The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

Hegelian Phenomenology and the Critique of Reason and Society

Hegelian Phenomenology and the
Critique of Reason and Society
Peter Osborne
Abhot Terrasson has rema~cked that if the size of
a volume be measured not by the number of its
pages but by the time required for mastering it,
it can be said of many a book, that it would be
much shorter if it were not so short.

(Kant, Preface’to First Edition, Critique of
Pure Reason)

Gillian Qnse’s Hegel Contra Sociology (Athlone Press,
1981, £6.95 pb, 26lpp) would be much shorter were it
not so short. It is unashamedly, and sadly, an
extremely difficult book; not just in terms of the
complexity and subtlety of the position it puts forward, but, primarily, in terms of the way in which
this position is presented. But it is, nonetheless,
in many ways an important book. For it challenges,
at a fundamental level, the generally accepted framework within which Hegel has been interpreted; and,
in so doing, it challenges accepted beliefs not only
about the relationship between Marx and Hegel, but
also about the philosophical adequacy of Marxism and
the redundancy of Hegelianism. It contains a densely
argued and philosophically sophisticated piece of
Hegel scholarship which is mobilised against all the
prevailing tendencies of contemporary social theory,
and it will be of particular interest to ‘the materialist friends of the idealist dialectic’ [1].

In this essay my aim is two-fold: (i) to produce
an account of some central themes of the book, and,
in particular, of the reading of Hegel around which
it revolves; and (ii) to offer a provisional assessment of the standpoint it adopts, not so much with
regard to the textual credibility of the interpretation of Hegel from which it derives, as with respect
to its immanent viability and more general implications. For Rose treats the conception of Hegelian
phenomenology which she outlines as the only possible
coherent theoretical basis for the development of a
critical theory of subjectivity, culture, and hence,
politics. She wants to appropriate aspects of Hegel’s
philosophy. The idea which the book develops is that
the philosophical basis of Hegel’s thought must be
appropriated by Marxism if the latter is to be able
to generate a critical politics. So it is the
internal cogency of Rose’s account of Hegel, rather
than its historical veracity, which is important.

Hegel Contra Sociology announces itself as ‘an
attempt to retrieve Hegelian speculative experience
for social theory’ [2], and it concludes with a brief
outline of a projected Hegelian social theory
(labelled ‘critical Marxism’ – I will come back to
this) as ‘the exposition of capitalism as culture’,
‘a presentation of the contradictory relations
between Capital and culture’ [3] in the phenomenological (speculative) mode. In the meantime, it
develops a philosophical critique of sociology and
of Harxism, and a strikingly original interpretation

of Hegel’s thought which focuses on the sociopolitical significance of his idea of speculative

The argument is that Marx’s critique of Hegel is
based on a Fichtean reading of his system which fails
to grasp the true meaning of his concepts of actuality and spirit, and that in fact these concepts provide the theoretical basis for the conceptualisation
of the subjective mediations of objective social
forms. Marx’s own conception of practical materialism is seen as theoretically incapable of.conceptualising such mediations, since it involv~s abstract
dichotomies between being and consciousness, and
theory and practice, which can only be unified
abstractly in an ‘ought’. Without such mediations,
the relation between Capital and politics is seen to
be indeterminate. Capital gives an account of the
objective determinations of social relations, but
Marxism is seen to be theoretically incapable of
utilising this knowledge through a politics which
accounts for how these social relations may be practically transformed on the basis of their objective
determinations, because it cannot develop adequate
concepts of subjectivity and culture [4].

In what follows, I first give an account of Rose’s
understanding of Hegel, contrasting it with that on
which Critical Theory is based, since (i) this is a
standard interpretation, and (ii) Rose’s reading of
Hegel functions as a reformulation of the foundations
of Critical Theory; then I discuss its implications
for Marxism, and I discuss Rose’s understanding
of Harx. I conclude with a few comments of a general
nature on the overtly ‘philosophical’ character of
the project that Rose outlines. One of the most
interesting things about the book is that, while it
criticises existing formulations of Critical Theory,
it demonstrates and clearly endorses the explicitly
‘philosophical’ nature of its project.

Hegelian Phenomenology and the Radicalisation of Kant’s
Critique of Reason

Hegel Contra Sociology is perhaps best understood as
a response to Habermas’s account of the development
of German philosophy from Kant to Marx, which prepares
the ground for his formulation of Critical Theory as
a theory of knowledge-constitutive interests, and to
the understanding of the idea of metacritique, as the
radicalisation of Kant’s critique of reason, on which

that theory is based [5]. It is this interpretation
of the idea of metacritique which determines the
meaning Habermas gives to the statement that ‘a radical critique of knowledge is possible only as social
theory’ [6]. As we shall see, Rose’s reading of
Hegel involves a reinterpretation of this fundamental
axiom of Critical Theory, which changes its orientation from an, at least formal, directedness towards
Harx back towards Hegel.

Habermas’s understanding of the idea of metacritique has recently been elaborated by Garbis
Kortian in his book Metacritique: The Philosophical
Argwnent of Jurgen Habermas (Cambridge University
Press, 1980). A brief examination of the different
ways in which Kortian and Rose treat the concept of
metacritique will serve to introduce Rose’s position
and to situate it in relation to Critical Theory [7].

Kortian characterises ‘metacritique’ as an argumentative strategy with reference to Hegel’s Phenomenology
of Spirit, which is taken to provide its paradigm [7].

He develops an account of the philosophical structure
of Habermas’s work in terms of the idea of metacritique, and he uses the difference in the form of
the arguments that Hegel and Habermas use to determine
the theoretical specificity of Habermas’s work.

Critical Theory generally, and Habermas’s work in
particular, are presented as a response to the failure
of Hegel’s attempt at metacritique: ‘Critical Theory
is intended as the experience and expression of the
failure of the Hegelian concept [8].

In agreement with Kortian’s acceptance of a distinc·
tion between the epistemological structures of phenomenological and other forms of metacritical argument,
but in opposition to his account of their difference,
Hegel Contra Sociology presents a reading of Hegel
which is built upon a claim for the epistemological
superiority of the phenomenological form of Hegel’s
argument. Hegel’s thought is counter-posed to that
of the advocates of Critical Theory, and of sociological thought generally (of which Critical Theory
is seen to be an instance, despite itself), as representative of the only possible form of thought
capable of superceding the dilemmas of Kantianism,
which are taken to be reproduced within all sociological thought (and most strikingly in Habermas)
because of its reliance upon Kantian forms of argumentation [9]. So while Habermas claims that his own
work is genuinely metacritical, and that Hegel’s is
metaphysical – in its failure to eliminate all
‘absolute’ presuppositions – Rose claims that only
Hegel has achieved genuine metacritique, and that
Habermas’s work remains Kantian. The basis of this
claim is that Hegel has been almost universally misunderstood.

