Jan 102015

David S. Stern (ed.), Essays on Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit. Albany: SUNY Press, 2013; 266 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4384-4445-1.

Reviewed by Wes Furlotte, University of Ottawa

Essays on Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit functions as a sea-change in Hegel scholarship—especially in English. While Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit (PSS) operates as a crucial joint within the conceptual architecture of the final encyclopedic system, mapping the move from nature to spirit, it has remained underexplored in the literature. Not only does the PSS systematically chart the emergence of the self-relational structure of subjectivity from the causal matrices of the natural register, but it reveals Hegel’s approach to the mind-body interface and therefore illuminates his philosophy of mind and psychology; simultaneously, it devotes considerable attention to undercurrents of conscious life as in various modes of psychopathology and so constitutes one of the more bizarre yet fascinating dimensions of his mature thought. Williams’ recent translation into English of Erdmann’s Nachschrift from Hegel’s 1827–28 lectures on philosophy of spirit, at least in part, has provided scholars with new material and perspectives from which to (re-)consider this often overlooked dimension of Hegel’s system and this lends an aspect of timeliness to these essays. The volume will interest specialists not only in Hegel studies but also in German Idealism, Romanticism, those interested in the nature-consciousness dynamic and the history of ideas more generally. Students seeking to familiarize themselves with this challenging and rewarding dimension of Hegel’s thought will also find this volume an informed and largely accessible point of entry, although some of the nuances concerning source texts might be overwhelming for those at the undergraduate level.

Editor David S. Stern rightly states that the most important essays in the collection “historically situate” Hegel’s thought, both articulating “its distinctive perspective within the history of philosophy” and its relation to “contemporary topics and thinkers on the philosophy of mind, language, and action.” (xi) That said, the real strength of these essays resides in their framing of Hegel’s writings on subjective spirit in terms of the problem of nature. Unlocking the question of nature in the context of Hegel’s attempt to generate a critical project of freedom by way of the concept of spirit (Geist) constitutes the merit of the strongest essays in the collection. Doing so gets at the heart of a fundamental concern not only of Hegel but all high German Idealism, i.e. rethinking an integrated conceptual account of nature and freedom in the wake of Spinoza and Kant. At its best, the collection approaches the problem of spirit’s relation to nature from various perspectives whether in terms of inchoate subjectivity’s initial reconfiguration of material nature by way of the body (Angelica Nuzzo), subjectivity and spirit’s framing in terms of habituation (Nicholas Mowad, Simon Lumsden), or ‘natural’ anteriority’s role in Hegel’s speculative account of psychopathology (Mario Magee, Glenn Alexander Wenning). In essence, then, the very best of these essays, either directly or indirectly, shed light on the perennial conundrum of how anything resembling freedom might emerge from within the coordinates of natural law.

Nuzzo establishes spirit’s relation to material nature as a significant problem for this aspect of the system, even going so far as to suggest that it is the problem confronting the concept of Geist. Focusing on Erdmann’s newly translated lecture notes from 1827–28 on the philosophy of spirit, Nuzzo convincingly speculates how a shift in the location of Hegel’s discussion of the mind-body problem from within the contours of the “Anthropology” in the PSS to the “Introduction” of Erdmann’s lecture notes, in conjunction with a greater emphasis on that problem, by way of its placement in the “Introduction” (an introduction to the concept of spirit), allows us to conclude that we can use the “anthropological presentation of Geist to frame the general problem of spirit as such.” (5, emphasis mine) Such a careful historical contextualization of Hegel’s evolving concept of spirit might first appear as the pedantic nuances of esoteric scholarship. Certainly, one of the drawbacks here is that such details might overwhelm scholars and students who are unfamiliar with the historical genesis of this aspect of Hegel’s thought and so lose the forest for the trees. Simultaneously, however, this difficulty also constitutes the essay’s hidden strength: unfolding Nuzzo’s argument reveals that she is directly challenging established interpretations of the mind-body problem as it unfolds in Hegel’s anthropological writings and therefore offering a distinct perspective from which to consider the final system and the opening signification Hegel assigns to the concept of spirit (Wolff’s celebrated interpretation of Hegel’s rendering of the mind-body problem presents it as a Scheinproblem for Hegel after 1817 and therefore no problem at all).  Reading Hegel’s encyclopedic system in terms of Erdmann’s lecture notes, ultimately, provides the grounds by which Nuzzo might illuminate the larger issue of the “relation between spirit and nature” while “offering the genetic definition of Geist and establishing the point of departure of spirit’s development.” (2) In this sense, the essay is exemplary of what the volume achieves at its best: it proposes a striking interpretation of an aspect of Hegel’s PSS, here its speculative rendering of the mind-body dialectic while, simultaneously, (a) situating that position in terms of contemporary Hegel literature and, (b) historically situating that interpretation within the context of source texts that continue to emerge regarding this aspect of Hegel’s system.

