Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Reading :: Hegel


I’m continuing to avoid reading Hegel by reading Hegel commentaries. Next up is this 12-chapter overview of Hegel’s thought by Frederick Beiser. 

Beiser includes, among other things, a short chronology of Hegel’s life from birth to death (p.xix) and a discussion of relevance. He clarifies that he treats Hegel in historical context rather than as a contemporary philosopher -- that is, Beiser explores Hegel’s thought as it related to his time rather than mobilizing it in current debates (a choice that seems appropriately Hegelian) (p.5). 

The book includes the obligatory biography, then covers 5 parts:

  • Early ideals and context

  • Metaphysics

  • Epistemological foundations

  • Social and political philosophy

  • Philosophy of culture

Rather than thoroughly reviewing these, I’ll just note some things that caught my attention.

In discussing Hegel’s grounding in Plato and Aristotle, Beiser notes:

Third, Plato and Aristotle understood nature in organic terms, as ‘a single visible living being’. In all these respects Plato and Aristotle presented the sharpest contrast with the modern worldview, whose self is divided into soul and body, whose state is a contract between self-interested parties, and whose concept of nature is mechanical. It was the great achievement of Hegel and the romantic generation to have reaffirmed the classical ideal of unity against the modern worldview. (p.38)

That ideal of unity, of course, is at the root of Hegel’s dialectic. Related (at least in my estimation):

It is indeed noteworthy that Hegel, along with Hölderlin and Schleiermacher, explicitly denied personal immortality and excoriated the entire ethic of salvation based on it. From his early Berne manuscripts to his 1831 lectures on the philosophy of religion Hegel attacked the ethic of salvation for its self-centered concern for the fate of the soul.

True to his immanent ideal of the highest good, Hegel believed that the meaning of life could and should be achieved in the community alone. We find satisfaction and purpose in our lives, he argued, when, like the ancient Roman and Greek, we contribute to the common good and help to create its laws. The ancient Greeks found immortality and meaning in their lives by living for the polis, which was a whole greater than themselves, and which they knew would survive them; they had no concern for their individual salvation, for the fate of their soul after death. In Hegel’s view, the Christian ethic of personal salvation was only a cry of desperation, a feeble Ersatz, after the loss of community. (p.43)

In terms of unity, Hegel (and Schelling) sought grounding in Spinoza:

Schelling and Hegel greatly admired Spinoza for his monism, for showing how to overcome dualism when Kant, Fichte and Jacobi had only reinstated it. True to Spinoza, their principle of subject–object identity essentially means that the subjective and the objective, the intellectual and the empirical, the ideal and the real –however one formulates the opposition – are not distinct substances but simply different aspects, properties or attributes of one and the same substance. (p.64)

But, Beiser points out, unity creates a problem:

In the end, the problem of contingency presents Hegel with a dilemma. The realm of contingency must be inside or outside the system. If it is inside the system, then contingency has only a subjective status, so that there is no explanation of real contingency. If, however, it is outside the system, it has an objective status; but it then limits the absolute and introduces a dualism between form and content. (p.79)

Hegel addressed this question via organicism, in which

The goal of subject–object identity contrasted sharply with the reality of a dualism between subject and object in ordinary experience. These dualisms can be overcome, Hegel maintains, only if we accept an organic concept of nature according to which the subjective and the objective are only different degrees of organization and development of a single living force. (p.105)

Recall that Hegel was a big influence on Vygotsky (which is why I’m reading about Hegel). Beiser describes Hegel’s use of the familiar terms of internalization and externalization:

In some striking passages from The Spirit of Christianity Hegel calls what both produces and results from love, the whole process of self-surrender and self-discovery, of externalization and internalization, spirit (Geist). He first uses the term in a religious context, in writing about how the spirit of Jesus was present at the Last Supper. He wrote that the spirit of Jesus is the spirit of love, which first makes itself objective, externalizing itself in the bread and wine, and then makes itself subjective, internalizing the bread and wine through the act of eating. Hegel likens the process to that of understanding meaning from a written word; the thought is first objectified in the sign, and it is then resubjectified when the sign is read as having a specific meaning. (p.115)


The opposing movements involved in the experience of love – its externalization and internalization, self-surrender and self-discovery – Hegel will later call ‘dialectic’. Hegel will later use the term in this sense to describe the process of spiritual development. It is important, however, to distinguish at least two meanings of this concept: the ontological, whereby it defines something happening in reality; and the methodological or epistemological, whereby it signifies a method of doing philosophy. (p.115)