Kortian uses the term ‘metacritical’ to characterise the epistemological structure of a theory which
is, broadly speaking, ‘critical’ in the sense in
which Horkheimer uses the term; that is, which
reflects upon the relation between the epistemic
subject engaged in critique and the object criticised;
which reflects upon the presuppositions of critique
[11]. Kortian distinguishes, none too clearly,
between genuine or ‘radical’ metacritique – ‘the
movement associated with the “meta” is only radical
so long as it resolutely refuses any … absolute
position’ [12] – and metacritique which fails to
carry through the radicalisation of critique which is
its task [13] because it rests on some absolute presupposition, but which nonetheless presumably reveals
some of the preconditions of critique. He places
Hegel’s Phenomenology in the latter group. This is
the source of a certain amount of conceptual confusion since it means that the paradigmatic example of
metacritique is a failed instance of that which it
exemplifies. This is the result of defining it as an
intention. But I think it is clear what Kortian is
getting at.

Emphasising the specificity of Hegel’s thought,
Rose restricts her usage of the term ‘metacritique’

to refer to that particular form of reflection on
the presuppositions of theory developed by those who
rejected Hegel’s philosophy; that is, quasi-transcendental reflection – inquiry into the ontological or
sociological preconditions of critique by transcendental argument. Habermas’s theory of knowledgeconstitutive interests is established by an argument
of this kind. This kind of argument is quasi-transcendental because its results are both a priori (as
the ground of critique) and seemingly naturalistic
(as external to the mind). Consequently:

The status of the relation between the sociological precondition and the conditioned becomes
correspondingly ambiguous in all sociological
quasi-transcendental arguments.

[14 ]

In opposition to such an ambiguous form of argument,
Hegelian phenomenology is presented as a form of
cognitive activity which successfully radicalises
the critique of reason, which presents its social preconditions through a process of speculative selfreflection in which the exposition of critique and
the derivation of its ground are united:

The exposition of abstract thinking and the
derivation of the social institutions which
determine it are completely integrated in the
tracing of the education of self-consciousness
at specific historical moments.

[15 ]

The reason that Kortian does not distinguish
phenomenological and quasi-transcendental arguments
in this way is that his reconstruction of Habermas’s
argument shares the presuppositions of Habermas’s
thought. In this sense, it is less a reconstruction
than a restatement. It presupposes the validity of
the interpretation of Hegel from which Habermas
starts out. This interpretation (which is a standard
one) maintains that Hegel

employs the radicalisation of critique, or this
experience which he terms ‘speculative’, in the
service of an absolute system of knowledge
governed by the presupposition of the identity
of thought and being.

[16 ]

The Phenomenology of Spirit is taken to be grounded
in idealist metaphysics. Rejecting this metaphysic,
Habermas separates the idea of the self-reflection
from the phenomenological form of its presentation.

It is this abstraction which gives rise to the idea
of metacritique which Kortian explicates.

Now, from the point of view of Hegel’s thought,
which Rose adopts, this abstraction of the idea of
metacritical argument from its original form appears
as a regression to that Kantian form of argument
which separates off the subject from the object of
critique, and defines their relation abstractly, in
terms of a critical method. It was just this methodological conception of refl~ction which Hegel sought to
overcome, because ‘it takes for granted certain ideas
about cognition as an instrwnent and as a medium, and
assumes that there is a difference between ourselves
and this cognition’ [17]. The methodological appropriation of the idea of the self-reflection of knowledge robs it of its primary critical function.

Metacritique, as opposed to phenomenology, is thus
an essentially ambiguous enterprise which attempts to
reveal the presuppositions of critique through the
direction of the critical method towards previously
neglected aspects of human existence [18].

In Kortian’s terms, we can say that the ambiguity
of metacritically (quasi-transcendentallY) established
preconditions constitutes a failure on the part of
those theories which are grounded on them to overcome,
or to ‘radicalise’, critique. For their combination
of a priority and naturalism gives them just that

‘absolute’ character which defines the objects of
metaphysical thought. However, although they are
philosophically unsatisfactory, Rose acknowledges the
fact that such metacritical arguments can be extremely
fruitful sociologically. Indeed, she argues that they
are the method by which the basic paradigms of sociology were established. The first chapter of Begel
Contpa Sociology, ‘The Antinomies of Sociological
Reason’, gives a comprehensive, if condensed,
historical account of the development of sociology
in terms of its philosophical foundations in neoKantianism, which shows how a variety of sociological
enterprises were established by different metacritical arguments, each designed to uncover different
preconditions of neo-Kantian epistemology. NeoHarxist sociology is also seen to exhibit this syndrome of reaction to, but incorporation within, neoKantianism. Although both attempted to overcome the
philosophical problems of traditional sociology, it
is argued that Luk~cs and Adorno in fact represent
different positions within neo-Kantianism [19]. And
Althusser is seen to combine neo-Kantian epistemology (his conception of science) with sociological
metacritique (his theory of structures of social
formation), and so to make ‘all the classic neoKantian moves solely within a project of rereading
Marx’ [20].

Rose’s argument is that Hegelian phenomenology is
the only way out of these philosophically inadequate
forms of neo-Kantianism. The reason a way out is
needed (although this is never actually made explicit
in the text – an example of its unnecessarily enigmatic stance) is that, while neo-Kantian metacritique
may be ‘sociologically’ (i.e. descriptively) adequate, its philosophical inadequacies make it ppactically impotent, because it is incapable of generating a social theory in which the ground of critique,
of theory generally – objective social determinations – is conceived other than as distinct from,
and externally related to, consciousness. It is
incapable of giving rise to a social theory which
grasps its object in terms of the subjective mediations through which it is experienced and reproduced,
and through which it can be transformed. The argument for Hegelian phenomenology (as opposed to simply
‘contra sociology’) rests on two premises: (i) that,
despite almost universal belief to the contrary,
Hegel’s philosophy does not rely on the metaphysical
presupposition of the identity of thought and being;
that ‘the fact that the Absolute alone is true, or
the truth alone is absolute’ [21] is not a ppesupposition of Hegel’s thought at all: and (ii) that
the philosophical foundations of Marxian materialism
(as opposed to simply its sociological revisions)
are themselves in some way Kantian or Fichtean insofar as they are not Hegelian.

