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.

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman Conversation – Instalment 1: An Overview and the Introduction – Mots Justes & petites idées

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

Conversation – Instalment 1: An Overview and the Introduction

Mots Justes & petites idées




Howard Adelman


The only critical review of Jeremy’s biography of the many that have come my way is by Robert Kuttner. I have sent it out as a separate attachment. Though Kuttner loved the book, he had four main criticisms, all having to do with the second half, the intellectual biography. The criticisms are:

1) Style – too slow going and bogged down in detail so the forest of Hirschman is sometimes lost in the details;

2) The chapter on Latin America “is one of the weaker parts of the book” because Jeremy became bogged down in the detail of Hirschman’s endless trips, and because a) his “discussion of Hirschman’s intellectual debate with other development theorists is somewhat murky” and (b) he neglected “to address how Hirschman’s views have stood the test of time;”

3) Jeremy’s emphasis on Exit, Voice, and Loyalty as a “hyphen linking an ‘early’ Hirschman concerned with economic development in Latin America to a ‘later’ Hirschman working from a broadened intellectual palette” “leaves out the formative Hirschman—the voracious student of political classics, resistance fighter, and refugee scholar who unmistakably makes a reappearance in the later philosophical works.”

4) He critiques Jeremy’s take on The Passions and the Interests – arguing that Hirschman sided with Enlightenment political philosophers who “hoped that passions, explosive and nonnegotiable, could be tamed into interests available for brokering and compromise.”


Is Kuttner correct in his critique?


I will deal with his comments on the Latin American chapter when we get to it. The same goes for The Passions and the Interests and in what sense Hirschman was an Enlightenment philosopher balancing passions and rational self-interest. The subject matter does change as a matter of course, but I did not find the style or pace did. The criticism of style is, in my mind, the critique of an intellectual journalist versus an historian who demands that evidence be put out on which to base conclusions rather than indulging in interpretations based on inadequate empirical research and the insertion of subjective beliefs in place of empirical reasoning. On the style, I think that Kuttner is just dead wrong. The book reads wonderfully. When Jeremy calls Exit, Voice, and Loyalty a “hyphen linking an ‘early’ Hirschman concerned with economic development in Latin America to a ‘later’ Hirschman working from a broadened intellectual palette,” he adopts Hirschman’s own emphasis on “linkages” rather than a large scale integration of the broad scale of the life as lived with the later intellectual development instead of the usual all-encompassing integration so characteristic of most historians.


To get a deeper understanding of that linkage, let me fall into the inevitable trap of discussing the themes of “Exit, Voice and Loyalty” for all three themes come up in the introduction. My emphasis will be on Voice but let me first deal with Exit and Loyalty.  The book is called an odyssey, but it is an odyssey made up of many exits, from one language to another, from one country to another, from one war to another, from one institution to another. The real story begins with a major exit, from Germany as the Weimar Republic is abandoned as a spate of anti-Semitic violence sweeps through Berlin as Hitler takes power, from his father as Carl Hirschmann is lowered into his grave after being stricken by a brain tumour from which surgery could not save him, and then Albert himself as a militant anti-Nazi student at the University of Berlin at the age of seventeen flees from the new wave of intolerance and persecution for the safety of Paris. 


While he leaves, he remains loyal to his overbearing all-too-bourgeois mother, but especially his sister Ursula and his younger sister, Eva. But it is loyalty without nostalgia ready for new beginnings. As Jeremy portrays Albert, he possesses the Nietzschean ability to reinvent himself and to do so by living outside any single cultural tradition or intellectual genre, not by cutting any of them off, including his own weakly rooted Jewish heritage, but to artfully combine them, though all he inherited from his Jewish past was a kinship with a certain sense of humour, a critical mindset and a predisposition for compassion.


In chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli insisted that fortune only rules one half of a man`s fate. The other half was determined by will, or what AH termed choice. Fortune was simply a challenge to figure out artful ways to wriggle out of a convoluted, contradictory or bad situation. The complement to fortune was not fate but virtus, strength of character. AH remained loyal to hope and what he called possibilism in contrast to the catastrophism depicted by Hannah Arendt in her introduction to The Human Condition. He always remained steadfastly opposed to any kind of predictivism that he saw as really having its roots in the magic of astrology and the ability to come up with a mathematical formula to predict the future. Fortune was the situation that confronted you not the determination of your fate.


The way to become master of your fate required developing your voice. That voice is developed by attending to anomalies, what I have called incongruencies. If we are simply mesmerized by the myths we are fed and the images projected on the cave wall, then we cannot free ourselves from being tied to a log and facing only one way. But if we can shift and slide and see something from different angles so that it reveals its contradictions, then we need not depend on others to free ourselves or depend on the god of Reason delivering an all encompassing revelation that can provide us with certainty.


That is why literature is so important. For good literature “summons the power of small details and anomalies to uncover something new about the whole.” Contrast this with Plato`s myth of the cave which was just a narrative way of representing the geometric formulation of his famous divided line in which reason: understanding = true opinion: false consciousness = critical thought: belief. The two parts of the divided line, each divided by the same ratio meant also that understanding was equivalent in value to true opinion of the experienced artisan except only that the former was closer to reason. Thus 4:2 = 2:1 = 6:3. Reason: understanding = true opinion: mythological opinion = Truth: Opinion, and understanding and true opinion have the same value in the degree of truth they possessed. With all his studies of statistics and correlations and innovations in understanding the influences on and relations of trade to prosperity, AH could find no way to represent thought and its creative parts through a mathematical formula, even one so simple as the mathematics of ratios.


If Plato insisted that one had to know geometry to enter through the archway into his academy, Aristotle shared a greater kinship with Hirschman with his love of equivocation and exploring the multiple and often contradictory meanings of the same term. So AH was in love with vivid metaphors, memorable images and poetic phrases. True to his subject, Jeremy pursues the anomalies, surprises and power of unintended effects as he explores the life of AH to elicit the spirit of the man and how that spirit was influence by and shaped in turn the spirit of different times. Hence, the appropriate emphasis on the mots justes and petites idées.


Let me introduce one mots justes drawn from Jewish folk culture and not the greats of European literature. The word is “yekke” and the puzzle I want to pose is why Albert Hirschman was not much more of a yekke. He was always a yekke in his sartorial attention to the well crafted suit and to his famous punctuality. Certainly he was the epitome of the best values of the yekke  –  good citizenship, reliability, meticulousness, cleanliness, orderliness, courtesy, consideration and, most of all, cultural and intellectual creativity. But Jews from other regions often use yekke in a more derogatory sense to refer to the condescension and sense of cultural superiority of German Jews, best exemplified by AH`s social climbing mother and striving for social status. Yekke in its negative sense also suggests inflexibility, a characteristic that cannot be pinned on AH.  In contrast, Micha Limor, the editor of Yakinton, the Israeli Yekke newspaper, proved that inflexibility when, after the publication of the Goldstone Report on Gaza, described Goldstone as a perfect replica of a Yekke with a clean conscience, uncompromising integrity, tenacity in dealing with bureaucracy, comprehension of reality and precision of language. Limor was not being ironic and refused to retract or amend his comments in response to all the criticism and evidence to the contrary. AH was not a Yekke like Limor.


Further, the Yekke is said to be obsessed with questions like, “Warum? Warum ist die Banane krumm? Why is the banana crooked?” Though there is a scientific answer related to its chemical constitution which makes the banana bend to catch as much of the sun as possible, the reference suggests stupid and unanswerable questions. AH was the epitome of asking sensible, answerable but often overlooked questions. AH seemed to embody the best traits of the Yekke while leaving behind the worst characteristics. Jeremy`s answer is that AH managed to hang onto the best of his German culture, weave it into the impoverished residue of his Jewish culture and then to artfully combine it with the best of Italian (Machiavelli), French (Montesquieu, Montaigne, and Foucauld), English or rather Sottish (Adam Smith) and even American pragmatic culture.