chapter  18
6 Pages

G.W.F. Hegel


G.W.F. Hegel, widely seen by advocates and critics alike as the inaugural thinker of modernity, is a towering figure in critical theory. Unlike Kant, for whom critique entailed an inquiry into the limits of rationality, Hegel was the first to advance a form of ‘immanent critique’, concerned with bringing into visibility the internal contradictions, tensions, distortions – in Hegel’s term the ‘negative’ – of the categories of mind constitutive of knowledge. Without Hegel’s systematic exposition of the movement of ‘negativity’ in thought and experience, much of what comprises critical thought today, including Marxist, hermeneutic, and psychoanalytic approaches to the study of modern social life, as well as postmodern and postcolonial approaches devoted to ‘overcoming modernity’ would, quite literally, be unthinkable. Best known as the theorist of freedom, espousing a purposive, if contested, notion of a progressive history that marks the movement of unitary reason or world spirit (geist), Hegel’s contributions to the understanding of consciousness and desire as socially and inter-subjectively constituted have been pivotal to efforts to move beyond the dualism (between objective/subjective; normative/real) and empiricism that since Kant and Descartes have dominated Western philosophy and social inquiry. Hegel as a critical thinker of modernity, in other words, commands attention. In considering Hegel’s work, however, one must caution at the outset

against the singular inaccessibility of his prose that frustrates but also rewards, abundantly and in equal measure, the sheer persistence of effort. Within disciplinary international relations although Hegel’s shadow looms large, explicit discussions of his work have been limited. Centred principally on two texts, The Phenomenology of Spirit and The Philosophy of Right, scholarship in international relations has drawn attention to Hegel’s putative ‘realism’, specifically his writings on the state and the ‘international’, his defence of nationalism and inter-state wars on the one hand, or conversely, liberal readings of Hegel’s communitarianism that lend themselves to institutionalist perspectives in the global arena. More recently, reflecting the broad inter-disciplinary concern with the production, management, and hierarchicalizing effects of ‘otherness’ in global social life, Hegel’s exposition of the master/slave dialectic (in The Phenomenology of Spirit), once seen as a

powerful and generative trans-historical theorization of the self-other problematic (by post colonial writers like Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, for instance), has been called into question. In much contemporary critical theory, then, Hegel is cast as the central figure against which critical thought must constantly strain to put to rest once and for all his claims about ‘Absolute Knowing’ and the radical denial of alterity that his speculative idealism, it is argued, necessarily generates. In view of the rationalization of imperialism and (European) cultural superiority that is seen to be the core, if repressed, centre of a Hegelian cartography, the posthumously published Philosophy of History has come into prominence in these debates. To the extent that a critically inflected conception of the ‘international’ connotes, minimally, the recognition of plurality (many states, many histories, many life worlds), it is precisely, critics suggest, Hegel’s alleged subsumption/denial of difference that eradicates the ‘international’ as a valid object of inquiry in his thought. Of what use, then, is Hegel in contemporary critical international rela-

tions? What are the central categories in Hegel’s thought that enable rather than impede a critical global imaginary? If, as many from Foucault to Derrida remind us, we can speak to (or against) Hegel in terms that nonetheless remain deeply Hegelian, what might the critically inclined student take from Hegel in pursuit of an inquiry into the conditions and possibilities for imagining a more just world? While there are multiple pathways one can tread through the Hegelian archive in response to this question, in the discussion that follows, I can only gesture toward some of the ways in which an engagement with Hegel’s thought today may be especially timely. But first, a brief biographical sketch.