Feb 172003

Eddie Thomas of One Good Turn, a normally sensible man, takes up the cudgel for Hegel. (Twice!) This makes two rational people, him and Andrew Sullivan, describing Hegel as “great” in the space of a week. Has the world gone mad?

Eddie is impressed by Hegel’s breadth, and it is true: his works include a Philosophy of Law, a Philosophy of Aesthetics, a Philosophy of Mind, a Philosophy of Right, a Philosophy of Science, a couple of Logics, a Philosophy of History, a History of Philosophy, and several odds and ends. This would impress me more if any of these works were intelligible. “We ought to contemplate what knowledge means if all anyone can hope for is to have hold of just one piece of the puzzle,” writes Eddie. Maybe so. Fortunately Hegel lost no sleep over this question.

Then we have this:

Hegel’s generosity as a philosopher is second to none. For him, as for Parmenides, all speech must be a speech about something, even if that something isn’t entirely clear to the one speaking. Thus, there are no utterly false philosophies; the trick is to rescue the insights that motivate those philosophies and set aside the ways in which such philosophies are partial. There is still a kind of condescension involved, in that Hegel tells everyone else what they really mean, but it is an approach far superior to the polemical approach that looks to “refute” all competitors.

If my choice is “polemic” or to be patted on the head and told not to worry, my argument is just another a datum in the historical world-consciousness, happens to the best of us, then I’ll take polemic, thanks just the same. Preserve me from such generosity.

This most generous of all philosophers buried his greatest German contemporary, Schopenhauer, with silence, in the customary way court favorites deal with their obscure betters, much as Goethe treated Kleist. German even has a special word for this, Radler, or cyclist, from the posture: bent back above, legs pumping below. Eddie writes that Schopenhauer was “resentful”; quite so.

I characterized Hegel’s philosophy as “the apotheosis of the State,” which Eddie disputes with an anecdote, from Knox, about Hegel toasting the French Revolution every year on Bastille Day. He spares his readers any quotations from the master himself. I will be less solicitous. Hegel wrote on the State as follows:

The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth… We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth, and consider that, if it is difficult to comprehend Nature, it is infinitely harder to grasp the essence of the State.

The State is the march of God through the world.

The State exists for its own sake… The State is the actually existing, realized moral life.

The really living totality, that which preserves, and continually produces, the State and its constitution, is the Government… In the Government, regarded as an organic totality, the Sovereign Power or Principate is the all-sustaining, all-decreeing Will of the State, its highest Peak and all-pervasive Unity. In the perfect form of the State in which each and every element… has reached its free existence, this will is that of one actual decreeing Individual (not merely of a majority in which the unity of decreeing will has no actual existence); it is monarchy.

…ultimate decision…absolute self-determination constitutes the power of the prince as such.

the absolutely decisive element in the whole…is a single individual, the monarch.

These are odd thoughts for a classical liberal.

Eddie says that my mocking Hegel for “proving” things like magnetizing iron increases its weight has nothing to do with his liberalism. True; but it might make a dent or two in his “greatness.” “If Aaron means that somehow he argues for these matters in an a priori fashion, I’ll let him supply the evidence.” Demanding that your interlocutor read Hegel is a shrewd tactic, even when arguing about Hegel; but of course he argued for these matters a priori. Does Eddie really believe these are lab results? A priori was the whole point. Any ordinary genius could induce Kepler’s laws from astronomical charts; only the greatest genius of all time could deduce them, without the benefit of any facts whatever. Hegel’s definition of heat may provide some insight into his method:

Heat is the self-restoration of matter in its formlessness, its liquidity the triumph of its abstract homogeneity over specific definiteness, its abstract, purely self-existing continuity, as negation of negation, is here set as activity.

Eddie warns us against the metaphysics of the scientists; he might also spare a thought for the science of the metaphysicians.

Hegel is one of the first allegedly serious thinkers to write nonsense, word salads with literally no meaning. (Parse the above passage on heat if you doubt me.) There is an excellent book to be written on nonsense, in which 19th century German idealist philosophy would figure prominently. Kant verged, in places, on nonsense; Schelling tipped over into it; and Hegel raised it to an art. Contemporary academics in the humanities, present company of course excepted, have no idea how much they owe to him.

“And I was just starting to think of these guys [me and Jim Ryan] as friends!” Eddie exclaims. We’re all still friends. Friends don’t let friends take Hegel seriously.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>