We Can Think Differently Without Putting Each Other Down, Composing, 13/08/2013

After the last few days of controversy over my recent posts about Hegel’s philosophy, I began to second-guess whether I should include the Hegelian conception of temporality in my utopias project at all. While I don't personally know a lot of people in the professional community of Hegel scholars, some of my friends have done some deep readings of his philosophy for longer than I have. These friends have told me that my reading of Hegel is superficial and lazy, that I’m ignorant of Hegel and Marx, and that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Then I ate lunch and realized that I’ll probably get people yelling the same things at me when I get to the part of the project that has to do with philosophy of physics and the interpretations of relativity theory on the nature of time. My attackers will just swap the names of dialectical philosophers with the names of physicists. One disheartening aspect of the philosophical community is that when you start a new project in an area where you haven't already established your expertise, someone usually accuses you of being ignorant or stupid or that what you have to say is otherwise illegitimate. It occurs at every level of the hierarchy: I've seen long-tenured professors do this to each other, sometimes even to their faces.

Many graduate students develop something called impostor syndrome. They receive so much negative reinforcement about whether anything they have to say in a professional discussion is legitimate that they doubt their own abilities to say something worth listening to. If I have any problems of this sort, it’s of an opposite type. My first reaction to negative reinforcement is to question what entitles my critic to say these terrible things about me and my abilities. 

I don't yet know much of the biographies of
Alexandre Kojève (pictured) and Jean Hyppolite,
but they both died in the poetically appropriate
year of 1968.
My appropriation of Hegel’s ideas for this project aligns with the interpretations of Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Alexandre Kojève. My facebook interlocutors tell me these interpretations are inferior to those of Jean Hyppolite and Jacques Derrida, and that Kolakowski’s book on the Marxisms was a capitalist hack job. So that’s what you tell me, P and B. But I’m into slippery territory about how to judge who’s right, who’s wrong, and whose judgements of right and wrong are best to listen to. Because it’s not like there’s a single unified and unvarying consensus within the community of Hegel studies itself.

Kojève, for example, still has followers in the community of Hegel scholars. One of them was my first teacher of Hegel’s philosophy, Dr Antoinette Stafford, and she was very good. Because if your question is “Who gets Hegel right?” and you want your answer to avoid falling into the harsh academic sniping that the more unfortunate historical philosophical specialists’ conferences become, then I think there’s only one answer that can stand up to critical scrutiny.

Who gets Hegel right beyond all possible dispute? Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Substitute for Hegel whatever creative philosopher you want in the canon and the question works the same way. Who gets X right beyond all possible dispute? X him/herself. 

You might say that’s ridiculous. The possibility of multiple valid interpretations of a complex corpus such as Hegel’s (or any noteworthy creative philosopher in the history of the discipline) shows that the text itself is ambiguous. But it’s a creative kind of ambiguity. Apart from clear mistakes and faulty reasoning, I don’t see how any attentive, careful, and creative engagement with a text that can have multiple interpretations can be right or wrong in a simple sense. Kojève may emphasize different parts of the Hegelian philosophy than Hyppolite, for example. But I don’t see how difference of interpretation makes one reading bad and the other reading good. They’re just different.

The works of the great philosophers encourage multiple interpretations and uses because that's what good philosophy does. And I don’t approach these interpretations as being right or wrong. Again, if you want to know what a particular philosopher says, read them and ask yourself why they write as they do. An interpretation is one account among many possible accounts. And with figures as complex as the great philosophers, many divergent interpretations are possible. B commented on Monday’s post that if multiple interpretations of a great philosopher can be valid even if they diverge from each other, then Hyppolite’s brilliant, insightful, and detailed interpretation can be no better than Bertrand Russell’s hack job of Hegel as a cheap mystic in his History of Western Philosophy. If disagreeing interpretations can still be valid, said B, then you can think whatever you want and there's no point even in reading the philosopher who interests you.

This is just the facile “Relativism!” attack. It presumes that without a single absolute truth of some subject matter, then all we have are arbitrary thoughts and writings, none of which are better than any other. Humanities scholarship since the 1970s has confronted this problem and already taken care of it. 

The evaluation criteria for an interpretation of a philosophical work does not include whether that interpretation excludes every other interpretation from validity. Workable evaluation criteria include comprehensiveness, attention to detail, the ability to draw materially meaningful conclusions, and sparking further creative developments in thinking. They do not include an interpretation’s ability to show all divergent interpretations to be false, facile, superficial, and stupid. 

I’m not interested in arguing over which interpretation of a great philosopher is the one that makes all the others not worth reading. I’m interested in using these conceptually creative works to craft conceptually creative works of my own. And I'll develop my own interpretations through attention to detail, a comprehensive outlook, and careful critical engagement, just as the best interpretations do. I think Kojève’s and Sartre’s readings of Hegel can be productive for my project on the political and social implications of various conceptions of temporality. Having productivity for a more complex project as my priority doesn't make my writing or reading lazy, superficial, or unworthy of being read. My utopias project is not a Marxism. It’s not a work of Hegel scholarship. It’s not philosophy of physics or philosophy of art. It’s not communist, conservative, or liberal. It’s not Deleuzian, Bergsonian, Arendtian, or any other adjectival name. It’s also all of those and a lot more.

I’ll welcome Alexandre and Jean-Paul to my party not because they make all the other guests unwelcome, but because they have interesting and productive things to say. Just like everyone else I invited.


  1. This is neither here nor there, but my own awareness of Kojeve emerged from a sudden, intense, but then suddenly absent interest in Georges Bataille. Your utopias project might benefit from a bit of Bataille, who was the ultimate anti-utopian -- obsessed with Hegel's synthesis and the negation that creates in what has not been synthesized, Bataille struggled for years to articulate a philosophical category for the absent, formless, abject etc. My interest was sparked by a fantastic collection by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, "L'Informe. Mode d'Emploi" (I think it was translated). He is also a significant figure in the intellectual milieu that seems to interest you and influenced people like Sartre (if only by dint of his rather abrasive personality).

    PS Jstor has another interesting article on the subject attributed to Bo Earle, "performance of negation, negation of performance..." in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2002), pp. 48-67.

  2. "Ambiguity is... [implicit in] existence, and everything we live or think has always several meanings. [...] In becoming transformed into existence, [X] has taken upon itself a general significance [...], so loaded with the passage of time that it ['in-its-self'] is an impossible undertaking to seek"


    "...One step for life,one step for thought. Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create modes of living. Life activates thought, and thought in turn affirms life. [In contemporary academic philosophy] we have only instances where thought bridles and mutilates life, making it sensible, and where life takes revenge and drives thought mad...The choice between mediocre lives and mad thinkers. Lives that are too docile for thinkers, and thoughts too mad for the living: Kant and Holderlin. ..Philosophy becomes noting more than the taking census of all the reasons [hu]man gives himself to obey...[static, rigid or adversarial philosophical discourse]...made life something that must be judged, measured, restricted...something exercised in the name of a higher value: the Divine, the True, the Beautiful, The Good, [or X]...With [adversarial attitudes] emerges the figure of a philosopher who is voluntarily and subtly submissive...dialectics itself perpetuates this prestigiditation. ..Did we kill God when we put [rigorous 'philosophy' and argumentation] in his place and kept the most important thing; the place?"