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Apr 7, 2015


Ramon Valls Plana is, without a doubt, a fascinating philosopher because of the difficulty and need to create a "we". It is not merely because in his highly influential 1971 book he interpreted Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit as a process of "From I to we". This is not simply a good metaphor (although it is an excellent one), nor merely a very good interpretive line, or even a line of academic research (which it also is). "From I to we"makes explicit the main personal and philosophical concern of Ramon Valls: how can a "we" be possible?What sort of "we" can pacify the "I"s and avoid a war of all against all?

Valls is not interested in just any kind of "we", but a very specific one, political, real, effective, and most of all, one which reins in violence, and he forcefully rejects other attempts to construct a "we" based on church, class, culture or nation, a civil society of "I"s, as a moralist option and, ultimately, as an emotion. 

All of Ramon Valls’s work, personality and intellectual activity has  been deeply marked by the thinking of the need for a "we-state", a legal and co-active institution seen as the only effective alternative to the barbarianism always found among humans. As a realist in politics, Valls does not deceive himself, and knows that the conflicts of interest exist within the institutions of the state itself. But as a Hegelian idealist he believes that the state makes the conflict objective and in the end can pacify it (even if it is through the "peace of the cemeteries") and carry it over to the "judgment of history" (Weltgericht). This question was omnipresent in his classes and debates, and can be seen between the lines of many of his public speeches.

The need, yearning or "saudade" (Portuguese term, with positive and negative connotations, which no doubt perfectly describes Ramon Valls’s relationship with the "we") that Valls considered the true "we" is a vital clue to his personality and biography. A Catalan without a country, marked from his early years by a brutal civil war and postwar period, he entered the Jesuits (traditionally accused of being "a state within a state", from whom he would later separate, among other things because, like Hobbes, he accepted the state as "God on earth", that is, as the only real and effective human absolute. Like many of his generation, Valls suffered for a long time from the absence and the anguishing impossibility of a "we" worthy of the name, able to peacefully shelter the "I"s which were pitted against each other.

The impact of history

The generation that came about during the Civil War of 1936-1939 and the post war period was fascinated by the need to create a "we", which would avoid social fragmentation, was profoundly marked by the barbarity and executions without trial on both sides, soon replaced by the barbarity and executions with a mockeny afair of justice by the victors. To the "Cainism"between the "two Spains" or the protogenocide against republicans, "reds", anarchists, liberals and historical nationalisms like the Catalan, the Basque or Valencian, one must add hunger, fascism, systematic discrimination and corruption, contraband... and World War Two. As if that were not enough, the Catholic church, together with the traditional oligarchy, controlled the political, economic and cultural current. 

As the Francoist regime lengthened the impact of these conflicts and shortages until well into the transition to democracy, the metaphor of "we" or "from I to we" fascinated generations of students. The choice of this metaphor permitted Valls to connect with and explain Hegel in simple everyday language, with common sense and, as we will see, a provocatively brutal manner, in conscious contrast to the abstruse Hegelian panlogicism.

Evidently, Valls is not the only one who needs a "we" which avoids social fragmentation and a war of all against all. This need presides over a period of more than 50 years. It profoundly marked the generations that lived the "era of catastrophes", as in Eric Hobshawm’s excellent metaphor. They were whole generations marked by a very strong fear of war, but also a need for a true "we". The two things were correlative and so strong that they tended to turn authoritarian drifts into a lesser of two evils, as the pacifying and disciplinary effect of "we" was seen as more important than its effect on liberation or recognition.

Brutal style

Without a doubt, one of the features we most admired in Ramon Valls’s classes was the contrast between the very speculative and convoluted Hegelian philosophy (the core of his teaching and research) and the forceful, direct, colloquial style with which he explained it. A "lectio microphilosopica", worthy of the finest universities and a perfect interpretation which didn’t miss a concept, comma or dot over an i, and was contrasted with a lively style of everyday examples, up to date and macrophilosophical, which avoided academicism. 

This was a strategy he chose to make himself understood, not to become prisoner of the cryptic, wrought Hegelian language and to demonstrate that he could be understood clearly. At the same time, his argumentative style was very personal. Valls was not a Hegelian in his manner of expression; both in his teaching and the major part of his written work, he shows a style closer to common sense than to Hegel. We could offer many examples, but few are as clear (and so often repeated orally and in written form) as the sarcastic, pedagogical comment of the dialectic between the serf and the noble after they found two "monkeys riding". Throughout this article there will be opportunities to show this style. Now we move on to our main theme.

Panlogicism and panagonism in Hegel and Valls

"Attributing Auschwitz or the Gulag to illustrated reason is, more than an exaggeration, a provocative falsehood (...). Barbarities should never be blamed on reason, but on the lack thereof".

Both in Hegelian thought and in its expression two great arguments and approaches to reality are superposed; the panlogical and the panagonistic6. Panlogicism is the essential supposition that reality is rational, and therefore logos is the presiding entity. Reality can be explained speculatively by showing the logical links that unite all and form the philosophical system. On the other hand panagonism has the underlying supposition that reality moves dialectically and that, as a result, it is shown through negativity, conflict, agon, struggle, war and the Heraclitian polemos. Valls considers one of Schelling and Hegel’s major contributions to be "putting negativity into the absolute".

The difficulty in understanding Hegel lies in two viewpoints and discourses that need each other and progress as a result of a dialogue between them. We tried to show this in our thesis (counterposing the logic and empiricism of the story) which Ramon Valls supervised. He had masterfully shown how the awareness that comes from experience in Phenomenology of the Spirit lives in a "panagonic" way (to use our terminology) which is totally diverse from the "we" who coldly narrates the "scientific" result of the experience of that awareness, showing the underlying rationality and "panlogicism".

So our main thesis is that Ramon Valls has a similar structure in his thinking. He can only conceive reality as an "agon" and human nature as inevitably panagonist. In Del yo al nosotros he reminds us that even absolute knowledge, the "field of reconciliation of consciences" (...) is the result of a long road of pain and struggle, with oneself and with others, to overcome the isolation of individual consciences. It is a process of freedom from the partiality of perspectives." Undoubtedly linked with the traumatic experiences indicated before, this profound panagonism, with its corresponding anguish and despair, made an alternative necessary to minimize the "terribleness". We believe that this is the role of "we" in Valls’ thinking and, because of the shared social traumas, in that of his generation.

It is possible that something similar occurred to Hegel himself, but it is clear that the panlogicist option, with the construction of a totalizing system absolutely framed by the logical dialectic, would seem incredible even to a convinced Hegelian like Valls. Possibly he would end up closer to a Heraclitian dialectic or agonism, which is more open than the Hegelian and doesn’t presuppose a synthesis or panlogcial reconciliation; or even a Fichtian one, which assumes the uncontrollability of the personal agonism9. Therefore, one cannot say that the effective, political institutional "we" with a monopoly on violence, which Valls aspired to, was Hegelian "panlogicism". It seems that both the Hegelian "panlogicism" and the "we" of Valls are responses to a similar shared "panagonism", as are Hobbes’s Leviathan or the long road to Kant’s "cosmopolitan society"

Ramon Valls’s thinking is characterized by a profound panagonist vision of humanity, pacified by a forceful (but also desperate) rationalist discourse. Undoubtedly, this is not Hegelian panlogicism, and we believe that the "brutal" style also shows a profound discomfort with both this panagonism (we’re merely monkeys on horseback", he said) and the real possibility of a better solution in a "we" worthy of the name.

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