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Hegel on Love

The contrast between arithmetic and love is instructive. Arithmetic allows for the free
substitution of one number for another, while love insists that no possible substitute for the
beloved exists. The moment anyone suggests the adequacy of a substitute, we know that they are
not in love. Similarly, love rejects counting. Anyone who adds up the number of partners that she
or he has had has lost touch with love. Mathematicians may be great lovers, but they aren’t great
lovers as mathematicians. Like love, conceptual thinking refuses a merely external relation
between identity and difference. To put it in the language of love, conceptual thinking in Hegel’s
sense refuses to use the other but rather identifies itself with the other insofar as the other
remains recalcitrantly different. In this sense, every act of love is a failure to integrate the
difference of the other into the identity of the subject, while every conceptualization is a failure
to integrate the difference of the other into the concept. This failure defines love and the concept.
Love and the concept are the names for the way that otherness disturbs identity. Hegel is the first
to see that the failure of the concept to integrate difference is actually its success, that there is no
success beyond this contradictory identity. He arrives at this insight as a result of seeing love,
rather than mathematics, as the model for the concept. There is no identity outside this
disturbance, no pure identity. Each love relation and each concept fail in a specific way that
gives them their identity. Neither love nor the concept promises a mystical connection to the
other. The unity that they provide does not erase the contradictory status of the relationship. The
other’s difference remains difference that disturbs both love and the concept. This disturbance is
crucial to Hegel’s understanding of love and the concept, and it gives both their revolutionary
status. Everyone knows the dangers of falling in love. Not only can one endure trauma when the
other abandons the relationship, but even a successful love relationship leaves the subject’s
satisfaction in the hands of the other. Though no concept has suffered a lifetime of anguish after
being spurned by its beloved, the structure of the risk in love and the concept is actually the
same. Rather than marking a point of thought’s mastery over being, the concept is the moment at
which thought faces the test of being. Concepts, for Hegel, are not just thoughts. Concepts of
pure thought would be akin to an imagined love affair and equally unsatisfying. Just as the lover
must work up the courage to talk to the beloved, the concept must prove itself in being. The
drama of the concept’s actualization is integral to the functioning of the concept. In order to be a
genuine concept, the concept must be actual.

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One can see the clear link between love and the Hegelian concept through parallel suspicions
that both arouse. Not only are both suspect, but they arouse precisely the same suspicions. Even
while we live in a capitalist society that proffers love as the primary ideological lure and
bombards us with unending inducements to love, widespread suspicion about love also
predominates. Many suspect that love offers us the image of an encounter with otherness while
actually providing an opportunity for us to love our own ego through the other. From this
perspective, love functions as an alibi for narcissism. Psychoanalytic theory, for one, makes clear
the connection between love and narcissism. Though he also acknowledges the possibility for an
authentic form of love that transcends the limits of the narcissistic relation, Jacques Lacan argues
that loving the other functions primarily as a detour for loving oneself. He argues that love is
‘loving oneself through the other – which, in the narcissistic field of the object, allows no
transcendence to the object included’.9 Lacan is not alone in his suspicion about love as a way of
avoiding rather than encountering the other. This position has become almost commonsensical in
an era that constantly figures love as the ideal commercial product. It seems hopelessly naïve not
to harbour suspicion. A related suspicion about the concept and conceptual thinking exists
alongside this suspicion about love. Rather than engage with otherness, the concept seems to act
as a tool for the perpetuation of sameness and the simultaneous elimination of difference. So
many contemporary thinkers evince wariness about the concept because they believe that it
closes down an openness to the other that is possible through nonconceptual stratagems of
thought and perception.

