JOHANNES-GEORG SCHÜLEIN | Metaphysik und ihre Kritik bei Hegel und Derrida | Meiner Verlag 2016


By Jacco Verburgt 

This fine monograph, which is the trade edition of a slightly revised Ph.D. dissertation (Ruhr-Universität Bochum 2014), addresses and assesses important issues and desiderata relating to the Hegel-Derrida debate, not least of which is a rehabilitation of Hegel’s essentially metaphysics-critical approach (cf. e.g. p. 366). Notably, it reconstructs some grave limitations of Derrida’s reading of Hegel and ultimately even uncovers a downright failing (a Scheitern, not only a Fehlen of an actual or full implementation) of the deconstruction strategy when it comes to interpreting Hegel (to be sure, not necessarily in the case of other philosophers or authors), as Derrida himself seems to acknowledge, at least partially or implicitly, according to Schülein (cf. e.g. pp. 297ff.). That is to say, the failing of Derrida’s earlier strategy (roughly from the 1950s and 1960s) of an immanent-deconstructive, delimiting or destabilising, critique of Hegel’s allegedly closed and totalitarian (as well as bourgeois) metaphysical system—in Derrida’s well-known sense of a metaphysics of presence, which is largely inspired by the later Heidegger (cf. esp. pp. 45–62, 67–8 [note 80], and 365), and its so-called onto-theological and phonocentric character—would eventually provoke a turn, especially in Glas (a text from 1974), to what one might call an external-realist confrontation with Hegel (cf. esp. pp. 250, 363 and 369).

In fact, Schülein’s book offers a thorough and nuanced analysis of both Hegel and Derrida, not simply by acknowledging that each has his own conception of a critique of metaphysics, but especially by showing that Hegel’s critique of metaphysics, when taken in its own right, actually anticipates some key elements and insights pertaining to Derrida’s critique of metaphysics (cf. e.g. pp. 33–4, 139 and 245)—and thus going beyond Derrida’s actual reading of Hegel, which still seems to be more popular (but of course not necessarily better substantiated) than a Hegelian understanding of Derrida, and clearing the air a bit, I hope, for future debates on this complex relation between Hegel and Derrida and this equally complex topic, namely ‘metaphysics and its critique’.

Before entering into some specifics, let me first say a few words on the general structure and composition of the book. It is divided into the following parts. First, there is an extensive introductory part (“Einleitung”), Part 1, including four paradigms (see pp. 17–28) that aim to critically characterise the current debate on the topic, namely:

(i) the paradigm of metaphysics and post-metaphysics, which the author links to what he considers a still influential but problematic notion, namely that there is a strict rupture or opposition between classical German philosophy, especially Hegel and his alleged totalitarian metaphysics, on the one hand, and so-called post-metaphysical or post-modern thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida, on the other;

(ii) the paradigm of antirealism, which the author links to an equally problematic tendency, namely to assume that there is no concept-independent or language-independent, so-called objective, reality in the tradition of continental philosophy since Kant, including both Hegel and Derrida;

(iii) the third paradigm, the paradigm of difference and negativity, which concerns the nowadays rather popular view that there are important parallels between Derrida’s notion of différance and Hegel’s concept of ‘negativity’, often however without sufficiently comprehensively taking into account, according to Schülein, the methodical and historical particularities involved in such, in fact multi-layered, comparisons;

and finally

(iv) the paradigm of language, which the author links to the still widespread idea that Hegel and Derrida should primarily be considered philosophers of language—an idea that the author rightly questions, not only in the case of Hegel, but also in Derrida’s case.

The second part of the book presents two basic and interrelated motives in Derrida’s critique of metaphysics, namely: (i) the motif of a closure (Schliessung; in French: clôture) of metaphysics and (ii) that of a delimitation or opening-up (Entgrenzung; in French: outre-clôture) of this same closure of metaphysics; hence this part is entitled “Die Schliessung der Metaphysik und ihre Entgrenzung”. Against the backdrop of these two motifs, the third part focuses on the tenability and feasibility of the first motif in relation to Hegel—hence this part is entitled “Hegel und die Schliessung der Metaphysik”—while the fourth part focuses on the tenability and feasibility of the second motif in relation to Hegel, hence it is entitled “Hegel und die Entgrenzung der Metaphysik”. And finally, there is a rather short concluding part (“Schlussbetrachtung”), Part 5, that recapitulates and reformulates the main arguments by means of three systematic problem fields, namely: (i) metaphysics and language, (ii) metaphysics and difference, and (iii) metaphysics and the reality of the individual.

