Three questions on Hegel

Questions that occur to me as the first half of my (hopefully) two-semester tutorial on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit winds through the wilds of “Observing Reason”:

  1. So far, I’ve noted that for Hegel, the “negative” can mean many things. It can mean abstraction (which negates the full richness of concrete content) or determinacy (which implicitly negates other things through its very self-assertion). It can mean negation in the simple sense of rejection or destruction. Best of all, of course, is the self-referential negation which both negates and preserves itself, hence transcending immediate negation in order to introduce the superior quality of mediation. My question: is it actually necessary or helpful to use a single word to cover all of this?
  2. A.V. Miller’s translation of Begriff as “Notion” seems to have few fans. “Concept” is probably better and more natural — but would it be possible to capture a little more of the “grasping” or “gripping” in Begriff? (Presumably he could have used the Latinate equivalent if that were satisfactory.) Something along these lines would emphasize the distinction Hegel is trying to make between Vorstellung, representation or picture-thinking, and the properly philosophical thought that he’s promoting: it’s not a question of seeing or observing or describing (though all those activities remain necessary and legitimate), but of actually grasping. Of course, it’s a weird kind of grasping that seizes hold of living movement by entering into it — which is very different from how we normally think of “concepts.”
  3. Is it possible that Hegel’s critique of physiognomy and phrenology could be taken as a rejection of scientific racism? (Obviously that wouldn’t let him off the hook, but it might make him one of the earliest exponents of the more “nuanced” racism that points to a group’s culture as the source of their dysfunction.)

7 thoughts on “Three questions on Hegel

  1. Re. 3: There is some support for this idea in the Encyclopedia Philosophy of Spirit, where the long Zusatz to s. 393 dealing with the difference of races minimizes the importance of historical descent: “Importance was attached to this question because it was believed that by assuming descent from several couples, the mental or spiritual superiority of one race over another could be explained, indeed it was hoped to prove that human beings are by nature so differently endowed with mental or spiritual capacities that some can be dominated like animals. But descent affords no ground for granting or denying freedom and dominion to human beings. Man is implicitly rational; herein lies the possibility of equal justice for all men and the futility of a rigid distinction between races which have rights and those which have none.” (tr. A.V. Miller, p. 41)
    But Hegel’s rejection of these crude forms of “biologisation” of spirit is actually compatible with a form of scientific racism present at the time (e.g. in Kant) according to which it is precisely the particularity of the white race that it is able to escape from the “biologicality” or naturality in which other races are trapped. Kant for example argues that only the white race still has all the “Keime und Anlagen” of the original human being, and thus retains a certain biological freedom, whereas other races have adapted to their local climates and thus lost the capacity to change; hence the white race is destined to spread over the whole planet and replace the locally-determined races.
    Hegel’s treatment of race might be ambiguous between cultural racism you describe, according to which it’s essentially European culture rather than the biologically defined white race that is superior, and the “white exceptionalism” conception of Kant, according to which the biological superiority of the white race is its capacity to escape from biology. But I think the second fits better with Hegel’s thought, since the first requires that it be a merely contingent fact that the superior culture developed in Europe and among the white race, whereas Hegel of course wants to relegate contingency to nature. Hegel even suggests that the spiritual differences of the races correspond to the geographical differences of the continents they inhabit, which seems to mean that the superior culture in which spirit finally comes to itself could *only* have developed in Europe (because it “reveals the unity of the undifferentiated unity of Africa with the unmediated antithesis of Asia, since in it mountain and valley are not juxtaposed as two great halves of the continent as in Asia, but everywhere penetrate each other” [p. 41]). The supposed indifference of Africans to freedom corresponds to the undifferentiated nature of the African continent, etc.

