Friday 9 March 2012

Our review of a biography of Jacques D'Hondt

This post is a review of Fiorinda Li Vigni's recent biography of the French Hegel scholar Jacques D'Hondt, originally posted on the discussion list, where it gathered a little reaction.

Fiorinda Li Vigni.  Jacques D’Hondt and the Journey of Hegelian Reason. Paris: Harmattan, 2005.


I recently came across an interesting book on the prolific French Hegelian Jacques D’Hondt by Italian scholar Fiorinda Li Vigni. The title in English is Jacques D’Hondt and the Journey of Hegelian Reason (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005) originally published in Italian in 2001, though it also contains an interview with D’Hondt by Li Vigni from 2002 and a complete bibliography of D’Hondt’s writings from the 1960s to 2005. D’Hondt was born in 1920 and I think is still alive. [Note: died 2012.] His work has been translated into several languages, but in English only Hegel in his Time: Berlin 1818-1831 (1968) appeared, translated by John Burbidge in 1988 and a short article ‘On Rupture and Destruction in History’ in the Magazine Clio (Indiana, 1986). There are several things worth saying of about equal importance, so in no particular order:

Firstly, a lot of Italian work on the history of philosophy has appeared recently, including Andrea Bellantone’s  Hegel in France (2011) and Filoni’s book on Kojève that I discussed on this list . The Italians seem to train philosophical scholars well in history and languages and support them financially and these books are part of the fruit of it. Their work is more interesting than that of native French scholars to my mind, as the French currently seem to look to analytic philosophy as a model - partly as English is so widely taught and posts in American universities are so well funded I suspect - at the expense of their own traditions. So Italy is a good place to look for a modern example of how to support philosophical work.

Turning to D’Hondt, Li Vigni reports that he was born in 1920 and taught in Poitiers (above) in western France, where the main French centre for Hegel studies was based for many years. His interest in Hegel arose from Marxism, but he has long since gone beyond any doctrinaire approach. In the wake of the French ‘Hegel-Renaissance’ of the 1930s (Wahl, Hyppolite, Kojève, Sartre, etc) which drew from existentialist readings, he sought to ‘rehabilitate’ Hegel more fully for a French left wing audience in three ways – his politics, relations to French literature and his religious views. Firstly, he rewrote Hegel’s biography, stressing Hegel’s positive response to the French revolution and liberal views in the Berlin period. This biographical work he characterised as a ‘police investigation’ and included a study of Hegel’s masonic acquaintances, a version of which I think made its way into English in the work of Glenn Magee.

Hegel's Politics

On the political question, Li Vigni draws attention to the subsequent publication of student notes of Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of right by Karl Heinz Ilting (1973) which confirm to some extent D’Hondt’s views that Hegel was more liberal in his spoken views than in the published Philosophy of Right (1821) which had to pass the Prussian censors. D’Hondt seems to draw on Prussian police records, though these seem to relate more to Hegel’s students than to Hegel himself. Some of these lectures have appeared in English and French since 1973 and they clearly might add something to our understanding of Hegel’s politics. In terms of the accuracy of our ideas of the practical situation in which Hegel taught, this is clearly significant work.

Hegel and the French

D’Hondt also discusses Hegel and the French at some length. Much of this is of purely French interest, but it represents a lot of work that has not made it into English probably for that reason. The highlights are that Hegel’s central view of the parts of culture as interrelated owes something to Montesquieu; the description of ‘the way of the world’ in the Phenomenology can be related to Voltaire’s story ‘Le Monde comme il va’. Hegel was influenced in his descriptions of French courtiers by Marivaux and perhaps Fénélon’s Télémache, as well as by Diderot. D’Hondt follows Kojève in making the French revolution a central reference point, but thinks he can identify the histories of the revolution that Hegel relied on to interpret events in the papers.


The last main area of D’Hondt’s interest in Hegel himself is religion. Here he gives some weight to the idea that Hegel concealed his ‘true’ unorthodox views, but he is far from reductive and talks of a ‘double language’ which can be taken either as worldly metaphor or as having a sort of intended metaphysical content.

