In the contemporary philosophical landscape, Gregory S. Moss’s book stands out for many different reasons, and even though it should be considered a major contribution to the understanding of Hegel’s logic, its worth cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of Hegelian scholarship. In this review I would like to illustrate some of the merits of this book, and I will try to show why Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics can be read as an autonomous philosophical work, an exciting occasion to continue and renew the debate on some fundamental philosophical questions.
The Author’s first monograph on Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms addressed the question of the autonomy of language. While dealing with partially different issues – the nature of language and the philosophy of culture – this book already discusses some topics that are the main focus of Moss’s philosophical work, and shows methodological elements that remain unaltered in his second book. Aside from the general interest in the history of German thought, the book already deals with the problem of autonomy and of universality, discussing the relationship between language and logic and introducing the question about interculturality.
More importantly, in Ernst Cassirer and the Autonomy of Language Moss already showed his deeply theoretical approach to the analysis of the authors of the past. His reconstruction of Cassirer’s philosophy of language does not simply aim at offering an accurate sketch of the author’s thought, but rather it is an attempt to show how that theory can still find a place in the contemporary debate.
Following the same methodological inspiration, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics offers a monumental reconstruction of Hegel’s metaphysics, often underlining some aspects of his thought that have been lost in the most successful trends of the Hegelian research in the English-speaking world. However, it is also a striking attempt to show why Hegel’s metaphysics continues to be relevant. This may be the greatest achievement of Moss’s work: it does not just illustrate Hegel’s own position, but also and foremost shows what it means to have a Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
Despite its remarkable internal coherence, the impressive size of the book – around 500 pages – makes it almost impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of its content. Instead of doing so, I will start by introducing the main focus of the book – the relation between singularity and absoluteness. After that, I will discuss some pivotal elements of Moss’s interpretation of Hegel’s thought. Finally, I will try to point out some issues that remain open at the end of the analysis, in the attempt to show how this book can be understood as the starting point for a productive debate on Hegel, on the contemporary debate, and on the future of philosophy.
1. Philosophy’s Paradoxical Stance Toward Singularity
Since Plato, the relationship between philosophy and singularity has been complicated, even paradoxical. On the one hand, philosophy has been constantly presented as the kind of knowledge that addresses the universal rather than the singular. The tradition offers us a bunch of formulas in order to clarify this taxonomy: while philosophy is knowledge of the universal, art or history address what is singular. While thought only grasps the universal, only intuition has access to individual things.
On the other hand, however, philosophy has always been obsessed with singularity. The greater part of the philosophical effort since Plato and Aristotle is devoted precisely to understand how singular being (ta ekasta) are structured, how they are generated, how we think and say things about them, how they relate to each other. While the singular is banned from the domain of philosophy, nonetheless philosophy’s main task has always been the discovery and the elaboration of the structure of singularity in itself.
But what is singularity? Even this question, along with the distinction between singular and universal, is quite problematic. We are accustomed to identify singularity as the lower limit of thought, namely as what lies beyond any possible specific difference in the great taxonomy of genera and species. Yet, what is singular is also what lies beyond the upper limit of thought, namely what exceeds any possible genus: it is epekeina tes ousias, to use Plato’s formulation. In a sense, “singular” is the opposite of “universal”; in another sense, it is the opposite of “plural”. I know it is a schematic oversimplification, but this could account for the main difference between Aristotle and Plato: according to Plato, ideas are the true “singulars”: there is only one Beauty, it is one, eternal, and determinate, whereas sensible things are always plural, changing, indeterminate and temporal. In this context, what is most universal is at the same time utterly singular. On the contrary, Aristotle’s attempt to “save phenomena” – a formula used by Simplicius – is precisely the attempt to think sensible things as singular, determinate beings. Universals are plural, they are instantiated and thus have specific, but not numeric unity. Only individual things – both sensible and supra-sensible – are singular. For the sake of discussion, this oversimplification could be useful to identify this basic difference between a Platonic and an Aristotelian attitude towards singularity: on the one side, the singular is the absolute; on the other side, the singular is first and foremost finite, individual being.
2. Hegel’s Thought as a New Theory of Singularity
Now, how do we place Hegel’s philosophy in this frame? First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Hegel’s thought has traditionally been accused of having a complete lack of interest in singularity. Hegel is the “philosopher of universality” par excellence. Universality, necessity and subjectivity are the three key notions that structure most traditional interpretations of Hegel’s idealism, in which singularity, contingency and objectivity are therefore accounted for only as partial and lower steps of a more comprehensive dialectical process.
Already right after Hegel’s death, his first commentators criticized his disregard for singularity. According to Ludwig Feuerbach, the distinction between logical and sensible being is the inescapable mark of Hegel’s failure in thinking the individual: «Die Sprache gehört hier gar nicht zur Sache. Die Realität des sinnlichen einzelnen Seins ist uns eine mit unsern Blute besiegelte Wahrheit» (Sämtliche Werke, II, 212). This is Hegel’s major fault, not recognizing that „reality of singular sensible being” that we cannot help but feel as an immediate truth.
The strongest critic of Hegel’s philosophy of singularity, however, is Kierkegaard, who polemically used the term “Einzelheit” in his philosophy precisely to rescue the singular from Hegel’s monistic and universalistic account. Since idealism is “abstract thought”, Kierkegaard’s aim is to highlight the philosophical significance of existence, whereas what exists is precisely that singular being that abstract thought keeps overlooking.
This interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy has survived up to contemporary philosophy. In particular, French thought used the term “singularity” in order to develop an anti-Platonic and anti-Hegelian concept of individuality. Gilles Deleuze is the philosopher who expresses this critique in the most explicit way: «Hegel substitutes the abstract relation of the particular to the concept in general for the true relation of the singular and the universal in the Idea» (Difference and repetition, 10). Quite ironically, while Hegel is one of the first philosophers to use the word “singularity” as a technical term, clearly distinguishing between a commonsensical and a speculative use of the notion, the whole post-structuralist tradition uses the term “singular” as an anti-Hegelian device, tracing it back to Spinoza in contraposition with Hegelian dialectic.
A second element that is useful to point out, in order to understand the novelty of Gregory S. Moss’s approach, is that this criticism of Hegel’s notion of singularity goes along with a critique of Hegel’s systematic and anti-foundational idea of philosophy. Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, but also many other early commentators of Hegel’s system, such as Karl Werder, Kuno Fischer, Schelling, and Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, criticized Hegel’s disregard for the individual and at the same time stated the impossibility to obtain a complex categorical structure starting from the absolute simplicity of being. In other terms, the impossibility to get difference starting from identity.
Now, this close connection between systematic metaphysics and the problem of singularity is at the core of the theoretical analysis of Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics. The so-called Hegel-renaissance in the English-speaking world has already rediscovered the importance of Hegel’s account of individuality. Paul Redding highlighted in the clearest way how the Pittsburgh school – Robert Brandom in particular – has managed to read Hegel’s philosophy as a semantic theory of individuation. However, these interpretations have systematically underplayed the systematic aspect of Hegel’s thought, along with its strictly metaphysical character. Following the oversimplified frame that I’ve proposed before, Robert Brandom’s inferentialism is – in a way – an Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s theory of singularity, since it understands singular beings only as finite, individual objects.
In this context, Gregory Moss’s book offers a timely and original reading of Hegel’s logic, since it finally highlights some aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that have been structurally neglected by many commentators. Three aspects are particularly worth mentioning.
In the first place, the author clarifies that Hegel’s notion of singularity not only refers to individual, finite beings, but also – and foremost – to that peculiar singular being that is the Absolute. In a way, therefore, Hegel’s speculative use of the notion of singularity overcomes the difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian approach.
Secondly, Moss shows how it is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without taking into account the necessary relationship between these two dimensions. There is no account of the singularity of finite being without addressing the singularity of the Absolute, and any account of the Absolute that does not illustrate the metaphysical status of singular finite being is incomplete and partial.
Finally, the book puts a very strong accent on necessity to highlight the general aim of Hegel’s philosophical enterprise. It is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without considering the metaphysical character of his logic. Here it is important to grasp Hegel’s own understanding of what metaphysics is, rather than applying some contemporary use of the term to the Hegelian text, which forces Hegel into a theoretical frame that does not have much to do with his own methodology.
As I will point out later, these three elements also identify three problematic aspects of Moss’s theoretical and interpretative framework, or at least three questions that are still open after reading the book. However, before going deeper into the critical analysis, I will briefly illustrate the main structure of the book.
3. Thinking the Absolute
One of the most striking elements of Moss’s book is that it emphasizes the strict relationship between infinite and finite thought. While tradition generally accepted that we cannot think the Absolute in the same way we think finite being, one of the key contributions of Classic German Philosophy is the idea that if we fail to think the Absolute, even thinking finite being becomes impossible. If I’m not misunderstood, this is what is at stake in what Moss calls the “problem of nihilism”. I won’t go into it in detail, but a general consequence of this approach is precisely Moss’s attempt to show how Hegel’s philosophy is a unification of Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches: if the Absolute is absolute, and therefore there is nothing outside of it, then it is impossible to differentiate between two faculties or two different methods, as if, for instance, understanding were to be identified with the faculty of finite being, and reason with the faculty of the Absolute. So, by developing a critical discussion of how the Absolute has been thought in the metaphysical tradition, we are at the same time questioning the way we think finite being. This traditional view is what the Author calls the “duality of principles”, the idea that knowledge – and reality – cannot be grounded on one principle, but rather require at least two: intuitions and concepts, matter and form and so on. Against this position, the Author defends a strongly monistic account of Hegel’s metaphysics, according to which the true Singular – the Absolute – self-differentiates in a way that can be compared to the Neoplatonic One.
The thesis of the duality of principles is grounded on another assumption, namely the impossibility of self-reference. If there is only one principle, then identity and difference must stem from the same source, and this source has no external matter on which to operate. According to Moss, the history of Western thought has mostly rejected this idea because of the undisputed adherence to the principle of non-contradiction. If identity generates difference, then the same thing is at once identical and different, namely contradictory.
These three metaphysical assumptions, the principle of non-contradiction, the rejection of self-reference, and the duality of principles, are presented by the Author as the fundamental argumentative structure that undermines at the basis the very possibility to think the Absolute, and that can be found in the history of Western metaphysics from Plato up to Kant.
For this reason, Moss’s analysis starts with a critical assessment of some basic problem of traditional metaphysics. While the author does not have philological or reconstructive interests, his confrontation with some authors of the past is extremely useful in order to grasp his fundamental orientation. For instance, while Plato, Aristotle and Kant are examples of the duality of principles approach, the brief but intense reconstruction of early German idealism aims at showing that Fichte’s and Schelling’s objective was precisely to overcome Kant’s dualism, and to re-introduce a self-referential first principle as the metaphysical and epistemological ground of a new philosophy. At the same time, this approach is strongly connected by Moss to Plotinus and Neoplatonic philosophy, with a long and dense excursus on ancient philosophy that reveals the Author’s tendency to offer a somewhat Neoplatonist interpretation of Hegel’s logic.
After having offered a critical reconstruction of these three metaphysical assumptions, Moss shows how they inevitably lead to five paradoxes that can be found throughout the history of philosophy.
The Problem of Instantiation: if particulars and universals are indebted to different (epistemological/ontological) principles, it’s impossible to clarify their relationship.
The Missing Difference: if conceptuality is not the source of its own differentiation, then the source of this differentiation is non-conceptual. «The essential difference that distinguishes one thing from another cannot be accounted for by appealing to what the thing is ‘in virtue of itself’» (165).
Absolute Empiricism: since the differentiated content of the conceptual dimension is not conceptual, the source of conceptuality is entirely empirical.
The Problem of Onto-Theology: the most universal notion is indicated as both universal and particular.
The Third Man: if the Concept is not self-differentiating, then every instance of the Concept, as a particular concept, cannot be the Universal Concept. Every attempt to find the universal concept leads to new particular concepts.
The largest part of the book’s first section is devoted to the historic and theoretical analysis of these paradoxes. The second section, instead, shows how – by positing the Concept as one self-referential and dialetheic principle – Hegel’s logic manages to overcome them.
Surprisingly, the book does not use the classic difference between understanding and reason as an instrument throughout this analysis. The question of the difference between understanding and reason is of course present, but it is not always clear whether these issues could be addressed as the result of an intellectualistic and non-speculative understanding of the domain of conceptuality. For instance, and here I’m forcing and radicalizing the issue in order to facilitate the discussion, the problem of the missing difference could be analysed as a specific formulation of a more general issue that concerned British and Italian idealism for a long time, namely the insufficient and contradictory nature of the forms of judgment. In fact, since every judgment, as Kant states, is in the form “The singular is universal”, and since the singular is not universal, an intellectualistic approach to the nature of conceptuality already finds itself entangled in a contradiction.
However, rather than appealing to this methodological instrument, the Author prefers addressing these problems systematically, retracing their origin in the three metaphysical assumptions listed above. This choice gives a very strong conceptual unity to the book, even though it could lead to some forced passages, in particular when it comes to analysing these issues through examples taken from the history of philosophy.
For instance, the first two paradoxes – the problem of instantiation and the missing difference – are addressed by quoting many passages from Plato’s Parmenides and the Book B of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Now, while these passages are in fact very good examples of the problems the Author is discussing, both the Parmenides and Metaphysics Beta are, so to say, “partes destruentes”, critical preliminary moments of a new theory. In other words, it is possible to find already in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work – as Hegel himself recognizes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy – speculative solutions to the problems they raise in some of their texts.
The difference between intellectualistic and speculative thought seems to be a very good way to account for this internal evolution in Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought. For instance, Plato’s generative account of the koinonia ton genon in the Sophist does not look to be still subject to these paradoxes. In it, for instance, the self-referential character of ideas is no longer problematic, but at the same time it is not trivialized through the reference to empirical concepts as it happens in the Parmenides. Another example is Aristotle’s philosophy: following Ferrarin, Moss concedes that Aristotle’s metaphysics is speculative and belongs to the domain of the concept. But then, how can we integrate this idea with the paradoxes of Aristotle’s account of conceptuality? Isn’t this account, as it is presented in the book, utterly intellectual rather than speculative?