Although a demonstration of the validity of this
second premise is attempted, briefly, at the end of
the book (to which I will return), it is assumed
from the beginning. For it is claimed, without
argumentation, that Kant’s philosophy of consciousness, with its theoretical contradictions and practical moralism, ‘can only be criticised if the infinite is knowable’ [22]. We are offered an exclusive
choice between the possibility of Hegelianism and
the impasse of an impotent Kantianism, since, accepting Kant’s critical destruction of previous metaphysics, Rose, along with Hegel, recognises that the
infinite can only be knowable in its unity with the
finite, i.e. as the absolute.

This doctrinaire insistence on the exclusive
theoretical option of Kant (and Fichte) op Hegel,
reminiscent of the falsely exclusive choices offered
by Luk~cs in his essays on aesthetics in the thirties)
but lacking their possible political vindication, is
a theoretical flaw which has the unfortunate effect
of closing the discourse articulated by the text at

just that point at which it promises to become most
interesting. It leaves the question of the theoretical value of the position outlined (which is always
also a practical question) unexplored, by implicitly
assuming that it is the only way out of a certain
theoretical dilemma. The perspective within which
tHat-dilemma arises, and epistemology, which determiRes-its form, is never itself que
that dilemma arises, and which determines its form
(epistemology), is never itself questioned. The
compositional structure of Begel Contpa Sociology,
which combines philosophical argument with textual
citation in a complex and often ambiguous manner,
and its terse, assertive style, which at times
borders on the cryptic, are the forma~ correlates
of this refusal to consider, concretely, the general
significance of the position it puts forward (which
is essentially a refusal to open a dialogue with the

Let us examine the argument put forward in defence
of the first premise (above) – the denial of any
‘absolute’ presuppositions in Hegel’s thought. The
bulk of Begel Contpa Sociology is devoted to its

Rose’s reading of Hegel, in conscious opposition
to Harxist appropriations of his thought, revolves
around her analysis of the roles played by that pair
of concepts most often rejected, if not ridiculed,
by those appropriations as representative of its
systematic, and so idealist and ultimately theological, aspect. These are the concepts of the
absolute and of speculation (in all its various
forms as speculative thinking, speculative discourse,
speculative experience, and, particularly important
to Rose’s interpretation, speculative rereading).

Marxist sociology has mystified Hegel by making
a distinction between a ‘radical method’ and a
‘conservative system’. As a result of this
artificial distinction, the centrality of those
ideas which Hegel developed in order to unify
the theoretical and practical philosophy of Kant
and Fichte has been ignored.

Rose sets out to reassert the centrality of these
ideas. Her thesi~ is that ‘Hegel’s philosophy has
no social import if the absolute cannot be thought’

[24], since, as the unity of the finite and the
infinite [25], it represents the unity, and hence
the dif~erence, of actuality and possibility. So,
how can the absolute be thought? What are the conditions of such a form of thought? And how can they
be derived without being implicitly presupposed?

i.e. how can the transcendental circle, which involves

the implicit presUpposItIon of that which is to be
deduced in the specification of that from which it is
to be deduced, be avoided? [26] How can the absolute
be shown to be thinkable without this being presupposed in the form of the assumption of the identity
of thought and being?

The key to this set of problems is the idea of

The only consistent way to criticise Kant’s
philosophy of consciousness is to show that
the contradiction which a methodological, or
any natural, consciousness falls into when it
considers the object to be external, can itself
provide the occasion for a change in that consciousness and in its definition of its object.


The only way to criticise Kant (within the problematic of modern epistemology, one might add) is thus
through a phenomenology, which presents the forms of
knowledge according to their own methodological standards, as they appear to consciousness, and which
thereby presents ‘the realm of appearance as defined
by limited forms of consciousness’ [28]. Such a
presentation is a genuine radicalisation of Kant’s
critique of reason because it involves no presuppositions about the nature of knowledge as it is presented
in a series of diverse forms, other than the bare
axiom that knowing is ‘the being of something for a
consciousness’ [29], which is a necessary condition
of all epistemology; a universally shared presupposition.

Such a presentation, Hegelian phenomenology, is
possible, because of the unity of the processes of
cognItIon and reflection within consciousness. As
Hegel explains in the introduction to the
Consciousness examines its own self …. [It]
is, on the one hand, consciousness of the
object, and on the other, consciousness of
itself; consciousness of what for it is the
True, and consciousness of its knowledge of
the truth. Since both are for the same consciousness, this consciousness is itself
their comparison; it is for the same consciousness to know whether its knowledge of the
object corresponds to the object or not.

The series of contradictory experiences which the
observing (reading) consciousness undergoes as it
progresses through the different historical forms of
knowledge recreated in their determinate series by a
phenomenology, is seen by Rose to lead, by implication, to the concept of the absolute. It is argued
that the experience of the contradictory nature of
hitherto apparently valid forms of knowledge subverts
the distinction between finite and infinite on which
those forms – as different relations between consciousness and objects external to it – were based,
and implies a notion ‘which does not divide conscious~ess or reality into finite and infinite’ [31]:

the absolute. As implied, however, the absolute is
‘present but not yet known’. Only its concept is
known. That it is present can be ‘acknowledged but
not stated’ [32], since to state that it is present
would suggest that it is present to consciousness
(i.e. known), which it is not. This acknowledgement
is not an abstract statement about the absolute,
but an observation to which we have now attained,
by looking at the experience of a consciousness
which knows itself as an antithesis, as
negati ve …

So, the concept of the absolute is derived, by
implication, phenomenologically. It arises out of
Hegel’s critique of Kant’s epistemology. But the
derivation of the concept is equivalent only to
‘the attainment of the observation that the absolute

is present’. We cannot yet think the absolute. How
can this be done?

