The importance of rhetoric in politics

There is an intricate and intractable relationship between the three foremost modes of discourse – grammar, logic, rhetoric – which comprised the teaching of language in the Middle Ages – taught for a thousand years as the “Trivium.” Grammar, logic, and rhetoric have all changed over the years – as they must – but I think the Medieval teachers better understood what we need to learn about language practices than we do today. At any rate, a good theorist or critic of rhetoric, to be such, must be well schooled in the Trivium – must be aware of logic and grammar, to recognize how these are used rhetorically. It should also be noted that in evolutionary terms, grammar is probably primary, since without order language cannot be understood, rhetoric is secondary, since the principle function of language is agreement on action between people, and logic tertiary, as a clarification of rhetorical and grammatical protocols. But I admit I am now wandering into speculations on the origins of language, which can only be the subject of speculation, since we have little evidence on the matter.

The following develops from responses to an article by Dwayne Holmes, “No Contest,” which attempted to refute understanding of rhetoric as a proper heuristic for deployment in either understanding or enacting political discourse. [1] It deployed two primary arguments: The first is that rhetoric, as the art of persuasion as such, is too dangerous to be allowed unconstrained in public argumentation, which ought to proceed to judgments derived logically. The second is that rhetorical criticism is useless for understanding the public presentations of the current President, Trump, since he makes no argument and is no master of rhetoric; intead, it is asserted, he is merely a dishonest entertainer, and only has followers seeking to be entertained rather than deal with issues of policy.

What we’re supposed to see from the conjunction of these arguments is how powerless an understanding of rhetoric is in dealing with political discourse, since the real tension there is not between rhetoric and logic, but between ‘serious’ political engagement (necessitating logic) and political ignorance.

However, this doesn’t make any sense, because it leaves us with a lack of explanation of the Trump phenomenon such that we can develop strategies of persuasion for those who follow him. This would necessitate a broader, deeper appreciation of how people make political judgments based on emotionally informed motivations and not simply rational self-interest, which thus also necessitates a broader, deeper understanding of the art of persuasion that must address these motivations. So what we really find is that failure to understand the full dimensions of rhetorical practice leaves one powerless before phenomena that seem to involve irrational judgments based on criteria other than the logically feasible.

The two arguments do not hold together in such a way that a conclusion follows logically from their premises; and the premises lack properly convincing definitions their of terms. It is not surprising then, that the essay ends, not with a summary restatement of the argument(s) and their logically derived conclusion, but with the rhetoric of an emotionally charged promise that the future will somehow make all such matters clear.

Let’s consider Holmes’ issues from a different perspective.

Journalist Anthony Zurcher, remarking Donald Trump’s rhetoric: “He pulled back the curtain on the show and laughed along with his supporters at the spectacle. He encouraged his crowds to cheer the hero (him) and berate the villains (everyone else).” That’s an appeal to an audience. It is persuading that audience to respond in a certain way. That is what rhetoric is supposed to do. [2]

‘Vote for me because…’ is quite obviously the initiation of an argument during an electoral process. One may say, the election is over; however, Trump is already currently engaged in a campaign for re-election in 2020. Therefore, he is still making that argument. (There are several other more discrete arguments he is making, concerning the nature of the media, the right of a president to do as he pleases – thus the very structure of American government, the nature of American society, and the nature of foreign affairs. But his argument for re-election is the most obvious. [3])

Some would deny that Trump is making any arguments or using any rhetoric, insisting that Trump is involved in distractions rather than persuasions; but as I showed with the Zurcher quote, this won’t do. It is true that Trump is not reaching out beyond his base, but his rhetoric is quite successful in keeping his base committed to him.

While I personally think the Electoral College is an outdated institution, it remains a hard fact of American politics, and needs to be addressed in political strategy and should help guide the rhetoric of a national campaign. Clinton didn’t plan on this, relying on a “Blue Wall” of reliable states that didn’t really exist. The Republicans understood this full well, and reaped the rewards of their strategy and the rhetoric used, including that by Trump.

One might wish politics would be entirely reasonable and orderly. So did Socrates – that ended in his drinking hemlock. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, politics is war by another means, not the other way around. It’s a dirty business, and those who don’t like the dirt should not play. If Democrats keep insisting that ‘the other side’ play fair, instead of coming up with a more persuasive politics, they will keep losing elections.

I suppose one might look forward to things getting worse to the point that everyone awakens to realize the rightness of the liberal point of view (and act accordingly). There are two things wrong with this: 1, no matter how bad things get, they can *always* get worse; and humans simply learn to adapt. Because of this, 2, such a hope is doomed to disappointment – Marxists believing this have been disappointed time and again; social critics in ancient Rome were disappointed to the point of the collapse of the Western Empire, after which there was nothing left to hope for.

There certainly is an ethics of the practice of rhetoric, and this is discussed within rhetorical theory; but ultimately this depends on a more general ethics per se. The fundamental criteria of a successful rhetoric is that it works. When to use it, whether or not to use it, how best to maneuver between different modes of discourse and in the service of what causes, is entirely a matter of practical ethics and (in the present context) practical politics.

I’m not a cynic, but I am a pessimist. That’s because I accept people pretty much as they are, rather than how I think they should be. Most people – yes, even most Trump voters – hold themselves up to pretty high standards – they may not be my standards, and I understand frustration with that – but they are standards, nonetheless, and people try to live up to them. When they fail to do so, it’s not because they’ve been manipulated by swindlers, but because uncertainty leads them to misjudgments – they are trying to do their best, but are unsure of what the best might be in a situation of insecurity. Some want them to adopt other standards, and, further, to discuss those standards only in reasonable argument, and, finally, only act according to a reasonable conviction reached through those arguments. This is not addressing human beings.

In real politics, there is a necessity for addressing all the perceived needs of the electorate, and not just their ‘best interest’ as decided by experts.

That politics is war by other means – this derived from Hobbes, not Machiavelli – is certainly pessimistic, but it stands on solid ground: History demonstrates time and again that when politics breaks down, war results. Perhaps it is this inevitable trajectory that politics is intended to stave off.

I said that the Western Empire collapsed, and it was the Western Empire that social critics in the Late Empire were concerned with preserving. Eventually the City was abandoned, and civilization moved elsewhere. In the West, by the way, this meant the conquering of hearts by way of an utterly irrational promise that the life after death would resolve all the dilemmas of the earthly struggle to survive, delivered through a militant organization drenched in mystery and armed with paradoxical faith in what could not be ‘proven’ but only believed. – exactly because it could not be ‘proven,’ and thus ‘must’ be believed.



[2] – Or consider the analysis of Trump’s use of hyperbole by Joseph Romm. Also not a professionally trained rhetorician, yet Romm has earned ‘street cred’ in the field after years of experience negotiation public policy and authoring a book advocating the use of rhetoric.

[3] And given this, by the end of this year, there should be at least two Democratic candidates running for the 2020 nomination. However, this is unlikely, because the DNC, which should be fostering new talent in such efforts, remains convinced that their glory days were the Clinton Administration, and that people will just get so appalled by Trumps antics… like hoping that the Republican Congress, knowing that Trump will sign any bill they can get onto his desk, would consider impeaching him.



Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.


* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.

A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:

Reasoning, evidence, and/or not miracles

This week at Plato’s Footnote, Massimo Piglucci posted a brief discussion on how the use of probability reasoning, especially of the Bayesian variety, can be used to dispel contemporary myths such as anti-vaccination paranoia, trutherism concerning the events of 9/11/01, and bitherism concerning Former President Obama.


The comments thread became an object lesson in just how difficult it is to discuss such matters with those who hold mythic beliefs – every silly conspiracy theory was given vent on it. I myself felt it useful to briefly engage an apologist for miracle belief, with someone misrepresenting the argument against such belief as put forth by David Hume, referenced in Piglucci’s article. I would like to present and preserve that conversation here, because it is representative of the discussions on the comment thread, but also representative of the kinds of discussions reasonable people generally have with those so committed to their beliefs that they are open to neither reasoning nor evidence against them.


Asserting that Hume begins by declaring miracles simply impossible (and thus pursuing a circular argument), a commenter handled jbonnicerenoreg writes:


“The possibility of something should be the first step in a n argument, since of something is impossible there is no need to argue about it. For example, Hume says that miracles are impossible so it is not necessary to look at a particular miracle probability. I believe Hume’s argument does more than the reasoning warrants. ”


My reply:

That isn’t Hume’s argument at all. Hume argues that since miracles violate the laws of nature, the standard of evidence for claims for their occurrence is considerably higher than claims of even infrequent but natural events (such as someone suddenly dying from seemingly unknown causes – which causes we now know include aneurisms, strokes, heart failure, etc. etc.). Further, the number of people historically who have never experienced a miracle far outweighs the number who claim they have, which suggests questions of motivations to such reports. Finally, Hume remarks that all religions have miracle claims, and there is no justification for accepting the claims of one religion over any other, in which case we would be left with having to accept all religions as equally justified, which would be absurd, given that each religion is embedded with claims against all other religions.


Hume doesn’t make a probability argument, but his argument suggests a couple; for instance, given the lack of empirical evidence, and the infrequency of eye-witness accounts (with unknown motivations), the probability of miracles occurring would seem to be low. At any rate, I don’t remember Hume disputing the logical possibility of miracles, but does demand that claims made for them conform to reason and empirical experience.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “If you witness Lazurus rise from the dead, and if you know he was correctly entombed, then your evidence is sense experience–the same as seeing a live person. Hume’s standard of evidence is always about historical occurrences.”


My reply:

If such an experience were to occur, it might be considered ’empirical’ to the one who has the experience; but the report of such an experience is not empirical evidence of the occurrence, it is mere hearsay.


Unless you want to claim that you were there at the supposed raising of Mr. Lazarus, I’m afraid all we have of it is a verbal report in a document lacking further evidentiary justification, for a possible occurrence that supposedly happened 2000 years ago – which I think makes it an historical occurrence.


And no, Hume’s standard of evidence is clearly not simply about historical occurrences, although these did concern him, since his bread-and-butter publications were in history. But if miracles are claimed in the present day, then they must be documented in such a way that a reasonable skeptic can be persuaded to consider them. And it would help even more if they were repeatable by anyone who followed the appropriate ritual of supplication. Otherwise, I feel I have a right to ask, why do these never happen when I’m around?


7+ billion people on the planet right now, and I can’t think of a single credible report, with supporting evidence, of anyone seeing someone raised from the dead. Apparently the art of it has been lost?