In the remainder of this review, I shall not summarise, let alone discuss in any detail, the various issues, themes and topics in the book. Instead, I want to dwell a bit upon two key notions from Hegel’s Science of Logic, including the critique of metaphysics these notions imply, which the author discusses in Part 3 and Part 4.

The first notion is Hegel’s notion of Begriff, and the critique of metaphysics it involves. The author stresses (cf. esp. pp. 162 and 263) that Hegel uses this notion both in the singular (Begriff) and in the plural (Begriffe). In fact, this distinction between singular and plural seems to be quite crucial, according to the author, not only to understand what Hegel means to articulate, but at the same time what complicates Derrida’s reading of Hegel right from the start, including the latter’s critique of metaphysics, especially his critique of both the rationalist school metaphysics and Kant. Let me give a longer quote from Part 3 of the book to illustrate Schülein’s presentation and interpretation of Hegel:

Was Hegel im Singular ›Begriff‹ nennt, ist bekanntlich ein Grundwort seiner Philosophie. […] Dass Hegel einen Unterschied zwischen dem Begriff im Singular und Begriffen im Plural macht, wird sich als das maßgebliche Problem für Derridas Interpretation erweisen. Wenn Hegel von Begriffen im Plural redet, stellt er grundsätzlich auf eine der wohl bis heute gewöhnlichsten Begriffsauffassungen ab. In diesem Sinn gibt er an, »[w]as gewöhnlich unter Begriffen verstanden wird, sind Verstandes-Bestimmungen, auch nur allgemeine Vorstellungen« [WdL 1, Wissenschaft der Logik, Die Lehre vom Sein, Hamburg 1984, 17], und meint damit generell eine Auffassung von Begriff als Gattungs- oder Artallgemeinheit, die das Gemeinsame mehrerer Dinge zum Ausdruck bringt. […]

Und indem Derrida behauptet, die phonozentrische Sprachauffassung begründet die Existenz dieses Begriffs, greift er auf die Grundlage des hegelschen Denkens aus, wie sie in der Wissenschaft der Logik näher entfaltet wird. Dabei ist insbesondere festzuhalten, dass Derrida nicht nur nicht untersucht, wie Hegel das, was er als den spekulativen Begriff auszeichnet, genauer bestimmt. Wenn er dabei in Klammern notiert, Hegels Sprachauffassung begründe ›die Existenz des Begriffs (des Signifikats)‹ [Marges de la philosophie, Paris 1972, 104], identifiziert er kurzerhand das, was bei Hegel der singuläre Begriff ist, mit der Zeichenkomponente des Signifikats. […]

Erstens ist der spekulative Begriff für Hegel in dem Maße weder Signifikat noch verstandsmäßiger Allgemeinbegriff wie er sich auch nicht darauf beschränkt, eine subjektive Instanz des Begreifens und Erkennens zu sein, sondern vielmehr die Substanz der Realität selber ausmacht. […]

Zweitens verlangt der spekulative Begriff für Hegel eine bestimmte, nämlich immanente, selbstexplikative Darstellung. […] Dass der spekulativen Begriff für Hegel die substantielle Verfassung der Realität selbst ausmacht, wird an der Grundausrichtung der Wissenschaft der Logik insgesamt deutlich. […] Die Grundausrichtung der hegelschen Position ist […] so zu charakterisieren: Der spekulative Begriff ist für Hegel die sich selbst explizierende Substanz der gesamten Wirklichkeit—und insofern sich diese Substanz selbst expliziert, wirkt sie als Subjekt. (pp. 162–81)

