I Don’t Always Rely on Authority, But When I Do, It’s Because They Already Agree With Me, Research Time, 12/08/2013

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. 

I'm glad Leszek Kolakowski wrote such a large and
comprehensive compendium of diverse Marxist thought.
Marxism is not a central element of my utopias project, but
I need to have a strong sense of its diversity. Kolakowski
has written a book that will save me a lot of time and
trouble simply because he organized the Marxisms for me.
* 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.


  1. Well, my perspective is that trying to build an argument on a number of philosophers' work while being entirely accurate not only to the text as you read it but also to the dominant secondary analyses is a bit of a black hole. The point is that you draw from these thinkers in ways that enriches your thought, not in ways that conforms with what is already understood, after all.

    So it becomes Your Hegel, and the burden is not to prove that your Hegel is Hegel's truest Hegel (sort of a buried Hegelianism in much historical philosophy, wouldn't you say?) but rather a Hegel that matters to the immediate debate.

    You might flag "your Hegel" as a historical construct -- Sartre was one of the crafters. But this is also the Hegel of Fukuyama's End of History - - he is the Hegel who circulates today in resonant ways.

    Indeed I see the burden as being on your critics -- who cares if they get closer to Hegel's own self-construction? Are we so naive that we need a guru to reveal the Ideal of any given philosopher, which only turns out to be a self-presentation? It's like Antonin Scalia is the intellectual grandfather of philosophy at this point.

    PS I really wouldn't worry too much about pleasing the Marxists. Not possible.

  2. Tom's point seems to be a very convenient one. Never mind accurate reading of the arguments, and close examination of the text, that's all a matter of interpretation and can be justified so long as you declare this "your" reading of Hegel! Why bother to read Hegel at all?

    Yes you can use another thinker's ideas for your own purposes, but if your reading completely misses the point, or is a superficial account of the arguments, then it will inevitably do a disservice to your own work. Bertrand Russell's horrid account of Hegel in his 'History of Western Philosophy" should serve as a warning to those who chuck accuracy out the window. Why bother understanding Hegel, when you can call him a mystic and dismiss him?

    1. Don't forget that Russell was a dedicated Hegelian for much of his youth, and envisioned his first major philosophical project as updating a Hegelian Encyclopedia of Nature to include sciences developed since the 1820s. Only after his disgust with the UK Idealist professoriat of Cambridge did he abandon Hegel and begin the project of mathematical philosophy that would become the analytic revolution in philosophy.

      After all, it's not as if Fred Bradley, Thomas Hill Green, and James McTaggart didn't all disagree in their interpretations of Hegel. How can you be sure any of these three got Hegel right, making everyone else's interpretation of Hegel wrong and false and stupid? And Russell disagreed with himself about Hegel, a sign of gross inconsistency and flip-flopping.

      I'm being sarcastic, but you're going much too far in your attack on divergent interpretations. Frankly, it ignores everything about the nature of interpretation that humanities scholarship has established over the last four decades. The requirement to be attentive and accurate in reading doesn't mean that there can be only one valid interpretation of a creatively ambiguous text.

  3. Hi Borna -- you're not wrong, and perhaps I was a little flippant (and thanks for your challenge).

    I would however say that there is a place for arguing about conceptual positions (often attributed to a constructed notion of a specific thinker) rather than about historical thinkers. The point I suppose I'm getting at when I say that the burden rests on the critics of this (admittedly flippant) position is that such critics need to demonstrate that the debate is meaningful rooted in the original thinker's work. Criticisms of Fukuyama (of which many spring to mind) should be addressed to his thesis, not his mangling of Hegel. The latter is of course valuable work, but is simply a different debate.

    For Adam, the point seems to me to be one of capturing a specific strand of thinking about time, constructing this as an ideal type, acknowledging his debt to Hegel in thinking through this ideal type, and then moving on. Whether the strand Adam extricates from this specific work is in tension with other strands of Hegel's thinking on time seems to me, for example, beside the point -- it may be productive for Adam to think this through, and indeed he may find another ideal type to consider, but my suggestion is simply to move on when it suits him, and not when the Hegel specialists let him go. (Sorry for speaking of you in the third person, Adam!)

    My Scalia comment was tongue-in-cheek, but I'm suggesting a "living constitution" of thinkers (we might think of Stephen Breyer as a model in this metaphor) rather than stone tablets of inscrutable origin -- certainly not advocating gross distortions, but we live in time and so shouldn't hope to step outside it.

    (Philosophers take note that I'm not a philosopher so may be offering career-ending advice here!)

  4. What this discussion amounts to is a matter I raised a few posts ago, phrased a little differently. It's the difference between doing the history of philosophy and using the history of philosophy.

    Here's a story about how I first developed this distinction. At the Fredericton Congress, I went to a presentation by my friend M (she was at Dalhousie at the time, and is now in the PhD program at Western) on a particular spin on a neglected idea in Moore's Principia Ethica. It was a point he made late in the book about retribution, and she was spinning it into a political principle.

    A U-Toronto professor in the audience (I know him, but won't say his name here) said M's paper was a total mistake, because Moore never intended Principia Ethica to be a book of political philosophy: it was all about the abstract moral question of the nature of good, so M's reading was illegitimate.

    But the professor approached her paper like a work of historical philosophy: you write a paper about X to argue for your interpretation as the one true X. That's what specialist historical societies in philosophy do at conferences, deliver papers about why their interpretation is what X was really thinking, and why everyone else who writes on X is wrong. But M was using Moore's idea to make a new point in a different context. She was careful about her words, knew that she departed from how Moore's work was received and how Moore thought about his work. Yet she used this idea from Moore in a different problem than he ever considered.

    If you think philosophy is about reverently studying the historical greats, then M's work and my work is illegitimate and wrong. But if everyone in philosophy just studies the historical greats, then we won't produce any more historical greats. I aim for my work to have the latter kind of ambition.

    1. That exchange between M and Toronto also had the unfortunate visuals of an established and powerful old white-haired man telling this uppity female student that she should know her place.

      Another example of hierarchy enabling casual sexism and disrespect of women.

  5. Deleuze says somehere that when you are faced with a truly great thinker like Kant or Hegel, it doesn't make any sense to declare that you 'disagree' with them. Here's the text:

    "When you're facing such a work of genius, there's no point saying you disagree. first you have to know how to admire; you have to rediscover the problems he [the thinker] poses, his particular machinery. It is through admiration that you will come to genuine critique. The mania of people today is not knowing how to admire anything: either they're 'against,' or they situate everything at their own level while they chit-chat and scrutinize. That's no way to go about it. You have to work your way back to those problems which an author of genius has posed, all the way back to that which he does not say in what he says, in order to extract something that still belongs to him, though you also turn it against him."

    Deleuze's learned Hegel from Hyppolite, who in turn learned German by reading the Phenomenology of Spirit (which is badass). Point being, while there are a variety of interpretations of Hegel's philosophy, there are better and worse ones. Kojeve perpetuates the stereotypical image of Hegel as the Totalitarian thinker of the Absolute, whose system is complete and subsumes everything in its wake. Hyppolite hated this reading of Hegel, and his interpretations gets a lot of things right, that Kojeve did not care too (incidentally, Kojeve makes a big fuss of the Master/Slave dialectic).

    Just because there are numerous readings of a particular philosophy, doesn't immediately mean that all those readings have equal value, or worth. Badiou's reading of Deleuze, for example, gets a lot of things wrong. How do I know this? I have read a lot of Deleuze, secondary literature on Deleuze by respected Deleuzians, and then some - enough to know that Badiou's reading is a misreading (albiet an intentional one). Does this mean that Badiou's reading of Deleuze and, say, Keith Ansell Pearson's have equal worth when it comes to accuracy? No.

    The same applies to Hegel. Adam, you said that you learned the Kojevian reading of Hegel - which while being highly influential in the 20th century - is considered by the majority of Hegelian Scholars to be a very poor interpretation. Hyppolite, as P mentioned before, is a much stronger reader of Hegel.

    The whole reason I bring all of this up is that while I know Hegel/Marx aren't your main concern in this project, it would be more productive for you (I think) to ensure that you read Hegel in a manner that is charitable, accurate, and fair. If you do plan on sticking to the Kojevian reading, then please explicitly state so when you are writing the Hegel section - so your readers know how you are approaching Hegel.

    Don't get me started on Marx.

    1. "Adam, you said that you learned the Kojevian reading of Hegel - which while being highly influential in the 20th century - is considered by the majority of Hegelian Scholars to be a very poor interpretation."

      I read back over what I'd written on my various platforms on this argument, and I don't recall ever saying that. I learned that you thought it was a poor one, emphasized different aspects of the corpus than the interpretations you thought were better. In the community of Hegel scholars, there seem to be a variety of beliefs. The Stanford Encyclopedia article on Hegel, for instance, cites Kojève, but Hyppolite is nowhere to be found.

  6. For what it's worth, I'd like to chime in with support for Borna's sensible suggestion at the end here to clearly signpost the tradition within which you're reading a philosopher, e.g. following Kojeve's reading of Hegel.