Thoughts after spending a year with The Phenomenology of Spirit

As I’ve often mentioned, I’ve spent the last year working through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in an independent study with a student who is a committed Marxist and thus very highly motivated to understand Hegel. To weigh in on a recent online controversy, I’m going to say that we shouldn’t ban independent studies, because this has been incredibly rewarding for both of us. I am increasingly committed to doing a reading group on Hegel’s Logic this summer, mainly for the sake of striking when the iron is hot — and because I think I have grasped the inner necessity of the project of the Logic in terms of what Hegel is doing.

I read the Phenomenology as an attempt to cure individualism. We see a variety of attempts by the subject to grasp the world purely individually, punctuated by abortive intersubjective encounters (the master-slave dialectic, most famously). A basso continuo throughout is the recurrence to language — already in “Sense-Certainty,” language is the crucial lever for undermining the pretenses of immediate knowledge (“here,” “now,” “I”), and it comes back at all the most important turning points in the argument. The main narrative culminates in an intersubjective encounter that, through the mediation of language, provides both the beautiful soul and the man of action with access to a dimension that exceeds the individual (both individual moral judgment and individual action and intention), that dimension that Hegel calls Spirit. Finally, the subject has become substance — the bare self-assertion and self-reference of the individual is given its genuine content in the social reality that shapes the subject and confers meaning on the subject’s action.

Once the existence of Spirit has been phenomenologically adduced from the perspective of the subject — through twists and turns that, shall we say, vary in their persuasiveness and apparent necessity — we then turn, in the “Religion” section, to the phenomenology of Spirit, the appearance of Spirit to itself. This section recapitulates the previous development in a certain way — which makes sense, since the overarching thesis governing every development was “it was Spirit all along!” — but from a new perspective. We learn that Spirit first becomes self-aware through the “picture-thinking” (Vorstellung) of religion, paving the way for Hegel’s remarkable interpretation of Greek culture in terms of “religion as art.” Christian theology begins to overcome that mere “picture-thinking,” but Hegel believes we must carry it forward in conceptual form, because only thereby can Spirit become fully conscious of itself. While “picture-thinking” is a necessary and legitimate mode of thought, it necessarily obscures the movement of thought itself, insofar as it presents the object as though it were something foreign to the thought of it. Only the concept (Begriff) allows thought to simultaneously grasp the object and the fact that it’s grasping it.

And that, apparently, is the project of the Logic — a conceptual-discursive account of what religion was trying to do via “picture-thinking.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

An open letter

[Explanatory note: The editorial board of AUFS sent the following letter privately to the editors of the Political Theology journal. We are now posting it publicly in the hope of spurring action.]

[UPDATE: Inside Higher Ed has run a piece about this controversy.]

Dear editors,

As scholars working in the field of political theology, we were disturbed to see Martin Katchen’s post “Why the Secular Left Seems Increasingly To Sympathize With Jihadists” on the Political Theology Today blog. Political Theology is arguably the best-known journal in the field. To have such a speciously argued right-wing hit piece—which does not cite a single secular leftist who actually supports jihadist ideology—associated with such an important outlet is an embarrassment and a disgrace. More importantly, within a context of burgeoning Islamophobic policies, practices, and attitudes within Western countries, it is dangerous. We demand that the post be removed and an apology posted, and that the editorial process for the blog be reviewed to avoid such poor judgment in the future.


Amaryah Armstrong, Vanderbilt University
Daniel Colucciello Barber, Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Berlin
Basit Iqbal, University of California at Berkeley,
Brad Johnson, Independent Scholar
Stephen Keating, Chicago Theological Seminary
Adam Kotsko, Shimer College, Chicago
Beatrice Marovich, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks
Marika Rose, Durham University
Anthony Paul Smith, La Salle University

The Rotten Carcass Economy

My bookstore takes National Poetry Month pretty seriously. One of our traditions is a daily poetry reading throughout April. I’m linking to this one in particular not simply because I’m reading or that the reading itself is particularly good (though, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not like these aren’t factoring into my decision), but because I think a good many of you would really like the work of Daniel Borzutzky. Give him a look.

Classics and Class Aspiration


There’s something about “the classics” that seems to appeal to working class aspirations. When lending libraries were established, records tend to show that working class people mainly checked out the classics. In the Soviet Union, the Russian classics were prioritized even though they were obviously aristocratic and bourgeois in character, and classical music and ballet training was extremely robust. That effort found its echo in America in the Penguin Classics and the postwar efforts to popularize classical music, both of which were important in establishing the new “middle class” largely made up of workers.