Look, I have a friend whose mother died much too young, in a car crash, 25 years ago. Could you send someone over to raise her from the dead? I suppose bodily decomposition may make it a little difficult, but surely, if the dead can be raised they should be raised whole. Zombies with their skin falling off are difficult to appreciate, aesthetically.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “I suggest that if you can get over yourself, please read Hume carefully and comment with quotes. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have about the logic of the argument.”


My reply:

Well, that you’ve lowered yourself to cheap ad hominem once your argument falls apart does not speak much for your faith in your position.


However, I will give you one quote from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “On Miracles”:


A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

( )


I think Massimo and I are reading such a remark rather fairly, whereas you preferred to bull in with something you may have found on some Apologists web-site, or made up whole cloth. It was you who needed to provide quotes and reasoning, BTW, since your counter-claim is opposed to the experience of those of us who actually have read Hume.


By the way, I admit I did make a mistake in my memory of Hume – He actually is making a probability argument, quite overtly.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “A beautiful quote and one which I hope we all take seriously put into practise.

Hume is arguing against those who at that time would say something like “miracles prove Christianity is true”. You can see that his argument is very strong against that POV. However, he never takes up the case of a person witnessing a miracle. Of course, that is because “observations and experiments” are impossible in history since the past is gone and all we have is symbolic reports which you call “hearsay”. My congratlations for taking the high road and only complaining that I never read Hume!”


My reply:

Thank you for the congratulations, I’m glad we could part on a high note after reaching mutual understanding.


Notice that jbonnicerenoreg really begins with a confusion between the possible and the probable.  One aspect of a belief in myths is the odd presumption that all things possible are equally probable, and hence ‘reasonable.’  I suppose one reason I had forgotten Hume’s directly probabilistic argument was because probabilistic reasoning now seems to me a wholly necessary part of reasoning, to the point that it doesn’t need remarking.  Bu, alas, it does need remarking, time and again, because those who cling to myth always also cling to the hope – nay, insistence – that if there is something possible about their precious myth, then it ought to be given equal consideration along with what is probable. given the nature and weight of available evidence.  Notice also that jbonnicerenoreg tries to sneak, sub-rosa, as it were, the implicit claim that eye-witnesses to miracles – such as the supposed authors of the Bible – ought to be given credence as reporting an experience, rather than simply reporting a hallucination, or a fabricating an experience for rhetorical or other purposes.  Finally, notice that when I play on and against this implicit claim, jbonnicerenoreg tries an interesting tactic – he surrenders the problem of historical reportage, while continue to insist that witnessing miracles is still possible (which if verified would mean we would need to give greater weight to those historic reports after all!).  But there again, we see the confusion – the possible must be probable, if one believes the myth strongly enough.


And if we believe in fairies strong enough, Tinkerbelle will be saved from Captain Hook.


This won’t do at all.  The bare possibility means nothing.  Anything is possible as long as it doesn’t violate the principle of non-contradiction.  A squared circle is impossible; but given the nature of the space-time continuum posited by Einstein, a spherical cube may not only be possible but probable, presuming a finite universe.  But the probability of my constructing or finding an object I can grasp in my hand, that is both a sphere and a cube is not very high, given that we exist in a very small fragment of Einstein’s universe, and Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry suit it better than applied Relativity on a universal scale.  All things in their proper measure, in their proper time and place. 


But the problem with miracles is that they are never in their proper time and place, to the extent that one wonders what their proper time and place might be, other than in works of fiction.  Why raise Lazarus from the dead if he’s just going to die all over again?  Why raise Lazarus instead of the guy in the grave next to his?  Why do this in an era and in a place lacking in any sophisticated means of documentary recording?  And why would a divine being need to make such a show of power?    Wouldn’t raw faith be enough for him, must he have eye-witnesses as well? 


And of course that’s the real problem for jbonnicerenoreg.  For miracles to achieve anything that looks like a probability, one first has to believe in god (or in whatever supernatural forces capable of producing such miracles).  There’s no other way for it.  Without that belief, a miracle is bare possibility and hardly any probability at all.   And I do not share that belief.


The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (zwei)

Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (2):

(In the years since writing my dissertation on Paul DeMan, which required a reading of Hegel, I have tried a number of times to write a critical reading of The Phenomenology of Mind, but have always run into a number of obstacles, which I thought I should share, just writing them out as they occur to me.)

3. Every element of the dialectic in the Phenomenology eventually will be discovered to engage every other element of the dialectic.

Consider this in terms of Kojeve’s Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The main charge that is most frequently placed against this reading of Hegel’s text is that Kojeve makes the mistake of reading the entire Phenomenology as a meditation on the “Master/Slave” dialectic which appears about mid-way of Hegel’s text. This has Kojeve’s problem precisely backward. What I believe really happened was that the Marxist-influenced Kojeve was attempting to guide his student’s reading of the Phenomenology to begin with the “Master/Slave” dialectic, to persuade them to read the Phenomenology with social issues arising from the problems of material productivity foremost in their minds.

Unfortunately, in order to read the “Master/Slave” dialectic in any depth, Kojeve found it necessary to give a reading of the entire Phenomenology, in order to make sense of the implications of the “Master/Slave” dialectic. That would be because the issue comes down to a problem of subjectivity both per se and inter alia. That means there is no point in clarifying the nature of the subjectivity of the “Slave,” the important realization of this particular moment of that particular dialectic, unless one has an adequate conception of what Hegel means by subjectivity itself – and this is not revealed until the final page of the Phenomenology, it is the subjectivity of absolute knowledge, wherein the subject discovers itself in – and only truly in – all that it knows. (The subjectivity of the “Slave” is important moving towards this, because the “Slave” comes to know the necessity of productivity, the value of service to others, and the social positions these necessitate; but the “Master” doesn’t even really know the “Slave.”) So there is no effective way of giving a close reading of Hegel’s text on the “Master/Slave” dialectic, without first, and again at last, reading the whole of the Phenomenology.

4. In order to fully understand the Phenomenology, one has to have a pretty good working knowledge of virtually the history of Western philosophy up until Hegel’s time, at least as well as Hegel himself knew it. (Knowledge of the history of Western literature and rhetoric up to Hegel’s time helps as well.)

Consider the following sentences:

“Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on.”

This is Hegel; but although there is no reference to Aristotle, it is actually clearly lifted from Aristotle’s writing on the differences between properties of an entity essential to it and those accidental. And so we should really expect these sentences to appear in a discussion of the nature of the properties of an entity; but that’s not Hegel is discussing here at all. Here is the larger context from Hegel’s text:

“Now, on this mode of perception arising, consciousness is at the same time aware that it reflects itself also into itself, and that, in perceiving, the opposite moment to the ‘also’ crops up. This moment, however, is the unity of the thing itself, a unity which excludes distinction from itself. It is consequently this unity which consciousness has to take upon itself; for the thing as such is the substance of many different and independent properties. Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on. Putt6ing these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which, therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. For that purpose it introduces the idea of ‘in-so-far’ to meet this difficulty; and by this means it keeps the qualities apart, and preserves the thing in the sense of the ‘also.'”

What Hegel is doing here is taking Kant, applying him to Aristotle, and coming up with Locke. And since we know Hegel is no great fan of Locke, we know this is not the end of the process getting described here. But what Hegel has so far accomplished, is an account of Aristotelian metaphysics, Kantian epistemology, and Lockean grammar. But this would not be noticed by anyone who has not read Aristotle, Locke and Kant. In fact what Hegel is really thinking here is incomprehensible unless one admits that Hegel holds effectively (by going to the root of Locke’s theory of language), that Kant comes before Locke, who then initiates Aristotle’s metaphysics. This is, of course, an abuse of history; but it would make entire sense to someone disciplined in viewing history panoramically: in the interplay of the dialectic, old ideas become new again, and new ideas spring from ancient ground.

5. Finally, I need to remark the grammatical difficulty of the Phenomenology, by whioch I do not mean Hegel’s occasionally difficult German, but his grammar seen in the widest perspective, as a grammar unconstrained by any deference to audience expectations.

In the above example, concerning Hegel’s use of Kant, Aristotle, and Locke, it must be admitted that within Hegel’s discourse, there is absolutely no immediate indication that Kant, Aristotle, or Locke are the philosophers whose ideas Hegel is putting into play. A reader comfortably familiar with these philosophers, will recognize their ideas. But Hegel isn’t going to acknowledge this, and the reader lacking that familiarity will likely get completely lost in reading this.

But consider the matter in a less historical, more purely grammatical issue here. “Putting these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. This does not follow grammatically from the previous two sentences, which concerned an object (in the epistemological sense), to which the “properties” are said to belong as predication, which saying thus makes this epistemological object a logical subject. (‘I am thinking about X – thus my epistemological object – which is then the logical subject of the claim “X has property Y” as its predication.’) This should make the epistemological object a grammatical subject as well. Yet in the presently considered sentence, the grammatical subject is an act – “putting these properties”… no, wait, it is “consciousness,” “which therefore has to avoid” … well, could it be a collective formed by the properties to “be ‘one'”?.. no, it’s a single entity, “one and the same property” … well, in any event, it is certainly no longer the object.

Hegel knows what an epistemological object is; and certainly the author of The Science of Logic knows what a logical subject is. He just doesn’t seem so interested in what a grammatical subject might be.

Let us go back to the main concern of the passage under consideration. Hegel doesn’t mention Aristotle, Locke or Kant, because he doesn’t see any reason to. He is simply writing down his thinking on the matter as it presents itself to him, fully confident that, as he has grasp of the entire narrative, the discourse will thus set itself to paper, clear to any who understand what the discourse concerns.

Unfortunately, the only reader who could possibly know absolutely what this discourse concerns is Hegel himself. This is not the language of a discourse addressed to others, but only to one’s self. It is the language of thought, not public address. Hegel is thinking to himself, and he happens to be writing while he does.

As most theorists of composition now agree, every writer addresses an ideal audience, which audience determines the rhetorical strategies of the discourse. Hegel’s ideal audience – is Hegel.

Unfortunately, since his rhetorical strategies are directed at himself, and one’s self makes an audience very easy to please, a great many of the simple grammatical necessities that rhetoric demands sooner or later simply dissolve. Thought is then allowed to go its own course, free of social expectations or constraint. A reader either will find some way to think with such a writer, or will abandon the effort.

If one really does have a sense of what Hegel is thinking, and knows what Hegel knows, The Phenomenology of Mind is surprisingly easy to follow. If a reader is not anywhere near this fortunate, the text is impossible.



Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, edited by Allan Bloom, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (eins)

Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (1):

In the years since writing my dissertation on Paul DeMan, which required a reading of Hegel, I have tried a number of times to write a critical reading of The Phenomenology of Mind, but have always run into a number of obstacles, which I thought I should share, just writing them out as they occur to me.

1. The Phenomenology is narratively structured and is not reducible to arguments. In his recent Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Stern has made one of the most strenuous efforts to read the text as a construction of a series of arguments in support of a central thesis. His text is strong, it will help to deepen understanding of Hegel in certain circles. It is not, in the last analysis very convincing to anyone who has spent any great length of time with the Phenomenology. One reads Stern, remarking, ‘yes, this is right,’ or ‘that would be the case,’ and yet comes away from Stern with the deep sense that something vital has been missed, something remains unaccounted for.

What Stern does not account for is Hegel’s deployment of narratively ordered rhetoric, such as the terms for “struggle,” “torture,” “triumph;” references to the Mind “going” on a journey from theory to theory as though from one place on a map to another; the remarks concerning the Mind’s pride, its disappointments, its suspicions and anxieties.

Finally, Stern does not account for the seemingly imperious tone of much of the text. Referring to two opposite moments of the Spirit (and when is he not writing of two opposite moments of the Spirit? – except on the last page), Hegel writes: “Both have to be united” (p. 707). Were he simply constructing arguments, Hegel would proceed to explain the necessity for this union; but he doesn’t. That’s because he isn’t remarking an objectively shared requirement of reason, but an “inner necessity” of the Spirit, a felt need to do this. Hegel is remarking the Mind’s demand upon itself to develop a uniform knowledge of the world, as the only possible explanation for intellectual inquiry, which, after all, the Mind would not need to perform, were it not driven to know, and to do so with absolute certainty. This is the motivation of an agent engaged in an action – say, the hero in an adventure story, like a detective in a mystery, determined to solve the crime at all costs. The Phenomenology of Mind is a philosophical epic; its precursor to be found among the ancient Greeks was no text written by Aristotle or Plato – but Homer’s Odyssey.

2. The Phenomenology‘s dialectical structure accounts for all possible objections to its project within its project. This means at least the following:

A. It is inevitable that a reader will mistake a remark in the Phenomenology for a positive statement of affairs from Hegel, when in fact all he is doing is elucidating a moment to be later negated. “For the virtuous consciousness law is the essential element, and individuality the one to be superseded and canceled both in the case of its own conscious life, as well as in that of the course of the world” (p.402). Here do we have Hegel coming out as a vigorous opponent of individualism, declaring a necessity for submission to law in an ethical society? No, we do not. Since Hegel will ultimately hold that a proper ethic derives from the universality of the individual qua ethical consciousness (of which law is an expression), this submission to law by a “virtuous consciousness” of an individual not yet realizing its universality, will itself have to be negated. Unfortunately, at this point in the text, we don’t know this, thus we may be tempted to read Hegel’s sentence as a proposition (it certainly reads like one), rather than as the description of particular moment in the development of ethical consciousness. In order to recognize this, the reader needs to suspend judgment and read on, allowing Hegel to present all manner of propositions – and their negations – until one finally gets the hang of the process, rather than taking a position on any particular argument.

But this leaves a critical reader in an unhappy place: criticize Hegel for a position he is not really taking, which is surely unfair to Hegel; or suspend the critical faculties all together, until the text is completed – which hardly seems fair to the reader. Yet there it is – the Phenomenology must be swallowed whole, to understand any of it at all – sampling ‘selected passages’ will not do.

B. Taking a position in opposition to the negative/ positive movements of the dialectic merely reverses its polarities, producing a mirror image of the process. The most notorious example of this is in Marx, who once claimed to have stood Hegel on his head. Well, this is not really possible. If the Absolute Knowledge of the Spirit, which Hegel tells us is the ultimate goal of his project, is thoroughly materialized in the way Marx claimed it ought to be – that is, Consciousness finds itself finally within an external environment entirely of its own production – this does not change the validity of the Phenomenology‘s structure or of its intended achievement one iota. Following the withering away of the state into the communal society of fully realized subjects in Marx’s projected future completion of the historical dialectic, would only mean that Hegel had been right, that Consciousness could not realize itself without realizing its unity with all that could be known, as universal subject; we simply discover, in Marx, that the way to accomplish this is to produce all that could be known as an expression of that consciousness. “The real is the rational,” Hegel famously claims. To which Marx replies, ‘the real is the material.’ Except that this cannot be fully realized until the material is made rational; at which point, of course, the real will have been made the rational, just as Hegel says.

C. Once having engaged Hegel, simply shutting the book and declaring Hegel wrong or misguided, and arguing that the Phenomenology ought to be set aside all together, puts us immediately into the text as one stage of the dialectic itself. The problem here is that Hegel has asked us to look at the entire nature of rational thought just as such. If, once encountering this request, we turn our backs on it of choice, we will then find ourselves impelled to continue the project of rational thought but without examining its inherit structure and teleology. Not all rational thought moves in the direction Hegel claims for it; but its ground remains unexamined, a single unplanned step in the process of rational thought will send us straight into the process described in the Phenomenology, and Hegel will be found to have described our thinking before we ever thought it. Because it is the unexpected that generates the energy that drives the dialectic – the disappointments, the anxiety, the occasional sense of despair; the sense of emptiness when we realize that our beliefs are somehow lacking in what we expected from their full realization.

Consider charity; we want to appeal to others, to act more charitably, on the basis of a belief that everyone shares some instinct for charity, some necessary sentiment of sympathy for others. But if the others we address reject this appeal, deny any such feeling, then the discussion would appear to be over – so much for any ‘charitable instinct.’ In response to this, we are almost certainly going to mount rational argumentation, persuading others to see charity as some objective necessity of social life. It is no longer the feeling, but the idea of charity that commands our behavior.

Once we make such a move, we might just as well pick up the Phenomenology again, and let Hegel describe how it is we are going to accomplish this, because that’s precisely one of his intentions in writing the text.

D. Undoubtedly, one of the most frequent oppositional attitudes adopted towards Hegel’s text is that of irony. But Hegel himself recurrently as much as warns of this, and just as frequently explains why it proves ineffective. Irony is in fact an embedded function of the dialectic, driving recognition of its negative moments. Eventually, it opens the way to a positive understanding, which, unfortunately, the ironist is not prepared to provide; but Hegel is.


Phenomenology of Mind, GWF Hegel, trans. JB Baillie, Harper & Row, 1967.

Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Stern, Routledge, 2002.


Problems with public discourse again (and again, and again…)

Recently, people have been been wondering about the clamor for correct speech, from both the Left and the Right. There are just some things we’re not supposed to talk about in certain quarters – whether this is a discussion of a rape narrated in a work of literature in an English studies course, or about the non-Christian deism or skepticism among the writers of the US Constitution. People are just too damn sensitive these days. We forget that an honest public discussion on shared concerns should deal with the realities of life’s experience, and the disappointments of history, however harsh. This is a problem that bubbles up time and again in American public discourse. America has been a Puritan culture since… well, since the Puritans first landed here. (They were not escaping the religious intolerance of England, they were running from the religious toleration they found in the Netherlands.)

Puritanism, need not be claimed by only one ideology. It is a rigid attitude toward social behavior, demanding that what one person, or one group, sees as the right and the good ought to be accepted by everyone and abided by. So there are many forms of puritanism, across the cultural and political spectrum. Since it stems from a ‘will to be right,’ which is endemic among those belonging to cultures open enough to engender serious disagreements, it will keep rearing its ugly head again and again, causing pain to those successfully repressed, and push-back of various rebellious spirits – including competing forms of puritanism.

But while we should always increase our understanding of the problem, that doesn’t mean we will ever be able to rectify it. The variable factors are too many, too historically entrenched, and too many people are invested is the most troublesome of them.

Two things I’d like to note. First, of course, the obvious – all societies engage in discourse management and limitation. ‘We don’t talk about such things;’ ‘a proper lady/gentleman would never use such language;’ ‘say that again, child, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!’ Such cautions were common in my youth. The free speech movement of the ’60s led to their eventual disuse; but they’ve obviously been replaced by other cautions, motivated by different interests. Were these eventually discarded, they would simply be replaced. Social interactions, to proceed smoothly, must have some sense of direction, and of boundaries that cannot be crossed. Some of these boundaries are rather obvious in a given context: A white supremacist skinhead should probably not spew his racism when he’s in the midst of bloods in the hood. Knowing such boundaries and maneuvering through them is part of the skill of speaking with others. An individual is his/her first censor, and should be.

Second: America doesn’t have only one culture, and never has. The very hope for one was lost with the Louisiana Purchase. Throughout the 19th century, when people wrote of ‘American culture,’ they were actually talking about the culture of the Eastern seaboard. By the 1920s, this myth became harder to sustain, as emergent cities in the West began defining themselves, while regional politicians began stoking grudges born in the Civil War against Eastern intellectualism, big banks in NYC, and the ever out of touch Washington politician. Meanwhile new media were developing to record and preserve (and market) the culture of quite limited communities – think of the blues and early country recordings from various locales in the South. But also think of the Western films that memorialized the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western historical experience. Finally (but only for now), think of how the influx of immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th centuries effectively redefined many of the cities of the Eastern seaboard (and, later, elsewhere as well). The 1926 might find one reading The New Yorker, but just as likely, given one’s heitage, Der Groyser Kundes.

In the ’60s, which saw television become our major media for information and politics, combined with the rapid increase in the number of colleges, all sharing a similar curriculum, and the ride of national political movements, Americans effectively deluded themselves into believing there was a national culture. That could not be sustained. The social consequences of the national political movements included much good, but also considerable fragmentation along regional, political, economic, ethnic lines, but also along lines of locally generated sub-cultures, some cultures of choice. Now when people refer to an ‘American culture,’ they are really only talking about the culture projected on television, since TV is the only source of information that most Americans share. Unfortunately, all TV seems to deliver is further delusion, much of its ‘information’ of questionable quality and uncertain factual basis.

The fragmentation is an on-going process – the tendency appears to be a function of Modernity, and we find it in play during the Reformation, as Protestant churches splintered off from each other due to (often violent) doctrinal disputes. This fragmentation is thus an on-going historical process; groups are formed in opposition to other groups, coming together over a perceived sharing of values, only for its members to discover that they do not share the same motivations, and are not unanimous in their interpretation of those values. The group’s discourse management strategies break down, boundaries get crossed, and group members break off to form new groups, and so on.

‘Well,’ the question may be asked, ‘why aren’t we simply a bunch of mutually suspicious, antagonistic tribes at this point?’ Well, maybe we are. However, we have, at crucial historical moments, developed bureaucratic institutions and organizations that suffer from considerable inertia; and these institutions and organizations are really what bind most of us together.

