French Hegelianism and Human Time

a lecture

According to Jean Hyppolite, “Hegel wanted to analyze the very foundations of historical action. He inquired into the general conditions of human existence that constitute the possibility of the human act as such.”

This statement is, of course, contestable. It downplays Hegel the panlogistic thinker who endeavored to divine the essential logical structure of all Being, who fashioned a sweeping theodicy reminiscent of nothing so much as the mystic doctrines of Kabbalah and Hermeticism, in which the thought of god, the infinite, must become finite and tear itself to pieces and unfold itself in time and space in order to become what it always was: infinite. It does not speak to the Hegel of systematization and closure, the determinist who can slot all things into their place as necessary moments of a whole which dominates them ‘behind their back,’ the Hegel that Adorno thought had intuited and described affirmatively what Marx had studied and described critically — capital as a self-moving social totality. It is rather an almost existentialist Hegel, and very much a French Hegel, circa 1955.

Can we talk about Hyppolite’s reading of Hegel, or the divergent readings I just mentioned, ‘getting Hegel wrong?’ Maybe if our goal is one of narrow exegesis which attempts to climb inside Hegel’s brain and time and place and explicate only what Hegel himself really said and thought. But that’s rarely been the goal of Hegel commentators or thinkers who have taken inspiration from Hegel. That’s because taking Hegel’s project seriously, in spite of his own claims to have concluded philosophy in his magisterial system, invites continuing it and correcting it. That’s because Hegel’s project was to comprehend in thought the world as it is. This may sound simple, and you may rightly ask, couldn’t almost any philosophy lay claim to such a project? Well, not quite like this. We must remember the state of philosophy when Hegel came on the scene. Kant was the unsurpassed titan, but his philosophy ended with a categorical schematization of knowledge while conceding that the thing itself always remained beyond our grasp. Hegel’s friend Schelling was promoting a romantic philosophy of nature that saw all things as an undivided substance that we could only access through intuition, while Fichte promoted a philosophy of the creative ego that brought action into Kant’s deductions but left the world itself untouched, collapsing all objectivity into the omnipotent self-positing subject. Hegel changed all this. Like the snake in the garden, he brought the apple of history into the eden of philosophy. Thus thought fell, and became mortal. Hegel refused to think of logic as something outside of the object, as an instrument through which to apprehend what is, but rather insisted that what is has its own logic, a moving, developing logic, and the philosopher’s task is to think it. Dialectic is not a method that can be applied to this or that object, a form that can be stuck on to this or that content — it is the movement of the object itself. Those who came after Hegel, Marx above all, could justly turn Hegel against Hegel, claim that he had not adequately grasped the real movement of the world, push what Hegel had started beyond itself, and insist that philosophy must be further profaned, even to the point at which it disappears as such and ceases to be separate from the development of the world which it thinks, but rather throws itself into the midst of this development.

Understandably, many have viewed Hegel’s most exciting contribution as having thrown thought down into the movement of history, into the midst of society, and have therefore emphasized and drawn out this aspect of his work. This is above all true in France. In Germany, Hegel had become in his own lifetime the quasi-official philosopher of the Prussian state; he had shaped the thought of an entire generation, spawning right and left wing Hegelianism, the former seeing his thought as justifying the rationality of everything existing, the latter as submitting it to the radical critique of the negative movement of history itself. The latter spawned the Marxian tradition, the former was absorbed into the institutional edifice of German academic life along with Kant, Goethe, and the rest, as a kind of national treasure. But as I’ve previously noted, Hegel came late to France, in the 1930s, ’40s, and ‘50s, and when he came, he came as something of a subversive, a weapon against the de-historicized rationalism that had reigned in France since the days of Enlightened despotism.

For his French commentators, Wahl, Koyré, Kojève, Hyppolite, and others, Hegel became the first modern sociologist, and the first existentialist. They read Hegel along with Feuerbach and the young Marx, and brought out a Hegel more in tune with his materialist successors. They were aided in these sorts of readings by the publication in the first decades of the 20th century of the early works of the young humanistic-vitalist Hegel, the one who “inquired into the general conditions of human existence” and “the possibility of the human act.” They acquired from Marx the habit of approaching Hegel with the aim of extracting some kind of kernel from his notoriously difficult idealist system. This was in a sense an effort of translation, or decoding, in which what was seen as the implicit social content of the mature Hegel’s imposing terms — Concept, Absolute, Idea, Spirit — was explicitly drawn out. The young Hegel was seen, in Hyppolite’s words, as having attempted to “describe the human situation,” and it was this thread that the French Hegelians followed in their readings of his mature work as well.

