I found this essay on my computer, written some time ago, and decided – since I haven’t been posting here for a while – that I would go ahead and put it up, although it is not completely polished. Yes, it’s about Hegel again – don’t get too annoyed! – I hope not to write on this topic again for some time. But I do consider here some issues that extend beyond the immediate topic. So –
I like to describe Hegel as the cranky uncle one invites to Thanksgiving dinner, having to suffer his endless ramblings, because there is an inheretance worth suffering for.
Hegel’s language is well nigh impossible. He understands the way grammar shapes our thinking before any training in logic, and uses – often abuses – grammar, not only to persuade or convince, but to shape his readers’ responses, not only to his text, but to the world. After studying the Phenomenology of Mind, one can’t help but think dialectically for some time, whether one approves of Hegel or not. One actually has to find a way to ‘decompress’ and slowly withdraw, as from a drug. (Generally by reading completely dissimilar texts, like a good comic novel, or raunchy verses about sex.)
How did Hegel become so popular, given his difficulty? First of all, he answered certain problems raised in the wake of first Fichte’s near-solipsistic (but highly convincing) epistemology,and then in Schelling’s “philosophy of nature” (which had achieved considerable popularity among intellectuals by the time Hegel started getting noticed). But there was also the fact that he appears to have been an excellent and fascinating teacher at the University of Berlin. And we can see in his later lectures, which come to us largely through student notes, or student editing of Hegel’s notes, that, while the language remains difficult, there is an undeniable charm in his presentation. This raises questions, about how important teachers are in philosophy – do we forget that Plato was Socrates’ student, and what that must have meant to him?
Finally: Hegel is the first major philosopher who believed that knowledge, being partly the result of history and partly the result of social conditioning *, was in fact not dependent on individual will or insight, so much as being in the right place at the right time – the Idea, remember, is the protagonist of the Dialectic’s narrative. The importance of the individual, is that there is no narrative without the individual’s experience, no realization of the Idea without the individual’s achievement of knowledge.
However, despite this insistance on individual experience, Hegel is a recognizably ‘totalistic’ thinker: everything will be brought together eventually – our philosophy, our science, our religion, our politics, etc., will ultimately be found to be variant expressions of the same inner logic of human reasoning and human aspiration.
Even after Pragmatists abandoned Hegel – exactly because of this totalistic reading of history and experience – most of them recognized that Hegel had raised an important issue in this insistence – namely that there is a tendency for us to understand our cultures in a fashion that seemingly connects the various differences in experiences and ways of knowing so that we feel, to speak metaphorically, that we are swimming in the same stream as other members of our communities, largely in the same direction. Even the later John Dewey, who was perhaps the most directly critical of Hegel’s totalism, still strong believes that philosophy can tell the story of how culture comes together, why, eg., there can be a place for both science and the arts as variant explorations of the world around us. We see this culminate, somewhat, in Quine’s Web of Belief: different nodes in the web can change rapidly, others only gradually; but the web as a whole remains intact, so that what we believe not only has logical and evidentiary support, but also ‘hangs together’ – any one belief ‘makes sense’ in relation to our other beliefs.
(Notably, when British Idealism fell apart, its rebellious inheritors, eg., Russell and Ayers, went in the other direction, declaring that philosophy really had no need to explain anything in our culture other than itself and scientific theory.)
If we accept that knowledge forms a totalistic whole, we really are locked into Hegel’s dialectic, no matter how we argue otherwise.
Please note the opening clause “If we accept that knowledge forms a totalistic whole” – what follows here should be the question, is that what we are still doing, not only in philosophy but other fields of research? and I would suggest that while some of us have learned to do without, all too many are still trying to find the magic key that opens all doors; and when they attempt that, or argue for it, Hegel’s net closes over them – whether they’ve read Hegel or not. And that’s what makes him still worth engaging. Because while he’s largely forgotten – the mode of thought he recognizes and describes is still very much among us.
And this is precisely why I think writing about him and engaging his thought is so important. The hope that some philosophical system, or some science, or some political system will explain all and cure all is a failed hope, and there is no greater exposition of such hope than in the text of Hegel. The Dialectic is one of the great narrative structures of thought, and may indeed be a pretty good analog to the way in which we think our way through to knowledge, especially in the social sphere; it really is rather a persuasive reading of history, or at least the history of ideas. But it cannot accommodate differences that cannot be resolved if they do not share the same idea. For instance, the differing assumptions underlying physics as opposed to those of biology; or differing strategies in the writing of differing styles of novel or poetry; or consider the political problems of having quite different, even oppositional, cultures having to learn to live in the same space, even within the same city.