In other words, while the author manages to provide a strikingly coherent and dense systematic account of some fundamental metaphysical issues, a more extensive analysis of Plato’s and Aristotle’s own solutions to these problems, along with a comparison with Hegel’s own interpretation of their works, could give the chance to highlight how there is more than one way to think speculatively. The author does discuss Aristotle’s solutions to some of the problems he listed in Metaphysics Beta, but the historical reconstruction of Aristotle’s approach is not the main focus of Moss’s research, and it is only mentioned in order to highlight some aspect of Aristotle’s thought that the author recognizes in Hegel’s work.
However, given the book’s size, focusing on the systematic aspect of the issue has been a wise choice: this remark only aims at pointing out, once again, that this monumental book must not be interpreted as the end of a research, but rather as an exciting proposition for a new approach to the study of Hegel’s logic, of the history of philosophy and of metaphysics in general.
Four Open Problems
With this spirit in mind, I would like to point out some specific issues that I find of particular importance in Moss’s book. Of course, as already mentioned, this is a monumental piece of scholarship, and there are many topics worth discussing. There are many arguments and analyses that deserve a much deeper discussion than I can provide here. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid discussing specific matters or individual passages of the book, since I would like to keep the debate on a more general and fundamental level, and discuss some structural aspects of Moss’s proposal rather than specific topics. In particular, I will try to propose a brief critical assessment of four questions that remain open.
4a. What Kind of Metaphysics?
In the final part of his critical analysis, the Author thoroughly discusses different metaphysical and non-metaphysical accounts of Hegel’s logic. In particular, he also highlights Hegel’s intention to reform metaphysics beyond any dogmatic understanding of it. The interpretation of Hegel’s own understanding of metaphysics is deeply connected with the relationship between logic, nature and spirit. While Moss does not expressly analyse this aspect of Hegel’s system, the passage from logic to nature is a crucial point of his reading.
As we know, one of the main arguments of the book is that Hegel’s logic introduces a self-referential and self-differentiating account of the Concept. As Roberto Morani has shown in his monumental book on the evolution of Hegel’s dialectics, this aspect of Hegel’s philosophy is also the main focus of the auto-reformation of his own logic in the Second Edition of the Doctrine of being, when he stresses that objective logic already is subjective logic in disguise. This issue is closely related to the question of the “formal” character of logic. According to Hegel, logic is not formal because it has logical forms as its own content: logical forms are at the same time form and content of the logical process, that in this way is truly noesis noeseos:
But logical reason is itself the substantial or real factor which, within itself, holds together all the abstract determinations and constitutes their proper, absolutely concrete, unity. There is no need, therefore, to look far and wide for what is usually called a matter; it is not the fault of the subject matter of logic if the latter seems empty but only of the manner in which this subject matter is grasped. (SL, trans. Di Giovanni, 28)
Elena Ficara has stressed the importance of this passage, which shows Hegel’s opposition to any formalistic understanding of logic as a discipline. However, Moss radicalizes this aspect and points out how this unity of form and matter generates a self-determining progression. But what is the limit of this activity?
The logic is a self-generating process, through which the concept determines itself as concept: while we discover a great variety of conceptual determinations, these determinations never become empirical. In other terms, the logical development of the category of quality never generates the concept of “colour” or of “green”. In other words, what does never happen is what Fichte talks about in his lectures on the Tatsachen des Bewusstseins: if we radicalize this monistic self-generating activity, then everything must be deduced starting from the first principle, even this singular blade of grass. It is the same conception of systematic metaphysics that Wilhelm Traugott Krug presents as a critic to Idealism, and that Hegel ridicules. For instance, when Hegel talks of the ontological proof, the point is that the Concept has logical objectivity. Nevertheless, Moss is right to highlight how important it is to understand the Concept as a creative activity, and by doing so he defends a strong metaphysical interpretation of Hegel’s logic that many passages in Hegel’s work seem to confirm. While the author recognizes that the creative activity of the Concept does not entail the deterministic deduction of all empirical content, establishing the precise nature and the limits of this self-particularizing activity is one of the tasks that remain open after having read his analysis, and it is a crucial element to test the hermeneutical validity of his interpretation.
4b. What Kind of Singularity?
I would like to go back to the notion of singularity, which is the main focus of the book as a whole. In Moss’s book it is clearly stated that each category of the logic cannot be used exclusively to think the Absolute, since the Absolute is not separated from finite being. Therefore, singularity does describe both “limits” of thought—the Absolute and finite being. Nevertheless, Moss’s reconstruction strongly privileges the “Platonic” side of the analysis. In other words, the Author seems to be much more interested in showing how singularity expresses the logical structure of the Absolute, rather than explaining how the same notion can be used to describe the nature of finite being. For instance, Hegel writes that singularity is the principle of every “individuality and personality” (SL, 547). In order to complete the analysis of Hegel’s use of the notion of singularity, it would be very interesting to integrate Moss’s interpretation with a focus on this dimension.
This does not mean, of course, that Moss’s reading is a Platonic one. As I’ve already highlighted, if it is true that Platonism and Neo-Platonism play a pivotal role in the development of his reading of Hegel, Moss aims at showing both the Platonic and Aristotelian aspects of Hegelian dialectics, in particular by emphasising the importance of Aristotle’s notion of the «self-particularizing universal». This interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of Form is also quite interesting, and it would be worth discussing it in a further analysis of Hegel’s own historical sources.
One of the most surprising aspects of Moss’s book is his analysis of syllogism. Usually judgment and syllogism are analysed as logical developments of the abstract concept, and Hegel also expressly indicates them as such in the Science of Logic. Nevertheless, the Author seems to understand judgment and syllogism as a logically impoverished form of the first section, identifying them with a «self-alienated» form of the Concept (374). While this strong accent on the Concept is quite original, it is very hard to explain Hegel’s own statement at the beginning of the section on the syllogism, where he writes that «the syllogism is the completely posited concept; it is, therefore, the rational» (SL, 588). More generally, Hegel repeatedly highlights the syllogistic character of his system: the end of the Encyclopaedia is maybe the strongest example.
This issue leads to another question on the relationship between syllogism and inference. Moss’s critique of Robert Brandom’s account of Hegel’s philosophy as a form of inferentialism is very convincing, and does show the partiality of neo-pragmatist, non-metaphysical readings of Hegel. Nevertheless, by criticizing Brandom, the Author seems to share with him one core assumption, namely that syllogism is inference, and that when Hegel speaks about syllogism, he’s always talking about a formal structure of reasoning. This identification could be the main reason for Moss’s scepticism against the importance of syllogism in Hegel’s thought. For instance, in the Science of Logic Hegel expressly writes that «All things are a syllogism, a universal united through particularity with singularity; surely not a whole made up of three propositions» (SL, 593). Of course, Hegel does heavily criticize the form of inference (even in his Lectures on history of philosophy), but this passage seems to show that we must distinguish the subjective form of inference from the logical, objective form of syllogistic unity. For this reason, while Moss’s interpretation of the relationship between the concept and syllogistic forms is quite original and in some cases very convincing, it does need further discussion.
Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the question of contradiction. One of the structural aspects of the book is to show that, in order to think the Absolute, we must accept dialetheism, namely the position according to which some contradictions are true. In the case of Hegelian thought, this question is closely connected with the meaning of the term “speculative” as Hegel uses it throughout his work. While it is hardly debatable that only speculative thought is able to grasp the Absolute in its concrete and actual form, the question is whether such a way of thinking necessarily entails a violation of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) in its Aristotelian formulation.
A good start for illustrating the issue is a passage quoted by the Author while analysing the relationship between speculative thought and contradiction:
Speculative thought consists solely in holding on to the contradiction, and thus to itself. Unlike representational thought, it does not let itself be dominated by the contradiction, it does not allow the latter to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing/ (SL, 383)
Right after this passage Hegel does give some examples, and his choice are determinations of relation – above/under, father/son – that can hardly be seen as violation of Aristotle’s PNC. The interpretation of this passage is very contentious and I won’t go into it. Instead, I would like to argue that there are two possible interpretations of the nature of speculative thought. According to the first, speculative thought is necessarily dialetheic, since it requires to accept that the same x is and is not P. Here it is important to clarify that “not being P” is not the same than “being non-P”.
According to the second interpretation, speculative thought generates a new understanding of the predicates and of their reciprocal relationship. In this case, x can be P and non-P, according to a meaning of non-P that does not entail not being P.
For instance: the proposition “the particular is universal” is contradictory only as long as we assume that “being universal” entails “not-being particular”. This implication is different from the simple fact that universal and particular are different concepts, namely that “universal” is not “particular”. I do believe that it is possible to make the case that, in his subjective Logic, Hegel shows how universality, particularity and singularity, as conceptual determinations, are not reciprocally exclusive.
Moss does provide an exhaustive analysis of many different interpretations of Hegel’s account of contradiction. Again, his criticism of Robert Brandom’s strong coherentist reading is very compelling. Nevertheless, while it is clear that, according to Hegel, speculative thought somehow “deals” with contradictions, this statement must be compatible with other two explicit Hegelian theses: that contradiction is a defining aspect of finite being and finite concepts, and that contradiction itself is used throughout the system as a criterion to identify the finite and false character of the categories.
This could mean, in a way, that the Absolute cannot be contradictory in the same way finite concepts and beings are. Moss’s analysis of the difference between explosive and non-explosive contradictions could be a way to express this fundamental difference. However, it seems clear that Hegel’s foundation free metaphysics is an exciting contribution to a debate that is still open and is impossible to close simply by choosing one option over the other, be it coherence or contradiction.
At the end of this brief critical assessment of some aspects of the book, there would be much more worth mentioning. Gregory S. Moss’s book offers a compelling reconstruction of Hegelian metaphysics as a form of strong monism and shows how it can be profitably used to discuss some contemporary philosophical positions. Moss is also the translator of the English edition of Markus Gabriel’s Why The World Does Not Exist, and Gabriel’s pluralistic metaphysics is one of the main critical references throughout the book. By using Hegel’s philosophy to debate with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Priest, Robert Brandom and others, Moss brilliantly shows how the study of Classic German Philosophy can still offer a valid contribution to the contemporary debate on metaphysics.
Another aspect that resonates throughout the book is Moss’s interest for intercultural philosophy, as well as for the mystic tradition. There is no doubt that this book is a vital and promising contribution to the contemporary debate on Hegelian philosophy. However, it is also much more than that, since it provides a very compelling theoretical framework for the discussion of many different questions in contemporary continental metaphysics. Finally, it also offers a profitable exchange between philosophy, theology, and the study of other cultures.
Despite its remarkable size, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics does offer an extremely coherent and well-argued account of some of the most important theoretical issues in the history of metaphysics. By doing so, it succeeds at showing the ground-breaking nature of Hegel’s approach to logic and provides a very original interpretation of the Doctrine of the Concept. It is an ambitious example of Hegelian scholarship, but it is also a very good example of a truly Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
Johan de Jong’s The Movement of Showing opens with the observation that “Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida consistently characterize their thought in terms of a development, movement, or pathway, rather than in terms of positions, propositions, or conclusions” (xix). In other words, they do not stake out a definite position that they defend against all comers; rather, they call attention to the movement that carries us beyond each apparently fixed position that a work might seem to present. Indeed, not only do they not aim to delineate a fixed, complete, and fully consistent position, they regard such a delineation as impossible, so noting that they fail to accomplish it does not suffice as a criticism of them. Readers, or would-be readers, of Derrida in particular often stop here, dismissing his work as so much nonsensical relativism. De Jong instead asks how we are to understand this movement that resists any fixed position and how we might critique it without taking it for a failed attempt to establish a fixed position. These questions, which de Jong addresses in an admirably nuanced fashion that makes this book well worth reading, ultimately point us to questions about justice and responsibility.
Thus we as readers find ourselves confronted with the question of what it means to read de Jong’s text responsibly. How do we engage with the impossibility of reducing it to a single determinate position about the three philosophers – G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida – with which it primarily deals? For what is here called a “movement” must exceed de Jong’s stated positions as it exceeds theirs. Asking “how such a discourse of movement can be understood and criticized,” he maintains that “answering this question does not, as some may think, itself require indirectness, textual extravagance, or a poeticization of philosophical method (even though these cannot in principle be excluded from the realm of philosophical efficacy)” (xxii). What, though, does it mean to say that answering a question does or does not require indirectness? “Indirectness” is the word de Jong has chosen to name the “undercutting gesture” by which “Derrida’s claims and conclusions are invariably repeated, reversed, retracted, contradicted, visibly erased, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly complicated” according to the movement that cannot be contained within any fully determined position (xxii). Yet if indeed thought itself cannot be thus contained – if any position that one might suppose to be fully determined in fact always already undercuts itself – then it is less a matter of indirectness being required than of indirectness being impossible to avoid, at least in implicit form, no matter how hard one tries. De Jong’s style does differ considerably from Derrida’s; readers who regard Derrida’s style, or styles, as obfuscatory should not be able to make the same complaint about de Jong’s, and if they read The Movement of Showing they ought, moreover, to come away with a better understanding of why Derrida wrote as he did. That said, de Jong implicitly recognizes that indirectness is also at work in his own book when he writes that “the very term ‘indirect’ is itself also not the adequate, definite, final or right word for what is investigated here” (xxii). I will return, at the conclusion of this review, to the question of indirectness in de Jong’s text. For the moment, let us note that the impossibility of finding any “adequate, definite, final or right word” will be a recurring theme throughout, and it is one that we must bear in mind when reading any text, whether a book by Derrida, The Movement of Showing, or, for that matter, this review. At the same time, we cannot escape words, however inadequate and indefinite they may be, nor should we desire to – and the joint impossibility and undesirability of such an escape will prove central to ethical responsibility.
Part I, “Sources of Derrida’s Indirectness,” examines, with remarkable nuance and precision, Derrida’s manner of writing. In chapter 1, De Jong begins by arguing that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed on the basis of certain of Derrida’s more direct assertions, Derrida does not and cannot offer a theory of language. Readers of Of Grammatology at times make the mistake of deriving a theory of language from it, which they then attribute to Derrida, according to which speech, traditionally considered superior to writing because of its immediacy, is in fact just as mediated as writing and should therefore be understood as arche-writing, or writing in a more general sense of the term. Derrida’s point, however, is that this theory is already in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Saussure’s intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. Taking it as Derrida’s theory fails to understand that there can be no definitive theory of language. Arche-writing is not writing understood more broadly, as if we could fully understand language once we worked out the proper definition of “writing”; rather, it marks the impossibility of attaining some ideal meaning that would be unmediated and fully present. Derrida does not offer a theory, explains de Jong, but seeks rather to show the movement that reveals the limits of all theories, even as they try to present themselves as complete.
Readers of Derrida who recognize that neither he nor anyone else can offer a complete and consistent theory of language often interpret him as an opponent of metaphysics, but de Jong shows in chapter 2 that this interpretation also fails. There is no way out of metaphysics, and Derrida does not propose to offer one. Seeking to overcome metaphysics is itself metaphysical, for any attempt to get outside metaphysics already depends on metaphysics to define itself. What is more, the history of metaphysics is the history of this attempted overcoming. Questioning metaphysics is not, therefore, a matter of opposition, and this questioning even calls itself into question precisely because any attempt to think metaphysics necessarily occurs within the language of metaphysics. That theories are limited in no way entails that we can step outside or overcome their limits.
Having demonstrated the problems with certain popular interpretations of Derrida’s texts – that he offers a theory of language and that he calls for the overcoming of metaphysics – de Jong asks, in chapter 3, whether Derrida can be justified. If Derrida argues that all positions are incomplete and undo themselves, then pointing to omissions or inconsistencies in his work hardly serves to refute him, but it is equally unclear what grounds one might find to justify a work that disclaims the very attempt to produce a complete and consistent position – and de Jong insists that Derrida’s would-be defenders must recognize the latter point just as much as the former. It is not that Derrida makes a virtue of mere contradiction, as if one ought to embrace inconsistency itself as final and definitive. But de Jong emphasizes that “Derrida cannot be completely safeguarded against the accusations from which his works must nevertheless be tirelessly distinguished” (76). Derrida is not the mere relativist that he has often been accused of being, and yet “the risk of assimilation and supposed misreading is not an extrinsic one, but intrinsic to the operation of deconstruction” (78). There is a real sense, therefore, in which Derrida cannot be justified – which is not to say that his work can be dissociated from justice (a point to which de Jong will return). De Jong warns us against the “reassurance mechanism” that consists in saying, “Never mind [Derrida’s] critics; they clearly haven’t read the texts” (78). The point is apt, but I suggest that one might ask the critics whether they have read their own texts. For a more careful reading might show them that misreading and reading can never be neatly separated; nor, for that matter, can writing and what one might call miswriting. As deconstruction operates within any text, it is not only Derrida’s texts that cannot be safeguarded from any possibility of misreading – and this point is one that merits greater emphasis than de Jong gives it in this chapter. He rightly points out what he calls the vulnerability of Derrida’s texts, at the risk of suggesting that Derrida’s texts are unusually vulnerable. Still, Part I is an excellent reading of Derrida, and since reading and misreading cannot be disentangled, there is no way to exclude every possible misinterpretation. De Jong’s argument that Derrida does not call us to overcome metaphysics, as if going beyond metaphysics were possible, is a particularly valuable contribution to the literature.
De Jong now turns to Hegel in Part II and then to Heidegger in Parts III and IV. Since Derrida cannot be outside the metaphysical tradition, his relation to Hegel and Heidegger cannot consist, as it has often been thought to do, in rejecting them as still too metaphysical. This reexamination of Hegel and Heidegger thus follows from the analysis in Part I, and it shows that they are rather less different from Derrida than they are generally imagined to be – without, however, assimilating them into a single position. All three thinkers reveal the limits of any thought that seeks to establish a fixed position, while they also recognize that we cannot step outside or beyond the limits of thought itself.
Part II, “Movement and Opposition,” begins with the argument, in chapter 4, that for Hegel as for Derrida, philosophical questioning cannot itself be detached from its object. Indeed, de Jong writes that “Hegel is the first philosopher to explicitly locate the aforementioned entanglement right at the heart of the philosophical enterprise” (85). It is for this reason that philosophy cannot arrive at a conclusive end to its investigations: philosophy is always investigating itself. Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted to mean that philosophy will progressively free itself from its own limits and reach Absolute Knowing, a final position in which alterity is no more, and Derrida’s own readings of Hegel have fueled this misconception. Through a consideration of the development of Hegel’s thought, de Jong shows that Hegel does not propose that philosophy’s movement can or should be brought to a halt. Precisely because the absolute is not the cessation of movement, “Hegel’s ‘absolute’ idealism must be interpreted as an affirmation of the limits of reflection” (121): reflection does not transcend its limits but is carried along within them, and it is within its limits that it finds itself haunted by the alterity that can never be made fully present.
What, though, of Derrida’s own readings of Hegel, in which Derrida seems to regard Hegel as an opponent of alterity and himself as an opponent of Hegel? De Jong turns to this question in chapter 5 and argues, without denying the differences between the two philosophers, that Derrida’s relation to Hegel is not, and cannot be, one of simple opposition. In any case, opposition is never simple, since the sides of a dichotomy are necessarily dependent on each other to the very extent that they are defined by their opposition. What is more, Derrida offers multiple readings of Hegel – or, to put it another way, the name “Hegel” does not stand for the same figure every time it appears in his texts. At times, as for instance in “Tympan,” it does stand for a figure who seeks to eliminate the risk posed by negativity or alterity – but “Tympan” is less a supposedly definitive reading of Hegel and more an attempt “to stage a confrontation of philosophy with that in which the philosopher would not recognize himself, not so foreign to philosophy as to leave it undisturbed, and not so close to philosophy as to do no more than repeat it” (134). It is, in short, an attempt to call attention to philosophy’s limits so that it will not mistake itself for the final, complete answer. Derrida’s target is not Hegel but a complacent Hegelianism that believes that all that is worthwhile is, or at least can be, subjected to its comprehension. Reading “Hors livres, préfaces” in Derrida’s Dissemination, de Jong finds that Derrida first describes the Hegel of Hegelianism before coming to the Hegel who is a thinker of movement and of difference – a Hegel who is not Derrida but in whom Derrida finds a “point of departure” (149) that is not simply the basis for opposition. Or, as de Jong puts it, “Derrida needs Hegel’s ‘speculative dialectics’ as a point of contrast, but he is aware that Hegel cannot be reduced to those terms. […] The more radical [sic] Derrida presents himself as moving beyond Hegel, the more emphatically his allegiance to Hegel is reaffirmed” (151). Derrida needs Hegel because of how Hegel can be read and misread: the thinker of movement who has been misinterpreted as a thinker of overly definitive absolutism is a fitting interlocutor for another writer who, precisely because he is also a thinker of movement, is profoundly concerned with questions of interpretation, questions of reading, misreading, and the complex interplay thereof. Indeed, one should not suppose that reading and misreading are independent and readily distinguishable – a point implicit in de Jong’s insistence on the impossibility of safeguarding Derrida from misreadings.
Part III, “Heidegger: The Preservation of Concealment,” reads Heidegger’s Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) in order to explore the theme of indirectness in Heidegger. In chapter 6, considering Heidegger’s criticisms of the language of Being and Time, de Jong argues that the problem was not that the language of Being and Time failed by remaining too much within metaphysics, nor can the Kehre be understood as a turn to looking for a language that would adequately say being. Rather, the language of Being and Time was, in Heidegger’s later view, insufficiently attentive to the inevitability of a certain failure, and Heidegger came to seek “a language that would take into account, recognize, and preserve a certain necessary failure-to-say with respect to (the question of) being” (156). This language would still be metaphysical since the overcoming of metaphysics is itself metaphysical, but it would strive to reveal the very impossibility of finding a location outside metaphysics from which to philosophize. Already in Being and Time questioning is no straightforward matter, however: that Dasein questions being from within being is crucial to the book – an obvious point in itself, but what has been neglected is that the middle and late Heidegger’s works, including those written post-Kehre, therefore represent not a break with his early thought but a deepening of themes and problems that were in play from the start.
Chapter 7 pursues this analysis via a reading of the Contributions. De Jong emphasizes that the forgetfulness of being is neither a problem that can be solved nor an error that can be fixed. Heidegger’s goal is not and cannot be to overcome this forgetfulness but is “to recognize and preserve that forgetfulness as such, or interpret it originally” (200). Indeed, overcoming the forgetfulness, as though it could be left behind, would amount to forgetting it again. What is essential is that we strive not to forget the forgetfulness, that we strive to recognize the limits of thought – which is precisely not stepping beyond them as if they could become negligeable. This recognition, moreover, is a movement that never becomes a completed process.
Part IV, “Of Derrida’s Heideggers,” shows that Derrida’s relation to Heidegger, like his relation to Hegel, is not simply a matter of opposition. In Derrida’s texts, the name “Heidegger” is no more univocal than the name “Hegel.” Chapter 8 explores this complex relation through a reading of Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. The key point is that Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche risks closing off the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts by arriving at some result that is then taken as definitive and final, yet Heidegger’s texts cannot themselves be closed off by interpreting them once and for all as the refusal of indirectness and undecidability. And as de Jong observes, “[Derrida] does not make a simple choice between these two Heideggers. The virtue of that undecidability lies in its potential to open the texts of these thinkers and resist reducing them to the content of an unequivocal thesis” (240). This remark also has worthwhile implications for the question of what it might mean to critique Derrida, though de Jong does not make them wholly explicit: that Derrida cannot be reduced to a purveyor of definite theses means that there are multiple Derridas, and a fruitful critique – fruitful in that it would recognize the limits of thought without seeking to go past them – would then be one that draws out this multiplicity rather than presenting a univocal Derrida who is assigned the role of opponent.
Chapter 9, turns, finally, to the question of responsibility. Here the question of critique or justification gives way to the question of justice. De Jong notes that “in the debate about the ‘ethics of deconstruction,’ interpretations have tended to work within a Levinasian framework, which understands ethics primarily with reference to the ‘other.’ That is quite right, but there is a risk if the other is confused with the external” (242). It is worth explicitly noting what is implicit here: that the other in Levinas is not a matter of externality, as alterity would then be one pole of the externality-internality dichotomy and so would fall within totality. In any case, de Jong’s analysis, which emphasizes complicity and proceeds through a reading of Derrida’s Of Spirit, is excellent. De Jong recognizes the indirectness of Derrida’s texts as a gesture of responsibility. What might appear as an irresponsible refusal to be associated with any position, and hence as a withdrawal from potential criticisms, is an attempt to grapple responsibly with the failure of any position – yet it is a responsibility that can never escape its own complicity with those failures. Heidegger’s own complicity has struck many as uniquely grave, and de Jong notes that Derrida does regard Heidegger’s use of the term Geist, in his 1933 rectorial address, as complicit with Nazism. It does not follow, however, that we can purify our own thought by rejecting Heidegger; Derrida himself cautions us against such an attempt to achieve purity. For Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism took place, writes de Jong, “by way of a mechanism or a ‘program’ of complicity and reaffirmation that Derrida himself does not claim to be able to escape. The program itself consists in the very attempt to escape, the thought that one can exceed racism or biologism by elevating oneself above it to a position of reassuring legitimacy” (251). More broadly, the quest for absolute purity cannot be untangled from a drive to declare oneself innocent – that is, not complicit in anything or, to put it another way, not responsible. But “the ‘fact’ that not all forms of complicity are equivalent” (252) does not mean we can avoid complicity, that we can overcome or go beyond it. We are responsible in advance, inescapably responsible, unable to establish a position that would justify us, free us from complicity, and let us relax in the security of non-responsibility. De Jong’s emphasis on complicity ties back to his earlier argument that Derrida’s texts cannot be made safe from misreading. By resisting the opposition between Derrida’s critics and his defenders, de Jong resists the temptation to safeguard thought, thereby reminding us of our limits. It is because we will never be able to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes, that we are complicit – which is a call not to despair but to the responsibility that, as de Jong’s The Movement of Showing skillfully reminds us, we cannot evade.
An afterword begins by addressing the question of indirectness in de Jong’s own text, and here he proves a less skillful reader than he did when interpreting Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida – though his failings are instructive and perhaps unsurprising, given that we cannot escape complicity with the attempt to arrest the movement of showing to arrive at some fixed position. De Jong asks “why, if [he] ha[s] been successful, [his] own exposition will not have displayed the implicit or explicit self-complication that has been [his] theme” (264). One response, which he admits is “facile,” is that “[he] ha[s] set out to do nothing more than to provide a commentary, and to provide a way of reading that goes against certain ideas about how to interpret the work of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. […] There is no reason why that reading could not be explicated unequivocally” (264). Granted, he himself calls this response “facile,” yet that it should be offered at all indicates the durability of the opposition between a commentary and the work commented upon, with the commentary appearing as merely secondary and derivative. Derrida, let us recall, commented on works by Hegel and Heidegger, and as I noted above, de Jong’s own analysis suggests (though without explicitly saying so) that there are multiple Derridas, as there are multiple Hegels and Heideggers. I do not mean to suggest that all Derridas, Hegels, or Heideggers on whom one might comment are equally valid or fruitful. The Derridas, Hegels, and Heideggers whom one encounters in de Jong’s text are remarkably well interpreted, whereas, to take an extreme example, anyone who attempts to read Of Grammatology as a guide to birdwatching is likely to be disappointed. Consider, however, Derrida’s remark in “Des tours de Babel,” concerning translation, that “the original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking [manquer] – and by pleading for [pleurer après] translation” (Derrida 2007, 207). The so-called original text never stands on its own but is already a translation, is already separated from itself by its inevitable equivocity. Commentary is not exempt from this condition: it is never “nothing more than […] commentary.” De Jong’s writing is clear in that it is easy to follow – easier than Derrida’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s often is – but that does not mean it is univocal. Commentary too is separated from itself – and, moreover, it is a way of translating the so-called original. The texts signed by Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida call out for commentary because they are not summed up in what they say – nor in what any commentary or translation could say. The commentary and the translation plead as well, and they are not safe from misreading. Whether de Jong’s text displays self-complication and whether it does complicate itself are two different questions, and besides, one might well argue that it does display self-complication precisely by calling our attention to our inevitable complicity.
