‘Force and Understanding: Writings on Philosophy and Resistance’ by Howard Caygill reviewed by Bo Harvey

Force and Understanding: Writings on Philosophy and Resistance

Bloomsbury Academic, London and New York, 2020. 504 pp., £117.00 hb
ISBN 9781350107861

Reviewed by Bo Harvey

About the reviewer

Bo Harvey is a writer residing in New York City. He received an MPhil from the Centre for Research …


That which separates ‘revolutionary’ political practices from those which are merely ‘resistance’ and therefore reproductive of some status quo hover over left-political discourse. Riots, strikes, electoral participation – all have and will continue to be argued as either. Judgment will be dependent on the specificity of the moment, one’s theoretical standpoint, and what is at stake for the lives of those rendering judgment. While questions about the feasibility and ultimate purpose of any political strategy are common to political ideologies across the spectrum, the form of this question as it recurrently presents itself to the left did not simply drop from the sky. It rather conceptually inherits, as Howard Caygill tries to show, a division between two post-Kantian political-philosophical strands: one dominant and associated with the Kantian modal category of ‘possibility’, and another more subterranean, associated with the Kantian modal category ‘actuality’. These two post-Kantian strands hover in the background of his recent collection of essays, Force and Understanding: Writings on Philosophy of Resistance. The following review will be twofold: (1) summarize key aspects of Caygill’s thought that pertain to topics of interest to those curious about the relation between Marx, left politics, and philosophy and (2) situate Caygill’s thought within a specific philosophical lineage, one which poses a challenge to the self-sufficiency of philosophy as an independent discipline both in its invented ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ forms.

The collection is titled Force and Understanding for good reason, a name it shares with the third part of the first section (‘Consciousness’) of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Following Hegel’s critique of ‘Sense-Certainty’ and ‘Perception’, in the ‘Force and Understanding’ section Hegel stages the dialectical movement between the absolute flux of appearance (force) and the understanding’s attempt to render this flux stable as a single object via self-legislation (law). For Kant of course, it is only through this self-legislation that the subject can reflect upon the unity of the single object and its multiple properties, such that the object now corresponds with the analysis of the possibility of objects of knowledge in the context of a Newtonian theory of natural science – i.e. according to certain predictable mechanical laws. By the end of the section however, the reader finds themselves in the ‘inverted world’ immediately preceding the Phenomenology’s second section ‘Self-Consciousness’.

Throughout the collection Caygill’s thought seems to sit in the interregnum between, on the one hand, this flux of forces and their infinite instability and variability and, on the other, reason’s capacity for legislation and stability – either via legislation by the state or by consciousness. The status of this ‘either’ is important for it might be more appropriate as an ‘and’. The legislative imperatives of subjective consciousness and of the state appear, if not identical, as conceptually homologous. Caygill urgently thinks the social and political content of philosophy – to the point where it would not be inaccurate to describe his relation to it as ambivalent – despite the dominant disciplinary form of philosophy’s tendency to act hermetically sealed. This ambivalent relation to philosophy – and philosophy’s own ambivalent relation to that which it constitutes as non-philosophical (and vice-versa) – is a constant theme throughout the collection which, for the first time, collects a series of his essays written over a thirty-year period, hitherto scattered among often hard to find publications. The earliest of these dates to 1991 (‘Affirmation and Eternal Return in the Free Spirit Trilogy’), where Caygill interprets the eternal return of Nietzsche’s middle period as arising out of a ‘crisis of judgment’ which should be understood, ‘in Kantian terms, [as] a “statement” of the “enigma” or “puzzle” of liberation, and not it’s “solution”’ (112). The latest (‘XR: Thinking Resistance at the End of the World’) dates to 2019 and features an analysis of the theoretical and organizational sources of Extinction Rebellion. Caygill wonders whether the pure (and, in his view, indeterminate) positivity of the equation of joyful life-affirmation and ‘civil resistance’ he identifies in its theoretical sources marks the extent to which, ‘the discourse of resistance has reached its limit when mobilizing in the face of the grave and increasingly conspicuous threat of incrementally catastrophic climate change’. He concludes ambivalently: ‘either the forms of resistance currently emerging in the context of ecological struggle marks it’s radical metamorphosis into a new phase or the perceived stakes of human and wider species extinction remain too high to be left to resistance alone’ (451). Readers will inevitably wonder if something less life-affirming and joyful lies beyond.

