Hegel’s World Revolutions

Terry Eagleton at the London Review of Books: The​ Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle claimed he had once talked a student out of suicide by pointing out to him that the logic of ‘nothing matters’ is very different from that of, for example, ‘nothing chatters.’ For some who philosophize in this style, Hegel is not one of their tribe but an obscurantist, semi-mystical system-builder who ended up kowtowing to an autocratic Prussian state, and whose thought lies behind the totalitarianism of the 20th century. Philosophy consists in talking about certain things in a certain way; Hegel sometimes discusses the right kinds of thing (freedom, virtue, rationality), but doesn’t do so in the right kind of way. He writes about some subjects that don’t exist, such as the unity of identity and non-identity, as well as some that do (love, poverty, self-cultivation). But he wouldn’t count as philosophical at all for the likes of Ryle.

Richard Bourke is a formidably talented political historian whose Empire and Revolution (2015) was a monumental study of his namesake and compatriot Edmund Burke. He has read widely and deeply in Hegel – not for some of us the most enthralling way of passing the time – and has a daunting command of the field of modern European political thought. Currently professor of the history of political thought at Cambridge, he started as a student of literature, and an early study of Wordsworth, Romantic Discourse and Political Modernity: Wordsworth, the Intellectual and Cultural Critique (1993), already suggested something of his passion for social and political ideas.

As Bourke points out in this new book, Hegel’s reputation has been in decline since the end of the Second World War. He was a target of Karl Popper’s crude anti-communist polemics and Isaiah Berlin’s Oxfordian disdain. There has been a revival of interest in his metaphysics and theory of knowledge, but no comparable rediscovery of his political thought. From the 1960s onwards, Friedrich Nietzsche, another thinker whose credentials are in doubt for philosophers like Ryle, took over from Hegel as Europe’s philosopher-in-chief. It is Nietzsche’s spirit, shorn of his rancid politics, that lies behind the thought of post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, as well as shaping the entire postmodern landscape. A lot of postmodern types are Nietzscheans without being aware of it. In Nietzsche, Hegel’s thought meets its nemesis: truth is now a convenient fiction, the unity of the self is an illusion, power rather than reason rules human affairs, history is a chapter of gruesome accidents and the world is a scene of flux and fluidity without inherent meaning or value. All this is to be celebrated rather than lamented, and the name of the celebration, strangely enough, is tragedy.

At a popular level, among hippies and dissident students, all this helped to nourish a culture in which freedom was boundless and thus vacuous, hierarchy was suspect and the very idea of an institution smacked of repression. The political goal was to leap in one bound from a degraded present to a utopian future. In excavating Hegel’s political thought, Bourke’s never quite declared intention is to take issue with this slipshod radicalism, not least as it survives in our own time; and if rereading Hegel is an effective way of doing so, it is because Bourke takes his political thought to revolve around a series of revolutions whose outcomes were dismally at odds with their original intentions.

The first of these botched transformations is Christianity. In Hegel’s view, this audacious new creed supplanted paganism and revolutionized the principles of Judaism, but its gospel of selflessness could not prevail in a world of power and property. It duly lapsed into a history of atrocities from the Crusades to the slave trade, while at the same time withdrawing into otherworldliness. The Reformation freed Christianity from medieval superstition, but its deepening of subjectivity came at the cost of a cult of guilt and repentance. A later advance in human consciousness, the 18th-century Enlightenment, was too remote from material reality to win Hegel’s wholehearted acclaim. Philosophy, in his view, is nothing if it is not worldly.

Even so, there was one figure at the heart of that intellectual upheaval who was in Hegel’s eyes a full-blooded revolutionary. It seems an odd word to use of the retiring, eminently respectable Immanuel Kant, a man whose habits were so punctilious that his fellow citizens were said to set their watches by them, and who abhorred political revolutions. For the macho Nietzsche, Kant is a shrivelled life-denier with vinegar in his veins; but there were others who saw that his work had shaken the world of ideas to its roots. Kant thought so too. In fact, he himself was a fervent political revolutionary, though he didn’t know it. The turbulent events in France were, he believed, the most auspicious episode in the history of civilization since the coming of Christ; but he saw this turmoil as a constitutional affair rather than as a violent overturning of the state, and so could preserve his hostility to revolutions at the same time as he cheered this one on. For Hegel, Kant’s moral thought and the French Revolution are products of the same historical forces. Just as that cataclysm renewed a sense of human agency, so Kant’s breakthrough was to treat the human mind as actively constructing reality. In the end, though, Hegel found something of the same retreat from history in Kant’s appeal to purity of heart as he did in Christianity. Kant, too, failed to achieve the marriage of thought and actuality that Hegel cherished.

Bourke expounds this tale of failed revolutions in lucid, erudite prose, if not with stylistic elegance. It’s easier to be lucid about Hegel if you are dealing with his political thought rather than, say, his theory of knowledge, and excluding these more problematic subjects also makes it easier to commend his work as wholeheartedly as Bourke does. The problem is that the book sacrifices argument to exposition, and doesn’t keep a sufficiently vigilant eye on its overall case. It fails to make explicit that Hegel’s dissatisfaction with the revolutions he surveys comes down in almost every instance to their other worldliness or estrangement from reality, whether we are speaking of Jesus or Robespierre, ancient Athenian philosophers or modern Kantians.

More here.