Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"Friend Hegel"

In my bygone undergraduate years in the seventies I had a teacher who spoke familiarly of "friend Hegel," and my pals and I convened our little Friday afternoon beer-and-conviviality club under the banner of what we pretentiously called "The Hegel Society." (Maybe we meant to emulate the St. Louis Hegelians, I forget.) That was a club destined for dissolution, when one of our group attempted a demonstration of his free will by bashing himself with a mug of beer. In any case, I never really cottoned to Hegelian philosophy – especially after discovering William James’s send-up in "Some Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide." There James notes a parade of contradictory candidates for Hegelian reconciliation and rational synthesis, such as "God and devil, good and evil, life and death, I and thou, sober and drunk, matter and form, black and white, quantity and quality, shiver of ecstasy and shudder of horror, vomiting and swallowing, inspiration and expiration, fate and reason, great and small, extent and intent, joke and earnest, tragic and comic, and fifty other contrasts... "

Tongue deeply lodged in cheek, James then proceeds to report a series of his own "deep" musings allegedly recorded while under the influence of Hegel and laughing gas, including:

What's mistake but a kind of take?
What's nausea but a kind of -usea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism --
How criticise without something to criticise?
Agreement -- disagreement!!
Emotion -- motion!!!!
By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn't hurt!
Reconciliation of two extremes.
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it is pure on sense!

(Michael Pollan undertakes a similar "experiment" in Botany of Desire, reading The Selfish Gene while smoking marijuana. His results were more enlightening.) But James finally tips his hand, venting a fiercely anti-Hegelian temperament:

the identification of contradictories, so far from being the self-developing process which Hegel supposes, is really a self-consuming process, passing from the less to the more abstract, and terminating either in a laugh at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood of vertiginous amazement at a meaningless infinity.

And there my own negative appraisal of Hegel rested for a long time, until eventually I came across an essay a couple of years back fetchingly titled (in coincident echo of my old prof) "My New Friend Hegel," by Michael Prowse:

"To the degree that we are thinking beings, Hegel says, we have to consider ourselves as part of a larger whole and not as neatly individuated। He calls this mental whole Geist, or Spirit, and tries to work out the rules by which it develops through time... Hegel didn't regard Geist as something that stands apart from, or above, human individuals. He saw it rather as the forms of thought that are realised in human minds... What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good."

This gloss anticipates the criticisms of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, two virulently anti-Hegelian pessimists whose philosophies were contemptuous of communitarian values and the public interest. Arthur Schopenhauer asserted the ubiquity of blind, striving, impersonal, purposeless Will. Soren Kierkegaard affirmed the propriety of "leaps of faith." The harm done in each case, I believe, is to reinforce the irrationalist impulses of modern life; and to extend to them an unearned respectability. We must not believe "because it is absurd"... and must not embrace despair until we’ve really given meliorism a fair shot.

1 comment:

mantmarble said...

Great post! You wanna know about leaps of faith and boundless absurdity? Check THIS out:


KurzweilAI.net Accelerating Intelligence News