The Trajectories of German Idealism or The Necessity of Stratified Abstraction (1)


I recently read two reviews of recent books on German Idealism. The first was a review by Dean Moyar of Brady Bowman’s fascinating sounding Hegel and the Metaphysics of Absolute Negativity while the second was Sebastian Gardner’s review of Markus Gabriel’s Transcendental Ontology (which has been out for a while but only recently released in paper back). Both of these reviews start, as many do, with a grand overview of German Idealism. Moyar notes the metaphysical vs non-metaphysical interpretations of Hegel (presumably within the analytic tradition only) where Pippin’s Hegel’s Idealism (1989) begins the non-metaphysical strand where more recent texts (such as Bownman’s) represent a metaphysical counter-attack. Describing Pippin’s book Moyar writes:

“On this reading Hegel largely accepted Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics, and thus couldn’t possibly be a traditional metaphysician himself. Pippin showed how Hegel’s project of constituting the world through logic could be read as an attempt to demonstrate that the conditions of the possibility of our thinking of objects are the conditions of the possibility of the objects themselves.”

This rather innocuous sounding passage struck me as an example of analytic and continental philosophers passing one another without communication like ships in the night, Isn’t it taken for granted that what German Idealism was (viewed as a continental philosopher whatever that means) exactly metaphysics after Kant, of accepting Kant’s critiques yet pursuing monism due to dissatisfaction with Kantian dualism (whether methodological or otherwise construed). This is not a controversial claim as it has been argued both that German Idealism was just Kantian philosophy inflated or Kantian philosophy broken (having run through the door that Kant wanted to only peak through as the saying goes). But given this missed communication, what are we to make of a revived interest in Hegel in both analytic and continental camps given that the former is due, at least in part, to a Strawson/McDowell fueled socialization of structural non-givenness on the one hand, and a Zizek/Badiou inspired return to metaphysics in the name of stalled Marxist politics on the other.

While both analytic and continental philosophy have become more open to metaphysics in recent years, it is interesting that the return to Hegel in continental circles pre-dates the Speculative Turn whereas in analytic circles the turn to Hegel was decidedly not metaphysical but ethical-pragmatic and continues to be so in the work of Pippin, Stern, and others. In other words both schools find themselves in arguably more metaphysical friendly waters while handling a great systematic thinker (if you would rather not say metaphysical) both with disparate motivations for turning to Hegel in the first place. Furthermore, while continental trends tend to hold close to what Gardner in the above review refers to as ‘genetic accounts’ overtly concerned with historical context, this seems to be far less the case in anayltic uptake of Hegel where the socialization and updating of his concepts often proceeds a bit quickly.

It is here that Gardner’s review of Gabriel’s book is useful in that he points out that:

“The real heart of the German Idealist development lies, in the initial instance, in the formulation of absolute idealism, the breakthrough originally visible in theKritisches Journal der Philosophie essays and other epochal Schelling-Hegel texts of 1801-02. Contemporary Hegelians might warm to this, but they will not like Gabriel’s further contention that it is not Hegel but rather Schelling, in his elaborations and revisions of his earlier rationalistic position in the decades following his abandonment of his Identity Philosophy, who ultimately sees furthest — a conclusion that some other commentators have also reached but which remains a minority view. The real achievement of German Idealism on Gabriel’s construal has to do, furthermore, with the foundations of epistemology and metaphysics and their interrelation, and the metaphilosophical perspective which brings it to light is removed from the themes of autonomy, recognition, sociality of reason, and negotiation of the distinction of spirit from nature, which have been prominent in the recent anglophone Hegel renaissance.”

Despite Gabriel having a continental view of Schelling and Hegel (again whatever that really means) his use of ontology fractures the subjective-ontology of Zizek demonstrating that metaphysical and non- or anti-metaphysical readings of Hegel are themselves an insufficient categorization. Furthermore, that Schelling abandons the identity project has (rightly in my own view) become controversial as the periodization of Schelling is rapidly becoming the position which struggle under the burden of proof given the work of thinkers such as Iain Grant, Dalia Nassar, Bruce Matthews, Daniel Whistler, and others. The continuity of Schelling upsets Zizek’s crude and hyper-selective reading of him by which two texts determine his corpus and the rest are sublated as so much Lacanian trieb fodder. That Schelling (and Fichte for that matter) can be treated as synthesis and antithesis for Hegel’s own genesis as a figure, is to accept such a subjectivized-ontology at the meta-level and to accept, among other things, metaphysicalization of contradiction as Pete Wolfendale has described here. However, Pete’s reference to Zizek’s Hegel as a Schelling in a Hegel mask demonstrates my above point. I would argue it would Schelling in a Hegel mask only if beneath it is a Schelling mask which beneath it is a Fichte mask which beneath that is a Lacan mask. Ray Brassier has emphasized the problems of ontologizing contradiction in his recent acceleration talk in Berlin. Brassier emphasizes that to ontologize contradiction is to celebrate an obscure immanence at the cost of representation thereby smashing determination and construction.

