Peter Kalkavage’s “Logic of Desire” is a full-scale narrative, a readable yet faithful retelling of “Phenomenology of Spirit” by Hegel. It is in a class of its own for its engaging, distinctly American-flavored accessibility.

Peter Kalkavage, The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of SpiritPaul Dry books

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is an enthralling “picture gallery” (447)* of the successive incarnations in which human consciousness appears in the world; it is also a repellant trudge through the abstract dialectic by which its concept develops. I would claim that until you’ve undergone the complementary experiences of delighting in the imaginative recognition of the various “pictures” and of suffering the pains of thinking through the logic, you haven’t quite lived—if living means having plumbed the possibilities of passionately driven thought in search of self-awareness.

Like all great classics of philosophy, the Phenomenology is written for all of us, the amateurs of thinking no less than the professional philosophers (451), provided we have this single qualification—that we are Hegel’s contemporaries in the sense of living with him at the end of time, when consciousness has come to full self-realization as spirit. More mundanely put, the Phenomenology presupposes only “some familiarity with the history of philosophy” (xii), and that can be supplied by any of the good commentaries available.

Nonetheless, the book is a nest of labyrinths at whose every turn we readers meet, in Peter Kalkavage’s words, a monstrous Minotaur, a “Demon of Difficulty” (xi). To overcome each new Minotaur we need help of a more global sort than even the best of paragraph-by-paragraph commentaries can provide. This is exactly what Mr. Kalkavage gives us in The Logic of Desire. It is a full-scale narrative, a readable yet faithful retelling of Hegel’s story. It has several serious predecessors (which are given full credit in a brief analytic biography), but is in a class of its own for its engaging, distinctly American-flavored accessibility, its down-among-the-readers and do-it-yourself egalitarianism. Indeed, an early reader of the book wrote to me to praise it as “a popularization of the right kind, explicating the thinking of Hegel in its own terms, while constantly watching the mind of the potential reader to see whether that mind is taking it in.” The Logic of Desire intends to lead us “into the thick of Hegel’s arguments” (xii), not from a commentator’s outside view but from the position of a reader venturing into the labyrinth. That is, of course, what an “introduction” should do—bring us into a text. The Logic of Desire is, so to speak, a friendly doppelgänger of the Phenomenology that steadily accompanies it (being as long as the text) without ever eclipsing it.

Mr. Kalkavage presents Hegel’s book as one of a quartet of great books on education, together with Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Rousseau’s Émile. All four of these works present the drama of the soul’s development and liberation, as Hegel puts it, from consciousness’s “immediacy” (its unreflectively natural familiarity with its world) to its “mediated” (that is, conceptualized) appropriation of that world as fully self-conscious spirit. The Phenomenology is the story of the epochs in the education of spirit, the life changes self-generated by its “passionate self-assertion,” its spirited longing, its desire, to come into its own. This eventful journey of consciousness’s becoming spirit is a tragic drama, because the spirit-to-be “cannot become wise without making a fool of itself. An extremist at heart, spirit, our human essence, is fated…to learn through suffering”(2). The journey that consciousness drives itself through is a logical one—hence the title The Logic of Desire.

This logic is new upon the scene of rationality. Hegelian dialectic is a living, developmental logic. It is not the work of individual human understanding passing judgment on this or that by reference to a fixed set of categories, but rather the work of Thought itself—“the Concept” in Hegel’s language. This energetic Concept drives itself in a violent, dialectical (that is, self-antithetical) motion from continuously new “self-positings” through inevitable “self-otherings” to ever current and ever collapsing self-reconciliations, until an ultimate consummation of mutual absorption by self and other is reached. In the hackneyed and unhelpful language of some Hegel-explications, this rising and plunging onward motion of the spirit is referred to as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, but Mr. Kalkavage does not use this terminology in his inside chronicle of spirit’s way. He finds fresh language for every “moment,” every station of consciouness’s via dolorosa.

In the self-motion of dialectical logic, two elements are compounded: desirous striving and spirited assertion. Here one of the accepted translations of the German Geist as “Spirit” (the other is “Mind”) proves serendipitous, for it alludes to “spiritedness,” that proud self-assertion and other-negation which the Greeks called thymos. The desire that drives the dialectic is thus shown to be a powerfully negative and destructive force, and it reincarnates itself in a succession of figures—that portrait gallery of impassioned concepts by which spirit drives itself to cancel, keep and raise (the three main meanings of the well known Hegelian verb aufheben) all significant oppositions. The paradigm of all these oppositions is that of subject and object, self and other.

