Pinkard’s biography of Hegel: Bourgeosie Functionary or Revolutionary?

Immersion in a Thinker as Method

As must be obvious, I’ve been immersing myself in Hegel and Hegel secondaries recently. Perhaps I’ll make a separate sidebar for Hegel posts soon. I usually immerse myself in research topics like this, but rarely have I done so in a way amenable to blogging. I view it as taking a period of apprenticeship with a given thinker and their world, sources, influences, etc., until you feel like you can start to predict how they’d reply to an issue. Repetition of explanation of difficult concepts isn’t a bad thing. Read until you can predict what’s going to be said before you read it, that’s my approach. Only then can you get inside the bones of a thinker, and put on the glasses of their worldview later when need them. Of course, it’s an impossible task to complete, but you do it till you achieve a critical mass. Then sometimes you return to deepen that critical mass to a whole new level, an

It’s always hard to say the uses of biography and the psychologizing it leads to in trying to understand the philosophy of  a thinker. For while, as Nietzsche famously said, each philosophy is the unconscious autobiography of its author, so to is it of the society that produced that author, nearly as much as the ways we interpret these thinkers is unconscious autobiography of ourselves, our societies, etc.

That said, I’ve found scholarly biographies of some key figures essential to grasping them. The wonderful Deleuze and Guatarri bio Double Lives, by Elisabeth Roudinesco, was essential to really getting a sense of Guatarri, especially his professional world at La Borde, and his involvement with various revolutionary groups. And this really opened up his philosophy, and contribution to his writings with Deleuze, because here I had examples of the practical ensembles from which he abstracted his concepts. I found I had a much more intuitive feel for what he’s getting at after this. I read Roudinesco’s also excellent bio of Jacques Lacan ages ago, but I think it was also essential to getting that intuitive sense of why Lacan does what he does, what his sources are, and how they influenced him, how his times influenced him, etc. The concepts are less ideas floating in a void. I found Richard Ellman’s bio of Oscar Wilde likewise very helpful in getting a sense of the whys and how’s behind that very aphoristic and cryptic writer as well.

Which Hegel?

Hegel is a thinker that is likewise very hard to place. Revolutionary or reactionary? The left versus right Hegelian schools of interpretation have been going on as long as there is Hegel. How to read him? And in this, his bio I think provides some real clues. I must admit, I didn’t read every single word of the 700 odd pages, and I probably should go back and reread some of the sections where Pinkard dissects his annual addresses to his students, because this does give a sense of his educational views.

But I think what emerges most clearly from the Pinkard biogaphy is this Hegel saw himself as a bourgeosie  revolutionary. Marx of course states that before the proletariat, the bourgeosie was the revolutionary class. And while Hegel never was an owner of capital, he came from the petit bourgeosie, and wanted to rise in the ranks, become a civil servant, one of the movers and shakers, the elites, who guided the masses in the production of the rational bourgeosie state. Hegel was a functionary, a technocrat of sorts, at least in later life. But from his earliest days, he was a worshiper of the French Revolution and its ideals.

And what did this mean to him? It didn’t mean the Terror, certainly, and over time it came to mean Napoleon. But why? Because Napoleon brought his code, his rational laws. Hegel’s watchwords, at least for Pinkard, are Bildung and Wissenschaft. The scientific pursuit of the full development of the person. The well-rounded individual, the well-rounded state. Balance. Nothing in excess, all rationally in its place.

And yet, freedom. Hegel loathed privilege for its own sake, till the end of his days. He went out of his way to make sure those who couldn’t pay school fees had access to education, and he put himself on the line often to get others a bit more directly revolutionary than him out of trouble with the authorities.  Many of his closest friends and associates were Jewish, at a time in which this was controversial. Advancement based on merit, not on birth, this was Hegel’s creed. A self-serving one, of course, coming from the relative backwoods of German society at the time, and from Germany, itself a disorganized backwoods of Europe, and from petit bourgeosie origins at that. But for Hegel, universal access based on merit was a principle. Of course, it didn’t apply to women, who were clearly inferior in his eyes. His views on other races, as promulgated in his late work, were problematic to say the least, even as he was strongly against slavery. He saw himself as a child of the revolution, the one who could put into practice, into institutions that lasted, the reforms it had made possible. Sweeping aside traditions and artistocratic ways that made Germany backwards, Hegel saw himself as the one who could bring freedom, one of his crucial watchwords, within society and its institutions and ways. Rationality and freedom uniting in science. Bourgeosie revolution.

Like Freud, we see a thinker who is a conflicted revolutionary. The radical implications of both of their theories go beyond their vision for the world, and we see this conflict in their works. Freud’s Oedipal theory works to recontain his radical unconscious, just as Hegel’s visions of Bildung and Wissenschaft, his later works, such as the Encyclopedia and Philosophy of Right, lectures on History and Aesthetics, work to contain the full radicality of the insights into the structure of das Begriff as presented in the Phenomenology and the Logic.

A Unity of Opposites, or the Freedom of Reason?

In Fredric Jameson’s excellent recent book The Hegel Variations, he poses the question of precisely what to make of Hegel’s attempts to find ‘the unity of opposites.’ And I think Pinkard provides a set of insights into what this might mean in relation to Hegel’s personality. Hegel was gregarious, social, and made friends across social classes. While the myth certainly developed that Hegel was an apologist for the Prussian state, Pinkard works hard to debunk large chunks of this myth, one that started in Hegel’s own lifetime. Pinkard shows that while he did get more conservative and careful as he aged, that he was hardly ‘cozy’ with the authorities. In fact, his works are often conservative because he’s afraid to put his ‘child of the revolution’ sympathies on the table. He was always trying to get a position for himself, and once he had one in Berlin, he was always on edge trying to keep it by showing how his theories would advance progress, but while steering clear of too much controversy that could cost him his job in the manner of Fichte and others.

