Review of "Hegel: A Reinterpretation"

Walter Kauffman’s Hegel: A Reinterpretation provides a wonderful assessment and contextualization of the Hegel’s entire work. Unlike The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, which I read for my course on Hegel with Avital Ronell and Slavoj Zizek, the book does not focus on a few keys philosophical concepts but provides an overview of his entire work with critical commentary and contextualization of Hegel’s intellectual and historical milieu. Kauffman’s stated intent in doing this is to act as a corrective to what he calls “lazy scholarship,” a trend which he sees as creating a poorly distorted image of his thought.

Kauffman opens with description of the ambitions, atmosphere and main concerns of German romantic literature. He delves into some of Hegel’s contemporary influences, Goethe, Kant, Schiller and Lessing, in order to show the evolution of their projects as well as the manner in which Hegel formulated his own ideas in response to them. Primarily, these thinkers were looking at the social and individual effects of incipient industrialism and the increase of capitalist work relations and expressing disdain towards it. To them, and Hegel, the increasing commodification of social relations led to a decrease in individual’s autonomy and general social unrest. Their skepticism, however, was not of the prevailing British variety but that found in several of the schools of the ancient Greeks, which was distinct by it being not only destructive of values but also able to construct new ones. The restoration of the values that made the life of the Greeks so appealing to all of these German intellectuals, however, was to be “shipwrecked by the conditions of modern life” leading to the restoration “fleeing into the form of idealism, into the form of philosophy” (83). Hegel’s philosophy, however, was not going to merely cobble together several intellectual pleasing aspects he found but to address the conflicts within these schools as being a part of a cumulative process of continual unfolding of the truth. Thus, even prior the Phenomenology, he was concerned with the sectarian criticisms and contextualizing them in such a manner as to avoid repeating the mistakes.

The extension of this preference for the Greek model of spirituality implied a corresponding degradation of the Christian one. These criticisms, collected in T. N. Knox’s collection of Hegel’s Early Theological Writings, were never published in Hegel’s lifetime. Kauffman differentiates these writing, characterized by their clarity (a quality lacking in his later work), psychological insight and criticism of Christianity to such a degree that he thinks it surpasses Nietzsche’s writing on the same themes in The Anti-Christ. However, for Hegel, this is merely the exposition of viewpoints that were to be refuted and transcended by Hegel. Quoting material from his unpublished notebooks, Kauffman shows how Hegel conceived of these being written so that he could overcome them. While Hegel’s positions of non-separation from God, the desirability of a strong, coherent community of peers, etc. are still seen as praiseworthy, many of these soon become transmogrified into the radical, crypto-Protestant theology that would later be remixed by Marx into socialist ideology. Thus his ethical foundations based upon the possibility of a beautiful, harmonic order remains within the concepts of the Greeks, specifically Aristotle, yet adjusted itself to the conditions of a “modern society”. One such conceptual result of this is the prioritization of the ethical realm, exemplified by art, religion and philosophy, over that of the state. Another important result of taking such a position is the conceptualization of philosophy as therapy – something found in the Stoics and Spinoza.

In the section on the Phenomenology of the Spirit, Kauffman mobilizes a wealth of close reading against those who would call Hegel as an idealist or simply a German Metaphysician by showing how he did not merely consider the content of consciousness in the abstract but was concerned with discerning what type of human spirit would hold such propositions and what were the preconditions of their evolving into something else. As Kauffman words it “Every outlook… is to be studied not merely as academic possibility but as an existential reality” (115). Kauffman shows how the spirits in the Phenomology are in fact a number of people, the text is highly allusive and that there are many insights and that are still quite worthwhile. This is not to say that Kauffman is all praise. For one he does not find Hegel’s developmental process as being necessary, inclusive of all the positions of consciousness that are possible and being extremely difficult to read. Kauffman cites last aspect as something that sharply contrasts with the introduction to the Phenomenology. All of the positive aspects of the Introduction, such as clarity of terminology and rationality of development, Kauffman sees as not being as present in the rest of the text – which as someone who’s read it I would energetically concur.

One of the key terms of the Phenomenology that Kauffman highlights is the “dialectic,” as it is a term that has gained wide currency despite Kauffman’s belief that it lacks definition and major significance in this or any of his works. For Kauffman, while Hegel used the term, there is no “Hegelian dialectics” and Marx’s claim that he was able to turn this method on it’s side in order to arrive at the form of analysis called historical materialism is simply false. He does admit to the primary role of struggle amongst positions and forces passionately propounded by people in Hegel’s writing and says that this is in fact the Hegelian dialectic. The natural course, which Kauffman follows, is an examination of the categories and claims found in Hegel’s logic which on the whole is seen as highly satisfying. In his Logic, Hegel shows the absolute intellectual bankruptcy of positivism and, before this became a trend in universities, illustrates how the segregation of academic fields is a specious process.

One of Hegel: A Reinterpretation‘s strengths, and at times point of excessive flight, is its engagement with Hegel’s lifeworld. Hegel’s personal and professional relationships of course played a large factor in the development of his thought, however at times Kauffman can get sidetracked in explaining minutiae that, while tangentially important to the matter at hand, can take away from the flow of intellectual analysis. One such example is in relation to the long explanation of all the stressors that Hegel was dealing with while writing Phenomenology and thus led to it being a rushed work. Where a list would be sufficient to get the point across, Kauffman takes several pages to do into details related to the development and effects of personal (H’s procrastination in writing, having a child out of wedlock, etc.) and political (Napoleon) upheavals.

Though Kauffman does not shy away from exposing what he sees as Hegel’s weakness, for the most part he views him in a positive light. For one Hegel’s embrace of passion as a motivating factor in human behavior and history is lauded as a welcome inheritance from Goethe. Additionally he states that Hegel’s developmentally oriented metaphysics provides the meaning and content for the best philosophers today and acts as a significant corrective to the positivistic categorizing that goes on in various humanistic discourses. While he only makes passing reference to the fact that it is Hegel’s Logic that laid the foundation of subsequent discourses such as sociology, psychology, and ecology (as evidenced by Engels book Dialectics of Nature) the recognition is present and thankfully I’ll be able to read more about this in the next book in my Hegel studies series Gillian Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology.