‘The Birth of Theory’ reviewed by Robert T Tally Jr

The Birth of Theory

University of Chicago Press, 2014, 272 pp., $30.00 pb
ISBN 9780226135427

Reviewed by Robert T Tally Jr

About the reviewer

Robert T. Tally Jr. is a Professor of English at Texas State University. His books include …


To write a book called The Birth of Theory these days is to engage in a paradoxical project, as if one were tracing the sources of a river long dried up. In all quarters, it seems, theory has been proclaimed dead, whether by its lugubrious mourners (such as Terry Eagleton in After Theory) or by any number of celebrants delighted to dance on its grave (one thinks of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique and its almost cult-like following). Considering the many recent eulogies for theory, a study of theory’s origins seems rather untimely. However, perhaps in the spirit of Nietzsche’s “untimely meditations,” Andrew Cole’s complex, surprising, and evocative book is a welcome contribution to contemporary criticism. The Birth of Theory, in fact, makes a strong case not only for Cole’s fascinating argument concerning theory’s origins in Hegel’s return to medieval thought, but also for the persistent value of and necessity for critical theory in our own time.

The argument of The Birth of Theory is provocative. It attempts several key manoeuvers, and in the main, it succeeds in pulling them off. First, as a preliminary matter, it gives definition to “theory,” distinguishing it from philosophy and other genres. In so doing, it launches a powerful defense of Hegel as the main progenitor of theory, and it thus opposes the ostensible anti-Hegelianism of such leading poststructuralists as Althusser, Deleuze, and Derrida, who are often most closely associated with theoretical practice in the twentieth century. Then, Cole establishes the degree to which Hegel’s thought is indebted to a return to medieval philosophy, particularly that of Plotinus; Cole also makes a convincing case for grounding Hegel’s only apparently idealistic thought in the material facts of feudalism. Indeed, this Hegel is much more of a materialist, and Cole goes so far as to name him “presciently Marxist” (65). Cole goes on to argue that the dialectic properly understood, as originating in Hegel’s rethinking of a medieval paradigm (specifically, the dialectic of identity and difference), makes possible the Marxist interpretive project of ideology critique, while also highlighting the foundational importance of figural thinking for understanding, and imagining alternatives to, the world in which we live.

This ridiculously brief summary does not do justice to Cole’s multivalenced, detailed study of the birth of theory in the Hegelian dialectic and the continuing value of dialectical criticism. In defining “theory,” Cole follows Fredric Jameson in seeing theory as emerging from philosophy with the realization that “thought is linguistic or material and that concepts cannot exist independently of their linguistic expression” (qtd. xii). Cole notes that theory is “the move away from philosophy within philosophy itself” (xi), and Hegel represents the ur-theorist insofar as he (in the Introduction to The Phenomenology of Spirit) disallows for any transcendental subject, ego, or res cogitans that can adequately account for experience of the world, while also recognizing that conceptualizing is dependent upon both language and history. In The Birth of Theory, these three aspects of theory to be found in Hegel can be envisioned as points of departure for theoretical practices that later emerge in the wake of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

Cole opens The Birth of Theory with a vivid figure for dialectical thought, the dual-visioned whale as imagined by Melville in Moby-Dick, with eyes on either side of its head that can see wholly separate and distinct images at once. From this literary figure, Cole dives into a painstaking discussion of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, demonstrating how its “untimely dialectic” is in unexpected ways informed by the same sort of thinking as Hegel explores. Cole then looks more closely at the medieval dialectic that Hegel resurrects in order to concentrate upon the mysterious unity of identity and difference. In this, Hegel eschewed Kant’s critical philosophy, which had dismissed the philosophical discourse of the Middle Ages as so much “dogmatism,” and forged a new way of thinking, but one which was formed in connection to its residual medievalism along with its emergent modernism. Hegel here not only paves the way for Marx’s historical materialism, but for modern critical theory more generally, as Hegel’s theory discloses the presence of the residual and the emergent in the existing state of affairs.

