Monday, December 11, 2006

HEGEL: A BIOGRAPHY, by Terry Pinkard [Book Review]

Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Pp. 780

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

Terry Pinkard’s Hegel is one of the best introductions available to the philosophy of Hegel. We often hear that Hegel is the eminence grise standing behind Karl Marx and that the Hegelian dialectic is the basis on which Marx and Engels developed materialist dialectics. Lenin even says that it is impossible to understand Capital without reading Hegel’s Logic.
The problem with Hegel is his forbidding style which drives many readers to distraction. He seems to be incomprehensible. Pinkard's book overcomes this difficulty. It is clearly written in an enjoyable style and covers both Hegel's life and philosophical development as well as providing easily digestible summaries of all the works--especially The Phenomenology of Mind, The Logic, The Encyclopedia of The Philosophical Sciences, and The Philosophy of Right.
For those who want to know what all the fuss is about,  this is a highly recommended first book on Hegel from which one can graduate to the original works.
Hegel's politics were progressive and humanistic. Pinkard points out that he supported the American and French revolutions and rejected as "degrading" the type of newly developing capitalist division of labor touted by Adam Smith.
Hegel thought that modern individualism [i.e., entrepreneurial capitalism] must be harmonized with the interests of the people [people before profits]. Pinkard suggests that his philosophy was based on three components.  The three component parts of Hegelianism being 1) a blend of representative government with "Germanic" freedom; 2) Scottish commercial society; 3) French revolutionary politics.
This may remind readers of Lenin's Three Component Parts of Marxism -- namely British economic theory, French socialism, and German philosophy.
Perhaps one of the most trenchant points Pinkard makes in his chapter on The Phenomenology is the following on the French Revolution (The Phenomenology discusses the development of human consciousness from its origins up to Hegel's time): “The Revolution, under Rousseau's influence, had culminated in a vision of ‘absolute freedom’ as determined by a ‘general will,’ which in the development of the Revolution became identified with the ‘nation.’ Kant saw that what was required had to be a self-determined whole that made room for the individual agent and neither swallowed him in abstractions such as ‘utility' nor reduced him to moral insignificance as merely a cog in the machine of the ‘nation’."

Replace "nation" with "class", "general will" with "the party", "absolute freedom" with "socialism" and "Rousseau" with "the cult of the personality" and maybe we can begin to see why Hegel and Kant are still relevant.
The following Hegelian observations are still meaningful (properly updated): the first with respect to how communist and worker's parties were sometimes  perceived to have operated, the second on the role of the press.
“Without an anchoring in social practice, in the self-identity of the people in the reformed communities, the reforms could have no authority;[Reference is to German communities in Hegel's day that progressive government ministers were trying to liberalize] they would only appear, indeed would only be, the imposition of one group's (the reformers) preferences and ideals on another. Without the transformation of local Sittlichkeit [ethics], of collective self-identity, the reformers could only be the "masters" and the populace could only be the ‘vassals.’”’

Pinkard continues: “In their reforms there was no ‘dialogue’, there was instead only administrative fiat in which, even in those cases where the ‘right’ thing was being decreed, the self-undetermining nature of decrees that seem to come from ‘on high’ was evident. The press plays its proper role when it serves as a mediator for the formation of such public opinion; when the press serves to mediate things in the right way, it thereby serves to underwrite the process of reform.”

In studying Hegel it has often been the rule to start with The Phenomenology of Mind, but Pinkard points out that Hegel, late in life, did not consider that work, interesting as it may be, a proper introduction to his system. One should begin with reading the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences.
I think we should note that there has been a dialectical reversal in modern life from the times of Hegel. Pinkard notes: “The problem of modern life [ in Hegel's time] was that its rationality was not immediately apparent to its participants; for that one required a set of reflective practices that could display and demonstrate the rationality of modern life, namely, those involved in modern art, modern religion, and, most importantly, modern philosophy.”

However, now it is, I think, just the opposite. The irrationality of our world system is what is not immediately apparent. As it was the task of Hegelianism at the beginning of the nineteenth century to demonstrat the rationality of the world, especially the world resulting from the French Revolution, so the task today is to show, by means of Marxism, the irrationality of the new world order. This is another way of saying that whatever progressive role the bourgeoisie played in Hegel's day is long over.
Pinkard's discussion of The Philosophy of Right is also important. It centers on Hegel's "core idea" that "what counts as 'right' in general is what is necessary for the realization of freedom."
How much Hegel's views on freedom can be adjusted to Marxism is a matter of debate. This problem is too complicated to go into in a review, but a hint to its solution may be found in Hegel's view that the opposite of freedom is "to act in terms of something one cannot rationally endorse for oneself, that is, ultimately to be pushed around by considerations that are not really one's own but come from or belong to something else (for example, brute desires, or social conventions." Or. I might add, an economic system based not on humanistic (working class) principles but on the drive for profits whatever the human cost. An economic system that controls us instead of being controlled by us makes a mockery of all bourgeois claims to "freedom."
The following observations by Hegel-- on religion and the state-- are relevant not only to our own situation (the Bush/Fundamentalist religious nut position), but to Zionism and to political Islam. Again, summarizing Hegel's views, Pinkard writes: ” Letting religious matters into state affairs only leads to fanaticism; when religion becomes political, the result can only be ‘folly, outrage, and the destruction of all ethical relations,’ since the piety of religious conviction when confronted with the manifold claims of the modern political world too easily passes over into ‘a sense of grievance and hence also of self-conceit’ and a sense that the truly faithful can find in their ‘own godliness all that is required in order to see through the nature of the Laws and of political institutions, to pass judgment on them, and to lay down what their character should and must be.’”

Although there is no space here for the attempt, Hegel's philosophy may also be useful in trying to explain the collapse of European socialism. His doctrine that "world history is the world court" has much to recommend itself for a hard nosed analysis. I also pass over the chapters on The Logic with reverential silence.
This book is a work of important philosophical as well as historical analysis. The Hegel described by Peter Gay ("a disembodied spirit who oracularly pronounces on deep matters") becomes a living and easily comprehended human being in Pinkard's handling of him. Anyone who wants to know what Hegel had to say, and why it is still important, could do no better than begin with this biography.

Thomas Riggins is the Book Review Editor of Political Affairs and can be
reached at Adapted from the print edition of Political Affairs.

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