Indeed, in Hegel’s “Early Writings,” he places not the Idea at the center of his thought, but Life. Couldn’t we then ‘back-translate,’ as it were, the Idea as Life? And could we understand the Absolute as something like reality, existence, the ground of life? And couldn’t we render the somewhat obscure ‘Concept’ (which famously moves of itself) as the more familiar ‘meaning’ (as Hyppolite often translates the former term), i.e., that which the conscious acting human alone confers on reality, therefore the self-movement of the Concept as the self-propulsive movement of human desire or ‘purposive activity?’ And Hegel was always more or less clear that Spirit refered to something akin to ‘society,’ to the web of interrelations that make up the collective life of a social totality, a city, a nation, or the whole world, the whole of humanity, which develops historically. (Indeed his first Philosophy of Spirit, which he delivered at Jena in 1803-04, resembles what we would now call sociology.) What else, then, could dialectic be than a kind of principle of life, the restlessness of the negative that drives human history?

The question of whether or not all this is faithful to Hegel is secondary; the point is that it can offer a coherent social philosophy, or, better, a negative philosophical anthropology. What is notable about such an anthropology is that it is not at all static, and has no esteem for origins. It has no interest in an invariant human nature (“in which,” Hyppolite says, Hegel “seems to have no belief, and whose conception he criticizes in his early works”), it doesn’t claim that man is anything, it only claims that man comes to be through the process of overturning what is. Self-movement, self-development, becoming, overturning implies temporality. Thus time must then lay at the center of this kind of thought.

Alexandre Koyré is the first French commentator to point this out, though he also points out that there is scarcely any explicit discussion of time in Hegel’s mature system, the Encycolpaedia of Philosophical Sciences. He turns instead to the lectures that Hegel gave at Jena — first to a discussion of time in the Jena Logic of 1804-05, and then to the discussion of time in the Jena Realphilosophie of 1805-06, by way of the single fragment on time that appears in the incomplete manuscripts that survive of the first Philosophy of Spirit, a marginal note that reads “Geist ist Zeit,” “spirit is time.” It’s worth quoting Koyré at length, because the whole of French Hegelianism, Kojève included, and Debord most of all, is inconceivable without this article of his. Here he is having just translated a prodigiously difficult and bizarre passage from the Jena logic:

I have tried to translate Hegel’s text as faithfully as possible, nonetheless without wishful thinking as to the value of this “translation.” I apologize to the reader who might very well find it incomprehensible: and indeed, it is so. But to tell the truth, Hegel’s text itself, which I have cited in extenso and to which I will be able to refer, is more or less as incomprehensible as our translation. It is so at least as far as one does not realize its true character. For it seems that what Hegel strives to give us here, or more exactly, strives to give himself, is by no means an analysis of the “notion” of time. Quite the contrary: it is the “notion” of time, abstract and empty notion that Hegel undertakes to destroy by showing us, by describing to us, how time constitutes itself in the living reality of the spirit. Deduction of time? Construction? These terms, both of them, are inappropriate. For it is not about “deducing,” even dialectically, or about “constructing;” it is about clearing and discovering—rather than hypothetically placing—in and for consciousness itself, for the moments, steps, spiritual acts in which and through which the concept of time constitutes itself, in and for the spirit. So the terms of Hegelian description—I allow myself to point to the conclusion of a previous study—are the complete opposite of abstract terms. They are, on the contrary, concrete to the highest degree. One needs to take them, in some way à la lettre, in their most direct meaning, the crudest. However, it is not things, objects, states that they designate. Chaotic and struck sentences, Hegel’s often incorrect expressions (sich werden, for example, etc.) describe a movement, espouse articulations and a rhythm, designate the acts, and even the actions, of spirit. When Hegel tells us about opposition and contradiction, he does not think about a relation between two terms. He thinks, or rather he sees in himself, an act that “places” something and another that “opposes” something else to it, or that “opposes itself” to the former’s action, an act that “says” something, something that is “contra-dicted” (“contre-dit”). And this is why “contra-diction” is an internal tension and tearing (“déchirement”), a struggle in which the spirit “puts itself,” “negates itself,”—denies itself (“se renie”: re-negates itself)—“sublates itself,” “exceeds itself,” and “annihilates itself.” As for the “different” terms, they are not terms which are different, statically, passively; they are terms which “differ,” that is, which repel each other and drift apart from each other; moreover, “different” acts are acts that make “differ,” that render “different,” and similarly “others” the terms on which they bear, acts that differentiate and that distinguish, and they are those that one finds at the heart of any “difference.” One could say that, as opposed to the age old tradition of philosophy, Hegel does not think in nouns but in verbs.

