Monday, September 27, 2010

Morris, Michael. Review of Nectarios G. Limnatis, ed. THE DIMENSIONS OF HEGEL'S DIALECTIC. NDPR (September 2010).

Limnatis, Nectarios G., ed.  The Dimensions of Hegel's Dialectic.  London: Continuum, 2010.

In an apt description of the guiding purpose, intended audience, and intellectual context for this collection of essays, editor Nectarios G. Limnatis notes that, "despite the immense and steadily growing Hegel discussion, dialectic is not frequently addressed in a systematic and comprehensive way in the English speaking world" (3). Accordingly, this volume brings together a roughly equal number of contributions from European and American scholars, with the intention of fostering English-language discussion of this central but abstruse Hegelian topic. While some contributions directly connect this topic with recent trends in contemporary Anglophone philosophy, including themes from the works of Wilfred Sellars, Robert Brandom, and John McDowell, other essays situate Hegel's dialectic within more exotic traditions, including negative theology and Heideggerian discussions of onto-theology. Additionally, many essays provide helpful historical context, focusing on the relationship between Hegel's dialectic and various related themes in the works of Kant, Fichte, Hölderlin, Schelling, Reinhold, and Novalis.

This book implicitly raises an important question, one that highlights the significance of the essays it contains, while, at the same time, suggesting some specific challenges these essays must address. Limnatis's pointed observation raises the question: why has the dialectic received so little attention from Anglophone philosophers, particularly those steeped in the analytic tradition?

In part, the answer lies in the history of analytic philosophy itself. If we ignore the role played by distinctly continental traditions in the formation of analytic philosophy, including the work of Frege and the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, then we might say that analytic philosophy emerged from Russell and Moore's rejection of the British Hegelianism of their elders, the philosophical systems of F.H. Bradley and John McTaggart. Among other things, this involved the rejection of holism, the embrace of realism, and the insistence upon the role of formal systems and linguistic analysis as the primary means for resolving traditional philosophical problems. At least since Quine's "Two Dogmas," however, various kinds of holism have enjoyed a resurgence, and the dominance of rigidly formal, logical, and linguistic approaches to philosophical problems has greatly declined. Moreover, historical scholarship has suggested significant differences between Berkeley's idealism, with its Cartesian starting point, and the more complex and nuanced idealisms of Kant and Hegel, thus correcting certain simplistic conceptions of idealism that can be found in Bradley, McTaggert, and their detractors. Finally, the recent works of McDowell, and the reemergence of certain strands of pragmatism, as represented in the works of Sellars, Rorty, and Brandom, have suggested potential connections between contemporary concerns and the themes of Hegelian philosophy.

However, even if holism, idealism, and non-formal approaches to philosophy now enjoy a more prominent place in the Anglophone world, there remains a potential stumbling block at the heart of Hegel's philosophy: namely, the dialectic, along with Hegel's peculiar conception of the role that contradiction plays within thought and within the very structures of reality itself. It is clear, of course, that contradiction plays an important role in philosophical thought. Insofar as logical coherence provides a necessary -- if not sufficient -- condition for a true philosophical system, philosophical progress often involves both the discovery of latent contradictions within our pre-philosophical assumptions as well as the evaluation of various suggestions for removing these contradictions. If dialectic simply involved the discovery of contradiction within one system of thought and the development of a successor system that eliminates these contradictions, then it would be wholly unobjectionable. However, as many authors in this collection rightly emphasize, contradiction plays a far more complex role in Hegel's dialectic. On the traditional view of philosophical progress already presented, contradictions play a purely negative and ultimately contingent role. Their role is negative, for they merely indicate that we hold some false belief(s). Likewise, their role is contingent, for thought could, in principle, exist without them.

By contrast, contradiction plays a positive and essential role in Hegel's conception of thought, a role that apparently reflects the existence of contradictions in the basic structure of reality itself. Hegel's texts are filled with remarks like the following: "a consideration of everything that is shows that in its own self everything is in its self-sameness different from itself and self-contradictory."[1] Any serious interpretation of Hegel's texts must grapple with repeated claims of this sort. As one contributor to this volume, Dieter Wandschneider, pointedly notes: "Hegel's objective-idealistic program is so closely tied to the possibility of dialectical logic that the program itself stands or falls thereon" (31). Dialectic is not an optional feature of Hegel's philosophy, one we might safely ignore or excise.

In relation to this perplexing topic, we can approach the essays in this volume in terms of three different questions. First, what leads Hegel to make contradiction a central theme in his philosophy? Second, what aspects or interpretations of the dialectic might allow us to avoid the unsettling conclusion that Hegel's philosophy flagrantly violates the principle of non-contradiction? Third, what does Hegel actually mean when he presents contradiction as an essential feature of thought and reality? . . .

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