My own life shows a similar trajectory. I was classically trained on piano, at the prompting of parents who — as I have slowly figured out as an adult — aren’t personally very interested in classical music, and I always seized upon any list of “classics” that I could find. During my naive and ineffectual college search, where I wound up defaulting to Olivet Nazarene University because (a) I knew about it and (b) I knew I could get a scholarship, the only college brochures that actually jumped out at me were from St. John’s. Reading a list of big books — that’s how you do it. I joke that teaching at Shimer College, a Great Books school, is my chance to finally get educated.

To be “educated” — as though it can be attained, as though there’s a list you can check off. It’s a seductive idea, at least to me, and I still catch myself thinking in those terms. For instance, I mostly don’t find opera intuitively appealling — it’s too long and the plots are often ridiculous — and yet I have this sense that I “should” go, simply for the sake of familiarizing myself with opera and filling out that part of my “education.”

This drive to be “educated” in some objectively verifiable way is of course naive. Read the rest of this entry »

Zizek and shame

This article by Zizek on the Panama Papers seems to be free of the kind of offensive comments that have characterized his commentary on the refugee crisis. There are many things one could say about it, but what stands out to me are the opening remarks about the efficacy of public shaming — a sentiment that reminds me of another recent article on Trump where he worries about the breakdown of the implicit prohibitions in the public sphere. In these pieces, as in his mid-2000s writings about torture, he is not an advocate of the “at least they’re honest” defense. Even if the public prohibition of certain classes of statements is hypocritical, something is lost once you shift from publicly denying your torture program to openly admitting it — torture is somehow legitimized simply by being allowed into the sphere of public debate.

What are we to make of this sentiment — which I agree with — when we return to his writings on the refugee crisis? There he poses as a champion of honesty against the evasions of “the politically correct left,” and though it is possible, albeit decreasingly so, to construe his South Park-style “provocations” in a less offensive light, his own rhetorical practice seems difficult to square with his stated position on preserving some semblance of restraint and taboo enforceable by the big Other. Why does he seem so determined to court public shaming for racist and otherwise vulgar remarks?

Zizek seems to be sincerely concerned about a victory of the radical right in Europe. However we might judge their efficacy and cogency, his comments on the refugee crisis are intended as a way toward a leftist answer to the problem that will be somehow more convincing or viable than what he views as “politically correct” evasions. What comes through much more than this concern, though, is his desire to position himself as the tough-minded realist, the bold truth-teller waking the dogmatic “P.C. left” from its slumber and complacency. Yet when we look at the actual recommendations, they are anything but bold — we should admit that the racist reactionaries “have a point,” for instance, which is exactly the kind of centrist gesture that he critiqued in early works like Tarrying With the Negative. (For related examples, see Marika’s post.)

It’s as though he has staked out a position as an inverse Beautiful Soul. We still have the arbitrary self-assertion of his own correctness, but instead of judging everyone for dirtying their purity with the stuff of reality, he denounces everyone who doesn’t treat the current constellation as a brute fact. If he could complete his inversion of Hegel’s dialectic of the moral consciousness and forgive the “P. C. left” for having aspirations and questioning the legitimacy of the current balance of power, maybe we could finally get somewhere — or at least he could find another way to spend his time other than destroying his reputation and legacy.

What exactly is wrong with Zizek’s political commentary lately?

I find it interesting that the dominant mode of critiquing Zizek’s recent political writings from the left is simply to post quotations from him, with dismissive comments. It’s taken to be self-evident what’s wrong with his statements — and presumably also what should be done instead of what he recommends. What’s interesting is that the explicit critique and alternative never seem to appear in this context. Is it just not worth it, because it’s *so* completely obvious? Is it tacky of me to even ask?

I mean, I should already know. And I do, of course, no question — but just to make sure we’re on the same page…

(I also quietly note that this has been the dominant mode of critique by liberal commentators: pull out a quote about Stalin, then rely on everyone to draw the obvious conclusion that he’s dangerous. Or he says something about anti-Semitism, so he must be an anti-Semite, etc.)

Update: Recent Text & Excerpts

Just a note that a recent collaborative book with Davis Rhodes — which I’ve previously mentioned on this site — is now available as full pdf.


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