Hegel, Literature, and the Problem of Agency

Hegel, Literature, and the Problem of Agency

Hegel, Literature, and the Problem of Agency

Hegel, Literature, and the Problem of Agency

Synopsis

Allen Speight argues that behind Hegel's extraordinary appeal to literature in the Phenomenology of Spirit lies a philosophical project concerned with understanding human agency in the modern world. It shows that Hegel looked to three literary genres--tragedy, comedy, and the romantic novel--as offering privileged access to three moments of human agency: retrospectivity, theatricality, and forgiveness. Taking full account of the authors that Hegel himself refers to (Sophocles, Diderot, Schlegel, Jacobi), Allen Speight has written a book with a broad appeal to both philosophers and literary theorists.

Excerpt

The present book takes as its aim the uncovering of a certain narrative shape to Hegel's philosophy of agency. Its concern, however, is not with the (unlikely) task of discussing “Hegel as literature, ” but rather with the sort of narrative Hegel thought required by his philosophical interests — in this narrow compass, the interest of an adequate philosophy of human agency.

For Hegel, the question of narrativity and agency loomed largest in writing the Phenomenology of Spirit (PhG), a riddlingly allusive work whose far-from-obvious narrative structure has, by turns, been characterized as that of a tragedy, a comedy, and (perhaps most frequently) a Bildungsroman. What will be of interest here, however, is not a reading that construes the PhG as a whole in terms of a single such genre, or even the development of Hegel's own theory of genres, but rather the question of how literary forms may be crucial to the philosophical project concerning agency that Hegel begins to work out in the PhG.

The Hegelian argument that will be considered here is, briefly, that literature, in its various forms, gives a privileged access to action; that tragedy, comedy, and the romantic novel represent a sequence of essential categories for our self-understanding as modern agents; and that these literary modes open up most particularly for Hegel issues of what I will call the retrospectivity and theatricality of action and of the possibility for an action's forgiveness. Such claims about the importance of literature to Hegel's concept of agency in the PhG may immediately raise for some the usual suspicions about Hegel's alleged ambitions to a “grand narrative” of history and human endeavor. Yet the study of Hegel, and particularly that of the PhG, has recently been reinvigorated in a way that may allow the approach to agency that emerges within it to avoid some of these familiar objections.

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