Review of Molly Farneth, Hegel’s Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation (Princeton University Press, 2018)
What has Jena to do with Jerusalem? Or Washington D.C., for that matter?
Plenty, it turns out. It was in Jena, as Napoleon’s armies were advancing on the city, where Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel completed The Phenomenology of Spirit, the introduction to his entire philosophy and the key to understanding it. Molly Farneth’s Hegel’s Social Ethics advances a persuasive and original argument about the Phenomenology’s relevance to the “culture war politics” that has held the United States in a tight grip since the beginning of the 21st century. Farneth depicts Hegel as providing a middle way between communitarian particularism and liberal universalism, or Faith and Enlightenment, through public practices of reconciliation, forgiveness, and recognition. While I think her diagnosis of the socio-political ills afflicting the United States is sound and her Hegelian prescriptions urgently needed, I am skeptical whether they might find fertile ground in contemporary American culture. Americans as a people are not big on mutual recognition, let alone forgiveness and reconciliation.
An older tradition of scholarship interpreted Hegel’s absolute idealism — the notion that reality is fundamentally Spirit or Geist — as a return to dogmatic metaphysics: a rebuttal of sorts to Kant’s critical or transcendental idealism, which set strict limits to human theoretical knowledge. This throwback to metaphysics was bad news for Hegel’s reputation. The tone of 20th-century philosophy, whether analytic or continental, viewed metaphysics with a jaundiced eye. Continental philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre, and Foucault were eager to borrow only those aspects of Hegel that they believed swung free from the Spinozistic desire to know “the unconditioned.” At the same time, analytics like Russell, Wittgenstein, and Quine were unwilling to borrow anything from so blatant a philosophical throwback as Hegel. Both camps of philosophers consigned Hegel to the rather dusty shelves of antiquarian interest. As a result, any direct relevance of the Phenomenology to ethics was thought to be wrongheaded, or at most a matter for historical scholarship.