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The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic

The Future of Hegel by Catherine Malabou

Peter Benson bravely reads a difficult book (by Catherine Malabou) about a difficult philosopher (G.W.F. Hegel).

When a book about the most difficult philosopher of the 19th Century (G.W.F. Hegel) has a preface by the most difficult philosopher of the 20th Century (Jacques Derrida) one knows in advance that it will not be an easy read. In no conceivable way is this an introductory book on Hegel. Only those with some preliminary knowledge of Hegel’s philosophy should attempt to read it. Nevertheless, by the standards of contemporary French philosophy the book is by no means as difficult as it might have been, and it offers brilliant clarifications of some of the more opaque aspects of Hegel’s thought.

Hegel’s system of philosophy is one of the great intellectual achievements of Western culture. It has a solemn majesty and a sparkling multiplicity, a unity in diversity, comparable to a Wagnerian opera or a gothic cathedral. Tourists visiting such a cathedral usually opt for an introductory tour, a brief guide to the building’s principal features. But sometimes an architectural expert might be on hand, to lead us deeper into details. Malabou is just such an expert.

She gives the clearest explanation I have ever encountered of the meaning of Hegel’s term ‘speculative’. Failure to understand this one word can lead to serious misunderstandings, and inappropriate criticism, of Hegel’s work. Kant had called his own philosophical system ‘the critical philosophy’. Hegel, believing that he had escaped from the limits of Kant’s thought, proclaimed that he was producing ‘speculative philosophy’. By this he did not mean that his philosophy was in any way hypothetical or uncertain. He distinguished between ‘predicative propositions’ in which predicates are externally attached to a fixed subject, and ‘speculative propositions’, in which predicates are gradually unfolded from the concept of the sentence’s subject. This gradual unfolding is the essence of Hegel’s philosophical method.

Malabou quotes Hegel’s belief that “the forms of thought are ... displayed and stored in human language.” Hence language is not (as it was, for example, for Nietzsche) something which deceives, deludes, and distracts us from reality. Hegel’s position is closer to that of the early Wittgenstein: language can only succeed (as it clearly does) in speaking about reality because both share the same logical form. Hence the route to conceptual knowledge lies through the insights sedimented into language. In particular, there are certain words that unite apparently contradictory meanings. Teasing apart such double lines of thought converts a predicative to a speculative proposition. The most famous such word in Hegel is Aufheben, which contains the meanings both of preserving and abolishing. The movement it names (each stage of thought both retained and transcended) is that of the Hegelian dialectic.

Malabou describes how she was struck one day by another such word in Hegel’s texts, and began to notice how it popped up in a wide variety of his writings. The word was ‘Plastic’ (Plastiche in German). Before it came to refer only to a cheap and brittle man-made material, this word had a long history in art criticism, where it referred to a sculptural style of moulded and solid forms, in contrast to a ‘painterly’ style of surface textures. In German, Malabou notes, the word can mean both ‘capable of shaping’ and ‘capable of being shaped’. It thus expresses both the active and passive aspects of shaping. This was the clue she needed to the significance of this word for Hegel, and for the interpretation she offers of his work.

Greek sculpture, for Hegel, is the highest achievement of the plastic arts. And in Greek thinkers such as Aristotle, Hegel finds the ideal of moulding one’s character, as a sculptor shapes stone, by the deliberate adoption of habits which thereby become a second nature. The word ‘habit’ itself derives from the Greek hexis, a crucial term in Aristotle’s De Anima. “Human characteristics are not a given,” writes Malabou, “they emerge as the result of a process of formation of which art is the paradigm.” This view of human psychology, from Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit, is expounded in ‘Hegel on Man’, the first section of Malabou’s book.

But this Greek view of human plasticity lacks that sense of spiritual inwardness which, for Hegel, only develops through the Christian centuries of Western history. Hence the second part of Malabou’s book, ‘Hegel on God’, investigates Hegel’s re-interpretations of Christian theology. This involves an exposition of the theological term kenosis, which refers to the divinity emptying itself of its universality in order to become a particular, and is traditionally linked to the incarnation of Christ. For Hegel, it is the logical relation of universal to particular which forms the basis for this process whereby “God necessarily departs from himself in His self-determination” (p.82). This is the continuous activity of creation and evolving of the universe, a self-formation through alienation. Here we find a notion of plasticity which transcends that of a mere acquisition of habits, and which Malabou uses to describe the modern experience of subjectivity.

She provides a valuable service, for those of us less familiar with theology, in discussing the reasons given, by both Catholic and Protestant theologians for their rejection of Hegel’s doctrines. In summary, these are that Hegel (a) reduces the free gift of God’s grace to a logical and inevitable process; (b) subordinates the birth of Christ to an emergence of incarnate Spirit throughout humanity; and (c) ascribes God’s creativity to a negativity within God, rather than to the superabundance and generosity of the divine nature. Malabou rejects this theological critique of Hegel on the grounds that negativity is not a lack within God, but rather God’s inherent plasticity; it is not absence, but movement. The ultimate moment in this movement of negativity, this process of kenosis, is the death of Christ on the cross.

