‘The Edinburgh Critical History of Nineteenth-Century Philosophy’ reviewed by Yves Laberge

The Edinburgh Critical History of Nineteenth-Century Philosophy

Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2011. 352pp., £150 hb
ISBN 9780748635665

Reviewed by Yves Laberge

About the reviewer

Dr Yves Laberge is a Canadian sociologist and a member of a new research centre in Environmental …


As we know, the nineteenth century is the epoch in which Karl Marx (1818-1883) lived. This collection of seventeen new essays does not present a chronological history, but rather a thematic overview of that century in terms of philosophy, history of ideas, and culture, broadly in Europe and the USA. Because the topics addressed are so diverse and multidisciplinary, this review will focus on Marx, Marxism, and related themes which appear in about half of the book’s chapters.

Published in a book series dedicated to the critical history of philosophy, the contributions in this book address a variety of fundamental themes and trends, from idealism, romanticism, Darwinism, faith and knowledge, “genealogy as immanent critique”, embodiment, the unconscious, individuality, “the rise of the social”, to nihilism and metaphysics. Each of these basic themes or questions is allowed one chapter, although they are sometimes discussed or referred to by many contributors.

The excellent Introduction by Alison Stone situates many of these insights and frameworks in a very interesting mapping of nineteenth century ideas and interlinked perspectives (2). For example, in a limpid demonstration, Stone takes 1831, the year Hegel passed away, as a turning point in the history of ideas, marked with the beginning of various anti-idealist lines of thought, such as Auguste Comte’s positivism: “positivism relegated theology and metaphysics to the status of pre-modern modes of thought and took science as the paradigm of knowledge, advocating its extension to society and history” (3). The first mention of Marx occurs when Stone opposes the young Marx to Hegel: “Elements of these diverse anti-Idealist currents coalesced in Karl Marx, who, in explicit opposition to Hegel, developed his theory of history which he saw as both empirically based and materialist” (3).

Despite their quality and accuracy, the first eight chapters include no significant mention of Marx, who appears only halfway through the book. For instance, Chapter 9 on “Genealogy as Immanent Critique” is centred on Nietzsche, even though Marx and other philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Hegel are introduced and compared with each other. Here, Marx is first presented and praised, in unexpected terms, as “the most influential genealogist outside philosophy”, but also as “the most eccentric, in ways that often pass unrecognised” (177). According to Robert Guay, “with Marx, any gap between real possibility and justification is closed off: the only issue to be addressed is the sustainability of institutionalised practices and any question of justification is deferred until some social practice is realised that does not generate its own contradiction” (177). Further on, focusing on Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology (1845-6), Guay also insists on the importance of studying facts: “where real life starts”, the “empirically verifiable” (178). Interestingly (from a theoretical point), this chapter reformulates Marx’s project in narrative terms, which was probably not done in the nineteenth century. According to Guay, “Marx identifies ‘real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their lives’ as his ‘premises’: his narrative is meant simply to be a chronicle, once the correct ontology and the genuine causal factors are identified” (178). Then, in the following pages, Guay opposes Marx to Hegel in at least two different ways, based on Marx’s prefatory remarks in Das Kapital (1872) where Marx insists that Hegel’s approach ‘must be turned right side up’” (178). Yet Guay adds that Marx “nevertheless gives him credit for working out the dialectical method in a full and comprehensive manner” (178). Moreover, Guay insists on the shift brought by Marx as compared to other thinkers before and even after him: “whereas Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche want to identify causally significant features of the world to support their normative claims, Marx wants to identify particular causal interactions in the world to support their normative claims” (179). Once again, and this is quite innovative, the narrative dimension is reaffirmed by Guay as the key element in the understanding of individuals and contexts: “Narrative elements must follow a chronological sequence rather than ‘their logical sequence and their serial relation in the understanding’” (179). At some point, Marx is even described by Guay as “a genealogist of capitalism” (179). Finally, Guay sums up by concluding in philosophical (and sociological) terms: “Marx promises that the real will eventually provide hermeneutic closure to the real possibilities of human social life” (179).