The central section of The Birth of Theory deals with history, and in it Cole establishes the degree to which Hegel’s famous Master/Slave dialectic, or more accurately, Lord/Bondman dialectic, derived from the material circumstances of feudalism. Cole emphasizes the appropriateness of the “Lord/Bondsman” translation with respect both to Hegel’s language and to the social formation he imagines. Contrary to common belief, Cole argues, Hegel does not imagine the distinction in terms of Roman antiquity, in which a slave [Sklave] is conquered and enslaved, but rather in terms of the feudal order, in which a serf [Knecht] is subject to lordship [Herrenschaft]. Cole notes that Hegel explicitly distinguishes between slavery and this lordship-bondage relation. Moreover, Cole points out that the political and economic system of feudalism remained in place in the Germanic states throughout Hegel’s own lifetime, such that the medieval social order was, in many ways, still intact in the early nineteenth century. As such, the struggle for recognition—or, rather possession, since property was the crucial element of the struggle—dramatized in Hegel’s Herr/Knecht dialectic is not nearly as abstract as has been supposed, but is actually grounded in the present social formation, which retains aspects of the medieval world. Along these lines, Cole also argues that Hegel’s theory of the Christian eucharist ceremony, with its transubstantiation of subject and object, informs Marx’s famous meditation on the commodity fetish in Capital. Examining these theories in light of the historical circumstances, Cole finds Hegel to be already somewhat Marxist, while also showing how deeply influenced by Hegel Marx himself remained.

In the final section, Cole demonstrates the significance of this theory to literature, broadly conceived, as he connects political economy to critique, dialectical interpretation, and an ultimately utopian perspective in which alterity (difference) enfolded into identity makes possible new spaces for thought and practice. At this point, Cole brings in the work of such theorists as Bakhtin, Lukács, Jameson, and Deleuze to show how these concepts from the Hegelian dialectic, whether acknowledged or not, strengthen the ability of theoretical practice to make sense of the world. Of particular interest is the way that Cole brings to the fore the significance of the figure (Erich Auerbach, who is mentioned once, is a mostly absent presence here, in my view), which in tandem with the concept, enables theory to be far more effective. “Figures get concepts unstuck; they also summon them, and show us how concepts work” (160). Literature is thus the proper field in which theory unveils its power via interpretation, but a form of interpretation less interested in “finding” meaning than in constructing alternative ways of seeing the world. In this sense, theory is inevitably utopian (as Jameson might suggest), since, as Cole puts it, “a utopian point of view can warrant the thought of the past as a possibility given to the present but born of historical difference, the sheer fact that because things were different then they can be different now and later—very different. There are others ways, other worlds, for this world. And dialectical interpretation, as a utopian form, opens up the relay between past and present to helps us find these ways” (165). The Birth of Theory not only explores the origins of theory, but demonstrates how theory continues to operate as a critical and speculative force for interpreting our own situation in the world and its alternatives.

The Birth of Theory is a difficult book, owing to the complexity of its ideas and the scope of its subject, but the writing itself is quite lucid, even conversational at times. Cole’s prose is often scintillating, and his use of vivid imagery helps to make even the most densely dialectical concepts more easily understood. For example, in speaking of the relationship between literature and the dialectic in the history of critical theory, Cole imagines “a comedy of capers and hijinks,” in which “Literature personified has tried at all costs to get away from Dialectics in its most vulgar (i.e., reflectionist) guise—circling the table, head-faking first this way then that, before running up over the sofa and out the door” (107–108). Cole’s erudition is apparent, as witnessed in his frequently detailed and illuminating endnotes, which take up over 60 pages or about a quarter of the text. These notes not only cite relevant sources but often supplement the writing, fleshing out and extending the argument made in the main body of the text in order to establish new connections between concepts, history, and political theory. The Birth of Theory is a text that rewards rereading, and I expect that it will serve for many years as a major contribution to the study of Hegel, Marxism, medieval thought, and literary criticism and theory more generally.

