DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

7. Hegelian influence in the twentieth century: Britain, America and France

Britain and America. The appropriation of Hegelian idealism by Croce and Gentile influenced R.G. Collingwood, who was one of Hegel’s few sympathetic readers in Britain between the wars. Like the Italians, Collingwood believed that Hegel’s Platonism had stopped him properly overcoming the opposition of art and logic, feeling and thought, and in his own method of question and answer he sought to present Hegel’s dialectic in less panlogistic, more historicist terms, which did not seek to escape the ‘absolute presuppositions’ of its time. Moreover, in taking up a Crocean approach to the historical method (summed up in Croce’s dictum that ‘every true history is contemporary history’), Collingwood drew attention back to Hegel’s philosophy of history, from which Croce’s was a critical development.

In America in this period, direct interest in Hegel had also waned, although a continuing commitment to the idealist tradition can be found in the work of W.M. Urban (1873–1952) and Brand Blanshard (1892–1966), whose coherence theory of truth refers back to the British school of Absolute Idealism, and thus indirectly to Hegel.

France. As in Germany and Italy, the view of Hegel that emerged in France in the twentieth century no longer set him in opposition to the humanistic, non-metaphysical, anti-essentialist perspective of his critics, but instead treated him as an important precursor and source of this very perspective. Within French thought, the beginnings of this reassessment can be traced back to Jean Wahl’s Le Malheur de la Conscience dans la Philosophie de Hegel (The Unhappy Consciousness in the Philosophy of Hegel) (1929). In this work, Wahl (1888–1974) attempted to uncover a side to Hegel’s thought that was darker, more romantic and less rationalistic than had previously been noticed, and to cast fresh light on the whole direction of his philosophy. He was helped towards this reinterpretation by the publication of Hegel’s early writings by Dilthey and Nohl, which revealed to Wahl that Hegel’s real preoccupations and concerns were close to those of a Christian existentialist like Kierkegaard, a fact that had been obscured by the speculative approach of the later Encyclopedic system. Wahl was therefore led to look anew at the Phenomenology of Spirit, treating it not merely as a prolegomenon to the mature system, but as the highest expression of Hegel’s troubled vision; at the centre of his reading of the Phenomenology, Wahl placed Hegel’s treatment of the Unhappy Consciousness, in which (he argued) the sense of loss is epitomized. Thus, although Wahl himself was not prepared to call Hegel an existentialist, his influential study of the Phenomenology showed how existentialist themes could be uncovered in Hegel’s thought (see Existentialism).

In the wake of Wahl’s study, the Hegel renaissance in France was taken further and given greater impetus by the work of Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite (1907–68). Kojève gave an important series of seminars on the Phenomenology from 1933 to 1939 at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, which was attended by many who were to become leading luminaries of French intellectual life, as well as influential interpreters of Hegel in their own right, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil (1904–77), Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan. The text of these seminars was published in 1947, and it remains one of the most challenging readings of Hegel’s thought. Equally important were the efforts of Hyppolite, who published the first volume of his magisterial translation of the Phenomenology in 1939 and the second in 1941, and in 1946 completed his commentary on the text, entitled Genèse et structure de la Phénoménologie de l’esprit de Hegel (Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit).

Kojève made the master–slave dialectic the key to his treatment, into which he wove both Heideggerian and Marxist themes. He cites as an epigraph to his lecture on the Phenomenology Marx’s comment that ‘Hegel… sees labour as the essence of man, the self-confirming essence, of man’ (Marx 1975: 386) and, like Marx, identifies the work of the slave as an essential moment in self-objectification. At the same time, with Heidegger he emphasizes the slave’s experience of death, and his recognition of finitude, out of which the slave also feels liberation from the natural world. Kojève therefore interprets Hegel’s move to idealism in this light: it is an attempt to show how the human mind can overcome the material world of nature, by creating its own world through the power of speech, language and thought, an ideological realm in which we feel at home and free. This free creativity also has a more tragic aspect, however, as it is limited and defined by an awareness of finitude and death; at the same time the capacity to die represents our liberation from the control of any transcendent creative power, such as God, and is thus the dialectical expression of our highest freedom.

Perhaps Kojève’s best-known and most remarkable contribution to the interpretation of Hegel arises directly from the conjunction of Marxist and existentialist aspects in his account: for, drawing on both Heidegger and Marx, Kojève argues that for Hegel history began with the sense of otherness, and can end in the universal satisfaction of the desire for recognition, putting a stop to our urge to negate and overcome all externality. Thus Kojève arrives at a non-metaphysical, secularized conception of Hegel’s philosophical history, and reads the end of his system in anthropological, not theological terms; he therefore takes another step away from the nineteenth-century image of Hegelianism, and offers a new vision of this notoriously problematic aspect of Hegel’s work.

For readers of Hegel, however, Kojève’s interpretation raises almost as many problems as it solves, and many have felt (with Jean Wahl) that ‘it is quite false but very interesting’. Hyppolite’s approach is rather more judicious, while he too is influenced in his reading by existentialism and Marx. Like Wahl, he holds that ‘unhappy consciousness is the fundamental theme of the Phenomenology…. The happy consciousness is either a naïve consciousness which is not yet aware of its misfortune or a consciousness that has overcome its duality and discovered a unity beyond separation. For this reason we find the theme of unhappy consciousness present in various forms throughout the Phenomenology’ (Hyppolite 1946 I: 184; 1974: 190). Also like Wahl, Hyppolite argues that ‘we find (Hegel) in his early works and in the Phenomenology, a philosopher much closer to Kierkegaard than might seem credible’ (Hyppolite 1971 I: 93): although Hegel admittedly ends in Absolute Knowledge which seems to transcend all diremptions, the journey of consciousness is nevertheless characterized as ‘the way of despair’. At the same time, Hyppolite emphasizes Hegel’s foreshadowing of Marx’s account of alienation, and agrees with Kojève that recognition is capable of overcoming the tension between self and other. None the less, in his later writings on Hegel (such as Logique et existence (Logic and Existence) and ‘Essai sur la Logique de Hegel’ (‘On the Logic of Hegel’)), Hyppolite gave greater weight to the Logic than hitherto; for, he argues, the claim to Absolute Knowledge, and the transition to the Logic must be made, if ‘the phantom of the thing-in-itself’ is to be avoided, and with it the sense that we are out of touch with Being. Hyppolite acknowledges, however, that there is a tension between this return to the Logic and metaphysics, and the more humanistic, anthropological method of the Phenomenology, a tension which he sees as fundamental to Hegel’s thought.

It is partly thanks to this reading of Hegel by Kojève and Hyppolite that Marxism and existentialism became so interlinked in the intellectual life of post-war France; and it is clear that they helped bring about a rapprochement between Hegel and Marx in this period by treating existentialism as a kind of common ground on which Hegelianism and Marxism could be reconciled. While some (such as Althusser) remained hostile to this development, existentialism also served to bring about the same kind of reconciliation outside France, as the themes of alienation, reification and estrangement from nature were discovered in both their works.

Citing this article:
Stern, Robert and Nicholas Walker. Hegelian influence in the twentieth century: Britain, America and France. Hegelianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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