Dialectic, of course, is one of Hegel’s primary contributions (and the contribution that most interests me). Beiser explains it further:

Hegel’s term for his own anti-methodology is ‘the concept’ (der Begriff), which designates the inherent form of an object, its inner purpose. It is the purpose of enquiry to grasp this inner form, Hegel argues, and it is for this reason that he demands suspending all preconceptions. If the philosopher simply applies his a priori ideas to the subject matter, he has no guarantee that he grasps its inner form or the object as it is in itself; for all he knows, he sees the object only as it is for him. When Hegel uses the term ‘dialectic’ it usually designates the ‘self-organization’ of the subject matter, its ‘inner necessity’ and ‘inherent movement’. The dialectic is what follows from the concept of the thing. It is flatly contrary to Hegel’s intention, therefore, to assume that the dialectic is an a priori methodology, or indeed a kind of logic, that one can apply to any subject matter. The dialectic is the very opposite: it is the inner movement of the subject matter, what evolves from it rather than what the philosopher applies to it. (p.160)

Like everyone else who writes about Hegel, Beiser cautions us that Hegel did not use the schema thesis-antithesis-synthesis (p.161). He also argues that dialectic is not some sort of alternative logic (p.161). Rather, it’s about the unity of the subject matter: “Indeed, the point of the dialectic will be to remove contradictions by showing how contradictory predicates that seem true of the same thing are really only true of different parts or aspects of the same thing” (p.162). Regarding contradictions, Beiser adds:

The dialectic arises from an inevitable contradiction in the procedures of the understanding. The understanding contradicts itself because it both separates things, as if they were completely independent of one another, and connects them, as if neither could exist apart from the other. It separates things when it analyzes them into their parts, each of which is given a self-sufficient status; and it connects them according to the principle of sufficient reason, showing how each event has a cause, or how each part inheres in a still smaller part, and so on ad infinitum. Hence the understanding ascribes both independence and dependence to things. The only way to resolve the contradiction, it turns out, is to reinterpret the independent or self-sufficient term as the whole of which all connected or dependent terms are only parts. (p.164)

Beiser adds:

Hegel states that there are three stages to the dialectic: the moment of abstraction or the understanding; the dialectical or negatively rational moment; and the speculative or positively rational moment. (p.167)

Beiser covers many other aspects of Hegel’s thought as well, but let’s stop there. I found this discussion to be helpful for understanding Vygotsky, but also Marx. If you’re trying to understand Hegel but, like me, are trying to either work up to or avoid reading the original, Beiser has written a clear summary that you should check out.

Reading :: Rethinking Cultural-Historical Theory

Rethinking Cultural-Historical Theory: A Dialectical Perspective to Vygotsky

In this book, Dafermos reviews how Vygotsky’s work has been taken up in different parts of the world. Dafermos emphasizes the dialectical underpinnings of Vygotsky’s theory, which he believes have been lost in some of this work.

This argument begins on page 1, where Dafermos affirms that "diverse ways of interpreting and conceptualizing Vygotsky's legacy in different parts of the globe have been developed" (p.1) and "the expansion and implementation of a scientific idea beyond the boundaries of the field of its initial appearance and formation raises important epistemological and methodological issues. This question preoccupied Vygotsky in his work ‘The historical meaning of the crisis in psychology’" (p.2). Dafermos charges that Vygotsky has been transformed into a cure-all, and "The whole complexity of Vygotsky’s theory has been lost" (p.3). Vygotsky's implicit assumptions are unrevealed. Just as Vygotsky criticized methodological eclecticism, Dafermos critiques postmodernist approaches "connected with the celebration of fragmentation and incoherence" and attempts " to reconstruct Vygotsky’s research program not as a given, static set of ready-made concepts and ideas, but as a developing process" (p.3).

