob Schlesinger

[Left:] Cover of Stanisław Lem’s His Master’s Voice; [Right:] Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel (1831) by Jakob Schlesinger

The narrator of Lem’s His Master’s Voice (1968), reflecting on the publishing of his thesis, speaks of a former rival in mathematics. I chuckled at his comparison of the rival to philosopher G. W. F. Hegel:

And yet, when I received from the publisher the fresh, stiff copies of my articles, bright as if bathed in new glory, I would have lucid moments; before me would appear Dill, dry, thin as a beanpole, inflexible, his face like a portrait of Hegel—and I hated Hegel, I could not read him, because he was so sure of himself, as if the Absolute Itself spoke through his lips for the greater glory of the Prussian state. Hegel, I realize now, had nothing to do with it; I had put him in the place of another person.1

I know this is a work of fiction, but it expresses (lucidly) a symptom of the 20th century’s thinkers’ difficulty in understanding Hegel. This incomprehension at Hegel’s confidence isn’t just restricted to fictional characters. It can be seen in many thinkers of today. This incomprehension is a necessary form of appearance which comes about due to the qualitative divide between the 20th century and the time of Hegel. As can be seen even in the decade after Hegel’s death, the split into Left- and Right-Hegelian philosophy almost immediately began to show signs of trouble in grappling with the world. Was Hegel simply wrong, “too idealistic,” too “teleological”? No. What if bourgeois society had entered into a crisis that subsequently sent tremors through an architecture set up to comprehend a different world?

In “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), Karl Korsch points out the trouble that bourgeois historians of philosophy have with this period of the 1830s-60s.2 Marx and Engels understood that the appearance of the false certainty of Hegel is not due to a thought-error by Hegel, but rather by a fundamental change in society, namely the crisis of bourgeois society that is expressed in the Industrial Revolution. Marxism picks up the Hegelian dialectic, rather than rejecting it, which was seen in the rise of neo-Kantianism in the 1860s.

1 Stanisław Lem, His Master’s Voice, trans. Michael Kandel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999).
2 Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Verso, 2012), 37-38.

The Ethical in Protestantism and Catholicism

Anton von Werner, Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

Anton von Werner, Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

In his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, G. W. F. Hegel dwells on the form of the ethical in his time: “This is especially an essential aspect of our time, in which people are less drawn to something by their trust in authority, and would prefer to devote their activity to a cause on the basis of their own understanding of it, their independent conviction and opinions.”1 Hegel points out that the ethical is the conscious union of the subjective will and the universal (or “general”) will. This union is able to come about because individuals have joined together into society. Hegel writes, “The concrete meeting point and union of the two is in ethical freedom in the state.”2 It seems to me that the state can be understood in its most abstract meaning, which is that of a self-conscious society.

The implication from considering the subjective will in such a way is that human activity is important for the realm of ethics, and thus that we decide our own ethics. Hegel speaks of religion as the ethical here. Here, the topic is illuminated by a comparison of how the subjective will functions in Protestantism and Catholicism. One should remember that the Protestant Reformation was the first heresy to survive the Church, and that it introduced doubt into the divinity of the Church. By emphasizing, or even recognizing the role of the subjective, Protestantism implies a major break from the Catholic Church with regard to morality. Hegel writes,

The Catholic religion (although like Protestantism, it is a form of Christianity) does not ascribe to the state the inherent justice and ethical status that lie in the inwardness of the Protestant principle. That sundering of constitutional law from the ethical arises necessarily from the very nature of Catholicism, which does not recognize law and the ethical as independent, as substantial. But these constitutional principles and institutions—once they are torn away from inwardness, from the last sanctuary of conscience, the quiet place where religion resides—do not have an actual [conscious] center, because they remain abstract and indefinite.3

Because Catholicism does not see the ethical as the union of the universal will and the subjective will, and thus as a secular union, but rather sees the ethical as being revealed to the Church through divine revelation, the subjective will in morality is worthless to Catholicism, or, at least, is subordinate to the doctrine of the Church.

