Why Do We Fear Hegel So Much? Thinking Praxis in the Age of the World-System, or Hegel’s Vanishing Ladder

Why do we fear Hegel so much?

Hegel in the Age of the World-Fragment

In an age in which fragmentation is both our forced state of being, as well as that which makes us feel free from being resabsorbed by the system, no-one wants a systematic thinker like Hegel. The entire post-structuralist endeavor, which has dominated philosophy since the late-60’s, and which is the horizon of contemporary thought, was founded on the rejection of system. We live in an age recovering from the terrors of mid-twentieth century systems, and struggling against a much more deviously slippery system, namely, post-modern capitalism. The politics of post-structuralism is one in which our little fragment, and its ability to resist absorption into the machine, is all we have, our islands of security which can help us prove to ourselves that we have not been absorbed by the system, but also that which allows us to prove to ourselves that we have not ourselves become devourers of worlds. We identify with our fragmentary existence because is the the ground of an ethical practice in a world in which the machine fragments old unities and yet tries to rework fragments to suit its hyper-systematic needs.

System evil, fragment good. Even though fragmentation is forced upon us all, it is precisely what allows us to resist. From such a perspective, it makes SENSE that we’d fear a thinker whose name is synonymous with system. To most people, Hegel=system, it’s that simple. And since his prose is so notoriously difficult, that’s usually as far as most people get with him.

But is equating Hegel with system a fair judgment? As I find myself spending more time with his very, very slippery texts, I’m more convinced they are not, or don’t have to be. I’m convinced in fact that they offer us something quite important for our very post-modern times.

The Retroversion Effect and the Potential for Freedom

I think Hegel is more than misunderstood. I think his reception in contemporary theory is in fact warped. According to Larry Krasnoff’s reading, the whole message of The Phenomenology of Spirit can be boiled down to the following: “retroactive understanding produces freedom.” Applied to individuals, this is a form of radical psychoanalysis, while applied to collectives, it seems to be a radical social psychoanalysis, which is what Marxism is, I think, at its best.

And yet, this is so different from what many take the task of the Phenomenology to be, namely, which is to prove why the Prussian state is philosophically justified. Firstly, that’s later Hegel, and even then, a bit of a caricature. And Hegel certainly had multiple sides pulling at him. As anyone who’s read Pinkard’s biography knows, Hegel saw himself as a concilliator between his beloved French Revolution, with its desire to make it new, and the desire to make a lasting form of stable technocracy. The later Hegel did sell out a bit. And was often tempted to see himself as, well, absolute.

But the Hegel of the Phenomenology is perhaps a Hegel almost afraid of the very radicality of his own primary insight, one which is summed up rather nicely by Krasnoff, so long as one is aware that, like any aphorism, it’s simply that.

But let’s examine this once aphorism once again: “retroactive understanding produces freedom.” If this is Hegel’s primary insight, then the very systematicity of his system, namely, that which frightens people today, should fall away. For Hegel’s own work should then be similar to that of Wittgenstein’s famous ladder, namely, a tool for displaying a method appropriate to Hegel’s own situation, the specifics of which fall away. Wittgenstein argues that his own text, The Tractatus, is simply a ladder to see things differently, after which it needs be thrown away.

And I think the same can be said for Hegel. His system is a tool for dialectizing the specifics of his situation, at his time and place, in relation to his biography, culture, etc. It speaks in the voice of the absolute, because it tries to understand the whole, the whole for his situation. And that’s what we always do when we philosophize. But a philosophy worth its salt should know, precisely, that this is what it does, and should acknowledge that its attempts to speak the whole can only at most do this from the very limited perspective of where one is at now.

The Sly-Descriptivist Paradox: Completing the Pattern

It is this ‘desire to describe the whole’, of course, which frightens people as well. Even the attempt to describe the whole thing, the big picture, is suspect in post-modern times, too similar to the machine. And yet, if the ethico-political project of post-structuralist leftyism could be summed up as follows – “there is no absolute, except the absolute that there are no absolutes” – then we do have an attempt to describe ‘the big picture’ which sneaks through the back door.

In other posts of mine I’ve called this ‘sly descriptivism’, a position I use to describe some of my own positions. I’m committed to the fact that there are no absolutes other than the absolute that there are no absolutes. Everything hangs upon the perspective from which one observes oneself, including one’s philosophy. Where I think contemporary philosophy is often a bit dishonest, however, is that it disavows that it even tries to understand the whole.

Human brains are constructed in a manner that we can’t but do otherwise, we are ‘pattern completers’. It’s part of the very architecture of our neural networks, it is what we do best. This is why I also think its very hard for humans to not have an idea of God, whether they believe in a God or not. This is why at times I’ve referred to myself as a neuro-agnostic, in that I think it’s difficult for humans to not believe in a God, though I think we should be agnostic about what that belief means in any sense beyond us.