In today’s arena, however, moral suspicion of the concept has eclipsed epistemological concerns.
The concept has become the emblem for the erasure of otherness through the imposition of
identity. The enduring popularity of Michel Foucault stems in large part from his suspicion of the
concept, which he analyses as an instrument of power (even before he takes up power as the
explicit focus of his thinking). As Foucault sees it, the concept enacts the colonialism of modern
thinking. In The Order of Things, Foucault writes, ‘Modern thought is one that moves no longer
towards the never-completed formation of Difference, but towards the everto-be accomplished
unveiling of the Same’.11 One of Foucault’s primary targets in this work – perhaps the primary
target – is Hegel (and his descendent, Jean-Paul Sartre, Foucault’s contemporary). As Foucault
sees it, Hegel’s doctrine of the concept in the Science of Logic does not chronicle the encounter
with difference but its thoroughgoing subjugation. Hegel performs a sham engagement with
difference that ultimately reveals difference as significant merely for the role that it plays in the
development of sameness. The concept is the vehicle for epistemic conquest

The shared critique of love and the concept makes explicit the affinity that emerges for the first
time in Hegel’s philosophy. There is, of course, a difference between falling in love and thinking
conceptually, but the difference is not as dramatic as we tend to believe. Conceptual thinking, as
Hegel theorizes it, is not just an act of intellectual imposition on indifferent or even recalcitrant
material. It is the form of the subject’s transformative engagement with the other, an engagement
with repercussions for both the subject and its other. Suspicions about love and the concept seem
well founded, but they have the opposite result from what they intend. Refusing love and the
concept closes down access to the other’s disruption at the exact moment one calls for respecting
this otherness.

‘Love’, in which Hegel describes the relationship of the two beings in love. Love, for Hegel in
this fragment, has the effect of uniting while not eliminating what initially exists as separate. The
result is separateness without separation

Love for Hegel has nothing to do with narcissistic self-affirmation through the other. It is rather a
profound disturbance for the subject’s identity. Hegel’s definition of love has a radicality that he
would sustain in his love-inspired definition of the concept. He writes, ‘Love can only occur
against the same, against the mirror, against the echo of our essence’.24 When the subject loves,
it doesn’t just seize the other but encounters the other as a disturbance of the self. In this way,
love defies the mirror relation to which critics would want to confine it

For the loving subject, objectivity no longer confronts the subject as an opacity that the subject
can never penetrate, as it does for Kant. Instead, love identifies with the most obscure objectivity
and reconciles the subject with it. According to Hegel, ‘Only through love is the might of
objectivity broken, for love upsets its whole sphere. The virtues, because of their limits, always
put something objective above them, and the variety of virtues an all the greater and
insurmountable multiplicity of objectivity. Love alone has no limits’.37 Love has no limits
because, in contrast to duty, it has the ability to identify with the difference of the other without
eliminating that difference. In other words, love enacts and sustains contradiction. The
contradiction of love is the identity of identity and difference, a contradiction that animates love
rather than destroying it. In the case of duty, the situation is reversed. The opposition between
duty and the external world becomes a contradiction that leaves duty always unaccomplished.
The contradiction of duty renders duty, for Hegel, a position that constantly undermines itself
since it cannot integrate this contradiction into its structure. Love is able to succeed at exactly the
point where duty fails. Love’s success consists in its ability to endure contradiction and even to
find its essence in it.

In love, the subject identifies itself with the other’s difference, but this identification does not
eliminate the difference. It creates a disturbance in the subject’s identity that transforms that
identity, revealing that identity is never isolated. Love is possible because the relation to
difference is already part of identity even before the subject falls in love. But love makes this
difference explicit.39 In doing so, the contradiction of identity becomes evident.

Rather than relying on the law to bind us together, we recognize the bond that occurs through
love. Love reveals that our relation to the other is never an external relation but always an
internal one that shapes our own identity. Love announces the subject as divided in itself and
thereby invaded by the other. The Christian commandment of universal love becomes in Hegel’s
eyes the enactment of contradiction. I am both myself and other. It enables subjects to engage
with the disturbance of the other as constitutive of their own identity
does not mean to love him as much as yourself, for self-love is a word without meaning’.41
Christ’s commandment doesn’t make sense to Hegel because he conceives love as necessarily
involving the other. As a result, Hegel’s interprets Christ’s commandment as signifying that one
must love the other as a being akin to oneself, not as a superior or an inferior. The other must be
an equal in order to enable the subject’s identity in difference. Hegel’s rewriting of the Christian
injunction indicates that his investment in love stems from its introduction of a radical difference
into the subject’s identity. For Hegel, it is impossible to love oneself: love always involves an
investment in an otherness that would negate the subject. Through its call for love, Christianity
makes clear that identity is constantly involved with what would negate it, and love is the
experience of this involvement.