De Jong offers, as a “more principled answer,” the reply that “an awareness of the performative complexity of philosophical texts does not in itself necessitate a specific style” (265). This answer still tends to assume that self-complication must be blatantly visible as such, but de Jong rightly observes that “it is not a matter of doing away with representation or opposition, nor with the traditional form of an academic treatise. At issue is precisely an ‘inner excess,’ or how in what presents itself as proposition, representation or claim, something more, less, or other than what is ‘posited’ in them is taking place” (265). Indeed. Derrida’s styles are not the only ones in which worthwhile thinking may occur. And as there are multiple Derridas, there are multiple de Jongs, whom this review certainly does not exhaust, and I recommend that anyone interested in Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or questions of indirectness more broadly read The Movement of Showing and encounter them for him- or herself. If I have dwelt at some length on the brief and admittedly “facile” response, and if I still reproach the “more principled” response with suggesting, in defense of the book’s clarity, that it is possible to avoid self-complication through the choice of a particular style, it is to highlight a certain complicity with the overly definite and determinate that inevitably accompanies writing. Indirectness cannot, however, simply be opposed to directness, as if one were pure and the other not – a point de Jong does not make explicit but that he could well have. Complicity with the overly definite and determinate is the only way to speak or write at all, and refusing to speak or write out of a desire for purity is an attempt to abdicate responsibility.
Indeed, de Jong in his afterword goes on to observe that “even given the limitations of the propositional form, of representation, and of oppositional determination, it is in and through them that we can and in fact do say more, less, or something else than what is merely ‘contained’ in those determinations” (272). Hence the limits of language are not to be regretted, which is a crucial point. Thus de Jong refuses to take “a negative or skeptical view on language as inadequate or as failing,” calling instead for “a productive view on propositions and claims such that they might carry or co-implicate more than the content that is ‘contained’ in them” (272, emphasis in original). That a text is “lacking,” to recall the above quotation from “Des tours de Babel,” does not mean that it has failed, as though it would have been better for it to lack nothing so that there was no call for translation’s creativity. Complicity does not put an end to creativity – far from it. Because there is no manual telling us precisely how to live out the responsibility by which we are committed in advance, our responses must be creative ones. One of the virtues of The Movement of Showing, though by no means the only one, is that it warns us against considering language—and hence what is expressed through language—a failure because of its limits, and that it points out that language even owes its richness to those very limits. In short, The Movement of Showing is a text that rewards attentive reading, and it makes a valuable contribution to the field.
Derrida, Jacques. 2007. “Des tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity is a multifaceted book. It is undoubtedly an outstanding contribution to Hegel scholarship thanks to its thoroughgoing reconstruction of Hegel’s doctrine of the concept. Gregory Moss’s book is, however, not just a commentary on Hegel; its examination of the Absolute and the concept of the concept makes it a comprehensive and original work on metaphysics and philosophy of logic. Besides, throughout his examination, Moss discusses several major names from the history of philosophy in impressive depth, critically exposing decisive patterns in the history of thought. Within Hegel scholarship, it is a compelling contribution, which supports the “philosophy without foundations” and “Hegel’s logic as metaphysics” readings of Hegel.
Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics is written as a defense of the Absolute from a genuinely Hegelian perspective: Moss takes Hegel literally and puts laudable effort to render Hegel’s metaphysics more intelligible. According to Moss, the Absolute has never been less popular in the history of philosophy as it is in contemporary thought, where post-modernists and new-realists are on a similar page concerning the skepticism toward its non-existence. In such circumstances, Moss undertakes a spirited defense of the Absolute that consists of two parts. The first part of the book lays out the major reasons behind the failure of the history of philosophy in accounting for the Absolute and discusses the problems generated by the compromised stance on the Absolute. The second part is an in-depth reconstruction of the Hegelian solution to those problems and a defense of the Hegelian resurrection of the Absolute.
The first part of the book sets off by explaining the grounds on which the Absolute is denied existence. Moss’s account of other major philosophers’ treatment of the Absolute is thorough and charitable to such an extent that one can easily forget that it is primarily a book about Hegel’s metaphysics. Moss explains why major philosophers avoided or failed to account for the Absolute. Finding the answer in the prevalent conception of the relationships between identity and difference and universality and particularity, Moss shows how the absolute separation of the factors of these dyads creates more significant problems than the ones they solve.
Thus, at the heart of Moss’s argument lies two central and connected claims: First, the denial of the Absolute is bound up with the separation of principles of universality and particularity. Second, this separation rests ultimately on the privileged status of and the dogmatic abidance by the principle of non-contradiction (PNC). Moss wants to show that for those who absolutize the PNC, the Absolute must be either non-existent or at least unknowable. Since every concept and every existing thing, as the argument goes, must conform to this principle, the Absolute, if it exists, must be itself and cannot be what it is not. This implies that the Absolute cannot be anything relative, and everything relative is an other to the Absolute. But this, Moss argues, makes the Absolute limited and not all-encompassing. Such a limited “Absolute” can only be known by what is other to itself, rendering it relative to another. This is, however, clearly a contradiction, as the Absolute is not supposed to be relative. Accordingly, if the Absolute is to exist or be known, then the PNC cannot be the principle governing truth or existence.
In his book, Moss frequently states that Absolute Being is bound up with Absolute Knowledge, both of which are one with the Absolute Truth (Moss: 261). Moss argues that the separation of principles of universality and particularity that holds back the pursuit of the Absolute Truth follows naturally from a strict abidance by the PNC. But this abidance brings about six fundamental problems: Nihilism; Instantiation; the Missing Difference; Absolute Empiricism; Onto-theology; and the Third Man Regress. Before showing how Hegel’s doctrine of the concept as self-differentiation can avoid these problems, Moss explains each of these problems and their connection with the PNC via the history of philosophy. Although it is difficult to give an exhaustive summary of each chapter that deals with one of those problems in a short review, it is worth speaking some of the highlights.
Chapter 1 deals with the problem of nihilism, mainly in the context of German Idealism. Moss points out that German Idealism can be construed as the attempt to ground all true knowledge on a single, foundational principle (Moss: 25). The problem of German Idealists, however, was to be able to derive difference and plurality from such a single principle. As Moss explains in Chapter 1, and discusses with respect to absolute existence in his discussion of Plotinus in Chapter 2, this problem of the Ancient Greek philosophy has survived and reappeared in many different forms during the era of German Idealism. Whether the alleged foundation is a metaphysical or an epistemological principle, the problem was the same: accounting for plurality and difference based on “one self-identical principle that is completely devoid of plurality and difference” (Moss: 27). The failure to do so left the stage to nihilism, as Jacobi compellingly argued in his critique of Fichte’s philosophy. Hegel agreed that it was impossible to derive absolute being and knowledge from a single foundational principle. Nevertheless, he did not choose the Kantian way of deriving difference from some given content, such as that of intuition, either. Instead, Hegel argued for the rejection of first principles in favor of a systematic attempt to derive Absolute without foundations.
In his System of Transcendental Idealism, Schelling tried to avoid this nihilistic fate by a first principle allegedly both analytic and synthetic. He looked for a principle that accommodates both identity and difference, as he correctly saw that no merely analytic principle could bring forth difference from itself, and no merely synthetic principle could be unconditioned. His solution was self-consciousness itself, or more formulaically, the self-identity of the self. Moss argues that this principle was not only self-undermining but also confirmed that the thought of the Absolute entails approval of contradiction. An analytic principle works based on the identity of the subject with the predicate, while a synthetic principle works based on their difference. If a principle is both analytic and synthetic at once, then the subject and predicate must be identical and different at the same time. However, such a contradiction, which Hegel saw as necessary to conceive of the absolute in general, was for Schelling and other German Idealists, not welcome. The underlying problem was their absolute separation of identity from difference. Thus, Moss argues, Schelling had to revert to a Fichtean thetic, equally analytic, first principle, without any non-dogmatic way to derive additional content from itself (Moss: 64).
In Chapter 2, with reference to Plotinus’s theory of emanation, Moss discusses how a similar adherence to the separation of identity and difference brought about the same kind of problem in Neo-Platonic thought. Plotinus’s One is supposed to be undifferentiated and indeterminate, while at the same time emanating difference and plurality. Thus, although emanation implies that the One incorporates the principle of identity and difference at once, plurality and difference are absolute others to the One. Failing to account for this plurality and difference based on identity and singularity, Neo-Platonists were forced to employ metaphors such as emanation and overflow (Moss: 82-86). Moss also points out that similar problems haunted Plotinus’s account of emanation at its further stages.
After showing in reference to two different contexts that a first principle is unable to deliver plurality and difference, in Chapter 3, Moss considers the adoption of a duality of irreducible principles for identity and difference. Kant’s dualism of identity and difference rested respectively on concepts, which are universals, and intuition, the content of which are particulars. This dualism was bound up with a duality of faculties mediated by schematism: understanding as the faculty of concepts and sensibility as the faculty of intuition. Moss shows how this duality is connected to Kant’s rejection of noumenal knowledge as well as the rejection of self-predication and existential implication through intellectual intuition. Moss also explains how similar problems arising from the duality of principles, such as universality and particularity in Plato, and form and matter in Aristotle, were meticulously discussed by these philosophers themselves, without, however, producing a compelling resolution in favor of the being and knowledge of the absolute. Between Chapters 3-7, Moss examines the above-mentioned problems generated by such a duality of principles governing the relationship between identity and universality and difference and particularity.
Moss explains that, for Plato, the problem of instantiation stems from the particular’s partaking in the form, which implies either the multiplicity of one and the same form, or its being divided into parts, which are both absurdities. The problem only gets worse when we think of the possibility of the relation between universal and particular forms. Although Aristotle’s forms are not transcendent, he runs into similar problems, particularly reflected by his idea of the composites of form and matter. “Prime matter” does not exist since, without form, which is the universal, there is nothing determinate. Nevertheless, they are separate in that the form is the active, organizing principle, while matter is the passive recipient. Furthermore, the form cannot activate itself and it is not self-organizing (Moss: 122). Thus, the form needs matter to do what it does, and therefore, be what it is. In other words, the form is the principle of the composite as a determinate being, while matter is the condition of its existence. Aristotle’s universals are existentially realized in their particulars. However, because the form is a this, and therefore, one in number, yet indefinitely repeated in all its instances, Moss argues that the problem of instantiation still plagues Aristotle’s philosophy (Moss: 127).
Together with Chapter 4, Moss’s focus is shifted more directly on the relationship between the universal and the particular, than that of identity and difference, though the former incorporates the latter. This chapter is central to Moss’s problematization of the traditional ways to conceive the concept itself, as it establishes the claim that absolute separation of the universal from the particular undermines any attempt to know the absolute. What is absolutely true is unconditioned: it is not contingent on anything external and is true in virtue of itself. Insofar as the Absolute Truth involves the correspondence of the concept with the object, it cannot be known unless the concept as the universal corresponds to its particulars. In the traditional accounts, however, the concept or the universal is not true in virtue of itself and is always relative to something else. For Kant, the truth of the object is indexed to the conceptualizing subjectivity, while in Aristotle, the truth of thought is anchored to the independent thing itself. Throughout his book, Moss attempts to establish that if the concept does not amplify itself and generate its particulars, if it is not self-predicative, it cannot demonstrate its existence and cannot be truly known. Nevertheless, self-predication is not consistent with the dualistic model of conceptual constitution, which takes universality and particularity as two separate principles. When there is a duality of principles, the universal cannot account for its particulars, that is, how they are distinguished from one another. This implies that the universal cannot be known to correspond to its particulars in virtue of itself, as it would be indifferent to whatever particularity they have. Therefore, the duality of principles renders the concept relatively true at best. This, according to Moss, is “the basic systematic ground for the inability of philosophy to achieve Absolute Truth” (Moss: 147).
To build up this argument, Moss explains why the traditional forms of the concept as an abstract universal, genus, and class (or set) are equally incapable of differentiating their particulars (or accounting for their differences). He explains that these traditional forms of the concept appeal to givens, presuppose the concept as finite, and deny that the concept is existentially implicative and self-predicative. However, it is important to note in advance that in the second part of the book, Moss shows that these finite conceptions of the concept are still incorporated by Hegel’s account of the concept.
The abstract universal is the view of the concept as the common feature shared by a plurality. Such a general feature cannot contain, specify, or distinguish and individuate the particulars to which it applies. Instead, this general feature is abstracted from some given plurality existing independently of the universal. As opposed to the abstract universal, the genus contains its particulars, i.e., species, within itself. Nevertheless, it also has no say on the differentiae that differentiate species from one another, which, again, need to be given extraneously. Likewise, the class or set is not sufficient to differentiate its members, even though as the totality of its members, it is not distinct from them: “Just as abstract universality fails to distinguish instances, class membership also fails to individuate members” (Moss: 142). Moss explains that since the universal understood in these traditional ways cannot differentiate the associated particulars, another principle of differentiation must be introduced, while another universal would only reiterate the problem until some non-universal and given content is externally introduced to do the job. Second, the concept’s incapacity to differentiate its particulars or generate its concept makes it a finite or limited concept; a limit intrinsic to the traditional senses of the concept. Since in those cases, the universal will not be sufficient to account for whether or how the concept corresponds to the particulars, recourse to some external principle will be needed, rendering the concept further limited. Third, the concept’s inability to differentiate its particulars comes together with the inability to exhibit existential implication. Since the truth of the concept construed in the traditional ways will be contingent on external factors, there is no way to tell if the existence of its particulars beyond mere possibility follows from the content of the universal. Finally, Moss argues, insofar as the concept is incapable of existential implication, it follows that the universal is unable to predicate itself on its own accord as self-predication entails existential implication.
In the last section of Chapter 4, Moss elucidates how the inadequate conceptions of the concept, in which the universal is severed from the particular, necessarily follow from a dogmatic abidance by the PNC. Moss does so with reference to the philosophies of Kant and Aristotle. As to Kant, Moss argues that the PNC is a formal principle of truth, sufficient only to establish the truth of analytic judgments. Like any other formal principle, since it cannot specify the content of predicates, it cannot have a say on the truth of synthetic judgments, which assert something about the relation between the subject and the predicate. From this, Moss derives the conclusion that “the formality of the PNC entails that in order to discover the truth of the synthetic judgment, one must consult a separate source of truth beyond the domain of logic” (Moss: 151). Although Kant’s synthetic judgment does demand a separate and non-formal source or principle of truth, why the duality of principles derives from an abidance by the PNC could use further clarification, as one also needs to know whether the truth criterion of synthetic judgments is equally insufficient to affirm the truth of analytics judgments. But Moss does explain here why Kant’s determinacy of the concept is contingent on its having consistent predicates, rendering determinacy dependent on the PNC as it is on the given content of the intuition. The conclusion with reference to Aristotle is similar. Moss explains that for Aristotle, the PNC is fundamental because without it, all things could be both predicated and denied of the same thing, rendering everything indeterminate or nothing. Because the genus cannot differentiate its species, the differentiation must come from somewhere else. Otherwise, the genus would be enough to distinguish one species from another. Moss argues that this separation of identity represented by the genus and the difference represented by the species is motivated by the PNC.
