This summer my headspace is dominated by a new book I am writing titled When Are We? I won’t bore you with the details (just yet!) except to say that it is a book that is trying to get Christians to take history seriously, to cultivate a renewed sense of time-consciousness as a counter to the many modes of systematic forgetting that traffic under the banner of (so-called) “Christianity” these days.
As you might guess, my sensibilities here are significantly shaped by Hegel–reading him (audaciously, perhaps) as a Christian philosopher. However, since this is a trade book intended for a wider, general audience, my Hegelian intuitions are mostly a skeletal: they shape the book but will remain largely invisible to most readers.
But the exercise has meant I’ve spent time re-reading Hegel and I was newly intrigued by a rather famous line in his (rather notorious) Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. It’s a phrase you’ve perhaps heard in very different contexts. At one point Hegel talks about the “night in which call cows are black.” It was re-encountering the context of this line that intrigued me.
We need to recall that at this point (1807) Hegel is distancing himself from Romanticism and figures like Schelling (and Schleiermacher) because he sees their enthusiasm for the Absolute as too abstract, detached from history. Hegel never lacked for confidence, but I love the audacity of what he claims to be doing: “To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowing–that is what I have set myself to do” (§5). This is a claim about what philosophy can do now, which is a sensibility at the very heart of Hegel’s project here: that time and history make a difference. That something can become possible in a “now” that wasn’t possible before we came through the contingencies of history. “To show that now is the time for philosophy to be raised to the status of a Science” is the animating conviction of the Phenomenology.
Which is also why he has to break with the Romantics and their appeal to an abstract, a-historical “Absolute.” What Schelling & Co. offer in their “intuition” of the Absolute is the opposite of what Hegel is looking for when he’s looking for “Science,” for a conceptual understanding. So Hegel describes a crossroads:
If…the True exists only in what, or better as what, is sometimes called intuition, sometimes immediate knowledge of the Absolute, religion or being–not at the centre of divine love but the being of divine love itself–then what is required in the exposition of philosophy is, from this viewpoint, rather the opposite of the form of the Notion [Begriff, concept–Hegel’s goal]. For the Absolute is not supposed to be comprehended [for the Romantics], it is to be felt and intuited; not the Notion of the Absolute, but the feeling and intuition of it, must govern what is said, and must be expressed by it (§6).
Hegel is throwing down a bit of a gauntlet here. And though I have my own sympathy for the Romantics, I appreciate Hegel’s point: even if you want to explore our relation to and knowledge of the Absolute, that knowledge or relation could never be a-historical for temporal beings like us. And when we become historically attuned–attuned to the zigs and zags of history, looking for the fingerprints of the Spirit in the unfolding of time–then we become attuned to what’s philosophically possible now, the time in which we find ourselves. “At the stage which self-conscious Spirit has presently reached,” Hegel says, “it is clear that Spirit has now got beyond the substantial life it formerly led in the element of thought, that it is beyond the immediacy of faith.”
This is where Hegel’s Phenomenology is like Pentecost. You’ll recall that at Pentecost in Acts 2, something happens–tongues of fire, people speaking in other languages–and the happening demands an interpretation. Are these people drunk? Or is something else afoot? The apostle Peter stands up and stakes a very different claim: “this is that” which the prophets promised. This is the work of the Spirit.
In the same spirit, Hegel has the audacity to say “this is that”: “now is the time,” the Spirit is doing something new in history, which opens up possibilities for philosophy we’ve never had before.
This sense of something new being born in history finds even bolder articulation a little later when Hegel doesn’t shy from seeing his time as a time of new birth:
[I]t is not difficult to see that ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labour of its own transformation. Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward. But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitate growth–there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born–so likewise the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world (§11).
For Hegel, one of the most pressing philosophcal question is: What’s happening?
In this context, Hegel criticizes the Romantics for “a monochromatic formalism” (§15), by which I think he means an inability to make distinctions and see what’s happening. Their grandiose abstraction yields a formalism in which differences are nullified and the irruptions and events of history are irrelevant. The result is a philosophy of “monotony” in which even the Absolute is painted grey.
Dealing with something from the perspective of the Absolute [as the Romantics do] consists merely in declaring that, although one has been speaking of it just now as something definite, yet in the Absolute, the A=A, there is nothing of the kind, for there all is one. To pit this single insight, that in the Absolute everything is the same, against the full body of articulated cognition, which at least seeks and demands such fulfilment, to palm off its Absolute as the night in which, as the saying goes, all cows are black–this is cognition reduced to vacuity (§16).
The a-historical abstraction of a philoosphy–or a theology!–that imagines an Absolute (or God) absolved of history is not illuminating; it is a night in which “all cows are black”: no one can tell the difference between a Limousin or Angus or Holstein because, despite grand claims otherwise, this enthusiasm for the Absolute casts a shadow that monochromatizes everything.
In contrast, Hegel is after “articulation,” and in particular, an understanding (or knowledge or Science) of the Absolute that can see differences, and in particular can recognize the differences in history. That comes with risks: to stand up and say, “This is that,” “This is what the Spirit is doing now” is an exercise in philosophical discernment. Better the risk, Hegel says, than monochromatic safety.
If, in case, this prompts any interest in finding a way into Hegel, here are a few secondary sources I’ve been returning to of late:
Baylor University Press is still offering a discount on pre-orders of my new book, The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology. Use code 17FALL21 at baylorpress.com for 20% off and free US shipping.
A Note to Readers
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