In its fresh take on the dialectical thought and its crucial relationship to critical theory, The Birth of Theory is a marvel. Particularly in an era in which theory has been either mourned or celebrated as being passé, Cole’s study of the birth of theory is itself an example of a sort of “rebirth of theory” in the twenty-first century. The decline and fall of “theory” in literary studies in the 1990s was overdetermined, to be sure. For all of the crass careerism and ideology of the text associated with theory’s popularity in academe during its heyday, the real resistance to theory was, as Jameson and others have noted, a rejection of Marxism. At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama’s (not Hegel’s) “end of history,” critics felt comfortable moving on to anodyne “cultural studies,” leaving theory behind. Critical discourse suffered, unsurprisingly, from this lack of theoretical perspective, as various “approaches” became poor substitutes for thinking. And yet, when has the world been in greater need of critical theory than today? In The Birth of Theory, by exploring the conditions of its beginnings, Cole reminds us of the effectiveness of critical theory in the present and indicates directions theory make take in the future.

20 April 2017


  1. Robert Telly introduces Cole’s book in a very helpful and balanced way. I have got this book, but am yet to start reading it. It is the modern natural sciences rooted in positivism that pose the main challenge to the dialectical way of approaching and understanding reality. Can dialectics replace positivism as the basic epistemology and methodology of science? Hegel was critical of mathematics and admired Goethe’s theory of colours over Newton’s. Science went set him aside and went its way. Marx spoke of the unity of natural and social sciences in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Did any one work towards such unification?

    Dialectical approach needs to be vigorously revived and extended to the study of nature perhaps taking off from Engels (Dialectics of Nature), but going beyond him.


  2. A few brief questions for the reviewer:

    1) I’d certainly agree that the medieval lord/serf (Herr/Knecht) relationship is one reference of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. But if that’s the primary reference, why would the master/slave relationship appear before the sections on Stoicism in the PoM? And what relevance would the discussion of the master/slave relationship in, for example, Aristotle’s Politics have? And why would Hegel refer to the master/slave struggle unto death as a version of single combat between adversaries, and as a trial by combat or trial by ordeal, which leads to the submission or death of one of the parties? Aren’t those references to something more primitive (or “classical”) than the medieval lordship/bondage relationship? from which the feudal lord/serf relationship is derived…

    2) If Hegel’s dialectic is really derived from medieval sources—Abelard’s Sic et Non, for example—what is the source of those medieval dialectics? If not, first, the Aristotle revival, which took place in France with the translation of Arabic commentators on Aristotle (Avicenna, Averroes, etc.) and with the canonization of St. Thomas Aquinas, who made Aristotelianism acceptable to Catholic orthodoxy? And, second, not only the Greek (classic, not medieval) Aristotle, but also the Pre-Socratics (Heraclitus & Parmenides) and Sophists, all of whom discuss the master/slave relationship, in different versions. And all of whom, I’m sure, Hegel knew, since the PoM is really an encyclopedic compendium of Western philosophy since the Pre-Socratics…

    3) I’d also agree that 19th C. Germany, like Goethe’s Weimar and Hegel’s Jena, was, in many ways, still feudal/medieval—until Napoleon’s invasion of 1806, which took place during Hegel’s writing of the PoM—in fact, while he was attempting to deliver the ms. to his publishers. But if Hegel’s thought is really medieval, what was the effect of the French Revolution (‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’) and Napoleon’s invasion of Jena on Hegel’s thought? And why is Hegel’s philosophy so often considered as marking the origins of modernity in the French Revolution, as, precisely, the moment when the feudal/medieval world is destroyed and the modern world inaugurated?

    Certainly Hegel is enormously important in The Young Marx’s thought—and, as you say, even in Kapital. But Hegel’s thought, I’d suggest, is strongly influenced, not only by St. Thomas and Catholic medieval theology (although Hegel was Lutheran! cp. the Philosophy of Religion), but by its Greek/Roman sources. And is it really possible to ignore those classic sources? and argue, as I guess Cole does, that Hegel’s thought is medieval, to the exclusion of those classic sources?

