Pinkard on New Honneth Book

Over at NDPR, Pinkard reviews Honneth’s Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life.

From my perspective, Pinkard’s best point comes toward the end of the review when he writes:

That struggle over recognition is also a struggle over what counts as reasons in the struggle, and lands us squarely with questions of social norms and how such norms can be redeemed as genuine reasons instead of, for example, being merely well disguised assertions of power. That in turn, so Hegel argued, pushes us to ask whether there is a deeper logic to what is involved in giving and asking for reasons such that some type of putative reasons historically turn out to not really have been good reasons, however much in sync with the times they were.

This is my complaint about the Pittsburgh Hegelians and readings of Hegel which focus on normativity – they seem woefully unable to distinguish between social norms substantiated by genuine reasons and assertions of power (though I’ve read too much Foucault to think there is any firm distinction between the two). At heart, this inability fails to recognise how well ideology ‘works’. Ideology is not only a set of normative assumptions; it is the limits of the debate around social norms. Put another way, Hegelians who focus on social normativity and the giving and asking of reasons, often fail to appreciate the extent to which social norms determine what counts as reasonable. In defining ‘reasonableness’, these assumptions determine the limits of debate.

This critique was the basic question of my PhD thesis – given that Hegel is able to describe the relationship between religion, the state, civil society and the family in ways that continue to illuminate contemporary society, are there ways of forcing critical (or negative) disruptions within these relationships?

Against the uncritiquable

Dan Barber has a great blog post (with reference to a couple of excellent essays that he’s written) over at AUFS. I’ve probably been guilty of the revalorisation of Hegel at points (too much Zizek).

The key point, for me, is this:

What universalism, normativity, and Hegel have in common is the capacity — a capacity, by the way, that is grounded in nothing other than a sort of sovereign self-assertion — to present themselves in terms of neutral abstraction, or of intrinsic symmetry, and in doing so to set it up so that the field of disagreement about the term’s value is already enfolded within the field of the term. “Do you not see that your critique of universalism / normativity / Hegel, in order to realize itself, must (in some renewed sense) affirm universalism / normativity / Hegel?”

I’ve noticed this operation at work in a couple of theological papers I’ve attended recently. It’s the logic of conversion, as Barber calls it. Or, put another way, it is the Anonymous Christianity of Everything Good. If you have a critique of capitalism, heteronormativity, racism, etc., Christianity already includes this critique. This logic was at the heart of Radical Orthodoxy’s engagement with continental philosophy and, even amongst those who now disavow Milbank and crew, this logic persists. You are critiquing the bad version of Christianity. We’ve incorporated your critiques and now it’s time to endorse the good Christianity. Or, your critiquing a misguided form of Christianity which was never the true Christianity anyway.

This operation or logic is not just prevalent in Christianity, though. It is the logic of Christianity. And this is why Marx was ultimately right – the critique of religion is the beginning of all critique.


I picked up Badiou’s Ethics yesterday and came across this great footnote. It’s in reference to Hegel’s division of morals and ethics, in which ‘the ethical order essentially consists in the immediate firmness of decision’:

The whole of this section of the Phenomenology is difficult, but very suggestive.

That should be the tagline of the Phenomenology in general – difficult, but very suggestive.


Hegel and Radiolab

This is a cheap, shallow connection backed by little to no technical knowledge or research, but I thought it was interesting, so what the hell.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I like Hegel.  At first Hegel was the necessary evil that I had to go through to study Lacan, Marx and religion.  Then he took over my PhD, but in the back of my mind it was still just a hoop to jump through on the way to later research interests.  But now, I actually really like Hegel.  Especially after reading Heidegger.  I find Hegel so much more convincing in his method, his conclusions and the political implications of both (at least as I see them).

Then this morning I was listening to an old Radiolab episode on ‘What Technology Wants’, taken from the title of a Kevin Kelly book.  Kelly, who was one of the guests, was describing how technology taken as a whole, has come to have a degree of autonomy.  For example, imagine trying to turn off the internet.  I can’t even understand what that means.  How would you do it?

