Jun 242016

John Russon, Infinite Phenomenology: The Lessons of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Experience. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2016; xxx + 392 pages. ISBN: 978-0810131910.

Reviewed by Timothy L. Brownlee, Xavier University

This is John Russon’s third book on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. All three have aimed to present a comprehensive account of the work’s overall aims—presenting the science of the experience of consciousness—by means of close readings of significant portions of the text. One might worry that this third book would have little to add to the insightful and challenging accounts that Russon has offered in the previous two. However, as Russon observes early on in his “Introduction,” Hegel’s book is a “revolutionary book of philosophy,” one that inaugurates a new form of philosophical writing, and that rewards continued study. (xiii-xiv) Infinite Phenomenology is a testament to the truth of this claim. Throughout, Russon presents careful and well-grounded “readings” of Hegel’s text (the book’s subtitle is “The Lessons of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Experience,” and Russon claims throughout to be offering us “leçons”) in ways that illuminate both the phenomena they concern and the overall project of Hegel’s text. (xviii)

Russon argues that readings of the Phenomenology of Spirit should follow three principles. First, they must consider the specific discussions in the text in light of Hegel’s general intention to provide a science of the experience of consciousness. Second, they must take seriously Hegel’s claim to be providing a “phenomenology” of experience, which Russon understands to be a project of “phenomenological description.” (xv) By consequence, reading Hegel’s text requires attending to one’s own experiences and to the concrete phenomena the book considers. Finally, reading Hegel’s text requires recognizing a “demand of participation” placed on the reader to “enact the experience under discussion.” (xvi) Each principle contributes to the unique approach and result of Russon’s study. First, while each reading takes as its primary focus a particular discussion within the text, in reading particular discussions in light of Hegel’s overall aims, Russon uncovers often-surprising connections between seemingly disparate parts. Second, Russon’s account illuminates valuable connections between Hegel’s project and twentieth-century phenomenology. While Russon frequently situates Hegel’s views in relation to Kant and other post-Kantian idealists, he characterizes Hegel’s project in terms that are more familiar from the phenomenology that came to ascendancy with Husserl in the twentieth century. Throughout, he draws links between Hegel and figures in the Continental tradition, including Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Derrida, and the book concludes with an account of Hegel’s reception in twentieth century French philosophy. These readings eschew anachronism and instead show how Hegel can be productively read in dialogue with these figures, whom we might otherwise be inclined to consider merely as critics of Hegel. Third, the participatory demand on the reader requires a direct consideration of the particular phenomena Hegel describes. In satisfying this requirement, Russon presents phenomenological descriptions of a diverse range of phenomena that, while fitting Hegel’s aims in the text, themselves constitute original contributions to phenomenology.

Substantively, Russon argues that Hegel’s Phenomenology is centrally concerned with the idea of infinity. On Russon’s account, our finite experience entails the confrontation with the infinite, indeed with plural “infinites” whose relation to one another is not a placid harmony, but instead one of “contestation”: “Each of these infinites contests with the other for the claim of ultimacy.” (13) Russon argues that Hegel identifies four such infinites: the infinity of objective reality, the infinity of the singular subject, the infinity of other subjects, and the infinity of “the Other,” of “the Good as such,” “the divine.” (19) While he contends that we find this dynamic right from the opening dialectic of the Phenomenology, in sense certainty’s discovery that the now is itself infinite, exceeding by its very nature this particular now, Russon traces this tension between finitude and infinity, and between plural infinites throughout the Phenomenology and into Hegel’s systematic philosophy.

Russon’s account of freedom presents one instance of this dynamic, and it is an appropriate one to consider with more care given the centrality of political questions to his book. On the one hand, Russon stresses that freedom involves the infinity of the subject, a sort of indeterminacy, a negative capacity not to be determined by anything external. On the other hand, this freedom is “a reality” only insofar as it comes to be “a fixed identity,” or to become a determinacy through engagement with the concrete institutions of what Hegel calls “ethicality.” (181–2) But the realization of freedom in a finite determinacy does not eliminate its infinitude, so that the experience of freedom is always one of the inadequacy of any fixed identity or institution. Russon argues that no theoretical “reconciliation” of this opposition is possible, and that we rather experience the demand for reconciliation as “a lived imperative.” (23) In the political case, the experience of freedom entails a demand for “multicultural dialogue,” for “a stance of infinite openness to the other,” in particular to the institutions that structure the social life of other peoples. (188) Russon’s Hegel, then, is ultimately a thinker of openness, not closure, and he contends that the practical and philosophical stances with which the text resolves, conscience and absolute knowing, both involve a practical commitment to reconcile the ineliminable but one-sided knowledge of the subject with “an infinity that exceeds us and claims us.” (21)

Readers of Russon’s previous works will find much here that is new. While Russon has consistently portrayed Hegel as a phenomenological philosopher, that approach is even more prominent here. This book seamlessly brings together his past work on Hegel with his more recent “positive” contributions to phenomenology in productive, illuminating fashion. While the Phenomenology is the central object of Russon’s investigations, he does more here to relate that early text to Hegel’s systematic philosophy than in previous books. Perhaps most notably, Russon’s accounts of the political significance of Hegel’s text draw out additional themes that were down-played in his prior work.

Taken as a whole Infinite Phenomenology is an entirely welcome original piece of scholarship on Hegel’s text and contribution to phenomenology. Scholarly writing on Hegel and German idealism is subject to a range of pathologies, from historiological and unphilosophical rehashes of figures and works in light of common themes, to impenetrable restatements of already-difficult ideas, to the questionable assumption of continuity in the interests and questions animating this important period and the present day. Russon’s admirable book falls victim to none of them. He presents careful accounts of the primary text without losing sight of the distinctive philosophical interest that animates it. He presents Hegel’s arguments in terms of familiar experiences without leveling off the vital significances he wants to show that they express. And his account of Hegel’s phenomenology is ultimately justified by his own success in making explicit continuities and discontinuities between the text and subsequent developments in European philosophy. Infinite Phenomenology should prove to be equally a helpful guide to those reading Hegel’s text for the first time, and a lively interlocutor for more advanced students of Hegel, German idealism, and European philosophy.