Introduction to Hegel, Zizek & Zeitgeist,
22nd February 2002

by Andy Blunden

In introducing the “Hegel, Žižek & Zeitgeist” Summer School, the fifth in a series of Summer Schools which have combined a study of Hegel with a critical review of contemporary thinkers, I would like to take this opportunity to outline the objectives of the series.

The central objective is to gain an insight into the contemporary crisis of humanity through the study of philosophy.

The first premise of the series is that neither the presenters nor anyone else we know have “the answer”; so the aim of the speakers is to share the results of their own investigations and seek your collaboration in finding a way forward.

In line with this, the presenters have spent some weeks preparing their talk in an area in which they have some expertise, and the series is open to anyone wants to participate in this project, even if they have never before in their lives opened a book on philosophy. The presenters are under an obligation to present the most challenging ideas in way that can be understood by someone who is quite new to the area, and at the same time, challenge even those who are themselves experts in the field. Anyone who comes along is asked to respect the same objectives in their own contributions.

The reason that Hegel has been a central focus of all these seminars is that Hegel is the pre-eminent philosopher of modernity; Hegel’s influence is to be found in all of the philosophers of our time, however it may be mystified or obscured. Hegel was also the precursor of Marx, and a sub-text of all these seminars is a reworking of the fundamentals of Marx — the pre-eminent critic of modernity.


On the idea that an understanding of Hegel is the best possible route to the possibility of a critical understanding of all modern (and postmodern) thinking, the morning session will be devoted to a study of Hegel.

Paul Ashton is currently doing his PhD in Hegel, but is in fact a Hegelian of very long standing, with particular expertise in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, the least understood and least studied of Hegel’s writings. It is Paul’s brief to introduce us all to the basic concepts of Hegel’s philosophy which will inform the discussion for the remainder of the day.

Included with the reading material is the Preface to Hegel’s first complete and most famous work, The Phenomenology. This work is a fine introduction to Hegel’s philosophy in its own right.

What Hegel is talking about is the life of the ideal in human activity. That is to say, the subject of Hegel’s writing is how cultural phenomena, ideals, grow up and develop in the course of and as an integral part of, human history, successively refuting, building on and supplanting one another in the unfolding of history.

It was Hegel who invented the term Zeitgeist or “spirit of the times”. Nowadays, philosophers of postmodernism tell us, no-one believes in progress, the onward march of history and so on, and consequently, for these philosophers of postmodernism, Hegel and his Zeitgeist are definitively passé. The irony, that would be very much appreciated by Hegel if he were around, is that such a formulation only expresses the spirit of our times! or, if we are to believe Žižek, the spirit of a times which has already passed its own use-by date.

Hegel therefore provides the antidote both to dogmatism and also the kind of relativism which we are familiar with in postmodern identity politics and multiculturalism.

Hegel destroys dogmatism because he shows how every view of the world is associated with a whole system of views and way of living which, by force of its own internal contradictions, is sublated and transcended in the course of history and overtaken by some new orthodoxy. Thus Hegel showed us how to place all the different conflicting views in historical context, a kind of supreme historical relativism which led to the idea of Hegel himself constituting the “end of history”, in which all the foregoing steps along the way are summed up in Hegel’s system.

So Hegel also provides the antidote to relativism because his view is supremely historical. One view is not simply equivalent (relative) to another because all ideas are interconnected in unfolding of the history of human culture and society. Even views which are sharply hostile to one another, for Hegel, constitute merely opposite determinations of the same Spirit, the positive and negative of the same proposition.

Hegel did not write the Phenomenology as an academic exercise; he was deeply concerned with the failure of his own native Germany to develop the political freedoms and civil society he saw in the Europe and America of his times, and he was also equally troubled by the terror unleashed by the French Revolution. The Phenomenology was aimed at both working out and arguing for a rational way forward for the European society of his times. After writing the Phenomenology Hegel wrote the mammoth Science of Logic which translated his views of a rational society into the language pure logic, and then somewhat later, he translated the categories of the Logic into political terms in his Philosophy of Right.

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel takes as the fundamental category of humanity, of personality, the relation of property: to be a person, and to be recognised as a person by the community, one had to be a property owner. This is why Hegel is the pre-eminent philosopher of modernity, because he takes as the fundamental category of philosophy, property, even though this move is disguised by making the Logic the foundation of the whole system: the logic which gives itself a material form in Nature, and then comes to know itself through human culture.

This is the subject of Neli’s talk: the philosophical concept of property, how nature gets to know itself as property, how the relation of person-to-person is mediated through material things in the form of property, and how the relation of every person to Nature is mediated through the community by means of property rights.

This is a very live question today as entirely new forms of property come to predominate in our lives; in the service sector, the material aspect of property is highly attenuated as human activity itself becomes the object of exchange, and in intellectual property, the use of knowledge and images becomes subject to property law.

The supersession of the world of manufacturing by the world of information and knowledge poses a challenge to capitalism: how does one pin a price tag on knowledge or any form of human activity if it is not alienated as a material object?

The same processes have also been accompanied in the imperialist countries by the marginalisation of the manufacturing working class which has always been the home base of the socialism. There is no such thing as “immaterial labour” however: all labour must have a material effect. But doesn’t this conjuncture point to the possibility and the necessity of conceiving not so much of the equalisation of property or of public property replacing private property, as of an entirely new concept of property and an entirely new concept of what it means to be human, based not on the ownership of bits of stuff, but immediately on labour activity?

Neli’s talk, taking as its point of departure, Paul’s introduction to the basic concepts of Hegel, should open the way for a discussion which goes to the heart of what it means to be part of bourgeois society and to be able to begin to think about how we could live differently.


Žižek comes from that current of philosophy in France which combined the concepts of Freud’s psychoanalysis with Hegel. To Anglo-Saxon ears this philosophy is often difficult to understand, but it has been associated with the rise of identity politics and the extreme relativism of postmodernism, where nothing is either true or false but simply expressive of this or that subjective consciousness. Žižek is the latest product of this current and is enjoying popularity. When he spoke here at Melbourne University last year, the 350-seat lecture theatre was packed.

The particular interest and attraction of Žižek is that he flatly contradicts all the truisms of this kind of radicalism, and is just about as politically incorrect as its possible to be, and is getting away with it. Davie MacLean’s introduction included with this material gives an excellent outline of Žižek’s position.

Žižek’s latest move is to call for a “return to Lenin”. It has to be said that this is just about the most “unfashionable” thing for a professional philosopher to say nowadays, and it is to Žižek’s credit that he has created an opening where it is possible to be critical of the truisms of contemporary philosophy and even have a discussion about Lenin’s concept of freedom in a way which has not been possible for a long time.

However, what sort of Lenin is Žižek advocating? And does Žižek know what he’s talking about anyway? It is one thing to be outrageous and speak the unspeakable, but surely this is no substitute for a genuine challenge to postmodern society?

Geoff Boucher will lead off the afternoon’s discussion with a critical assessment of Slavoj Žižek, and Davie MacLean will provide a counter-position to open the discussion, and let’s see if we can work out what all this means!

Andy Blunden