    I don’t think so! But I’d certainly welcome any response you might care to make, and thanks for the review.

  3. Eric’s questions are relevant, but aren’t they meant for Cole instead of the reviewer? It seems that the specific terms used by Hegel – lord and bondsman as Cole translates Herr/Knecht – led Cole to believe that the master-slave dialectic is restricted to the feudal social formation, while perhaps the correct position may be that it both conserves and transcends the feudal contradiction.

    Between the Greeks and Hegel mediates medieval thought and probably Cole wanted to show how medieval mysticism, theology, etc.i directly influenced Hegel. Cole’s point remains open to interrogation, however.

    I hope Eric will not regard my brief remarks as unnecessary or inappropriate intrusion.

    Over to Robert.

  4. Sarban asks;

    Can dialectics replace positivism as the basic epistemology and methodology of science?

    Yes, of course it can and it will. You need only to look at the contribution of Charles Darwin and his explanation of the evolution of natural living species to see that he has found a path half-way there. He was driven, not by theory but by very careful and thoughtful consideration of a vast collection of disparate facts and a sharp intelligence that focused on the dynamics of the problem. The essential difference between positivism in science at least, is that it is static in its conceptions, while evolutionary theory is intrinsically dynamic at its core.
    The crisis in positivism in science has arrived for biological and physical sciences because they have arrived at the point where the scientific data itself cannot be properly understood in a static manner. The data clearly demands a dynamic approach. This is shown in biology by the sudden reinvention of of systems theory, originally called cybernetics 50 years ago.
    In the social sciences Marx solved this problem, concurrently with Charles Darwin’s work 150 years ago. Contemporary ‘economics’ is both positivist and also not really pragmatic either.

  5. Yes, my questions were basically directed at Mr. Cole, but I was hoping the reviewer might channel Mr. Cole for me, so I don’t have to buy the book! When I review a book, I always look for comments and questions, just to let me know I’m not just talking to the wall. So I try to direct a few questions to the reviewer, and if the reviewer chooses to respond in his/her own voice, instead of just lip-syncing the author, that’s all right with me, too. And thanks to Sarban for relaying me to the reviewer.

    I also hope I’m not being obnoxious by displaying the footnotes to my own reading of Hegel, in the slightly disguised form of questions, but I’ve been reading the master/slave dialectic for twenty-five years, and I’d just like to pass on some of what I’ve picked up, before I also meet up with the real sovereign master. Who is, of course, in the final analysis, not either the Holy Roman German feudal lord or the Roman slave-master, but the Sovereign Master, Death Himself…

  6. In his speech at Marx’s grave, Engels said: ‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.’ In response to Sydney, I would say that Darwinism when extended to the study of human society (the Social Darwinism, so-called) turned out to be little more than an ideological reflection of the capitalist ethos, while Marxism had little impact on the natural sciences. Modern science completely ignored the critiques directed at it, e.g., from the Right (Hegel), the Centre (Goethe) and the Left (Engels) in the German natural philosophy.

    I ask Sydney (1) if intelligent analysis of empirical facts is all there is to dialectics? In that case, modern sciences are already dialectical. Again, (2) we have seen basic developments within science – from Newton to Einstein to quantum jumps in physics . Will the charge that they are ‘static’ stick? I seek clarification, for the two criteria specified by Sydney to distinguish dialectics from positivism appear to me to be inadequate.


  7. Sarban makes several points.

    1. Social Darwinism is of course nonsense. That is clear. What is inherent in your quote from Engels is that Marx and Engels clearly understood that one does NOT simply transcribe, mechanically from one one domain of science to another, as Social Darwinism does do. Marx’s conception of the evolution of human society has many general features in common with Darwin’s conception of evolution of living organisms. But their actual concrete mechanisms and behaviours are entirely different. Similarly, there are general features in common between these two and cosmology. But again, the concrete mechanisms and behaviours are quite different. So, it is clear that in all three domains of science, there is at last the beginnings of a clear conception of the dynamic, evolving character of all of reality. But the concrete mechanisms and behaviours are quite different in the three domains.
    Dialectics was evolved from a study of human society and its history. How far the details of these dynamics may be appropriately ascribed to the biological and physical world is a legitimate field of study.

