Review and Summary of Todd McGowan’s Emancipation After Hegel
What follows is my review and my chapter-by-chapter summary of Todd McGowan’s Emancipation After Hegel. If you’re not already sold on the prospect of reading McGowan’s book after having read my review of it, then my hope is that some part of the more detailed summary will inspire you to do so.
What did Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel really think? For years, I have scoured the earth for a book that could truly tap me into Hegel’s thinking and, for years, I never found it. Well, that search is finally over. Todd McGowan’s Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution is the book on Hegel I’ve wanted ever since I started studying philosophy 18 years ago. During this time, I’ve read around 30 books on Hegel, but none of them were able to make Hegel’s philosophy fundamentally click for me. I’ve read 30 books on Hegel but McGowan’s is the first book on Hegel truly got me to understood him. Yes, McGowan is crystal clear in his writing style (it’s actually mind-blowing how lucidly he explains the most incomprehensible philosopher who ever lived), but it’s his precise, nuanced and systematic familiarity with the Hegelian project that makes the book worth the reader’s time. Simply put, if you want to a solid foundation in Hegel’s philosophy, then this is absolutely the book you want. McGowan’s book on Hegel is a life-changer! Sorry, David Hume, but your argument against miracles has been empirically refuted — we have weighed the evidence and now know for a fact that miracles actually do happen because Todd McGowan’s Emancipation After Hegel is one.
McGowan’s interpretation of Hegel is primarily influenced by Slavoj Žižek’s as developed in works like The Sublime Object of Ideology, For They Know Not What They Do and Less Than Nothing. Žižek emphasizes the importance of contradiction in Hegel’s system, but McGowan takes this to a whole other level of radicality. We could even say that McGowan’s Hegel is Žižek’s Hegel but on steroids. For McGowan, contradiction is the Hegelian concept, that is, it’s the key concept that structures all of Hegel’s thought. McGowan’s book manages to discuss all of the main aspects of Hegel’s philosophy as well as the main criticisms of it. He argues that it’s because Hegel is the greatest thinker of contradiction that he is also the greatest thinker of freedom. The main overarching argument in the book is that contradiction is the basis of freedom — all struggles for freedom are fought on the ground of contradiction. These two concepts are usually not associated with each other, but McGowan leads us on a philosophical journey that finally reveals how contradiction and freedom go hand in hand.
Throughout the course of this Hegelian odyssey, McGowan systematically explains in plain speak all of Hegel’s main concepts such as contradiction, negativity, subject, substance, the absolute, dialectics, absolute knowing, the concept (Begriff), history, love, master-slave dialectic, unhappy consciousness, reason, the crucifixion of Christ, the state, freedom, universality, reconciliation, etc. McGowan also faces Hegel’s main critics head on, for example, Gilles Deleuze, Bertrand Russell, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, etc. The book also explores Hegel’s connection to Kantian philosophy, Freudian, psychoanalysis, Husserlian phenomenology, Christianity, modern psychics, liberal capitalism, Marxist politics and so much more. And one thing that is ubiquitous in the book is the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan but only in an implicit way. McGowan leaves Lacan in the background here, but anyone familiar with his psychoanalytic concepts will discern just how tacitly operative they are in this text.
Simply put, McGowan’s book just changed my life like only a few other books have done. I now possess the basic orientation with Hegel’s thought I pursued for nearly two decades. In my opinion, McGowan just set the standard for all future books on Hegel. I hope this is the first of many books devoted to Hegel that McGowan will write. And if he brought the same lucidity and comprehension to actual commentaries on Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic, then it would be the stuff of legend. You only have one life to live and your time within it is very limited — study Hegel before it is too late! And do yourself a huge favor: start with McGowan’s book!
The Introduction deals with the historical fallout of the distinction between Left Hegelianism and Right Hegelianism and how current Hegelian studies must reckon with it. In other words, it lays out the historical context in which McGowan is writing about Hegel’s system of thought. These two groups of “Hegelians” divided up various aspects of his system for themselves. McGowan writes, “The Left Hegelians took the dialectical method and focus on the historical development of subjectivity, while the Right Hegelians guarded for themselves Hegel’s Christianity and his embrace of the state” (p. 1). However, McGowan goes on to argue that this rift actually lead to many years of misinterpretations of Hegel. One cannot divide his philosophical system without also distorting it. McGowan’s interpretation of Hegel embraces all of these parts as essential to his thought.
Chapter One is all about Hegel’s concept of contradiction and the key role it plays in Hegel’s philosophical system. McGowan will show that contradiction is Hegel’s most important concept and also clarify what is specifically meant by it. What is a concept? Hegel’s concept of the concept is contradictory. The concept is the identity of identity and difference. In other words, the concept is how we come to see how something is what it is and also is what it is not. Identity always involves the very thing it stands at odds with. This means that Hegel himself stood at odds with the first principle of logic known as the law of identity (A = A), but not in a way that outright rejects it. Identity is dialectically structured by negation. The concept of contradiction (not synthesis or totality) is the skeleton key that unlocks Hegel’s philosophy.
Chapter Two discusses Hegel’s relation to Freudian psychoanalysis and how its terminology could’ve have aided Hegel by providing him with ways to articulate his concepts and arguments with far greater clarity. As McGowan says, “It is only after submitting Hegel’s philosophy to the structure of psychoanalytic theory that we can articulate clearly what is at stake in it” (p. 41). Freudian psychoanalysis unlocks Hegelian philosophy and, then, Hegelian philosophy returns the favor. One could even argue that Hegel provides psychoanalysis with an ontology proper to it. This chapter also includes a fantastic presentation of Freudian death drive and how it relates to Hegel’s concept of contradiction.
In Chapter Three, we learn how Hegel employed the Kantian term Vernunft (Reason). Kant’s big problem with Reason is that it thinks in a way that leads to contradiction because it takes us beyond the limits of all possible experience (perception-conception, intuition-understanding, phenomena), but this is precisely what Hegel celebrates about it. What is, for Kant, Reason’s failure is, for Hegel, Reason’s success. McGowan writes, “In contrast to Kant, Hegel is an apostle of reason” (p. 61). This third chapter also includes a wonderful analysis of Hegel’s view on the relation between Reason and human subjectivity.
Chapter Four, easily the book’s most important chapter, explores Hegel’s ontology, that is, the “insubstantiality of substance”. Perhaps the worst interpretations of Hegel are those that mischaracterize his ontology. McGowan’s interpretation relies on that of Slavoj Žižek. While Žižek is primarily known for his Lacanian theory of ideology, I think his most long-lasting contribution will be his reading of Hegel. McGowan’s Hegel might radicalize Žižek’s, but it remains very Žižekian. I might even say that McGowan’s Hegel is more Žižekian than Žižek’s due to how far McGowan takes contradiction. In McGowan’s own words, “Hegel is not just an epistemological or political thinker but a thinker who generates compelling ontological claims, claims that have nothing to do with the standard image of Hegel who champions reason guiding the development of history. Hegel is an ontological thinker who comes to his ontological claims through the exploration of the epistemological quandaries bequeathed to him by his immediate philosophical predecessors” (p. 85). The great ontological truth that Hegel establishes is that not only is thought filled with contradictions, but that, more importantly, being itself is contradictory. McGowan says, “Kant’s discovery of the antinomies of pure reason in which our thought contradicts itself in the attempt to answer the ultimate questions about existence leads Hegel to his fundamental ontological claim: it is not just thought that contradicts itself, but being itself is contradictory. For Hegel, nothing simply is. Everything is also what it is not and has its identity in what negates it. This is Hegel’s great ontological insight, which he discovers through the problems of epistemology” (p. 85). So, just to clarify, Hegel argues, against Spinoza, that being itself (Substance) is just as internally divided and inconsistent as humanity (Subject) is when it thinks. This means that Substance is insubstantial because it depends on what it is not for its being. Both being (Substance) and thought (Subject) are structured by contradiction — both share the same ontological principle. Therefore, Substance is Subject or “Whenever we think we can identify an independent and self-identical substance, a divided subject is lurking” (p. 91).
In Chapter Five, McGowan explains that Hegel came into his own as a philosopher through the concept of love. Hegel started off as a Kantian, but his reflections on love led him to develop his original philosophy. What we discover is that love has a certain affinity to logic (contradiction) insofar as it involves two identities (lovers) becoming one while still remaining two. The homology between love and (Hegelian) logic is the path to a new philosophy. In McGowan’s words, “The act of love requires at once the elimination of difference and its perpetuation. It is the identity of identity and difference, a contradictory identity that enables Hegel to navigate a way out of the one-sidedness of Kant’s and Fichte’s philosophy that he inherits” (p. 99). If Hegel is the great thinker of contradiction, then it is only because he was first a thinker of love. Hegel is often characterized as the philosopher of stone cold logic, but, for him, logic is the child of love. This chapter includes an illuminating discussion of Hegel’s relation to Christianity (the religion of love), Judaism (the religion of law) and Kantian ethics (the ethics of lawful duty). The final takeaway from this chapter is that “Reason takes the place of love when we see that reason models itself on love” (p. 115).
The Hegelian concept of experience is the main topic of Chapter Six. McGowan begins by explaining the link between experience and contradiction as well as Hegel’s thoughts on Kant’s concepts of time and space as pure intuitions. However, time and space have a strong ideological dimension to them insofar has they bring us to think in terms of difference rather than contradiction. Spatiotemporal difference misrepresents the identity of beings by isolating them in their very own spatial and temporal locations. Beings are what they are thanks to their very own spatiotemporal “substantiality”. Instead of properly viewing beings as contradiction, as both what they are and what they are not, spatiotemporal difference tricks us into experiencing them as substantial, separate, isolatable, independent identities — pure ideology! We also get an interpretation of the relation between Hegel’s thinking and modern physics, both of which find experience to be misleading and being itself to be very contradictory. However, the ideology of sense experience does not mean we must flat-out reject it, but, rather, that we must be mindful of how things not present, these absent dynamics, imperceptibly mediate and structure our perceptions, which is to say that we must see the concept (the identity of identity and difference) in experience itself. Through Hegel’s concept of the concept, we can come to see how spatiotemporal differences are themselves contradictions. The rest of this chapter is spent fleshing out Hegel’s concept of experience: (1) the necessity of experience, (2) the relation between Hegel’s concept of experience and that of Gilles Deleuze (an extremely anti-Hegelian philosopher), (3) the main differences between Hegel’s phenomenology and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology and (4) the abstract is the road to the concrete.
Chapter Seven is devoted to Hegel’s concepts of history and freedom. McGowan explains why Hegel’s famous lectures on history (titled Philosophy of History) have lead to so many misunderstandings of his philosophy. This volume is often the first work of Hegel’s that a person reads, but the gigantic problem is that a proper understanding of it necessitates an understanding of Hegel’s Science of Logic. Most readers end up failing to comprehend Hegel’s concepts of history and freedom due to their lack of familiarity with his logic. Nevertheless, for Hegel, there is a fundamental connection between history and freedom: history is the arena in which humanity frees itself from all of the various types of authority that rule over it and achieves this freedom from contradicting authority, that is, by revealing the contradictory status of authority. Once human beings discover the groundlessness and inconsistency of an authority, they become freed from it, but this struggle is a historical process. Another noteworthy aspect of Hegel’s concept of freedom is that it stands in sharp contrast to the liberal concept of freedom, which is ideologically weaponized by capitalism. Liberalism thinks that the greatest threat to individual freedom is the imposition of direct constraint, but Hegel thinks it’s something else. For him, the biggest obstacle freedom encounters is actually our admiration and investment in authority figures. McGowan defines Hegel’s concept of freedom like this: “Freedom is the refusal to endow the Other with wholeness or self-consistency. It is the refusal to treat the Other as a substantial being” (p. 136). Next, McGowan shifts into a clarifying discussion of what Hegel meant by the “end of history” and how this end is connected to human freedom. The rest of this chapter includes discussions of Alexandre Kojève’s influential interpretation of Hegel (one based on the master-slave dialectic), the historical relation between Christianity and universal freedom, the question concerning the “idealism” of Hegel’s theory of history, Hegel’s notorious concept of the cunning of reason and, finally, the subject’s neurotic reaction to freedom and its fantasy of new authority.
