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Jeffrey Church, Infinite Autonomy: The Divided Individual in the Political Thought of G.W.F Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche

Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. 270pp. ISBN: 9780271050751. $64.95 (Cloth)

Reviewed by Matthew Bennett


I would venture that there are few greater opportunities for interesting comparative work in the history of philosophy than that granted by Hegel and Nietzsche. This is largely due to the fact that any careful consideration of the two will eventually lead to questions about the nature of comparative work itself. Both Hegel and Nietzsche were profoundly concerned with the role that the influence and legacy of thought could play in the identity of a thinker (her “world-historical significance”), and, perhaps more importantly, both were heavily preoccupied with understanding the nature of difference, identity, and how we understand ourselves in relation to others. If Deleuze, responsible for the best known comparison of the two, got anything right about Hegel and Nietzsche (and I think he did), it is that they were opposed on the issue of how to think of opposition itself. For Deleuze, Hegel was the proponent of a “slavish” identity that consists in opposition to others; I am who I am only insofar as I am not you. Deleuze’s Nietzsche, on the other hand, was the proponent of “noble” self-affirmative and unmediated identity; whether or not I am different to you is irrelevant to who I am. Though we might not agree with Deleuze’s characterization of their differences, both Nietzsche and Hegel are undoubtedly concerned with the notion that there is a better and a worse way of thinking about our difference to others. For those who have the courage to take on this difficult terrain, a Hegel-Nietzsche comparison has the potential not only to tell us something interesting about two proper names in the modern history of philosophy, but also to raise fundamental questions about identity, difference, and comparison as such.

Of course not every interesting comparison of the two need tackle these difficulties, and not every Hegel-Nietzsche comparison will have such lofty ambitions. There are, at my count, three possible aims for a good Hegel-Nietzsche comparison: enhance our understanding of either Nietzsche, Hegel, or both, through a relevantly circumscribed comparison of their work; solve what Daniel Breazeale (following Karl Joël) dubbed the ‘Hegel-Nietzsche problem’ (to what extent and in what way are Nietzsche and Hegel’s thought opposed or reconcilable?); or improve our thought on a philosophical issue with the help of a comparison of Nietzsche and Hegel’s approach to that issue. Rather ambitiously, Jeffrey Church’s Infinite Autonomy sets out to meet all three of these aims.

With focus on how both Hegel and Nietzsche understand individuality, and how both of them show why individuality is good for us, Church seeks to enhance our understanding of Hegel and Nietzsche’s work (particularly their understanding of selfhood, their account of the need individuals have for communities, and their critique of late-modern politics), show us some of the significant ways in which the two agree and disagree, and advance a model of individuality that is preferable to other philosophies of self. These primary claims of the book are argued for most explicitly in the final chapter (chapter seven), while chapters one to three and four to six offer the supporting readings of Hegel and Nietzsche respectively. Church attributes to both Hegel and Nietzsche an “historical individual” model of selfhood, which consists of three claims: individuality is not an innate property but is cultivated; it is a standard of the good life; and it is not possible without the right kind of community (3-4). It is this model of individuality that bears the weight of Infinite Autonomy’s ambitions: explaining Hegel and Nietzsche’s versions of this model will contribute exegetical insight (“In eliciting this shared notion of individuality, this book contributes also to the historical scholarship on Hegel and Nietzsche,” p.4); showing the similarities of their historical individual theses will show a hitherto unacknowledged Hegelianism in Nietzsche’s work (“My aim is to challenge the traditional account portraying a radical opposition between these two thinkers,” p.4); and defending the historical individual model will give us reason to adopt this model over others for consideration in our political theories (see especially the concluding chapter).

Of Church’s three goals the book is most likely to satisfy his scholarly aim to advance our understanding of Nietzsche and Hegel, given that most of Infinite Autonomy consists of textual exegesis. The three chapters on Hegel rely heavily on the Philosophy of Right to reconstruct his criticisms of a natural theory of individuality (attributed to Hobbes and Locke) and a formal theory of individuality (attributed to Kant and Fichte). Church gives a version of Hegel’s argument for the constitutive role for community in fully realized individuality (roughly, the distinctively human individual will be subject to norms, and community acts as the primary source for contentful norms), and argues that corporatist political activity is the best way to engage with that community. The three chapters on Nietzsche attribute to him the view that the distinctively human realization of the will to power will avoid both brute animality and social conformism by living a noble life in accordance with self-legislated norms. According to Church’s reading, Nietzsche believes that achieving such a life would meet the post-Christian task of redeeming mundane suffering, providing reason to live both for ourselves and for our community without religious support. Church finally maintains that, for Nietzsche, a state organized effort to undertake this redemption would be a mistake, and that the project of becoming the great or noble individual, and thus redeeming suffering without religion, is to be facilitated by—but not to be achieved by engaging in—politics (thus establishing the primary difference for Church between Nietzsche and Hegel).

Much of Church’s reading is, I think, uncontroversial. However moments at which Church does attempt to engage critically with extant scholarship fall short of the mark. Regarding Hegel, Church’s attempts to respond to the debate between metaphysical and non-metaphysical readings will be found wanting (especially as Church repeatedly characterizes the metaphysical reading as attributing something “spooky” to Hegel). Moreover Church’s reliance on the Philosophy of Right as the primary statement of Hegel’s thought on individuality should at least be questioned in light of William Dudley’s work, which has argued persuasively that Hegel himself considered the account of freedom in the Philosophy of Right as limited and insufficient (William Dudley, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Philosophy: Thinking Freedom [Cambridge University Press, 2002]). Regarding Church’s reading of Nietzsche, much of it consists of claims that are already very familiar: Nietzsche does not advocate a return to unreflective brutishness; Nietzsche thinks that the right kind of life is lived by aesthetic standards; Nietzsche wants us to organize the chaos within us by following a principle of narrative unity. As Church himself notes, this last claim in particular echoes a body of literature that began in 1985 with Nehamas, and has continued in David Owen and Aaron Ridley’s work. Contrary to Church’s scholarly aim of advancing our understanding of Nietzsche, his account of this well-established reading does not, on the most part, add to this literature.