Elsewhere, in Chapter 14 (“Theory and Practice of Revolution in the Nineteenth Century”), Paul Blackledge links Marx’s thoughts with “the lens of his relationship with Jacobinism and classical German philosophy and to other socialist and anarchist intellectuals”. He begins his chapter with a revisiting of Eduard Bernstein’s critique of Marx and Engels from 1899, in which Bernstein argued that “Marx had failed to transcend the Jacobin perspective” (259). In fact, it is this fourteenth chapter that concentrates the most on Marxism in this book, which is conceptualised in philosophical and political terms as well: “Marxism therefore presupposes and reaffirms the sort of social practice – collective working-class struggles – which simultaneously reveal and point beyond the facts of exploitation” (268). Reflecting in political and sociological terms in order to describe an important epistemological shift, Blackledge also writes that “it is because Marx’s perspective is rooted in a historical materialist analysis of the emergence of a new social class with novel needs and capacities (that is, a new nature) that he points beyond the one-sidedly political character of both Jacobinism and Blanquism, while nonetheless remaining a revolutionary” (268). An important distinction is made by Blackledge between Marx’s idea of revolution and Bakunin’s anarchism: “Marx differs from Bakunin in recognising, on the one hand, the historical novelty and social specificity of the modern socialist movement and, on the other hand, the need for a revolution which not only ‘smashes’ the old state machine but also simultaneously builds new forms of workers’ power” (268).

However, Marx’s ideas are not present everywhere in this book, and not even in places when one would expect them to be discussed. Some central Marxian themes are sometimes studied without almost any mention of Marx, for instance in the discussion of alienation in Chapter 12 on “Individuality, Radical Politics and the Metaphor of the Machine”, which concentrates mainly on lesser-known philosophers like Humboldt and Pierre Leroux (230), which is not bad per se. In another chapter about “The Rise of the Social” featuring interesting reflections about the emergence of sociology as a discipline, Marx’s essay, “On the Jewish Question” (1843), is presented as “a critique of political reason” and “one of Marx’s earliest and richest texts”, remaining an influential work on twentieth century thinkers like Régis Debray (249).

The seventeenth, final chapter (“Nineteenth-Century Philosophy in the Twentieth Century and Beyond”) provides a welcome, comparative discussion of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers, considering how some of our contemporary commentators from the twentieth century have interpreted and criticized some key ideas from the previous century. Interestingly, in an endnote, Andrew Bowie argues that “the philosophical nineteenth century begins with Kant’s 1781 Critique of Pure Reason” (327). Here, after a detailed discussion opposing Hegel to Nietzsche, Bowie concludes on the salience of philosophy as a discipline, arguing that “perhaps the key hermeneutic reminder that nineteenth-century philosophy now offers us … is of the need to consider why the questions which dominate the analytical agenda should still form the focus of philosophy” (327).

Among the most instructive chapters is Mark Sinclair’s piece on early conceptions of embodiment, which links the study of the body to the emergence of ideology as a philosophical concept, taking from a lesser-known French thinker, Pierre Maine de Biran, and his concept of “le corps propre” (one’s own body) (188). But here again, there is no mention of Marx and Engels’s salient writings on ideology, even in the discussion about the origins of this fundamental concept as coined by Antoine Destutt de Tracy (188). In this case, Marx is even absent in this chapter’s endnotes and bibliography. On the other hand we have an instructive discussion about some lesser-known thinkers from the early nineteenth century and before, like Félix Ravaisson or Schelling’s philosophy of nature and his concept of Identitätsphilosophie (194).

It might seem unfair to point to shortcomings in such a rigorous and instructive volume. Of course, the book does not pretend to be comprehensive, and Asian philosophy is usually not part of such “general” portraits of a discipline as made in Europe. Nevertheless, the fact there is no mention of Canada or Canadian thinkers is disappointing for a Canadian scholar, but I suppose it can be partly explained by the absence of Canadian contributors, except Professor di Giovanni (from McGill University), who focuses mainly on German thinkers. Another problem is the price for this hardback edition, which makes one wish for a less expensive paperback version in the near future.

In conclusion, this work will be useful for graduate students, not only in philosophy, but also in history and social sciences. One strong point is that it situates within their original context many philosophical and theoretical trends that are salient for the twentieth and even twenty first centuries. This perspective is certainly the most useful for today’s readers, since students now are often trained within Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Narratives, and other transdisciplinary approaches that owe much to nineteenth century philosophy and especially Marxism, even in indirect ways. However, as it is organised, this collection of essays would not be ideal for most undergraduates who need a chronological presentation rather than a thematic, selective, and non-chronological overview of some thinkers and trends – and not necessarily the most famous or influential – such as this collection provides.

2 January 2013

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