‘Dialectics, Politics, and the Contemporary Value of Hegel’s Practical Philosophy’ reviewed by Bill Bowring

Reviewed by Bill Bowring

About the reviewer

Bill Bowring studied philosophy at the University of Kent, became a human rights barrister, and now …


Andrew Buchwalter’s new book brings together more than 20 years’ intense engagement with Hegel in a series of articles and chapters, the first of which was published in 1987. This is not simply a collection of articles, and Buchwalter has worked hard to bring out complementarities and connections. But unlike Pippin’s recent contribution mentioned below, this is not a work of systematic analysis.

Buchwalter’s constant theme is that Hegel’s thought, properly understood, has direct and progressive relevance to contemporary issues; and that Hegel in fact possesses the resources to answer his critics, and in many cases surpasses them.

Buchwalter is a well-versed scholar of Hegel, thoroughly familiar with the range of Hegel’s output, and proficient in German: he has presented much of his research in Germany. He engages with the contemporary scholarship not only of Charles Taylor, Seyla Benhabib, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, but also for example the work in German of Michael Theunissen. He follows but also criticises Robert Pippin, whose 2008 Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life addresses some similar questions of Hegel’s continuing relevance to the present condition of humanity. A particular strength of this book is Buchwalter’s familiarity with and use of contemporary German sources.

The first substantive chapter in this book, “Hegel, Marx and the Concept of Immanent Critique” (41-60), first published in 1991, is perhaps of the greatest interest to readers of this Review. It is followed by his 1987 “Hegel, Adorno, and the Concept of Transcendent Critique” (61-82). This reviewer has read the whole book; but this review focuses on those two chapters.

For the record, the following chapters in Part I, “Normative Political Theory in Dialogue”, engage with Habermas (“Law, Culture and Constitutionalism”) and Rawls (“Political Pluralism in Hegel and Rawls”). Part II, “Modernity and Secularity” contains chapters on Taylor (“expressivism”), Hobbes and Kant (“…the Scienticization of Practical Philosophy”), “Hegel’s Concept of Virtue”, and “Political Theology and Modern Republicanism”. Part III, “Globality, Global Justice and Interculturism”, contains Buchwalter’s more recent work: “Hegel’s Conception of an “International ‘We’”, “Hegel, Global Justice, and the Logic of Recognition”, and finally “Is Hegel’s Philosophy of History Eurocentric?”. The answer given by Buchwalter is as follows (252-3):

Hegel’s history does culminate in affirmation of European cultural-political accomplishments, but this affirmation is advanced less as a triumphalist presentation of actual historical developments than as a reconstructive account of historical phenomena ultimately meant to engage the moral consciousness and conditions of agency of a German and European public.

Which is not really an answer to the question, in my view. One has the impression that the more recent work lacks the deep engagement of the earlier articles. But there is no denying Buchwalter’s generally progressive stance.

To return, therefore, to the Marx chapter: what does Buchwalter understand by immanent critique? On page 42 he asserts that “Unlike the utopian forms of criticism identifiable with anarchists, young-Hegelians, Kantians and natural law theorists, immanent critique evaluates reality not with alien principles of rationality but those intrinsic to reality itself”, and on page 59, arguing against Habermas, he states, “Immanent critique evaluates reality in terms of intrinsic principles of rationality.”

Buchwalter wishes to argue that Hegel’s conception of the “conjunction of reason and reality” is “virtually identical to the concept of immanent critique that Marx claims can be secured only by repudiating Hegel’s understanding of his own project.” (42) He adds that this conjunction, far from standing in the way of a proper understanding of immanent critique, “actually preconditions it.” This is of course a challenging claim.

So what is this “conjunction”? Buchwalter explains that Hegel’s method is not intrinsically apologetic. The conjunction designates a reconstructive rather than a generative undertaking. Hegel does not conceive the real as a theoretical construct, but wants to reconstitute the assumptions and theories of his time from the standpoint of reason. In a passage which is surely accompanied by an incorrect reference (note 11 on p. 43), Buchwalter explains that

Hegel describes philosophy as the comprehension (Begreifen) of what is, yet comprehension is not the positing (Setzung) of reality out of concepts, but a translation process (Übersetzungsprozess) in which material generated empirically and historically is “brought to the concept” (auf den Begriff gebracht).

The reference is to Marx and Engels, rather than to a work by Hegel!

Buchwalter also explains that philosophical truth, for Hegel, turns on the correspondence of thought and being; but this is not the capitulation of thought to reality, but “the elevation of reality to the concept.” This is also the process of elevating reality to its own concept. Buchwalter cites a passage (para. 213) from the Encyclopedia Logic: “Objects are true when they are that which they should be, that is when their reality corresponds to their concept.” In the notes, he cites another passage (para. 171): “When it is said that an art work is beautiful or an action is good, the objects in question are compared with what they ought to be, i.e., with their concept.” Thus, Hegel conjoins reason and reality not so as to legitimise existing conditions, but to judge them in terms of inherent standards and potentials.

In this, says Buchwalter, Hegel fully anticipates Marx.

Before I turn to Buchwalter’s critique of Marx, it is only fair to point out that for Buchwalter: “whatever their differences, Hegel and Marx share a profound appreciation of the nature of a historically situated method of social criticism.” Both Hegel and Marx “understand that a universalist approach, far from undermining contextual social theory, is actually its precondition.”

