“The R-Files” (short for “The Review Files”) is a new monthly feature of The Philosophical Salon. Under this heading, philosophers Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza take a look at what is happening in the world from the perspective of a particular philosophical text that matters to them, worries them, makes them angry, or arouses enthusiasm—theirs and, hopefully, that of our readers.
Part I. On Eclipse of Reason (F. Ruda)
Recently, I’ve reread a book that I had not opened for years. But after almost incessantly following the global news in the last months, my glance wandered off for a moment and settled on its cover. It immediately appeared topical and timely to me. The book was Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason.
It is rarely mentioned in most philosophical or critical discussions these days, but already its title clearly speaks to a sentiment that is widely shared today. Are we not presently witnessing a worrisome overshadowing of reason by all kinds of other motives that do not even remain obscure or hidden anymore? The appeal to reason seems to have lost most of its power and often appears helpless, at least in the domains where it is still made: in politics, ecology, economy and most recently even in matters of public health. Of course, this does not at all mean that we are simply living in a time of irrationality, even though this is a refrain one finds here and there. Rather something has happened to rationality’s practical effectivity, to its very mode of functioning. It appears to have been obscured and, therefore, it might prove instructive to look at Horkheimer’s account of reason’s previous eclipse.
The book is composed of a series of lectures Horkheimer gave in 1947 at Columbia University in New York, where he was in exile. For its German edition, Horkheimer added another round of texts (on philosophical as well as sociological issues, dealing, for example, with Kant, Aristotle, and Schopenhauer, as well as with marriage, authority and family) and republished it as On the Critique of Instrumental Reason. The two titles suggest that reason is eclipsed when reason becomes instrumental(ized). What does that mean, if not a suspension of reason through a specific mode of its (over-)usage? Let me elucidate.
The experience of German fascism and of WWII stand in the background of Horkheimer’s reflection on what he calls “the present crisis of reason”[i], a crisis springing from the fact that “thought serves any particular endeavour.”[ii] When the use of reason no longer leads to an attempted realization of reason, because it no longer commits us to reason and reasonable action or thinking—that is when we use it as if it were a neutral tool and as if we remained unaffected by it. When reason is used like a hammer that can hit the nail on its head or just hit a head, something happens to the practice and status of rationality. When it starts to serve any purpose and end, reason “liquidates itself as an agency of ethical, moral and religious insight.”[iii]
The “reduction of reason to a mere instrument”[iv] is a result of liberalism’s inner tendency. Liberalism liberated reason from all prefigured purposes, even from that of reason itself. This means that it sets reason so free from any inner purpose that reason can become anyone’s servant and, as Horkheimer notes, this is why “an activity is reasonable only if it serves another purpose.”[v] Everywhere, reason is used for ends that can hardly be justified by it and therefore aren’t. Reason is used everywhere, but hardly anything is reasonable anymore. Such is reason’s eclipse through its overstressing.
The predicament, as I have briefly summarized it with Horkheimer’s help, produces confusions. For example, “productive work, manual or intellectual, has become respectable”, but “the pursuit of any end that eventually yields an income, is called productive.”[vi] If the eclipse of reason manifests in reason’s use only for extra-rational purposes, there immediately appears a new standard of how productive this or that use of reason is. This standard can, then, no longer be questioned by reason. For Horkheimer using reason can, thereby, become utterly compatible with reason’s “transformation into stupidity.”[vii] He goes as far as claiming that this will necessarily lead to “subjective stupidity”, a stupidity that surprisingly is part and parcel of the way, in which we employ reason. Say, you are smart if you can create income out of nothing, even if you use reason without being affected by it. You then live not in the age of the fast and furious, but of the rich and stupid.
The eclipse of rationality in and through its instrumental over-use motivates subjects to revivify “past theories of objective reason.”[viii] When reason becomes an instrument that effectively coincides with a decrease of reason and thinking, helpless attempts are made to compensate the eclipse of reason on an individual level by returning to “pseudo-scientific or half-scientific mind cures, spiritualism, astrology…, Yoga, Buddhism, or mysticism”[ix] and the like. There is always a reason in the age of the eclipse of reason as to why people opt for something other than reason.
We have been able to witness a spread of compensatory techniques and belief systems in all corners of productive Western everyday life. However honest, even though instrumental[x] – or maybe: instrumental precisely when honest –, these beliefs seem to be nothing but the contemporary flipside of another transformation that Horkheimer’s notes vis-à-vis the functioning of hypocrisy: “Hypocrisy turned cynical; it does not even expect to be believed.”[xi] On the one hand, we get the honest meditation techniques that will ultimately make you more productive (and are, hence, instrumental); on the other hand, we get political systems that are so apparently not acting according to their more honourable self-descriptions that it is hard to sustain the belief that they even expect anyone to believe in the them anymore.