It’s within Chapter Eight that we get an even more detailed account of Hegel’s concept of freedom and how it relates to negation. In McGowan’s words, “Freedom is unimaginable without negation. The ability to negate the givens of its existence, whether they come from biology or from culture, provides the basis for the subject’s freedom. Hegel, because he recognizes the central role that negation plays in the formation of subjectivity, is a philosopher of freedom” (p. 154). Someone is free insofar as they possess the power to negate the authoritative commands of authority figures. But this would mean that freedom is purely negative, i.e., it reduces freedom to disobedience, rebellion, transgression or resistance. It also means that freedom ultimately relies on authority in order for it to act freely (to disobey). However, while Hegel views negativity as essential to freedom, he also thinks that this negative freedom must turn itself into positive freedom — the negation of an authority involves the dialectical self-determination of the subject. The subject is a transgressor, which means that freedom has become positive because the subject must now identify with the very Law or social structure it transgresses. Taking up a purely negative stance towards the world produces a positive self-determination of the subject within the world. At this precise moment, self-consciousness finally realizes its dialectical and contradictory relation to objective reality. This is the path from self-consciousness to reason as described in the Phenomenology of Spirit. The moment when self-consciousness grasps itself as a relation to what it is not (an identity of identity and difference) is the moment it transitions into reason and becomes free. From here, McGowan examines how Hegel’s theory of freedom relates to Kant’s and how it relates to the insubstantiality (groundlessness) of authority. We also learn about the opposed ways in which Hegel and Heidegger lived out their opposed concepts of freedom, Marx’s and Kierkegaard’s critiques of Hegel’s concept of freedom and how our modern idealization of the figure of the rebel (an image celebrated by Albert Camus). Hegel’s concept of positive freedom is one that resists resistance (the negative freedom of never-ending rebellion).
Chapter Nine sets its sights on explaining Hegel’s concept of the Absolute. Hegel is known as a thinker of the system, of wholeness, of totality, of the Absolute, but there are many misinterpretations surrounding this position. Hegel’s Absolute is not a purely consistent Substance, but, rather, is one of contradiction. Hegel’s Absolute is internally fractured. Hegel was a systematic thinker but also was one that rejected the notion of a first principle. In fact, Hegel showed that systematic thinking stands opposed to first principles. There is no ultimate (substantial) ground to the Hegelian system — the system itself, chalked full of failures and contradictions, is all the ground it has. Absolute knowing is simply the realization that the Absolute itself is structured by contradiction — being is at odds with itself. To quote McGowan, “Though Hegel constructs a totalizing system, its airtight structure does not produce a perfectly harmonious whole in which nothing is out of place. Instead, the totality renders visible the ontological necessity of contradiction. This is the reason that Hegel insists on thinking the absolute idea. When one pulls up short of the absolute and contents oneself with not thinking systematically, contradiction seems contingent and thus not inevitable” (p. 176). What follows is an examination of critiques of Hegelian totality (primarily those of Lyotard and Adorno). Hegel said in the Phenomenology of Spirit that “the true is the whole”. Critics have interpreted this to be a defense of totalizing systems that unethically disregard the integrity of particular individuals (totalitarianism being the great example of this), but McGowan fires back against this misreading. The remainder of the chapter explores the ramifications of Hegel’s concepts of universality, particularity and singularity, e.g., how they relate to Napoleon, racism, social oppression and conservatism. The big takeaway is that Hegel’s system of universality is fundamentally opposed to all particularisms that substantialize (essentialize) identities. McGowan concludes, “The path to universal freedom lies through thinking absolutely” (p. 195).