The absolute can never be ‘thought’ or ‘known’ in
the ordinary sense of being a determinate object for
consciousness (viz. Hegel’s definition of knowledge,
above), despite the title of the final chapter of
the Phenomenology, because it is not a possible
object of consciousness. It is not a possible object
of consciousness because it is, by definition, beyond
the opposition of consciousness and its objects, and
‘consciousness is always this opposition between
itself and its object’ [34]. As ‘implied’ or
‘alluded to’, it cannot so much be ‘thought’ or
‘known’ as experienced in a particular way. It can
be experienced negatively, or speculatively, as the
formal unity of the multiplicity of contradictory
experiences or relations by which it is implied. It
is the production of such a form of experience of the
absolute, which Hegel calls speculative thought,
which Rose takes to be the purpose of a phenomenology.

In a phenomenology, a sequence of ‘shapes of consciousness’ is assembled ‘in order to see the absolute by presenting the series of its determinations,
of its misapprehensions’ [35], both historically and
contemporaneously. Because no one set of determinations, no one particular form of phenomenal knowledge,
can grasp the absolute, philosophy is necessarily
systematic. ‘This idea of a whole which cannot be
grasped in one moment or in one statement for it must
be experienced is the idea of the system’ [36]. But
because the absolute is not a static totality,
neither is the system through which it is presented.

The essentially negative determination of the absolute means that its systematic apprehension is neverending; it involves the continual re-cognition of
phenomenal knowledge or prevailing forms of experience (which may themselves be changing) as speculative experience [37].

As I understand it from Rose’s exposition, phenomenal knowledge is re-cognised, specula’ti v”ely, by
the observing (reading) consciousness of a phenomenology in the following way. The presentation of forms
of natural consciousness (that is, of forms of consciousness ‘natural’ to particular historical period~
as forms of phenomenal knowledge (that is, as part of
determinate cultural configurations), leads the
observing consciousness to see their series as
necessary, and to see them as determined. The
experience this consciousness undergoes is speculative, it is the experience of ‘the transgression of
the limit between the positive and its condition’

[38], because the recognition of determination which
it involves explodes the distinction between the
finite and the infinite which grounds the purely
contemplative attitude of ordinary thought, which
conceives of its objects as external to it [39]. It
thus involves the concept of the absolute (as the
unity of the conditions and the conditioned), in
relation to which the prevailing form of phenomenal
knowledge is revealed to be inadequate to its object
(which is now conceived in its unity with, rather
than as external to, consciousness).

So, speculative thought is the re-thinking of
phenomenal knowledge from the point of view of the
absolute, the re-thinking of phenomenal knowledge as
inadequate knowledge of the absolute. As such it is
a form of thought which acknowledges a lack of
identity between the subject and predicate of propositions which represent phenomenal knowledge.

Propositions, ordinarily construed, are taken to
posit a false identity between the concepts with
which they operate and the objects these concepts
are used to represent, insofar as the logic of
propositional grammar dictates that subject and predicate are conceived as independent prior to predication, and ~elated by predication. From the perspective of the absolute, on the other hand, subject and

predicate are determinations which ‘acquire their
meaning in a series of relations to each other’ [40],
and which are consequently not independent of each
other, but in some way mutually constitutive. This
leads to the idea of speculative (re)reading; the
reading of propositions as speculative identities.

In such ‘speculative propositions’,
The subject of the proposition is no longer
fixed and abstract with external, contingent
accidents, but, initially, an empty name,
uncertain and problematic, gradually acquiring
meaning as the result of a series of contradictory experiences.

[41 ]

Rose’s interpretation of Hegel’s system is thus
that it is constituted by the phenomenological representation and speculative rereading of phenomenal
knowledge, and gives rise to ‘knowledge’ of the
absolute through the speculative experiences which
it provokes. And these experiences are ‘critical’.

For example, in terms of moral and political consciousness, its speculative apprehension involves
experience of the fact that ethical life (Sittlichkeit, a term used by Hegel to designate the unity of
the spheres of morality and legality, the practical
realm) is misrepresented by the prevailing cultural
forms through which it is experienced and reproduced.

.Although it is an essentially negative mode of
cognition, which reveals the ‘untruth’ of phenomenal
knowledge in all of its forms, speculative experience
is positive in three ways: (i) purely formally, insofar as it involves determinate negation [42], (ii) to
the extent that it reveals the determination of the
misapprehension which it uncovers (as we shall see,
this is problematic), and (iii) insofar as the revelation of misapprehension contains, implicitly, the
demand for a change in that which determines that
misapprehension. I will examine the second and third
of these ‘positive’ aspects of speculative experience,
and the relation between them, in a moment, for this
is the issue on which the way in which Rose’s form of
Hegelianism can contribute to the development of a
critical Marxism rests. But first, I will quickly
complete my account of Rose’s position.

To sum up: according to Rose, the Phenomenology of
Spirit, and any phenomenology for that matter,
… is not a teleological development towards
the reconciliation of all oppositions between
consciousness and its objects, to the abolition
of natural consciousness as such, but a speculative presentation of the deformations of
natural consciousness;
[it is] not the experience of consciousness
recapturing its alienated existence, but the
presentation of the formation of consciousness
as a determination of substance, and (or rather
through) consciousness’ misapprehension of
that determination;
[44 ]
… not a success, but a gamble.

For the
perpetual occurrence of inversion and mis. representation can only be undermined, or
‘brought into fluidity’, by allusion to the
law of their determination …

[45 ]

This open-ended interpretation of Hegelian phenomenology, and its culmination in speculative experience of the absolute, which Rose develops primarily
through an examination of Hegel’s Jena works, laying
particular emphasis on the System of Ethical Life of
1802 as the first phenomenology [46], is used to
produce critical reading of most of Hegel’s mature

The Philosophy of Right and the Logic are read as
phenomenologies, as representative of the ‘standpoint
of consciousness’. (Accordingly, one might say that

the Logic ends the Phenomenology rather than that
the Phenomenology introduces the Logic. Whereas the
former is a phenomenology of natural consciousness,
the latter is taken to be a phenomenology of abstract,
philosophical consciousness – a form of consciousness
derived, historically, in the Phenomenology.) The
Aesthetics is read as a ‘philosophy’, as representative of the standpoint of the absolute, of the
collectivity. This is possible because the phenomenon it presents – art – is taken by Hegel to be
historically transcended, to be ‘no longer a formative, educative, political experience’ [47]. The
lectures on the philosophies of religion and history
are read as methodologically mixed texts:

In both lecture series there is no sustained
phenomenology. Instead the ‘standpoint of the
absolute’ is abstractly and repeatedly stated
and contrasted with the standpoint of religious
relation, difference, representation or consciousness. The two texts reveal the aporia of subjectivity: the subjective standpoint is criticised
by means of the exposition of its fonnation;
but the absolute is thought as subject.

[48 ]

Significantly, there is no discussion of the

It is a feature of Rose’s interpretation that
Hegel’s phenomenologies are taken to involve speculative rereadings’ of the propositions of phenomenal
knowledge. Paradigmatically, these are the propositions of Kant and Fichte’s philosophy which is taken
by Hegel to be the philosophical articulation of the
prevailing forms of knowledge and experience, determined by the bourgeois property form. So ‘speculative
rereading’ is an Hegelian or ‘philosophical’ equivalent to Marxian critique (in the sense of the critique
of political economy – we can see here how Rose’s
reading of Hegel reformulates the philosophical foundations of Critical Theory). It is at once a demonstration of the inadequacy of a particula~ theoretical
perspective to a particular object, and a ‘critique’

of the form of social relations which ‘correspond’ to
that perspective insofar as they determine it. However, as we noted at the start of this essay, Rose’s
claim for Hegelian phenomenology is much stronger
than this. It is that it is the only philosophically
adequate form of theory capable of critically conceptualising subjectivity and culture. It is to this
claim that I now want to turn.

Hegelian Phenomenology and Marxism: The Critique of Society

There is an ambivalence in Rose’s attitude to Marxism
and to the question of the relationship between
Hegelian phenomenology and ~~3.rxism, which reflects a
crucial and unresolved ambiguity in her conception
of phenomenology. This ambiguity is the result of a
failure to resolve the tension within her account of
Hegel’s thought between its philosophical and sociopolitical aspects; the tension between its function
as critique of reason and its function as critique of
society. This, in turn, is a consequence of a failure
to acknowledge the extremely limited sense in which a
phenomenology can be socially critical, which is an
effect of over-estimating the cognitive value of
speculative experience. Perhaps the strangest thing
about Hegel Contra Sociology is that while it gives
probably the clearest account in English of the
precise character of Hegelian speculation it fails to
grasp the significance of the limitations it so
expertly delineates. As I suggested earlier, this
is because it remains within the problematic of
modern epistemology.

The ambiguity in Rose’s conception of phenomenology
(essentially an ambiguity in her conception of the
sense in which it can lead to knowledge of the social

determination of consciousness) is displayed in the
statement, that in phenomenologies,
the illusions and experiences of moral and
political consciousness are presented in an
order designed to show how consciousness may
progress through them to comprehension of the
determination of ethical life.

On the basis of this claim it is further claimed that
phenomenology is not only ‘a presentation of political
experience’, but itself ‘the definitive political
experience’ [50]. Harxism seems, very definitely, to
have been replaced. But does speculative experience
of the absolute really involve comprehension of the
determination of ethical life? I think not. It
involves only comprehension (in the politically
crucial form of ‘experience’, it is true) of the
fact that ethical life is determined. And this is a
very different thing. A theory of this determination
is still required. Only by exploiting this ambiguity
in the phrase ‘comprehension of the determination of
ethical life’ is Rose able to make such a strong case
for Hegel.

This brings us back to the second and third
‘positive’ aspects of speculative experience noted
above, to the question of the relation between the
kind of determination revealed in speculative
expe~ience and possibility of real social change.

For it is Rose’s belief that a phenomenological social
theory (‘the exposition of capitalism as culture’) is
‘the only way to link the analysis of the economy to
comprehension of the conditions for revolutionary
practice’ [51]. Such a theory is labeled ‘critical
Marxism’ because the ‘analysis of the economy’

involved is to be Marx’s. There are two problems
here: (i) the reduction of Harxism to ‘the analysis
of the economy’, and (ii) the incorporation of any
form of analysis, of theory, within a phenomenological
‘presentation’. I will argue that an examination of
the nature of speculative experience and its theoretical conditions reveals a fundamental incompatibility
(thoup,h not inconsistency) between He~elian pp.~~o­
menology and Marxian critique. And that, consequently, phenomenology is incapaule of tulfilling the
theoretical expectations which Rose has of it. But,
first, let us see how phenomenology is socially
critical, in its own right.

Rose takes speculative experience to be ‘critical’

not just epistemologically, in its independence from
presuppositions, but also, and consequently (and this
is the problem), politically, in its orientation
towards other philosophies and to society. It is
critical in this latter, dual, sense because it
involves the recognition of a form of mediation
between consciousness and its objects which is not
acknowledged either by other philosophies, or by the
existing forms of law and property relations to which
these philosophies correspond. This recognition is
taken to subvert both the validity of these philosophies and the legitimacy of the forms of social
relation which condition them and sustain their
credibility. Now, as we noted above, such negative
criticism has a positive function, and it is here
that a new problem arises which demonstrates quite
clearly how limited is a social critique grounded in

One of the positive functions of speculative
experience is
to make a different form of ethical life
possible by providing insight into the displacement of actuality in those dominant
philosophies which are assimilated to and
reinforce bourgeois law and property relations.

The problem is: (i) that this insight can contribute
to the development of a new form of ethical life only
in a minimal sense, and (ii) that merely to conceive

of the possibility of a new form of ethical life is,
on Hegel’s terms, epistemologically unjustifiable.

The contradiction within Hegel’s project registered
here takes us to the heart of Rose’s understanding,
and defence, of Hegel’s concept of speculation.

The reason it is unjustifiable even to conceive of
an alternative form of ethical life is that to remain
critical epistemologically, consciousness must posit
no form of relation between itself and its objects
which does not arise ‘naturally’ out of its selfreflection upon the objects present to it in phenomenal knowledge. And, as we noted above [53], Rose’s
‘materialist’ appropriation of Hegel denies that the
dialectic of consciousness is spontaneously selfgenerating, understanding it instead as the source
of speculative experience. (Despite her description
of Hegelian philosophy as ‘the definitive political
experience’, in fact in contradiction to it, Rose
acknowledges the political impotence of philosophy
when she says that the ‘possibility of becoming
ethical’ depends on neither the recognition of determination, nor on any moral decision, but on a ‘transformation of intuition’ [54]. The determination of
which is, of course, by definition, beyond the
individual consciousness.) So ‘absolute ethical
life’ (the social ideal) is an ‘unstatable’ alternative [55]. What is more, even in this empty, abstract
form it is unjustifiable.

