Todd McGowan


On his book Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution

Cover Interview of November 27, 2019

A close-up

The first chapter of Emancipation After Hegel lays out the argument of the entire book in detail, so this is a good starting point. Starting at the beginning would give readers a good sense of what the whole book is up to. But who wants to start at the beginning?

I think that my favorite chapter is the third, entitled “What Hegel Means When He Says Vernunft.” Even though this title sounds uninviting and not like something one would thumb through for laughs, I feel like this chapter is the most important because it overturns the received wisdom about Hegel’s supposed conformism. In this sense, there is an interesting political dimension to it. The idea that Hegel tries to justify the ruling status quo took hold soon after his death and has been the common understanding of him ever since then. This chapter tries to demolish this interpretation of Hegel’s political position by showing that his most apparently conformist statement is actually one of his most radical.

The most damning piece of evidence for Hegel’s conformism is his famous statement from the preface to his last work, The Philosophy of Right. There he proclaims, “What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational.” The fact that a monarch ruled Prussia at the time and that Hegel had a prestigious university post led people to see this statement as an explicit endorsement of the hierarchical status quo. It certainly seemed far removed from the radicality of someone like Marx, who was concerned with changing the world rather than simply discovering the rationality of what is.

But everything depends on what Hegel means by the rational (which is Vernunft in German). If by rational he means that it is justified and unquestionable, then this becomes a completely regressive statement. But this is not at all what Hegel means. He uses the term rational in precisely the same sense that Immanuel Kant uses it when he writes the Critique of Pure Reason. For Kant, reason is the faculty we use that leads us into contradictions, which is why he wants to critique its use. When we reason, we think beyond the bounds of possible experience and consider questions that we can’t answer, such as whether the world has a beginning or not. Kant shies away from these questions because he wants our philosophy to avoid running into insoluble contradictions. Hegel does not shy away from them.

Starting from Kant’s conception of reason, when Hegel claims that the actual is rational, he is making the audacious claim that the actual is really contradictory. Far from insinuating that the status quo is justified, this statement demands that we see the contradiction in even the most logical social structure imaginable. The status quo is contradictory and must be confronted as such. Hegel’s statement about the rationality of the actual demands that we look for the site of contradiction within the ruling order, whatever it might be. At the point of apparent conformism, he evinces his radicality. This I most treasure about Hegel as a thinker.