Despite the fact that much of Church’s exegesis retreads old ground, there are some moments of insight in Infinite Autonomy that are worth further consideration. The implicit Hegelianism of Church’s reading of Nietzsche drives the most interesting claims made in Infinite Autonomy, particularly its emphasis on the normative character of the distinctively human life, and lack of attention to this issue in the literature means that this point is still in need of such emphasis (it was only last year that Clark and Dudrick, for instance, acknowledged that the “space of reasons” is appropriate to Nietzsche’s understanding of human behavior). Church’s Hegelian reading of Nietzsche also leads to some more controversial moments, which, although distinctive, may need further defense. Church claims, for example, that Nietzsche’s great individuals realize themselves not just through redeeming their own suffering, but also by redeeming the suffering of all others. This means, in short, that for Church’s Nietzsche the flourishing of the few requires the flourishing of the many (see p.185). Though the argument is somewhat understated by Church it is one of the most important of the book, both because it is the most novel element of his reading and because it could overcome a serious challenge to reconciling Nietzsche and Hegel’s thought. Church tells us that Nietzsche believes a society will only lift itself out of post-Christian nihilism if someone develops herself into a new (non-Christian and non-moral) exemplar for all to follow. This would be, in Church’s terms, redemption of the community. He infers from this that those who achieve Nietzsche’s ideal of fully realized individuality must also achieve this redemption of a community. But the problem is that this is a questionable inference; though it follows from Nietzsche’s thought about what would be best for a society that this society needs a great individual, it does not follow that the great individual needs a society. Some might insist that the benefits for a society are at best accidental to the accomplishment of the great individual, and that Nietzsche’s ideal of flourishing does not require the redemption of the community (See for instance Thomas Hurka, “Nietzsche: Perfectionist” in Brian Leiter and Neil Sinhababu, eds., Nietzsche and Morality [Oxford University Press, 2007]). At any rate, the Hegelian elements of Church’s reading result in some controversial claims and would have benefited from a more detailed defense.

Church also passes over a number of questions about the viability of the theories he attributes to Nietzsche and Hegel, questions that need to be addressed in order to properly assess the “historical individual” theory. Wouldn’t the corporatist politics advocated by Church’s Hegel reduce our individuality to impoverished, functional identities? Can realizing my distinctive humanity really amount to making “high-quality bread that bears the trace of [my] identity” (104)? And why should we agree with Church’s Nietzsche when he maintains that achieving greatness means following a standard of beauty or nobility rather than a moral standard? Church seems to take for granted that becoming an individual must have nothing to do with being moral, and while this might accord with Nietzsche’s view on the matter, Church does not attempt to show why we should agree with this. The book’s second aim is to persuade us of the merits of the “historical individual” theory and Church’s strategy for meeting this aim is to reconstruct the versions of that theory he finds in Nietzsche and Hegel. However this strategy can only meet that aim if he can also show us that we should agree with Nietzsche and Hegel, and the book could do more to convince the reader of this.

More detailed defense of Infinite Autonomy’s controversial moments would also have helped meet Church’s third aim: to show that Nietzsche is more Hegelian than has been hitherto acknowledged. If the elements of his reading of Nietzsche are those same elements that are insufficiently defended, then it is unlikely that any of us who do not already think of Nietzsche as Hegelian will be persuaded. But it’s also unlikely that he can meet this aim given the literature that has previously attempted to show the affinity between Nietzsche and Hegel’s thought. Though Church intends to show us something new about Nietzsche’s common ground with Hegel, there is a worry that Infinite Autonomy identifies similarities between the two  already covered by Breazeale, Houlgate, Jurist, and particularly Dudley (Daniel Breazeale, “The Hegel-Nietzsche Problem,” Nietzsche Studien Vol 4, 1975, pp.146-164; Stephen Houlgate, Hegel, Nietzsche and the Criticism of Metaphysics [Cambridge University Press, 1986]; Eliot Jurist, Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche: Philosophy, Culture and Agency [MIT Press, 2000]). Church doesn’t situate his reading carefully enough within literature that has already addressed the “Hegel-Nietzsche problem,” and his attempt to argue for a Hegelian reading of Nietzsche particularly lacks any real engagement with the position, put most forcefully by Deleuze, that “There is no possible compromise between Hegel and Nietzsche” (Giles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlinson [Continuum, 1986] p.195). The result is a book that claims a distinctive quality in its Hegelian Nietzsche but reaches a conclusion similar to that of existing Hegel-Nietzsche comparisons, and in doing so sidesteps the serious challenges to this conclusion presented by opponents in the literature.

There are, I suggest, good reasons to think that much more would be needed to make a significant advance on the Hegel-Nietzsche problem, and moreover good reasons to think that the most interesting potential here lies not in emphasizing their similarities and reconciling their opposition, as Church and others have, but in consideration of their most productive differences. We might accept that both Hegel and Nietzsche think a fully realized individuality would need communal norms, and need a community to establish those norms. But Nietzsche would certainly challenge Hegel to show why this community should be universal, rather than a select elite few that serve not just to constitute the rules of my game, but also to raise that game. Equally, Hegel’s claims about the need for the recognition of others might raise questions about the possibility of Nietzsche’s independent, untimely philosopher. Perhaps it is the case that considering the hard questions these two raise for one another is a more productive way to respond to the Hegel-Nietzsche problem.