God and the Self in Hegel

Beyond Subjectivism

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Paolo Diego Bubbio
SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , July
     242 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“How can Hegel restore content to the idea of God while maintaining Kant’s critical attitude?” (44). That’s the central question of Paolo Diego Bubbio’s fine book,God and the Self in Hegel:

Beyond Subjectivism. The answer arrives slowly, in steps, and by way of detailed analysis of texts—Hegel’s, of course, but also those of his Anglophone readers.

Bubbio’s question isn’t new. Answers to it, of course, divided right and left-Hegelians in the 19th century. Both schools tendered the same answer—“he can’t”—for different reasons. Left-Hegelians focus their denial on the “idea of God,” and right-Hegelians on “Kant’s critical attitude.” A similar opposition superintends the reading of Hegel in our time. One need only witness, Bubbio says, the “metaphysical” (Charles Taylor, Rolf-Peter Horstmann, Frederick C. Beiser) versus “non-metaphysical” (Robert B. Pippin, Terry Pinkard, Robert Brandom) readings on offer today. A primevally Hegelian animus against false opposition inspires Bubbio to advocate a third way. “A qualified revisionist interpretation,” he calls it, “objectively ontic and yet not foundationalist… a mediated objectivity” (63). This approach, Bubbio thinks, allows Hegel to recover “God” without indulging the twin errors of premodern dogmatism or Enlightenment subjectivism.

How? The book’s structure isn’t nearly as stratospherically abstract as its aim. Close attention to that structure, I think, also lends its aim some gravity. The book’s first chapter shows how, despite his Copernican revolution, Kant recommends participation in the divine life—so begins the process of reconceptualizing God. This sets thought moving along two subjectivist tracks—subjective idealism or romanticism—both of which Hegel resists. Hegel admits that the subject introduces content to the object (God). But he denies Kant’s final division between them. Instead, Hegel stresses (and chapter 2 explains) kenosis: God’s incarnation and death demand a God reconceived. No longer a transcendent “other,” God is now the one who sacrifices abstract divinity to become God’s own creature. Chapter 3 goes on to outline Bubbio’s proposed “mediated objectivity” for God. There, Bubbio argues with dispatch and persuasion that Hegel’s insistence upon conceiving God within immanent categories of thought does not restrict God thereto. Rather, it just means that God cannot be thought independently of thought itself. Chapter 4 extends this thesis to Hegel’s analysis of the ontological argument. Here again, we admire Hegel’s twin commitments to religion and critical philosophy. Hegel concedes Kant’s objection that Anselm uncritically presupposes the identity of thought and being. But Kant is hardly faultless: the identity of thought with being belongs among the ontological argument’s deliverances, not its beginnings. Chapters 5 and 6 study the trinity and the death of God as exercises against subjectivism. Bubbio is especially good on the death of God. For Hegel, it’s “real” historically on Calvary, but no less so in critical philosophy’s crucifixion of abstract divinity. Chapter 7 threads Hegel’s theological arguments against subjectivism within his philosophical arguments. Hegel must somehow subdue subjectivism without recalling the subject-object divorce or relapsing into dogmatism. He manages, Bubbio thinks, by thinking God as “indissolubly connected with human beings” (164), a God revealed in Christ. Bubbio now finds the Hegel he needs: a Hegel who restores content to “God” after Kant not by minimizing the claims or dogma or critical philosophy, but by intensifying them.

Bubbio is excellent on a number of points: that William Desmond’s criticisms are outdated and cannot “identify a specific fallacy in Hegel” (106); that—pace Hegel’s uncharitable readers—triads aren’t more fundamental for him than the trinity (124); that Christian dogmata are for Hegel neither simply propositions about ontic realities nor personal pieties, but both at once; that the fact that the concept is philosophy’s result does not mean philosophy can now do without religion (79); that Hegel’s God “maintains himself” through God’s death, which amounts only to “the death of death” (134); and so on. All of this make clear Bubbio’s intimacy with Hegel’s texts and their most important commentators.

Other points, however, seem fuzzier. The connections between Bubbio’s chapters, for instance, most of which he published previously as articles, are not always obvious. His distinction between “figural” and “allegorical” language fails to persuade, if only because the examples he gives for each meet criteria for both (69). And his concluding chapter evaluates the use of Hegel’s reconceptualization of God for the philosophy of religion—a promising coda. But Bubbio spends too much time exorcising devils like new atheism or theistic apologetics, when other, doubtless more hostile, specters menace Hegel’s readers. He notes one such specter in passing: phenomenology often cossets a Kantian discrimination between subject and object (171). Still, Bubbio’s failure to elaborate here makes him seem uninterested in or unaware of phenomenology’s recent acquisition of theology, and the rancor it often nurses against Hegel’s idealism.

Hegel is hermetically difficult. So difficult, really, that even theologians very often prefer poised condemnation or sheer avoidance to, well, reading. Not Bubbio: he shows how to read Hegel well, and that Hegel repays the effort. Were his book to convince theological readers of this only, it would merit its price point. But its gifts are many more. God and the Self in Hegel not only shepherds readers through the fields of Hegel’s (difficult) and his readers’ (still more difficult) texts, but also commends grazing. Readers who seek Hegel’s intellectual nutrients, delights, or both should follow Bubbio’s crook.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin Shaun Coyle is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paolo Diego Bubbio is associate professor of philosophy at Western Sydney University, Australia. His books include Sacrifice in the Post-Kantian Tradition: Perspectivism, Intersubjectivity, and Recognition, also published by SUNY Press.


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