Monday, December 20, 2010

Hegel and Gramsci: a brief comment

         It's been a while since I've posted something up here, primarily because of grading, but I've also been trying to finish up a chapter for the dissertation without a great deal of success.  Within that process, I've begun to read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.  I've managed to avoid reading Hegel throughout my undergrad years, as well as my years in grad school, but a couple comments my by Gopal Balakrishnan as well as the recent seminar I took on politics after expectation made me rethink that.  I've only gotten through part of the preface at this point, and its been a mixed bag.  There are moments in the text that remind me why I have been avoiding Hegel for so long, moments that I don't grasp, but there are also moments that are quite interesting.  Section 31 of the Preface is a good example of the interesting moments in the text.  It develops an approach to critical thought that Balakrishnan saw as crucial to Hegel's relationship to Marx, as well as a method of thinking that I had unknowingly adopted from Hegel's work through the work of Marx and, perhaps more directly, Gramsci.  Hegel makes the following assertion within that section.  
       "Quite generally, the familiar, just because it is familiar, is not cognitively understood. The commonest way in which we deceive either ourselves or others about understanding is by assuming something as familiar, and accepting it on that account; with all its pros and cons, such knowing never gets anywhere, and it knows knot why. Subject and object, God, Nature, Understanding, sensibility, and so on, are uncritically taken for granted as familiar, established as valid, and made into fixed points for starting and stopping. While these remain unmoved, the knowing activity goes back and forth between them, thus moving only on the surface. Apprehending and testing likewise consist in seeing whether everybody's impressions of the matter coincides with what is asserted about these fixed points, whether its seems that way to him or not." (Hegel, 18)
     Hegel offers a critique of a mode of thinking that Gramsci would later call 'common sense.'  For Hegel, this mode of thinking is dependent on 'familiarity.'  'Familiarity' allows for the thinker to take the categories of knowledge that produces that sense of familiarity for granted.  The thinker no longer considers the possible problems that might be involved in taking such a category for granted.  Through that absence of a process, thought becomes static, refusing to engage substantively with the causal structures of what is being analyzed.  To engage with those causal structures would demand that the thinker recognize the dynamic qualities of the dialectical process, to recognize that once valid categories of knowledge could have potentially been expelled by the spirit in such a process.  Instead, this mode of thought depends on oscillating between cliches of the familiar, producing a coercive form of consensus about the phenomenon analyzed, whether or not it actually makes sense to those who consent.  It can then lead one on a path to self-delusion, to a lack of critical engagement with the reality of the phenomenon in front of the observer or observers.
     Gramsci pushes this mode of thought farther with his notion of 'common sense.'  Gramsci sees the embrace of these familiar cliches, these static categories of knowledge within political terms.  Instead of operating within the categories of depth and shallowness that Hegel engages with in the following passage, Gramsci insists on seeing these forms of thought as ways of establishing consent for forms of domination within political systems, ways of producing consent for an established order.  Challenging such modes of thought is intimately linked with the process of challenging the logic of a particular political system as such.  Additionally for Gramsci, common sense indicates a 'spontaneous philosophy' that is created not only by experts, but by 'everybody.'  Therefore, forms of common sense simultaneously constitute a sort of voluntary servitude, but it also shows that forms of domination are, to some extent, based on the active consent of social forces, primarily through the often unconscious acceptance of specific categories of thought.  Therefore revolutionary practice is dependent on shifts in epistemology.  He states it in the following manner.
     "In other words, is it better to take part in a conception of the world mechanically imposed by the external environment, i.e. by one of the many social groups in which everyone is automatically involved from the moment of his entry into the conscious would (and this can be one's village or province; it can have its origins in the parish and the 'intellectual activity' of the local priest or aging patriarch whose wisdom is law, or the minor intellectual soured by his own stupidity and inability to act)?  Or, on the other hand, is it better to work out consciously and critically one's own conception of the world and thus, in connection with the labors of one's own brain, choose one's sphere of activity, take an active part in the creation of the history of the world, be one's own guide, refusing to accept passively and supinely from the outside the molding of one's personality?"

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