Simply by virtue of being an alternative, Rose
argues, however unspecifiable, the concept of the
absolute ‘contains an abstract imperative’, a moment
of Sollen (‘ought’) [56], despite itself, despite its
purely negative derivation. For once it has been
derived it cannot but present itself to consciousness
as an alternative. Ironically, it is precisely the
need to avoid the ‘abstractness’ of a ‘positive’

alternative (one which is ‘posited’ by consciousness,
and unrelated to the existing state of things) which
leads Hegel to defend an unspecifiable alternative,
that is ultimately equally ‘abstract’ insofar as it
too presents itself to consciousness as an ‘ought’

despite its phenomenological derivation.

But rather than rejecting the standpoint of consciousness as a starting point because of this contradiction, Rose acknowledges it and accommodates it
within her exposition. It is here that the originality of her interpretation lies. Rejecting both
‘right-‘ and ‘left-wing’ Hegelianism as attempts to
resolve the contradiction by unjustifiably adopting
one of its sides and neglecting the other, she
embraces the contradiction as definitively characteristic of Hegel’s thought, calling it ‘the paradox of
Hegel’s philosophy of philosophy’ [57], and taking it
to show that an element of Sollen, of ‘ought’, of
epistemologically unjustifiable striving for an
alternative state of affairs, must be present in
philosophy, and that this is quite consistent with
Hegel’s critique of Kant. This element of Sollen
is taken to appear as a subjective limitation on
speculative experience.

The argument is that once it has been acknowledged
that the ?~solute cannot be thought (c8Dnot become
present to consciousness through its objects [58]
while the dichotomies which its concept transcends
remain a feature of the world which our consciousnesses
inhabit, ‘we can think the absolute by acknowledging
the element of Sollen in such a thinking’ [60],
speculatively. This restatement of the idea of
speculative experience from the point of view of its
practical aspect reveals the unity of theoretical
and practical reason in the unity of the epistemological and practical limitations from which speculative experience suffers. Such experience is presumably only subjectively limited in the sense that its
objectively determined limitations appear as limitations of the subject.

So, ‘thinking the absolute’ speculatively is some13

thing of a Pyrrhic victory, both sociologically and
practically. For while the acknowledgment and explanation of an unjustifiable element of Bollen in
speculative experience reasserts its theoretical
consistency, it also serves to emphasise both its
theoretical and practical impotence [60]. This is
particularly clear from a comparison of Rose’s
description of Hegel’s idea of the vocation of
philosophy with her understanding of his philosophy.

Philosophy, we are told, has the vocation ‘to
present a notion of law to our abstract consciousness
which will re-form ethical life without being reformed by it’ [61]. It ‘urges us to transform
ethical life by re-cognising the law of its determination’ [62]. This re-cognition, it is argued,
‘commends a different way of transforming [it]’ [63]
from that of the arbitrary and tyrannical imposition
of a new form without regard to determinations of the
existing form – a mode of transformation paradigmatically represented by the Terror of the French Revolution, and taken to be theoretically articulated in
the categorical imperatives of Kant’s and Fichte’s
practical philosophies. But philosophy cannot
specify concretely what this new mode of transformation is. And so, I would argue, it cannot bring
about such a transformation. A ‘notion of law’

will not transform anything.

Rose describes Hegel’s new mode of transformation
as ‘transforming the specific determination in relation to the totality of its real possibilities’ [64].

No further specification is possible, because of the
law of the determination of ethical life whose formal
recognition is seen to lead to recognition of the
necessity of such transformation, the specific form
of which would determine the mode of transformation,
is, by definition, unknowable in any ordinary sense
of the word ‘know’. It can only be known as the
negation of all forms of determination which presuppose the independence of condition from conditioned. Hegel thus ‘commends’ an ‘unstatable’ alternative, and ‘urges’ us to seek it through the transformation of determinations which are ‘unspecifiable’!

This is where Marxism comes in.

The attempted incorporation of Marxist theory
within Hegelian phenomenology which Rose undertakes
is necessitated by the fact that, despite indications
to the contrary, Hegelian phenomenology is incapable
of generating knowledge of the concrete determinations
which give rise to the correlation between forms of
consciousness and forms of social relations which it
presents, and by the fact that such knowledge is
necessary If speculative experience of the deformations of natural consciousness is to lead to a
transformative practice based on (rather than simply
against) objective social determinations. But there
is a fundamental contradiction here. For the absence
from Hegelian phenomenology of a theory of objective
social determination is no accident. It is a consequence of a particular epistemological argument, the
one from which the phenomenological form is itself

This argument maintains that to avoid the ambiguity, and practical impotence, of quasi-transcendentally established, Kantian, metacritical theories of
the social determination of consciousness, the standpoint of consciousness must be criticised immanently.

In a phenomenology, the critique of the standpoint of
consciousness is achieved, exclusively, through its
adoption; through its ‘presentation’ in a form
designed to reveal its limitation. Such an adoption
of the standpoint of consciousness is theoretically
incompatible with any social theory. It involves the
presentation of social forms (forms of social relation) in a form designated to provoke the reading
consciousness into experiencing their determination
of the forms of consciousness to which they correspond and along with which they have been ‘presented’.


It does not involve a social theory. ‘Theory’ is
precisely what it rejects.

Rose’s ambivalence towards Marxism centres on this
problem of the status of theory, and of the theoretical status of Marxism. It is the result of her
strident critique of the philosophical foundations of
Marxism, as they are presented in Marx’s early writings. Her argument is that because of the inadequacy
of his conceptualisation of the theory-practice
relation, Marx ‘misunderstood the relation between
his own (later) discourse and the possibility of a
transformed politics’ [65]; that he misunderstood the
meaning of his own discourse. She does not object to
the analysis in Capital, but to ‘any presentation of
that analysis as a comprehensive account of capitalism, … any pre-judged, imposed “realisation” of
that theory, any using it as a theory~ as Marxism’

[66] .

Now, it seems to me that what we have here is a
straightforward confusion, and false identification,
of the realms of theory and practice, in the idea of
‘theory’ which is presented. The idea of Marxism in
the above quotation quite unjustifiably, and almost
incomprehensibly, identifies the theorisation of an
object, as opposed to its ‘presentation’, with the
‘pre-judged, imposed realisation’ of some theory of
how that object ought to be. No allowance is made
for mediations between social theory and politics.

And it is assumed that the theoretical structure of
Capital is such that it takes social reality to be an
‘object’ and ignores the subjective aspect of its

Rose’s problem is that she has no other conception
of theory. Marx is placed within the Kantian problematic on the basis of a cursory reading of a few early
texts, in which his philosophical position is neither
fully developed nor discussed at any length [67].

But this negligent treatment of Harx (compare it to
the care lavished on the details of Hegel’s most
obscure works!) is not contingent. For “Rose’s maintenance of the subject-object problematic of modern
epistemology, while it allows her to conceptualise
the mediation of the objective within the subjective
(phenomenologically), rules out the possibility of a
theoretical mode in which the subjective is mediated
within the objective, and this is the only possible
form of a materialist theory of subjectivity, culture
and politics, which aims to go beyond the mere recognition of the ‘deformation’ of existing forms of
phenomenal knowledge to theorise their real determinations and possible modes of transformation. The
Hegelian approach which Rose adopts excludes the
possibility of an understanding of Marx.

Conclusion: The End of Philosophy?

If Capital is not ‘a comprehensive account of capitalism’, or at least the beginnings of, and basis for,
such an account, what is it? And how can it be of
use to a theory which aims to present the contradictions between capital and culture, to expose capitalism as a culture? I do not think that there are
answers to these questions which do not involve the
abuse of basic hermeneutic standards in the reading
of Capital. But where does this leave Hegel and
Hegelian phenomenology?

The short answer to this question is ‘outside
Marxism’. Rose’s’ cri tical Marxism’ is incoherent.

But her idea of Hegelian phenomenology is not. It is
merely limited. It represents the end-point of modern philosophy; a point at which the self-critique of
epistemology has reached its limit, and from which it
can progress no further, condemned to eternal repetition, the never-ending production of a speculative
experience of society which remains trapped within
the confines of the perspective it knows to be false

[68]. For through her critical reading of Hegel,
Rose has arrived at just that point at which Adorno,
whose path was more tortuous, came to rest: recognition of the fact that the essential negativity of the
dialectic of consciousness means that it can have no
resting place, can secure no ‘true’ knowledge [69].


But while the reiteration of such a position may clear
our philosophical consciences, and represents a timely
reminder of the fallacy of epistemological absolutism,
it remains impotent in the face of contemporary


An earl ier version of this essay was read to the Philosophy Society at
Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology in February 1982. I would 1 ike
to thank those present on that occasion, and Chris Arthur, for their comments
on the draft.








The strangeness of this phrase when taken outside of its strictly pedagogical
context is particularly appropriate here, since it locates Rose’s project
most precisely while at the same time questioning its coherence. (For while
historical materialists may be friends of the dialectic – practitioners,
hopefully – are they ‘friends’ of the idealist dialectic?) The phrase at
once asserts and subverts the idea of materialisJ11 .. It raises the problem
of subjectivity. By reconstructing the idealist dialectic as a dialectic
of consciousness in the interests of materialism, Rose too raises the
problem of sUbjectivity. However, as I hope to show below, by accepting
the construction of such a dialectic exclusively from the standpoint of
consciousness, despite the fact that material determinations are acknowledged, the phenomenological dialectic which Rose sanctions is incapable of
sol ving this problem which i t so acutely poses.

O’ne of the implications which can be drawn from such an understanding of
Rose’s text is that while the phrase ‘materialist friends of the idealist
dialectic’ registers a central philosophical problem of materialism – the
problem of subjectivity – it does so in terms of categories which give rise
to it, but through which it cannot be solved. In this sense, Joe HcCarney
is right to use the phrase to define a particular theoretical task, but
wrong to suggest that it can be used to define a problematic. The construction of a problematic within which the problem of which it is an index can
be coherently posed is the task! I would therefore suggest that RP becomes,
not ‘the house ;ournal of “the materialist friends of the idealist dialectic”,
but the house j~urnal of those concerned to deconstruct and then reconstruct
the enigma of which that phrase is the mark.

(Cf. J. HcCarney’ s correspondence, RP30, pp. 51-52.)
HCS, p.l.

HCS, p.220.

HCS, p.2l4-220.

Cf. Habermas, J., Knowledge and Human Interests, 2nd edition, H. E. B., London,
1978, Part One, ‘The Crisis of the Critique of Knowledge’, pp.1-63.

Habermas, J., op.cit., p.vii.

Rose does not discuss Kortian’ s book, though she does refer to it in a footnote as ‘an excellent discussion of Habermas’ (HCS, ft.18l to ch.l, p.228).

Elsewhere, it has been described as ‘too static and one-sided’ because of
its attempt to ‘thoroughly Hegelianise Habermas’ (Kellner, D. and Roderick,
R., ‘Recent Literature on Critical Theory’, pp.14l-l70, New German Critique
23, p.165). But it is for just this reason that it is useful here. It
highlights the originality of Rose’s reading of Hegel and demonstrates its
effect on the philosophical foundations of Critical Theory.

Kortian, G., Metacritique, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p.29.

ibid., p.32.

Cf. HCS, Chapter 1, pp.1-47.

Cf. Horkheimer, M., ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’, pp.188-243, Critical
Theory: Selected Essays, trans. ~I.J. O’Connel, New York, 1972.

Kortian, G., op.cit., pp.29-30.

‘Metacritique is true critique, or rather, it is what critique becomes
when it is made radical’ – Kortian, G., op.cit., p.29.

HCS, p.14.

HCS, p.185.

Kortian, G., op.cit., p.30.

Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Hiller, Oxford, 1979,
p.47. .

Kortian expresses this distinction very clearly when he says: ‘It is precisely by virtue of what is articulated through speculative experience that
the discourse of the speculative proposition is to be distinguished from
theoretical enterprises which are content to bring together different
positive fields, and to pass from one to another by a transference (metaphopa) which produces a synthesis in the metaphor and not in the concept.’

Kortian, G., op.cit., p.28.

HCS, pp.27-33.

HCS, p.37.

Hegel, G.W.F., op.cit., p.47.

HCS, p.44.

HCS, p.42.

HCS, p. 42 .

HCS, p.47
For an account of the expositional, rather than strictly deductive, structure of transcendental arguments, cf. S. Kl:frner, ‘On the Impossibility of
Transcendental Deductions’, Monist 51, 1967.