Dafermos argues:

By reformulating the previous insights, the investigation of the development of a theory (in this particular case, cultural-historical theory) includes the study of the following interconnected aspects:

(1) the sociohistorical context within which a theory is formed,

(2) the scientific context, trends in the field of philosophy and science,

(3) the specific characteristics of the subject matter of the investigation,

(4) the particular subjects involved in the production and application of scientific knowledge, the development of their research program,

(5) a study of the personal network of these subjects and their relations to the scientific community (p.5)

He adds that cultural-historical theory is best understood dialectically: "From a dialectical perspective, cultural-historical theory is examined as a developing, unfinished project that emerged and formed historically in the process of solving concrete conceptual and practical tasks" (p.6). Here, he quotes Ilyenkov to claim that "From a dialectical perspective, the internal contradictions of a concrete object constitute the basic source of its own development. Moreover, the emergence and resolution of contradictions can be considered as a course of development of scientific knowledge" (p.6). Thus "A dialectical approach brings to light the logic of the development of Vygotsky’s theory in terms of a drama of ideas and discloses zigzags, returns and loops in the process of its building, rather than a linear accumulation of new knowledge" (p.7). 

Unfortunately, he says, "One of the difficulties in grasping the essence of cultural-historical theory is connected with the devaluation of the dialectic underpinnings of cultural-historical theory" (p.6). That is the problem his book addresses: "The gist of the argument of the book is that Vygotsky’s theory should be examined not as a static and closed system of ideas, but as a developmental process" (p.7) -- thus we examine Vygotsky's mistakes as he works through them to improve the theory (which -- and this is my own commentary -- is still a story of ascent).

With that introduction in mind, Dafermos reviews the context of psychology and philosophy leading up to Vygotsky’s work, specifically the crisis of psychology that Vygotsky addressed in his “Crisis” manuscript (p.47). 

Acknowledging that "there is a need to develop a holistic account of Vygotsky’s research program in the process of its own development. In other words, Vygotsky’s research program can be analyzed as a developmental process" (p.56), Dafermos overviews different authors' perceived periods of Vygotsky's work (pp.60-63). He affirms that 

The idea of the cultural origin and development of higher mental functions constitutes the “hard core” of cultural-historical theory. But this leading idea develops further in different stages of the development of cultural-historical theory. (p.63)

He overviews Vygotsky’s roots in Hegel, praising Jan Derry’s book on the subject (p.67), and notes that "Self-creation of Man was considered by Hegel both as a process and a result [of] his own work” (p.75). Mediation also makes an appearance:

Hegel developed the concept of mediation as opposite to immediacy. It refers to conceptualization through the union of two terms by a third. “it is only through the mediation of an alteration that the true nature of the object comes into consciousness” (Hegel 1991, p. 54). Vygotsky recognized his debt to Hegel in developing his concept of mediating activity. (p.75)


The Vygotskian concept of mediating activity cannot be adequately understood without bringing to light its clear connection with the Hegelian concept of mediation and Marx’s concept of labor. (p.75)

He adds, "Taking into account the Hegelian concept of mediation and Marx’s concept of labor, Vygotsky attempted to investigate how Man becomes master of himself by using sign-mediating activity" (p.76). 

Skipping a bit: Dafermos emphasizes that Vygotsky’s “Crisis” manuscript opposed eclecticism (p.119). Vygotsky was working toward a unified theory of psychology. In his “concrete” period, Vygotsky transitioned from signals to signs (signification) (p.129). He distinguished between material (labor) tools, which are oriented to labor, and psychological tools, which are oriented toward controlling one’s own “mental processes” (p.130). In examining psychological tools, 

Vygotsky’s studies of mediating activity opened the path for the investigation of the problem of consciousness. At this point, a theoretical inconsistency in Vygotsky’s theoretical interpretation can be found. Vygotsky discovered the cultural origin of higher mental functions, rather than the overall human psyche. The realm of lower mental functions continued to be considered at the level of naturalistic immediacy. The study of the more developed and mature forms of psychological processes enabled to bring to light their social essence. The less developed sides of the subject matter (the lower mental functions) continued to be assessed in light of the previous naturalistic approaches. (p.152)

Sign mediation was significant for Vygotsky and the cultural-historical program in general, and “Vygotsky’s research focus gradually shifted from the study of the sign mediation to the investigation of sign meaning" (p.163).

