I read Hegel long ago (in the late 1960’s), and I remember being highly impressed with some of his work and disgusted with another part. I let myself be diverted from Hegel by Popper’s attack on his historicism and his groundwork for totalitarianism[i]. Žižek is an admirer of Hegel, and studying Žižek I wondered if I had missed something. So I started re-reading Hegel.
I was, and still am, immensely impressed by Hegel’s dedication to dynamics, of ideas and social structure, in the form of structural change arising from oppositions or what Hegel called contradictions, in dialectical change, notably in his Phenomenology of the Spirit. That was a welcome change with respect to earlier Western philosophy, which I read as being almost exclusively preoccupied with substance and permanence.
Thinking back, I now see that it may be largely due to inspiration from Hegel that I dedicated myself professionally to innovation. But why stick to Hegel? Surely, there has been development of thought on dynamics since Hegel, certainly in the self-manifestation of the absolute spirit that Hegel proclaimed.
In Hegel’s Logic, which is not a logic in the usual sense, but a metaphysics, the prime category is Being, and to Hegel being is not like some fixed object but a process of becoming, in the dialectical process. That sits well with my process view of philosophy, and of knowledge, meaning, etc., as discussed in this blog (item 342).
On the other hand, what I abhorred, and still do, is the idea that history is a progressive, teleological, process of self-realization of the Hegelian Absolute Spirit. Here one recognizes the notion of an Aristotelian final cause that in my view is a mistaken way of looking at history and society. It even seems contradictory in Hegel’s own thought, which I read as pointing to non-linear transformations that may not be progressive, may embark on a cul de sac, and may be degressive.
I do recognize the philosophical significance of the attempt to bring together the infinite and the finite, with the absolute spirit replacing God, in its self-realization through the actions of the finite spirit of mankind. But politically that has inspired a communist ideology of a march towards utopia in which human sacrifice and suffering are of negligible significance. Of course this is an anachronism: Hegel could not foresee such perversion of his ideas. But Hegel did also see war as an inevitable clearing of what exists, to make room for the next transformative step in the march, which I find hard to stomach but do recognize as possibly true, harsh as it may seem.
Žižek offers an alternative reading of Hegel. I am not sure I fully understand it, so I give a direct quote: ‘.. what gets lost in it (the usual reading) is the interaction between the epistemological and ontological aspects, the way ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing it (or, vice versa, how our knowing of reality is embedded in reality itself’ (Parallax view p. 30). That may approach my approach, as set out in this blog. I would add language as an intermediary between epistemology and ontology.
Also, I detested what I thought was Hegel’s agreement with Rousseau’s view of the general will of the people to which the individual should surrender his own opinion or interest. There is too much of a platform for totalitarianism there. A platform on which populists are now eager to dance their folk dances. But re-reading Hegel (and reading Rebecca Comay’s Mourning sickness), I now see that while Hegel was thrilled by the French revolution as a necessary step in the march of the absolute spirit, he in fact opposed Rousseau’s absolute general will in which individuals should be eager to dissolve themselves, for the same reason that he rejected Kant’s duty ethics for its demand to transcend individual interests and contingencies.
That fits with Hegel’s view of any universal, including that of the state as the universal will of the people, as a ‘concrete universal’, though that sounds like a contradiction in terms. What this means is that the universal is not homogeneous, but includes a variety of particulars some of which may even be at odds, in some partial way, with the universal. Indeed, according to Žižek’s reading of Hegel the essence of the universal is the strife between its particulars. Hegel insisted that the state must allow for the free development of individual personality, and should respect the rights of individuals, existing in and through its particular citizens.
What, then, is democracy? As I noted earlier in this blog, what I can make of it is the following. In a democracy one has to accept what has been democratically debated and decided, but that does not require that one drop one’s conviction, saying and testifying that one must have been wrong.
The issue concerning the universal and its particulars is important, but I take a somewhat different view of it, as I will discuss in the next item in this blog. The challenge there is to show how there can be space for deviance of particulars, and how that can shift or topple the universal, doing what Hegel seems to have left undone.