Dialectics Beyond Dialectics

Translated by Cain Elliott and Jan Burzyński

by Malgorzata Kowalska (Author)
©2015 Monographs 273 Pages
Series: Modernity in Question, Volume 8


Dialectics beyond Dialectics is a study of contemporary French philosophy from Bataille to Derrida. It analyses, on the first level of generalization, the decomposition of Hegelianism understood as philosophy of totality. Many French philosophers of the 20th century deconstruct Hegelian dialectics and harshly criticize the very idea of totality as either dangerous or impossible. The thesis of the book is that, on doing so, they do not really break with dialectics, but transform it. On the second level of generalization, the issue of the book is modernity and the thesis is that transformations of dialectics reveal transformations of modern consciousness which – despite hasty declarations on the end of modernity – still remains ours.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction: On Contemporary French Philosophy, Specters of Hegel, Dialectics, and Modernity
  • Part 1: Specters of Totality
  • Preliminary remarks
  • Chapter 1: The Insufficient Totality
  • Ecstasy Beyond Totality
  • Ethics beyond Totality
  • Chapter 2: The Impossible Totality
  • Un-divine History
  • Inhuman History
  • Chapter 3: The Dangerous Totality
  • Ideology and the Problem of Communism
  • The Crisis of Meta-narratives and the Problem of Capitalism
  • The Ethical Relation and the Problem of Politics
  • Part 2: Specters of Rupture
  • Preliminary remarks
  • Chapter 1: Ruptures with Being
  • Chapter 2: The Ruptured Subject and the Problem of the Other
  • Chapter 3: Ruptured History. Toward Dispersion
  • Part 3: Specters of Dispersion
  • Preliminary remarks
  • Chapter 1: The Differend as the Stakes of Thought
  • Philosophy and Science
  • Philosophy, Language, and Metalanguage
  • Beyond Ethics and Politics: Philosophy as Art
  • Chapter 2: Difference as Repetition
  • Chapter 3: Deconstruction of différance
  • Afterword: Post-dialectics and Postmodernity
  • Main references


On Contemporary French Philosophy, Specters of Hegel, Dialectics, and Modernity

This book deals with contemporary French philosophy, but it is not a historical monograph. It does not follow a principle of chronology or, if it does, only in so far as historical necessity corresponds to the logic of the problem with which I am occupied. As for the authors I invoke, I do not claim to put forward an exhaustive discussion of their philosophical oeuvres or all the significant aspects of their thought. Indeed, their philosophical legacies are treated more or less selectively. For my aim is not to present some individual authors, particular works or currents in philosophy, but rather a general panorama of contemporary French philosophy in a perspective which may seem – and to some extent undoubtedly is – limited, but which nonetheless allows for the disclosure of a process of considerable theoretical significance that is by no means confined to French philosophy itself.

On the first level of generalization, what comes into play here is the decomposition of Hegelianism. To be sure, the history of the process is much older than all philosophical propositions marking the book’s scope of reference, since, at least in Germany, it began shortly after Hegel’s death.1 Nevertheless, during the second half of the twentieth century this process has both accelerated and radicalized – a process which found its most dominant manifestation in the very French thought which, for the most part, can be described as post- and anti-Hegelian. Post-Hegelian is not invoked in the trivial sense of simply having begun after Hegel, but rather in that it is deliberately situated and defined in relation to his philosophy or – as I have said elsewhere – because it has been infused with the specters of Hegel.2 In turn, it is anti-Hegelian for an obvious reason that, although at a deeper layer its relation to Hegel has tended to be very complex, in that it usually has, at least on the level of general statements, defined itself against ← 7 | 8 → him. In the preface to Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze described his work as informed by an atmosphere of “generalized anti-Hegelianism.”3 Indeed, from Bataille to Derrida, through Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Lévinas, Lyotard and Deleuze, French thinkers have never ceased criticizing Hegel. Of course, the very fact that they have taken up this task, again and again, testifies to the heterogeneity of their varying critiques. Depending on the particular premises informing the critique in question, they have varied in scope, type, and direction.