Point is, however, I think we always attempt to understand the big picture, and our attempt to guard our fragmentary status against system is in fact an effect of precisely this. We always have a sense of the big-picture, and our sense of it right now is that it’s important to resist system. Fine, but let’s at least be honest about this.

Wittgenstein’s Ladder to Hegel’s Praxis

To the extent then to which Hegel can be read as someone who argues that “retroactive understanding produces freedom” is perhaps the extent to which his entire system is itself only a perspectival lesson in how to construct a system that makes itself obsolete. A system that is itself a fragment, yet a useful one, which on the level of content, perhaps only has a use to Hegel himself. And as one reads the Phenomenology, we see so much which is only relevant to the issues of his age, like whether to take phrenology seriously, or how to organize one’s constitutional monarchies. But if we take the form rather than the content as what’s important, we have to start to ask what precisely that form is. IF it is something to the effect of “retroactive understanding produces freedom”, then this is something which is incredibly relevant to our day. This is the Hegel made relevant today via Lacan through Zizek. Which is not to endorse Zizek necessarily, because he has his own spins on things as well.

But the point is that perhaps we should all be trying to produce incompossible systems, built upon the one compossible point that there is a necessity for many incompossible systems, each built upon the principle that “retroactive understanding produces freedom.” That is, create systems which build into themselves the fundamental insight that context and perspective will make any and all systems fragments, yet potentially useful ones, because they allow us to gain traction on our current locations in the fundamentally unsystematizeable whole of what is.

A Return to Hegel? Which One?!

Perhaps, then a ‘return to Hegel’ might be in order. It may make sense to actually read him. And I say this not in a ‘eat your broccoli’ kind of way, because I too find the act of reading Hegel to often be unpleasant, disconcerting, frustrating, counter-intuitive. But Hegel is also perhaps the first modern process-thinker. While I don’t think Hegel was a gifted prose stylist to begin with, I think the bigger issue is that he’s trying to do things with language that language doesn’t like to do, namely, show process.

And if the process of retroactive self-understanding via pattern-completion views itself as a perpetual process, one which is necessarily always limited and perspectivally relative, which can therefore never see itself as totalizing anything, and this is one of the foundational axioms of its system, well, do we even have a system anymore? That is, can a system based on its own incompletion be a system?

I’m not sure that this is what Hegel is. I think in fact, this is one of the Hegels present in Hegel’s work. This Hegel fights it out with the older, more Prussiany Hegel. But as Marx once argued, there is a radical core here. And I think it remains for us to remake that core in a way that can help us think beyond some of the aporias of our own times. As I argued in my last post on Hegel, I think he’s untimely in his (post)modernity in relation to the speculative realist tendencies of the day.

But I also think that as a thinker of ethics, society, and freedom, there’s much to learn here, much that is often simply discarded because Hegel is not engaged with substantially when people throw him away. For good or otherwise, Hegel’s works present us with an encyclopedia of past philosophical moves, and he shows precisely how to deconstruct them all. For Hegel is a large deconstruction machine, and what he leaves behind is the pure negativity of process. While he may be tempted to paper over this, the pure negativity is there to be reclaimed by all who have eyes to see it.

But there’s more here I think than just deconstruction. Rather, there is an attempt to think what it means to think in a processural manner. To think in non-reifying terms, or post-reifying terms. The Hegelian absolute is an attempt to think motion and process. It is reified when named, true, but as concrete universal, it is only real in the movement of evolution coming to consciousness of itself.

I think it is possible to put together systems today, and systems which are not evil, and rather, which can help us fight the evil that’s out there in the world. My networkologies project attempts to do just this. In order to understand this project, however, it is necessary to rethink precisely what’s at stake with the notion of system. Hegel I think is the first thinker to do this, even if he was always not as radical as his own insights. And Hegel is hardly the only thinker to fight with themselves over the radical potentials of their own thought, Freud is clearly another, as is I think Lacan.

But I think it’s worth it. I think there’s a praxis that can be extracted from here that could be invaluable to us in the age of the late capitalist, society of the spectacle, fragmentary world-system. And as my own project works to show, I think there are ways in which “retroactive understanding produces freedom” can help us understand what might be at stake in the production of sly-descriptivist anti-systems for today which could help us gain traction against injustice in our own times. I’m not saying Hegel’s contents are what is needed, and sometimes these warp his form. But I think the form, when extracted with today’s needs in mind, still has much to tell us, much that we often screen ourselves off from hearing.

The reasons we fear anything that resembles Hegel’s caricature is perhaps a good thing. But I’d argue there’s a huge gap between Hegel and his caricature, and that the Hegel on the page has much to offer us radically productive, lefty Hegel for our age.

The Hegel of the vanishing ladder . . .

~ by chris on July 1, 2011.

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