As Alain Badiou pointed out recently, capitalism “is the first social organization, in which it is possible to say that this organization is very bad,”[xii] and such a statement generates no immediate practical consequences whatsoever. The eclipse of reason is manifest in resuscitating the above-mentioned practices that ultimately endorse or instil a mostly disavowed belief, namely that these practices are effective instruments for increasing one’s own productive labour. But the eclipse of reason is also manifest in the “well-informed cynicism,”[xiii] corresponding to new forms of power and domination that no longer really disguise their own agendas and do not even attempt to lie honestly anymore.
It is here that Horkheimer’s diagnosis shows its true contemporary significance. He reflects on
“certain traits of modern demagogues. They are often described as ham actors…[They] behave like unruly boys, who normally are reprimanded… by… some… civilizing agency. Their effect on an audience seems due partly to the fact that by acting out repressed urges they seem to be flying in the face of civilization and sponsoring the revolt of nature. But their protest is by no means genuine or naive. They never forget the purpose of their clowning. Their constant aim is to tempt nature to join the forces of repression by which nature itself is to be crushed.”[xiv]
The modern demagogues act as if they are the unruly boys who rebel against the disciplining forces of the modern political and economic world, against the establishment and the like. And therein they are like us, like everyone. They pretend to cause havoc for the existing ruling class that constantly attempts, but always fails, to civilize them. Simply, because, as politicians, they are such bad actors that no one seems to be able to take them seriously (as politicians) anyhow.
For Horkheimer this is part and parcel of their appeal: they can act as badly as we or most of us do; they are as gross and misbehaved as all of us are sometimes; they understand about as much about political techniques as most of us. But they rule anyhow. This is why they rule not by deceiving us: they are not geniuses in the disguise of morons; they are just morons. They, thus, rule by thriving on motives so obvious and transparent that no one can be expected to be blind toward them.
The see-through demagogues, whose motives appear transparent and whose appeal lies in appearing unable to even disguise them properly any longer, use transparency as their ultimate disguise. They have an appeal to those whom they will crush as they rule. They are like the naked emperor who admits that (s)he is naked[xv] – and who thereby becomes so much of an attention magnet that (s)he keeps us from looking at what really counts, namely at what the real crisis is that they are diverting our attention from.
The eclipse of reason sometimes comes with what appears to be an eclipse of power and sovereignty through its becoming almost vulgarly transparent and transparently vulgar. But we may learn from Horkheimer that this can very easily mean that power and sovereignty are just used for other purposes. This is what we should focus on, not on the supposed unruliness of populist demagogues. So, what is the real crisis they are diverting us from?
Part II: On Elements of the Philosophy of Right (A. Hamza)
I’ve recently reread Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right. It has been lambasted as one of the treaties, which had developed, encouraged and propagated the worst in the highly reactionary Prussia. In fact, everything has already been said about this book; it has been a subject to all kinds of philosophical and political examinations and interrogations. Everything has already been said and written about Hegel. Every philosophical and political orientation seems to have claims over him, and conceive him as a predecessor.
What follows is not a mere defence of Hegel – after all, isn’t Hegel’s work the best defence of itself? – but it should be read in, referring to Freud, as a form of “free associations” with regard to some of the topics in the book.
From the outset, there is one obstacle I cannot help mentioning. How can one be a Hegelian (not only) today, which is supposed to be, in itself, an impossible position of following the philosopher of the end (of history, of art, of religion… up to the end of philosophy)? The initial difficulty has been elaborated by Slavoj Žižek, in a post-Hegelian break with traditional metaphysics, with the question of how one can claim the fidelity to Hegel, after Marx, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and others. Another, related difficulty is that, while the caricature of Hegel as the absolute idealist, possessing Absolute Knowledge persists, there continue to be Marxists, Nietzscheans, Aristotelians (yes, especially them)…
Declaring oneself to be a Hegelian is simply not enough, especially today with the revival of interest in Hegel’s work (though, reading through different books on Hegel from different time periods, one cannot fail to notice how so many of them are nothing but an ‘intervention’ in the period of—yet another—revival of interest in Hegel…) in the fashion, which Žižek has called “the deflated Hegel.” So, being a Hegelian today poses the question: which Hegel? The way to approach a true philosopher is to locate a certain concept, and read the entirety of his system from the standpoint of that concept.
