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Hegel is very much alive: Just ask Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler or Byung-Chul Han

For a long time the late 18th-century German philosopher was considered a ‘dead dog,’ yet his influence over popular contemporary thinkers remains evident

Mar Padilla
Philosophers
German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.Diego QUijano con fotografía de Getty Images

They all go out of style, but some of them make comebacks. The philosopher who placed the notion of relation and contradiction at the center of reality, who reflected about human beings and gave them a prominent place in history, who spoke of blood and liberty – for a long time, this thinker was considered a “dead dog.” Yet if we read Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler and Byung-Chul Han, some of the 21st century’s most widely followed thinkers, one thing seems certain: Hegel’s legacy is very much alive.

In popular culture, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel represents the dark thinker whom Monty Python proclaimed as the best defense in their old gag about the soccer game between German philosophers and Greek philosophers. Now, more than 250 years after his birth, Hegel has inspired new books based on his philosophy and fresh print runs of his work. Even Germany’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach recently quoted him to illustrate the moral duty of getting vaccinated against coronavirus: “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.”

Two of the last books by Slavoj Žižek are Hegel in a Wired Brain and Less Than Nothing: Hegel And The Shadow Of Dialectical Materialism. In a telephone conversation, Žižek reflected on that Hegelian view of history as a path of heartbreak. “Hegel does not talk to us about the future – that would be Karl Marx – but instead wants us to notice the processes of history and the act of constantly rewriting it,” he warns. In that sense, Hegel’s lesson for today’s world would be not to trust our own vision of the future. “We need to be more skeptical, instead of considering ourselves great makers of history.”

With post-humanism on the horizon, Žižek warns that the real game changer of our time is not surveillance capitalism (which focuses on personal data as a commodity to be used for profit) but potential new forms of domination through the brain-machine interface, whose goal is to make our thinking processes transparent. This new technological ability, still incipient but very real, “is horrible because it poses a threat to metaphors, poetry and the very idea of language. What’s at stake is our basic form of freedom which is human thought.”

Desire and power

In every one of her books, from the latest The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind to her first, Gender Trouble, thinker Judith Butler uses Hegelian concepts such as the need for recognition, mediation or the right to citizenship. Butler, who earned a PhD with a thesis on Hegel and the concept of desire, published an article in The Institute of Art and Ideas in 2019 titled “Hegel for our times,” underscoring the current relevance of the notion of interdependence, a very Hegelian concept. “It is in the course of encountering another that I stand a chance to become self-conscious,” reads the article.

Meanwhile the thinker Byung-Chul Han, who studied philosophy at Freiburg University, seems to take a less transformative view of Hegel. In his book The Agony of Eros, he equated Hegel’s notion of absolute with love, and warned that in a narcissistic world where all social interaction is mediated by technology, we run the risk of entirely eradicating the notion of the Other. And one of his latest books is What is Power?, whose main thesis is that certain forms of power dialectics can take place from a place of concord, as is the case with surveillance capitalism.

Populism and conspiracy theories

Germán Cano, who teaches philosophy at Madrid’s Complutense University, believes there has been a return to Hegel’s work because of the need to think about the whole, to think about the structure of what’s real, to get some relevant perspective in these times of populism and conspiracy theories based on the logic of finding a scapegoat. To Cano, the problem is that we live in increasingly atomized societies without a robust public sphere, which makes it difficult for us to understand one another as a society.

Hegel was the first to uncover the workings of ideas posing as natural facts of life, notes Ricardo Espinoza Lolas, a professor of history of philosophy at the Catholic University of Valparaíso, in Chile. Hegel offers us tools to “perforate the given, mediate the immediate and build a new sociohistorical fabric” made of the feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonialist movements, among others.

Wearing Hegel glasses can help us see further, but they don’t work for everyone. In her work Let’s spit on Hegel, the Italian activist Carla Lonzi underscored that feminism was the first social movement to interrupt the masculine monologue that had been so carefully cultivated in Western philosophy. Yet the very Hegelian concept of transformation lies at the heart of feminism. “Through thinkers who are indebted to Hegel, such as Butler, we are introduced to the idea that each person is simultaneously singular and plural,” notes Francesca Recchia Luciani, who teaches history of philosophy at Bari University. Recchia says we are undergoing a profound change, a conflict between an old world and a new world, a dialectical duel that seeks to overcome the patriarchal paradigm that refuses to give space or a voice to a majority of people.

A revolutionary beer drinker

Hegel lived through the French Revolution and he grasped that the idea of conflict in history is painfully real. Up until 1800 Hegel did not want to be a philosopher but a revolutionary, and this crossroads represents a critical moment in his work, explains José María Ripalda, a professor of history of modern philosophy at Spain’s distance university UNED, in his work El joven Hegel. Ensayos y esbozos (or, Young Hegel. Essays and sketches).

Hegel was something of a poet, and he also liked beer and women. He had a child and paid for the latter’s upkeep throughout his life as a good scholar of ethics. Besides an icon of philosophy, Hegel was also a man, just like Beethoven exclaimed about Napoleon: “So he is no more than a common mortal!” His wife Marie von Tucher described him as one of those people who expect nothing and hope for nothing. But not everyone loved him: Schopenhauer said that Hegel’s work would remain as “a monument to German stupidity.”

In any event, Hegel is a light that refuses to go out. The historian Wilhelm Dilthey said Hegel was one of those men who have never been young and who still have a hidden fire in old age.

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