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  • Love and Politics: Re-interpreting Hegel
  • David Ciavatta (bio)
Alice Ormiston . Love and Politics: Re-interpreting HegelState University of New York Press. ix, 164. US $40.00

Love, it might seem, is not especially relevant as a category in terms of which to understand what is ultimately at stake in political life. However, in Love and Politics: Re-interpreting Hegel, Alice Ormiston argues, on the contrary, that the concrete experience of being in love is in fact a central underpinning of all legitimate political institutions, and that the fact that we tend to downplay its political relevance - for instance, by reducing it to a merely private phenomenon that is relevant only in the narrow sphere of intimate interpersonal relations, or by seeing it primarily as something that is simply opposed to sober, rational judgment - is in fact a symptom of a political order that has forgotten its own origins.

Ormiston makes this argument through a detailed interpretation and defence of Hegel's social philosophy: Ormiston argues that, though Hegel seems to move away from a privileging of love in some of his later and better-known texts (the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right), a careful analysis of these texts reveals that a basic 'experience of unity' that [End Page 286] only love can provide continues to play a crucial role, and that Hegel never altogether abandoned his earlier conception of the primacy of love (as articulated in his early text 'The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate'). Though one of Ormiston's main goals is to present and defend her reading of Hegel's work against the readings of other Hegel scholars, she nevertheless manages to write in a manner that makes Hegel's insights accessible and relevant to a wider audience that is not necessarily familiar with the intricacies of Hegel's philosophy or the scholarly controversies surrounding it.

Ormiston interprets love in essentially philosophical terms, as the concrete, lived experience of a primordial unity between self and other, between the finite and the infinite, and between rationality and emotion. This last form of unity is especially important for her, for one of the most basic problems we face in the modern world is the ascendancy of social institutions that are founded primarily on an 'abstract' notion of reflective rationality: rather than engaging us as whole persons who are essentially immersed in concrete, living involvements with others and who are motivated by deep, affectively grounded convictions, modern social institutions tend to operate as though our defining feature were simply our capacity to reflect on, and thereby distance ourselves from, our concrete involvements and commitments. Within these institutions, then, we tend to exist simply as generic, rights-bearing 'atoms' whose social bonds are, at best, rationally justified in conceptual terms, but do not have a living hold on us, thus leaving us without meaningful connections to each other and to the world. The principle of love, in contrast, provides the basis for a more concrete form of rationality - a more 'conscientious' form of thought that does not lose touch with the essentially unreflective character of our living commitments and affective involvements with others, but that, instead, sees its essential task as that of justifying and vindicating this concrete, unreflective experience by exploring its immanent rationality and by bringing this rationality into a communicable, conceptually compelling form.

On Ormiston's account, Hegel's own philosophy can be understood as a model of this kind of conscientious thinking, but, more importantly, we find in Hegel the development of a systematic method for interpreting and analysing social institutions as better or worse ways of nurturing, preserving, and elaborating this unreflective experience of love. Ormiston shows, for instance, that on Hegel's account the otherwise 'atomizing' and alienating character of modern economic life can be somewhat lessened by the development of officially recognized classes and economic co-operatives among members of the same trade. Such limited subgroups not only ensure that their members' particular interests attain adequate political representation, but also afford members the opportunity to develop a concrete and vital experience of unity with their fellow members, thus [End Page 287] enabling the principle of love to...


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pp. 286-288
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