Thursday, July 10, 2008


A Meta-review
Thomas Riggins

THE FUTURE OF HEGEL: PLASTICITY, TEMPORALITY AND DIALECTIC by Catherine Malabou, Routledge, 2004 reviewed by Peter Benson in Philosophy Now, February/March 2006.

While not an "intro" to Hegel, the reviewer thinks this book "offers brilliant clarifications of some of the more opaque aspects of Hegel’s thought." Good, people reading Hegel need all the help they can get! Let’s look at some of these clarifications. Hegel called his philosophy "speculative" but did not mean that it was just "speculation." Benson points out that Hegel distinguished two types of propositions: "predicative"— "in which predicates are externally attached to a fixed subject" and "speculative"— "in which predicates are gradually unfolded from the concept of the sentence’s subject." Attentive readers, by the way, will recognize this as the method used by Karl Marx in developing the notion of capitalism in his masterwork Capital. "This gradual unfolding," Benson says, "is the essence of Hegel’s philosophical method."

Hegel thought that we could find in language the preserved forms of previous thought which we needed to understand and pass through to arrive at the truth. His most famous word was "Aufheben" which means both to overcome and abolish something and yet at the same time preserve and develop it. There is no word for this in English. "The movement it names," Benson writes, "(each stage of thought both retained and transcended) is that of the Hegelian dialectic." It is also the basis of the Marxist dialectic. Socialism both abolishes capitalism as a system yet preserves the productive capacities and scientific advances that it created. This also allows us to understand how profoundly disastrous and un-Marxist the Chinese "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" was in attempting to destroy all vestiges of China’s cultural history as "feudal" and "bourgeois."

Malabou also stresses another word she found Hegel using a lot. This is the word "Plastiche" or, in English, "plastic" in German the word has two meanings, as Malabou points out, according to Benson, namely "capable of shaping" and "capable of being shaped." Benson says the key to Malabou’s interpretation of Hegel is to be found in how she relates the concept of plasticity to his thought.

Hegel, according to Benson, considered Greek sculpture the highest form of the plastic arts by its perfect molding of the human form. He also liked Aristotle’s ethics of "molding one’s character, as a sculptor shapes stone, by the deliberate adoption of habits which thereby become a second nature." He then gives a quote from the book: "Human characteristics are not a given, they emerge as the result of a process of formation of which art is the paradigm." Marxists would consider the labor process as the paradigm.

At this point the review begins to morph into theology as Malabou discusses Hegel’s ideas about ’God" and why Christian theologians reject them. The role of "God" in Hegel’s system is very complicated but I think it is safe to say Hegel’s "God" is very unlike anything normally religious people would recognize. In fact we can leave "God" out of Hegel’s system and thus avoid a lot of theological twaddle.

The review then discusses Hegel’s views of history and compares Hegel’s real opinions with those of Alexandre Kojeve who in the 1930s "inaugurated French Hegelianism" and who thought that history ended with Napoleon and also with those of Francis Fukuyama who thinks history ended with Ronald Reagan. Needless to say, history still seems to be clunking along.

Malabou, however, endorses " the view that ’history is over.’" She also thinks, as a consequence, that the major problem facing humanity in our time is that we have too much "free time" due to "technological simplification." Maybe the French do have too many vacation days! Benson says, "Perhaps only a highly-paid professor of philosophy at a prestigious French university (i.e., Malabou) could possibly imagine that the major problem facing most of the world’s population today is how to fill their endless free time!" No comment necessary.

Benson also faults the book for neglecting politics and Hegel’s views on this subject. Despite these criticisms he gives the book an overall positive evaluation— an "otherwise excellent book."

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