Sunday, December 20, 2009

Moyar, Dean. Review of Kenneth Westphal, ed. BLACKWELL GUIDE TO HEGEL's PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT. NDPR (December 2009).

Westphal, Kenneth R. ed. Blackwell Guide to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009. It is no small irony that Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, a book that is supposed to serve as a ladder for ordinary consciousness to reach the standpoint of Science, should itself have required scores of commentators to make its rungs intelligible and its ascent even conceivable for generations of readers. The major challenge of commenting on Hegel's work is to stay close enough to the text that the reader feels that he can really read Hegel's text alongside the commentary without having to bypass large stretches, while at the same time actually to interpret (rather than paraphrase) the text so that its philosophical import is evident to today's reader. Forcing everything into one's own interpretive framework can leave the reader disconnected from Hegel's actual words, while just paraphrasing Hegel's text, though reassuring for a beginning reader, does not let one connect Hegel's philosophical project to the wealth of philosophical debates to which it is relevant. The outstanding single-author commentaries on the Phenomenology in English in the past twenty years (chief among them being Terry Pinkard's Hegel's Phenomenology, H.S. Harris' Hegel's Ladder, and Jon Stewart's The Unity of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit), managed this challenge in different ways, producing works with distinctive priorities that have together opened up the Phenomenology to a generation of students. The Blackwell Guide to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, edited by Kenneth Westphal, is billed as a "collective commentary". Such a collective approach can illuminate the work through multiple perspectives and by drawing on the particular strengths of the commentators, each of whom can write on that stretch of text that he/she know best. However, the collective approach also runs the risk of producing a number of isolated contributions that leaves the reader in the dark about the interconnections of systematic unity of the whole. The relative strengths and weaknesses of such a commentary largely stem from how "collective" it really is -- whether there has been a truly collaborative effort, including some agreement on a rough interpretive framework, mutual commenting on each other's contributions, etc. Westphal's volume is "collective" in a rather minimal sense. There does not appear to have been any joint work in conceiving of the specific or general interpretive approach in the essays. (I should mention here that the volume of essays on the Phenomenology edited by myself and Michael Quante, though also a "guide" to the text and thus something of a competitor to the present book, was conceived neither as collective nor as commentary.) Westphal writes in his Introduction that the book "develops a significant consensus about the integrity of Hegel's text and issues. This point is examined expressly in chapters 1, 12, and 13, while chapters 10 and 11 say much about it too" (xvii). The "integrity" at issue concerns whether all the diverse parts of the Phenomenology hang together, or whether it is really two projects hurriedly and clumsily melded into one. While it is true that the authors in this work seem to agree that Hegel was in control of his text and are sympathetic to the overall project, it is not clear to this reader what "significant consensus" is developed. There have not been many recent defenders of the view that Hegel's text lacks integrity, so the mere fact that these authors assume such an integrity is not terribly significant. The discussions of the basic method and goals in the chapters do not complement each other, but rather lead the reader to various different (and necessarily incomplete) views of Hegel's goals and method. This is not to say that each of the essays dos not stand on its own. This is a very impressive collection of essays by some of the most acute readers working on Hegel today. Yet as a commentary, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Each contribution is well worth reading, both for the new and seasoned reader of the Phenomenology, yet one is left without a clear grip on Hegel's main philosophical innovations and without a reliable way to translate Hegel's prose into a more philosophically fungible idiom. . . . Read the whole review here:

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