The preface to Philosophy of Right is (in)famous for his image as the philosopher defending the present. There are at least two moments worth reconsidering in this respect, starting from the following dense sentence:
“To recognize reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to delight in the present – this rational insight is the reconciliation with actuality which philosophy grants to those who have received the inner call to comprehend, to preserve their subjective freedom in the realm of the substantial, and at the same time to stand with their subjective freedom not in a particular and contingent situation, but in what has being in and for itself.”[xvi]
The “rose in the cross of the present” is Hegel’s reference to Luther, through whom he not only criticises the position of the beautiful soul as the stance of inactivity, but also recognises the present as the only domain where freedom can be realised. This is a Christian, or more precisely, Protestant dimension of Hegel’s thinking. For Hegel, as he himself puts it, modern philosophy is Luther in a form of thought.[xvii] As he writes in the very same preface, “what Luther inaugurated as faith in feeling and in the testimony of the spirit is the same thing that the spirit, at a more mature stage of its development, endeavours to grasp in the concept so as to free itself in the present and thus find itself therein.”[xviii] Luther and Protestantism, with the notion of predestination, open up the only possible form of freedom. Protestant freedom is possible solely from the standpoint of pre-determination: I know I am predetermined, but I do not know how I am predestined, and, because of this, I do not do good deeds to gain salvation, but because it is my duty. Luther refuses bargaining with ethics. As he put it elsewhere, “freedom exists only where there is no other for me that I am not myself.”[xix]
For Hegel, “philosophy is an exploration of the rational; it is for that very reason the comprehension of the present and the actual.” Proceeding from this, Hegel formulates his infamous formula: “What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational.” This already scandalous sentence becomes even more monstrous in its English translation.[xx] The German word for “actual” is wirklich, whose “specific connotation derives from its root in the verb ‘to act’ (wirken), which makes it clear that ‘actuality’ (Wirklichkeit) is not a merely passive, natural given.”[xxi]
Another important point should be noted here: Hegel starts his statement by saying that what is rational is actual, and not the other way around, as it is predominantly understood. The difference is not semantic. He puts forth the actuality of the rational, which means that what is rational has, in itself, the power to actualize itself. It has the potential to turn from potentiality into actuality. Hegel does not advocate the primacy of rationality in actuality, which can also mean that the Wirklichkeit actually determines rationality, that is, we do not get, as in Kant, a pre-given form of rationality (say, with its laws and concepts). Actuality is that in which essence and existence concur, or as he puts it in the Science of Logic: “Actuality is the unity of essence and concrete existence; in it, shapeless essence and unstable appearance—or subsistence without determination and manifoldness without permanence—have their truth.”[xxii] For this reason, actuality is rational. Hegel’s dialectical process is not a closed process; it does not end with the reconciliation of all antagonisms. On the contrary, the properly Hegelian reconciliation “is not a peaceful state in which all tensions are sublated or mediated but a reconciliation with the irreducible excess of negativity itself.”[xxiii]
But how does one approach the concept of the Hegelian state? “The state consists in the march of God in the world, and its basis is the power of reason actualizing itself as will.”[xxiv] Does this not echo Hegel’s thoughts expressed in a letter to his friend Niethammer?
“I adhere to the view that the world spirit has given the age marching orders. These orders are being obeyed. The world spirit, this essential, proceeds irresistibly like a closely drawn armored phalanx advancing with imperceptible movement, much as the sun through thick and thin. Innumerable light troops flank it on all sides, throwing themselves into the balance for or against its progress, though most of them are entirely ignorant of what is at stake and merely take head blows as from an invisible hand.”[xxv]
His opponents, from both the left and the right, couldn’t have been happier to “prove” their point through this articulation and conception of the state. And it gets worse. “The state is”, Hegel argues, “the actuality of the ethical Idea—the ethical spirit as substantial will” (PR 275, §257). Nothing can alienate, or perhaps aggravate, Marxists more than this position, since their ultimate goal is to do away with the state. Its sole purpose is to wither away, as Marx maintained. Perhaps, one should go back to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach to make sense of the position of the left on distancing from and abhorring the state and its power. It is interesting to note the paradox, even though Marx aimed at reformulating and redefining materialism after Hegel (and Feuerbach), thesis eleven is perhaps the most non-materialist position of Marx.
Hegel defines the state as an objective spirit (in his Jena Lectures, for instance). The most elementary definition of objective spirit can be formulated as the field, in which consciousness comes into its own. Or, as Hegel writes in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, “ethical life is the unity of the will in its concept with the will of the individual [des Einzelnen], that is, of the subject” (addition to §33). Differently stated, objective spirit is the spirit objectified in nature or in human institutions. However, is it important not to understand objective spirit as a life-form, that is, a concrete historical formation or world, as “objectivized spirit.” While it is not the Lacanian big Other, objective spirit exists independently of the will of individuals because it pre-exists them; it is something they encounter in their activity, and as such, it has no “authorship.” Hegel doesn’t think the collective subject, yet objective spirit cannot exist outside, beyond, or above a human collectivity. Herein resides the paradox of objective spirit.
