Todd McGowan


On his book Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution

Cover Interview of November 27, 2019

In a nutshell

Emancipation After Hegel provides an introduction to Hegel that reimagines Hegel’s project and at the same time engages in contemporary political debates. When I started thinking about the book, I had a sense that Hegel had been completely misunderstood both in the popular reception of his thought and among many leading interpreters. I also saw political possibility in Hegel’s key idea—that we find satisfaction in the act of sustaining contradictions, not in solving them. In the book, I argue that the attempt to sustain contradiction is the driving force of Hegel’s philosophy. I admit that when we first hear this, it doesn’t make much sense: to sustain contradiction would just be contradictory and thus doomed to undermine itself.

But my claim in the book is that Hegel reverses our typical judgment on contradiction. Contradiction is not what we try to avoid but what we seek because it provokes our desire. We don’t look for what confirms our way of thinking but for what contradicts it. Once we overcome a particular contradiction, we no longer find it interesting. Even scientists only continue to experiment on problems as long as the possibility for contradiction exists. Once this possibility vanishes, the problem ceases to interest them. Hegel claims that our desire searches for contradiction because if it ever overcame contradiction desire itself would cease to exist. This is why absolute knowledge for Hegel is the knowledge that we cannot ever overcome contradiction.

The implications are important not just for philosophy but also for our own psyches and for all our political projects. What pushes thought forward is not an effort to solve contradictions or problems but to deepen them. Instead of thinking about how to overcome contradictions and be rid of them once and for all, we have to think about how to sustain them if we are to find a way through our current political dead ends. In this sense, the problem with contemporary capitalism is that its contradictions are too evident and too facile, not that they threaten to undermine the system.

As Hegel sees it, thought itself is contradictory because it requires the involvement of non-identity within every assertion of identity. I cannot identify anything without at the same time identifying what it is not. This is especially clear in the politics of immigration around the world. The identity of the citizen forms through the negation of the immigrant: a citizen is not an immigrant. But this negation is part of the identity, not just something external to it. Citizenship would be meaningless without this negation of the non-citizen. There is no way to be free of what is other or different in the formation of an identity. An identity free of negation would be completely immobile, isolated, and finally unidentifiable. It is only through the negation or through the introduction of otherness that identity becomes what it is. This is the contradiction that informs all identity.

By placing contradiction at the heart of Hegel’s philosophy, we begin to see the political importance of this philosophy. If contradiction undermines every identity, there can be no substantial authority that can operate without itself being contradictory. In this way, the recognition of contradiction as foundational provides definitive proof of the actuality of freedom. Hegel’s philosophy draws a clear line from reconciling ourselves with the inevitability of contradiction to recognizing the fact of emancipation. The key to a political catastrophe such as Stalinism lies in the attempt to overcome contradiction, which is why sustaining contradiction is vital. Only by avoiding the attempt to overcome contradiction do we ward off political catastrophes like Stalin’s Reign of Terror.