The Logic of Desire presents an exemplary attitude for a reader to adopt toward a book. To use a fancy term, it embodies a “hermeneutic,” a principle of interpretation. The most respectful such hermeneutic rule I know is the so-called “principle of charity:” give the text a chance to make maximum sense. Mr. Kalkavage outdoes this principle by embracing a “principle of appreciation:” savor and learn from the text to the utmost of your ability. The principle of appreciation is to the principle of charity as awed generosity is to squint-eyed tolerance—a way of treating a book with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

Thus it is not until the last pages, in the epilogue, that we learn that Mr. Kalkavage could not possibly be a whole-hearted Hegelian, that the book that has captivated him has not captured him. The main sticking-point is that very condition mentioned above, that coloring of spirit’s eros, of its desire to know itself, by thymos—spirit’s aggression toward its other. “Desire here is not other-affirming but self-affirming and other-negating” (454). Thus, if Hegel succeeds, he will—and this is in fact his aim—have killed philosophy, the love of wisdom, not only by the combative self-positing of consciousness (which is discordant with the open inquisitiveness of philosophy), but also by the claim that the curriculum of self-development can be completed; for, once Absolute Science, the knowledge that has absorbed all its conditions, has been attained, philosophy is superseded. Mr. Kalkavage’s approach is therefore a welcome counterweight to a mode that is all too prevalent in contemporary philosophy: to allot living space only to those problems and solutions currently within the consensual range of the philosophical profession. The Logic of Desire teaches the lesson of non-credulous admiration.

Does it follow from this way of reading that Mr. Kalkavage’s Hegel must be either left-leaning or right-leaning? Hegel students on the left—notably Marx—interpreted his work as atheistic because God becomes man and is his congregation, while on the right this entry of God into his people was thought to preserve some transcendence. Mr. Kalkavage says that “what Hegel no doubt intended is that each is absorbed into the other. God must be humanized in order to be self-conscious, and man divinized in order to enjoy absolute self-knowledge” (509, n. 2). This view, certainly supported by the text itself, compounds right and left Hegelianism. The Phenomenology is neither a theology nor an anthropology but a theoanthropology.

There remains, however, the question of Hegel’s politics. In some final advice to the now-engaged reader about which book to tackle next, Mr. Kalkavage recommends Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right as “the most deeply philosophic political work of modernity, which contains his most powerful critique of modern liberalism”(452). But since the liberalism Hegel was critiquing has much in common with contemporary conservatism, here too, the right-left question has no bold solution. Hegel’s conservatism is too sui generis to fall neatly under any predetermined rubric. And yet, perhaps we can find a pidgeon-hole for him. There is among Hegel’s epochal portraits a figure called “the beautiful soul.” It is described by Mr. Kalkavage as being afflicted with “spiritual narcissism,” as being “miserable in principle” (345, 348); it is too pure to be practical, and is, on top of that, a harshly unforgiving judge of those who are doers. Mr. Kalkavage points out that Hegel himself is, in turn, a particularly harsh judge of this beautiful soul (507, n. 28; 509, n. 48). In this portrait, Hegel paints a wickedly true-to-type likeness of a liberal intellectual—thereby revealing himself to be the “right” Hegel after all.

I might add here that Mr. Kalkavage recommends, as another next reading after the Phenomenology, The Science of Logic. It postdates the Phenomenology by five years, and yet it is an ever-fascinating question whether the former comes “before” or “after” the latter. For the Logic (or its shorter, more accessible version, often called the “Lesser Logic”) is in fact God’s pre-temporal life-plan for the spirit in the world—that is, its purely logical unfolding told through the abstractly dialectical moments of the Concept. When this ideal plan, this Concept, enters time, it takes on appearances. Hence “phenomenology” is the account of the phenomena, the appearances of the Concept in a dialectal sequence of forms. In Mr. Kalkavage’s more accurate and eloquent rendering: “[P]henomenology, as the prelude to science, is spirit’s rational communion with itself in its manifold appearances in history” (108). Then the question for us readers might well be: Does Hegel know the Concept through its appearances or the converse? Does experience of the appearances precede the logic that makes it rational, or is the dialectic plan prior to any comprehension of the shapes that invest it (516, n.10)? Mr. Kalkavage opts, I think, for the first case, and that decision puts the Phenomenology first in Hegel’s system and first for us readers.