From the perspective assumed in this book, the more or less academic divisions and oppositions, if not breakthroughs, that seem to have marked contemporary French thought (phenomenology and existentialism vs. structuralism vs. “postmodernism”), lose much of their focus. It was precisely the critique of Hegel that has served as a kind of bridge between various succeeding and coexistent strands of post-war and even pre-war French philosophy. Moreover, the forms of struggling with Hegel have tended (of course, only to some extent and on a certain level) to be astonishingly similar in very different authors, such as Sartre and Foucault or Sartre and Lévinas, who have often criticized each other and remained, in other respects, philosophical opposites. Roughly speaking, the critique of Hegel in contemporary French philosophy has nevertheless gone through several stages, each of which can be more or less identified with the temporary predominance of a procession of philosophical currents. The main differences between these stages would be located both in the extent of the radicalism of the critique – from the relatively limited and temperate critiques of the existentialists, to the most sweeping and radical critiques of “postmodernist” thought – and in the sets of concepts with (reference to) which the system had been deconstructed. Indeed, it is not hard to see that behind the differences in radicalism were not only distinct philosophical messages, but also different, at least in some respects, conceptualizations of Hegel’s philosophy itself. In general, the evolution of the critique of Hegel in contemporary French thought was not a continuous or accumulative process, but rather a multilayered mutation.

Let us mention straight away the two main types of this mutation, namely existentialism and structuralism. Regardless of the particular form it has assumed, existentialism has always criticized Hegel in the vain of Kierkegaard: especially for underestimating the singular quality of existence, reducing it to merely a moment in a system, and thus for not being sufficiently subjectivist. Structuralism, by contrast, has accused the Hegelian dialectic of being precisely too subjectivist, projecting the functioning of consciousness onto a whole historical process and being as such. From the structuralist point of view, existentialist adherence to the category of the subject still remains exceedingly Hegelian. But one might ← 8 | 9 → reverse the objection by claiming that it is rather the privileging of structure, which is to say kind of system with its inherent “cunning,” over the subject’s intentions, which is actually Hegelian. In fact, these two critical approaches were complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. On a certain level, their conflict remained merely ostensible, stemming from different conceptions of the status of subject. While existentialists only saw the genuine subject in an individual, structuralists identified their incriminated subject first and foremost with a general model of self-knowledge. Hence, the objection of subjectivism put forward by structuralists can be easily be reconciled with the objection of anti-subjectivism put forward by existentialists. But the very fact that existentialists have been allergic to the universalism of Hegel’s philosophy, and structuralists to its universalist-subjectivist character, is nonetheless significant, in that it testifies to a shift in perspective through which the Hegelian system has been approached. This shift produced not only different descriptions of the subject, but also, for example, different conceptions of the status of negation.4

Despite the shift in perspective, the critiques in question did have something in common. And their commonality was measured especially by the fact that, in spite of appearances, they didn’t, at least on a certain level, contradict each other, but rather disclosed different aspects of Hegelianism. Indeed, what has brought the two critiques together was precisely their preoccupation with the same most-general object. This “object” was Hegel’s idea of absolute knowledge and an absolute system, as well as the notion of totality itself. Of course, existentialist and structuralist critiques of totality have followed two different paths: while totality can prevail only at the expense of subject in the existentialist perspective, from the structuralist point of view it is the very subject qua self-knowledge that conditions totality, which turns out to be nothing else than an absorption of being by the sweeping mechanisms of self-knowledge. This difference in approach, let us repeat, involves two distinct conceptions of the status of the subject. But what is more important, perhaps, is the fact that both existentialism and structuralism confront Hegel’s totality with the idea of broken being – a ruptured history and ruptured subject. While the very break or rupture is construed differently in each case, both the strategy and general goal of the critiques remain strikingly similar.