I think these sentences perfectly illustrate what, according to Schülein, is at stake. Let me just give a few straightforward comments. First of all, Hegel’s speculative notion of Begriff (in the singular) is not identical to what one would usually call a general concept or subjective (or purely conceptual) representation, nor with the Kantian notion of Verstandesbegriff (or even Vernunftbegriff). Rather, secondly, it involves what Schülein perhaps somewhat robustly calls the substance or substantial structure of (the whole of) reality itself—namely in such a way, to be sure, that it has to be shown and made explicit immanently, that is, in terms of a substance that at the same time features as the subject of its self-explication. Thirdly, Schülein signals that Derrida refers to Hegel’s notion of Begriff, but without really addressing the quite subtle inherent dynamics of this notion, namely a dynamics that involves both substance (in historicis: Spinoza’s monistic metaphysics of substance) and subject or subjectivity (in historicis: Kant’s transcendental or critical idealism), or the dynamics of analysing subject-object relations as such—and thus aiming to go beyond these historical and systematic positions of Spinoza and Kant. Instead, fourthly, Derrida seems to read Hegel’s notion from within a Saussurian, linguistic and semiological, framework that basically draws on the distinction between signifiant and signifié (the two basic components or functions of a linguistic, written sign), especially by identifying Hegel’s notion with the signified (which, according to Schülein, is definitely incorrect: “Hegels spekulativer Begriff ist kein Signifikat”, p. 172)—all the while neglecting to provide any detailed reference to Hegel’s own views on language, which Schülein appropriately analyses in Part 3 of his book, namely in terms of the doctrines of Urteil (or Urteilslogik) and Schluss (or Schlusslogik) from the third part (or second volume) of the Science of Logic, which is the doctrine of the Notion (“Die Lehre vom Begriff” or Begriffslogik).

Much more could of course be said about all this. Here, I just want to point to one of Schülein’s concluding theses, at the end of Part 3, regarding the nature and status of Derrida’s deconstructive strategy. The thesis reads as follows (in the original italics): “Derrida dekonstruiert Hegel nicht, weil es in diesem Kontext nicht möglich ist” (p. 244). Apparently, according to Schülein, Derrida’s intended (immanent) deconstruction didn’t take place at all because it could not have happened in the context of Hegel’s rather critical (begriffslogische) analysis of predication. Why not? The short answer amounts to this: because Hegel’s speculative analysis of (traditional) predication theory already anticipates, at least partially, what Derrida aims to confront him with, namely the untenability of a ‘metaphysical’ or ‘phonocentric’ conception of language in the sense of the impossibility of attaining full transparency or self-transparency—albeit not in recourse to the intransparency inherent to the written sign, as Derrida has it, but with reference to the intransparency inherent to the structure of predicative sentences. And I might add, to be sure, that the long answer Schülein provides in Part 3 of his book seems quite convincing to me. 

The second notion is Hegel’s notion of Wesen, and the critique of metaphysics it entails. The author rightly points out that Hegel’s doctrine of essence (“Die Lehre vom Wesen” or Wesenslogik, which is the second part—of the first volume—of his Science of Logic) is one of the most complex parts of his whole philosophy, also according to Hegel himself, for instance in §114 of his Encyclopædia of the Philosophical Sciences (cf. pp. 262 and 266). At some point, Schülein seems to summarise the complexity of Hegel’s doctrine by saying that it is basically about “das Oxymoron einer vermittelten Unmittelbarkeit” (p. 265). In a footnote, he also affirmatively quotes Stephen Houlgate who states that Hegel’s conception of Wesen is “without doubt a strange and unusual conception of essence” (just as, one might add, Hegel’s notion of Begriff), but “it is the conception of essence that we are forced to adopt if we take seriously the idea that the essence of things is not simple immediacy” (p. 269, note 73).

But which issues and claims, including metaphysics-critical ones, does Hegel—in Schülein’s view—discuss in (connection with) his doctrine of essence? And to what extent does his doctrine anticipate key aims and objectives of Derrida’s reading of Hegel, as Schülein argues, also in this context? Let me again give another long quote in order to clarify these questions a bit:

Hegels Anspruch ist es, die scheinbehaftete Unmittelbarkeit als eine durch die Reflexion des Wesens vermittelte Unmittelbarkeit auszuweisen. Genau um diesen Anspruch geht es in Hegels Wesenskonzeption, in der er jene Bestimmungen der Identität und Differenz vorlegt, die Derrida in Auge hat. […]

Drei Aspekte sind in Betracht zu ziehen, die auch Hegels Differenzkonzeptionen prägen. […]

(a) Dass Unmittelbarkeit als vermittelt zu denken ist, bedeutet auf dem Niveau des Wesens für Hegel grundsätzlich, sie in ihrem »Gesetztseyn« [WdL 2, Wissenschaft der Logik, Die Lehre vom Wesen, Hamburg 1978, S. 251] zu durchschauen: Die vermittelte Unmittelbarkeit ist für Hegel eine in der Reflexion des Wesens gesetzte Unmittelbarkeit. […]