Caygill reads several thinkers from the vantage point of an aporia. ‘The Return of Nietzsche and Marx’ for example reads the choice often presented between the two as ‘largely a reflex of an opposition between Marxists and Nietzscheans, one which has very little to do with the differences between two bodies of work’ (28). In both thinkers’ analysis of the crisis of the subject of modernity, they each face a ‘return’ that constantly threatens to undo the grounds of their respective projects. In Marx, this appears as the figure of ‘revolution’; in Nietzsche, ‘eternal return.’ ‘The problem of return has implicitly determined both the depths and the heights of the twentieth-century understanding of Nietzsche and/or Marx’, he writes, ‘even the lower reaches of the either Marx or Nietzsche “debate” is informed by the distinction between the “revolutionary” or “reactionary” character of the preferred thinker, overlooking that both terms are compounds of the Latin equivalent of wieder, namely re-: re-action, re-volution’ (29). It is this crisis of return that, for Caygill, leads to the similar incompleteness of each thinkers’ oeuvre – one often attributed to the contingency of biography. For Caygill however this incompleteness is rather a reflection of ‘the impossibility of completing a text that would both analyze and evoke a crisis of return […] both texts are interrupted at the same moment, at the cross between crisis as diagnosis and prescription, between analysis of a condition and the provocation of a decision’ (30). This difficulty – perhaps impossibility, hence aporetic – in knowing ‘return’ in both cases is framed in fundamentally post-Kantian terms: of time and subjectivity. Much of the essay therefore considers Kant’s analysis of the return of the law and its relation to time through the lens of both thinkers. ‘Both mark the struggles of a subjectivity striving to constitute itself through taking responsibility for its constitution of time’ (35).

In ‘The Spirit of Resistance and its Fate’, Caygill provides his reading of Hegel’s ‘Force and Understanding’ section from which the collection takes its name. Foregrounding ‘resistance’ once again, Caygill describes the way in which the phenomenological transition from consciousness to self-consciousness ‘is perhaps not recognized as a meditation upon resistance […] it shows Hegel appealing to infinity as a deus ex machina in order to break out of the opposition of resistance and counter-resistance working itself through the play of active and reactive forces.’ The reason for this deus ex machina: ‘the need to move from the modal posture of actuality to those of possibility of necessity’ (391). Caygill here reads Hegel as staging the two differing post-Kantian strands against one another. In his essay ‘Philosophy and the Black Panthers’ we encounter this post-Kantian bifurcation once again:

‘the dominant lineage passed from an emphasis on the modal category of possibility to the problem of the realization of freedom: Fichte, Schiller and Hegel worked through this revolutionary lineage dedicated to realizing freedom. The other, less well known, line of descent passed through Johann Kiesewetter, Kleist and above all Clausewitz, emphasizing the modal category of actuality and the problem of opposed force or resistance’ (371-372).

Caygill identifies a unique clarity regarding the philosophical form of this distinction in the thought of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. From an intellectual historical standpoint, Newton and Seale’s theories of political tactics and strategy become the proper philosophical inheritors of this less well-known post-Kantian lineage, albeit with an ambivalent – if not directly critical – relation to existing philosophy.

While for Caygill Hegel is the figure synonymous with the realization of freedom in the face of actuality, Clausewitz is the archetypal philosopher of actuality qua actuality – of that realm where there is no necessary (much less necessarily possible) resolution at all. There is simply a play of forces between entities of varying capacities. Some of Caygill’s most startling and suggestive historical-philosophical comments more broadly are made in the two essays on a thinker less associated with philosophy than with military strategy, ‘Politics and War: Hegel and Clausewitz’ and ‘Clausewitz & Idealism’. In the former, Caygill compares the early Hegelian articulation of the relationship between civil society and violence in The German Constitution (1802) and the System of Ethical Life (1802) – where the ethical politics of the ‘speculative community’ is characterized by the recognition and assumption of responsibility for its own violence (66) – to the relation between civility and violence as articulated in his Philosophy of Right (1820). The Philosophy of Right of course begins with an abstract concept of freedom that increases in conceptual determination as the text progresses through accounts of responsibility, intention and the good, to those of family, civil society and the state. That Hegel takes abstract freedom as a starting point at all represents ‘the removal of the recognition of violence from the foundation of the state’, a recognition that Hegel himself had made in The German Constitution. With violence ejected from the field of political philosophy proper to it, violence ‘becomes the abstract reflex of an abstract freedom put to the service of the largely amoral, technical manipulation of experts’ (68). The cost of Hegel’s starting point in The Philosophy of Right, in other words, is the displacement of the imperial violence of the state that Hegel himself identified as the state’s historical condition. ‘By not properly acknowledging the violence in its freedom, the philosophy of right can be inverted into a philosophy of violence. By not owning their violence, the legal, moral and political categories of right are made vulnerable to it; instead of integrating the management of violence into civility, it is freed from civil control by being made the province of experts who are in but not of civil society’ (75), i.e. the military, but also the police. “Civil society […] is police work’, as he puts it in the following essay ‘Perpetual police?’ Drawing on Hegel and Clausewitz to discuss NATO’s fuzzy distinction between its military and police involvement in Kosovo, the question of temporality reappears but this time regarding their respective distinctions between the military and the police. Hegel and Clausewitz ‘shift the point of difference between war and police from the topological distinction of the exercise of violence inside and outside the sovereign state to that of temporality. War is a present and compressed, police a deferred and distended expression of violence’ (81). The object of policing ‘is not a discrete subject but a condition of turbulence’ (81). Via a comparative analysis of the articulation of the relation between violence and civility, Caygill charts the disappearance of the institution of the military and the police from modern philosophy in general, leading to its reappearance as non-philosophical in Clausewitz, whose texts are traditionally read as mere manuals of military strategy. Caygill challenges this reading of Clausewitz as mere military strategist again in ‘Clausewitz & Idealism’ by reinserting him into the history of philosophy as an authentic post-Kantian philosophical figure, a suggestion traced to Hermann Cohen. For Caygill, Clausewitz represents ‘a deviant strain of post-Kantian philosophy distinct from that of Fichte, Schiller, and Hegel, one that preserves a fidelity to the actuality of force rather than the possibility of freedom’ (411).

This ‘fidelity to the actuality of force’ reappears in the later Kant himself as described in Caygill’s essay on Kant’s Opus Postuum. As opposed to the trilogy that makes up the critical philosophy, this is the text Kant himself considered ‘his chief work, a chef d’oeuvre’. Caygill traces ‘a revolutionary – but also consistent – departure for Kant’s thought’ (233) from the critical philosophy to the Opus. In a particularly fascinating section Caygill recounts Kant’s critique of Newton. For Kant, Newton secretly smuggles a metaphysical concept of force precisely to bridge the transition between the ‘metaphysical principles’ and the mathematics of physics – precisely the ‘gap’ in the critical philosophy addressed by Kant (234). For Kant, the principle of force functions as a metaphysical concept allowing Newton to bestow upon mathematics the ability to prescribe laws to nature a priori. It is in this sense that, for Kant, Newton ‘made his most important conquest by means of philosophy, not mathematics’ (238). Even further, ‘natural philosophy’ of the kind practiced by Newton is constituted on the whole, for Kant, by a logical fallacy; namely, ‘the amphiboly of making philosophy and metaphysics into a branch of mathematics’ (236). Connecting this fallacy with the relentless reduction of social ontology to mathematics within the ‘social sciences’ would be an interesting task. In any case, Caygill shows how this engagement with Newton provoked Kant to identify limitations in his own definition of matter in 1786 Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, that is, as defining matter as the moveable in space. In place of this ‘mechanical’ concept of matter in the Opus Postuum, we instead find a ‘dynamical’ one, defined as ‘that which makes space an object of the senses.’ This shift in definition has drastic consequences for the edifice of the entire critical philosophy, for that which makes space into an object of the sense (i.e. matter) itself becomes force. (239) The implications for Kant’s previously constructed Transcendental Aesthetic in the Critique of Pure Reason will be obvious for all familiar.

That the collection illustrates a unique attendance not simply to the non-philosophical mediation of philosophy, but also the process by which philosophy itself defines that which is non-philosophical, should be seen as a hallmark of Caygill’s thought. One is even tempted to describe him less as a philosopher than as a kind of pioneering cartographer of the transdisciplinary functioning of concepts strewn across the intellectual division of labor. Whichever designation one chooses, such an orientation seems a necessary condition for thinking philosophically today in a way true to its name.

The general set of philosophical problems Caygill has spent the last three decades probing can at least be partly traced to philosophical challenges that follow from Gillian Rose’s unique Hegelianism. In his introduction, Stephen Howard describes how ‘Rose sought a deliberately “difficult” renewal of the Hegelian notion of the absolute, while dissolving any hope of dialectical resolution of the irredeemable contradiction she identified therein […] for Rose politics is the attempt to think the Absolute’ (3). Caygill’s thought seems to define itself both positively and negatively in relation to this unique Hegelianism, and the first essay in the collection, ‘Gillian Rose 1947-1995: Art, Justice, and Metaphysics’, will be an important source for tracing its roots. Its publication marks the first appearance of Caygill’s beautiful inaugural memorial lecture following her tragic and untimely death. In it Caygill not only beautifully offers a summary her thought and mourns her death, but also mourns, ‘the unique intellectual circumstances of the University of Sussex of the 1970s and 1970s that sustained the development of her thought […] The Melancholy Science (1976), Hegel Contra Sociology (1981) and Dialectic of Nihilism (1984) [which are] memorials to that unique institution and cultural moment’ (19). Sussex in the 1970s was staffed by a generation of European scholars marked by the direct experience of Nazism, the Second World War and the Stalinist fate of Marxism. It was a moment of European import into British thought, one which would shape the British philosophical landscape. The entire environment at Sussex lent Rose’s thought ‘a sense of urgency and risk: they were not just academic exercises’ (20).

One can certainly say the same of Caygill’s. And while this particular reviewer is in no position to judge, with George Smith, whether or not Caygill is, in fact, ‘to be counted among the great thinkers of our time’, or, as described by J.M. Bernstein, ‘one of the two or three leading practitioners and exponents of European philosophy in the UK’, what is clear is both Caygill’s stunning and wide-ranging erudition – one which understands its terrain not simply from the assumed standpoint of philosophy, but from that rare standpoint that mediates the philosophical with the non-philosophical – and that he deserves to be far more widely read by Marxists, philosophers, and non-philosophers alike.

23 June 2021

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