restricted access 4. Ending with the Worst: Hegel and Absolute Fatalism
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101 4 Ending with the Worst Hegel and Absolute Fatalism If something is it has to be. —Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist We arrange [ordnen] it. It breaks down. We rearrange it and we break down ourselves. —Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies But the life of Spirit . . . wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. —G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit From the Worst Philosopher . . . Before the more or less recent revival of a “democratic” or “Habermasian” Hegel brought about by some of his influential Anglo-American readers, Hegel was for a very long time considered to be the worst philosopher, and many of the traditional criticisms are often raised against him even today.1 He was considered the worst of all philosophers because with him thought became the most idealist it could get. His absolute idealism attempted to reconcile everything in the realm of the concept, but it started to mystify the real world as his thought unwillingly flipped over from panlogism to mysticism, and, as a famous formulation goes, his absolute idealism ultimately 102 · Ending with the Worst coincided with a “crass materialism.”2 He was too much of an idealist and too much of a materialist. Hegel’s rationalism was deemed untenable in the face of the horrifying and unreasonable historical events that took place after his death. For these events Hegel’s famous dictum “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real” did not hold anymore. His emphasis on reason unfolding in history was even accused of being complicit with these unreasonable and violent acts. If Hegel’s reason was in fact the only motor of history, this motor ultimately turned out to be a brute force constantly relapsing into barbarism. (We may here think of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.) Hegel’s rationalism thereby produces its own opposite. Since Hegel saw necessity and reason at work in the world and in history, he defended the unreasonable position that contingency and, with it, concrete contingent individuals do not really play a relevant role in the development of history. Habermas expressed one notable critique of this position in his famous statement “Hegel desires the revolutionizing of reality, without any revolutionaries.”3 Hegel was too much of a rationalist and thereby too much of an irrationalist. He was too dialectical, that is, too systematic. He sought obsessively to integrate everything into an encyclopedic totality, and his method swallowed up everything. His megalomania shows itself in his attempt to consume, by the very means of exclusion, all the things that he excludes.4 This is why he was, at the same time, too undialectical and too unsystematic, since the idea that everything is dialectically systematizable is itself a highly undialectical idea. Dialectics cannot be all there is, otherwise there would be no dialectical relation between dialectical totality and that which must be its determinate negation. Hence there never can be a completely dialectical system. In short, Ending with the Worst · 103 Hegel was too much of a dialectician and thereby too much of a nondialectician. He was also said to be too much of an eschatological thinker, overgeneralizing the Christian Trinitarian logic and applying it to everything. Consequently he universalized a reconciliatory religious narrative in which everything, even revelation itself, becomes transparent and can be understood in an a priori fashion such that predictions about the unfolding of history can be made. This alleged eschatological thread haunted Hegel-oriented Marxism up to Stalin, as if it were a chronic conceptual illness that grounded the illusory belief in the stable laws of historical progress toward an ultimate good (i.e., communism). Yet this eschatological strand ultimately prevented people from properly engaging the concrete demands of the concrete world and produced a bad kind of fatalism, in which everything always already seems predetermined. For “if the revolution is inevitable, why do we have to work for it?”5 This ultimately boils down to the thesis that Hegel presupposed the absolute from the very beginning—a criticism shared by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger. The critique that Hegel was too eschatological means that he simply presupposed what he tried to expound. But, for the very same reason, Hegel was also criticized for being too antieschatological, as he foreclosed the possibility of intervening in the world. He always overemphasized what is at the expense of what ought to be. Therefore he did not have to say anything about the future—a temporal dimension...