- Meaning and Embodiment: Human Corporeity in Hegel’s Anthropology by Nicholas Mowad
Readers of Hegel’s philosophy will welcome Nicholas Mowad’s interpretation of Hegel’s anthropology not just as a fundamental addition to Hegel scholarship, but also, and more fundamentally, as a necessary invitation to read Hegel in a new key. This entails paying attention to questions of embodiment, race, and gender that are intrinsic to Hegel’s philosophical anthropology. The book’s chief merit lies in the way Mowad convincingly shows that issues of race and gender cannot be avoided while reading Hegel, and that Hegel’s approach to such themes is firmly rooted in the experience of nature as a locus of transformation and critical distance from entrenched racial and gender disparities.
Mowad concentrates on the sections of the Anthropology that form the first part of Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit in his Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences in Outline (1830). Through a careful reading of Hegel’s annotations and the lecture notes of the winter semester of 1827–28, Mowad sheds light on the role of corporeity in Hegel’s thought as a necessary condition for the development of spirit and particularly for the constitution of social community. Most notably, Mowad argues that Hegel’s dimensions of embodiment (mechanical, chemical, and biological) involve cognitive relations to what is corporeal in a way that produces both unreflective absorption in natural life and the possibility of a critical distance from nature. Far from advocating a romantic disenchantment from nature, however, Hegel’s view of embodiment calls for normative assessment without alienating individuals from their natural foundation. [End Page 156]
Mowad’s analysis is clearly articulated in the eight chapters of the book, which detail Hegel’s idea of the body, his view of spirit, the different aspects of embodiment that explicate spirit’s natural constitution (such as natural qualities and racial determination, sleep, self-feeling, habit, and mental illness), and the social dimension of embodiment. Mowad’s original and thought-provoking insight is that Hegel’s view of racial determination does not lead to either racial hierarchy or bioregionalism, for it is best understood in terms of a natural foundation of culture, which points to the abandonment of any normative racial or national identity. Similarly, with regard to the notion of gender, Mowad argues that Hegel’s account of self-knowledge in the Anthropology displays a characteristic tragic evolution, revealing the necessary failure of any determinate masculine character that posits itself as independent and sovereign with respect to the feminine character.
Mowad’s analysis of Hegel’s theory of race and gender culminates in the final chapter, where Mowad argues that the social dimension made possible by human embodiment is not founded on the nation-state in the sheer sense of biological determinism. For Mowad, the possibility of a social community that is based on the rejection of both racism and sexism rests on the possibilities opened up by human embodiment, and specifically by human habit, once the latter becomes the vehicle for the aims of spirit’s self-determination. Indeed, one of the most interesting and fundamental implications of Mowad’s book is that his diagnosis of the social pathologies characterizing Western society calls for the use of habit as a form of therapy. Such a therapeutic process involves acknowledging the concrete causes of social derangement in order to liberate individuals and groups from cultural fixations, including, for instance, the assumption that one’s culture or society is superior to others.
Since Mowad’s interpretation compels us to reconsider the foundational role of Hegel’s anthropology, a couple of aspects seem worthy of further discussion. On the one hand, Mowad argues that Hegel’s anthropology is neither descriptive nor normative in that it has no external object on which it can be applied, because it rather reflects spirit’s natural and spontaneous development. On the other hand, Mowad’s account of race and gender shows that some form of critical distance from nature is required in order to establish the social dimension...