And in this we see Hegel as a good bourgeosie. He wanted a nice, stable job, where he could write his philosophy, support his middle-class family.While he seemed not to be a man of passionate loves, his family was important to him, it was proper, dutiful, and he took his duties seriously and even warmly. He was dutiful to his family, and yet, there were some less than ideal aspects of his personality. He seems to have treated his illegitimate son Ludwig as a second-class citizen, though he did have him live with his family after age 6, more than many at his time (from what I can tell). His attitude towards his sister Christiana, and his good friend Holderlin, both afflicted with varying degrees of mental illness, was more one of avoidance and distance than anything else, once again, not much different than many at this period in European history, but again, hardly a good character trait. And in his later days in Berlin, it seems he took some sometimes paradoxically conservative seeming positions, often because he felt they would in ways paradoxically hinder what he saw as necessary for real reform, the manner of which reminds in some ways of Zizek in the present.

What do we make of all this? He seems like a gregarious guy, but not a risk taker, a careful, methodical type, one who sought balance. Fun at parties, loved theater and opera, had trouble concealing his sacrastic and witty side when taking swipes at rivals, but someone who seemed to go into a state of slightly muddled quasi ecstasy when lecturing, floating into another world, rephrasing his sentences many times, enacting dialectical reversals within his reframing of notions as he spoke. He disliked extremes, but saw that they could sometimes be useful, as in the case of the French Revolution that so enamored his early days. In later life, he went to Paris, and thrilled to tour some points that were essential to the revolution. He felt that Paris was putting into place, with the ‘bourgeosie king’ Louis-Phillipe, the reforms that the revolution promised and which the German countries had yet to let bloom.

Child of Revolution, or Bourgeosie Functionary?

And yet, freedom was always on his lips. Freedom for who, we would ask today. And what type of Freedom. On the one hand, it seems quite evident: freedom for a petit bourgeosie like Hegel to climb to become an elite based on merit, not on limitations of birth or wealth. Not for women, though. And nothing which shook things up too much. Slow yet steady reform to make society more balanced.

And yet. Marx grew from Hegel, and Marx saw the legacy of the early passion for the French Revolution still within Hegel’s works. The older Hegel got, the more conflicted he was in his commitment to balance, and yet not wanting to seem to be untrue to his youthful coming to personhood as a child of the revolution. If we take a psychoanalytic Lacanian tack here for a moment, we can think of the ‘symbolic mandate’ of the young Hegel as one who would, in the role of ‘public intellectual’, lead the public like a Napoleon of philosophy, bringing rational freedom and freeing rationality to the masses. Later in life, he starts to wonder, is that still me? But this was Hegel’s self-image to the end, das Begriff riding into Europe on horseback, a philosophical Napoleon as bourgeosie philosopher-functionary. It’s hardly surprising that Kojeve took up this role himself nearly a century later in tehcnocratic post-war France.

And yet. There is a radicality that Jameson nicely digs out in his Hegel Variations, the side of Hegel that has always attracted revolutionaries. The contingency, the power for the radically new, the logic of the concept freeing itself from the necessity of its historical packaging in this or that series of events. The power of retroversion, the Hegel that Zizek has resurrected in Lacanian garb. This was the Hegel that truly was a child of the French Revolution, and in a way, we see that Hegel understood the necessity of this side of his thought, were it truly be a philosophy of freedom, even as he worked to balance it out with other sides of his work. He was led to this side of himself by the logic of his own ideas, but worked to contain it as he shaped this logic in the form of his philosophical work.

And so we end up with conflicting tendencies in a philosophical work all about conflicting tendencies. And so there are many Hegels, pushing at each other in his texts, making his work exemplary as an autobiography of the conflicts of both himself and the society that produced him, as well as those which have found aspects of his work meaningful.

The recovery of the radical Hegel is a task that still remains to us. Marx gave birth to himself from such a project, and in perhaps a way that we can follow today. By immersing himself in Hegel, Marx gave birth to himself. And I think Hegel provides this capability to mirror aspects of ourselves in ways that can be revolutionary today. But we must extract, with Marx, the radical core from the its less than radical shell, and each of us will do this differently, and give birth to our own concepts in turn. For it is das Begriff, and the power of this idea, its radical postmodern, post-structuralist, retroversive avant-la-lettre power that still speaks to us today, that makes Hegel alive.

Hegel was there at the birth of the bourgeosie, and his das Begriff is the earliest formulation of the strange non-linear temporality which would only come to fully bloom in the post-war, postmodern age. We still have much to learn about our times from Hegel’s insights. For few today I think understand his notion of das Begriff, for if they did, I think we see more of its radical implications in contemporary criticism. Of course, with Hegel you need to do a long arduous apprenticeship to understand the context of the times in which his work was produced, and that is half the point, namely, that das Begriff always only comes in context. But my sense is that das Begriff has much to give to us still today, even beyond Hegel’s attempts to contain its radical potentials, in a manner which Zizek has I think deftly shown, and which Jameson works to unearth in his new text, which I will likely blog about shortly.

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~ by chris on July 23, 2011.

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