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The Birth of Theory
by Andrew Cole

Reviewed by Jeffrey Blevins


Published:

Published by University of Chicago Press, 2014   |   272 pages

Canard, hokum, cliché: these are just a few of the words Andrew Cole uses in The Birth of Theory to categorize our recent, collective misunderstanding of that nineteenth-century philosopher of dialectics, G.W.F. Hegel. And he’s right. Much of what’s thought and said about Hegel today boils down to shibboleths precisely because so much has been said and thought about him. The notorious difficulty of reading his prose, let alone translating it, let alone reading it in translation, only exacerbates the problem. Marx, for example, the greatest self-appointed successor to Hegel, selectively repurposed Hegel’s writings while obscuring his debts to him, begetting a lineage of Marxists more or less off base about exactly what Marx borrowed from his great forbearer. In the wake of Marx, generations of Hegel’s critics and layreaders have received Hegel largely through his early 20th-century internuncios, Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite, who provided an account of Hegel’s philosophy as compelling as it was misleading. Entire schools of literary and cultural analysis, especially poststructuralism, have carried with them a sense of Hegelian philosophy mediated through Kojève and Hyppolite’s interpretations. Reading critics and theorists today, themselves reading prior critics and theorists reading Hegel, can feel like coming last in an almost two century long game of telephone.

Andrew Cole’s Birth of Theory is first and foremost a rehabilitation: one that cuts through the “scrim” of what Hegelianism has become and takes us back to who Hegel himself was and what he “actually said.” The “theory” of the title of Cole’s text refers to the umbrella practice that promulgated across the 20th and 21st centuries that sought to dismantle perceived literary and cultural hierarchies. In so doing, it is claimed, society’s privileging structures and biases are unmasked. Cole’s overarching assertion is that this way—theory’s way—of dismantling culture’s hegemonies originates with Hegelian dialectics. How so? Theory is born with Hegel, Cole argues, in Hegel’s act of making philosophy’s (read, Kant’s) heretofore static categories, axioms, and universals swirl in a dynamic waltz of identity and difference, pulled by Hegel straight out of medieval dialectics, across the breadth of theory that comes after him. (It is worth noting, in passing, that Cole’s positioning of Hegel at the birth of theory follows in the footsteps of thinkers like Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson.)

Cole’s argument relies to a great extent on surprisingly effective and refreshing biographical and historical backgrounding. Hegel was born in Württemberg, Germany in 1770, a deeply feudal, indelibly premodern Duchy within the Holy Roman Empire. Hegel came of age in this feudal society even as he emerged as a critical thinker into a wider world witnessing the overthrow of the feudal monarchies of the Ancien Régime, ushering the West out of serfdom and lordship and into a nascent governmental, ideally democratic, modernity (see: Jefferson, Thomas; Assembly, National). Kojève, Hyppolite, and Marx all instrumentalized Hegel in the service of this revolutionary milieu. All three held Hegel’s “enthusiasm,” to use Cole’s word, for the material consequences of the French Revolution sacrosanct and axiomatic, ignoring, for the time being, the fact that his revolving dialectics provide the metaphysical underpinning for that same enthusiasm. The story Hegel tells about the emergence of self-consciousness out of consciousness, itself risen up from banal “sense-certainty,” becomes in their reading an impetus for the revolutionary self-actualization of the Third Estate.

Cole, who wears his Marxism on his sleeve, modifies the classic reading of Hegel in three ways. The first modification asserts that we have repressed the premodern sources for Hegel’s dialectics, a form of philosophizing that Hegel borrowed not from the dialectical syllogisms of the ancient Socratics but rather from medieval Christian mystics and Neo-Platonists like Plotinus, Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Nicholas of Cusa (themselves reaching back through Plato’s Parmenides to the Pre-Socratic Parmenides). Dialectics for these medieval thinkers turn on the question of how multiplicity could have emerged from oneness—perhaps, most fundamentally expressed in the neo-Platonic Scholastic analysis of how a singular, omnipotent God could generate the diverse, pluripotent reality that we experience in our day-to-day lives. Medieval dialectics, as Cole presents them, teach us that difference is “abstractly determined” by a singularity generating difference from itself by reflecting on itself, an iterated phenomenological process that eventually results in A = A becoming A = A or even A = B.

