Todd McGowan


On his book Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution

Cover Interview of November 27, 2019

The wide angle

From the first time I tried to read Hegel, I remember how intimidating I found his language and yet how enticing his ideas were to me. As a result, I felt the need to translate Hegel’s ideas into my own idiom just so I could make it clear to myself. Even though Emancipation After Hegel is a book on Hegel, it is also an act of translation, continuing what I began during my first reading, except this time I’m also translating Hegel for other people as well as for myself. In the book, I strive for absolute clarity above all else, so that there could be no confusion about my claims or about Hegel’s. I often use an example from a film or from my personal life to clarify a Hegelian concept, and then I follow this with an interpretation of a similar move that Hegel makes in his philosophical texts. My effort is to make Hegel readable and to further the case for his philosophy at the same time. This involves speaking to two widely disparate audiences, but I myself am in both of those audiences. I’m at once someone trying to get a foothold in Hegel’s philosophy and someone who has spent decades reading and studying it.

While doing quite a bit of background reading on Hegel (and digesting the many introductions that have been written, as well as most of the criticisms), I discovered that the image of Hegel as a progressive philosopher is almost ubiquitous. From the perspective of this doxa, his philosophy tells the story of history progressing toward a better future from a humbler past. This is true among both his followers and his opponents. The clichéd version of the progressive image reduces his philosophy to the movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. According to this schema, the famous Hegelian synthesis solves the contradiction between the thesis and the antithesis. It grounds the opposition in a higher reality that cancels, transcends, and uplifts it (which is the triple meaning of the famous untranslatable Hegelian word Aufhebung).

But the problem is that these terms—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—never appear in any of Hegel’s writings. The cliché has served to hide the fact that Hegel sees no possible escape from the necessity of contradiction. There is no Hegelian synthesis at all. But if we take this basic misunderstanding as our starting point for thinking about his philosophy, we can actually see what he’s up to by reversing it. This is one of the wagers of the book. Hegel’s philosophy does trace out various lines of thought until they reach a point of contradiction, but he does not then seek a way of solving the contradiction. Instead, when he resolves one contradiction, he turns to another line of thinking that remains contradictory in order to keep the relationship to contradiction alive, until he reaches the point where contradiction appears as intractable. This is the point that he calls absolute knowing. It is the point, he believes, when we reconcile ourselves to the ultimate intractability of contradiction.