I got a lot done Sunday, and one of those was reading the first chapter of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. First thoughts: for a book that my friends who concentrate their scholarly work on Marxist philosophy said was immensely difficult and hard to follow, I find it really quite easy to read and follow.
Maybe it’s because I’m not trying too hard. Maybe it’s because I’m not really interested in defending Marx and Engels, or attacking Marx and Engels, or any kind of partisan philosophical or rhetorical stance regarding Marx and Engels. Remember this as you read posts about the utopias project over the next few years: it is nothing close to a standard form of engagement with Marxist philosophy. I’m interested in Marxism as the most famous political articulation of Hegelian conceptions of time and history. Insofar as I’m engaging with Marxism proper, it’s to sort through all the different Marxisms.* I mean, I don’t even really know what Marxism proper is, and I suspect very few people do either. I’m not even sure that the works of Marx constitute Marxism proper, as there can be many different Marxisms depending on what your emphasis is when you read Marx. I doubt there even is a Marxism proper.
* One of the books that is next on my reading list for this project is Leszek Kolakowski’s giant compendium laying out all the different variations on Marxism that have existed up until he wrote the book. The version currently in my Amazon cart is over 1200 pages long.
Looking into some of the specifics of the first chapter, I’ve already found some promising critiques of the Hegelian conception of time and history. After my post last Friday summing up my engagement with Hegel’s Philosophy of History, I had a long and fruitful conversation about my interpretations on facebook. One of the sharpest-tongued critical voices came from my friend P.
P is a remarkable student of continental philosophy, with a keen taste for vociferous argument, even in social circumstances when it is not entirely appropriate, like when it’s just after midnight at a mutual friend’s birthday party and he wants to talk to me about Heidegger right after I’ve emerged from the table with the most generously shared intoxicants. He remembers this conversation, and I intend to make sure he never forgets.
But he had a cutting critique of my interpretation of Hegel: I was too fast and too superficial. He was concerned that I had missed something essential in the relationship of spirit to history and ontology in the Hegelian system. That was fine, of course. One of the purposes of the blog is not only for me to pontificate, but for my friends and readers to give me extra conceptual material, help me when I need direction, and correct me when I’ve made a mistake. If I made a mistake about Hegel’s ideas, then I wanted to get it right. After all, I can’t make his ideas on time one of the five central concepts of temporality in a project if my take on his idea is so superficial that Hegel scholars would laugh me out of the room.
I haven’t gotten his detailed response on the matter yet, but I’ve found an extra citation from a fairly prestigious thinker that backs up my interpretation of Hegel: Jean-Paul Sartre. His critique of Hegel (at least in the first chapter of the Critique of Dialectical Reason) is as follows. Hegel saw the structure of reason, as laid out in pure form in his Logic and in historically articulated form in his Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of History, as eternal. He looked at his own society and state as the historical articulation of the highest form of thought. Sartre understands this stance as taking 1820s Prussia as the end of history because it was the culmination of reason’s historical movement.
In fact, Sartre goes even farther than I do in his condemnation of Hegel. I’m hesitant about Hegel’s concept of world-spirit because it acts as a filter of what does and doesn’t matter in history. If some historical event or culture can’t be made to embody some specific phase of Hegelian dialectical reason, then it isn’t worth considering as historically significant.
But Sartre describes Hegel as conceiving his own work as the culmination of philosophy in a literal sense. According to Sartre, Hegel considered his work as the completion of philosophy, the last works of philosophy that would ever have anything to say. Having summed the culmination of reason’s highest form in history, the only philosophy worth doing would be commentary on Hegel. Sartre had a much stronger dismissal of Hegel than I’ve ever conceived. If my interpretation of Hegel can be dismissed as superficial or a lukewarm critique, then that accusation doesn’t just apply to me, but to Jean-Paul Sartre. And he carries a little weight around here.