Hegelian Phenomenology and the Critique of Reason and Society

Abbot Terrasson has remarked that if the size of a volume be measured not by the number of its pages but by the time required for mastering it, it can be said of many a book, that it would be much shorter if it were not so short.

(Kant, Preface to First Edition, Critique of Pure Reason)

Gillian Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology (Athlone Press, 1981, £6.95 pb, 26lpp) would be much shorter were it not so short. It is unashamedly, and sadly, an extremely difficult book; not just in terms of the complexity and subtlety of the position it puts for- ward, but, primarily, in terms of the way in which this position is presented. But it is, nonetheless, in many ways an important book. For it challenges, at a fundamental level, the generally accepted framework within which Hegel has been interpreted; and, in so doing, it challenges accepted beliefs not only about the relationship between Marx and Hegel, but also about the philosophical adequacy of Marxism and the redundancy of Hegelianism. It contains a densely argued and philosophically sophisticated piece of Hegel scholarship which is mobilised against all the prevailing tendencies of contemporary social theory, and it will be of particular interest to ‘the materialist friends of the idealist dialectic’ [1].

In this essay my aim is two-fold: (i) to produce an account of some central themes of the book, and, in particular, of the reading of Hegel around which it revolves; and (ii) to offer a provisional assessment of the standpoint it adopts, not so much with regard to the textual credibility of the interpretation of Hegel from which it derives, as with respect to its immanent viability and more general implications. For Rose treats the conception of Hegelian phenomenology which she outlines as the only possible coherent theoretical basis for the development of a critical theory of subjectivity, culture, and hence, politics. She wants to appropriate aspects of Hegel’s philosophy. The idea which the book develops is that the philosophical basis of Hegel’s thought must be appropriated by Marxism if the latter is to be able to generate a critical politics. So it is the internal cogency of Rose’s account of Hegel, rather than its historical veracity, which is important.

Hegel Contra Sociology announces itself as ‘an attempt to retrieve Hegelian speculative experience for social theory’ [2], and it concludes with a brief outline of a projected Hegelian social theory (labelled ‘critical Marxism’ – I will come back to this) as ‘the exposition of capitalism as culture’, ‘a presentation of the contradictory relations between Capital and culture’ [3] in the phenomenological (speculative) mode. In the meantime, it develops a philosophical critique of sociology and of Marxism, and a strikingly original interpretation of Hegel’s thought which focuses on the socio- political significance of his idea of speculative experience.

The argument is that Marx’s critique of Hegel is based on a Fichtean reading of his system which fails to grasp the true meaning of his concepts of actuality and spirit, and that in fact these concepts provide the theoretical basis for the conceptualisation of the subjective mediations of objective social forms. Marx’s own conception of practical material- ism is seen as theoretically incapable of.conceptualising such mediations, since it involves abstract dichotomies between being and consciousness, and theory and practice, which can only be unified abstractly in an ‘ought’. Without such mediations, the relation between Capital and politics is seen to be indeterminate. Capital gives an account of the objective determinations of social relations, but Marxism is seen to be theoretically incapable of utilising this knowledge through a politics which accounts for how these social relations may be practically transformed on the basis of their objective determinations, because i t cannot develop adequate concepts of subjectivity and culture [4].

In what follows, I first give an account of Rose’s understanding of Hegel, contrasting it with that on which Critical Theory is based, since (i) this is a standard interpretation, and (ii) Rose’s reading of Hegel functions as a reformulation of the foundations of Critical Theory; then I discuss its implications for Marxism, and I discuss Rose’s understanding of Marx. I conclude with a few comments of a general nature on the overtly ‘philosophical’ character of the project that Rose outlines. One of the most interesting things about the book is that, while it criticises existing formulations of Critical Theory, it demonstrates and clearly endorses the explicitly ‘philosophical’ nature of its project.

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