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.

Aug 20, 2012

Critical Thinking: Class or Curriculum?

One of the conversations focused on college curricula and student learning, in which I perennially -- though thankfully not perpetually -- seem to find myself involved takes on the form of a false dilemma, a forced option, which all too often gets used as the framework for thinking out the role of foundational disciplines should play -- and the shape they ought to take -- in higher education.  Whether it is a matter of Critical Thinking, Ethics, Writing, or other similar disciplines, the same basic problematic arises:  should students be introduced to, and practiced in, that subject matter in a specific course?  Or should it be infused throughout the curriculum?

My answer, put in one word, is simply this: BOTH.  I've got my reasons to say that, and to assert it so emphatically -- which I'm going to set out in detail below.  I'd like to observe first, though, that there are also reasons why so many people find themselves constrained to frame this sort of issue in terms of an exclusive Either-Or.  Maurice Blondel, a great dialectical philosopher of the early 20th century, observed and critiqued this tendency to frame  matters important to us -- whether in metaphysics or moral theory, politics or education, aesthetics or religion -- through such rigid dichotomies, where choices are seemingly constrained to opting between one of the two poles.  Concealed by this, he notes over and over, is that, at a deeper level, often unrealized by those making it, another option, another choice gets made -- one between setting up the terms in abstract opposition to each other, or seeing that neither term is sufficient on its own, and demands the complement of the other term for its very own adequacy.

Aug 13, 2012

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy: Apollo and Dionysus

friedrich nietzsche birth of tragedy apollo dionysos life existence meaning philosophy relgiion drama music
At one time, quite long ago -- A period including the end of my undergraduate studies, the early years of my graduate studies, and the interval between, when I worked a series of low-paying jobs, studied languages, and trained obsessively -- I would unapologetically identify myself as a Nietzschean.  That wasn't the hardest thing to do, of course, not least because taking that kind of stance grants a person permission to indulge their appetites and desires, rancor and bitterness, propensities to compete and confabulate, to put others down, to lie to oneself and other under the guise of a higher, more brutal, cleaner honesty.  Transgression becomes, if not a duty -- for really a Nietzschean has only self-imposed duties -- a compensation, an exploratory effort, something to enjoy and to bask in.  One gets to set oneself within an elite as equally opposed to present, philistine elites as to the mass, to the ordinary, dull people -- though, really, that kind of life, for which Nietzsche's ideas and writings provide articulation, represents a certain shape of adolescence, sensitively spoiled as much as revealingly barbaric.

This explains one side of Nietzsche's perennial appeal as a philosopher, an incorporation of his writings into one's lifestyle that I know well myself, having indulged in it, and later, come to feel regret and even embarrassment over.  Later, as I studied him more carefully, I came to see that there's so much more of value, depth, attractiveness, rigor to the thought of the twilight philosopher -- actually, a thinker, with whom I disagree on many points, not usually head on, but at tangents, about overall direction, interpretation.  I've recently started offering a sequence of video lectures exploring Existentialism.  Among other things, this has had me closely rereading his early great masterpiece, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (video lectures one, two, and three available here), a work which I've often taught to students and discussed with colleagues.  I've noticed a tendency in readers, on its first few reads, to take a suggestive, seemingly correct, first path, following which cuts one off from seeing the entirety of what's going on in that early book of Nietzsche.