Dafermos gets to development, which Vygotsky understood via dialectics: "Development is a contradictory process of continuous and discontinuous, directed and spontaneous, quantitative and qualitative transformations of personality as a bio-social entity and a member of society as a whole" (p.177). Vygotsky identified four laws of child development:

1) "development is a process that takes place in time and flows cyclically" (177)

2) "child development is not uniform and proportional" (177)

3) "there are not only progressive, forward-reaching processes, but also regressive processes of development" (177)

4) "the law of ‘metamorphosis’ in child development. The development is not reduced to simple quantitative changes, but it includes a chain of qualitative changes and transformations. Vygotsky designated the qualitative changes that emerge at each age as ‘novoobrazovanija’ (‘neoformations’)" (178-179)

In the last stage, Dafermos adds, "Vygotsky developed his theory of consciousness in the context of a critical dialogue with the representatives of Gestalt psychology and especially with Kurt Levin" (p.196). And  "In the context of a critical dialogue with Kurt Levin and other representatives of Gestalt psychology, Vygotsky was driven to the conclusion that it is necessary to develop a dialectical, holistic, historical approach to consciousness" (p.197).

That approach involved understanding meaning: "Meaning was treated by Vygotsky as the unit for the investigation both of thinking and speech. Moreover, for Vygotsky meaning constitutes the unit of the analysis of human consciousness" (p.198). Dafermos adds: "For Vygotsky, generalization and communication constitute two interconnected aspects of human consciousness reflected in meaning. Meaning in its interconnection with sense as the unity of generalization and communication serves as the unit of analysis of consciousness" (p.198). This brings us to Vygotsky’s focus on word meaning:

For Vygotsky, consciousness as a whole is reflected in the microcosm of a word. The analysis of the microcosm of a word was developed as the key strategy for the investigation of the macrocosm of consciousness. The top-down strategy of the investigation of consciousness that was developed by Vygotsky (1987a) during the last period of his life was focused on word meaning as a unit of analysis. The bottom-to-top strategy of the investigation of consciousness that was proposed by Leontiev (1983), Galperin (2003a) and others emphasizes object-oriented activity. These two different perspectives were contrasted in the examination of the puzzle of consciousness. (p.199)

In this context, Dafermos addresses the split between Vygotsky and the Kharkovites, who would go on to develop activity theory: "From my perspective, the relations between cultural-historical theory and activity theory were more complex and contradictory than it is usually presented in literature. Activity theory is not a simple continuation of cultural-historical theory, and simultaneously, it is not reduced to its total rejection" (p.202). But "Vygotsky’s approach to consciousness was unacceptable in the social context of the 1930s" (p.202).

A little later on, Dafermos lauds "Vygotsky's commitment to social justice" (p.224). I’ll just note that the road to Stalinism was paved with good intentions, including Vygotsky’s good intentions of elevating the Uzbeks with what was in retrospect ethnocentric research, and that although Vygotsky did take a position studying defectology (essentially what we would call special needs education) as Dafermos notes, his consistent focus was on the other end of the spectrum: creating a New Soviet Man modeled on the Nietzchean Superman.

In any case, Dafermos provides a list of types of dialectics:

  • spontaneous (naive) (p.244)

  • Sophistic (eristic) (244)

  • Platonic (244-5)

  • Aristotelian (245)

  • Stoic (245)

  • (then an account of how dialectics fell out of favor in early modern period) (246)

  • Kant (246)

  • Fichte (247)

  • Hegel (247)

  • Marx (247-248)

And he then discusses critiques of dialectics, characterized as misapprehensions (248). Incredibly, he does not mention Engels, whose Dialectics of Nature provided a hugely influential simplification of dialectics, or Stalin, whose compact explanation of dialectics in the Short Course (modeled on Engels) became required dogma in the USSR. 

Vygotsky, Dafermos says, used two conceptualizations of dialectics (p.251) 

  • A general outlook on nature, society, thinking (cf. Engels here)

  • A method for studying a concrete object in process of development

"Obviously,” he adds, “Vygotsky did not realize the difference between Engels’ concept of dialectic as a general world outlook and K. Marx’s concept of dialectic as the peculiar logic of the peculiar object" (p.252). Dafermos then goes on to discuss (in detail) Ilyenkov and his contemporaries' thoughts about dialectic.

Dafermos concludes by defending dialectics against postmodernism, charging that "The post-modern repudiation of all grand narratives of modernity including dialectics leads to the rejection of the project of human emancipation" (p. 297). I am not sure most postmodernists would agree.

Overall, I found this book to be highly interesting. Dafermos has clearly thought a lot about dialectics’ role in Vygotsky’s system, has provided a good overview of the development of dialectic (for which I am grateful), and has identified differences between cultural-historical theory and activity theory while still making room for reconciliation between the two. On the other hand, the book sometimes (unintentionally) reveals the limits of dialectics as a method of understanding human development. It’s a very useful book. If you’re interested in these issues as I am, definitely pick it up.