Here, we are faced with two aspects, or rather constitutive elements, of Hegel’s system, namely Christianity and the state, which the leftist appropriation of Hegel, beginning with the Young Hegelians, tries to disassociate itself from. Subtracting them from his philosophical system, as Marx attempted to do, one necessarily ends up creating a new figure of substance. For those who love freedom the state and Christianity are, indeed, the embodiment of its negation. But is that so?
I am convinced that, in order for Marxism to remain pertinent, and not to be transformed into an empty barrel, one has to integrate these two elements into its system. Although Hegel’s ideological proclivities were not exactly communist, for any Hegelian-Marxist (and, I am most certainly one), it is essential to think of Hegel as a reader/critic of Marx.
Some on the left, especially some socialists, are more inclined to understand Hegel’s theory of the state as a form of a people’s self-mediation. In doing to, they seem to think that Hegel’s idea of the state-form provides the path to the self-emancipation of humanity. The interaction with the law plays a determinant role. But, there is also the liberal take – which is, to be clear, the weakest reading of Hegel – focusing on the spheres of civil society and community. The adherents of this view downplay the state as a contingency and understand emancipation in terms of the free exercise of the will, while the role of the state is to deal with the seamless functioning of this exercise by a multiplicity of subjects.
In truth, the actuality of the state is reached only when public and private spheres are not one and the same. That is to say, contrary to civil society, where the individual can pursue his or her interests while taking no account of others and their interests/aims, it is in the state that duty and the right merge. This pits Hegel against both liberal and conservative positions.
The ideas from both orientations find their basis in Hegel’s theology. We may clarify this claim in a following manner: while leftists take his theory of the community of believers as a form of what comes after the state (i.e., a protocommunism), liberals take it to be the truth of civil society itself, and for this reason, they take it to be, in a certain sense, already existing. In a way, objective spirit is or can be (also) other things than the state (i.e., the market, language, etc.). So, both the left and liberals are exploiting an ambiguity in Hegel’s treatment of Christianity, which allows for the spiritualization of community and the spiritualization of the state.
Every form of the modern state has very little, if anything at all, in common with the forms of political and social organization that Hegel calls the “state.” This non-identification, or negative determination, of the idea of the state with individual states challenges the conservative understanding of the state. The position renders an understanding of Hegel’s idea of the state rather difficult, as it does not side with any particular form of statehood, be it historical or actual. In Hegel’s “political philosophy,” there is little room for a positive determination of the “idea of the state,” whose movement is both the material and historical existence of God, that is to say, God’s march in the world. Thus, the following hypothesis can be put forward: what Hegel calls the “state” is a condition of historical existence.
[i] Max Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason (London / New York: Bloomsbury 1974), 4.
[ii] Ibid., 5.
[iii] Ibid., 11.
[iv] Ibid., 37.
[v] Ibid., 24.
[vi] Ibid., 27.
[vii] Ibid., 38.
[viii] Ibid., 43.
[ix] Ibid., 43f.
[x] Slavoj Žižek has noted repeatedly that certain of these doctrines are ultimately not used to ease one’s mind, but also in a similarly instrument way: you do transcendental meditation every day and you will be even more competitive and successful on the market. Cf. Slavoj Žižek, On Belief (London / New York: Routledge 2001), 11ff.
[xi] Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason, 71.
[xii] Alain Badiou, Trump (London / New York: Polity 2019), 32.
[xiii] Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason, 79.
[xiv] Ibid., 83.
[xv] Cf. for example the analysis in: Alenka Zupančič, “Power in the Closet (and its Coming Out)”, in: Lacan, Psychoanalysis, and Comedy, ed. by Patricia Gherovici and Manya Steinkoler (New York. Cambridge University Press 2016), 227f.
[xvi] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p.22
[xvii] “I am a Lutheran, and through philosophy been at once completely confirmed in Lutheranism”, Hegel: The Letters (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p.520
[xviii] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p.22
[xix] G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p.60
[xx] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p.20
[xxi] Shlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p.126
[xxii] G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 465
[xxiii] Slavoj Žižek, Sex and the Failed Absolute (London: Bloomsbury, 2019) p.351
[xxiv] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 279, §258
[xxv] Hegel, The Letters, p.325