The fragment which I have just cited then describes, or at least attempts to describe, the construction, or more exactly, the self-constitution of time or, shall I say—while always meaning the same thing—the constitution or self-constitution of the concept of time. Let me say it once more, it is by no means an analysis of the notion of time, abstract notion of abstract time, of time as it presents itself in physics, Newtonian time, Kantian time, time in the straight line of formulas and watches. It is about something else. It is about time “itself,” the spiritual reality of time. This very time does not flow in a uniform way; it is not either a homogenous medium through which one would draw himself; it is neither a number of movement, nor an order of phenomena. It is enrichment, life, victory. It is—let me say it right away—itself spirit and concept.

It is not “from the past” that time comes to us, but from the yet-to-come (“avenir”, the future). Duration does not extend from the past to the present. Time forms itself by extending itself, or better by exteriorizing itself from the “now,” or better yet by prolonging itself, by lasting. It is instead from the yet-to-come that it [time] comes to itself in the “now.” The prevalent “dimension” of time is the yet-to-come (future), which is, in some way, anterior to the past.

It is this insistence on the yet-to-come, the primacy given to the yet-to-come over the past, which constitutes, I would say, Hegel’s greatest originality. And this makes us understand why, in the additions to the Encyclopedia, Hegel speaks about waiting, about hope, and about regret too. It is that Hegelian time is first and foremost a human time, the time of man, himself this strange being who “is what he is not and is not what he is,” a being who denies himself in that he is in favor of what he is not, or that he is not yet, a being who, starting from the present, denies it, seeking to realize himself in the yet-to-come, who leaves for the yet-to-come finding in it, or at least seeking in it, its “truth”; a being who only exists in this continuous transformation of the yet-to-come in the now, and who ceases to be [as such] the day he no longer has a yet-to-come (or a future), when nothing is any longer to come (“à venir”), when everything is already avenu (already void; “has already come”), when everything is already “accomplished.” And it is because Hegelian time is human that it is also dialectical, in the same way as it is because it is both human and dialectical that it is essentially a historical time.

This Hegelian time is, as one sees, neither a “mobile image of an immobile eternity,” nor a homogenous milieu, nor the number of movement. To this time, which denying itself, soars to the yet-to-come before falling back into the past; to this all-destroying Chronos, essentially opposed to persistence and preservation, because [it is] essentially [the] principle of creation, of the new, of time, which alone is eternal because it is spirit, and which alone is real because it is essentially present. A dialectical present, tense, dramatic. A present victorious over the past, encompassing it and rendering it present: this time, once more, is not the time of formulas and watches. This time, it is historical time, essentially human time. For, Hegel says, it is we who project ourselves in the yet-to-come, by negating our present and by making it a past. And it is we who, in our memory, take back and revivify this dead and accomplished past. It is in we, it is in our life that the present of spirit realizes itself. The dialectic of time is the dialectic of man. It is because man is essentially dialectical, which means essentially negating, that the dialectic of history, nay, that history itself, is possible. It is because man says no to his now—or to himself—that he has a yet-to-come. It is because he negates that he has a past. It is because he is time—and not only temporal —that he also has a present, a present victorious of the past.

These passages will, I assume, remind many of us of thinkers in the orbit of the Frankfurt School — their emphasis on the qualitative richness of the now as opposed to the time of measure reminds us of Walter Benjamin, and the insistence that time’s propulsive directionality comes from its orientation toward the not-yet, and that it is somehow the future that produces the present, reminds us of Ernst Bloch. These passages also substantiate the quote from Hyppolite with which I began. A time such as Koyré describes here is indeed the “very foundation of historical action.” Such a time “constitutes the possibility of the human act as such.” Koyré speaks of spirit as time here, but we know that spirit is nothing other than the collective life of humanity — Kojève will underline this in his blunt, punchy, staccato way, by insisting straight out that Man is Time:

‘Spirit’ in Hegel (and especially in this context) means ‘human Spirit’ or Man, more particularly, collective Man … Man as a whole or humanity in the totality of its spatial-temporal existence, that is, the totality of universal History.

