Hegel and The Birth of Theory

December 7, 2015


The recently published May 2015 issue of PMLA included a special feature in its “Theories and Methodologies” section devoted to a number of wide-ranging commentaries by contemporary scholars on Andrew Cole’s The Birth of Theory. Cole’s book—readily endorsed by Fredric Jameson and Mladen Dolar, among others—situates Hegel’s dialectic as the ur-theory and method of social analysis from which most of the major thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would further constitute “theory” as distinct from systematic philosophy. In collaboration with PMLA, we’re pleased to excerpt the opening of Cole’s own piece for the journal, “The Function of Theory at the Present Time,” which follows below. You can read more about the issue in full here, or visit Cole’s page at Princeton University, here.


From “The Function of Theory at the Present Time”

by Andrew Cole

Let me start by defining “theory,” because the definition itself illustrates why we can name Hegel as its inventor, rather than Marx or Nietzsche, both of whom pick up where Hegel left off. As I suggest in The Birth of Theory, Hegel founds theory in his break from Kant, which I regard as the signal moment when philosophy transforms into theory as we now know it. What makes Hegel different from Kant, in other words, is what makes his habits of thought—his dialectic, above all—lasting and familiar and such a part of what goes into critical theorizing today, even within schools of thought that celebrate their anti-Hegelianism or are indifferent to Hegel. In Hegel we find the following three features that I am content to call “theory.”

First, theory is distinct from philosophy, because it challenges the grounds on which you can presume to describe the world, as the first section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit makes clear in its portrayal of a subject (or “consciousness”) who is in tatters after failing to account coherently for objects in the world. Hegel is bold here. He starts the Phenomenology of Spirit by undoing philosophy as practiced in his day. He gives you no transcendental ego, no handy schematic for possible experience, no subject who cognizes the world effortlessly but has awkward moral problems, no geometrical proofs, and no dislike of contradiction. And with no transcendental ego on the scene, Hegel leaves room for something far more compelling: the Other, in all of its epistemological and ethical significance. (The Other is also Hegel’s invention.)

It’s for these reasons that I think theory is best defined, in the first instance, as philosophy against itself. Theory, like philosophy, requires rigor of thought, but it tries not to confuse consistency for systematicity. It’s not for everyone, as Hegel’s long reception history has made clear. But what’s challenging about Hegel is what’s difficult about getting a grip on thinking itself (even today, philosophers of mind find it nearly impossible to define “consciousness”). In this respect you could say that the shift from Kant to Hegel is the shift from experience to thought—thinking no longer being spontaneous experience but active reflection, a perspective on experience. In Kant, in other words, we do the work of reading a difficult philosophy about what constitutes experience. But in Hegel we read experience itself and face the difficulties of thinking with the kind of confidence you might expect from philosophy. Granted, Kant makes room for an alternative: not cognition but “thinking,” which involves not constitutive concepts—those sorting mechanisms hidden deep within our noumenal selves that render the manifold legible to our understanding—but rather regulative concepts, which we consciously contrive to help us divine ideas about what we can’t experience directly, the supersensibilia (see Critique of Judgement). Hegel, however, collapses this distinction between constitutive and regulative concepts and dispenses with the supersensibilia or noumena that necessitates such conceptual distinctions in the first place. And without constitutive concepts, there’s no Kant: the whole core of his “Copernican” first Critique drops out. The result is radical. It not only nullifies critical philosophy but also leads to another important aspect of theory as it emerges in Hegel’s work.

The second feature of theory holds that we are linguistic beings and that experience is so structured like a language that it qualifies as a language. Kant would never say this. At most, he speaks of the empty but temporal unfolding of the “inner sense” (Critique of Pure Reason 255 [b291]) or the succession of perception following on the order of events. But Hegel says that “it is in language that we are conceptually productive” (qtd. in Birth of Theory ii), which means that we not only think in language but also conceptualize in language. For Hegel, concepts are not just logical operators but figures—figures that then double back and do conceptual work (ibid. 156–61). In other words, in Kant, concepts huddle together while supping at the table of categories, always minding their manners and doing what they’re tasked to do: process the manifold. But in Hegel concepts leave the table and in so doing depart from fixity, from order, from transcendence. It’s as if all concepts in Hegel are regulative concepts, which for Kant (in his third Critique) are indeed the stuff of language, poetry, art, imagination, allusion, analogy, and other forms of thought by which we labor to make sense of what’s initially other to us. In this sense, theory is concerned with the materiality of thought, the materialization of thinking—which brings us to yet another feature of theory.

The third aspect that can be said to define theory is that theory historicizes thought, studying its materialization across disparate forms of human expression—music, literature, art, architecture, religion, philosophy—either in a diachronic or synchronic analysis—or, aspirationally, both at once. It’s enough for a scholar to focus on one of these disciplines or only one mode of historical analysis, but Hegel’s ambition was to think these all at once or pursue a project of writing that would take him from form to form, time to time, place to place. This is the hardest kind of critical writing to do, and Hegel didn’t always succeed, at times offering what we can all agree are culturally blinkered positions. But the method is there, as is the hope for it, once more scotching Kant’s conceptual scheme. Here, again, Hegel works over Kant’s constitutive concepts. To be sure, if Hegel was going to deal in fixed concepts, he would, in true dialectical fashion, put them in the wrong place—not in the self but in history, whereby the concept of a period or some other totalizing conception of a historical moment (like an episteme) is always in tension with the individual examples emerging from within its frame, examples that have a share in conceptualizing a period precisely because they conceptualize by other means: through figuration. Examples—be they poems, paintings, sculptures—are never adequate to their moment. Rather, they are behind or ahead. They contradict their age and one another. Or to turn this formulation around: every present moment is a tangle of emergent and residual forms.

