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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published online by De Gruyter November 10, 2023

Boldyrev, Ivan and Stein, Sebastian (eds.). Interpreting Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: Expositions and Critique of Contemporary Readings. New York / Abingdon: Routledge 2022, ix + 277 pp.

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Boldyrev Ivan Stein Sebastian (eds.) Interpreting Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: Expositions and Critique of Contemporary Readings New York / Abingdon Routledge 2022 1 277


For much of the twentieth century, the Phenomenology of Spirit received the lion’s share of attention from Hegel scholars, particularly those working in French and English. While interest in the Phenomenology has of course not vanished, Hegel scholarship in the last twenty to thirty years, especially in the anglophone context, has increasingly focused its attention on Hegel’s encyclopaedic works and the Science of Logic.

In this context, Ivan Boldyrev and Sebastian Stein’s Interpreting Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit serves as a good reminder of the extraordinary philosophical richness of Hegel’s earlier work. Their edited volume assembles fourteen thought-provoking engagements with arguments in Hegel’s Phenomenology, spanning topics in epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, hermeneutics, political philosophy, and aesthetics. However, the volume’s primary aim is to provide a series of critical “meta-readings” or “meta-commentaries” on Hegel’s text. This means that the primary objects of investigation are different interpretative approaches to the Phenomenology, including, for example, approaches from twentieth-century German and French phenomenology, Marxism, neo-pragmatism, and psychoanalysis. These interpretations are evaluated according to their answers to three primary questions:

(1) What kind of text is the Phenomenology of Spirit? (2) What are the conceptual contributions of existing interpretative strategies? (3) How do different interpreters justify their verdict on whether the Phenomenology is still a viable project? (pp. 4–5)

In this review, I shall refer to these three questions that each “meta-reading” is to answer as MR1, MR2, and MR3. The first thing to ask is whether or not this project of assembling and assessing notable kinds of interpretations of the text is a worthwhile one. As the editors point out, the diversity of topics addressed in the Phenomenology itself, coupled with the variety of drastically different interpretative approaches to the text, can make its study very difficult. Accordingly, critically examining several of the most noteworthy approaches in the secondary literature is a very good idea indeed. The second thing to ask is whether the various chapters satisfactorily illuminate and critically evaluate the interpretations that they consider according to questions MR1-3 above. The answer, I think, is by and large “yes,” but to varying extents.

The chapters are intended to “follow the deductive structure of the Phenomenology itself” (p. 6). The chapters can be fruitfully read in isolation from one another, however. The focus of the volume on different meta-readings means that it need not, perhaps cannot be read as a sustained attempt to provide a single, unified account of the argument of the Phenomenology as a whole.[1] In fact, I do not really understand the decision to have each meta-reading focus on a different section of the text. A case could instead be made for having each chapter bring its different interpretative approach to the same material from the Phenomenology, in order to more clearly bring out their differences and comparative degrees of plausibility.

All fourteen chapters in the volume cannot be discussed in any detail in a short review. I will consequently discuss only a small sample of the chapters, in order to give the reader an impression of the nature of the volume.

Chapter 1, by Ioannis Trisokkas, provides a wonderfully clear reconstruction of Heidegger’s account of the role of Hegel’s Phenomenology in relation to his mature systematic philosophy. Trisokkas presents Heidegger’s account of the manner in which the Phenomenology, as in some sense the “beginning” of Hegel’s system, relates to the system’s other, more obvious beginning: that of the Science of Logic. What emerges from this discussion is that Heidegger presents, albeit in unusual language, a fairly standard picture of the role of the Phenomenology; he considers the text to justify the “absolute beginning” of the Logic by overcoming the opposition between the reflexive model of cognition presupposed by the Logic and ordinary consciousness, which purports to cognize objects that are distinct from itself. This picture of the justificatory role played by the Phenomenology seems to me to amount to the Heideggerian answer to MR1, as Trisokkas presents it.

More distinctive is the answer to MR2 that Trisokkas finds in Heidegger’s account. Trisokkas connects Heidegger’s proposed explanation for why absolute knowing necessarily emerges from consciousness to his remarks concerning the apparent relocation of the contents of the Phenomenology to the Encyclopaedia Philosophy of Spirit. In so doing, Trisokkas shows that Heidegger’s primary conceptual contribution consists in understanding absolute knowing in terms of “constant restlessness” (p. 25). This conception seems intended to head off interpretations that take Hegel to understand “the absolute” as a static foundation upon which everything else is grounded. Heidegger instead stresses the dynamic mediation of absolute knowing as the “inner law” essential to grasping Hegel’s system (p. 29). A critical examination of MR3 is less evident in Trisokkas’ discussion of Heidegger. In a footnote he suggests that, rather than seeing in Hegel’s dynamic account of absolute knowing an adequate model of self-grounding, Heidegger considers Hegel’s systematic philosophy to be ultimately “ungrounded” or “dogmatic,” requiring a “leap into the whole of the absolute” on behalf of the thinker (p. 32). I would have liked to see further critical engagement with this suggestion.