  2. 1. Necessary to use a single term in a lot of different (but related) ways, no. Hegel could’ve varied his vocabulary up a little more than he did. (Though he already is taxing the German language a fair bit to express all the distinctions he wants to eventually draw.) But I think there is something helpful to using “negation” to cover a lot of cases, once you clarify some of the different uses in different places; there is a relatedness between them all that Hegel wants to draw attention to. They’re homonyms in the sense of Aristotle’s “Categories”, all senses of “negation” (eventually) getting a clear sense through their relationship to the “absolute negativity” of spirit. I think Hegel gets a lot more mileage out of this style of writing in the “Science of Logic”, though; in PhG it probably produces more heat than light. In the Logic I think Hegel is clear that things are supposed to be murky for much of the book, with light gradually dawning over the whole cluster of logical distinctions as we approach the Concept as such; in PhG it feels a lot more like Hegel is just rapidly manufacturing philosophical distinctions without a clear end in sight, while using a shockingly small vocabulary to discuss all of them.

    2. I think Hegel actually avoids using Latinate terms generally; he wanted to “teach philosophy to speak German” after all. When he only has to use one term, and has a choice between a Germanic and a Latinate word, he uses the Germanic one; he uses Latinate terms when he runs our of Germanic ones. (Thus “Objekt” is a narrow term, and “Gegenstand” a broad one. I recall there being a good discussion of this in the translator’s introduction to the Hackett “Encyclopedia Logic”.) There’s a sharp contrast with Kant in this; Kant seems to use German to translate technical terms which he originally thinks in Latin.

    I think it’s actually important to *not* translate “Begriff” in some special way; from Hegel’s point of view he’s not talking about something other than “concepts” in the normal/traditional sense, but talking about those familiar “concepts” *adequately*. For Hegel “Begriffe” are still the components of judgements, which are the components of syllogisms; and at the level of formal syllogistic, Hegel wants to reject nothing from the tradition. (He wants to justify the norms of old-fashioned Aristotelian syllogistic, not replace it with something paraconsistent or “modern” or anything revisionary like that; the goal is to rehabilitate “the Aristotelian concept”, the Idea, in a post-Kantian way, not to produce some radically new kind of “concept”.) Getting clear on what judgements and syllogisms can be, such that they can genuinely express knowledge of objectivity, requires some serious philosophy; on that much, Hegel agrees with Kant. The details of what kind of revisions our “ordinary” views on judgement/reason/truth need differs between Kant and Hegel, but I think they’re working on the same style of project. And since nobody wants to translate “Begriff” in Kant as anything other than “concept”, the same should be done in translating Hegel. Hegel means by “concept” what he thinks Kant means by “concept”, the spontaneity of thought; where Hegel disagrees with Kant about “the concept”, he thinks Kant is *wrong* about concepts, not that they’re talking about different topics.

    3. I don’t think this reading works, in Hegel’s historical context; for Hegel (as for Kant, incidentally) the differences between the races derive from differences in external natural things like geography and climate. See the Zusatz to 393 in the Encyclopedia “Philosophy of Spirit”, where Hegel more or less justifies distinctions of racial phrenology by appeal to geographical differences. Interestingly, this is the Zusatz where Hegel mentions Haiti; there he does seem to allow that even “the Negro” can come to knowledge of freedom and a state, etc., except “they do not show an inherent striving for culture”. But the “fact” that they “do not show an inherent striving for culture” has a naturalistic justification for Hegel; they lack it because Africa is an “undifferentiated” continent, not just because of something wrong with African culture as it stands. (It’s probably significant for Hegel that Haiti is not a part of the African continent.) I do think that the PhG discussion of phrenology & physiognomy commits Hegel to rejecting the kind of scientific racism which claims that racial differences are “internal”, carried in the blood and manifested independently of environmental/developmental factors, but I think that kind of scientific racism is more a creature of the later 19th century (and then the 20th and 21st centuries); it’s not the kind of racial “science” Hegel would’ve been familiar with.

  3. Begriff. ‘Apprehension’ comes via apprehend, and the Latin ‘prehendo’ (as in ‘prehensile’), and means originally to seize or grasp something; latterly an apprehension becomes a concept or an idea. The problem, though, is that the meaning seems to have drifted now towards ‘anxious concept’ (‘I was apprehensive about …’) which is no good in the Hegel context.

  4. “Concept” actually does contain capere as its root, in concipere, which is the same root as in “intercept”: to take or catch something. We just don’t use it that way, being so far downstream from its derivation.

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