Later on, Moss acknowledges that the philosophers he talks about are right to undergird their dualities by the PNC. Furthermore, he will also argue that there are particular concepts such as the genus, and they are undergirded by the PNC. In a way, I would say that the real problem seems to be not that these thinkers abide by the PNC more than the fact they cannot think of the kind of concept, the absolute concept, that does not abide by the PNC.
In the following three chapters, Moss discusses four problems created by the separation of the universal from the particular. The problem of the Missing Difference stems from the concept of the concept’s inability to differentiate its particulars, that is, particular concepts, insofar as the concept of concept only species the feature common to all concepts. What is really “missing” is a principle through which particular concepts are distinguished from one another. Accordingly, the problem cannot be resolved by defining a particular concept, since that would only point to an already differentiated particular, not to how it is differentiated in the first place. The principle cannot be found outside of the concept of the concept either, as all conceptual differences will fall in the concept of the concept as its particulars.
A clarification for why the external principle of difference could only be a conceptual difference is found at the beginning of Moss’s discussion of the problem of Absolute Empiricism in Chapter 5. Indeed, as Moss explains, the problem of Absolute Empiricism, in its ‘psychologist,’ ‘nominalist,’ and ‘naturalist’ forms, originates from the failure to find the source of conceptual difference within the concept. In other words, it is the outcome of a search for the categorical differences outside of categories. As the last section of this chapter explains, however, Absolute Empiricism is self-undermining, because in its prioritizing particulars, it makes them into universals immanent in the concept of particulars, and in its prioritizing class as the meaning of the concept, it contradictorily maintains a non-empirical justification. Again, in Chapter 5, Moss successfully explains how the paradox of thinghood and its differentiation in Aristotle’s philosophy instantiates the problem of Missing Difference. The Kantian version of the problem is somewhat different. In Kant, the problem is that the differences between intuitions are only determined by categories, that is, concepts, while categories themselves cannot be distinguished from one another in the absence of intuitions. Thus, categories cannot categorize themselves, while intuitions cannot intuit themselves. What makes the Kantian problem an instance of the Missing Difference is that the differentiation is not accounted for by appeal to what the differentiated is in virtue of itself, but by appeal to its relations.
The beginning of Chapter 6 elucidates one of the main claims of the book: a strict abidance by the PNC makes it impossible to conceive of the concept as self-differentiating, as the self-differentiating concept is one and many, being the universal and its particulars at the same time. However, unless the concept is self-differentiating, then it will be impossible to explain the particulars of the concept without an extraneous principle. This is most evident in the differentiation of the concept of the concept. If the concept of the concept does not differentiate itself, then either there will not be any particulars or particular concepts will be determined extraneously. But if the former, then insofar as the concept of the concept is itself a particular concept in virtue of being self-differentiating, the concept of the concept will itself be impossible. Likewise, if the concept of the concept is undifferentiated, this will automatically render it a particular concept, in virtue of its being an undifferentiated concept.
Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the different sides of the same problem, which stems from the concept’s self-referential character. In Chapter 6, mostly through a discussion of Heidegger’s construal of onto-theology, Moss argues that the abidance by the PNC leads to the problem of onto-theology, which consists in equivocating Being with a being or beings. Any attempt to specify what Being is cannot but end up determining Being as a being. This is similar to the equivocation of the universal with the particular, which is unacceptable to those who think that the two are absolutely distinct. As the Third Man Regress shows, trying to specify the universal will render it a particular. In other words, the denial of true contradictions necessarily leads to the non-existence of particular concepts, although this position will ultimately undermine itself by rendering the concept without particulars a particular concept.
The second part of Moss’s book is devoted to showing how these perennial problems produced by the duality of principles of identity and difference and universality and particularity can only be overcome by what he calls “Absolute Dialetheism— the view that the Absolute can only exist as a true contradiction” (Moss: 156). Moss thinks that such an Absolute Dialetheism is embodied in Hegel’s metaphysics, which can accommodate the Absolute as it denies that the PNC is the ultimate principle. Thus, Moss’s defense of the Absolute is through a reconstruction of Hegel’s doctrine of the concept, and his concept of the singular, which for Moss, constitutes the backbone of Hegel’s dialetheist metaphysics. Moss claims that as opposed to the finite concept of the tradition, Hegel’s concept can lay hold of the Absolute, and he wants to show that Hegel does not just posit this conclusion but arrives at it by following the immanent logic of the finite concept and demonstrating how the finite universality undermines and transforms itself. Accordingly, most of the second part of the book is a defense of why Hegel’s concept avoids the problems arising from the absolutization of the PNC and the separation of the concept from particularity.
Moss quotes Hegel’s complaint that it is difficult to tell what other philosophers mean by the concept because that meaning is always taken for granted and the concept of the concept is never the subject of philosophical inquiry (Moss: 258–9). Indeed, something similar can be argued with respect to the reception of Hegel’s concept of the concept. Although scholars would agree on the centrality of the concept for Hegel’s system, there are not many thorough and elucidative accounts of it. Moss’s Hegel’s Foundation Free Philosophy is one of the rare examples that undertake such an inquiry and work out the secrets of Hegel’s concept. This involves, above all, figuring out the relationship between the universal, particular, the singular, the three constituents of the concept of the concept. Unlike what most philosophers before and after Hegel thought, this problem is not one between the universal and empirical particulars. It is about the universal and particular as such, and their unity in the singular.
Moss acknowledges that one way to reconstruct Hegel’s solution to the problems explained in the first part of the book is to go through Hegel’s foundation free system of logic, from the indeterminacy to the Absolute Idea (Moss: 311). Hegel’s Foundation Free Philosophy uses a different path for the same destination by first taking a detour, examining major accounts from the history of philosophy, and then focusing on Hegel’s doctrine of the concept. Nonetheless, Moss does an admirable job in clarifying some of the fundamental logical categories that Hegel’s concept presupposes and distinguishing them from the concept and its constituents. Especially in Chapter 12, Moss does an impressive job in emphasizing the character and relevant categories of Hegel’s logic of being, essence, and the concept. In so doing, he lays bare what is distinctive about the logic of the concept and self-differentiation compared to self-othering transitions of the logic of Being and the unilaterally determining oppositions of the logic of Essence and addresses why it is Hegel’s concept of the concept rather than any previous category that can solve the perennial problems in question.
Moss undertakes a painstaking metaphysical reading of Hegel’s concept as he explicates it in the Science of Logic. It is a metaphysical reading because Moss thinks that Hegel’s concept exists and is necessary to conceive how and why the Absolute also exists and can be known. The key to the argument for the existence of the concept is Moss’s emphasis on Hegel’s identification of the universal with self-differentiation and his construal of singularity in terms of existential implication. In Chapter 8, Moss introduces the features of the self-differentiating concept, and in Chapter 10, he explains in more detail how and why Hegel’s concept eschews the problems laid out in the first part of the book.
The universal is self-differentiating, and in its differentiation, it instantiates itself without ceasing to be what it is, namely, self-particularization into instances. These instantiations are but its particulars. Thus, the universal is self-particularizing, and Moss argues, the self-instantiation of the universal as its own particulars is equally existential implication. The concept demonstrates its existence in virtue of itself through its self-differentiated particulars, and it spells out what it is only through its self-particularization. Thus, the self-differentiating concept is equally self-referential and self-predicative, and insofar it determines itself and is not determined or differentiated by anything extraneous or non-conceptual, it can be true in itself, unconditioned, and absolute (Moss: 262). In other words, the determinate content of the universal is not given, but the concept’s own doing, which is why it can avoid foundationalism and the empiricist appeal to non-conceptual givens (Moss: 309). Moreover, since Hegel’s universal is not separated from its particulars, neither Onto-theology nor the Third Man Regress constitutes a problem for Hegel’s concept of the concept.
Moss argues that the concept that is self-predicative, existentially implicative, and true-in-virtue-of-itself cannot be finite as it would not depend upon anything other than itself. In this regard, Moss argues, the concept is both analytic and synthetic. It is synthetic in virtue of its analyticity: that which is true about the concept is contained within it, but what is true about it is its being ampliative, its going beyond itself, thus, its being synthetic. Because it can account for the difference from within itself, the self-differentiating concept is immune to Jacobi’s nihilism objection as well as the problem of the missing difference (Moss: 309). Again, in Chapter 8 and 10, by explaining the structural features of Hegel’s system of logic, Moss discusses why and how Hegel’s system does not presuppose this concept of the concept or the absolute as given, but systematically derives it beginning with the indeterminate.
Given that the separation of the universal from the particular is driven by the PNC, self-predicative and existentially implicative concept, which entails that the universal will be particular in virtue of its universality, will also be self-contradicting, and therefore, in contradiction with the PNC. The true universal can only be itself in its differentiation of itself. In contrast to several other Hegel scholars, Moss owns up to Hegel’s incorporation of contradictions on its face value. Instead of trying to show that Hegel did not really mean to admit contradictions, Moss elucidates Hegel’s account of contradiction, explaining why those contradictions do not explode into `everything and nothing` but only give rise to particular categories. In this sense, he is one of the few to demonstrate that a Hegelian version of dialetheism is not just a logically exploitable tool but also offers a compelling metaphysical account of fundamental concepts such as being, existence, identity, difference, universal, particular, and the singular. In the light of his discussion of Hegelian contradictions, in Chapter 9, Moss compares his version of Absolute Dialetheism with what he calls the Relative Dialetheism of Markus Gabriel.
In Chapter 11, Moss speaks of the relationship between the concept and objectivity in Hegel’s logic before examining Hegel’s derivation of the singular from the self-differentiating universality as the micro version of Hegel’s ontological argument. By noting that a full explication of this argument requires an account for the logical system’s “amplifying itself into nature and spirit,” Moss lays out the logical structure of the argument in terms of the self-predicative and existentially implicative character of the concept and the resulting category of singularity (Moss: 353).
Chapter 13 is where Moss provides a thorough reconstruction of Hegel’s doctrine of the concept and its three constituents, universality, particularity, and singularity, according to the book’s main claims. Compared to several other commentaries on the concept of the concept, I can assuredly state that Moss’s reconstruction achieves to be one of the most careful and illuminating commentaries in Hegel scholarship. Moss does not only trace the development of the moments of the concept and explicates the relationships among the universal, particular, and the singular, but he also clarifies them in comparison with parallel determinacies and movements that came before the concept in the system of logic and were incorporated by the latter. Unfortunately, since each step in the development of singularity from the universal as self-differentiation is crucial, it is not possible to discuss Moss’s treatments of particular transitions while leaving some others out.
Since the universal as such differentiates itself as particular universals, Moss emphasizes that Hegel’s concept does not leave out forms of universality prevalent in the history of philosophy, such as the abstract universal, class, and the genus. Because they stand for the negation of the self-differentiation of the universal, and thus, for the separation of the universal from the particular, they are particular universals that are grounded upon an illusory dichotomy between the universal and the particular. The dichotomy is illusory insofar as they still fall within the concept and are still particular self-differentiations of it. Singularity is the moment of the overcoming of this false dichotomy and demonstrates the unity of the universal and the particular. The finite concept transforms itself into singularity on account of the very contradiction to which the finite concept of universality is driven. Thus, Moss attempts to show, Hegel’s solution to the problems is not merely in terms of the concept as self-differentiation, but ultimately through the result of the development of the concept: singularity. As the book tries to build up from the very beginning, this unity is the unity of the universal qua self-differentiation and the resulting differentiations: its particulars. In Chapter 14, Moss argues that by showing that the moments of particularity in Hegel’s logic of the concept follow from the self-differentiating universal, Hegel demonstrates that they are not unfounded or utterly arbitrary, as other philosophers leave them to be, but are instead the products of self-determining thought.
Again, in this chapter, “Empiricism, Judgment, and Inference,” Moss discusses how empirical concepts and judgment can be reconciled with Hegel’s doctrine of the concept, and addresses a common confusion by briefly explaining Hegel’s conception of empirical concepts, and shows why the concept in its proper sense should not be conflated with empirical concepts. Unlike the logical concept and its true instantiations in nature and spirit, empirical concepts are not infinite, self-differentiating, or existentially implicative. That is why, Moss explains, in contrast with the concept proper, an empirical concept is subject to the PNC, which has a say on abstract concepts.
Even with the book’s many merits, there are two main points on which it could be improved. First, the heavy load of content that extends to various domains and major philosophers that Moss aims to gather under certain banners seems to have encumbered a more efficient organization. This is quite natural given that Moss chose to deal with tremendously intricate problems both thematically and historically at the same time while he also did not want to leave out any relevant issue. In this regard, my second criticism contradicts the first one in the spirit of the book itself, as I will complain about the relative neglect of some further content, namely, Hegel’s Idea and its role in the solution to the problems Moss discusses. For Hegel, truth concerns not only the concept but also objectivity, which is why only the Idea, the unity of the concept with its objectivity, can be true. Accordingly, the Absolute Truth cannot be truly conceived apart from the Absolute Idea. Indeed, Moss points this out in Chapter 12 where he briefly talks about the Idea, while he also acknowledges that the concept is not itself the truth (Moss: 376). Furthermore, in several different places throughout the book, Moss also indicates that Hegel’s Absolute cannot be fully comprehended, and his ontological “argument” cannot be sufficiently assessed without engaging with how the concept gives rise to the domains of nature and spirit. Nevertheless, Moss could have made it clearer to what extent the Idea has a considerable role in Hegel’s solving the problems of his predecessors concerning the Absolute, which I believe is worth reconsideration. Nevertheless, to sum up, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity is an ambitious project that painstakingly covers sizeable ground. It is undoubtedly a work that deserves extensive discussion and should function as a comprehensive guide to understand Hegel’s logic of the concept.