The volume’s sensitivity to historical context is reinforced in Jeffrey Reid’s essay. It accentuates the ways in which seemingly innocuous changes to Hegel’s Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences between the second, 1827, and ultimate 1830 edition, inform not only subtle conceptual distinctions crucial to the text’s rendering of spirit but also important, though broader, socio-political convictions Hegel undoubtedly had before his untimely death. In the context of Hegel’s PSS, Reid concentrates on an apparently insignificant shift in the section heading at §403 from “The Dreaming Soul” to “The Feeling Soul.” Tracing the origins of Hegel’s writings on the dreaming soul, Reid speculates as to why there was a change in section headings at all when the conceptual content covered therein remains largely consistent (37–38). Reading in part like the best in a Highsmith mystery, Reid genetically maps the origins of the dreaming soul to a relatively unexplored Hegel text—“his 1794 manuscript on psychology.” (38) While informed by “psychological theoreticians of the time” (39), the manuscript shows itself to be concerned largely with psychopathological forms of subjectivity: it attempts to rationally explain the “unconscious resurgence” of various phenomena including “unbidden inner representations,” seeking to impose “reason on the unreasonable.” (39) The thesis the 1794 manuscript ventures is that in illnesses there is a “weakening” of consciousness—it is overpowered by the soul’s “arbitrary” representations, forming delusional trains of thought. (39) Reid contends that both the 1794 manuscript and the mature PSS conceive of psychopathology “…as arising from a power struggle between rational understanding and the imagination, where the former loses its mastery and is overcome.” (43)

Tracing various historical sources, in cross-reference with established Hegel scholarship, Reid notes that the most likely origin of the 1794 manuscript was notes Hegel took from lectures given by J.F. Flatt on empirical psychology during the former’s time at the Tübingen seminary. Concentrating on then contemporary publications that informed Flatt’s work, ones operating as expressions of the Enlightenment project more generally, Reid then concludes that insofar as Hegel’s rendering of the dreaming soul in the PSS is informed by Flatt’s lectures, it is also informed by Flatt’s Enlightenment project: the defense of reason against “…the excessive claims of…religious fervor (Schwärmerei, as a form of mental illness).” (44) Indeed, Reid goes so far to argue that the ultimate import of the shift in section heading operates as an indirect criticism of the theologian and philosopher Schleiermacher’s emphasis on religious feeling which Hegel viewed as potentially disastrous for the conceptual dictates of Enlightenment reason. The import of Reid’s careful reconstruction of the origins and motivations guiding the shift in the section heading of §403 offers us a unique perspective from which to consider some of the macro-concerns guiding Hegel’s work throughout the entirety of his philosophical activity. Not only does it give us a precise sense of the ways in which emergent source material in the inchoate fields of anthropology and psychology were crucial in Hegel’s speculative analysis of the concept of sprit it also offers us a glimpse of how Hegel engaged other thinkers from the period in terms of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason’s self-actualizing activity set against the irrationality he saw situated at the heart of religious fanaticism, whether in the life of the polis or in terms of other philosophical positions of the period. Whether one endorses Reid’s speculations concerning the ultimate target of the section heading shift is to miss the point: one of the unquestionable merits of this piece is the way in which it opens subtle conceptual distinctions within Hegel’s rendering of the final system onto much larger socio-political themes that must certainly have permeated Hegel’s thought at the time.