This is surely correct, and puts me in mind of Gillian Rose’s acute Hegel Contra Sociology (1981, now republished Verso 2009), in which she reads Hegel not as an apologist but as an acute speculative critic, or Robert Fine’s splendid article “ ‘The Rose in the Cross of the Present’: Closure and Critique in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in which he concludes that the Philosophy of Right: “laid the foundation for the critique of juridic forms based on contradiction between form and content, concept and experience.” (Fine 1993, 59)

Now I turn to Buchwalter’s critique of Marx. The high (or low) point of his critique is as follows, with a note to Rüdiger Bubner’s (1974) “Logic und Kapital”, but no page number: “It is no coincidence that Marx and his philosophical progeny oscillate between neo-Aristotelianism and neo-Fichteanism.” This is certainly a new one on me! How does Buchwalter explain his assertion? He explains (57) that the difficulties in Marx’s version of immanent critique can be traced to his “materialist” transformation of Hegelian dialectics: “his effort to incorporate into a framework based on the heterogeneity of thought and being a model of critical analysis that is meaningful only if one presupposes, as does his adequation of existence and concept, a homogeneity of reason and reality.

No reference is given to any work of Marx’s, which is no surprise to me. Referring to p. 104 of Colletti’s Marxism and Hegel, Buchwalter asserts (58) that “In a materialist framework, actualisation of a potential implicit in the real remains restricted to what is initially given, whereas any radical challenge to existing reality calls on principles that wholly transcend the domain of immanence.”

This leads directly to the accusation taken from Bubner. In the very next paragraph, Buchwalter continues that Marx remains overly dependent on Hegelian thought. What does this mean? A few paragraphs later, Buchwalter, citing Milan Prucha’s “Materialistische Gessellschaftsauffasung angesichts der aktuellen Zivilizationskrise” in Honneth and Jaeggi’s 1980 Arbeit, Handlung, Normativität, contends (59) that “given the difficulties in a `non-dialectical’ reconstruction, the problems endemic to Marx’s project may well be attributed not to an excessive but an inadequate reliance on the Hegelian legacy.” Marx’s problem, for Buchwalter, is that he rejected Hegel’s logical-speculative framework within which alone Hegel maintained that dialectical analysis is viable.

Perhaps the last work should be left with Marx, in a famous passage from his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843-4), half of which is cited by Buchwalter with the comment “Marx is not entirely mistaken”:

Hegel’s chief mistake consists in the fact that he conceives of the contradiction in appearance as being a unity in essence, i.e., in the Idea; whereas it certainly has something more profound in its essence, namely, an essential contradiction. For example here, the contradiction in the legislature itself is nothing other than the contradiction of the political state, and thus also the self-contradiction of civil society.

What does Buchwalter make of Adorno? This chapter was originally published in Philosophy and Social Criticism in 1987, four years before the Marx chapter. For Buchwalter (61) Adorno is “arguably the most profound student of Hegelian thought in the tradition of critical social theory.” Buchwalter acknowledges that Marx’s effort to separate the wheat from the chaff of Hegelian speculation decisively influenced subsequent Marxist thinkers, Adorno is one such thinker who did not embrace Marx’s specific approach to Hegel’s concept of the relationship of reason and reality.

According to Buchwalter, Adorno differs from Marx in two important respects.

The first is his interpretation of Hegel. For Adorno, Hegel’s conjunction of reason and reality is not part of a process in which entities are generated from concepts, but rather the reconstruction of reality from the standpoint of reason. As Adorno wrote in Hegel: Three Studies (1999), Hegel’s philosophy is “an effort to translate … experience into concepts.” Hegel does not “oppose phenomena with a position or ‘model’ external and alien to it”, rather he confronts “a specific reality with its own concept.” (62)

The second point of difference is Adorno’s critique of Hegel. According to Buchwalter, Adorno directs his challenge to the principle of immanent critique itself. He contends that social criticism must appeal “to a transcendent conception of the relationship of reason and reality, one that contraposes independent norms to existing conditions.” (62) For me, Buchwalter is correct in pointing out that Adorno’s insistence on the non-identity of object and concept, or concept and existence, is what reflects the nature of a truly negative dialectics. So this chapter focuses above all on Adorno’s critique of Hegel’s identity principle.

But in his characteristic manner, Buchwalter maintains that features of Adorno’s “post-Hegelian Hegelianism” are not only already developed by Hegel himself “But are done so in ways that are arguably more effective than in Adorno’s transformation.” (63) The chapter concludes (82) with Hegel’s famous words from the Preface to his 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit (at p. 19 of the 1977 Miller translation): as Buchwalter introduces them, absolute negativity is surmountable only by endorsing it completely. Here is the magnificent passage from Hegel himself:

But the life of the Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being.

It is a shame that Buchwalter only quotes a few words from this.

The flavour of Buchwalter’s recent work is captured in a line from his latest contribution, in a collection edited by Tony Burns and Simon Thompson, Global Justice and the Politics of Recognition, forthcoming (Palgrave Macmillan) in October 2013.

I indicate how the notion of recognition informing Hegel’s law of peoples entails a commitment to a notion of global justice directed to forms of economic redistribution, rooted, however, not in centralized, top-down administrative structures, but in conditions for local self-determination. (214)

This is fair enough, of course. But for me the best parts of the book are the early chapters where, in the company of Marx, Adorno and Habermas, Buchwalter struggles with Hegel and finds new and rewarding insights.

2 November 2013


  • Fine, Robert 1993 ‘The Rose in the Cross of the Present’: Closure and Critique in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Closure or Critique: New Directions in Legal Theory Alan Norrie (ed), (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), 45-60
  • Bubner, Rüdiger 1974 Logik und Kapital. Zur Methode einer 'Kritik der politischen Ökonomie,' Dialektik und Wissenschaft (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp)

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