HCS, pp.45-46.

HCS, p.46.

Hegel, G.W.F., op.cit., p.52.

Hegel, G.W.F., op.cit., p.54.

HCS, p.46.

HCS, p.158.

RCS, p.181.

RCS, p.153.

HCS, p.181.

HCS, p.182.

‘Absolute knowledge is a path which must be continually traversed’, HCS,

The phrase is Kortian’s. Kortian, G., op.cit., p.28.

Rose’s claim is that ‘to see the determination in the act is to see beyond
the dichotomy between act and non-act’. HCS, p.205. The claim is crucial,
for it is the experience of ‘seeing the determination in the act’, which it
is claimed that only a phenomenology can give rise to, that is the basis of
Rose’s idea of political (educative) experience, which in turn is the basis
of her critique of Marxism.














HCS p.49.

HCS, p.49.

This ‘Hegelian’ semantics hardly seems as original as Rose
appears to suggest. By referring to the ‘purely formal’ positive aspect
of determinate negation, I mean that it is positive insofar as it offers
the limited truth about an object, that it is not some particular thing.

I do not mean to imply that I agree with Hegel that a new form immediately
arises, i.e. that the dialectic of consciousness is spontaneously selfgenerating (cf. Hegel, G.W.F., op.cit., p.5l). Nor is Rose committed to
this position. By construing spirit as a ‘structure of recognition’

rather than a metaphysical entity, she is absolved from the sin of making
the Idea the subject of history. However, as we shall see, this undermines
her claim for the political significance of phenomenology.

By referring to the ‘purely formal’ positive aspect of determinate
negation, I mean that it is positive insofar as it offers the limited
truth about an object, that it is not some particular thing. I do
not mean to imply that I agree with Hegel that a new form immediately
HCS, p.150.

HCS, p.152, parthenthese added.

HCS, p.159, first emphasis added.

HCS, pp.59-73.

HCS, p. 121.

HCS, p.l06.

It is not clear to me how Rose can account for those texts
which ‘think the absolute as subj ect’ or ‘adopt the standpoint of the
collectivity’ since they transgress the ‘critical’ rule of relentless
negati vi ty. It is for this reason that it only seems possible to understand her reading of Hegel as ‘revisionist’, for it seems to invalidate a
number of his mature texts. Not that this is a bad thing, of course; to
attempt to render all of Hegel’ s texts consistent with each other, and to
defend them, would be a bizarrely ahistorical, and futile, enterprise.

HCS, p.50, emphasis added.

He’S, p.209.

HCS, p.220.

HCS, p. 208.

Indeed, Rose describes this as ‘the overall intention of
Hegel ‘s thought’.

See note 42 above.

HCS, p.65.

HCS, p.202.

HCS, p.78, parentheses added.

RCS, p.78.


While the absolute cannot ever be an object of consciousness, it is
suggested that it could be ‘known’, ‘naturally’ in a society that was
socially transparent insofar as each ‘obj ect’ of consciousness, each
piece of phenomenal knowledge, would contain and display its mediation
of every other aspect of phenomenal knowledge, thereby giving the absolute
in full, in a certain sense. This is the (purely formal) idea of absolute
ethical li fe.

HCS, p.204.

The, at least formal, theoretical consistency of Rose’s position has not
been grasped by other reviewers, who have accused her of fall ing back upon
a left-Hegelian reading, and have then noted the inconsistency between such
a position and other claims made for her reading. Such readings of Rose’s
text fail to get to grips with its central point, because they underestimate its subtlety. Berki, for example, thinking that he is arguing
against Rose, concludes his review with the statement that Hegel ’emanates
only “restlessness” but no direction’, inferring from this, ‘he is not
“contra sociology”‘. But the whole point of Rose’s reading is to show
the compatibil ity of Hegel’ s ‘restlessness’ with his contrariness to
sociology, and thereby to specify ppecisely the way in which Hegel’ s thought
is restless. Berki ignores rather than refutes Rose.

This kind of misunderstanding is compounded by Rose’s use of the
expression ‘speculative thought’, and her, at times unqualified, insistence
that such ‘thought’ is thought of the absolute. It is most clearly revealed
in the ‘Yes, I did’, ‘No, you didn’t’ character of the exchange between Rose
and Hawthorn on the question of whether Rose actually shows the absolute to
be thinkable. As I argue here, Rose seems not to fully grasp the significance of her own position. (Cf. Berki, R.N., ‘Thinking the Absolute’, TLS,
23/10/81, p.1242; Hawthorn, G., London Review of Books, Vo1.3, No.21, and
the exchange of letters between Rose and Hawthorn, LRB, Vo1.3, No.24.

HCS, p.184.

HCS, p.187.

HCS, p. 201, parentheses added.

HCS, p.191.

HCS, p.2l9.

HCS, p.2l9.

The section on ~larx, ‘The Culture and Fate of Harxism’, is only six pages
in length. Apart from a reference to the GpundPisse to support the misleading claim that ‘Marx saw the appeal of art as eternal and ahistorical’

(HCS, p.2l6), the latest text referred to is the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’,
which is treated, quite unjustifiably, as if it were a definitive statement
of Marx’ s philosophical position. In general, the issue of the ‘philosophical’ status of Marxism is treated as if it were quite unproblematic.

(For a detailed, and brill iant, reading of Marx’ s texts up to 1848, which
addresses the dual question of the meaning of philosophy for Marxism, and
its fate within Marxism, see Labica, G., M=xism and the Status of
Philosophy, Harvester Press, 1980, trans. Soper, K. and Ryle, M..

insistence on peading Marx, in the fullest sense of that term, produces an
account of his early writings which emphasises the fact, and complexity, of
the conceptual development they embody. Rose, on the other hand, both
treats these texts as homogeneous, and considers that they represent the
philosophical framework in relation to which the later, ‘economic’ works
acquire their meaning.)
Cf. HCS, p.182: ‘Absolute knowledge is a path which must be continually
traversed. ‘

Cf. Adorno, T., Negative Dialectics, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, trans.

E. B. Ashton. Rose’s own account of Adorno’ s thought (The MeZancholy
Science, Macmillan, 1978) provides an interesting point for a comparison
of Adorno with Rose’s Hegel.


Download the PDFBuy the latest issue