Aug 27, 2012

Happy Birthday, Georg W. F. Hegel

Today marks what would be the 242nd birthday of one of my absolutely favorite philosophers, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, best known in our era for his early work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, but also an extraordinarily productive thinker, lecturer, and writer. He worked out two massively dense, complex, and rich Logics -- the Science of Logic and the Encylopedia Logic -- which on first read, to those used to the rather restricted, formal, sterile understanding of Logic mediated in our current classes and curricula,  seem almost like something from another world -- though they're efforts to meticulously chart out the world in which we live, permeated by dynamic intelligence, worked out through dialectical processes.  He contributed to political theory with his Philosophy of Right, and lectured brilliantly on a number of subjects, particularly religion, art and aesthetics, and historical development.

The particular image of Hegel selected above is by far my favorite representation of him, a portrait that captures certain qualities of his thought, character, and life -- not least his marked melancholy paired with an intensity, one of the mind but almost palpably material, his own hungering desire for knowledge, for understanding, for wisdom, turned not only inward, in reflection and introspection, but all the more outward, towards the world, other human beings, history, society, art, law, religion.  I think you can say metaphorically of Hegel's eyes, that as opposed to the optics that came to prevail in modernity -- in which eyes passively take in and filter the world -- they work according to the older optics conjectured by the ancients -- actively extending light and penetrating intelligibity into the phenomena appearing before them.


At one time, I was a devoted Hegelian -- and I use that past tense that not to imply that my esteem for that philosopher has waned in any degree.  I had intended at one time to write my dissertation on both G.W.F. Hegel and Maurice Blondel before being urged by my committee to confine it to the latter's own difficult dialectical works.  And, so, back in that time, in my program, in addition to three other intensive preliminary examinations -- one on Metaphysics and Philosophy of Religion, another on Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, and a third on Ethics, Political theory and Aesthetics -- I had to prepare for and take one solely on Hegel as my "special thinker."

I had already been immersing myself in his thought, and had led a semester-long reading group on the Phenomenology asked for by the other Philosophy grad students, so when I was given the advice to "just memorize the whole Phenomenology" -- not word for word, of course, but concept by concept, mapping and committing to memory the succession and enfolding of each and every of the dialectical developments and stages of that work -- "and some parts of the Logics as well," to me this didn't seem an unreasonable or oppressive demand.  And, I found in that project, rather than just a means to an end, a requirement to slog through and get out of the way, an opportunity, a glove thrown down, an invitation to enjoy dialoguing with a philosopher on his own ground, following him through the weaves, false exits, startling turns and new vistas lying along the paths of his labyrinthine thought.

Reminiscing About Hegel and His Time(s)

Today, I'd like to retrace and reflect on one of those paths, a kind of reminiscence in particular of what in general, I found most stimulating in engaging this great early 19th century German thinker. Hegel is not always right on matters of the mind, but he is almost always worth reading on them.  His stances and assessments are worth mulling over and mining for their insights.  Among those is the interpenetration, the inescapability of  the practical and the theoretical, the realm of the intellect, the understanding, and that of the passions, desire, actions, choices, commitments.
 
There is a tendency -- not only on the part of students, but also teachers, writers, practitioners -- to teach and to talk about Philosophy as if it were a flight or refuge of abstraction, worthy precisely because it does not soil its hands with the particular, the everyday, the concrete, where we actually live.  There's also a counter-tendency to think -- without realizing this to be a though that if followed out reveals its own undoing -- that only those things we can touch, feel, see, observe, act upon are actually real, that the life of the mind is merely ideal, imaginary, when in truth, ideas can be just as, even more, real, actual, efficacious, as a concrete act, as the feel of flesh, as the taste of bread or of salt in seaside air, as metal machinery, as, again, the world of our everyday experiences.  The Hegelian motto "the real is the rational, the rational is the real," often made the object of amusement at an idealist's naivete, turns out to be eminently realistic when one actually enters and lingers within the architecture of his dialectic. 

Before turning to an often-overlooked slice of the dialectic that I'm highlighting on Hegel's birthday, like a toastmaker mentioning only one lesser-known accomplishments of an honored guest, I'd like first to point out a few developments in the appreciation and understanding of Hegel in the 20th century.  It could be said, without too much oversimplification and exaggeration that the most important and fertile philosophical mind of the 19th century was Hegel's.  He managed to elaborate a philosophical system and approach so rich, so intricate, and yet so unstable that it could spiral out into jarring and mutually critical reinterpretations -- Right Hegelianism and Left Hegelianism, if, again, it is permissible to reduce the spectrum of often-brilliant successors to a mere two polarities.  The dialectic, idealism, even "Hegelianism" as such spread outside of the linguistic and cultural borders of the German world, spawning British idealists, inspiring Saint Louis Hegelians,  contributing to the thought of luminaries, admittedly not as often read as they deserve, like Josiah Royce and Benedetto Croce.

To draw the ire of Schopenhauer in his own time, an admiring but ironic refashioning of the dialectic by Kierkegaard -- that is in some sense a measure of success, or at least significance.  One might jokingly say that Hegel must have gotten a great many things wrong in very interesting ways to have evoked criticism from as many quarters as he later did.  If another tongue-in-cheek reference might be permitted, much of 20th century philosophy, in its inception at the least, labors within the shadow of a master against whom it revolts.  Analytic philosophers, pragmatists, phenomenologists, existentialists -- all of them at one time set their iron sights on Hegel.

It's particularly interesting to note that the juncture of the Hegelian dialectic which has fared best is what is termed the "master-slave dialectic," the one portion of his work that so many philosophers otherwise allergic to the other perceived tendencies of Hegelianism can agree upon as true, as valuable, perhaps because cut off from the rest of the dialectical edifice of the Phenomenology, one can make practically any use of it one likes, grafting it into the rest of one's own new (non-) or (anti-)system -- for systems, let alone The System fall deeply into disfavor in most 20th century philosophical thought.

Can one draw more from Hegel than just the interplay and development of master and slave, without thereby committing oneself to his System as a totality?  I've long been convinced that the answer is yes, that the complex set of hard-won truths he does articulate, can be selectively appreciated, appropriated and applied within one's own philosophical practice.  Still, a powerful current runs consistently through his work, comprising and composed of the movements of the dialectic, and one must cut across it at critical junctures or else risk being swept eventually along the itinerary and to the destination Hegel himself believed to be absolutely necessary.

Rationality And Actualization of Life's Meaning.  

Although I suspect that for those relatively rare readers of Hegel who actively peruse his works following out a passion, an enjoyment, even a hunger for intelligibility, there may be reservoirs and recesses along the paths of his Phenomenology which they find more uncongenial and profitable to linger over -- I have to admit one of the portions of that work which I have long liked, perhaps most, is a section right within the heart of the third main part.  After examining -- and reconstructing -- the development and unfolding of Consciousness, then Self-Consciousness, and before moving on to Spirit, Religion, and then the denouement of Absolute Knowing, Hegel focuses on Reason.

In the first part of his study of Reason, situated right in the center of the Phenomenology, Hegel attends to an aspect which we most naturally, naively, immediately attribute to that faculty -- reason as primarily theoretical, as generative of knowledge and certainty, observing, drawing influences, bringing phenomena under generalized laws. The observer finds of course, since this is after all the slippery, dizzying dialectic whose twists and turns he charts out, both that observation requires just as equally attending to the observer him- or herself, and that our everyday or even putatively scientific understanding of both the object and the ways of our observation turn out to be quite different than we would like to have assumed.  His analyses of human efforts to derive, develop, stabilize knowledge, to attain certainty of material existence, of the natural world, of complex and cajoling teleologies, of order and organization  -- and then of those very human desires and drives towards, not to speak of our capacities for even conceptualizing what certainty and knowledge would mean -- these are all aspects of "observing reason."

The realization that captivated me from the very first time I worked my way through the Phenomenology -- something Hegel shows much more often than he explicitly asserts -- is that seemingly pure, theoretical, speculative reason, along with its associated activities, apparently ordered only to knowledge, to understanding, to certainty -- this is always practically oriented.  The practical, you might say, working out, seeking, working with meaning in choice, in action, in community -- that always reasserts a priority apparently but never successfully repressed.  And, that is why I particularly enjoy Hegel's next study of reason, where he explicitly turns his attention on how the human being makes sense out of his ethical environment. 

Early on in that section, Hegel requires us to think a thought with which we do not have much practice. Intrinsically involved in the consciousness of a human being orienting him- or herself in a human world, an environment, a community -- even if it a a fractured, agonistic contradictory one -- something transcending and encompassing the individual appears, the "social order," "the ethical world," something which  Hegel unhesitatingly writes of as "an inherently universal self-consciousness."  At this point, if one adopted a static view on these matters, one would see perhaps a tyranny of the universal, of morality effacing the individual who it judges, categorizes, demands conformity from -- something perhaps like the Freudian super-ego, or a Hobbesian super-sovereign.

