Hegelian Resources for Contemporary Thought
by Italo Testa
The demand for a “contemporary” reading of Hegel, through a translation of his vocabulary, and thus through a theoretical reform of the dialectic, was powerfully voiced in the first half of the twentieth century in Europe by Italian neo-Hegelianism, with the work of Giovanni Gentile and, particularly, of Benedetto Croce. The reform of the Hegelian dialectic championed by Croce—according to the well-known formula of the ‘dialectic of distincts’-lent new centrality to objective spirit, understood in historical, social and intersubjective terms, within a revival of the Hegelian idea of history as a history of freedom. But Croce understands history as an open process, which does not contemplate systematic closure through some form of absolute knowing. On another front, regarding the reading of the Hegelian spirit in an intersubjective vein,the influence of Alexander Kojève’s work is still very great. Kojève, in his lessons on the Phenomenology of Spirit in the 1930s, was the first philosopher to place the concept of ‘recognition’ (Anerkennung) at the center of the interpretation of Hegel, albeit in the context of an eminently anthropological interpretation of the dialectic and, as was the case with Croce, whilst prioritizing the philosophy of history. Kojève’s interpretation left its mark not only on the subsequent tradition of Hegelian studies in France, but also on French philosophical culture of phenomenological, existential and structuralist orientation, becoming an important point of reference for intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and later Judith Butler.
But it is in the German tradition that Kojève’s intuition will be liberated from its unilateral aspects dictated by anthropological and existentialMarxism, to be presented as a possible, coherent model for the interpretation of Hegel’s practical philosophy. In this regard the tradition of Frankfurt critical theory, and especially of Jürgen Habermas, was decisive. Habermas begins, on the one hand, with the historical and social approach to the dialectic already matured within the philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno—whose Negative Dialektik (1966) represents another chapter of the twentieth-century theoretical reform of Hegelianism, based on opposition between the open and negative spirit of the dialectic and the positive closure of the system. On the other hand, Habermas reads Hegel also on the basis of the historicist, dialogical and linguistic approach to Geist formulated by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Wahrheit und Methode (1960), rediscovering and reviving the continental hermeneutic tradition. Accordingly, Habermas, in Arbeit und Interaktion (1967), presents an interpretative model of the Jena conception of spirit as an ensemble of the “middles” of labor, language and recognition. Interweaving historico-philosophical investigation and conceptual analysis, Habermas essay—from which he would draw the ultimate consequences forty years later, precisely in an engagement with the new interpretations of Hegel developed in the 1990s—made it possible to read Hegel for the first time as the philosopher whose youthful intuitions anticipated and prepared the pragmatic and intersubjective turn at the center of the contemporary constellation: an anticipation of future trends, moreover, that for Habermas was immediately negated by the successive subjectivistic closure of Hegel’s mature system. The problem with this reading, however, was that it completely expunged the role of the Phenomenology—the very text that stands at the center of the current Hegelianism—while delivering Hegel to the metaphysically-oriented subjectivist tradition.
It will be, then, from the meeting between the theoretical work of the Frankfurt School and the exegetic and history-of-philosophy current of Hegelian studies—centering, from the 1960s, around the Hegel-Archiv in Bochum—that the Hegelian theory of recognition, thanks to the work of Ludwig Siep, by the late 1970s would enter the German interpretative tradition no longer as a particular aspect but rather as the general principle for the comprehension of Hegel’s practical philosophy. Reconnecting with Habermas’s reading and, in particular, with Siep’s studies on Hegel’s Jena writings, Axel Honneth, from within critical theory, with his Kampf um Anerkennung (1992) would then make a decisive contribution to the affirmation of recognition asa new paradigm of contemporary social and political philosophy; and this, in the same year in which, on the American side, Robert Williams’ first work on the ethics of recognition is published. This paradigm—again, in 1992—would be relaunched by Habermas and Taylor also within the dawning philosophico-political debate on multiculturalism; a debate that, not by chance, was marked by the meeting of a European philosopher with a North American one whose philosophical position was shaped by an intense engagement with the con-temporary legacy of Hegel.Then, 1994, with the simultaneous publication of works by Pinkard, Wood, and Hardimon, and of McDowell and Brandom’s major works, is the year in which American Hegelian studies and the neo-pragmatism of Sellars and Rorty began to forge strong links and to present them-selves jointly as a new model for approaching Hegel. In successive years also the European philosophers would begin to engage with this new American Hegelianism, an engagement whose first important consolidation would come in 1999 with the publication of a monographic section of the European Journal of Philosophy dedicated to the theme of Hegel’s Legacy and then, in 2001, with a direct moment of wide-ranging and articulated debate on the occasion of the first Venice conference on Contemporary Hegel. . . [read more]