(For instance, I prefer Bernie, but I’ll probably have to vote for Hillary in November, because I share more values and interests with the Democratic organization than the Republican one, and the institution of the US government remains relatively stable, even though apparently incapable of needed reform. But hopefully it would prove resistant to Trumpian subversion as well, should the worst come to pass….)

I here think of the countless essays I have read over the past 45 years that have deployed phrases like ‘we need to,’ ‘we ought to,’ we really should,’ concerning hopes of political, social, or economic reform. Not a single one of those essays actually contributed to political, social, or economic change.

I think it was maybe the late ’90s, when I was reading an essay insisting that ‘we need to do (x).’ when I suddenly realized: ‘no, we don’t need to do anything – it might be good to do (x); but since we don’t need to do it, and most people seem not inclined to do it, well, so it goes.’

Around that time I had another unhappy insight, into the nature of ‘the crisis of contemporary capitalism.’ There is no crisis of contemporary capitalism. Workers get screwed, lose their jobs, suffer in poverty – and that’s exactly what is needed to keep capitalism working. So was the recession of ’08, and the lame attempts at amelioration. Unemployment is built into the system; poverty is built into the system; uncertainty is built into the system. Social injustice is part of the American economy. Some use race to leverage this injustice, some gender, some age, some class, some education – but some prejudice must be formed and deployed to leverage injustice in the system, because the injustice is a necessary function of the system. One can no more imagine a capitalist economy without social injustice than one can imagine a species of tree without bark.

That means that social injustice cannot be corrected by sweeping movements without actual revolution; it has to be corrected incrementally, on a case by case basis, even where the case involves collectives. John L. Lewis, when asked why he was not a communist, replied (paraphrasing from memory), ‘Communists want utopia; I just want to make things better.’

It is a core problem with so-called Social Justice Warriors, or scientisimists, or religious zealots, or the Tea Partiers, etc. – that they honestly believe that if we all just get together and get our heads right, the world will spin in the desired direction.

That’s not true, and it’s not how history happens.

Read instead Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” King uses “we must” phraseology in only one paragraph, and it is not a call to social change, but a moral directive to those who already agree with his basic project.

There’s no point in asking people to change. They have to want to change. Americans are unhappy; but they do not want to change. That’s the real problem here.

I’m not simply trying to say something about our economic system (although economic considerations underlie many of the issues here discussed). My point is that ‘what ails our discourse?’ is a question for those of us who believe that public discourse ‘ails’ – that the shared interchange of information and persuasion has developed obstacles to communication and shared agreements leading toward collective action. But I suggest that most people do not perceive any ailment here at all, and are not only content with the current universe of discourse, but actually find it socially useful in a number of ways (including economically).

Any time we are considering a seeming problem in a given society, it helps to ask three questions: 1. Do the people involved perceive a problem? 2. If they do, what are they willing to do about it? 3. If they don’t, or are not willing to do anything about it, then could this ‘problem’ actually be built into the social processes that keep the society functioning? In other words, a) it may not be causing anyone discomfort despite its inefficacy as a process, and b) even should it in some ways cause discomfort or even harm, it may be satisfying in other ways that keeps the given society functioning.

In short: on disinterested observation, it may appear to be a problem; but once all interests are taken into account, it may not be a real problem at all, or at least one that people are quite willing to live with.

Finally, I referenced Dr. King’s “I have a dream,” because that was a public address that really did contribute to a moment of social change. But how? At the time, everyone knew that change was in the wind – it had already begun with Brown v. Board of Education, and the Alabama marches, and it was not to be stopped. All King did was to provide it with a focus, a lightning rod of imagery expressing the fundamental hope that his audience held dear, while reminding those on the fence of the issue of the justice embedded in that hope. He doesn’t talk about what we should do – his audience already knows what they should do; he is telling us ‘now is the time to do it,’ and reminding us of the future it can lead us to.

In the condition of increasing fragmentation in 2016, it’s not clear that an address like King’s is possible or would have anything like the same effect. We do not know that change in a given direction is possible; we do not share the same hopes or dream the same future anymore. There is really no ‘we’ here to share this knowledge or these hopes. or take action based on these. Just a whole bunch of differing ‘us’ against ‘them’ tribes.

Unfortunately – most people, though they complain, seem quite willing to live with that.

Hitler’s religion

Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? Was he, as others charge, an atheist? [1]

These questions are poorly formed. A more apt question would be, ‘What did he ‘believe’ beyond his own destiny, if anything?’

A preliminary point that needs to be made concerns the touchy question about which scholars one trusts and which one does not; but I don’t really want to raise that issue. Nonetheless, a rule of thumb is, if the same historical trend has been noted independently by different scholars giving careful interpretation of the source materials, then likely their remarks can be trusted, and any disagreements resolved through consideration of their differing perspectives. The majority of scholars I’m familiar with agree that Nazi Germany, and the Nazis themselves, were not as religiously homogenous. Hitler’s own beliefs depend on a careful study of Mein Kampf – selected passages will mean nothing taken out of context.

Such a move leaves one utterly unable to account for the complexities of Hitler’s psychology; unable to account for his biography, what led him to the juncture that Mein Kampf marks as the arrival of the historical Hitler; unable to account for the complex relationship Hitler had with the German right and the German people as a whole. It will certainly not adequately account for the anti-Semitism; or for the obvious tensions between Hitler’s own cosmogony and that of Christianity, which are not identical and in many respects antagonistic.