Those are the three main points in what I argue is Hegel’s invention of theory in opposition to Kant’s philosophy, and I support my case by offering multiple histories of dialectical thinking from Plato, Plotinus, and Aristotle to Hegel (more on this below); from Hegel to Marx (whose theory of commodity fetishism restages Hegelian eucharistic fetishism); from Hegel to Nietzsche (whose dialectical tendencies for once deserve acknowledgment); from Hegel to the nineteenth-century English and American critics experimenting with Hegelianism contra Victorian formalism (T. H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, William Courthope, Leslie Stephen, Vida Dutton Scudder); from Hegel to Bakhtin (whose Hegelianism is always a question); from Hegel to Jameson (always honest about his Hegelianism); and from Hegel to Deleuze, in whose work you’d expect to find Hegel as an epithet, but who instead supplies perhaps the best example of a patently Hegelian “conceptual figuration,” whereby figures do the work of concepts and vice versa. When the gap between Hegel and Deleuze closes, a space for utopian thinking opens up, in which dialectics is energized by phenomenologies past and present.

It’s fine, of course, even de rigueur, to call yourself a theorist but not a Hegelian. But if any of the three points listed above seem important for the task of theorizing, even if you use different emphases and terms, then you have Hegel to thank. That is fundamentally my argument about theory, no more and no less. If none of your theoretical program is included here, it doesn’t mean it’s not important. My aim, at any rate, in The Birth of Theory is to explain why dialectics merits the name “theory” in its most general and particular sense—theory as a certain relation to philosophy, theory as a point of view on concepts and on the process of theorizing, and theory as reflection on history. All of this begins quite clearly in Hegel, and I am unapologetic for saying so in the light of lingering worries about “origins” (Birth of Theory 22–23).

But if dialectics is theory, then where did Hegel get his dialectics? Here we enter into a history of thinking from Plato to the present that strangely hasn’t been undertaken in the disciplines of theory. The reason for this lacuna is not the range of that history but rather the prevailing assumptions about the nonvalidity of premodern, or specifically medieval, thought today. Theorists can’t underestimate the Middle Ages any longer. As I argue in chapters 1 and 2, Hegel didn’t invent his dialectic. Rather, he took it from the Middle Ages. In (again) seeking to depart from Kant’s critical philosophy, Hegel deliberately adopts the distinctly medieval dialectic of identity/difference as the signal instance of dialectical thinking itself. But what makes identity/difference a medieval dialectic? The answer comes in the realization that while these two logical categories, identity and difference, are familiar to theorists today (thanks to Hegel), so familiar as to seem to have no history, they weren’t properly dialectical in the philosophy of Plato or Aristotle. They had their dialectical beginning, rather, in postclassical philosophy, in Plotinus in particular, who radically modified the ancient discipline of dialectic by prioritizing the thinking of differences in identity and identities in difference. By setting the categories of identity and difference at the center of dialectic, Plotinus fashioned a powerful dialectical mode of contemplation that was influential throughout the Middle Ages, with Nicholas of Cusa representing perhaps the last and best known example. Hegel, I show, drew from this medieval tradition of dialectical thinking by following the form, placing identity and difference at the center of his own dialectic. In so doing, he rejected the classical, or antique, legacy of dialectic, as well as the early modern aspersions against medieval dialectic.

Yet if we are to understand what makes Hegelian dialectical theory critical on its own terms, then we need to unthink Marx’s (and Engels’s) famous statement “It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings.” At least, we need to rethink its target. For if any philosopher “inquired into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings,” it was Hegel. And his “master-slave” or, more accurately, “lord-bondsman” dialectic is the example right under our noses. As I show in chapter 3 of The Birth of Theory, this most famous dialectical scenario in the Phenomenology of Spirit represents Hegel’s explicit critique of precapitalist modes of production evidenced in the German states while Hegel was alive—the forms of Grundherrschaft historians consistently characterize as feudalism. In his critique, Hegel reveals himself to be presciently proto-Marxist and exposes, prospectively, how patently absurd it is to blame Hegel for condoning capitalism or to declaim that “Hegel’s stand-point is that of modern political economy,” as Marx says (qtd. in Birth of Theory 118). There was no capitalism around for Hegel to critique. The truth of the matter is born from an analogy: what feudalism is to Hegel capitalism is to Marx.

The analogy itself aims to do two things: to show that Hegel is presciently Marxist in his critique of his “own material surroundings,” thereby explaining why Marx would find Hegel’s dialectic to be theoretically necessary to begin with; and to restore modes of production to the analysis not only of history or literature but of theory and philosophy, grounding these latter in the contexts of their emergence.

Andrew Cole is professor English at Princeton University and director of the Gauss Seminars in Criticism.

(Excerpted and adapted from “The Function of Theory at the Present Time,” PMLA 130.3 [2015]: 809–18.
Posted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America. © 2015 Andrew Cole.)


To read more about The Birth of Theory, click here.

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