What might it mean to think outside or beyond the Hegelian system of philosophy? Already in Hegel's own time this was a question that came to occupy those who labored under the weight of his speculative and comprehensive system of thought. The easiest and most immediately appealing strategy was to seize upon some category that seemed to be relatively neglected within the system, something that seemed to have been too easily aufgehoben into the totality. Kierkegaard is sometimes represented as centering his challenges to the Hegelian system around the valorization of the unhappy consciousness; that is, the consciousness aware of the immensity of the gap between itself and the infinite for which it longs. There is a danger in choosing just one category from the entire Hegelian array, however, or in wanting to reverse the privileged status that the system accords to one of a pair of values (in Kierkegaard's case the reversal of the values given to the happy and unhappy consciousness). The danger is one that, as Derrida formulates it, is an ingredient in any practice that "put[s] the old names to work, or even just leave[s] them in circulation"; it is ''the risk of settling down or of regressing into the system that has been, or is in the process of being deconstructed. To deny this risk would be to confirm it.” So Kierkegaard, who rejects the system so vehemently, can be and has been read as elaborating a dialectics of existence that is simply the Hegelian system inverted or reversed. The reasons are not difficult to see. To the extent that the old terms bear their old meanings and affiliations with the other terms of the system, simply denying those meanings and affiliations is to invite a return of the repressed. Marx himself introduced the figure of inversion or reversal for the operations he intended to perform on Hegel, although he was much more respectful of the system than Kierkegaard, and most plausible reconstructions of Marxist thought still tend to be Hegelian. Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, aimed at a certain transformation of the Logic by radicalizing nothingness. Twenty years later, in The Critique of Dialectical Reason, he had come to embrace a much more explicitly Hegelian position, as abstract Being had been transformed into the practico-inert and the drama of human freedom was no longer played out in the Phenomenology's early chapter on ''Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness" but had advanced all the way to "Absolute Freedom and Terror." These subversions of the Hegelian system are not entirely unsuccessful; but they do raise the question of whether and to what extent a subversion more profound than inversion or reversal is possible. We might note that all of these subversions of the system could equally well be described as systems of subversion. In this respect we could point out that Hegel's philosophy is itself a system of subversion: one that sees the negative everywhere, that applies criticism universally (beyond the limits assigned to it in the Kantian critique), and that deploys a set of categories that will throw into high relief the actual and potential contradictions of whatever exists. More specifically, Hegel aims at a subversion of the systems of Fichte and Schelling. One sense of the equation of the actual and the rational is surely that the actual shares in the movements, contradictions, and tensions of reason and that its limits are accordingly subject to reasonable articulation and critique. To the extent that a subversion of the Hegelian system operates in the spirit of this (left) Hegelian system of subversion we detect a certain modification and diversification of the Hegelian enterprise as well as its reconfirmation.
Copyright © 1991 SUNY Press. This book chapter first appeared in Writing the Politics of Difference.
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Shapiro, Gary. "Subversion of System / Systems of Subversions." In Writing the Politics of Difference, by Hugh J. Silverman, 1-11. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.