This volume continues Palgrave’s impressive Handbooks in German Idealism series, already comprising significant collections of essays on the topics of German Idealism in general, Kant, Fichte, and German Romanticism. At the time of writing, volumes on Schelling and on the relation between German Idealism and Existentialism are also on the way.
A book of this kind, collecting up-to-date critical contributions across all of the major areas addressed in Hegel’s systematic philosophy, might be thought to stand in competition with a number of similar recent volumes, perhaps most obviously Baur and Houlgate’s A Companion to Hegel (2011) from Blackwell, de Laurentiis and Edwards’ Bloomsbury Companion to Hegel (2013), and Moyar’s The Oxford Handbook of Hegel (2017). The reality of the situation, however, in the light of the richness of Hegel’s work, is that these collections complement one another. They do so by assembling investigations of Hegel’s work on phenomenology, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of history, and so on, that are frequently interestingly different in emphasis, evaluation, or interpretation. The essays included in such volumes can be read in isolation, so that somebody interested in, say, topics in Hegel’s philosophy of religion, would benefit from consulting the relevant essays in all four works, without having to engage with each in its entirety. At the same time, due to their scope and size, all four share the virtue of offering readers the opportunity to consider the various topics addressed within them in a systematic context (valuable in the case of Hegel).
The fact that such “competitors” exist also has consequences for how one evaluates the coverage of this volume. The Palgrave Hegel Handbook, to provide one example, has comparatively little in the way of entries which focus upon engagement with Hegel’s work in the twentieth century. Notably, it has no entries which focus upon the reception of Hegel among phenomenologists, critical theorists, or twentieth century French philosophers. This is a particular strength of the Blackwell Companion. It also has comparatively less to say about specific metaphysical topics treated in the Science of Logic; the Oxford Handbook is stronger here. To provide one more example, however, The Palgrave Hegel Handbook clearly offers more than the other collections when it comes to topics in Hegel’s epistemology and philosophy of mind. All four of the volumes that I have mentioned address all of the major aspects of Hegel’s systematic philosophy, but differences in focus such as those in the examples just provided demonstrate another way in which a reader with access to all of them will find that they complement one another. From this point on I will focus this review upon The Palgrave Hegel Handbook alone.
Before discussing the content of the volume, I will make one further remark concerning coverage. It would be unreasonable to expect such a volume to be truly exhaustive in term of the material with which it engages, and the editors make no such claim. Given, however, that the final section of the volume comprises entries on “Hegelianism and Post-Hegelian Thought”, and the editors’ commitment to assessing ‘contemporary controversies concerning his philosophy’ (l), one might think that this would be a good opportunity to include a substantive entry engaging with the already-sizeable and growing body of work concerning Hegel’s colonialism, sexism, and racism, not only in terms of the nature of the implications of his prejudices for the evaluation of his philosophical work, but also in terms of the positive uses made of the resources of Hegel’s thought over the last seventy or so years by those seeking to oppose and overcome such prejudices. Unfortunately, such topics are not treated here. In light of recent collections such as Monahan’s Creolizing Hegel (2017), some engagement with work of this kind would have made a valuable addition to the volume.
The volume opens with a helpful analytical table of contents which roughly indicates the content of each essay. Interesting material is also included in the form of appendices; I particularly enjoyed the schematic presentation of Hegel’s major works as they correspond to the various parts of his mature philosophical system. Importantly, the editors have included Hegel’s various lecture courses in Jena, Heidelberg, and Berlin in this context. Given the richness of many of the transcripts from these lectures, this amounts to a very useful pointer for further reading on the various topics covered in the volume. I was less sure of the editors’ “Agenda for Future Research”. Although the suggestions are certainly valid (and, in my opinion, interesting), and the editors note that this material is ‘suggestive, not exhaustive’ (581), there is no clear criterion according to which some possible projects have been included and others excluded. Why emphasise, for example, the possibility of distinctively Hegelian contributions to contemporary cognitive science (583), but say nothing of the possibility of introducing Hegel to contemporary metaphysical discussions of natural kinds, or of monism, as suggested by Kreines (2015), or of the possible value of Hegelian insights in considering contemporary social pathologies, as explored by Bunyard (2019)? Certainly, there is a multitude of avenues for further research available to those interested in Hegel’s philosophy, but I am not sure how valuable it is for the editors to pick just some and list them.
I also think that the short editors’ introduction to the volume is perhaps not as helpful as it could have been. It aims to provide a sketch of contents and significant goals of the various parts of Hegel’s system, but while this breadth of scope is appropriate here, the brevity of the introduction means that the key claims being singled out are often not explained in sufficient detail. Instead, one gets the impression that the introduction is rather hurriedly emphasizing those elements of Hegel’s philosophy which the editors, perhaps especially Westphal, take to be most significant for contemporary thought (the majority of the references to chapters in the volume are to those by Westphal). I was left feeling that it would have been better simply to indicate the themes of the chapters and let the reader get on with reading them, since there these technical claims receive more adequate and clearer treatment. One valuable addition, however, is a brief run-down of various senses in which Hegel deploys the term “dialectic”. It would have been even better if this account could have been extended with references to analyses of Hegel’s various dialectical arguments, conceptual explications, and the like, as they occur among some of the chapters in the book.
There are twenty-eight essays in this volume. It is impossible within the confines of even a reasonably long review to adequately address even the majority of them. I shall endeavour to say something about seven chapters, composing two of the volume’s eight parts. I will focus my attention on the material concerning Hegel’s engagement with his immediate forbears, his epistemology, and his Science of Logic. This emphasis reflects the interests and expertise of the reviewer and I acknowledge that a case could be made for arguing that some of the most noteworthy essays in the volume are not those which fall into these categories. I will briefly draw attention to what I considered to be some of the most worthwhile essays addressing other topics in the volume at the end of the review.
Part I considers Hegel’s intellectual background and the nature of his philosophical project. There is a short sketch of Hegel’s intellectual life by Bykova which covers more or less what one would expect it to. Particularly good is Bykova’s treatment of the evolution of Hegel’s philosophical aspirations, from an early enthusiasm for popular philosophy and the moral education of the people to his later, considered belief that the practical benefits of philosophy would be better accomplished on the back of a more thorough-going revision of its more abstract, theoretical underpinnings.
Also featured here is an essay by Baur which carries out the task, crucial in a volume which treats the key themes of Hegel’s epistemology and metaphysics, of reconstructing the major philosophical developments which took place in Germany between the publication of Kant’s first Critique and Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is important because many of the major disputes in the interpretation of Hegel’s work (especially his metaphysics) since at least as far back as the 1970s have turned on how to understand his relation to his forbears, especially Kant. This is a lot to address in one essay and there are elements of the account that could have been made clearer: Baur spends some time, quite properly, explaining Kant’s rejection of the possibility of intellectual intuition for human cognition, but then does not explicitly mention intellectual intuition in his treatment of Fichte or Schelling, despite its crucial importance for their projects. More problematically, he suggests that Schelling and Hegel’s idealisms move away from the more subjective idealisms of Kant and Fichte because the former two come endorse the Spinozistic claim that ‘mind and world are fully co-extensive’ (37), but provides no clear argument as to why they might have been justified in endorsing such a claim. This risks giving the impression that Schelling’s and Hegel’s projects amount to a reversion to pre-critical dogmatism, despite the fact that Baur wants to claim that they do not (23). Still, it is necessary to paint with broad brushstrokes in an essay of this kind, and I think that Baur largely succeeds in characterising the idea of Hegel’s project in the Phenomenology as a series of determinate negations intended to persuade his opponents of the validity of metaphysics which can ‘combine the pre-Kantian thought of Spinoza with the post-Kantian thought of Fichte’ (23).
Westphal also includes an article of his own here which distils some of the key points of the interpretation of Hegel’s epistemology that he has been developing for some decades, most recently and thoroughly presented in his (2018). Westphal’s impressive scholarship is on display here as he relates the project of Hegel’s Phenomenology to key philosophical developments both before and after its publication. I shall not discuss the contents of the essay here: a critical engagement with Westphal’s account of Hegel’s project demands more space than a book review of this kind can accommodate. I will say, however, that although Westphal’s writing is clear, this article is something of a whirlwind of references to various works and topics, and at times demands a not insignificant amount of relevant knowledge on behalf of the reader (although, to be fair, it also provides plenty of references for further reading). While there are articles in this volume that would be useful for students with an interest in Hegel’s work, I would not be quick to direct a student towards this one.
Somewhat oddly also placed here is a piece by Varnier on Hegel’s epistemology. The immediate value of this essay is that it encourages those looking to identify Hegel’s epistemological positions to direct their gaze beyond the 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit, and particularly towards the section of Hegel’s Logic on cognition and the material on theoretical spirit in the Philosophy of Spirit. In fact, Varnier does not go far enough concerning this crucial point; it should be remembered that the primary function of Hegel’s argument in the Phenomenology is to provide (immanent) criticism of the various positions of “natural consciousness” opposed in various ways to Hegel’s own idealist position. Identifying distinctive Hegelian epistemological positions in the arguments of the Phenomenology, therefore, is at the very least a rather murky procedure, as what is identified as an internal problem for a particular shape of consciousness in that work need not automatically imply clear positions that we can take Hegel to endorse. It seems to me that Westphal, in the previous essay in this volume, does not do enough to address concerns of this kind.
Varnier’s article concerns itself principally with two topics. Firstly, he seems to accept something like the metaphysics-first metaphilosophy attributed to Hegel in (Kreines 2015) when he suggests that relevance to epistemology of Hegel’s Logic is that it provides a ‘theory of all ontological structures of science and of common knowledge, which make knowledge possible and certain’ (67). In this context, by asking about how Hegel defends this metaphysical project itself against scepticism Varnier seems to be engaging with important questions about Hegel’s views on the epistemology of metaphysics. Secondly, Varnier also treats Hegel’s views on traditional epistemological matters such as the justification of everyday beliefs and the definition of knowledge. Regarding the first topic – the epistemology of Hegel’s metaphysics – Varnier appeals to various “introductions” Hegel provided to his systematic philosophy, the arguments of which are presumably intended to go some way towards securing the metaphysical claims made in the latter (67). This is not an unusual view, and nor is Varnier’s suggestion that the various determinate negations of natural consciousness carried out in the Phenomenology vindicate thought’s claims about the nature of objective reality (71). Given that this essay is preceded by two others which also address the introductory function of Hegel’s Phenomenology, I would suggest that less time could have been spent on this aspect of the epistemology of Hegel’s metaphysics, in favour of topics that have received less attention, perhaps concerning the matter of how to evaluate the claims to knowledge made in the context of Hegel’s Logic itself, or in his Realphilosophie, for example.
Varnier’s treatment of the second topic is briefer that his treatment of the first, which is a shame. He provides a lengthy passage on the nature of knowledge from the Philosophy of Spirit but decides not to ‘dissect’ it (74). Instead he suggests rather briefly, and in a manner that was not clear to me, that Hegel is arguing both for the strong claim that our use of concepts tracks reality in a manner constitutive of knowledge as a matter of ‘necessity’ (74), and for the ‘irreality… of any and every finite standpoint’ (76). In order for these two claims not to be in tension with one another, it seems that the knowing subject in the former case must not be any individual, finite knower, but somehow the historically developing community of interdependent, human, knowing subjects that might be labelled ‘absolute spirit’ in Hegelian language. Indeed, Varnier suggests that, for the collective subject of absolute spirit, ‘the knower and the known are fully adequate to each other’ (75). Peculiarly, however, he then goes on to suggest that absolute spirit itself is also just another finite perspective, adherence to which invites scepticism (76). It is not obvious to me how to reconcile these two claims. Varnier also suggests that the transition from “essence” to “concept” in the Logic might constitute an argument against the sceptical suggestion that our knowledge might be restricted to appearances, and therefore that we might not know how reality really is, but again he refuses to explore that argument (76). He concludes with some highly interesting remarks on the connection between knowledge and practical reason in Hegel’s work, and suggests a possible connection to be drawn with contemporary virtue epistemology (78), but these promising ideas are, frustratingly, left undeveloped here.
I pass over Part II, which focuses on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, to consider Part III, which focuses mostly on Hegel’s Science of Logic. As I mentioned earlier, this volume does not include dedicated contributions on Hegel’s specific treatment of various historically significant logical or metaphysical topics. Instead this section includes helpful and interesting essays by Nuzzo and Burbidge, on the method of Hegel’s logical investigations and on his infamous use of Aufhebung, respectively, followed by a rather informal essay by Southgate which attempts to provide a big-picture overview of an account of metaphysical holism developed in the Doctrine of Essence and to connect it to Hegel’s account of freedom.
Southgate’s piece is a curious addition to this volume. Unlike the other chapters, it does not really represent an intervention either into debates in the secondary literature concerning Hegel’s position or argument on some philosophical issue, or into philosophical work on some topic along Hegelian lines. As such, although its principal topics are metaphysical holism, human freedom, and the connection between the former and the latter in Hegel’s thought, there is no real discussion of debates between those who consider Hegel to be a holist in the relevant sense and those who do not, for example. The major focus of the chapter, instead, seems to be to sketch a way in to Hegel’s thought, aimed at illustrating its importance for those uncertain as to whether or not to spend the time working their way through his famously difficult prose. As such, this chapter, more than any other in the volume, appears to be aimed at students approaching Hegel for the first time, or, possibly, academics considering how to introduce Hegel to such students.
With this goal in mind, I think that Southgate does quite a good job here, although some may find his style a little grating. There is a helpful discussion of Hegel’s account of freedom, aimed at defusing the tendency to suppose that Hegel is arguing naively that it is in fact possible to peacefully view all tragic events as merely the outcome of our own development and to assume responsibility for them (187-88). Southgate redirects the reader towards Hegel’s treatment of those relations which seem to actualise and illuminate freedom in the sense of “being with oneself in the other” and provides a helpful discussion of this vital notion (188-89). One might express the concern, however, that, in his attempt to emphasise to the reader the existential significance of Hegel’s notion of freedom, Southgate’s presentation can come across as rather too heavily focused on the individual’s own attitude towards freedom, at the cost of playing down Hegel’s emphasis on the objective social structures required for such attitudes. I should add that I think that few readers will find his attempt to reverse engineer an account of metaphysical holism from this account of freedom, or to try to provide a sense of it by appeal to the experience of running an ultramarathon to be successful (Southgate seems to think that Hegel’s position is in some important sense ineffable, but I do not know why).