Grounding Hegel’s dialectics in this medieval narrative of difference emerging from identity allows, crucially, Cole to surpass Kojève and Hyppolite’s inappropriate emphasis on “synthesis” as the generative movement in the common thesis-antithesis-synthesis interpretation of Hegelian dialectics, insisting instead on a kind of dialectical thinking that “tarries with the negative,” or the play of differences that emerge from identity reflecting on itself. The point is the vitality of negation, not the synthesis of negatives back into some “new” identificatory totality.

Cole’s second modification claims that we have overlooked Hegel’s copious and rigorous thinking on feudalism, which lingered in parts of Europe even into the early years of Hegel’s life. Here Cole reorients Hegel towards medieval subjects, and ostensibly away from the revolutionary future that Marxist theorists, Cole included, need him to presage. This leads directly into Cole’s third modification, which reminds us that, as dialectician extraordinaire, Hegel’s own understanding of his contemporary situation must have been dialectical in that medieval sense of identity and difference, with his world’s turn from feudalism to something else (wishfully, democracy, or self-possession more broadly) a perfect instantiation of a difference emerging from an identity. Modernity is inextricably bound in a dialectical relationship with the medievalism that generated it. Therefore, to better understand Hegel as medieval is, in Cole’s own dialectical twist, to understand him better as modern.

Consider Cole’s third chapter, perhaps the most important in the book, in which he gives a new reading of Hegel’s celebrated lord-bondsman dialectic. Briefly, to use a famous summary by Hyppolite that Cole quotes, this dialectic shows “that the truth of the master reveals that he is a slave, and that the slave is revealed to be the master of the master.” Identity, difference—voilà! The subtle translational shift from “lord” and “bondsman” to “master” and “slave,” from the German Herr and Knecht, is indispensable to Cole’s rereading of the scene; he demands the former pairing. Though our most important English translation, A.V. Miller’s, gets Herr and Knecht right as “lord” and “bondsman,” many of Hegel’s commentators have misrepresented the words as “master” and “slave.” Cole assiduously and convincingly proves that Hegel intended the scene not as a commentary on slavery, but rather as a depiction of the feudalism prevalent in his day and as a sophisticated look at the “dialectics of possession” (of land, of one’s self) being realized to cruel effect throughout much of the western world at the turn of the nineteenth century. Later, Marx will appropriate this and other moments in Hegel as foundations on which to build his critique of labor and capital, a critique for which, Marx would like us to think, Hegel provides just the abstract framework of dialectics, without the substance of true materialist insight into social and economic circumstances that supposedly only Marx himself supplies. But if we follow Cole in conceiving of Hegel’s Herr and Knecht as a commentary on the labor conditions of his day, and not as exclusively a parable or allegory in service of a metaphysical point about how dialectics work, then Hegel becomes, in Cole’s words, “presciently Marxist.”

For Cole and his readers, history and theory must be symbiotic, such that a historicized correction of the record on Hegel’s material context in feudal Württemberg can redound significantly on how we understand, say, the abstract emergence of self-consciousness—and vice versa. And the greatest joy of reading The Birth of Theory is watching Cole yoke huge theoretical observations to exquisitely detailed presentations of historical fact, a yoking of theory to history he ascribes to Hegel but also himself enacts. The work Cole does here shows a possible way forward in our current critical moment, after New Historicism and long after the high years of French theory, a means by which we may keep the groundedness of the former while recapturing some of the lost humanistic grandeur of the latter. By its end, The Birth of Theory reveals itself as not just an impressive combination of historical calibration and theoretical intervention, but rather as a methodological clinic in how to do theoretical and historical work now. What Cole demonstrates, in a final Hegelian lesson, is that we can no longer have one without the other.


Jeffrey Blevins is a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Berkeley and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. He works on American and British poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries. His dissertation investigates relations between modernist poetry and analytic philosophy. He has published essays in ELH, Victorian Poetry, The Wallace Stevens Journal, and Paideuma.

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