It was in the writings of Tertullian, in the 2nd century A.D., that this event was first referred to as ‘the death of God’. In modern times this phrase has become so closely associated with Friedrich Nietzsche that its long history, illuminatingly sketched out by Malabou, is a fascinating story. Athanasius, Meister Eckhart, and Martin Luther all contemplated the meaning of the death of God as a moment within the drama of salvation. Hegel’s contribution to this tradition was to conceive this drama as played out over the whole course of Western history. The death of God, separated from its status in the story of Christ, becomes associated with the loss of religious faith in the 18th century Enlightenment. Hegel’s usage of the phrase thus paves the way for Nietzsche’s more familiar enquiries into the sources of modern nihilism.

The death of God is the furthest moment of kenosis, preceding the return of God into himself, enfolding this necessary moment of alienation, and completing the circularity of Hegel’s philosophical system. Like all good Hegelian treatises, Malabou’s has three parts. After ‘Hegel on Man’, and ‘Hegel on God’, we get ‘Hegel on the Philosopher’. This triad of themes reflects Hegel’s three stages of Absolute Spirit: Art (which includes the art of human self-formation), Religion, and Philosophy. However, although Hegel regarded philosophy (with its capacity for conceptual thought) as superior to religion (which thinks in stories, images, and myths), this does not mean that he placed the philosopher on a higher level than God! The sequence of Malabou’s three sections would thus have startled him, and it is worthwhile pondering the reasons behind this structure. We find our clue in the very last sentence of her book: “The philosophy of Hegel invites us to enter into the serenity and the peril of the Sunday of Life.”

This striking phrase, ‘The Sunday of life’, occurs only a few times in Hegel’s own writings. In recent years, however, it has been frequently quoted in connection with the thesis that history has come to an end, and that we are now living in a post-historical era. After the long labour of history, it is claimed we have arrived at a time of rest: the Sunday of Life. Such is the view of Francis Fukuyama (for whom history ended with the fall of communism). Before him it was the view of Alexandre Kojève (for whom history had already ended with Napoleon’s conquest of Germany). Kojève’s lectures on Hegel, given in the 1930s, inaugurated French Hegelianism. Prior to this, French philosophers had largely ignored both Hegel and his followers. Though intellectually brilliant, Kojève’s interpretations of Hegel are frequently eccentric, and heavily influenced by Marxism. In Kojève’s view, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit reaches its conclusion in the figure of a Wise Man, a philosopher who has transcended religious belief and attained an atheistic perspective on history and humanity. It is difficult to square such an interpretation with Hegel’s other writings, especially those on religion itself.

In her Introduction, Malabou states “my work will not follow the path set out by Kojève” and, as if to emphasize this, she gives her most detailed attention, not to The Phenomenology of Spirit but to the later Philosophy of Spirit(the final part of Hegel’s Encyclopedia). Nevertheless, the last section of her book begins by endorsing the view that ‘history is over’ (p.133), and her discussion thereafter takes on an increasingly Kojèvean complexion, concluding in its final pages that “the major problem of our time is in fact the arrival of free time” (her emphasis) and that “technological simplification ... brings about a state where there is nothing more to do.” Perhaps only a highly-paid professor of philosophy at a prestigious French university could possibly imagine that the major problem facing most of the world’s population today is how to fill their endless free time! Malabou envisages a perpetual Sunday of Life which would be almost as boring as the dreary English Sunday endured by Tony Hancock in his classic radio comedy. Hegel’s view was quite different. In his History of Philosophy he writes: “Philosophy ... unites the Sunday of Life when man in humility renounces himself, and the working day when he stands up independently, is master of himself and considers his own interests!” Neither aspect has validity on its own.

Malabou’s suspension in a perpetual Sunday is matched by a conspicuous omission from her discussion. Though she deals at length with both the first and third sections of Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit, she completely ignores the middle section of the book, which is on ‘Objective Spirit’, the category in which Hegel includes politics, society, and history, issues of the greatest importance to his thought.

It is a novel failing for a book of Hegelian philosophy to ignore politics. Marxist Hegelians such as Kojève generally place far too much emphasis on the topic. But if French Hegelianism wishes to free itself from its Kojèvean inheritance, it will need to engage in a thorough re-examination of Hegel’s theories of politics, and society. It will need to consider the relation of the absolute stance of philosophy to the temporal flow of history, using Hegel’s resourceful conceptual architecture as its guide. We may then decide that history is not over after all, and much remains to be done. These are issues with which Malabou’s otherwise excellent book conspicuously fails to deal.

© Peter Benson 2006

Peter Benson studied Hegel for four years in Pamela Jencks’ seminar group at Birkbeck College, London. He is now quietly convalescing from the intellectual strain involved.

The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic by Catherine Malabou. (Routledge 2004) ISBN: 0415287219. pb £18.99.

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