It is precisely this general, and yet not purely formal, similarity, this commonality in alterity, which can be found between structuralist and existentialist models of the critique of Hegel, which prompts me to present a panorama of contemporary French thought in this book in such a way that would attach only secondary importance to established divisions of currents and “schools.” For there ← 9 | 10 → is a more important division, running across those mentioned above, which reveals the very logic of the decomposition of Hegelianism on a level that I believe to be deeper than single controversies between particular currents in philosophy.

The idea of absolute totality thereby constitutes the most general, common denominator of existentialist, structuralist and “postmodernist” critiques of Hegel. One may here distinguish between two basic strategies of struggling with totality. The first – which finds its exemplary form in Sartre, as well as Foucault, and (with the reservations to be mentioned below) Lévinas – can be called the strategy of rupture. The simplest way to describe this strategy is by saying that, contrary to Hegel, it brings out a kind of irreducible distance or break that tears hypothetical totality apart and makes it impossible forever, or that, paradoxically enough, discloses a certain “beyond totality.” The second strategy – already at work in Foucault, but employed, above all, by thinkers who have been labeled (against their will or in disregard to their self-ascriptions) as philosophical postmodernists, namely Lyotard, Deleuze and Derrida: the strategy of dispersion. As distinct from the former strategy, it does not emphasize a radical break between different kinds of being, periods or layers of history, immanence and transcendence, reason and unreason etc., but rather points to the radical multiplicity, variety, and, finally, ambiguity of phenomena.

The relation between these two strategies is not simple. What makes it complex is not only the fact that, in practice, they rarely exist in pure forms, but also that this relation depends, above all, on how the rupture itself is construed. In fact, the strategy of dispersion can become a radicalization of the strategy of rupture. To that end, it will suffice to multiply and reproduce breaks, moving them from one field to another, crossing them with each other and making them split further without an end or apparent direction. This is precisely the path that Foucault seems to follow: from a particular form of dualism that divides being into the historical or rational, and the pre- or irrational which has been excluded or reduced in the course of history (precisely the position assumed in History of Madness), he turns to a radical pluralism explaining history as the “series of a series” of various elements – a series, which is governed by the principle of discontinuity and whose unity is marked solely by the rules of dispersion (the position assumed in The Archeology of Knowledge). In a way, the rupture can be also complemented by dispersion, if the latter is conceived of as a category of description of what has been left “beyond totality” as a result of the rupture. Such an approach can be found in Bataille and, to some extent, in Sartre, who in The Critique of Dialectical Reason attributes the quality of dispersion to matter, that is to being-in-itself. Finally, the strategy of dispersion – already in Foucault, but even more explicitly in Lyotard, Deleuze, and Derrida – can stem from the critique of a certain strategy of rupture and its underlying assumptions. Insofar as the rupture involves negation ← 10 | 11 → or opposition, it still can be seen by all means as Hegelian, making all those who invoke it the involuntary prisoners of the system. Moreover, to agree with Deleuze and Derrida (but also with Foucault, Althusser and Lévinas) that negation, and the rupture it produces, is the function and instrument of totality (since negation, as Hegel required, retains the negated) is also to consider the strategy of rupture as only a perversion of totalizing thinking. This is why, in the first place, the critique of totality will have to be directed against the whole conceptual apparatus with the concepts of negation, opposition and contradiction. Such a critique would make dispersion not simply a multiplication or complement of the rupture, but rather an expression of the blurring of boundaries between all oppositions. Thus, dispersion would mean not only multiplicity, but also, and above all, ambiguity, indeterminacy or overdetermination, and undecidability.