1 G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988 [collected notes from ca. 1821-31. Originally published as collection in 1840.]), 26.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., 54-55.

Nietzsche as Philosophe on the Body

In the preface for the second edition (1887) of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche poses the problem of the body in the wake of the high-reaching philosophical systems of his predecessors:

The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, purely spiritual goes to frightening lengths—and often I have asked myself whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body (34-35).

Using words like “ideal” and “purely spiritual”, Nietzsche seems to be referring to philosophers like Immanuel Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel, in that they appear to eschew the body in their philosophical systems which thus encourage an ascetic view of life. In this regard, it seems Nietzsche might be somewhat unfair to them. By opposing what might be called “philosophy” proper, Nietzsche, is rather a philosophe. I use this term in the way that Louis Menand uses it—in his introduction (2003) to Edmund Wilson’s To the Findland Station (1940)—to describe Marx and Engels as “philosophes of a second Enlightenment.” One could include Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the category of philosophes of the first Enlightenment, in that he too resisted what he considered philosophy affirmed the status quo. In Rousseau’s case, he was resisting the Catholic Church’s narrative that ordered all of society as determined by a great chain of being descending from God and the Church.

Going to London for Hegel

The campus of University of London, Birkbeck

The campus of University of London, Birkbeck

I know I’m a few months late in posting about my visit to Europe, and more specifically, my attendance of the conference on Hegel at the University of London, Birkbeck held in May, entitled “The Actuality of the Absolute: Hegel, Our Untimely Contemporary”. I’m pretty sure that the conference was organized by Slavoj Žižek.

From the audience at the conference.

From the audience at the conference.

The first note I took in my notebook happened during Žižek’s opening remarks. He said, “No tasteless, dirty jokes from me….This is pure..” I had to write down something he said to show his seriousness about the subject matter, to push away certain connotations that he is a mere jester.

In these opening remarks, Žižek gave us a few points. The first being the broad categories of readings of Hegel. There used to be two main camps of reading: conservative and revolutionary. Now, Žižek points out, there is a new category of reading on the rise, that being the Liberal Hegel. Žižek points to the Robert Pippen at the University of Chicago, and the so-called Pittsburgh Hegelians. This camp has the characteristic of speaking of a deflated Hegel. For Žižek, this liberal reading was to be the enemy of the work presented at the conference. The other point brought up is the question as to what materialism today. There is Naturalistic Materialism, Discursive Materialism—on this Žižek said, “The Deconstruction era is over”—, and “New” (so-called) Materialism, about which I’m not sure what he meant, but he mentioned a phrase “vibrating matter” with regard to it. Finally Žižek closed his remarks with a musing that maybe to be a Marxist today is to revert Marx’s materialism back to Hegel—perhaps Hegel was more materialistic than Marx.

At the conference there were people recording the presentations. Those recordings are now available online. I highly recommend listening to the many presentations given over the course of the three days. I’m probably going to listen to them again soon. Perhaps my studying in the interim between the time of their recording and now will help me better follow their ideas.

Abstracting Narratives

In his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Hegel boldly says that History can be abstracted and thus summarized quickly as really the history of freedom. I’ve been thinking lately about how powerful this Hegelian method of thinking through abstraction can be.

What gives me pause in works of art are the moments where there is a stillness. It’s somewhat hard to explain, but what I mean by stillness here has to do with the idea of abstraction, or rather–in an almost naïve way–losing track of the unnecessary intricacies of a narrative. The narratives become abstracted and we go to a different perspective, where one can feel the undercurrent of humanity and life flowing. In an interview with Libération, filmmaker Chris Marker stated, “Ce qui me passionne, c’est l’Histoire, et la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent” (“What interests me is History, and the cross-section of History in the present”). The filmmakers within the movement of Le Groupe Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) such as Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda were focusing on this perspective of “la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent.”

