As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Robert Wyllie looks at Alain Manville’s “Hegel and Metaphysics,” from Telos 42 (Winter 1979).
In “Hegel and Metaphysics,” Alain Manville joins the echelon of French theorists who attempt to focalize Hegelianism around one core concept. In the vanguard, Jean Wahl turned unhappy consciousness into an organizing principle for reading Hegel. More famously, Alexandre Kojève pared Hegelianism down to the core master-slave dialectic. Manville focuses upon the annihilation of metaphysics in Hegel’s speculative recognition that being equals nothingness. Speculative thought transcends the understanding (Vernunft), which sees only an ontological contradiction. Hegel dismisses Vernunft and metaphysics, Manville argues, to grasp concrete reality in a postmetaphysical sense.
Manville is forthcoming about his purpose, linking Hegel’s critique of metaphysics to Marx’s revolutionary praxis. The article reconstructs Marx’s Hegel. Manville asks:
What relation is there between the critical dimension opened by Hegel and its place within Marxism? The radical transformation of reality envisioned by the revolutionary password presupposes that a radical transformation must have become conceivable. This is what Hegel bequeathed to Marx’s thought, by showing that reality is always the product of a transformation and thus itself essentially transformable—an idea that metaphysics had essentially ruled out. (116)
Manville is prepared to “do violence to the text” in search of its “practical truth.” Manville explains, “The practical truth of the Hegelian text, far from being located in what Hegel seems to say, must be sought in what the text does rather than what it says” (109).
The practical truth of Hegelianism—that is to say, the core concept Manville extracts from Hegel—is the obliteration of metaphysics at the site of ontology. The practical truth is a “Hegelian deconstruction of metaphysics” (108). Manville traces this attempt to the young Hegel’s attempt to overcome the understanding:
The new approach to the meaning of “being” had appeared to the young Hegel as inaccessible to any thought still regulated by the understanding. In his youthful project, Hegel found it impossible to deal with the identity of the identical and the non-identical and of the mediation of the mediate and the immediate within the framework of traditional thought. (109)
Hegel is frustrated that the understanding must dead-end at abstract contradictions: “If reality is inconceivable, then we must forge concepts that are inconceivable” (109–10). Manville finds this youthful impulse to “conceptualize the inconceivable” in the preface of the 1807 Phenomenology of Mind. Hegel argues that the understanding cannot penetrate “the effective reality and the living movement of the thing it surveys” (111). Marx, reading Hegel in 1844, finds hidden in the Phenomenology of Mind “all the elements of critique, and these are already often prepared and elaborated in a manner that far exceeds the Hegelian point of view” (109). For Manville, this remark is a green light to violently re-read Hegel’s speculative thought as a clue to Marx’s revolutionary password.
Speculative thought, where Hegel purports to go beyond the understanding, is a project that breaks ground in the 1816 Science of Logic. One step ahead of critics who see the dialectic as the link between Hegel and Marx, Manville shows how the Hegelian dialectic differs from its classical antecedents. Hegel writes in Science of Logic, “the dialectic . . . constitutes the speculative” (112). The dialectic is a means of going beyond the understanding, beyond the abstractions of ontology: “In other words, what the speculative process criticizes as abstraction is the understanding’s ontological determination and fixation of being” (111). Manville explains further: “For metaphysics and ontology only the absolute opposition of being and nothingness is possible: only the double exclusive equality of being equals being and nothingness equals nothingness is rational” (113). But the understanding breaks down in the modal metaphysics of change:
With the transition from being to nothingness and from nothingness to being, the understanding can no longer function. It is confronted with an unknown universe that offers no fixed point where it can ground its judgment. Now, everything is in transition. (114)
Ontology, the essence of metaphysics, comes undone. In Science of Logic, Hegel seeks to demonstrate that the concept of a logical foundation is self-refuting. Manville explains how this scandal to the understanding—being equals nothingness—”does not astonish speculative thought. On the contrary, this situation is seen as the destiny of all claims to constitute a firm ground” (114). Becoming is not made into a dynamic ontology. Manville warns the reader against Lukács’s view that Hegel is founding a new ontology. Instead, “being is recast by Hegel as the incessant movement of transition to its opposite and constantly changed into its own contradiction” (114). Being becomes not “becoming” but the idea of becoming.
Even if Hegel threatens here and there to backslide into metaphysics, Manville is content that he has found the link from the critical project of deconstruction to Marx the revolutionary. The revolutionary password is that the world of being is plastic. The world of immutable being that appears to Vernunft is nothing; in fact, the world is a product of thought. Hegel inspires Marx “by showing that reality is always the product of a transformation and thus itself is essentially transformable” (116).
A classic critic of Hegel’s metaphysics is Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard learns from Hegel that transition from nothingness to being (or possibility to actuality) is the great philosophical problem of the modern age. But Kierkegaard does not think this problem warrants creating a postmetaphysical system to replace the understanding altogether. The dead-end for the understanding might close off ontology, but it does not open space for a new Hegelian system of speculative thought. Kierkegaard argues that the understanding is not completely defunct, but rather that its failure is strictly limited to ignorance about how nothingness transitions into being. Kierkegaard does not rebel against Hegel’s essentially transformable world, but skeptically denies we have understanding of its transformations. This limited failure of Vernunft warrants a highly conditioned “leap of faith” to fallible beliefs about metaphysical questions of origin. For Kierkegaard, the failure of ontology does not warrant an entire speculative system. It does warrant the passionate decision of faith—the inward passion that Kierkegaard calls the essence of revolution.
Kierkegaard’s critique shows how Hegel’s speculative thought might be challenged. But it also reaffirms Manville’s reading of Hegel. Both Kierkegaard and Manville’s Marx are impressed by the limitations of Vernunft to confront actual transitions in a world of constant transformation. Manville argues that the negative accomplishment of Hegel’s system, the deconstruction of ontology and metaphysics, opens the door for Marxist revolution. Beyond Manville’s reading, the trajectory of postwar critical theory might lead us to question whether Marx was the only original thinker to try Hegel’s revolutionary password.
1. Cf. Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985), pp. 72–88.
2. Cf. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, trans. Alastair Hannay (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), p. 160.
3. Cf. Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1978), p. 61.