‘The Social Philosophy of Gillian Rose’ by Andrew Brower-Latz reviewed by Roderick Howlett

The Social Philosophy of Gillian Rose

Wipf and Stock Publishers, Oregon, 2018, 232pp., $23.20 pb
ISBN 9781532618376

Reviewed by Roderick Howlett

About the reviewer

Roderick Howlett is currently a Philosophy and Religion teacher and tutor in Nottinghamshire, …


As all once perplexed philosophy undergraduates will know, it is not easy to succeed in introducing, reorganising and reframing the thought of many of our most important philosophers. There is jargon to translate, influences to consider; and then the problem of repackaging this into a consumable coherent whole. One would be hard pressed to think of a more challenging subject for this task than Gillian Rose. For a start, there are her primary influences: Hegel and Adorno, two notoriously difficult thinkers in their own right. Next, there is the scope of her work with which to contend, standing at the intersections between philosophy, sociology, political theory and theology. If this were not enough, there is her intentionally oblique style and the carefree deployment of a literary and philosophical lexicon to rival any writer of the last century. In this volume, Andrew Brower-Latz negotiates all of this with remarkable clarity and all whilst directing us to consider Rose’s unique and lasting contributions in new ways.

The account is divided across four chapters. The first two chapters focus on the primary influences on Rose (Hegel and, within the Frankfurt School, Adorno), showing how these inform specific aspects of both her critique and accompanying ‘positive’ social philosophy, while the third and fourth chapters attend more to outlining the social philosophy and its key components. ‘Rose’s Hegelianism’ (chapter 1) puts forward speculative Hegelianism as the schematic glue holding together the respective aspects of Rose’s ‘methodological, logical, descriptive, metaphysical and normative’ (11) social theory. But by this, the chapter is not suggesting that Rose’s thought is merely rehashed Hegelianism; Brower-Latz makes clear that hers is an idiosyncratic interpretation, emphasising for example, the incompleteness of the Hegelian totality and placing to one side a number of common misleading readings of Hegel. It is the incompleteness and radical openness of Hegel’s speculative thought which is precisely most informative for Rose.

Having reconsidered Hegel in a critical mould, the Frankfurt School’s offering of (in the broadest terms) a post-Marxist analysis of society and its discontents is assessed in ‘Rose’s Frankfurt School Inheritance’ (chapter 2). Specifically, throughout the book, Rose is identified as being within ‘the Hegel-Adorno tradition’ (117). When Rose insists on ‘diremptions, the historicality and sociality of self-limiting reason, the imperfection of any knowledge’ (115), Brower-Latz argues, she is not just adding in Adornian elements, but in fact actively employing his critique of Hegel.

In ‘Jurisprudential Wisdom’ (chapter 3), the book narrows its focus, underlining the importance of law in Rose’s social theory, both for its theoretical influence and practical import. In general in social theory, law is often absorbed unquestioningly as part of a legal positivism. The result of this process for Rose was that when assuming that complications surrounding the application of law were resolved, in fact they had merely unknowingly transposed legal categories into their conceptions of society. By announcing ‘the speculative unity of law and ethics’ (119), Rose makes explicit knowledge of law’s relation essential for social theory. By understanding law as a crucial condition of philosophical consciousness, we open up new dimensions in critical thought and as such can reflect more deeply on the logical and social preconditions that underpin our social philosophies. Additionally, this ensures that neither the presumption of the seamless integration between law and ethics, as is contained in the idealism of the cosy Sittlichkeit, or, alternately, the illegitimate affirmation of legal and state apparatus are assumed.

This chapter’s understanding of the complicated relationship between the law and the state then entails the awareness of the ‘tensions between self, society and state’ (158), which are instrumental in the construction of the final chapter. ‘The Broken Middle’ (chapter 4), is the tour de force of the book, bringing together the threads of the previous three chapters and demonstrating Rose’s thought to be both relevant and challenging for contemporary political theorists and philosophers.

Underpinning the description of Rose’s ‘positive’ social theory given in chapter 4 is the belief in the existence of a ‘diremption’ between state and civil society and law and ethics. Diremption is defined as being not ‘the absence of relation, but the relation of mutual dependence and tension’ (170). Paired with her negative inheritance from Adorno, this forms the basis for Rose’s cautiousness and her insistence on the working through and resolution of immanent tensions as crucial to the formation of a successful social order. Practically, this results in the belief in the imperfect justice of rationalised law (as opposed to the utopian aim of abolishing legal and state apparatus), the need to supplement this law with mediation from the individual and civil society and the refusal of any notion of ‘pure’ virtue or the ability to reach idealised absolute ethical life.