Quite a number of scholars believe that the evidence strongly suggests that the Nazis not only intended to re-interpret Christianity, but do away with it entirely. (The ‘bible’ they placed on the alter of the one church they established themselves, in Berlin, was of course – Mein Kampf.) That doesn’t make them atheists, but I never said it did. The matter needs greater study, more complex and nuanced argument, greater accounting of the historical context. The problem at the time was not simply Nazism, nor religion, but the history of Germany to that date, and the malaise the Germans found themselves in during the 1920s. The issue simply cannot be reduced to a question of whether they had a religion or not. They had Hitler.

What Hitler himself seems to have believed about himself and his place in the world, is that Fate – some cosmic force, which he sometimes equates with ‘the Almighty,’ but also simply refers to as a less personalized ‘Fate’ or ‘Destiny’ – had placed him at the epicenter of an age old racially determined struggle between the Aryan and the Jew. ‘Good’ (Aryan) and ‘evil’ (Jew) are entirely defined by this struggle, there is no morality otherwise. [2] His dedication to this struggle effectively became his religion.

Thus, Hitler’s own profound sense of personal destiny and his rage against the Jews led to his religion – not the other way around.

Mein Kampf is an act of self-creation. It’s a passion, a narrative of apotheosis of a self-identified savant and savior.

After the disappointment of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler wanted to trash the established right-wing, with its old militarism, and re-define Nazism as a holistic anti-Semitic revolution, and at the same time culminate the reconstruction of his personality that had been on-going after his nervous collapse at (and as response to) the end of WWI. This meant providing an entire cosmogony that could synthesize with both traditional beliefs and prejudices as well as then-contemporary popular understandings of scientific knowledge. It also meant providing a mythic figure that could function as both prophet and savior – Hitler himself, of course.

It is not at all clear what Hitler really thought about the trends of belief that came before him, whether that which could be found in traditional churches, or the developments of science. Paganism, eugenics, Weimar hedonism, evangelical tent-revivals, blind faith in technological innovation, paranoid denial of then current physics – all were simply melted into the alloy forged in the furnace of Hitler’s rage against the world (where he had only felt belonging as a soldier during during the First World War [3}). (A close reading of Mein Kampf reveals that he actually held Germans in contempt almost as much as Jews – “Are these still human beings, worthy of being part of a great nation?” he allows himself to wonder in evident disgust, concerning the German construction workers with whom he worked before the war. [4]) Hitler’s racism was conditioned by Social Darwinism as well as by ‘special creation’ theories, since both were prevalent in that day; but originated in his personal disgust with the human, and his experience of the world as little more than a battleground in a war of all against all.

Claiming to know “what Hitler believed” is simply facile, without struggling to grasp who this cypher was [5] or why his speeches resonated so well with the Germans of his day. It is also a misconception of modern revolutions to try to define their attempts to supplant previous religious beliefs with their preferred ideology, as reducible to the imperatives of their ideology. It is in the nature of modern revolution itself to supplant and dissolve traditional religion. This is as true of ISIS as it was true of the French Revolution’s “Church of Reason.” And it was certainly true of Hitler’s self-created messianism. Of course Hitler would find it useful to claim the authority of “the All-Mighty” for his project. But beyond some profound sense of personal destiny, it is wholly unclear that Hitler believed there was anything ‘out there’ but chaos and never-ending conflict. Although Hitler courted the Wagner family to lay claim on Nietzsche, in fact the only philosopher he read was Schopenhauer (although he inverted Schopenhauer’s understanding of Will as what needed to be constrained, choosing instead to unleash it).

So what did Hitler believe? I have tried to suggest here that, while the question is most certainly interesting, answers to it cannot be reduced to ‘ready-mades’ to fit our own ideological preferences. He was a product of history – but that history was not simple, not linear, and not uni-vocal. Like most of history, it was – and remains – a morass of conflicting urges and social pressures against the individual’s will to achieve some importance – some sense of ‘being there.’

That’s the problem – the will to become a self in opposition to all other selves.

Any ideology promising that will only bring about heart-break.


[1] Really, the dangling of the ‘Hitler-monster’ in the theist/ atheist god debate has got to stop. It does no justice to the victims of Nazism, and distorts the history rather than clarifying it. ‘Well, they started it!’ each side claims – I don’t care. It’s got to stop. It is poorly informed, a-historical, and contributes to the general stock of discursive muddle that plagues the public mind, especially on the internet. Those who think they really have a case to make, should engage in the research necessary to make that case, and not mine for quotes. As raw source, Hitler can be made to say practically anything. Anyway, the whole “believers in X do nasty things, therefore X is wrong,” is a bad argument. Every ideology contains imperatives that can be used to justify even heinous acts. The real lesson of Hitler here is that, if one wants to perform those acts, one will find the justification for it – or make it up.

[2} See: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The war against the Jews, 1933-1945. Weidenfeld And Nicolson (1975).

[3] See: Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Vintage. pp. 191-220. Reprinted Berkeley, California: University of California Press(1974).

[4] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated and edited by Alvin Johnson, Reynal & Hitchcock (1941); page 54.

[5] See: Joachim C Fest, Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Harcourt (1973).