Hegel, Dialectics, Economics and Praxis: the Family

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 3: Hegel, Dialectics, Economics and Praxis: the Family

Chapter 2. Berlin is Burning              


 Howard Adelman

 AH wrote a twenty-eight page thesis for his graduation from the gymnasium on Hegel based on his reading of The Phenomenology of Spirit with his teacher, Bernd Knoop. (Knoop was very influential in AH’s progress by providing him with an excellent letter of recommendation.) The thesis dealt with ethics and the relationship to the family and the nation and is referenced in fn. 4: “Der Geist, die Welt der Sittlichkeit und die Vernunft in Hegels ‘Phänomenologie des Geistes’ – Interpretation eines Abschnittes aus der Phänomenologie. Since Hegel loomed so large in Albert’s intellectual world as well as his own work, it is important to dwell on what he thought and wrote at the time.  

 A few introductory notes are necessary based on what is common to the various interpretations of Hegel. AH’s thesis can be translated as a commentary on the section of the Phenomenology of Spirit (PofS) dealing with Spirit, the World of the Ethical Life and Reason. The PofS itself is divided into eight chapters. The first three chapters deal with different levels of consciousness, that is, the phenomenology of a subject experiencing the objective world. They are the certainty of sensibility (Chapter 1), perception (Chapter 2) and understanding or scientific thinking (Chapter 3).  In chapter 4 we are introduced to self-consciousness in which the object is also the subject engaged in the experience. That section includes the famous section on Lordship and Bondage.  It deals with the non-rational forces experienced within the self and between selves as experienced by a self that has already developed a scientific mind set. These non-rational forces are life and desire, or, in AH’s world, self-interest or self preservation versus passion. 

Chapter 5 focuses on reason and chapter 6 on Spirit which supercedes reason. It is Chapter 6 that begins with Sittlichkeit, the realm of ethical life determined by traditions or customs or conventions (Sitte). Thus, Spirit first manifests itself in the inherited customs and values of a society as constituted by and in the everyday practices of the members of a society. The chapter on Spirit dealing with the ethical life will be followed by religion (chapter 7) and absolute knowing (chapter 8) where self-consciousness has become the science of experience as manifested in culture. Jeremy mis-described this dialectical development when he wrote of “the dialectical escalation from spirit to consciousness to self-consciousness.” (p. 56) Some editor should have caught this, for Jeremy should have written of the dialectical development ‘of (not from) spirit from (not to) consciousness to self-consciousness’.

It is important to understand that economics, even in its most basic form of exchange, is already part of culture and not simply a transfer of labour and goods between individuals. Economics is a study of a set of practices already part of a social life in which an exchange already involves levels of recognition of one another, especially as the proprietor of some thing or skill. Prior to the economic and political life, the sense of values is first developed in the family before one enters the broader social life of economics and politics where we deal with issues of scarcity and risk on quite a different level than in the section dealing with lordship and bondage. (I will deal with this section tomorrow when Jeremy refers to it in the next chapter.) Further, the two spheres of the family and the polis are portrayed as inherently at odds in Hegel as epitomized by the story of Antigone. Given Albert’s closeness and tensions with his sister, and given that this was the chosen subject matter of Albert’s thesis, Jeremy provides the following elaboration.

“What was the ‘ethical’ bedrock of the family? Not the husband and wife relationship, ‘which is clearly natural.’ Nor is it the tie between parents and children, because ‘it does not display that identity between subject and object requisite for an ethical relationship.’ The condition of an ethical relationship rested upon the exercise of free will, which required an exchange of ‘free individuality unto each other.’ Accordingly, the ties that most conform to a ‘truly ethical relationship’ are those between brothers and sisters, bound by blood but divided by sex. As Jeremy suggests, “his reference was not just Phenomenology, but also his dialectic with Ursula.”

Some further elaboration may be helpful, especially since it is rooted in a narrative, a form greatly appreciated by AH. The sketch of the tale is simple. Creon has usurped the throne. The prince, Polyneices, challenges the usurper and is killed. His sister, Antigone, challenges the power of the state by insisting on the right to bury her brother in accordance with divine law, though Creon has decreed that the body be left to rot in the field of battle. The tragedy is built on the conflict between the norms of power which insist on universal governance and the norms of the family that are inherent to the particularity of anyone’s existence. Human law and divine law are in inherent conflict. In the brother-sister relationship we have gone beyond the level of sexual attraction and the conflict between desire and survival and now deal with ethical life and its most important commandments in dealing with burial of the dead. Further, it is the woman who is the enforcer of these fundamental norms. Antigone challenges the rule of Creon as no man could ever do, for her challenge is based on the fundamental and divine law of family obligations.

Why is the ethical life first manifested in the relationship between a brother and a sister for Hegel? Because, as Hegel writes, “They are of the same blood which has, however, in them reached a state of rest and equilibrium.” (section 457) [As man and woman they are not driven in their relationship by the tumults of desire.] They are individual responsible agents and free individuals capable of assuming responsibility for themselves and one another. Tied by blood but divided by sex and self-consciousness, we find a relationship of identity in difference. It is because Polyneices is Antigone’s brother that she challenges Creon’s decree. They recognize themselves in the other. Albert connected with Ursula in the same way in spite of their enormous differences in temperament and political convictions. Their connection is rooted in intuition and need not be brought into self-consciousness except when dealing with the external political world of power and influence.