(b) Die Reflexionseinheit des Wesens zeichnet sich nach Hegel durch absolute Negativität aus. Kraft ihrer absoluten Negativität soll sie das Setzen von Unmittelbarkeit sein. Insbesondere die Frage, worin genau diese absolute Negativität besteht, ist seit langem Gegenstand der Forschungsdiskussion. […]

(c) Die absolute Negativität, durch die das Wesen sich auszeichnet, ist eine selbstbezügliche Negativität. Insofern die absolute Negativität des Wesens stets nur mit Negativem zu tun hat, beschreibt Hegel sie als selbstbezüglich im Sinne einer »sich auf sich beziehende[n] Negativität« [ibid., S. 250]. In ihrer Selbstbezüglichkeit negiert sie sich und sei »somit überhaupt so sehr aufgehobene Negativität als sie Negativität ist« [ibid.]. […]

Mit Blick auf Derrida sind […] zwei Punkte hervorzuheben. Erstens: Zu Beginn dieses Kapitels wurde behauptet, das Verhältnis zwischen Derridas différance and Hegels wesenslogischen Differenzbegriffen ließe sich nicht als ein terminologisches Problem abhandeln. Der Grund dafür ist, dass Differenz und Identität bei Hegel im engeren Sinn Reflexionsbestimmungen des Wesens sind. […]

Zweitens: […] Mit besonderem Blick auf die ontotheologische Metaphysik-auffassung sei […] festgehalten, dass das hegelsche Wesen in seiner absoluten Negativität augenscheinlich weder ein oberstes Seiendes noch ein Ursprung im Sinne eines absoluten Bezugspunkts sein kann. Denn das Wesen entfaltet eine rein selbstbezügliche Dynamik, in der es sich als ein Unmittelbares setzt und auch wieder aufhebt. […]

Hegel nimmt […] der Gedanken der différance partiell vorweg, entschärft ihn aber zugleich. Hegels Entschärfung besteht darin, der Differenz die Macht abzusprechen, Identität bedrohen und sogar zerstören zu können. […] Hegels Philosophie nimmt partiell genau diejenige Differenz-auffassung vorweg, die Derrida zur immanenten Kritik eben der Metaphysik einsetzt, die Hegels System zugleich auf besonders radikale Weise verkörpern soll. […]

Dass sich Hegels Philosophie gerade in einem ihrer grundlegendsten Aspekte zwar zurückweisen, aber nicht immanent dekonstruieren lässt, bedeutet für Derrida freilich ein Problem. (pp. 262–97)

On the basis of this quote from Part 4 of Schülein’s book, I wish to point out a few things. A first thing to note is that Derrida’s reading aims at Hegel’s conception of Differenz and looks for parallels with his own famous notion of différance, which is a form of irreducible and impure difference, that is, an irreducible difference which—nonetheless and at the same time—is not given independently of the notion of identity, as Schülein points out (cf. pp. 273–4).

Secondly, and this seems to me quite crucial, there are various concepts of difference detectable in Hegel’s text. In fact, as Schülein shows, Hegel discusses a whole sequence of Wesensheiten or Reflexionsbestimmungen (such as Identität, Unterschied, and Widerspruch) that include multiple concepts of difference, some of which indeed closely resemble Derrida’s notion of an irreducible–impure difference, for instance in the sections (from the second chapter of the first part of the ‘Wesenslogik’) that are entitled ‘Der absolute Unterschied’ and ‘Die Verschiedenheit’ (cf. e.g. p. 271).

But, thirdly, the most crucial point is, it seems to me, that Hegel’s notion of Wesen is highly reflexive, self-relational, and dynamic. As the quote indicates, Schülein underscores three important characteristics of Hegel’s approach: (a) apparent immediacy (Sein) is in fact always already mediated or posited immediacy (Gesetztsein), which as such needs to be comprehended reflexively; (b) such a reflexion or reflexive unity of immediacy and mediation entails a form of what Hegel calls absolute negativity, the exact nature of which has since long been a highly debated topic, as Schülein confirms (cf. p. 267); and (c) this absolute negativity is essentially and purely self-relational (selbstbezüglich), that is, it is a negativity that negates itself and, by doing so, also sublates itself—it thus includes both negativity and sublated negativity.