Therefore, Time (that is, historical Time, with the rhythm: Future > Past > Present) is Man in his empirical integral reality: Time is the History of Man in the World. … The presence of Time (in which the Future takes primacy) in the real World is called Desire (which is directed toward another Desire), and that this Desire is a specifically human Desire, since the Action that realizes it is Man's very being. The real presence of Time in the World, therefore, is called Man.

I would argue that Debord took on board this French Hegelian account of the identity of humanity and historical time. We could almost say that he saw in (this) Hegel a hypothesis about what humanity and historical time could be, what would have to be the case for “the human act” to be possible. I believe Debord then considered contemporary society, and came to the conclusion that history, humanity, and life were absent from it, or, better, that there was a temporal dynamic generated by this society, but not one that we can live, not one in which our desiring future-oriented present wins a victory over the past, but rather one in which, as he said, “dead labor continues to dominate living labor” and thus “the past continues to dominate the present.” We would do well, then, to turn our attention to the language Koyré uses to describe how the living now falls into the accomplished past:

“However, to stop this unceasing movement of the temporal dialectic, sublating tension, the instant’s unrest: time then ‘accomplishes’ itself, completes itself (‘s’achève’) and, as time is completed (‘achevé’), naturally falls wholly into the past. Indeed, the past alone is completed, and only that on which the yet-to-come no longer has a grip is truly and effectively of the past. Accomplished time (‘le temps accompli’) expands, stops: instead of movement and tension we have ‘paralysis’ and relaxation. ‘Time’ relaxes, spreads out: instead of a living ‘difference’ in interiority, we have to deal with spread out indifference of an order of succession. We are in front of the ‘real’ time: the time of things, exteriority, time become itself a thing, a res. But this paralyzed and spread out time is no longer time; the straight line that symbolized it does more than symbolizing it; it expresses its nature. This time is indeed space.”

I don’t know if Koyré had read Lukács, but his words here evoke nothing so much as what the latter calls “reification.” Koyré’s article is limited in scope — it is about the development of the concept of time in several of Hegel’s early lectures at Jena. But in contrasting the human, historical time that Hegel tries to evoke, especially in the chaotic rhythmn of the Jena logic, with what he calls the “abstract notion of abstract time, of time as it presents itself in physics, Newtonian time, Kantian time, time in the straight line of formulas and watches,” Koyré gestures toward not just differing ‘ideas about time,’ but different times.

On the one hand, we have an historical, human time, a now-time, produced by future-oriented desire. Let’s stop for a moment and think about what this implies — it implies a certain freedom in how we use our time, if our present is to be produced by our orientation toward a future we desire. It implies a degree of self-determinacy, of action that we undertake because we want to, because we want — something. What? Kojève would say another desire. So it implies a degree of human social life, of intersubjective recognition, or the struggle for it. All of this implies that the conditons for this time, this human, historical time, could be absent, or suppressed, or not always have existed. This is precisely what Debord will argue.

Now on the other hand, we have abstract time, Newtonian time, the time of formulas and watches, time spread out over its straight line, that is, a spatialized, reified time. This time is precisely measured and carved up — and mustn’t all time conceived like this essentially already be past, even if it hasn’t technically ‘passed’ yet? It’s time in which the past dominates the present — time made to be past before it’s ever now, time dead on arrival, dead before it ever got the chance to live, that is, before we ever got the chance to live it, or better, be it. Time must, of course, be conceived like this, like a quantity of space that can be portioned out in chunks, if it is to be bought and sold — this is the time that wage labor makes necessary, abstract labor-time, the substance of value. This time is not driven on by its desire — our desire — but totally ruled by its destiny, which is to be congealed as dead labor.

In comparing these different times, we can begin to get the sense of how one can agree with Hegel, or his French interpreters, about what constitutes history and humanity, life itself, and also hold that history, humanity, and life itself are frozen, latent, absent in this society. This is what Debord does. Debord does more than that though — he endeavors to show how both the potential of a human historical time, and an abstract reified time have themselves emerged in the historical process — or what Marx tellingly called “the pre-history of humanity” in his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. We will return to this later. But what is most important for the moment is to see how French Hegelianism furnished Debord with a notion of human life, as opposed to spectacular non-life, which does not rest on some kind of static, authentic origin from which we must have fallen, but rather on the self-determinate use of our own time, its experience as future-oriented now-time, the time that is us. If man is time but the time of this society is abstract time, past-before-it’s-now, carved up and bought and sold, then what is man? To quote Jacques Camatte, “the human being is dead and just a ritual of capital.”

A New Institute for Social Research