In Chapter Ten, the Hegelian concept of emancipation is articulated, that is, we get an analysis of Hegelian politics and Hegel’s theory of the state. McGowan argues that the absolute, the realization that contradiction homologously structures both thought and being, is fundamentally at play in political struggles. He writes, “Contradiction is the barrier to society’s self-identity and the engine behind all political movement. In recognizing the absolute, one recognizes the fecundity of the barrier” (p. 197). For Hegel, the key political idea is absolute knowing or the inescapability of contradiction. What politics typically does is promise people an escape from contradiction or a future state without any social antagonisms (a Substance society), but the Hegelian response is to simply accept that contradiction is here to stay. But Hegel’s position is not a defeatism. Contradiction itself is what progressively drives social change. In fact, we could say that our dream of a society without contradiction is secretly the worst defeatism of them all precisely because that sort of society would itself defeat the possibility of any change for the better. McGowan also rejects the idea that mutual recognition is the key to unlocking true freedom and equality. Yes, this concept plays a role in Hegel’s philosophy but not a crucial one: “Mutual recognition is not a sufficient condition for the subject’s freedom, but it is a necessary one” (p. 201). For Hegel, it is the state, not mutual recognition, that a politics of contradiction is really geared towards. As McGowan puts it, “Hegel ends his political philosophy with the state rather than with mutual recognition because he sees in the state a social structure that sustains contradiction. The state is absolute politics — the political equivalent to absolute knowing or the absolute idea. The state form makes freedom actual in a way that mutual recognition does not” (p. 202). But what about all of the terribly oppressive acts carried out by states? McGowan addresses this question head on and explains that the main problem with totalitarian-authoritarian states is that they fail to function as states proper, i.e., they are vehemently against the universality of the public sphere. Instead, they come to confuse themselves with civil society (the realm of economic exchange and particular self-interest), which means that they focus on the defense and idealization of private life. However, for Hegel, true individuality or authentic singularity depends on the universal structure of the state. The last sections of this final chapter reflect on how Hegel’s political thought relates to monarchy, democracy, fascism, philosophy and Marxism. McGowan finishes with a very bold statement: he argues that Hegel, not Marx, was the philosopher who produced a truly emancipatory politics. In fact, McGowan makes a rather convincing argument that Marxism was a “rightist deviation” of Hegel’s politics of emancipation. For Marx, and especially for traditional Marxists, we can actually reach a society freed from contradiction (communism), but, for Hegel, every society will have its contradictions — and contradiction is the engine of progress.
The Conclusion briefly reflects on Hegel’s loyal devotion to the three principles of the Enlightenment: liberté (freedom), égalité (equality), fraternité (solidarity). Hegel was the philosopher of contradiction but this also means that he was the philosopher of freedom. His ontology of contradiction lays the foundation for the freedom of the subject along with equality and solidarity. As McGowan wonderfully words it, “Hegel’s philosophical intervention marks his effort to install these values in the world by illustrating their ontological basis. His wager is that if we recognize that freedom, equality, and solidarity follow from the nature of being itself we will recognize that they are not just desirable but fundamentally inescapable. No matter how diligently we attempt to abandon them, they return to haunt us. But, on the other hand, Hegel’s philosophy also has the benefit of showing why people are so quick to betray these values. Freedom, equality, and solidarity are inherently traumatic values insofar as they require us to confront the absence of any substantial authority. We can only live out these values if we forgo any self-identical other that provides a secure background for our subjectivity” (p. 219). In the political climate we find ourselves living in, these words serve as a great warning. I, for one, will side with Hegel and the emancipatory power of contradiction. Long live freedom! Long live equality! Long live solidarity! Long live contradiction! Long live the absolute!
Also, McGowan himself did a video series on YouTube that serves as an introduction to his book and his general interpretation of Hegel. Here’s the first video in the series: