Hegel, Freud and Fanon: The Dialectic of Emancipation

Hegel, Freud and Fanon: The Dialectic of Emancipation

by Stefan Bird-Pollan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783483013
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 12/26/2014
Series: Creolizing the Canon Series
Pages: 262
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Stefan Bird-Pollan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He has published articles in numerous journals, including Radical Philosophy, Critical Horizons, Philosophy and Social Criticism and Public Reason.

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Hegel, Freud and Fanon

The Dialectic of Emancipation

By Stefan Bird-Pollan

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 Stefan Bird-Pollan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-302-0


Kant, Hegel, Freud, and the Structure of the Subject

In this chapter I give a sketch of what I take to be the theoretical parameters for the current study. I outline the general view of idealism which I take to be operative in the work of Kant, Hegel, Freud, and Fanon. More specifically, the idealism I am concerned with has three elements: the dialectic between inner and outer, the transformation of the material world via the process of desire-satisfaction into structured subjectivity, and finally the idea that these two previous elements can be understood as a process by which the subject integrates itself in order to achieve a proper self-relation. This proper self-relation is understood as autonomy, or freedom.


The theoretical reconstruction offered in this chapter has two broad goals. The first is to show that all three thinkers considered in this study subscribe to the basic idea that subjects constitution is also the project of the achievement of freedom. This shared lineage makes their thinking compatible. The second goal is to distinguish between the different levels of philosophical analysis at which these thinkers work within this common conception. Subjectivity integrates itself at many levels. Conceived of individually, the subject seeks to satisfy its desires with the material world it encounters. Socially, however, the subject seeks to integrate itself in the larger community by harmonizing its desires to those of the community. The integration achieved at one level may put the subject at odds with the integration it seeks to achieve at another level. While the difference between these levels thus presents us with a practical problem total integration is nevertheless an imperative. Indeed, the point is that under the idealist model I employ, there can be no satisfactory subject integration unless the subject is completely integrated, not only within itself as an individual body but within the larger social context as well.

Furthermore, it is my claim that the different theorists I consider in this study contribute in unique but compatible ways to an understanding of this demand for total individual and social integration. While Freud has a powerful theory of the individual project of integration, he is less concerned about the political implications of such integration. Hegel, on the other hand, says little about individual self-integration but has much to say about the larger social questions as well as about the meta-theory of such integration. Hegel also has little to say about psychopathology, a subject that is of central concern for Freud and Fanon. Together, however, these three theorists form a powerful theoretical paradigm that presents both the project of the complete integration of the subject as imperative while at the same time being able to diagnose the problem such a total integration presents to the concretely situated subject.


In this section I sketch what I take to be the critical idealism operative in all of the thinkers I examine in this study. This account centers on the claim that thinking is both a response to the world while also being constitutive of the relationship between subject and world. The idealism I have in mind holds that neither the material nor the conceptual have priority over the other. I will frame this thought in Kantian language since this seems to be more accessible. This account is meant only to give a general indication of the theory of subjectivity I employ throughout this book.

By idealism I mean the idea that the subject plays a central role in the organization of the world. This thought implies a certain view of the subject's agency — namely, one in which the subject is in an important way the author of the organization of the world. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of practical reason, where, quite literally, what I do changes the world, even if only in a small way. This idea of agency is named autonomy by Kant and refers to the subject's ability to be the final arbiter of the norms or rules by which it lives.

Another way to put the thought of autonomy is that the subject is responsible for its norms. That is, when the subject decides to do something, it does so in response to an encounter with nature or the world. Being responsive to the world implies a meeting between mind and world, subject and nature, in which the subject's autonomy is always conditioned by what it encounters. Responsibility can thus be understood as seeking to accommodate the world to the subject's projects in a way that is equally faithful to how the world is and what the subject wants from the world.

Idealism thus always implies an equal consideration for how the world is to the subject and what the subject wants from the world. It is central to the idealist thought, however, that the world is always framed by the subject — that is, that the subject is the starting point for the encounter with the world. Kant puts it thus: "thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind," meaning that thoughts must be world directed in order to have something to be about but it is also only by being reflected in thought that whatever world is (intuition), has meaning for the subject. The core thesis of idealism is thus that subject and world are in an inextricable and dialectical relation with each other.

Idealism thus opposes the one-sided tendencies of both empiricism and rationalism. While empiricism errs too far on the side of taking objects as given in themselves, rationalism errs too far in the direction of believing that thought alone constitutes the true nature of the world. This opposition was neutralized by Kant, who argued that the understanding, the faculty of the mind receptive to experience, stands in dialectical relation with reason, the faculty of the mind which is essentially concerned with agency. This dialectic is radicalized by Hegel at the level of thought itself rather than as different categories into which we separate the world of objects and the world of values.

What, exactly, is the nature of this dialectic itself? That is, what does the subject want from the world, what orients the subject's encounter with the world? Kant's answer is that the subject seeks totality. Distinguishing the faculty of knowledge or speculation from the faculty of practical reason or will, Kant writes, "The interest of [reason's] speculative use consists in the cognition of the object up to the highest a priori principles; that of its practical use consists in the determination of the will with respect to the final and complete end." The goal of the subject, what makes the subject a subject, is that it continually seeks to unify itself into a whole or totality, and hence strives to unify all opposition into itself. But this can only occur when the world is appropriately structured to achieve wholeness, self-integration, totality, or what Hegel calls the absolute.

The idealist position is articulated in many ways by different thinkers but some instances relevant here are the Kantian idea that acting pursuant of the categorical imperative is simply to organize the world according to a normative structure (maxim) that one has determined to be right through one's own rational reflection. For Hegel, Geist, humanity as a whole, builds its own social world by reflecting on the norms that most satisfy its fundamental desires. In Freud, who is not usually considered an idealist, this idealism appears in the axiomatic claim that only by investing the world with meaning can meaningful satisfaction be achieved in it.

Switching registers now in order to relate the idea of striving for unification or totality to a more psychoanalytic and Hegelian paradigm, we can say that this striving for totality must at the same time be understood as the desire for the re- establishment of a lost totality. The key transition is here provided by Hölderlin's conception of judgment, or Ur-teil, which is foundational for Hegel's conception of totality. According to this conception, the meaning of desire itself is the desire to extinguish desire by achieving satisfaction, completeness, or totality. This means that the constructive notion of self-integration as each subject's project is at the same time driven by the experience of lack to which self-integration is the answer. It is this lack that Hegel calls the negative.


In order to head off the misunderstanding that idealism is in some way opposed to materialism (a charge Marx levels), it is important to emphasize that the sort of idealism I am discussing here is necessarily also a materialism. The core thought here is that the striving for totality is a striving that necessarily takes its departure from a material condition, which is simply the fact of materiality, embodiedness. It is, in other words, only because subjectivity is necessarily embodied or material that the subject strives at all. The subject is thus divided between the demand for unity and the material fact of disunity.

This division has the important consequence that in the striving for totality subjectivity is constantly making conceptual sense of the "fact" of its own materiality. In pursuing its fundamental project of self-integration, the subject also makes sense of nature. Each encounter with the world — that is, each encounter with opposition — prompts the subject to take that part of the world up into itself, making it part of its project. Subjectivity is thus an attempt at the rationalization of materiality.

At the same time, however, the subject is made rational by its engagement with materiality in the sense that the materiality subject takes up into itself remains within the subject as a law that gives the subject structure and necessity. That is, materiality has only been properly taken up when nature informs my orientation, not as nature per se but rather as that which has become a norm for me. In other words, I can only be said to be responding to your need (nature) when my response takes that need and transforms it into a (conceptual) solution. In this mind-nature interaction, the subject achieves the compromise between the absolute freedom of mind and the absolute mechanical determinacy of body. Rule, law, or norm is the name given to this compromise.

The full integration of mind and nature is not yet achieved. The striving for integration is thus the subject's constant work to make sense of the world while always falling short of complete integration. This thought, of course, is often put in the language of desire, as I too shall do in this book. Thus, centrally, for Hegel and Freud, subjectivity is the desire for satisfaction as the resolution of the tension between mind's demand for totality and nature's inertia. Desire is thus not, as Freud sometimes tends to think, merely a material interest. It is rather, as Hegel recognizes, a force for subject integration.

It may be in order to say something at the outset about my attempt to connect Hegel and Freud. While I believe that the success of this project depends on the argument as a whole, I should say here what I take to be the stakes of this comparison. It is not my intention to argue that Freud sought to craft a dialectical theory in the Hegelian sense. Freud took himself to be a positivist. Rather, what I show is that Freud's theory can be reconstructed from a dialectical and idealist standpoint and that a theory reconstructed in this way is of significant value for a theory of subjectivity. In pursuing such a reconstruction I stress elements of Freud's theory which Freud himself regarded as highly speculative, such as the theory of the death drive and Eros. It is my contention that it is only with that theory in place that a proper understanding of the metapsychology can be achieved.

To put the point more forcefully, what I am suggesting is that any theory of subjectivity must have a certain structure, moving from the necessary to the contingent, and that this structure is most adequately articulated by Hegel. Reconstructing Freud in the Hegelian mode then is not so much making Freud Hegelian as reconstructing Freud's theory as a theory of the subject tout court. In doing so I am doing what, in another context, might be called the creolization of theory.


As I have just argued, the striving for subject integration is all-encompassing and continual. It is not always clear at what level of description a theorist's account of this process is meant to take place. In order to make orientation a little easier, I will distinguish three levels of analysis of the striving for self-integration, which correspond to the three principal levels of analysis offered by the three theorists considered here: the ontological level, the meta-psychological level, and the psychological level.

The ontological level is the most fundamental level, the level of the basic structure of the subject itself. It is the level of capacity. As I have just argued following Kant, at the ontological level, each subject is capable of self-organization — of responding to the material world with concepts. This basic activity takes the form of the subject's ability to give itself norms. In Hegel, the ontological level is the level at which consciousness becomes conscious of itself as a subject and simultaneously becomes aware of the distance between its material position and its goal. For Freud, the ontological level concerns the basic structure of the experiencing of desire and seeking satisfaction. Hegel and Freud's project coincide at this basic level since both assume that the essential nature of subjectivity consists in being confronted with a problem and having to solve it. The search for a solution has a certain logic that Hegel calls reason but that must reveal itself through experience itself.

The ontological level is a formal level, containing only the barest of content. It is a philosophical abstraction, a perspective on human subjectivity. It is important not to reduce subjectivity to only this level. Indeed, the argument of this study depends on seeing this as only one of several ways of understanding the subject.

The meta-psychological level is the level of the theory of the subject in the most general sense. For Freud it comprises the theory of psychic organization in both the unconscious, preconscious, and consciousness as well as the id, ego, super-ego/ego-ideal structures. For Hegel it comprises the categories — that is, the norms the subject develops to orient itself in the world. Paradigmatically, for Hegel, these categories are the ones developed from self-consciousness to recognition. Importantly for my project, Freud and Hegel have a developmental view of the categories, with each new perspective being born out of a dissatisfaction with the previous way of understanding the world. This is quite evident in Hegel, but Freud's second topology is also a developmental model in which primitive conceptualization in the id gives rise to a more sophisticated conceptual apparatus in the ego and finally comes to completion in the super-ego/ego-ideal.

Each element at the metapsychological level is referred to the other terms as well as to the ontological level. Pathology occurs when the constellation of, say, ego and super-ego inhibits the more fundamental project of desire-satisfaction that constitutes the subject at its core. Pathology is thus simply the relative deviation from a more successful achievement of the self-integration mandated by subjectivity itself. Pathology is, however, also always relative to the other options potentially open to the subject. Similarly, in Hegel, each new category appears as the response to a previous norm that failed to satisfy the subject's desire. The bulk of the analysis offered by Freud and Fanon takes place at this level.

Finally, there is the psychological level. This level is referred to the meta-psychological level and constitutes the level of contingency. The metapsychological organization provides the paradigm for the interaction with the empirical world. The metapsychological level frames the world of contingency and thus informs the psychological level of the individual. The psychological level, we could say, is the level of individual character or personality.

However, and this is central, the subject's psychological interaction with the outside world can and does influence her metapsychological organization. That is, to take an example from Fanon, the simple fact of being treated as inferior by the colonial master means that the black child will fail to develop her super-ego in a way that allows her to achieve satisfaction the way a white child would. The material world thus enters the psyche through psychological formations and is then responded to by the metapsychological norms — themselves formalized at the ontological level as self-integration or desire-satisfaction — which govern personality.

The key thing to grasp in terms of the idealist model I've already sketched is that mind and material world are mediated by the metapsychological and psychological levels. There are, then, strictly speaking, four levels — the ontological, the metapsychological, the psychological, and the material — but since the material level is the level of contingency nothing philosophically interesting can be said about it (though, of course, natural science is concerned with this material level).


Excerpted from Hegel, Freud and Fanon by Stefan Bird-Pollan. Copyright © 2015 Stefan Bird-Pollan. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Dedication / Acknowledgements / Abbreviations / Introduction / 1. Kant, Hegel, Freud and the Structure of the Subject / 2. Trauma and Dialectics / 3.Fanon’s Psychopathology of Race and Colonialism / 4. The Rebirth of the Revolutionary Subject / 5. Hegel, Freud and Fanon’s Theories of History / Conclusion: The Ideal of Recognition, Political and Libidinal / Bibliography / Index

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