Still from Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7

Still from Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7

A great example of the Left Bank’s approach can be seen in comparing two different approaches to the simple narrative of two people falling in love in Paris. One need only compare Jean-Luc Godard’s famous À bout de souffle (1960) to Varda’s relatively overlooked Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). Frankly, besides Godard’s technique in editing, I think À bout de souffle can be mostly discarded as a self-obsessed, narrow-minded artifact of the 60s. Varda’s Cléo, on the other hand, while telling almost the same story, is able to cut deeper to the heart of human existence. The historical consciousness of Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) wouldn’t be successfully realized in the hands of those on the the Right Bank, better known as the Nouvelle Vague.

In Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek points out the power of this naïve abstraction:

How does a notion emerge out of the confused network of impressions we have of an object? Through the power of “abstraction,” of a blinding oneself to most of the features of the object, reducing it to its constitutive key aspects. The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations—only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

The same principle of “less is more” holds for reading the body of a book: in his wonderful How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard demonstrates (taking an ironic line of reasoning which is ultimately meant quite seriously) that, in order to really formulate the fundamental insight or achievement of a book, it is generally better not to read it all—too much data only blurs our clear vision (279-280).

Still from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line

Still from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

I feel that there is a great affinity between the American filmmaker Terrence Malick and the Left Bank. One of Malick’s films gives us the chance to inspect another interesting comparison with films more contemporary than those above: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Both storylines occur over a short period of time during the second World War, although they take place in different fronts: one in Europe and one in the Pacific. Saving Private Ryan seemed to have garnered more acclaim as a war film, whereas The Thin Red Line seems like something else. In a conversation recently with a friend who angrily denounced The Thin Red Line for having no real story, I ended up exclaiming, “Yes, exactly! There is no story!” Although the film is about the taking of Guadalcanal told from the perspective of several U.S. soldiers, the film is more about life. This is not to say that Malick can’t tell a story, but rather that Malick’s story dwells so much on existence that it becomes more of a meditation–a stasis that moves, rather than a story arch, in which a main character(s) encounters an “inciting incident” that calls him to action so that he may overcome an obstacle, which is then resolved in a dénouement. What is the ending of The Thin Red Line? What is the “inciting incident”?

Appropriately, Hegel-scholar Robert Pippen has written about this abstraction in Malick’s film. In “Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” Pippin writes,

In all of Terrence Malick’s five films, various genre conventions of Hollywood movies like these are invoked and structure much of the narration. This is especially true of his 1998 film The Thin Red Line, which has many of the elements of a Hollywood World War II movie. But, as in his other films, these genre conventions create expectations and suggest explanations that are then undermined, refused, left open, made to seem irrelevant, made mysterious, or even ironized.

The implication is unavoidable that, therefore, these conventions about motivation and value are no longer available, no longer credible, and the viewer has to struggle to find some point of orientation. This sense of being lost, once these conventions are invoked and then refused, is the main effect on any viewer and seems a major point of the film itself (249).

[…] since the voice-overs are unattributed by visual cues or anything else, the thoughts seem to float in logical space, as if they could visit any character or be shared by, be thought by, anyone (252).

I really still need to see Malick’s The Tree of Life. It’ll be interesting to see if these ideas above correspond to that film too.

Self-Referential Negation and the State

In Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek addresses the process of “negation of the negation” in Hegel’s dialectical process, with a lucid example with regard to the state:

To illustrate this very procedure […], let us note how the Marxist critique of “bourgeois” freedom and equality provides a perfect case of such a pleroma (fulfillment of the law): if we remain at the level of merely legal equality and freedom, this has consequences which lead to the immanent self-negation of freedom and equality (the un-freedom and inequality of the exploited workers who “freely” sell their labor-power on the market); the abstract legal principle of freedom and equality has thus to be supplemented by a social organization of production which will no longer allow for the self-undermining of the principle in its very enactment. The principle of freedom and equality is thereby “sublated”: negated, but in such a way that it is maintained at a higher level (293).

For me, this was certainly a much-needed example of negation in a dialectical movement. Another example brought up several times by Žižek and Hegel is the history of the French Revolution.