I’ve been spending some time lately with James Doull‘s last essay, “Hegel’s Phenomenology and post-modern thought”, and also with his closely related address on “Heidegger and the state”. (Both are in Philosophy and Freedom, the only published book of Doull’s writings.) Doull’s project in the Hegel essay is in a sense meta-Hegelian: to situate Hegel‘s thought in a philosophical history, as Hegel himself would do with the thinkers before him.
So the first parts of the essay tell the story of premodern and modern Western thought as it leads up to Hegel – a fine exegesis. But it’s the latter part of the essay that gets really interesting. For of course the history of philosophy went on after Hegel – and how should a Hegelian deal with that?
Doull refers throughout to “post-modern” thought (and to its situation as “post-modernity“), but by “post-modern” he really means only “post-Hegelian” – Hegel having been the culmination of modern thought. There’s a surprising similarity here to a portion of Ken Wilber’s colour-scheme classification of history, where early modern thought in sympathy with capitalism is grouped together as “orange” while thought from Marx onward is “green”.
Unlike for Wilber, though, the story Doull tells of post-Hegelian thought is generally a story of decline. One could say that is unsurprising, since the world has moved away from the thought of Doull’s intellectual hero. At the same time the story of decline is surprising because Hegel’s own story of history is a story of progress – and of necessary progress. But what is sometimes forgotten is that that progress is a complex double movement, often going backward in order to go forward. So the decline of the past century and a half is still a necessary part of the human species’ forward historical progress.
Why is it a decline? In a word, division. Hegel – he’s often mocked for this – argued that the state of Prussia in his later years (the 1810s and 1820s) had reached the highest level of development yet accomplished in human history. The accomplishment of the Prussian state, for him, was a respect for human freedom and rights within the context of a universal system of values. It was not an ethnic state, based on a shared language or set of customs, but rather a civic state based on a shared set of political values – themselves coming out of the universal, rational arguments of an intellectualized Protestant Christianity. In the years after Hegel’s death, that unity and consensus would fracture in a variety of ways – inside and outside the German-speaking world. It is clear from Doull’s tone that he mourns the rise of this division as a loss.
So we can already see that Doull’s story is not only a story of philosophy; it is a story of more concrete history as well, of politics and of “religion”. As it should be, since for Hegel, philosophy is its own age comprehended in thought. The philosophers just make explicit in concepts (Begriff) the content that for most people of the age is just found in picture-thinking or representation (Vorstellung). In the Phenomenology of Spirit itself, this content is above all Protestant Christianity. Hegel believed that the Christianity of his age had discovered a movement of an absolute spirit through history – the key concept of his own thought – and it was just up to him to make it explicit.
But once Hegel was gone, the spirit of the age would soon move away from Christianity. “Hegel had not long departed this life when one learned from those who had heard him or were closely associated with his thought that religion was myth or that its proper theme was humanity; that philosophy was the guide to a wholly secular liberation, a liberation not least from religion and metaphysics themselves.” (282-3) Hegel’s philosophy was widely read and the subject of much excitement in the Germany of the 1830s and 1840s, but his followers were greatly divided. Some Hegelians took up a conservative position on the Right; but more energy was with the left-wing “Young” Hegelians, whose philosophy took the move away from Christian picture-thinking much further. Among their most prominent was Ludwig Feuerbach. Where Hegel translated Christian picture-thinking into Christian concepts, Feuerbach now explicitly translated Christian picture-thinking into secular concepts. His motto: “What today is Christianity, tomorrow will be atheism.” Feuerbach’s attempt to create an atheist Hegelianism was shared by the very young Marx – who would come to be a great admirer of Feuerbach when Feuerbach’s major work The Essence of Christianity was published a few years after his dissertation.
That a Christian Hegelian like Doull would look with suspicion on these atheist upstarts is no surprise. Doull, though, is just as suspicious of their opponents, the “Old Hegelians” of the time, who turned not only to Christianity but to strong Prussian and later German nationalism. Hegel was arguably a Prussian nationalist himself, but only of a certain sort. Hegel considered his Prussia to have reached the fullest development that a state in the world to date could have achieved — as a portion of a developing world consciousness. (Hegel is said to have admired Napoleon in part for his bringing together a world community in Europe.) It was a civic and not an ethnic nationalism, based on a pride in well developed institutions rather than in cultural differences. But on Doull’s reading, as far as I can tell, the right-wing Old Hegelians came to adopt a more aggressive belief in the superiority of Prussian (and later German) culture. For Doull this is a move away from Hegel as great as anything the Young Hegelians would do. And so when he refers to the “radical positions of the so-called right and left Hegelians”, he immediately qualifiies this with “(anti-Hegelians they would better be called)…” (295)
What the Young and Old Hegelians both came to do, in Doull’s eyes, was fracturing the Hegelian emphasis on consensus and unity – a social harmony based on universalist, rational Christian values that Prussia could share with the rest of the world. The Young Hegelians – most notably their greatest member, Marx – came to view society as fundamentally divided into conflicting social classes, where the commonality within a social class was to be found on shared individual interests. The Old Hegelians turned to the sort of ethnic nationalism that might now be called identity politics, embracing a German-language unity that could not be shared by the rest of the world the way the old Prussian civic nationalism could have. Both groups separated “us” from “them”, whether “us” was the working class or the people of Prussia or Germany; they were not urging a viewpoint adoptable by the world.
Nevertheless, Doull recognizes it’s important to think through the positions of the Young and Old Hegelians, because those positions would soon become the dominant positions in Western thought as a whole; one might argue that they became dominant outside the West as well. The Marxist and nationalist reactions were minority positions in the age before World War I. At that time, the civic confidence in European institutions exploded into a number of Napoleon-inspired global imperialisms, aiming to spread those institutions across the globe. But of course those imperialisms came to clash. For they were not rooted in any kind of genuine global community but in separate and individual states, which were at odds with and divided with each other. And eventually their confidence in themselves would come to shatter when those imperialisms and those states clashed in World War I, the Great War.
World War I, Doull notes, made it clear that the world could not go on as it had, where separate states would each identify themselves as a civic universal. And so what had been minority positions – Marxism and nationalism – became the majority, and the spirit of the early twentieth century split in its two opposing directions. One asserted the superiority of a specific and particular ethnos – a culture and even a race – and the other attempted to create a universal world state founded on Marx’s advocacy of proletarian revolution. In Doull’s view, though, Communism (and the Marxism that gave rise to it) was itself not adequately universalistic because, like fascism, it was still fundamentally based on dividing society up rather than unifying it – just into social classes rather than into cultures.
In the end, fascism collapsed in World War II, Communism a few decades later. And I’m particularly intrigued by Doull’s analysis of what happened after that. I will explore it next time.