Mr. Kalkavage has, as I said, done an end-run around the left-right controversy. And yet, as he leads us to listen to Hegel’s language, to savor his symbolism, to follow his figures, we come to see Hegel as an uncircumventably religion-bound writer. If the structure of the Phenomenology is dialectical, its pathos is religious. The above-mentioned “beautiful soul” is one of a myriad of examples. When, as its dialectic demands, this judgmental, holier-than-thou bystander is finally reconciled with the doer (the Phenomenology is a roman à clef that names no names, to which Mr. Kalkavage often supplies the key; in this case, the man of action is Napoleon) they come together in mutual forgiveness “Spirituality no longer consists in life-denying judgmental inwardness, and the world is no longer God-forsaken and vain”(357). Mr. Kalkavage’s rendering captures the spiritual aspect of the event.

But more—he catches and conveys at once the pervasive Christianity and the self-willed heresies of Hegel’s book. For example, the religious drama of the Phenomenology culminates not in the Resurrection of Easter Sunday, but in the Passion of Good Friday. It is this “speculative Good Friday” that images the conceptual ultimate reconciliation of man with God, the revelation that God needs man in order to be fully God. The Passion of Jesus (who is never named) already contains, has conceptually collected and recollected within itself, the resurrection of the spirit, which is not a separate ascent but just “man in history” (449-50). For it is in history that man and God are united, and this union culminates in the infinite sadness of God’s death which is also the first moment when spirit knows itself as spirit. Philosophy must “go down” in order genuinely to “go up” into the eternal Now of Absolute Science. (This moment of consummation is far more complex, of course, than my account of it.) Kalkavage accompanies his presentation of this bold tampering with the climactic events in the calendar of the church year by a remarkable list entitled “Hegel’s Heresies” (398). This list on the one hand leaves me convinced that Hegel was indeed the ultimate heretic; on the other, however, I remain mindful of the fact that “heresy” (Greek for “choice” [hairesis]) is, after all, a version of faith—though perhaps a willfully original one. Indeed, the Phenomenology exhales such awe before the events of God’s appearance on earth that it is palpable even to a non-Christian.

The Phenomenology is complex beyond summary but without loose ends, and labyrinthine but without cul-de-sacs. The complexities and abrupt corners, the startling turns and sudden familiarities, the space-inversions and time-loops that mark the Concept’s path are lovingly—and clearly—traced out in The Logic of Desire. Near the center of the book an “Interlude” is devoted to schematizing these movements and their achieved moments, without letting us forget that conceptual thinking is essentially unpicturable and that the Phenomenology speaks with a forked tongue. The phenomenal picture gallery is an aid to be continually subverted; its visualizable images are countermanded by its sightless logic. For images are “out there,” since they are objects, and thinking is within us, since we are subjects. To keep the reader on the conceptual track, Mr. Kalkavage continually recapitulates—as Hegel does, but often very abstrusely—the purely logical progress. But Mr. Kalkavage also asks the question of questions about this text: “What, possibly, is lost in the move from picture to Concept?” (518, n. 30.) He has, in fact, given an answer, intimated above. What is lost is the element of positive love animating philosophy when it welcomes some sort of vision.

This autobiography of the spirit is, then, the recollection of its continually morphing recognition of itself both in and as the world, of the moments of reconciliation between self and other, of the mutual “mediation,” the bridging of the gap, between subject and object. As in any autobiography, time is essential, and indeed the latter is spirit’s ultimate definition: time is spirit’s intuition of itself, meaning that its self-othering and self-finding, its projection of itself into an object and its consequent seeing itself in that object, is the motion, the dialectical flux of appearances, that we call time. But this time is not necessarily chronological. The time-loops mentioned above testify that spirit’s phenomenal progress is not a mathematical continuum, a succession of linear befores and afters. For example, Newton’s force of attraction, which holds together the world filled by bodies, appears chronologically much later than God’s power which unifies the creation inhabited by souls. Yet Hegel regards the latter as more conceptually complex, more replete with dialectical reconciliations, and so, as Mr. Kalkavage points out, it appears later in Hegel’s account (77). The grades of spirit’s self-education are not always consecutively numbered.

Consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, and spirit, are the beings whose experiences, whose successive times, are recollected in the Phenomenology. By whom? Who is the true teller of the tale? All the Peoples of the Book, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, are familiar with this enigma of authorship, which no amount of textual analysis can solve. For suppose that numerous hands are discerned—the question remains: Who guided the hands? Just two centuries ago, in 1807—Mr. Kalkavage’s book celebrates this bicentennial—Hegel, a professor of philosophy at Jena, published his book. And yet, scandalous as it may seem, it is not he but the spirit that guided his hand, the hand of one who knows “conceptually grasped history,” who recalls the Golgotha where spirit completed its suffering and became absolute—that is to say, fully itself and self-sufficient. “[T]he Phenomenology, strictly speaking, is the work of spirit rather than the work of Hegel” (267; 494, n. 12). The willingness to utter such words is testimony to a readiness to take this terrific book and its demands seriously; it is what gives The Logic of Desire its own intensity.

Who or what, then, constitutes this gallery of impersonal persons, from consciousness to spirit, that exhibits the unnamed but identifiable human shapes of history? Logically, as concepts in thought, they are the immature moments of the pure Concept; temporally, as individuals on earth, they represent Everyman (521, n. 71), the various human embodiments of the appearing Concept that we readers, participating in Hegel’s “inwardizing” (the literal translation of the German word for recollection, Erinnerung) can still find within ourselves. For the spirit’s autobiography is also ours, and we now recognize the struggles which, though opaque to our predecessors, have brought us to our common modern humanity, to the community that has grasped its history conceptually (449).

This consummation of Hegel is, I think, as dubious as it is high-toned, but on the way there are many moments of wonderful down-to-earth plausibility, and The Logic of Desire reports them with down-home humor. I don’t know where else Hegel would find himself so appreciatively joshed, in accordance with the Socratic wisdom that playfulness can levitate dead earnestness into live seriousness. (I should point out, though, that there is also weighty evidence that Hegel himself has a sense of humor.) An example of Mr. Kalkavage’s wise levity is a section called “Artful Dodgers” that recounts a moment in the life of consciousness—a moment in my history, recapitulable within me—when I no longer find myself in external works and objects but shift suddenly to being immersed in “the heart of the matter” (die Sache selbst). That shift, however, lands me, by a convoluted evolution, in a drama of deceit that leads to an inevitable downfall by self-negation. For this project, to dwell with the true matter, is my cause, and to my fellow workers it connotes a loss of the objectivity they were led to expect of me. Say—this is Kalkavage’s example—I was a molecular biologist trying to discover the gene for self-consciousness. Having become engaged with the matter itself as it matters to me, I become irritated by other researchers taking up my interest; my scientific “objectivity” shows its limits. Since I can’t reappropriate my matter, I take my cunningly noble revenge by interesting myself in theirs: I write a best-seller called Genes Are Us (222). Thus I take part in a “pathology of appropriation”; for in praising the work of other laboratories I praise my own. I am the Great-Souled Biologist.

Whoever has some small familiarity with modern institutional research will laugh out loud at these insights into the mutual invasion of different scientists’ “techno-space”(221). Yet who would have thought of this psychological episode as being a way-station to the reconciliation of subject and object? But so it is, for what consciousness learns at this moment is that “subjective me-ness and objective this-ness are both essential to the matter itself” (223).

Finally, for all the human intensity of The Logic of Desire, it is a narrative kept as free as possible of personal opinion. Such obiter dicta are relegated to the endnotes, which consequently abound in concise illuminations and suggestive queries. Here is Mr. Kalkavage on the beautiful soul: “Sensitive types are often merciless judges” (508, n. 39). And a few notes later, he asks a question incited by Hegel’s harsh condemnation of this same beautiful soul and other condemned types hanging in his picture gallery: How do such judgments fit into his scheme of mutual forgiveness and the ultimate reconciliation of oppositions? “[W]e wonder about the connection of reason and judgment in philosophy. Is the philosopher allowed to condemn, or does genuine rationality preclude all condemnation?” (509, n.48.)

This is a version of the unabashedly strange question—asked of us not as an academic exercise but as a living perplexity—whether Hegel the philosophy professor and Hegel the spirit’s secretary quite coincide. It is also an example of the engaging directness with which Peter Kalkavage leads us into one of the wonders of the West.

This essay was originally published here in July 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 52, No. 1, 2010) and is republished with the author’s permission.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

*Page numbers in parentheses refer to The Logic of Desire.

Editor’s note: The featured image is “Hegel Giving a Lecture” by Franz Kugler, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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