Critical Review

A HEGELIAN PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGEAn Onto-grammatical Interpretation

  • Francis K. Peddle

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  • Francis K. Peddle
    Faculty of Philosophy, Dominican University College, Ottawa

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Cover of Volume 75, Number 2, May–August 2023, pp. 157-315, Science et Esprit

Jeffrey Reid’s goal for Hegel’s Grammatical Ontology is “to discover and show how each form of consciousness involves and reveals itself as a form of language” (xiii, see also 33). This uncluttered and very readable volume follows closely in its eight chapters the structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Miller translation, 1977). Hegel’s Grammatical Ontology has the overall ambience of a commentary. It, nonetheless, reaches out across the full landscape of Hegel’s philosophy and thought. Though it gives us a particular interpretation, the book does serve as an excellent introduction to Hegel’s thought in general as well as to his Phenomenology. The author’s first three chapters discuss the topics Hegel arrays under “Consciousness.” Reid’s Chapter 4, entitled “Self-Consciousness: Predicated Bodies,” reflects on Hegel’s excursus into Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness. Chapter 5, “Reason: Modern Individuality,” gives us the author’s insightful comments on some neglected passages in the Phenomenology. Strictly speaking the “phenomenological” mind, or Phenomenological science, as Reid likes to style it, should end with the chapter on Reason, as those familiar with Hegel’s mature work know well enough. Hegel’s discussions of “Spirit,” “Religion,” and “Absolute Knowing,” in the 1807 Phenomenology are aligned with Reid’s last three chapters. From the standpoint of the Encyclopedia, “Spirit” deals with the finite determinations of the will and its ethical orderings, while “Religion” and “Absolute Knowing” cover the absolute modes of mind associated with art, the religious consciousness, and philosophy in the Philosophy of Mind. In the Phenomenology art does not get an independent section, like in the Encyclopedia and its accompanying lectures on fine art. Nonetheless, there are abundant references to art, the literature of Hegel’s period, and Sophocles’ Antigone, Hegel’s favorite tragedy, scattered throughout this commentary as well as an extended discussion of religion and art in Reid’s Chapter 7 (191 – 202). Generally, the subject matter of Hegel’s Grammatical Ontology takes its interpretive orientation from the “speculative proposition,” which pivots off the ontological nature of the copula, and the ensuing “floating centers” of meaning that align at various stages with the development of consciousness. The author utilizes the term “onto-grammatical,” or as he likes to say “actual, performative language” (123), to connect Hegel’s logico-conceptual treatment of judgment with the varying shapes of the speculative proposition, which is code for Hegel’s unique approach to integrating language with the requirements of his ontology and metaphysics. Hegel’s old friend from his Tübingen days, Friedrich Hőlderlin (Urteil und Sein, 1795), is profitably enlisted by the author in this effort, as well as Johann Fichte (the I = I of the Wissenschaftslehre), co-founder and first rector of the University of Berlin, where Hegel taught in the 1820s. Reid meticulously sticks with his thesis, which is not easy to do in Hegelian studies, and proceeds to give us a rich interpretation of the Phenomenology that should inspire students of Hegel for some years to come. What are the chief difficulties with speculative language that are either ossified or ignored in representational (vorstellen) language, i.e. the limited, rigidified, discursive language of the understanding (Verstand)? Hegel does at various points have specific things to say about language, as much in the Phenomenology (M652 – 653 and many other places, following the Miller paragraphing, which Reid also utilizes), as in the section on representational thinking in the Philosophy of Mind. Representational language stays with the fixed determinations of the understanding and has great difficulty engaging with dialectics and the dynamics of actuality. The analytic understanding invariably ends in dogmatism, skepticism, or sophistry. Dialectics, in its juvenile …