Chapter 2, by Anna Yampolskaya, endorses a critical account of Hegel’s treatment of sensuous certainty and its characteristic deictic expressions from the French phenomenologist Henri Maldeney. The overall thrust of her argument is that phenomenological and linguistic work on deictic expressions indicate the possibility of an analysis of sensuous certainty as a “pre-conceptual layer of experience” (p. 43) that is richer than Hegel allows. Yampolskaya thus presents a version of the familiar criticism that Hegel’s account of sensuous certainty illegitimately abstracts from the complexities of natural consciousness. However, she does so in a novel way, namely, through a phenomenological treatment of the use of deictic expressions and the nature of the immediate relation to the world that they express. The chapter does not seem to have much in the way of an answer to MR1, being focused fairly narrowly on criticisms of Hegel’s sensuous certainty chapter. Yampolskaya’s answer to MR2 follows largely from her answer to MR3: because she, following Maldiney, finds Hegel’s account of sensuous certainty to be fundamentally flawed, the principal contribution she finds in Maldiney’s reading is simply that of indicating an alternative approach to sensuous certainty, one that points in the direction of post-Husserlian transcendental phenomenology. Setting aside the merits and demerits of transcendental phenomenology, I was left thinking that this chapter could have engaged in more detail with the Phenomenology itself, as it risks occasionally criticizing Hegel for not going further in the direction of a project that was not his own.

In Chapter 9, Sebastian Ostritsch opens with a helpful discussion of some of the difficulties presenting the reader attempting to answer MR1 before suggesting that it might nevertheless be possible to extract “insights and arguments that promise to be of value to current philosophical debates” from the text (p. 170). He goes on to engage with MR2 by addressing readings of the Phenomenology’s Morality section that focus on subjective duties (from Christoph Halbig and Dean Moyar especially), and on internalism and externalism about practical reasons (from Pippin, in particular). His treatments of each topic emphasize the distinction between the achievements of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and those of the Phenomenology. Ostritsch thus addresses the topic of MR3 by arguing that some interpretations of the Phenomenology – whether those claiming to discover satisfactory arguments for the replacement of a flawed notion of subjective duties with an account of objective duties grounded in ethical life in the Phenomenology, or those which attempt to derive from the Phenomenology an internalist account of practical reasons that is compatible with Hegel’s rationalism – err in attributing arguments to the earlier text that are only satisfactorily made in the Philosophy of Right. I found this to be a helpful and informative chapter, and its conclusions seemed to me to wind back to the topic of MR1 by suggesting that, while one might find Hegel discussing interesting philosophical problems in the Phenomenology, it is primarily to his mature, systematic works that one should look in order to discover his considered position on their solutions.

In Chapter 10, Gunnar Hindrichs discusses Rebecca Comay’s reading of the Phenomenology in her Mourning Sickness, beginning with a fairly explicit discussion of MR1. He declares himself opposed to broadly “pragmatic” interpretations of the text that take its primary outcome to be a fundamentally social, mutually recognitive account of cognition constituted by individuals exchanging reasons. While his reduction of all such broadly pragmatist readings to a Rortyian position, or his claim that such readings do not “possess a robust theory of negativity” (p. 189) are perhaps a bit quick, Hindrich’s primary criticism is an interesting one. He suggests that such interpretations mistakenly view the Phenomenology’s discussions of topics such as the beautiful soul or the Terror only as “misguided derivatives of the space of reasons or mutual recognition” (p. 189). Such steps are rather to be understood, Hindrichs claims, not merely as examples of unfortunate social pathologies, but as constitutive, negative aspects of spirit. This leads him to a discussion of Comay’s reading of Hegel’s account of the French revolution and the Terror. Hindrichs finds in Comay’s reading a treatment of modernity according to which “all historical experience always comes too late,” and which treats the concomitant “trauma” of such experience as essential to the nature of spirit (p. 190).

In answer to MR2, Hindrichs explicates Comay’s emphasis on the Terror, which follows the account of Enlightenment freedom in the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology. On her account, Hegel treats the revolutionary negation of spirit expressed in the Terror as the “limit” to the Phenomenology’s science of experience, which “cannot be integrated into that experience” (p. 191). This in turn allows Comay to treat subsequent developments in the Spirit chapter in terms of the work of mourning required to overcome this trauma, the extreme expression of which is the historical French Revolution. Hindrichs argues, however, that such trauma informs the nature of historical experience in general. In considering MR3, Hindrichs attempts to supplement Comay’s reading. He accepts her defense of the fundamental importance of Hegel’s account of spirit’s response to the Terror and its associated negation of freedom, but he argues that the final parts of the text should not be understood along the lines of mourning. In doing so, he emphasizes that the Phenomenology carries out a reflection on the untrue appearances of consciousness in order to arrive at the truth of spirit, i.e., spirit’s adequate self-understanding, which includes an understanding of the radical negation manifested in the Terror at its core (pp. 195–196). While Hindrich’s attempted correction to Comay’s account remains somewhat underdeveloped here, his emphasis on the fact that the shapes treated in the text amount to untrue appearances of spirit strikes me as a helpful one.

I have been able to engage only with a handful of the chapters here, and even then only briefly. I have unfortunately passed over interesting discussions of approaches to the text from philosophers such as Beauvoir, Brandom, Jameson, McDowell, and Žižek. Still, I hope to have conveyed something of the diversity and value of the volume. If someone were to ask me for a guide to the different interpretative approaches that have been taken towards Hegel’s Phenomenology, this text would certainly be among those that I would recommend.[2]

Published Online: 2023-11-10

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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