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Hegel and Freud


Hegel and Freud have nothing in common, it would seem; there is everything to oppose them. On the one hand: the speculative philosopher of absolute spirit whose system encompassed every sphere of being – logic, nature, and spirit – and who is reputed to be the most obscure and difficult in the entire grand philosophical tradition; on the other hand: a man of medical formation, a therapist who in all his work took clinical practice as his guideline and only gradually extended some psychological insights into larger circles of culture, civilization, and history. On the one hand: not only a philosopher, but a philosopher par excellence, the paradigmatic example of a philosopher who managed to encapsulate in his system all the themes and achievements of the metaphysical tradition; on the other hand: a man of natural science who adamantly opposed philosophy as such and even saw attempts to turn psychoanalysis into a new philosophical current as one of his discipline’s greatest dangers. On the one hand: not only a German, but seemingly a German par excellence, a model of German spirit, or even the Prussian state philosopher, as the adage goes; on the other hand: a Jew who already in his young days experienced the pressure of anti-Semitism and eventually, despite his fame, lived his final days in exile, his books burned by a regime that was, ironically, evoking Hegel. And finally, on the one hand the philosopher who relied more than anyone else in the history of philosophy on the powers of reason, concepts, and knowledge; on the other hand someone who more than anyone else took his cue from something that inherently escapes those powers or presents their fissure – this fissure forms the very object of psychoanalysis, of entities such as the unconscious and the drives.

In this last point there is something that strangely connects Hegel and Freud. They both stand in excess, such that when one invokes their names the temperature rises, it seems that there is no way one could speak about one or the other from the point of view of neutral, objective, and impartial knowledge, to allot them a just place in the gallery of great minds, as if both, although for opposing reasons, represented something that established knowledge—what Lacan economically called the university discourse—cannot quite swallow. Both tend to produce either zealous followers or equally zealous enemies; they still retain the capacity to provoke passions, although the nature of their excesses is opposite. Hegel, the vintage university professor if there ever was one, with an excess of knowledge best epitomized by his claim to absolute knowledge—the moment a form of knowledge stakes a claim to the absolute is a neuralgic point that no university discourse can digest if it is to retain its demeanor of neutrality and objectivity. Freud, with the opposite claim to an errant truth with no guarantee and no usual verification, which denies him academic credentials. In brief, absolute knowledge and the unconscious, two boundaries of knowledge, the upper and the lower—on the one hand, the knowledge that strives to overstep its limits by its claim to the absolute; on the other hand, a hole in knowledge, a slippage of knowledge where desires, drives, symptoms, and fantasies start seeping in. If absolute knowledge and the unconscious still function as unplaceable excesses, what could be their link?

Perhaps one could say, prima facie, that what Hegel and Freud have in common is that they both swear by science. For Hegel, one needn’t look far: he published his first book, The Phenomenology of Spirit, as the first part of a more general work titled The System of Science; his second book was called The Science of Logic; his third book was Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. So “science” is conspicuously his master word. There is a thesis in this: any science worthy of its name should have a philosophical underpinning, and any philosophy worthy of its name should raise the claim to science, so that ultimately, philosophy and science should coincide in synonymy. For Freud, the science that he is after should by no means become philosophy and will only be able to maintain its scientific claims if it stays clear of philosophy. He saw himself emphatically as a man of science, but of a science as far apart from Hegel’s notion as could be.

Their attitudes toward science can be further illustrated by two anecdotal sayings. Hegel notoriously maintained that if facts contradict theory, then “um so schlimmer für die Fakten”—so much the worse for the facts. This can be seen as indicative of the paramount arrogance of a philosophy that takes no notice of such trivialities as empirical data. But for Hegel, facts cannot contradict theory not because of their lowly nature, but because they are always facts only if seized by a concept; a fact can acquire the dignity of a fact only by virtue of a concept that has selected it and represented it as relevant, so that there is no common ground where facts and concepts could meet, no interface between the two, and if there is indeed a confrontation it is only ever between concepts and concepts. Freud’s stance is epitomized by a saying of his mentor in psychiatric matters, Charcot: “la théorie, c’est bon, mais ça n’empêche pas d’exister,” or theory is all right, but it doesn’t prevent something from existing. So something exists in spite of theory, it stubbornly asserts in the face of the concept; the stance would be: do not give way on what presents and re-presents itself in spite of basis of received theories (including Freud’s own, for he had no qualms about jeopardizing his own theories if something continued to exist in spite of them), be it as slight as a slip of the tongue or as intrusive as a trauma and symptoms. And what is the unconscious but something that manifests in spite of all the spontaneous theories that frame our understanding? What is, for example, the death drive but a thrust of pure insistence that can never quite be pinned to facts. But how can one make a theory of what exists in spite of theory, of what is recalcitrant to theory? What kind of universality can one construct on the basis of this flimsy, vanishing factuality, something that vanishes the moment it is produced?

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