Hegel versus Heidegger

Hegel versus Heidegger

One of the standard critiques of Hegel, first formulated already by the “young Hegelians,” concerns the apparent contradiction between Hegel’s dialectical method and his system. While Hegel’s method approaches reality in its dynamic development, discerning in every determinate form the seeds of its own destruction and self-overcoming, his system endeavors to render the totality of being as an achieved order in which no further development is in view. With the twentieth century interpreters of Hegel who stand under Heidegger’s influence, this contradiction between the “logical” and the “historical” acquires a deeper radical underpinning: what they try to outline is a more fundamental ontological frame that is both the source of Hegel’s dialectical systematizing, and is, simultaneously, betrayed by this systematizing. The historical dimension is here not simply the unending evolution of all life forms. It is also not the life-philosophical opposition between the young Hegel trying to grasp the historical antagonisms of social life and the old Hegel compulsively steamrolling all content with his dialectical machine, but the inherent tension between Hegel’s systematic drive of notional self-mediation (or sublation) and a more original ontological project that, following Heidegger, Alexandre Koyre describes as the historicity of the human condition oriented towards future.5 The root of what Hegel calls “negativity” is (our awareness of) future: future is what is not (yet), the power of negativity is ultimately identical to the power of time itself, this force that corrodes every firm identity. The proper temporality of a human being is thus not that of the linear time, but that of engaged existence: a man projects his future and then actualizes it by way of a detour through past resources. This “existential” root of negativity is obfuscated by Hegel’s system that abolishes this primacy of the future and presents its entire content as the past “sublated” in its logical form—the standpoint adopted here is not that of engaged subjectivity, but of Absolute Knowing. (A similar critique of Hegel was deployed by Alexandre Kojeve and Jean Hyppolite.) What his critics all endeavor to formulate is a tension or antagonism in the very core of Hegel’s thought that remains unthought by Hegel—not for accidental reasons, but by necessity, which is why, precisely, this antagonism cannot be dialecticized, resolved, or “sublated” through dialectical mediation. What all these philosophers offer is thus a critical “schizology” of Hegel.6

It is not difficult to recognize in this vision of the future-oriented temporality of the engaged subject the traces of Heidegger’s radical assertion of finitude as the unsurpassable predicament of being-human: it is our finitude that exposes us to the opening of the future, to the horizon of what is to come, i.e., transcendence and finitude are two sides of the same coin. No wonder then, that it was Heidegger himself who, in a series of seminars and written texts, proposed the most elaborate version of such a critical reading of Hegel. Since this is not the Heidegger of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), but the later Heidegger, he tries to decipher the unthought dimension of Hegel through the close reading of Hegel’s notion of the “experience” (Erfahrung) of consciousness from his Phenomenology of Spirit. Heidegger reads Hegel’s famous critique of Kantian skepticism—we can only get to know the Absolute if the Absolute already in advance wants to be bei uns (with us)—through his interpretation of parousia as the epochal disclosure of being: parousia names the mode by which the Absolute (Hegel’s name for the Truth of Being) is already disclosed to us prior to any active effort on our part, i.e., the way this disclosure of the Absolute grounds and directs our very effort to grasp it—or, as mystics and theologians put it, you wouldn’t have been searching for me if you had not already found me.

Why is Hegel unable to see the proper dimension of parousia? This brings us to Heidegger’s next reproach: Hegel’s notion of negativity lacks a phenomenal dimension (i.e., Hegel fails to describe the experience in which negativity would appear as such). Hegel never systematically exemplifies or makes appear the differences between the terms rejection, negation, nothing, “is not,” and so forth.7 Hegelian dialectics just presupposes the occultation of its own phenomenologico-ontological foundation; the name of this occultation is, of course, subjectivity. Hegel always-already subordinates negativity to the subject’s “work of the negative,” to the work of the subject’s conceptual mediation/sublation of all phenomenal content. In this way, negativity is reduced to a secondary moment in the subject’s work of self-mediation. This blindness for its own foundation is not a secondary feature, but the very enabling feature of Hegel’s metaphysics of subjectivity: the dialectical logos can only function against the background of a pre-subjective Absage, renunciation or saying-no.

There nonetheless is a privileged phenomenal mode in which negativity can be experienced, although a negative one: pain. The path of experience is the path of painful realization that there is a gap between “natural” and transcendental consciousness, between “for the consciousness itself” and “for us”: the subject is violently deprived of the “natural” foundation of its being, its entire world collapses, and this process is repeated until it reaches Absolute Knowing. When he speaks about “transcendental pain” as the fundamental Stimmung of Hegel’s thought, Heidegger is following a line that begins in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason.8 There Kant determines pain as the only “a priori” emotion, the emotion of my pathological ego being humiliated by the injunction of the moral law. (Lacan sees in this transcendental privilege of pain the link between Kant and Sade.)

What Heidegger misses in his description of the Hegelian “experience” as the path of despair (Verzweiflung) is the proper abyss of this process: it is not only the natural consciousness that is shattered, but also the transcendental standard, measure, or framing ground against which natural consciousness experiences its inadequacy and failure—as Hegel put it, if what we thought to be true fails the measure of truth, this measure itself has to be abandoned. This is why Heidegger misses the vertiginous abyss of the dialectical process: there is no standard of truth gradually approached through painful experiences; this standard itself is caught in the process, undermined again and again.

This is also why Heidegger’s reproach of Hegel’s “machination” misses the point. According to Heidegger, the Hegelian process of experience moves at two levels, that of lived-experience (Erlebnis) and that of conceptual machination (Machenschaft): at the level of lived-experience, consciousness sees its world collapse and a new figure of the world appear, and it experiences this passage as a pure jump, a leap with no logical bridge uniting the two positions. “For us,” however, the dialectical analysis renders visible how the new world emerged as the “determinate negation” of the old one, as the necessary outcome of its crisis. The authentic lived-experience, the opening to the New, is thus revealed as something that is underpinned by notional work: what the subject experiences as the unexplainable rise of a new world is actually, behind its back, the result of its own conceptual work, and can thus ultimately be read as produced by subject’s own machination. There is no experience of genuine otherness, the subject only encounters the results of its own (conceptual) work. This reproach only holds if one ignores how both sides, the phenomenal “for itself” of the natural consciousness and the “for us” of the subterranean conceptual work, are caught in the groundless abyss of repeated vertiginous loss. The “transcendental pain” is not only the pain that natural consciousness experiences, the pain of being separated from its truth; it is the painful awareness that this truth itself is non-all, cracking, inconsistent.

The Torture House of Language


Subject and Cogito


 [Extract. Appeared in e-flux issue #32, February 2012]


  1. See Alexandre Koyre, “Hegel a Iena,” Etudes d’histoire de la pensee philosophique, (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).
  2. I rely here on Catherine Malabou, La Chambre du milieu, de Hegel aux neurosciences, (Paris: Hermann, 2009).
  3. Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, vol 68, “Hegel,” (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann 1993), 37.
  4. Ibid, 103. See generally Martin Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988).
  5. See Alexandre Koyre, “Hegel a Iena,” Etudes d’histoire de la pensee philosophique, (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).
  6. I rely here on Catherine Malabou, La Chambre du milieu, de Hegel aux neurosciences, (Paris: Hermann, 2009).
  7. Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, vol 68, “Hegel,” (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann 1993), 37.
  8. Ibid, 103. See generally Martin Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988).

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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