In fact, the problem is all the more complicated. For example, Lévinas generally tends to apply a strategy of rupture, in which all the features of the critique that informs the “postmodernist” strategy of dispersion can be found, especially the critique of the relation of totality to negation. For the author of Totality and Infinity, the rupture, that is to say, the assumed division between immanence and transcendence, the Same and the Other, is by no means an opposition, even if it may seem otherwise. But while behind Derrida or Deleuze’s rejection of the concept of opposition resides in their shared belief that genuine difference cannot oppose anything, if inevitably every possible identity “positively” differs, in Lévinas the same rejection stems from his idea that real difference transcends negation, because it even more powerfully breaks with identity, which, after all, remains a matter of fact. In other words, if Derrida and Deleuze reject the rupture in the name of a play of infinite difference, Lévinas rejects both the Hegelian version of the rupture and dispersed difference in the name of what can be called the rupture of a higher order.

Regardless of the particular forms they assume and their interrelations and interactions, both rupture and dispersion seem to provide major conceptual alternatives to the category of totality. This is why the three parts of this book deal respectively with the “specters of totality,” the “specters of rupture,” and the “specters of dispersion.” The first part, devoted to totality, is perforce essential, and to some extent involves the other two. Although separation of the critique of totality from its particular strategies is required for argumentative clarity, it remains necessarily arbitrary and possible only to a limited extent.

But why “specters”? As I have tried to show elsewhere5 – partly in the wake of and partly against Derrida – the metaphor of “specter” has a theoretical appeal with regard to the decomposition of Hegelianism in contemporary French philosophy. ← 11 | 12 → Indeed, it is hard to resist the impression that since the 1930s, which is to say, since Jean Wahl’s works and Kojève’s celebrated lectures, through existentialism and structuralism, to the “philosophy of difference” or “postmodernism,” French philosophy has been haunted by various specters of Hegel. Specters in at least three senses of the term: a frightening ghost that should be exorcised; a remnant, echo, shadow or trace of a once living presence; and finally, a decomposition or separation into components (as in the optical spectrum). All these senses turn out to be interrelated with regard to the decay of Hegelianism. In contemporary French philosophy – but also abroad – Hegel continues to haunt and many are frightened at the mere mention his name.

But it is only the shadows of Hegel and the effects of decomposition inflicted on the tissue of his philosophy, that, in fact, remain a source of fear: the concepts taken in isolation, threads severed from context, and oversimplified – sometimes to the point of caricature – as mechanisms of the system. At the same time, however, isolated elements, various shadows, echoes, and more or less palpable traces of Hegelianism can be found in those philosophical conceptions which are, to be sure, directed against Hegel, but which nonetheless still operate within the Hegelian framework. As a “spectral being,” a shadow play, Hegel’s philosophy keeps displacing and transforming itself. And it is Hegel, present in his absence, alive and yet dead, constantly torn into pieces, attacked, reinterpreted, variously internalized, opposed to himself, and even turned upside down, who keeps haunting contemporary French philosophy – which is why it is essentially post-Hegelian.

The category of totality is undoubtedly one of the basic categories of Hegel’s dialectics, insofar as the main purpose of his philosophy is to transcend every possible “abstraction,” every form of one-sidedness or partiality. Conceived – or rather postulated – in this way, totality is the condition of a comprehensive, “floating” or dynamic mode of thinking, which continues to transcend its own presumptions and provisional findings, as is essentially non-dogmatic. It is therefore striking that for French (and, of course, not only French) critics of Hegel, it was precisely dialectical totality that became a symbol of dogmatism, limitedness and closure. The concept, to be sure, has been characteristically transformed and oversimplified to the point of being equated with a self-enclosed unity. In fact, it has been turned into an aggressive part, which either suppresses or excludes and leaves beyond itself everything that refuses to be contained within it. No wonder that it continues to haunt. It is a ghostly specter, because it is a shadow-specter and an isolated element of dialectics.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Hegelianismus Totalität französische Philosophie
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 273 pp.

Biographical notes

Malgorzata Kowalska (Author)

Małgorzata Kowalska is professor of Philosophy at the University of Białystok (Poland). She specializes in French philosophy and moral and political philosophy. Her field of interest comprises Sartre, Levinas and other French contemporary thinkers, the idea of democracy and that of Europe.


Title: Dialectics Beyond Dialectics