And all this dynamism, fourthly, also fuels Hegel’s critique of metaphysics, rather than his alleged metaphysics of presence. That is why Schülein questions, and rightly so, the very possibility of integrating Hegel into what Heidegger—and Derrida in his footsteps—calls the onto-theological structure of metaphysics (besides the fact that Schülein signals, also in this context, the absence of an actual, immanent, deconstruction of Hegel’s text).

Finally, I wish to point out that, according to Schülein, Hegel not only anticipates Derrida’s notion of différance, at least partially, but also defuses (“entschärft”) it. In a way, this sounds plausible in so far as one would claim that there is a form of radical difference which has the power to actually destroy (“zerstören”) any notion of identity—be it a weak, implicit or endlessly postponed one—not least since it follows from Hegel’s analysis that identity and difference are intrinsically related concepts, or determinations of reflexion, so that it would be impossible—or at least highly abstract in the negative, Hegelian, sense of the term—to talk about difference fully separately from identity. Clearly, Schülein’s phrase that Hegel defuses Derrida’s notion of différance suggests that the latter takes a more radical stance, at least when it comes to the claim that his notion is coined to threaten (“bedrohen”) a particular (be it predominant or epochal) notion of identity—but not to destroy any notion of identity, since Derrida confirms, according to Schülein (as I pointed out above with reference to pp. 273–4), that différance connotes a difference that is not only irreducible but also impure, that is, not given fully independently from the notion of identity.

This brings me to a certain tension or ambiguity in Schülein’s assessment of Derrida’s position. On the one hand, he stresses that Derrida defends or maintains no philosophical position in his own name (cf. p. 30), but occurs above all as reader of philosophical texts and must precisely be taken seriously in this respect (cf. ibid.). In this vein, he seems to affirm “die Kontextgebundenheit der Dekonstruktion” (p. 35) and adhere to the well-known view that Derrida’s approach merely involves “ein Verfahren der Lektüre” (ibid.), which is always restricted to specific (con)texts and does not include adopting or assuming any general thesis or theory—at least not “nicht im Sinne einer selbstständigen Theorie” (p. 36). On the other hand, however, Schülein frequently talks about “die Positionen Hegels und Derridas” (p. 33), “Derridas allgemeine Position” (p. 40), and in particular “[d]as Verhältnis der philosophischen Positionen Hegels und Derridas zueinander” (p. 365), so that it would appear that Derrida does in fact adopt some general and philosophical position. In my view, this tension or ambiguity in Schülein’s assessment of Derrida is a bit confusing—not least since it can give rise to the rather basic question whether it is possible to systematically compare Hegel and Derrida, as Schülein obviously believes, if one of them, Derrida, does not assume a somehow determinable, reconstructable, and comparable position that is not fully or exhaustively bounded to a specific context, be it a very implicit, unwanted or unintentional position.   

But, all in all, Schülein’s book is highly recommendable, not only for those interested in Derrida’s reading of Hegel, obviously, but also for those interested in the far from exhausted potential of Hegel’s thought for present-day philosophical debates. In fact, many debates would profit immensely when Hegel’s approach were brought into play, provided of course that one is prepared to take it seriously—both systematically, methodically, and historically—and to move beyond the clichés that unfortunately still circulate and even flourish in various predominant scholarly circles, whether it be so-called postmodern, realist, Kantian, phenomenological, hermeneutical, or other circles. Moreover, it is not too far-fetched to say that apparently opposing circles, for instance postmodernists and realists, in fact share and reiterate the same or largely similar clichés, especially about Hegel’s allegedly ‘closed metaphysical system’, as Schülein’s analysis affirms. In this respect, I believe there is still an urgent need for ‘critique’ in the sense of the Greek verb κρίνειν, notably discerning and doing justice.

A minor thing I wish to mention about the book is that an index of names (as well as, for that matter, an subject index) would have been helpful, especially in the case of a well-documented study like this. It is indeed well documented, as the bibliography indicates, also in terms of including some French literature on the topic (or translations thereof) that might not be so familiar to a German-speaking or English-speaking readership. I think that an English translation, which would of course broaden the impetus for further research, is certainly worth considering.

© Jacco Verburgt, 2019.

Jacco Verburgt is Fellow at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology, Tilburg University, the Netherlands. Before he was Assistant Professor of Philosophy at VU University Amsterdam and taught at various institutions in the Netherlands, most recently the University of Utrecht. His current research focuses on Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel.