A strange moment in Hegel

In the middle section of the Phenomenology of Spirit‘s chapter on “Reason,” entitled “The Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness Through Its Own Actuality,” Hegel makes a strange methodological choice. On our journey toward Spirit, Hegel claims, we can take one of two approaches — either study individual reasoning subjects who exist before Spirit emerges and therefore must found it, or else study individuals who have become alienated from some particular form of Spirit. Both, he claims, will amount to the same thing, and “since in our times that form of these moments is more familiar in which they appear after consciousness has lost its ethical life and, in the search for it, repeats those forms [i.e., the forms that precede Spirit], they may be represented more in terms of that sort” (par. 357). What follows is a study of three characters — Faust, Schiller’s Karl Moor, and Don Quixote — whom Hegel believes to embody this modern trend.

There is much that is questionable here. First, we get no demonstration that the pre-Spirit and post-Spirit individualities are the same — he just kind of asserts it. Second, this approach seems to contradict his phenomenological method, because suddenly we’ve skipped to a point where Spirit already exists. Hyppolite suggests that Hegel is aiming for more topical relevance, as in his discussion of physiognomy and phrenology, but it’s not like someone flipping through the Phenomenology in the bookstore would be able to identify the discussion of Don Quixote as such.

The best reason I’ve been able to come up with for Hegel’s approach here is that working through the pre-Spirit forms would inevitably become a boring re-hash of social contract theory. And though I haven’t fully fleshed this out by any means, it occurs to me that if this is what the pre-Spirit treatment would have looked like, then perhaps we can do some of the work ourselves to figure out why Hegel’s post-Spirit sequence would be broadly similar to the pre-Spirit — perhaps we’d go through a sequence of Hobbes (self-interest submits to necessity), Rousseau (spontaneous goodness succumbs to corrupt power structures), and Adam Smith (moral sentiment gives way to rational self-interest, which turns out not to be as selfish as it thought).

Teaching the Phenomenology of Spirit

This semester I’ve had ideal circumstances for teaching Hegel: a very motivated student and a one-on-one setting. My ultimate goal, however, would be to teach a proper course, and I imagine (based on my experience teaching Heidegger) that such a course would be pretty full at Shimer. Here are some of my thoughts on how to organize that.

First, I think it’s absolutely necessary to pair it with Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure. Hegel infamously refuses to cite his sources, and simply providing that context (which includes many texts that Shimer students would have actually read) is invaluable. Hyppolite has his own reading, of course, but so far it seems that he has kept his axes relatively unground. For any given day, then, I’d assign a certain segment of the Phenomenology and the parallel text in Hyppolite.

Second, I don’t think they need to do everything. For the segment on “Observing Reason” (which I had us go through much too slowly this semester, due to my relative unfamiliarity with those sections), I might assign Hyppolite and tell them to scan over the actual Hegel — they should know what goes on and how it recapitulates previous movements from a new perspective, etc., but they can probably get by with just a description. I would also omit “Religion” and — perhaps more controversially — both “Absolute Knowledge” and the Preface. (In any event, I would save the Preface for last if there turned out to be room.) By my math, this would make it possible to do less than 10 pages of Hegel per session on average (assuming three days a week). Even paired with the Hyppolite, the reading load would still be light compared to the Shimer average (30 pages per sesion).

Finally, I think this approach would leave me room for some further secondary essays, where I could incorporate a range of perspectives (particularly feminist and black perspectives) on one of the ultimate Dead White Males.

Three questions on Hegel

Questions that occur to me as the first half of my (hopefully) two-semester tutorial on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit winds through the wilds of “Observing Reason”:

