Fall 2017–Winter 2018

The Fullness of Philosophy

Hegel’s devouring machine

Sven-Olov Wallenstein

The popular image of Hegel’s philosophical project bequeathed to posterity is almost that of a monstrosity: an all-devouring machine that aspires to achieve total satiety, digesting everything that it encounters by making it into the nutrition of the dialectical animal. Pleroma, fullness, as philosopher Werner Hamacher once suggested, seems to be the inescapable goal of Hegelianism. The Hegelian philosophy of history can be taken as a triumphal march of spirit that ruthlessly pushes everything alien to its own movement aside, as the supreme arrogance of a certain image of Reason in its final complacency. And yet one must note that Hegel was also the first philosopher to take history seriously—the history not only of philosophy, but also of art, religion, politics, and customs—and that any philosophy that refuses to descend into the particulars of experience is doomed to remain an empty abstraction.


Against this, innumerable contemporary philosophers have attempted to see something different in their X-rays of the Hegelian digestive system. And yet such attempts are often fundamentally determined by an adversary so formidable that he is able not only to deflect opposition but in fact thrives on it. In a certain way, Hegel’s successors all aspire to go beyond, or to end, the Hegelian ending of metaphysics, i.e., to rethink his completion of philosophy in light of what remained unthought or repressed within it, or to introduce a constitutive unease into the seemingly complacent satiety of the system. 


Many such instances could be cited: Adorno’s question as to whether metaphysics is still possible after the Hegelian consummation and the catastrophic failure to realize its promise; Derrida’s inquiry into what the “remains” of Hegel, the “last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing,” might mean for us today; or Heidegger’s claim that the overcoming of metaphysics requires us to “step back” from the Hegelian determination of philosophy as absolute knowledge, that the “end of philosophy” can only be transformed into the “task of thinking” if we are able to think through the Hegelian ending.


The first, and perhaps most dramatic, twentieth-century enactment of such gestures can probably be located in the French reception of Hegel in the interwar period, and the immensely influential lectures of Alexandre Kojève at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in the 1930s, which formed the matrix for generations of French philosophers. Few thinkers seem to have taken Hegel so seriously, at such face value, as Kojève. Indeed, his final, urgent question was: Since Hegel is absolutely right, what are we to do after the end of history? What is the kind of satiety produced by absolute knowledge, and what does it mean to hold the position of the “Wise Man” (le Sage) for whom history is over? Does such wisdom also mean the end of desire, action, and negativity? Kojève vacillated on this point, and in a famous note added in later editions of his lectures, he spoke of his experience of Japan, where he detected a kind of post-historical “snobbery” that would lead men to engage in play and empty rituals simply to avert the boredom of completed reason (an interesting literary version of this would be Raymond Queneau’s 1952 novel Le dimanche de la vie, which many have seen as an ironic response to Kojève, not least since Queneau five years earlier had been the editor of Kojève’s lectures). It may be that history is over, and yet people will engage in strange games, as if refusing to submit to reason. 


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