That is not the case, however, for this universal consciousness is something within which the self-conscious individual finds him of herself, finds the meaning of existence, of his or her existence, related to the existence of similar others.  This might be a framework of laws, or customs, institutions, communities.  There is a way of realizing what one is that is only possible within an organized, even if never harmonious, world of others.

The Universal Community and the Estranged Individual

Yet there is also a deep and essential aspect of alienation, questions not entirely receiving the answers they purported to require.  Even the happy condition of having figured out where one fits in, what the topography of laws, customs, norms, where the currents of ethical life lead and where its confusions lie -- this cannot last for a self-conscious human being who keeps on thinking.  As Hegel says, the individual not only realizes him- or herself through matrices comprising a "objective ethical order" and composing an "existent social order" -- the person realizes him- or herself against them.  It experiences a break which it nevertheless cannot entirely make -- it undergoes alienation in determinate, concrete, anguishing ways.

This is actually, from Hegel's point of view, progress, but not a stopping point, no place for celebration or consolidation.  The developing human being must now progress further, seeking out new candidates for its desire, its allegiance, around which to orient its existence.  This opens up the possibility, on the horizon -- perhaps only as mirage -- of moving from a less self-conscious  and -consistent ethical life and order, what Hegel terms Sittlichkeit, in the direction of genuine, fully rational morality.  In the three sections immediately following, three different attempts to find a value upon which to ground one's life and meaning, turn out to founder in the face of something which shows up their arbitrariness, their lack of true practical rationality.

Elevating Pleasure to the good and the goal for the individual human being fails, running aground on the shoals of Necessity.  Attempting to find itself in the activity and enjoyment of pleasure simply reduces one to a moment within a meaninglessly necessary matrix of causes.  Another attempt relocates the moral order within one's own feelings, one's spontaneity of response, the Law of the Heart, which Hegel notes "ceases through its very realization," becoming a new universalizing norm rather than an expression of one's own individual and intrinsic goodness.  "[H]e gets involves and entangled in the actual ordinance, and indeed entangled in it, not merely as something alien to himself but as a hostile, overpowering dominion." The individual's own "particular heart," whose law was supposed to embody goodness, turns out in relation to the norm it necessarily externalizes to become "in every respect perverted and perverting."  A third attempt attempts to shift the ground of practical commitment to Virtue, an effort by individuality to change the world and itself, to cull out conserve, cultivate the moments and potentialities of goodness in a flawed, damaged, or as Hegel puts it "perverse" social and moral world.

Interestingly, Hegel considers virtues' prospects to have been much better, but also individuality's possibility to have been much more restricted in pre-modern times:
Virtue. . .  had its secure and determinate significance, for it found the fullness of its content and its solid basis of the substantial life of the nation , and had for its purpose and end a concrete good that existed and lay at its hand.  It was also for that reason not directed against actual reality as a general perversity, and not turned against a world process. 
That condition is not only irrevocably distanced from the modern self-consciousness, but even the dream or attempt to return to it would -- if possible -- represent a reversion to a previous, less developed stage of the dialectic, precisely the stable social, ethical order in which the person first found him- or herself, and then experienced alienation from.  By contrast, virtue as a response to the Way of the World, and to the failures of pursuit of pleasure and the law of the heart's unfolding, is, as Hegel says "removed from that substantial life, and is outside, a virtue with no essential being, a virtue merely in words" -- which places it at risk for lapsing into "one that is deprived of its content."

I'll end by mentioning what might at first blush appear to be a paradox raised by this dialectic of practical reason and personality:  What seems at first to be substantive, richly variegated, determinate is actually the universal, objective, ethical order.  The individual by contrast, once alienated from -- though never entirely extricated from that universal, that ordering -- seems deprived of content, of positive reality, value, goodness, and thus seeks around for something that could provide, that could replace what it feels itself to have lost.  The individual does so determinately, trying to compress itself, its experiences, its enjoyments, its expressions, its enterprises into something durable, real, reliable.  And yet, it does so along only so many paths, feeling itself to forge new trails, when in reality it projects and follows out the same universal possibilities as every, as any other individuality working out and working upon itself at that stage of the dialectic.