What if the political power is the brother? What if the brother who has that power offends the basic ethical principles of the family? As I suggested in my biblical commentary on Numbers 8:1 to 12:16, Miriam criticizes her brother, Moses, for abandoning Tzipora in favour of his political commitments to Israel as a nation. The family life is sacrificed for a public cause. Miriam does not just stand up to a political ruler but to God, for the general sacrifice politicians make of their wives and their families in service to a public cause.

I bring this latter story up because it demonstrates how the conventions of the family that are sacrosanct vary from culture to culture and from time to time. The Hellenic and Hebrew cultures were at odds in this respect as in many others. One constant in both cases is the sister as the defender of the ethical norms of the family. The other constant is that the sister standing up for the norms of the family herself becomes a victim. One of the ironies that deserves some elaboration is that in the case of Ursula and Albert, there is a role reversal where Ursula sacrifices family values to the polis while Albert seems to steadfastly refuse to do so. Family values and their protection underwent a radical challenge in the twentieth century, but it requires a separate phenomenological examination of the spirit of modernity to uncover the particular dialectical nature of the brother-sister relationship that characterized the modern era. I believe the book should have done this to understand Ursula and Albert’s relationship at a deeper level.

Hegel also forces us to raise the issue of Hirschman’s methodology. Jeremy writes that Albert “used Hegel to turn excessively abstract reasoning on its head.” In that sense, AH was ahead of his time in interpreting Hegel as a pragmatic realist rather than an idealist with his emphasis on actual practices rather than abstract theory. That is why it is somewhat disconcerting to read the constant references to Hegel in terms of German idealism. Influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, Hegel, in fact, as did AH, turned his back on German idealism.

This interpersonal dynamic is told against the backdrop of the interpretive conflicts within the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) over the interpretations of Marx and the application to the problems of the time. In 1930, AH was impressed by the Austrian Marxist, Otto Bauer, and a spellbinding lecture he delivered on Kondratiev long cycles, the 40-50 year cycles of development influenced by fundamental technological breakthroughs such as the recent shift from an industrial to an information and communication culture. According to Jeremy, this was the singular event that induced him to study economics just as the SPD was undergoing radical debates over how to handle the current economic crisis with debates over tactics and new visions. As Jeremy noted, the schisms that emerged went deep in the SPD and between the SPD and the Communist Party. The moderates stuck with their alliance with the conservatives and their turn to the austerism of the time that was deflationary, anti-labor, pro-military, pro-religion and even racist. The radicals wanted an alliance with the communists under the intellectual leadership of Erich Schmidt and Walter Löwenheim that became the core of the Neu Beginnen movement if 1933. The debate was over the choice of the devil to join in bed and how the cunning of reason was to be understood. AH moved left under the influence of Lenin’s understanding of the creative cunning of capitalism and the emphasis on the subtlety of tactics as his introduction to possibilism in dealing with the challenge of change. This is one of the great insights in the book – the irony that it was Lenin who eventually led AH to become an innovative defender of capitalism. Talk about the cunning of reason!

Another major influence on AH was Rafael Reim, the Russian ex-Menshevik and leader of the Bund, the Jewish Workers’ Union and especially his two children, Mark and Lia, who became the intimate friends of Ursula and Albert.  The influence of another mentor, Heinrich Ehrmann, who had introduced the two older Hirschman children to the literature of and debates within the left, magnified the schism between the children and their bourgeois parents, particularly between Ursula and her mother just as the family hit a series of financial crises.

Fifteen years later these and many other political divisions permeated my overwhelmingly Jewish public High School, Harbord Collegiate, after WWII. My row in my classroom consisted of the only politically non-aligned male in my class, myself, a communist (Gerry Bain), a bundist (David Berger), a Liberal (Albert Cheskes) and a Conservative (Gordon Donsky), all of whom ended up in Medical School and all of whom, except myself, became middle of the road doctors. The most brilliant members of the class were women, Judy Ochs, daughter of the famous Rabbi Ochs who pursued her religious studies at YeshivaUniversity, and Judy Rappaport who, as a committed Zionist, moved to Israel. Given my experience with the political divisions, I was surprised to read that the options seemingly available to AH seemed far more limited in 1933 Berlin than in 1950 Toronto. AH remained grounded in the middle with a commitment to open-mindedness and moderation preferring the devil he knew, the compromised SPD, to an alliance with the communists. I was familiar with street marches, particularly on the part of saving the Rosenbergs from execution, but not the thuggery and street fights between militant factions — though my father told me stories of such fights in the thirties over the activities of the garment workers union.

We had nothing comparable to the rise of the Nazis culminating in Hitler becoming chancellor and the Reichstag fire used to bury democracy in Germany. Only much later would Albert learn of the heroism of his bourgeois father in saving the famous demographer, René Kuczynski, from the rampaging Nazi storm troopers. It was no surprise that AH opted for exit when his father died suddenly from cancer and was buried. As with many other events in Albert’s life, the carapace of invulnerability served to mask any pain beneath and the great sense of loss he must have felt. What an enormous difficulty this poses for a biographer for whom it is imperative to penetrate that hardened and seemingly impenetrable emotional shell.

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