A strange question arises then – does the ostensibly non-political impetus behind the metaphysical uptake of Hegel in analytic circles provide indirectly a carving knife to the ontologization of the subject/subject-form in Zizek’s Hegel? To quote again from Gardner’s review:

“Now not every commentator, perhaps only a very few, will want to say that Kant’s idealist successors continue in exactly this vein, that is, will deny that Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, in the course of expanding and correcting Kantian philosophy, accrue at least some new ontological commitments. But typically they will view these as ancillary, and will regard progressive interpretation of German Idealism as minimalizing or qualifying its ontological commitments, on pain of a return to pre-Critical metaphysics. This generalization seems safe at least with regard to current Anglophone commentary on German Idealism. Hence, to refer to one issue now much debated, that of ”metaphysical vs. non-metaphysical” readings of Hegel, there is a high level of agreement on both sides that platonicity and plausibility are in inverse proportion: a positive evaluation of Hegel’s idealism by contemporary lights requires that the attribution of agency to concepts be expunged from its real content, and if Hegelian idealism cannot be de-neoplatonized, then it is to that extent of historical rather than philosophical interest. Again, the German Idealist who explicitly advances constitutive reinterpretations of Kantian regulative claims, namely Schelling, is typically pictured as following a trajectory aslant from the central Fichte-Hegel axis, such that ”absolute idealism” amounts to something very different in Schelling from in Hegel. To this extent, Kant’s anti-metaphysical turn prevails in the interpretation of German Idealism.”

Gabriel’s response, as Gardner points out, is to show that Schelling (and Hegel in a different way) activate thought by embracing skepticism as the unavoidable logical operator by which the limit of thought is taken for granted thereby skeptical accounts necessarily construct outwards. For Hegel the life of the concept determines structures through history’s march whereas for Schelling it is temporally shifting entities determining their past and futures (entities which following Iain Grant can be described as a bond or copula). Or one could say that for Hegel the necessity of contingency is determined at the end whereas for Schelling the necessity of necessity is consistently expanded while unthinkable in its origins. While Paul Franks has also masterfully addressed German Idealism via skeptcism his engagement largely leaves out Schelling (partially due to the time frame he chooses). Franks’ All of Nothing argues that German Idealism can be read as a response to the Agrippan (or Munchausen) trilemma – of how to avoid the trap of skepticism without falling into circularity, infinite regress, or aximoatic assertion. Skepticism, as taken up by Hegel and Schelling, becomes a self-regulating synthesis built upon (or perhaps within) a pre-existing synthesis of either history or nature. Here the debate of whether the totalities of German Idealism are totalities at all arises. While Zizek cracks such totality with the subject itself and Badiou empties the subject into an antenna for the non-totality placed elsewhere, epistemological uncertainity becomes subjectivized power whereas it seems for Hegel and Schelling, the the pains of systematicity force the activity that the subject is to reconstruct itself – a recosntruction which cannot leave neither epistemology nor ontology behind nor can it fix either in place.

The pressing question, it seems, is now that analytic readings of Hegel are touching upon deeper ethical and political texts how will both the metaphysical and non-metaphysical uptakes of Hegel shift vis a vis Zizek/Badiou/Johnston or more recent continental texts in Hegelian politics such as Ruda’s Hegel’s Rabble, Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, or numerous works by Catherina Malabou, Adrian Johnston, or Rebecca Comay. This also feeds into how to read Marx’s use of Hegel given the difficulty of a contemporary understanding of abstraction.

To be continued…


5 Responses to “The Trajectories of German Idealism or The Necessity of Stratified Abstraction (1)”

  1. 1 luchte

    This is good work, but I would recommend Manfred Frank, Friedrich Beiser and David Farrell Krell so that you can jetison the Hegelian mythology of the development of German Idealism once and for all. Holderlin is far more important in this context, as are Novalis and Schlegel, especially if we bring in consideration of the neo-Humeans Schulze and Maimon. As for Zizek, the question is what is continental philosophy, which I think is far more diverse than the French inspired fashions of idle chatter that rapidly come and go. Lacan is interesting, but his is only one perspective.

    • 2 Ben Woodard


      Thanks for the comment. I am familiar with Beiser, Frank, and Krell though I have issues with how romantic German Idealism becomes for many (esp Krell). I take your point in reference to Maimon in particular who is still very much an overlooked figure, I’m not quite sure what you mean about Zizek unless it’s of the role that German Idealism should play in continental thought for him? If so that’s why I have an issue with his emphasis on German Idealism as a philosophy about modern subjectivity more than anything.

  2. 5 Melek-Taus

    Reblogged this on Manticore Press.

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