  1. So far, I’ve noted that for Hegel, the “negative” can mean many things. It can mean abstraction (which negates the full richness of concrete content) or determinacy (which implicitly negates other things through its very self-assertion). It can mean negation in the simple sense of rejection or destruction. Best of all, of course, is the self-referential negation which both negates and preserves itself, hence transcending immediate negation in order to introduce the superior quality of mediation. My question: is it actually necessary or helpful to use a single word to cover all of this?
  2. A.V. Miller’s translation of Begriff as “Notion” seems to have few fans. “Concept” is probably better and more natural — but would it be possible to capture a little more of the “grasping” or “gripping” in Begriff? (Presumably he could have used the Latinate equivalent if that were satisfactory.) Something along these lines would emphasize the distinction Hegel is trying to make between Vorstellung, representation or picture-thinking, and the properly philosophical thought that he’s promoting: it’s not a question of seeing or observing or describing (though all those activities remain necessary and legitimate), but of actually grasping. Of course, it’s a weird kind of grasping that seizes hold of living movement by entering into it — which is very different from how we normally think of “concepts.”
  3. Is it possible that Hegel’s critique of physiognomy and phrenology could be taken as a rejection of scientific racism? (Obviously that wouldn’t let him off the hook, but it might make him one of the earliest exponents of the more “nuanced” racism that points to a group’s culture as the source of their dysfunction.)
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InterCcECT reading group: The State and World History

What remains of the theory of the state, after the laments of sovereignty and the ecstasy of vitalism? InterCcECT is taking our dialectic to the streets, to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right  and its culminating vision of world historical formations.

Join us Wednesday 20 August, 12 noon, at our favorite civic institution of late, the Wicker-Park/Bucktown Public Library meeting room.  As always, contact interccect at gmail or on Facebook for the readings, and to propose future events, alternate locations, and different states of things.

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InterCcECT Summer Reading Group

Totalizing, teleologizing, triadic: standard readings of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit are monotone. In The Hegel Variations, Fredric Jameson re-encounters the rhythm and dynamism of the text, reprising the fluidity of the negative. Come tune your dialectic with InterCcECT at our first reading group of the summer, Wednesday 25 June, 12noon, Bucktown-Wicker Park Public Library Study Room.

What’s on your reading/talking/writing/making list? Email interccect at gmail to propose summer collaborations, or to request the texts.

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past dialectics and future destructions: Malabou’s plasticity

Catherine Malabou has rapidly elasticized possible futures for Continental Philosophy by reorienting our understanding of Hegelian thought around the notion of plasticity, “a capacity to receive form and a capacity to produce form.”

In her recent short work Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction, Malabou considers writing as a scene of plasticity and model of political and ethical action. Join InterCcECT for a reading group on these crepuscular illuminations of Derrida, Hegel, Heidegger, Freud, Levi-Strauss, and Levinas.

Thursday 17 October
Department of English conference room
UIC, 2028 University Hall
601 S Morgan St, 60607 (Blue Line: UIC Halsted)

Text available to Chicagoans upon request.

Mark your calendars now for our upcoming miniseminar with Joshua Kates, “Radical Empiricism Revisited,” at which we’ll explore the Kantian inflections of empiricism in Deleuze, Latour, and Luhmann as they oppose Derrida and early Foucault. Friday 22 November, 3-5pm, location TBA; paper to be pre-circulated.

What’s happening in theory this fall?  Send us your event proposals and announcements (interccect at gmail), check out our calendar for recommended events, and connect with us on  Facebook for frequent links and commentary.

Posted in blog posts, Deleuze, Derrida, Hegel, Heidegger, Interccect, Malabou. Comments Off on past dialectics and future destructions: Malabou’s plasticity

Balance and imbalance

Which comes first, balance or imbalance? Which is more primordial? Many would have it that balance comes first, that there is a preestablished harmony that is then disturbed, often by human willfulness. In our contemporary world, for instance, many would hold that the market is inherently balanced and is only thrown off by extraneous human interventions — a modern-day notion of the inexplicable intrusion of original sin into God’s perfect creation.

Yet there can be no such thing as a permanent, inherent balance, because balance always presupposes at least two things. If we see something that looks like a balance and is permanent and inherent, then it is only a balance by analogy — really, we are just looking at parts of one thing and noting how they go together. Balancing always means balancing things that are not the same, that are not inherently compatible, that don’t automatically fit together. Balance is always an achievement, and one that must be continually renewed.

This provides us with one way of interpreting Zizek’s claim, based in his reading of Hegel and Lacan, that the gap is primordial, that difference actually generates what seem to be its positive terms. Read the rest of this entry »


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