If Hegel is used to address possible futures, then of course such opposed cultures need to negate each other to find the appropriate resolution of their Dialectic. That seemed to work with the Civil War; but maybe not really. It certainly didn’t work in WWI – which is what led to Dewey finally rejecting Hegel, proposing instead that only a democratic society willing to engage in open-ended social experimentation and self-realization could really flourish, allowing difference itself to flourish.
Finally a totalistic narrative of one’s life will seem to make sense, and the Dialectic can be used to help it make sense. And when we tell our life-stories, whether aware of the Dialectic or no, this is to some extent what we are doing.
But the fact is, we must remember that – as Hume noted, and as re-enforced in the Eastern traditions – the ‘self’ is a convenient fiction; which means the story we tell about it is also fiction. On close examination, things don’t add up, they don’t hang together. One does everything one is supposed to do to get a professional degree, and then the economy takes a downturn, and there are no jobs. One does everything expected of a good son or daughter, and only to be abused. . One cares for one’s health and lives a good life – and some unpredictable illness strikes one down at an early age. I could go on – and not all of it is disappointment – but the point is that, while I know people who have exactly perfect stories to tell about successful lives, I also know others for whom living has proven so disjointed, it’s impossible to find the Idea that the Dialectic is supposed to reveal.
Yet the effort continues. We want to be whole as persons, we want to belong to a whole society. We want to know the story, of how we got here, why we belong here, and where all this is going to.
So in a previous essay **, I have given (I hope) a pretty accurate sketch of the Dialectic in outline – and why it might be useful, at least in the social sciences (it is really in Hegel that we first get a strong explication of the manner in which knowledge is socially conditioned). And the notion that stories have a logical structure – and thus effectively form arguments – I think intriguing and important. ***
But ultimately the Dialectic can not explain us. The mind is too full of jumble, and our lives too full of missteps on what might better be considered a ‘drunken walk’ than a march toward inevitable progress.
So why write about it? Because although in America, Hegel is now largely forgotten, but the Dialectic keeps coming back; all too many still want it – I don’t mean just the Continental tradition. I mean we are surrounded by those who wish for some Theory of Everything, not only in physics, but economics and politics, social theory, etc. And when we try to get that, we end up engaging the dialectical mode of thought,even if we have never read Hegel. He just happened to be able to see it in the thinkers of Modernity, beginning with Descartes and Luther. But we are still Moderns. And when we want to make the big break with the past and still read it as a story of progress leading to us; or when we think we’ve gotten ‘beyond’ the arguments of the day to achieve resolution of differences, and attain certain knowledge – Then we will inevitably engage the Dialectic. Because as soon as one wants to know everything, explain everything, finally succeed in the ‘quest for certainty’ (that Dewey finally dismissed as a pipe-dream), the Dialectic raises its enchanting head, replacing the Will of God that was lost with the arrival of Modernity.
That is why (regardless of his beliefs, which are by no means certain) Hegel’s having earned his doctorate in theology becomes important. Because as a prophet of Modernity, he recognized that the old religious narratives could only be preserved by way of sublation into a new narrative of the arrival of human mind replacing that divine will.
In a sense that is beautiful – the Phenomenology is in some way the story of human kind achieving divinity in and through itself. But in another way, it is fraught with dangers – have we Moderns freed ourselves from the tyranny of Heaven only to surrender ourselves to the tyranny of our own arrogance? Only time will tell.
* Much of what Hegel writes of social conditioning is actually implicit in Hume’s Conventionalism; Hegel systematizes it and makes it a cornerstone of his philosophy. (Kant, to the contrary, always assumes a purely rational individual ego; which is exactly the problem that Fichte had latched onto and reduced to ashes by trying to get to the root of human knowledge in desire.)
*** I’ll emphasize this, because it is the single most important lesson I learned from Hegel – narrative is a logical structure, a story forms a logical argument, a kind of induction of particularities leading into thematic conclusions. I will hopefully return to this in a later essay.