de Boer, Karin. On Hegel: the Sway of the Negative. London: Palgrave, 2010.
Though not large in size (200 pages in normal format discounting end-notes and general apparatus), this book defends a complex thesis that requires it to range far and wide over the whole Hegelian corpus. The title, indefinite as it is ("On Hegel"), and the aphorism of the subtitle ("The Sway of the Negative"), already signals the broadness of the book's reach and the complexity of the thesis underpinning it. These traits make the book difficult to report on, but one can try none the less. The book is motivated by a critique of modernity that involves a critique of Hegel inasmuch as the latter's dialectical optimism is a hallmark of modernity. The critique is inspired by such figures as "Kierkegaard, Marx, Adorno, Heidegger, and Derrida," (5) at least to the extent that, like them, the author questions Hegel's principle of "absolute negativity." However, unlike these mentors, who failed to do justice to the strength of Hegel's thought, the author intends to capitalize on this strength by relying on a suggestion, which she finds in Hegel's early Essay on Natural Law (1803), that would limit the negative to its more tragic aspects. Hegel's is only a suggestion. As the author clearly recognizes, in the same essay Hegel also advances the more speculative idea of "absolute negativity" to which he is driven because of systematic requirements (26-27). None the less, it is on this more limited suggestion of a "tragic negative," and the entanglements to which it gives rise in concreto, that the author pins her hopes for an understanding of the dynamics of the contemporary world. As she says, "Nothing prevents us from . . . converting this very entanglement into a basic philosophical principle" (28).
Accordingly, the book is a reflection on all aspects of Hegel's system that exploits, while at the same time criticizing and limiting, Hegel's leading idea of the "negative." The book unfolds in ten chapters -- the shortest 7 pages, the longest 22 -- that follow on the whole the sequence of the Encyclopedia. It is Logic, however, and the conceptual problems that it poses, that control the book's development from beginning to end. For the author, contrary to what she takes to be the tendency of post-analytical Anglophone literature on Hegel to privilege the Phenomenology (the same, I add, could be said of the post-war French scene) believes (rightly so, in my opinion) that the capital work of Hegel, the one that holds his whole system together, is precisely the Logic. Chapter 1 presents what the author believes to be "Hegel's early account of tragedy" (7). Chapters 3 to 4 are a study of the Logic, while Chapters 5 to 8 relate the author's interpretation of the Logic to the rest of the System ("Circularity," "Nature," "Language," "Teleology"). In Chapter 9, the author finally turns to History. "Drawing on the perspective developed in the preceding chapters," the aim here is "to bring out the tragic nature of conflicts such as those between universality and particularity, freedom and power, the individual and the community, or progress and tradition" (8). . . .
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