Fall 2017–Winter 2018

The Fullness of Philosophy

Hegel’s devouring machine

Sven-Olov Wallenstein

The popular image of Hegel’s philosophical project bequeathed to posterity is almost that of a monstrosity: an all-devouring machine that aspires to achieve total satiety, digesting everything that it encounters by making it into the nutrition of the dialectical animal. Pleroma, fullness, as philosopher Werner Hamacher once suggested, seems to be the inescapable goal of Hegelianism. The Hegelian philosophy of history can be taken as a triumphal march of spirit that ruthlessly pushes everything alien to its own movement aside, as the supreme arrogance of a certain image of Reason in its final complacency. And yet one must note that Hegel was also the first philosopher to take history seriously—the history not only of philosophy, but also of art, religion, politics, and customs—and that any philosophy that refuses to descend into the particulars of experience is doomed to remain an empty abstraction.

Against this, innumerable contemporary philosophers have attempted to see something different in their X-rays of the Hegelian digestive system. And yet such attempts are often fundamentally determined by an adversary so formidable that he is able not only to deflect opposition but in fact thrives on it. In a certain way, Hegel’s successors all aspire to go beyond, or to end, the Hegelian ending of metaphysics, i.e., to rethink his completion of philosophy in light of what remained unthought or repressed within it, or to introduce a constitutive unease into the seemingly complacent satiety of the system. 

Many such instances could be cited: Adorno’s question as to whether metaphysics is still possible after the Hegelian consummation and the catastrophic failure to realize its promise; Derrida’s inquiry into what the “remains” of Hegel, the “last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing,” might mean for us today; or Heidegger’s claim that the overcoming of metaphysics requires us to “step back” from the Hegelian determination of philosophy as absolute knowledge, that the “end of philosophy” can only be transformed into the “task of thinking” if we are able to think through the Hegelian ending.

The first, and perhaps most dramatic, twentieth-century enactment of such gestures can probably be located in the French reception of Hegel in the interwar period, and the immensely influential lectures of Alexandre Kojève at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in the 1930s, which formed the matrix for generations of French philosophers. Few thinkers seem to have taken Hegel so seriously, at such face value, as Kojève. Indeed, his final, urgent question was: Since Hegel is absolutely right, what are we to do after the end of history? What is the kind of satiety produced by absolute knowledge, and what does it mean to hold the position of the “Wise Man” (le Sage) for whom history is over? Does such wisdom also mean the end of desire, action, and negativity? Kojève vacillated on this point, and in a famous note added in later editions of his lectures, he spoke of his experience of Japan, where he detected a kind of post-historical “snobbery” that would lead men to engage in play and empty rituals simply to avert the boredom of completed reason (an interesting literary version of this would be Raymond Queneau’s 1952 novel Le dimanche de la vie, which many have seen as an ironic response to Kojève, not least since Queneau five years earlier had been the editor of Kojève’s lectures). It may be that history is over, and yet people will engage in strange games, as if refusing to submit to reason. 

Others have doubted that completion and ultimate satisfaction was the final lesson of Kojève’s teaching. Lacan, for example, who attended the philosopher’s lectures, would later directly reference his former teacher when speaking of a “subject-supposed-to-know,” a subject that precisely does not exist, but rather is the essential and necessary misunderstanding that sets us on the path toward a different truth as non-closure. For Lacan, Kojève’s talk of the “Wise Man” was ironic through and through. In fact, Lacan suggests, Kojève was from the start aloof from the academic discourse to which he only feigned to submit; behind his seemingly unequivocal statements, there was something else going on. That Kojève after the war, as has recently been discovered, became a Soviet spy for wholly philosophical reasons, above all in order to create space for a “Latin empire” based on sensuous detachment and dolce far niente, would have made perfect sense to Lacan. He speaks of Kojève’s “sardonic laughter,” evidence of a deeper sovereignty for which nothing had been settled through recourse to a system of reason. And the idea that desire would have come to an end, Lacan notes somewhere in his seminars from the early 1950s, is a silly thesis that can easily be refuted by a brief visit to any jazz club on the Left Bank.

Other listeners were struck by a similar impression, which seems to have been produced precisely by the oscillation between openness and closure in Kojève’s interpretation. Maurice Blanchot would later, in his L’entretien infini, speak of this as a kind of “limit-experience” that “waits for this last man, who one last time is unable to stick to the satisfaction he has attained,” and that opens “a minimal gap in the completion of being, through which everything suddenly flows away and disappears in a surplus that escapes and transgresses.” Georges Bataille similarly appeals to an “inner experience” that counteracts dialectics, a transgression related to sexuality, sacrifice, and death. The end of history is to be understood not as completion, but as the farewell to a certain type of historical reason, releasing what Bataille calls a “useless negativity,” and what Blanchot refers to as “idleness” or “absence of work.” When Bataille ironically claims that “Hegel simply did not know the extent to which he was right,” this not-knowing seems to result from the satiety of knowledge; it is not a different knowledge, but an other within knowledge itself. And much later on, Lacan’s suggestion—that it is only if we push the formalization of psychoanalysis to the end through his “mathemes,” only if we follow the desire for a complete system, that we may glimpse the essential relation in thought to the “not-all,” le pas-tout—seems to follow one particular trail made possible by Hegel, although precisely as a way of overturning him.

It may be the case that all such transgressions of the Hegelian system only further entrench us in its grip; after all, the terrain of the battle was already staked out by the master dialectician himself, and all “useless negativity” still remains a kind of negativity. Hegel was himself by no means unaware of the margins of his discourse, of that which slips through its net and disappears—his operation was rather to think the disappearing as that which is transfigured into essence itself. “The disappearing should rather be seen as essential,” he writes in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, in a gesture that seems to both acknowledge and erase all those contingencies that elude the mastery of absolute knowledge. As Foucault famously notes at the end of his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1970 when he comments on the Hegelian past of French philosophy, all the anti-Hegelianisms of our time may be nothing but another ruse of history, a kind of detour at the end of which he is still waiting for us—the great, immobile Spider of history that will eventually lure us into his all-encompassing web.

Sven-Olov Wallenstein is professor of philosophy at Södertörn University. Recent publications include the anthology Foucault och antiken (Tankekraft, 2017), which he co-edited with Johan Sehlberg; the collection Glasarkitektur: Paul Scheerbart, Bruno Taut, Walter Benjamin, which he edited and translated (Faethon, 2017); and Architecture, Critique, Ideology: Writings on Architecture and Theory (Axl Books, 2016).

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