Evaluation of D'Hondt

Li Vigni then discusses D’Hondt’s work on its own account, as he has also participated in French debates over a period of over 40 years from a broadly Hegelian perspective. She addresses three main aspects of this. Firstly, he has tried to relate Hegel’s concept of dialectic to Bergson’s idea of the temporal standpoint of the agent rather than observer. Personally, I think Bergson’s exposition is ultimately a-conceptual and mystical and thus doesn’t have the potential to add to the sum of human knowledge, such as we find in the dialectical grasp of concrete situations in Hegel. Secondly, she covers D’Hondt’s critique of ‘structuralist’ and ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers particularly Foucault where he argues to some effect that the idea of ‘rupture’ (where one historical epoch or set of ideas succeeds another by force of arms, so to speak, rather than developing as an intelligible response to changing human needs) is inferior to a Hegelian dialectical approach that sees human wishes as giving rise to successive ideologies, which then become ‘set in bronze’ by the ‘understanding’ (Verstand) and hence need to be recast by ‘reason’ (Vernunft). I think this is well said and probably deserves to better known as Foucault is better known in Anglophone academia than D’Hondt. Indeed, this was the subject of the D’Hondt article that appeared in English in Clio in 1986. Thirdly, Li Vigni covers D’Hondt’s approach to French Marxism, where he took issue with Althusser’s metaphors of base and superstructure in understanding ideologies. So much for that.

D'Hondt in his own Words

D’Hondt and Li Vigni state that D’Hondt’s Hegel – Biographie (1998) represents his mature thought and often succeeds his earlier positions. At the end of the interview she asks about the principal changes or breaks in his theoretical views that he has seen or made over his life, particularly recently, on which he has abstained from commenting. He replies:
“A prudent abstention is certainly the right  phrase. Taking account of my personal education, the conditions it was carried out in, the situations it led me into and the consequences of this destiny, I almost always had the impression of not being the best placed to propose and expound any conclusions whatever on social and political phenomena and also on the development of philosophical ideas. For a long time I was a provincial, reduced to a modest and precarious university post and I was very impressed by the sometimes serious, but always brilliant, character of the ideological representatives of my time. And so I always had the feeling that I needn’t bother with it, that it wasn’t my field and that I had simply – and this is what I did – to form my opinions for myself, and then, also, carry out my job as a teacher: to comment on the opinions of others, make them more accessible to a wider public and notably to a public of students who need to be taught.

Consequently, I consciously and voluntarily practised this abstention through modesty, through lack of character perhaps, through human respect, through consciousness of the fact that others were more able than me to carry out this task and that they were in any case better placed to carry it out effectively. There also I was deceived, because the great intellectuals in whom I placed my trust and whom I thought would succeed in resolving the problems that concerned me, they didn’t resolve them either. I very much hesitated to say it, and I only very partially said it, very moderately and almost confidentially. There was in the contemporary philosophers that I knew a sparkling, brilliant attitude – a Sartre, an Althusser - these were astonishing intelligences, wells of learning. They had read everything; they had notoriety, authority; people listened to them. I expected from them that they would answer my questions, not that I would have an answer to the questions of others. If they had replied well to my questions, I would have commented on their replies, so that everyone would agree to them. That didn’t happen. They developed, by and by, doctrines that I found lacking in relation to what I had expected, and at the same time, I had nothing else to propose. So I contented myself by commenting on the great authors, notably the two great authors to whom I devoted myself – Hegel and Marx – and this didn’t fall badly for me. They were truly inexhaustible authors and you can enrich yourself and others in studying them.

In these conditions, theoretical changes are relatively modest. The word “rupture” (break) is not so suitable. There were ruptures at the outset: I broke very young in some way intellectually with my social and cultural surroundings, and then latterly I could break with the narrow character of my first studies. But these are less breaks than extensions. Being who I was, I expanded my activities, I expanded at the end my editorial activity, but these are not really breaks, except then, of course, the final break due to the collapse of “real socialism” [i.e. the Soviet collapse, 1989] and what I had expected from it. There was thus a sort of fortunate enlargement of my way of thinking, of my scholarship, of my activities over a long period, and then at the end a brusque shrinking of all that. There is the state of perplexity. This word is the one I use most of the time to characterise the state I’m in. Not a total perplexity, I still make judgements, here and there, on little things. But I have become even more prudent in what concerns the large problematics.”


So all in all, D’Hondt comes across as a modest man whose Hegel scholarship deserves to be better known, certainly by anyone concerned with Hegel’s politics or his reception in France. Much of his work though – e.g. on Bergson and Foucault - is of local or passing interest. I would take seriously his and Li Vigni’s view that his Hegel Biographie (1998, above) is the best source of his mature views on Hegel, which are thoroughly grounded in a lifetime’s scholarship and independent of those of Terry Pinkard and Horst Althaus. I also draw the conclusion that we should read Hegel himself, as much secondary literature is written from dogmatic or refuted viewpoints.

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