What Hegel offers is a way of understanding these kinds of things.  Technology, politics, religion… things that are related to human beings, but have developed a kind of autonomy.  God acts in the world.  I don’t believe in a divine being, but there is an idea, referred to commonly as God, who has effects on people.  Hegel gives us a way of understanding this without necessitating that we ascribe wholeheartedly to confessional ideas about God, but while also allowing us not to condescendingly dismiss the way that a substantial number of people order the world.  I think this logic is transferable to the way we think about all ideas or processes that originate within humanity, but then achieve a degree of autonomy (granted there is a difference between religion and technology, but perhaps the difference is as profound as often think).




Thoughts on reading Hegel

This week I concluded an 8-month reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.  Having finished, I have a few thoughts on the experience and things I would have done differently.

– Reading it in a group is definitely the way to go.  I met with a four other people each week to discuss relatively small chunks of text.  I don’t think I would have been able to read it as consistently without the pressure of knowing I needed to be able to talk about it once a week.

A friend turned me on to J.M. Bernstein.  His syllabus provides an excellent list of secondary texts both generally and for specific sections.  His discussion questions also helped to focus my reading.  There is a also a trove of information in the audio from a series of lectures on the Phenomenology that he gave at Berkeley in 1994.

– Regarding secondary texts, I used Quentin Lauer’s Reading of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” and Henry Silton Harris’ Hegel’s Ladder (2 volumes).  I read nearly all of Lauer, but I dipped in and out of Harris more arbitrarily.  Harris proves interesting paraphrases of each of the paragraphs in the Phenomenology.  These paired with the analysis of the text at the end of Miller’s translation helped me to work through more difficult sections.  I also started out reading Hyppolite’s The Structure and Genesis of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but decided about half way through that I wanted to read the book as a whole rather than breaking it up over the course of reading the primary text.

– On the side of thing I would have done differently, I think we may have rushed the reading a bit.  That may seem ridiculous since it took us 8 months, but I think that our/my impatience often got the better of us.  Realistically, I needed to get through the text so that I can move on to his other works, but I may have benefited from spending a little more time on the most difficult sections.

– In the Berstein tapes, in his introduction to the course, Bernstein tells the students that they will be writing short summaries of each of the sections as they go along.  I listened to this recording about 3/4 of the way through my reading and I didn’t feel like it was worth starting to do the summaries that close to the end, but I do think it would have helped me internalize the work more than I did.

Now that I’ve finished, I’m hoping to read Merold Westphal’s History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology, Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Idealism, and return to Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure.  I’m also nearly finished with Glenn Alexander Magee’s Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, which has been interesting to read in the wake of several of Marjorie Reeve’s works on Joachim of Fiore.  I suppose that I’ll also need to look at Cyril O’Regan’s The Heterodox Hegel and then I’ll be able to move on to the Philosophy of History and Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.  Hopefully at that point I can move on to something other than Hegel… like Schelling.

More on Althusser and the critique of political economy

I found another passage that lends support to the hypothesis I offered yesterday on the relationship between politics and economy. In this section of his essay ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination,’ Althusser is arguing against various interpretations a well-known quote from Capital: ‘With Hegel, the dialectic is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.’ The main goal in the essay is rejecting readings of Marx which remained in Hegelian idealism. These readings are legion apparently (or at least were when Althusser was writing), so he describes and critiques a variety of the existent possibilities.

One such temptation is to interchange the role of the economic and the politco-ideological. ‘While for Hegel, the politico-ideological was the essence of the economic, for Marx, the economic will be the essence of the politico-ideological. The political will therefore be merely pure phenomena of the economic which will be their “truth”’ (108).

Althusser responds to this by arguing, as is his habit, that this swapping of roles remains within the structure of Hegelian dialectics. ‘The logical destination of this temptation is the exact mirror image of the Hegelian dialectic – the only difference being that it is no longer a question of deriving the successive moments from the Idea, but from the Economy, by virtue of the same internal contradiction. This temptation results in the radical reduction of the dialectic of history to the dialectic generating the successive modes of production, that is, in the last analysis, the different production techniques’ (108).

Althusser goes on to render Hegel’s internal contradiction problematic, and instead argues for his own notion of ‘overdetermination.’ This concept exposes the reductive simplicity of Hegel’s understanding of contradiction and combats another frequent foe of Althusser, the geneticist structure of Hegelian dialectics. Anyway, overdetermination renders economics only determinative in the last instance, and the last instance never comes. I confess I’m still struggling with this last point; I don’t quite follow his argument about the relation between overdetermination and ‘in the last instance.’

(These quotes are from the edition of For Marx in Verso’s Radical Thinkers series)