Nuzzo’s chapter on the method of Hegel’s logical science is a valuable addition to this volume, drawing as it does on her sustained work on this topic over several years. Nuzzo helpfully situates the discussion of Hegel’s dialectical logic in relation to both Kant’s transcendental logic and to traditional, Aristotelian logic. Of especial value here is her account of Hegel’s critique of the formality of transcendental logic in terms of what he judges to be a ‘failed relation to the object’ (156) because of Kant’s separation of sensibility and understanding. Here Nuzzo’s account helpfully explains that Hegel is not simply ignoring or conflating Kant’s distinction between general and transcendental logic (as it might appear, at times).
Interestingly, on the basis of Hegel’s claim that Kant’s transcendental logic, dependent as it is on the input of sensibility for its objects, is unable to deliver the truth about those objects, Nuzzo moves to suggest that Hegel’s dialectical logic is in fact closer to general logic, precisely because it does not involve transcendental logic’s necessary reliance upon an object given to it from elsewhere (Incidentally, the claim Hegel’s new logical method is prompted by what he sees as the failure of Kant’s transcendental logical method does not seem to fit with Nuzzo’s stated rejection of readings of Hegel which have him construct an ‘path alternative to the generally accepted Kantian one’ (154), but I think that it is the former claim which is more important to her argument). In the case of general logic, of course, this is simply because it can be carried out completely abstractly, without reference to real objects, while Hegel sets for dialectical logic the ambitious task of a thinking that, like general logic, is pure in that it requires no input from externally given real objects, but at the same time delivers the truth about real objects nevertheless.
Nuzzo’s account of the method of such a dialectical logic accurately captures the Hegelian claim that the content of logic should not be separate from its form, and that logical thinking can generate its own content. Of course, even if one accepts Nuzzo’s characterisation of Hegel’s method in terms of the generation of logical content from the dynamic movement of thought itself, the question remains, particularly after the treatment of Hegel’s criticism of Kant, as to why one should suppose that this immanently generated logical content accurately tracks reality. Nuzzo rightly points out that Hegel takes his logical science to amount to an ‘objective thinking’ (161), but the reader may well wonder why this does not amount to anything more than an interesting new style of pre-critical dogmatism. To be fair to Nuzzo though, her chapter is concerned with the method of Hegel’s logic, and not with the question of how that logic also amounts to a metaphysics. This latter question has received plenty of attention in recent work on Hegel, and I think that Nuzzo’s essay succeeds admirably in shedding some light on its chosen subject-matter.
I should point out that there is a slightly misleading slip in the language of this paper. Nuzzo describes the relation between the question of the relation between Hegel’s dialectical logic and his attitude to Kant’s transcendental logic and the question of the relation between the conclusion of the Phenomenology of Spirit and the idea of logic present in the Science of Logic as ‘all but self-explanatory’ (155), where she means “anything but self-explanatory” (She does go on to provide an excellent explanation later in the chapter). Unfortunately, although no one paper in the volume exhibits a high volume of typos, mistakes, or awkward phrasings, there is quite a number of such things spread across the book as a whole. In general, the Palgrave Hegel Handbook would have benefitted from more careful editing on this score.
Burbidge, in his contribution, provides an illuminating discussion of Hegel’s use of the term Aufhebung, which describes the kind of transitions or inferences key to every part of Hegel’s mature philosophy. Burbidge’s chapter compliments Nuzzo’s. Whereas she focused on Hegel’s attempt to present a logical science that generates its own content, his attention is on the nature of the development of that content. In particular, he is concerned to explain how it is that Hegel is able to argue that more complex thought determinations emerge out of simpler and less determinate ones, without surreptitiously assuming those more complex determinations as a goal in advance. Of course, this has always been a common complaint made against Hegel’s procedure, and Burbidge makes quite a good case for thinking that it is unfounded. He shows, particularly by appealing to remarks Hegel makes towards the end of his treatment of quantitative concepts, and in his account of the absolute idea, that the basic parts of a move that can be described as an Aufhebung, the movement, that is, through which more complex determinations are generated from simpler ones, are firstly the immanent negation of some determination, followed in turn by the negation of the determination to which the first negation gave rise. This ‘doubled transition’ (171) amounts to a slippage between the two determinations in question, with each implying but excluding the other. Finally, this slippage between determinations can be grasped as a single unity, in which the one-sided conceptions of the previous determinations have been replaced with a conception that grasps them as belonging to this new determination in such a way that they have been both “annulled” and “preserved”, as the verb aufheben can suggest.
Burbidge’s account of the dialectical transitions which make up the argument of Hegel’s Logic does not require Hegel to assume in advance the outcome of those transitions, but there are other worries that might be expressed about it. It is not obvious what it is that gives rise to the moment at which the continual slippage between opposing thought-determinations is grasped as a whole. Burbidge invokes the unifying function that Kant attributes to the categories in the transcendental deduction, but it is not clear how helpful this is. Burbidge himself acknowledges that Kant’s discussion of how the categories unify sensible intuitions that have been synthesised by the imagination is somewhat removed from Hegel’s focus on the relations between concepts alone. What Burbidge seems to want from Kant is a discussion of the understanding, since it is the unifying activity that Kant attributes to the understanding that Burbidge sees in Hegel’s Aufhebung. But even then it is not clear exactly what or who is responsible for this unifying activity in Hegel’s case. What is more, Burbidge seems to slip rather too quickly between Kant’s account of the understanding as a faculty for unifying the deliverances of sensibility under concepts and Hegel’s insistence that the understanding is (primarily) a kind of thinking that separates and statically opposes thought determinations, risking giving the impression that Kant and Hegel are talking about the same thing. This cannot be right, but Burbidge’s suggestion that it is ‘understanding’s “power of the negative”, which collapses the double transition with its inherent contradiction and infinite progress into a simple, unified concept’ (172) is mystifying because it gives precisely this impression. What this account seems to require is a discussion of the kind of thinking Hegel describes as “reason”, but this is strangely absent.
Burbidge goes on to provide a useful overview of some of dialectical transitions which occur early in the first book of Hegel’s Logic. In fact, I think that it would have been better still if he had spent a little more time spelling some of these out, rather than focusing on the account of the concepts of being, nothing, and becoming as his most detailed example of an instance of a logical Aufhebung. In the case of this first dialectical transition it is uniquely difficult to see how the original, one-sided determinations of being and nothing are opposed at all, and thus to get the transition on the move. Things become much clearer in the case of, for example, the treatment of the (qualitative) finite and infinite, which Burbidge treats only briefly.
Turning from the Logic to the metaphysics of nature, Burbidge proceeds to provide a whistle-stop tour through some notable features of contemporary particle physics, biochemisty, and biology (which I am not competent to assess), suggesting that these provide evidence for thinking that the kind of dialectical transitions that Hegel explores in his Logic may appear in the activity and development of nature in ways that Hegel did not anticipate. Burbidge thinks that this amounts to a challenge to Hegel’s view that ‘the universe is grounded in a rational structure that is prior to, and independent of nature’ (180). It is not clear to me that such developments need push Hegel to abandon the idea that logic can be treated as an a priori science, independent of the study of nature, but one whose metaphysical implications might be expected to govern nature. Certainly, we might concede to Burbidge that if nature does indeed appear to run on Aufhebung-like processes, then a thinking which takes its cue from the presence of such dialectical transitions in nature and reflects upon them in an abstract context might come to resemble Hegel’s Logic, but this does not guarantee his conclusion that ‘there is no a priori logical structure, but human thought is affected by what it discovers in the changes and transformations of nature’ (181). Aside from the challenges mounted by Kant, Hegel, and others to conceiving of logic on such an empirical basis, it remains the case that if (and admittedly it is a big “if”) Hegel can make a case for the development of such a logic a priori and show that it has metaphysical implications, then he should not be too troubled by the discovery of natural processes which conform to the structures of thought. Burbidge is right to draw attention to outdated claims and failings in Hegel’s own philosophy of nature, but I do not think that these need to cause problems for Hegel’s big picture concerning the relation between thought and reality and the way that Burbidge seems to think that they might.
With that, I draw my discussion of just some of the essays assembled in this volume to a close. As additional highlights not addressed here, I would direct the reader’s attention to an essay by Collins which considers the role of Hegel’s account of religion in the context of the argument of the Phenomenology (85-108), an essay by Testa on Hegel’s treatment of embodied cognition and agency (269-95), an essay by Yeomans on the relation between Hegel’s logic and his political thought (373-88), and Motroshilova’s account of the development of Hegel’s treatment of the history of philosophy (485-517). By way of conclusion I shall simply state that there is a great deal in this volume that will be of interest to Hegel scholars and students, and that the Palgrave Hegel Handbook provides a valuable addition to the resources available to anyone engaging seriously with almost any facet of Hegel’s work.
Baur, M. and Houlgate, S. 2011. A Companion to Hegel. Oxford: Blackwell.
Bunyard, T. 2019. “Demagogy and Social Pathology: Wendy Brown and Robert Pippin on the Pathologies of Neoliberal Subjectivity.” Araucaria, Vol 21 Issue 42: 505-527
de Laurentiis, A. and Edwards, J. 2013. The Bloomsbury Companion to Hegel. London: Bloomsbury.
Kreines, J. 2015. Reason in the World: Hegel’s Metaphysics and its Philosophical Appeal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Moyar, D. 2017. The Oxford Handbook of Hegel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Monahan, M. 2017. Creolizing Hegel (London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Westphal, K. 2018. Grounds of Pragmatic Realism: Hegel’s Internal Critique and Reconstruction of Kant’s Critical Philosophy. Leiden: Brill.
It is somewhat easy to forget that philosophy has not always, or in every case, been conducted through the medium of writing. For the most part, we expect philosophy to be written. But the written-ness of philosophy is contingent, and so too is its suspension in the written: in literature, media, interview, and of course poetry. Socrates and Plato, or instance, did not make much use of citation and Plato especially elevated philosophy at the expense of poetry and drama. And, indeed, this contingency is all the more difficult for philosophers to fathom, because the written word is usually the trade-mechanism by which we philosophize, and through which we think. The experienced phenomena of reading and writing are the basic instruments of philosophy, as we practice it. Writing is not merely the way we convey and transmit ideas, born and nurtured in the mind. Rather, when we look at the phenomena of reading and writing, we see the ebb and flow of epiphany, of doubt, of enlightenment and invention. Writing is quite often how we philosophize at all.
The primordial disciplinary decision to move the vague shapes and shadows of our ideas from their mental and social obscurity (and incompletion) to the written word—a decision which none of us living had any hand in making— itself has philosophical ramifications. That is to say that the presupposition of philosophy’s written-ness, is shot through with questions: questions about the truth, as well as metaphilosophical questions about the place of philosophy within the universal/Borgesian “Library of Babel” it has chosen for itself, about the necessity of writing philosophy and the necessity of philosophy regarding other kinds of written works, about the relationship between philosophical, literary, journalistic, and poetical styles to reality, truth, clarity, and that part of the human spirit to which philosophy wants to appeal.
Charles Bambach’s and Theodore George’s anthology, Philosophers and Their Poets lights upon these fundamental questions of philosophy-as-word, as speech, and as our connection to one another and to the real through a series of serious, considered, and illuminating papers examining the relationship of philosophers to art, style, and of course poetry. I see these papers as being divided into four more-or-less distinguishable subject-categories: 1) papers dealing with German idealist discourse around the role and status of art, poetry, and beauty in what they regard as a burgeoning philosophical and rational world, 2) analyses of Nietzsche’s philosophy of art as it serves as a kind of hinge—indeed serves as itself a revealing poem—between idealism and more phenomenological and existential traditions, 3) those dealing with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry as a revolutionary force in meaning-making, and 4) those which proceed from the poems themselves to philosophical analyses.
The first three chapters of this collection take us through the foundations of these questions of style and artistry in the German idealist tradition. The first essay by Maria de Rosario Acosta Lopez analyses a historical controversy between Schiller and Fichte over philosophical style and the part of the human being to which philosophy must speak. This is followed by Chapter 2, which presents us with a very clear and compelling translation of the very letters exchanged between Schiller and Fichte, regarding philosophical style. These first chapters elucidate a possible ambiguity between reason and feeling, which gives way to a possible ambiguity between philosophy and poetry. This ambiguity leads Hegel’s intuitions, both conceptually and historically. Theodore George argues in Chapter 3 that philosophy and art have a similar purpose in the creation of world-historical meaning, for Hegel. We see a transition from any concern about the purity of philosophy in Fichte to an embrace of its meaning-founding affinities with religion and art in the later work of Hegel.
Chapters 4 and 5 deal with Nietzsche, whose philosophy marks a kind of transition between German idealism and the phenomenological and existential (represented by thinkers like Heidegger and Gadamer), which will occupy the four of the volume’s remaining chapters. In Chapter 4, Babette Babich analyses Nietzsche’s relationship to ancient Greek tragic poetry, to its lost poets, and to their time-silenced songs in the interest of revealing what are indisputable contributions to philosophy itself, contra an extant tradition in the literature which more or less excludes him from the field. The fifth Chapter by Kalliopi Nikolopoulou investigates Nietzsche’s attachment to the heroic in Greek tragedy. Nietzsche saw ancient heroes and the poets who sung their tales as perhaps doubly heroic, she argues, since they might remedy Modern nihilism.
Chapters 5, 7, and 8 all deal with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry—as both the truth and the promise of philosophy. Like Schiller, Hegel, and Nietzsche Heidegger sees poetry as revealing a fuller truth than that accessible by reason alone. But it is only with Hegel that Heidegger shares this concept of the promise of poetry; both Heidegger and Hegel think art has (or once had) the power to inaugurate worlds and imbue them with meaning. Charles Bambach’s sixth Chapter for this volume begins at the interstices of aesthetics and ethics, mired in this Heideggerian meaning-making power/promise of the poem. He finds that the poem—in granting us access to our humanity in full—promises an originary ethics of our place, and (I’ll say) perfection, which is utterly opaque to us without the poetic disclosure. In the seventh Chapter, “Remains,” William McNeill addresses the futurity any concept of a promise must take for granted. He argues that Heidegger’s confrontations with Hölderlin’s poetry open up novel relations and meanings for us by altering the medium of time. Hölderlin’s works according to McNeill demonstrate a substratum of ambiguity in time wherein the greeting and remembrance are indistinct. Thus, the poem’s novel horizonality inaugurates a new world by possibilizing new projects, new relations to one another, and even new relations to the dead. Chapter 8 is likewise about the time of the poem, but it looks to its momentum, to the cadence of thought. Such poietic momentum, Krystof Ziarek argues, is experienced as rhythm and even texture. When philosophy takes on this cadence, it transcends the mere transmission of information and exceeds the possibilities of the argument: demonstrating in this excess new possibilities for thought itself.