Above all and grounded in her Hegelianism, Rose identifies mutual recognition between subjects as the ‘immanent telos’ of modern society (201), a means of simultaneously building up and critiquing society. By working through moments of misrecognition and fragmentation, we can incrementally get closer to the (ultimately unattainable) goal of full recognition. Alongside this emphasis on mutual recognition, there is also a critical place for the individual. For Rose, there is a tension between individual, civil society and state which can only be resolved through individual responsibility: ‘competing claims cannot be decided […] in the abstract’ (193). Finally, and this is her greatest critical distinction with Hegel, Rose advocates for a ‘suspended ethics’. To be able to be truly critical towards the Sittlichkeit requires the individual to perform a suspension of the ethical. This withdrawal is the Kierkegaardian means of withdrawing from the social totality and identifying underlying tensions and flaws.

As a whole, then, the book’s primary achievement shows how Rose’s mature social philosophy comes to fruition as the culmination of her entire corpus, particularly through her work on Hegel and Adorno. But it is also effective in providing a defence of Rose against her interlocutors. This is especially the case when it comes to showing that Rose’s social philosophy actually has a credible, substantive and practical basis (the book presents the accusation of lacking substance as the abiding criticism of Rose). For example, there are effective responses to the claim that Rose’s abandonment of the Marxist critique of political economy ultimately leads her to lack substantive theory. Alternately and coming from a position critical of Marxist theory, John Milbank accuses her of not being able to consider potential improvements to dirempted social life and as a result, ‘leaving absolute ethical life too vague to be helpful’ (85). In riposte, Brower-Latz proposes that her phenomenology was instead precisely interested in substantive issues, critiquing and amending them. Moreover, though Rose eventually did indeed abandon critical Marxism, her issue was more with its claim to being a ‘comprehensive analysis of capitalism’ (86), without an analysis of capitalism as culture – a criticism which places her firmly within Frankfurt School lineage. Furthermore, in chapter 4 there is a full account of the substantive application of Rose’s thought, through, ‘the imperfect justice of rationalized law […] the need to supplement it with institutions of the middle […] and mutual recognition’ (202). If this is not enough, then the full effect of mutual recognition, which is admittedly ‘largely gestural’ (202) in Rose’s work can be supported with recourse to Axel Honneth’s lengthy work on the subject. Finally, Brower-Latz includes a fascinating and timely discussion in which the state-society diremption (and the tension between national and universal) is applied to the experience of many British Muslims, feeling trapped between two cultures; a direct result of the nation-state’s demand to pledge loyalty and the ambiguity surrounding what becoming ‘accepted’ would entail.

Given the book’s emphasis on Rose’s intellectual genealogy, there could undoubtedly have been more made of the recurring presence of her forebears in her thought; this would have reinforced the book’s thesis and potentially been the source of a further depth in criticism. Much is rightly made of the inclusion of phronesis and warmth towards praxis as a crucial (positive) turn away from Adorno. For Rose, ‘action must be risked’ (200). At the same time, while reviewing the criticisms of vagueness and of lacking substance, echoes of Adorno’s influence are evoked but never explored. One could go so far as to say that Rose sometimes appears within the book as a version of Adorno as presented by his detractors. The epigraph to chapter 4, for example: ‘Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best we can hope for, and probably all we should seek’ (158). This aspiration to work towards merely incremental improvements upon society, to be less wrong in a wrong world, are common criticisms levelled at Adorno and a number of recent re-interpretations of his practical philosophy looking to systematise his negativist ethics. The claim here is that his ethics amounts to resignation: lacking a radical and utopian vision and merely subscribing to an uninspiring Neo-Kantian ‘realm of lesser evil’. Paired with this, currents in Adorno scholarship are now moving towards the view that, at the end of his life, the substance of Adorno’s political theory was a broadly social democratic support for the necessity of legal and state apparatus, the latter of which Rose is seen as defending as part of her broken middle. That Rose openly advocates what for many of Adorno’s critics say is to be found latently in him as undesirable is interesting in the least and should have been attended to. All that said, the author’s treatment of the necessary retention of tension between, for example, utopianism and despair at the heart of Rose’s philosophy, makes for one of the best philosophical justifications of these tensions and their practical feasibility. When these are considered in an Adornian context they are more often than not left dubiously unaccounted for, such that this achievement is not to be underestimated in its importance.

As a whole, this portrayal of Rose’s thought is unlikely to win her any out-and-out disciples. For that however the book should not be considered a failure. The idea of followers is antithetical to her thought anyway, consistent with her redeployment of the Kierkegaardian aim to launch the reader into making their own decisions. The ‘high altitude’ nature of her thinking invites wonder at the original insight contained within and at the ‘illuminating nature of their vision’, (161) rather than necessarily a wholesale agreement with the sum of its parts. Equally, given that ‘Rose is […] somewhere between Adorno and Hegel’ (114), it was never likely to satisfy purists of the Hegelian or Adornian kind. Despite this, the book is replete with both theoretical and practical ideas which should be considered and incorporated by serious theorists of all stripes. One of the most admirable qualities of Rose’s work is that she freely chose her sources, regardless of the ‘camp’ in which they traditionally stood; extracting the moment of truth contained within was what mattered. This book’s greatest success, in both its openness and its suggestiveness, is in its imploring us to read, think and critique in exactly the same spirit.

25 June 2019

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