PleasantvilleAnnual Conference of the Hegel Society of Great Britain, 6–8 September 1999, OxfordThe Hegel Society of Great Britain annually ensconces itself in the fortiﬁed quaintness of Pembroke College, Oxford, whose charms of exclusivity are as menacingly kitsch as its dining table mats, which picture an idyllic escape that is merely the quadrangle outside, as if to insist to even those seeking distraction from dinner conversation that there is nothing beyond this heritage experience. In the junior common room, the opening address promised a more comparative and contemporaneous conference than previous years. A division of labour was suggested in which more purely philological and historical investigation of Hegel would be ceded to comparable organizations in Germany, while the British Society would concentrate on Hegelʼs relevance today. However, if this signalled an emerging incest taboo in the self-preservative logic of the Society, the gestures towards exogamy were largely shy of the transgression required of experiences of recognition.
Thus, Catherine Malabou (a student of Derrida) recounted her discovery, through an investigation of the concept of ʻplasticityʼ, of Hegelʼs seemingly anticipatory resistance to deconstructive readings. Jason Gaiger ridiculed Dantoʼs post-philosophical thesis of the end of art through a defence of Hegelʼs relevance to contemporary art in his account of artʼs sensuous particularity. Although Gaigerʼs agnosticism towards philosophical aesthetics as such (himself practising a kind of philosophically informed art criticism) made this a problematic defence. Dieter Wandschneider ventured the perilous thesis of Hegelʼs relevance to contemporary natural science. Although his admission that he had only looked for those instances where Hegelʼs philosophy of nature was conﬁrmed and not those where it was contradicted indicated a rather dogmatic limitation to speculative logic.
However, if the gestures towards transgression often turned out to be a policing of boundaries – implying that just as philosophy prior to Hegel was to ﬁnd its fulﬁlment in him, so philosophy after Hegel is to have been preconceived in him – there were nonetheless many fascinating and inventive papers and there was much to learn. The problem of Hegelʼs concept of nature proved a recurrent theme. Nicholas Walker gave a fascinating paper on Hegelʼs concept of Universal History, arguing for its distinction from claims to a naturalistic metaphysics that have often been the source of its infamy. William Maker proposed that Hegelʼs account of the ethical relation to the other could be found in the relation of autonomy between logic and nature. Although the objection that this merely presented a model of exclusive indifference was difﬁcult to refute. Another theme, which was well presented by Kenneth Westphal and Bob Brandom, was the increasing recourse of post-analytical philosophy to Hegelʼs writings, largely through the ﬁltering lens of pragmatism, in order to help resolve various antinomies of naturalism, particularly where Hegelʼs dialectic of recognition enables a critical enrichment of pragmatismʼs utilitarian critique of naturalism. Whether pragmatism can survive this infusion was left for listeners to query.
The Hegel Society of Great Britain appears to be thriving in its cloistered locale. The combination of Hegelʼs increasing signiﬁcance for Anglophone philosophy with the Societyʼs, albeit hesitant, openness to contemporary traditions promises much.
Scientiﬁcally challenged Annual Conference of the Society for European Philosophy, 8–10 September 1999, CambridgeIn his opening address Andrew Bowie noted that, while the conference did not have an overall theme, a signiﬁcant number of panels dealt with the relationship between philosophy and the sciences. This is an issue which is rarely explicitly thematized in Continental philosophy. The topic is close to my heart, so I listened to Bowieʼs comments with a mounting sense of excitement. I imagined a kind of turbulence in the air, as if a giant pendulum had swooped across the room. Were we about to witness a questioning of the consensus on the anteriority of philosophy to science and the birth of a new approach?
Sadly, no. Despite a few hopeful signs – such as Adam Beckʼs paper on Heidegger,
Iain Grant on Schelling, and the ﬁnal plenary session on ʻrealismʼ and ʻanti-realismʼ – it became increasingly clear, as the days went by, that what I had fancied as a swing in the direction of a renewed engagement with the sciences was really just the movement of a large axe being dropped into the grinding position.
In a panel on ʻPhilosophy and Science in Nineteenth-Century Idealismʼ, Alison Stone began by explaining that, in his Philosophy of Nature, Hegel suggested that the task of philosophy is to construct a systematic account of the world from the raw materials provided by the natural sciences. This sounded promising. However, she went on to show that, in so far as constructing such a system involves modifying the claims of the sciences by highlighting their contradictions, philosophy, as Hegel understood it, is capable of producing its own kind of knowledge of nature which beats the sciences at their own game.
The panel on ʻNietzsche and Scienceʼ proved to be equally disappointing. What I had hoped would be a much needed examination of Nietzscheʼs indebtedness to the science of his era turned out to be a trawl through Nietzscheʼs often contradictory pronouncements on science, philosophy and art. On this occasion, it was art that emerged as the winner, with philosophy and science coming in second and third place respectively.
The conference ended with a plenary session on ʻRealism, Science and Continental Philosophyʼ involving Neil Gascoigne, Alessandra Tanesini and Christopher Norris. This was a disconcerting experience. For although each of the speakers was meant to represent a different philosophical position, I found myself agreeing with them all. I felt like a compass in a magnet factory. I began to suspect that what was at stake here was not any substantive epistemological issue, but a claim concerning the boundaries between disciplines. This was conﬁrmed when a member of the audience complained about the ʻcolonizationʼ of philosophy by the sciences, insisting that scientiﬁc descriptions of the world were parasitic upon phenomenological accounts. In a world in which philosophy and the humanities tend to be undervalued (and, therefore, underfunded), fear of scientiﬁc imperialism is understandable. But the position wonʼt be improved by turning the tables.
For those with no particular interest in this issue, there was much else to enjoy. Continental philosophy may be somewhat retarded in its thinking about the sciences, but a brief glance at the programme showed that it is still a rich and diverse ﬁeld of inquiry, with panels on almost everything imaginable – although I was alarmed to notice that the subject of gender was missing. There were, however, a signiﬁcant number of women presenting papers. All in all, it was an enjoyable and well-organized conference. So, happy anniversary SEP – and many happy returns.
Next yearʼs conference will be held at the Tottenham campus of Middlesex University, London, 6–8 September 2000.