Chapters 9, 10, and 11 emerge from analyses of poets and poetic works, rather than from within the philosophical theories which have taken them up. This provides what I think is a novel opportunity for philosophers who might not themselves read much poetry. It is a strange admission to make here, I suppose, that I have likely read more philosophical works which abstract from and selectively cite poems than I have poems themselves. To the question, “Is poetry true?” Chapter nine of Philosophers and Their Poets poses a kind of phenomenological/experimental response; “In order to answer this question maybe no extensive conceptual discussion of truth is needed…just attention to a particular poem led by the question how such a poem can be read and understood.” To this end, Gunther Figal looks to Burnt Norton” by T.S. Eliot. Chapter 10, by Gert-Jan van der Heiden, which I discuss in some greater detail below, looks to the somewhat revolutionary poetry of Célan, which render in poetic verse that promise of a different world, or of new meanings, of new homes—out of the silence, the nothingness, that must follow the decay of status-quo intelligibility, in the rests, and breaths that keep familiar meaning from crossing living lips. In Chapter 11, Max Kommerell (who has been translated here by Christopher D. Merwin and Margot Wielgus) provides an analysis of Hölderlin’s Empedocles poem, which demonstrates his distinctiveness. In particular, this analysis lays bare Hölderlin’s perhaps utterly unique poetic “ear,” which attunes him to cosmic harmonies and truths, and places what is revealed in his writing always-already outside the grasp of our concepts; “…in accord with his talent, Hölderlin could experience what, for us, lies at an ungraspable distance and is a hardly thinkable event as the real history of his soul.”
Because of its historical breadth, this anthology might serve as a kind of introduction to the specific questions that arise from continental philosophy’s various encounters with poetry. But the book would only be an appropriate introduction for somewhat advanced students of philosophy, familiar with continental thought, and its historical movements. It is therefore I think primarily suited to philosophers already researching some of the questions outlined in my introduction. These would also be invaluable secondary sources for interdisciplinary researchers. I would readily recommend the volume, for example, to anyone writing at the interstices of philosophy or art and aesthetics with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology, and metaphysics. This recommendation is in no small part because the authors in this volume have done an excellent job bringing the stakes of philosophy of art to the surface.
Art, especially as poetry, has had an inescapable influence on philosophical thinking throughout its 2000+ years of development. If the bare written-ness of philosophy opens up as many questions as it does, then what does its ready and intimate relationship to poetry mean for us? What does it say about philosophy itself: its veracity, its trustworthiness? And, perhaps more promisingly: What does it say about poetry, about its kind of truth? Bambach and George introduce the works in this anthology by way of a kind of conclusion:
What we find in poetry is the unfolding of the very momentum of language as an originary opening up and emergence that does not fit into the metaphysical encasements of presence and representation… Against the propositional language of statements, poetic language invites us to heed the pauses, the interruptions, and the caesurae that call us to attend to what is not said or can never be said in language.
They find that poetry invites that part of the human spirit which can attend to the immutable mysteries of our existence and of Being, in general, to attend to these mysteries, in spite of their inherent obscurity. Poetry, in short, invites us to philosophize. We come up against this indistinction between the philosophical and the poetic, as we read the essays collected in Philosophers and Their Poets, again and again. The philosophical—which has, in many of its iterations attempted to void itself of the poetic, to let beauty die of neglect—is shot through with the poetic. The poetic is unavoidably philosophical: so much so that we might call any promise of truth philosophy might make, at all, the “poetic.”
We cannot help but ask here, where ordinary categories fail; Who are the philosophers and who the poets of Philosophers and Their Poets? Some thinkers examined within the volume trouble themselves with the differences, while others embrace, and even invest fully in the similarities. (Although, the indistinction between the poetic and the philosophical may, in the end, be why we feel compelled to draw such a distinction in the first place, rendering both derivative).
Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez’s analysis of a confrontation between Schiller and Fichte begins the essays in the collection and does so as an inauguration of the very questions with which we have been tarrying. Most importantly, the argument between these Modern titans lays bare a very basic metaphilosophical point I had not ever before considered: that all writing, all discourse, and all philosophy must speak either to the whole of the human being or to some part of her. Philosophy might, therefore, have a different audience than does poetry, news, or fiction even within the same enfleshed and living reader. Fichte presupposes that philosophy must solicit only some part of the subject. He argues that philosophical writing must be as logical as possible, using examples in such a way that they shore up arguments rather than evoke the sensible and imaginative capacities. This is because, on his view, philosophy takes aim at the Understanding alone. Other capacities of the subject are not relevant, on this view, to the philosophical pursuit of truth. Such a pursuit can, therefore, only be successful if it is confined to this valence of subjectivity.
But, is such a well-fortified compartmentalization of subjective parts, regions, and capacities even possible for more contemporary thinkers? Doesn’t Continental Philosophy’s “phenomenological turn” render anathema the very idea that philosophy might reach something like the tower-bound understanding—especially without dirtying itself in the more immanent ground of evoking and implicating imagination, sensation, and body? Indeed I think many of us would agree that philosophy might not be able to find and transmit truth if it does not consider and speak to the whole human being. Rosario Acosta Lopez shows that Schiller’s evocations of imagination insert “…in the heart of human action the elements of contingency, finitude and a permanent and necessary dialog with a world that is never entirely in our power to control.” Contra Fichte, Schiller’s more poetical and evocative style is veridical: showing us the world in its more awe-inspiring and challenging true-light.
My continual tendency, aside from the inquiry itself, is to employ the ensemble of emotional forces and to the extent that it is possible to affect all of them. I thus do not wish merely to make my thoughts clear to others, but at the same time to transmit my entire soul to them, and to influence bother their sensuous and intellectual powers.
Schiller makes an epistemological, existential, and ontological point with his imaginative and sensuous writing style. He also makes a metaphilosophical one, which proceeds naturally from undermining the understanding’s epistemic monopoly; “[T]he discussion reflects on philosophy itself, inviting us to understand the boundaries of thought, and the very rich possibilities that come along [sic] the recognition of these boundaries.” The understanding has boundaries precisely with regard to the philosophical and cannot philosophize without pooling resources with something like the integrated-and-whole embodied subject.
This more phenomenologically salient, existential understanding of the poetic nature of philosophical writing (and of the philosophical nature of poetic writing, as well) seems to prevail in the context of the anthology as it deals with authors like Heidegger and Gadamer. Poetic writing, as it reaches the whole human being and casts its creeping, seeking, tendrils even into the most obscure and mysterious depths of the soil of our Being, and our Becoming.
Hegel might seem an odd-man-out in terms of this generalization since he does not affirm the indistinct boundaries between philosophy and art. His infamous and oft-misunderstood argument for the “end of art” and the primacy of philosophy is a testament to this. Yet, Theodore George shows Hegel nonetheless sees art as serving a similar function to philosophy in the founding and transmission of meaning, even in the Modern world. This function unsurprisingly has to do with truth. Art, religion, and philosophy allow “a society…to take a good look at itself, to make explicit its deepest context of meaning, the context that otherwise remains merely tacit even as it shapes, orients and grants legitimacy to all further meanings within that society.”
On George’s account in this volume, Hegel should be read as saying that between art and philosophy as well as between Classical and Romantic art, there are no differences in kind. Rather there are differences in context, which yield differences in the magnitude of their respective world-founding forces. Hegel thinks that Classical artworks originarily founded, grounded, and justified Greek culture. Everything in this period—including the first works of philosophy— derives from and makes sense in reference to this founding. Within the modern period, however, art bears no such promise and philosophy must provide our social foundations. The ancient context gave art a greater share of the inauguration, transmission, and preservation of its truth. The modern era by necessity gives it less.
On this view, the nascent philosophy of the ancient world could not but be derivative of its more originary sculptural founding, and thus will be supplanted by modern philosophy: the first philosophy to successfully found and ground a world-historical epoch. Hegel argues that modernity is, in essence, a revaluation, whereby philosophy accrues a greater degree of veridical force. This changing of worlds, the promise of new meanings and truths—the world-historical dawn in which Hegel feels himself bathed—this is the promise of philosophy as poetic and of poetry as philosophical, which comes to dominate Philosophers and Their Poets. Inchoate in language are new worlds.
Babette Babich’s search for Nietzsche’s all-but-lost poet, Archilochus, lays bare the tension with which humanity is suspended upon the Earth. The truth of tragedy is a musical truth, she concludes. But what is music within the Nietzschean paradigm other than “the becoming human of dissonance?” In music, we take up into the body our irresolute difference from the world and its entities: a tension that cannot be resolved so long as we are of this world. Such a tension as that between the world and its dominant species is perfectly thought as musical dissonance; dissonance heard arises from the proximity of one note with the other, the greatest dissonance from the greatest similarity, proximity, intimacy.
This is what distinguishes us as the exception among beings, that we both inhabit and are inhabited by an inescapable uncanniness that pervades our ethos.
This tension between the “possible nearness and necessary remoteness of all things” to us is the foundation of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially his philosophy of poetry and art. That strangeness and disquiet that emerges most strongly, most sustained, from the smallest margins of difference, from the tightest chasms of intimacy. We seek the resolution, like any listener, any composer. But the resolution cannot happen here, within our fraught intimacy with a world that cannot harmonize with us; a world that—through Modernity, mechanization, and technologization—we have mistakenly set to sing a different song from us, altogether. Philosophers and Their Poets allows us to tarry with the major philosophical insight that there are however possible—that is, horizonal, not-yet-actual/arrived—worlds, with which we could harmonize.
Such worlds, on Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s accounts, seem to exist just beyond the concepts that make up our reality: possibilities invisible to us because we have a faith in the world, which could perhaps shatter upon rocks of the right philosophical or poetic work. William McNeill argues that Heidegger’s encounters with poetry reveal the limits of phenomenology, and therefore of the truth-telling capacity of our very experience. Poetry reveals those limits of our world which serve as its conditions of possibility (time), and thus what is real beyond our comprehension, or our apprehension, through the structures of meaning in which we are presently enmeshed. Bambach argues that the poet sings the philosopher his longing for his “own home amid the experience of expulsion,” in an uncanny home, in an intelligibility which fails to make sense of the philosopher and indeed each of us, an intelligibility that thus desacralizes us, flattens and debases us. But the poet’s hymn is a heralding hymn, which points “ahead to the futural coming of the gods.” Gods, of course, found worlds. And perhaps the poet can sing the eventual creation of a home that protects our dignity, sanctifies us, and sets us forever free of the old intelligibility.
The anthology presents oscillations and refinements of this insight throughout the history of Western thought—from Nietzsche’s conception of world-revolutionary “revaluation,” to Heidegger’s alethic revelation of (extant and real) values, the existential progressivism of so-called ontological and ethical “ambiguity,” and Gadamer’s “subdued hope…” The notes that harmonize with our being, hum imperceptibly all around us; we just need philosophy and art to amplify them, and finally to change the song of the world.
With new worlds, of course, come new ethics, new values, new ways of being with one another, and even new entities. The works collected in Philosophers and Their Poets confront the abyss of the as-of-yet inchoate possibilities of this new world—hidden in the bare written-ness of philosophy—and they do so with an eye to what’s at stake in such questions for denizens of the present world. We should, I think, desire new answers to the question, “Who are we?” While I am reticent to add much of anything extra-textual to such a rich volume, I will say I feel we cannot but look at our current world in mourning, in longing. The coming of another means the terrifying demise of the world. But it might finally mean the embrace of the Other, of one another, no matter how strange we’ve been to each other:
Language gives us shelter… by deconstructing word and language the poem sets free another horizon, namely the horizon of the unfamiliar… the horizon of heaven.
The stranger, in her approach through the medium of the poem; The strange in its approach through the medium of the poem; Both approach with their arms outstretched, and paradise in their hands, according to Célan.
I do not believe a poem alone can save us (unless our definition of “poetry” becomes so diffuse as to lose all meaning). After all, the horrors of this world have easily survived any beauty in it. I therefore even have to regard the destructive power Célan grants poetry with some skepticism. Nonetheless, I do think that (poetic) beauty has its place, as we attempt to turn the world over and reveal its other side. Alongside Schiller, I feel poetic language might help to engage the entire human being in the work of making a way for new meanings. As social and political creatures we are, of course, embodied and intercorporeal, only partially rational. If poetry is world-transitional in the ways Heidegger and Célan argue, it is in part because we cannot migrate to a new world by virtue of our rationality alone. Beauty as justice, as long-awaited relief, as burgeoning post-revolutionary responsibilities to one another, even as forgiveness, as absolution: this is the medium of revolutionary beauty, which might both carry us to a new world as well as compose this world in its meter, its tone, and its colors (as the paint carries us to the world of the painting, by the very act of creating that world). Such a medium perhaps makes possible—even beckons—the revolutionary poem. And thus we might be called to the selfless, futural, heartache of revolutionary beauty by the poets of our current, decaying, world as well. A poem alone may not be able to save us, but I am inclined to take what help there is.
 Günter Figal, “Learning from Poetry: On Philosophy, Poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 204.
 Max Kommerell, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” Translated by C. Merwin and M. Wielgus, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 260.
 Charles Bambach and Theodore George. 2019. Philosophers and Their Poets. Albany: State University of New York Press, 5-6.
 Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.
 “Fichte and Schiller Correspondence, from Fichte’s Werke, Vol. 8 (De Gruyter).” Translated by Christopher Turner, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 56.
 Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.
 Babette Babich, “Who is Nietzsche’s Archilochus? Rhythm and the Problem of the Subject,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 103.
 Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’ Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 146.
 William McNeill, “Remains: Heidegger and Hölderlin amid the Ruins of Time,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 179.
 Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 152.
 Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 145.
 Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 226.