    2. Sarban writes;

    I ask Sydney (1) if intelligent analysis of empirical facts is all there is to dialectics? In that case, modern sciences are already dialectical.
    Yes, in the broadest sense it must be true that “intelligent analysis of empirical facts is all there is to dialectics?” Where else could it come from? I am not religious.

    But that does not mean that modern science is dialectical. One can be a perfectly competent scientist and be a Cartesian or a Positivist or even a religious. Modern science is essentially simply pragmatism. One finds out facts and reports them. That is the majority of modern science.
    But there comes a time when the complexity and the dynamic and evolving character of all of reality is an obstacle to simple, pragmatic, scientific investigation. The study of human anatomy is quite static. But the study of human physiology or human development is quite different.
    I believe that it is the case that human society is the most dynamic and rapidly evolving domain of science. And for this reason, dialectics first emerged in the study of human society.

    3. Was scientific understanding until recently a static subject? Yes, most certainly. I am now more than a little mature, but when I was a student I was taught that in physics nothing evolved. This view is now long forgotten.

    Finally, I would not suggest that a difference between static and dynamic [evolving] is the sole difference to be considered. But for this immediate discussion it seems to me to be the most striking point of difference.

    And on a technical question I must explain how I use the word dynamic here. I imply necessarily, when I use the word dynamic, the notion of evolving. Dynamic is often perhaps usually, used to mean simply moving. But one can move one’s arms or legs continuously and remain fixed to a single spot. There is no evolving here.
    Contemporary capitalist economics adopts this view. There is continuous movement but the system is stationary, constant and is not evolving.
    Much of cosmology and of biology adopts this view of the reality.

  8. Thanks to Sydney for his useful comments.

    ‘Dialectics is the science of relations, ‘Engels had written. Therefore, to study structures — abstractions arrived at in the light of theory — remains the central feature of the dialectical approach. Since structures change and move forward driven by their internal contradictions, a historical view of them is invariably a part of dialectics. In short, a conjoint study of structure and history will constitute the dialectical approach in the most general sense. Engels also went on to frame three dialectical laws or principles: unity and struggle of opposites, the transformation of quantity into quality, and the the negation of negation, which can be judiciously applied in understanding reality.

    Theory and Reality, subject and object, or mind and the world do not exist independent of each other. ‘Every attentive glance at the world is an act of theorising,’ wrote Goethe. Modern science also proceeds from its own theories of knowledge and reality. Pragmatim should not imply that science makes no philosophical and metaphysical presuppositions.

    The intrinsic dissociation of the subject and the object or facts and values, theory and practice, and the whole and the parts is said to characterise positivism and scientism marking it off from dialectics.

    More can be said, but I stop here to wait for more comments. .

  9. 1. I would write slightly differently to Sarban above thus;
    In short, a conjoint study of structure and history will constitute the dialectical approach in the most general sense.
    In short, a proper scientific approach is to combine the study of relationships with their evolution in time.
    2. As to Engels’ definition of dialectics, with which I have no argument at all, I have commented above that it remains to be established how far they are applicable to biology and to physics. Myself, I am not qualified to say.
    3. Pragmatism IS the dominant philosophical stance of most contemporary scientists. And of course, it is self-evident that all practising scientists adopt the prevailing cultures and philosophy.
    4. And of course, what Sarban has written in the penultimate paragraph is true.
    5. I do not think that the definition of positivism Sarban gives is adequate.
    6. And in my experience the word ‘scientism’ is simply a form of abuse like ‘politically correct’. It has no meaning that I can understand. Sarban seems to equate it with positivism; this cannot be correct.
    Nuf for today.

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