While remaining committed to historical details and origins of Hegel’s PSS, the collection has several pieces that operate as exegetical exercises tracing the conceptual developments constitutive of the system’s speculative account of finite subjectivity. The respective essays by Magee, Mowad and Wenning all concentrate, from varying perspectives, on the ways in which spirit operates as a problematic transition from the natural register while also outlining how this mutational development must entail the possibility of illness, disease, and even “madness.” (87; 107) Again, the strength in these related essays resides in their ability to forcefully present how it is impossible to think the concept of spirit without giving an account of its relation and, more pressingly, genesis from within the coordinates of material nature’s causal matrices. Consequently, these pieces will force both those well versed in Hegel’s system and the uninitiated to reconsider any account of Hegel’s concept of spirit that would present it as a facile (definitive) triumph of reason, in terms of synthetic sublation, which somehow resides irretrievably beyond the problematic question mark of nature. Undoubtedly some of the content Hegel incorporates into his speculative analysis will seem bizarre and outdated to the contemporary reader and therefore worthy of suspicion and perhaps even contempt, as in the case of Hegel’s prolonged discussion of the now debunked science grounding animal magnetism. (55ff.) However, a careful reading shows, as in the case of Magee, that Hegel did not just incorrectly endorse what we have come to view as dubious “science” but that his discussions of phenomenon like magnetism and somnambulism can be used to illuminate the ways in which he is critical of the theoretical and metaphysical presuppositions operative in much empirical science, presuppositions Hegel deems to be driven by the abstract dictates of the understanding (Verstand) and therefore in need of critical scrutiny. By contextualizing Hegel’s thought in light of such concerns the implications of a discussion of animal magnetism become much more palatable and indeed gain valuable traction insofar as one might read them as illuminating some of the critical concerns a Hegelian speculative project must inevitably raise against the findings of empirical science. What such criticisms might mean in terms of the presuppositions underpinning contemporary empirical disciplines remains an open, and perhaps provoking, question—though one that is not adequately explored in the collection.

Lumsden’s piece further accentuates the problematic ambiguity residing between the domains of nature and spirit in the final system by way of a careful reading of Hegel’s conception of habit (Gewohenheit) which concludes the anthropology section of the PSS. Arguing forcefully against leading interpretations of Hegel’s account of this concept, Lumsden insists on not reducing habit, and so the domain of spirit, to a strict identity with spontaneity (McDowell), a space of transparent reasons (Pinkard, Pippin), on the one-hand, set distinctly against the causal network of nature, on the other (122–23). Such a rigid dichotomy, for Lumsden, is too Kantian and so he insists on reading habit as an opaque region that resides between “discursivity and receptivity”, one which we “do not transcend.” (121) He proposes such an alternative by outlining the ways in which the subject’s self-positing, willing of self-identity, and habit formation are all expressions of spirit as both immediate and mediated and therefore as a domain which is recalcitrant to a strict division between nature and spirit. (124) The strength of this piece resides in the ways in which it brings the problem of nature to the forefront of Hegel’s conception of spirit in such a way that highlights not only Hegel’s indebtedness to the Schellingian concern of critical philosophy’s rendering of nature but the ways in which Hegel cannot be read as a simple reiteration of Kant’s transcendental project of freedom and the latter’s inherent dualism.

Despite the collection’s imaginative and engaging (re-)readings of the transition from nature to spirit in the final system, one of its problem resides in its relative silence concerning the specific details of analytic philosophy as they pertain to the topics and themes isolated in each of the essays. Philip T. Grier’s concluding essay, fortunately, functions as a countermeasure to this problem insofar as it attempts to trace out some of the general differences between what he refers to as the Hegelian “comprehensive program,” tracing both the emergence of mind from nature and how that mind might also “comprehend” that same world from which it emerged, and the “narrow program” of a largely analytic stripe, which proposes to explore the “mind-body” problem by way of an inquiry into how a mental event might supervene on a brain event, i.e. a physical event. (224) It would seem that, on Grier’s view, both “paradigms” are largely incommensurate, and so the ways in which the two paradigms might meaningfully engage one another remains a looming problem. However, even if we accept the incommensurability thesis, it would have been interesting to see it given content in specific contexts of analysis within the collection instead of remaining a point of silence with which the collection must address in its conclusion. It would have been illuminating, for example, to have a precise sense of what the “analytic paradigm” might say concerning philosophy of emotions and the ways in which Hegel’s thought diverges with such assertions. (71) Similarly, it is somewhat surprising that the collection as a whole has little to offer in terms of Žižek’s recent attempts to “reactualize” certain dimensions of Hegel’s thought, particularly in terms of the transition from nature to spirit—a move which certainly relates to the PSS. Indeed, the collection could have also benefited from a piece outlining some of the ways in which a distinctly Hegelian perspective might inform recent attempts to rethink the conundrum of material nature and its relation to thought, loosely referred to as “speculative realism,” as developed in the works of, for example, Meillassoux or Grant. Insofar as the volume does not address these current research trends it reveals itself as intrinsically limited. Nevertheless, because this collection repeatedly problematizes spirit’s autogenetic project in terms of nature from a myriad of perspectives, it has opened up a new horizon of inquiry for Hegel scholarship, particularly in English. While recent work by Adrian Johnston has gestured towards what a Hegelian philosophy of nature might look like there still remains a series of pressing questions on just how one is to read Hegel’s writings on nature and how, more importantly, such a reading must inform Hegel’s project of spirit. In this sense, the collection works to open an entire series of provoking questions that will certainly take Hegel studies in exciting and unexpected directions in the coming years.