Thursday, March 23, 2006

On the new Hegelians...they're ba-a-ack

Hi. My name is "The Dude" and I'm a Hegelian.

Ever since I was young I have been one of those people others consider "smart." Perhaps this was the inevitable outcome of the erudite manner in which I utilized the verbal and written symbols and sounds that comprise modern discourse. That is, I think people thought I was smart because I spoke and wrote as if I should know something.

And they weren't the only ones who thought I was smart. I too figured that words which sounded so good could hardly contain nonsense. After all, what good is it to learn how to read Hume, Kant and Hegel if not to obscure the ordinariness of one's thoughts behind a veil of dense abstraction, even from my own mind.

Fortunately, my Hegelianism found itself sharing space, as it were, with an intrepid desire to sample life. Unsatisfied with my ability to convince people I could or did, I would actually do the crazy deed. It was the worst of combinations, the gift of the gab which gave one free rein to act, and the drive to actually do it.

But, you might note, unbedazzled by my prose, I described this combination as "fortunate" and then two sentences later as the "worst of combinations," which seems odd.

Dear reader, you have violated the first rule of Hegel worship, do not expect to be able to judge my prose using the normal metrics of man. My words are wise, by definition, if you cannot see that, you have yet to evolve to a sufficiently higher plane. My words have both an exoteric and esoteric meaning and to your lower order mind the exoteric clouds the hidden.......

I'm sorry, my Hegelianism got the best of me for the moment, as I suggested in the title I'm a recovering Hegelian. Now back to your question.

In a world unlike the one Hegel dreamed of as the Absolute Idea, that is, a real world, an inflated sense of ability combined with a desire to test that ability is a poor combination. Thank God I didn't become President. It is only in hindsight that I describe the combination as fortunate.

One day, while nursing a shattered ego the wise words of Forest Gump came to me, stupid is as stupid does. Despite the rationalizing arguments that kept flowing into my mind, I knew I had done something stupid. Like a drunk awakening in a pool of his own vomit, I stared into the abyss, saw myself, and decided to turn away.

All of which is to argue that I feel qualified to write of the new Hegelians because I know the disease, intimately.

It is a subtle disease, a conflation of the more than occasional insight with knowing it all. More specifically it is the conflation of thoughts with the thinker, a confusion between being smart and being able to express ideas people think are smart. I'm not arguing that Hegel and those who followed in his path did not entertain more than their share of clever thoughts, rather I'm arguing that this does not qualify them as being able to grasp the mysteries of the universe.

As the topic is broad and I'm lazy, I'm going to stretch the discussion out for at least another day. Today I'm going to briefly describe elements of Hegel's philosophy and tomorrow I'm going to trace the progression of his views in modern times on both the left (Marx) and right (Kojeve, Strauss, Fukuyama).

The Wikipedia opens its description of Absolute Idealism with the following: Absolute Idealism is a monistic ontology attributed to G.W.F. Hegel. That is, it is Hegel's account of how being is ultimately unitary. It posits that in order for the subject to know the world, or object, some necessary point of identity between the two must exist. Otherwise, the subject would never have access to the object and we wouldn't be able to know anything about the world. That point of identity must itself give rise to different ideas, including subject and object, and must be the basis of all the concepts with which we think and make sense of the world.

Monism is the view that the universe is made of one thing, in Hegel's case, the absolute idea, which can be arrived at through synthesis of opposites, as in subject and object. Higher level thinking then, for Hegel, is the conflation of thinker and thought or to recast Descartes, instead of I think therefore I am, it's thought imagining itself as a thinking existent.

Hegel described the self as unity thusly: By the term "I" I mean myself, a single and altogether determinate person. And yet I really utter nothing particular to myself, for every one else is an "I" or "Ego," and when I call myself "I," though I indubitably mean the single person myself, I express a thorough universal. "I" therefore, is mere being-for-self, in which everything peculiar or marked is renounced and buried out of sight; it is as it were the ultimate and unanalyzable Point of consciousness. We may say [that] "I" and thought are the same, or, more definitely, [that] "I" is thought as a thinker.

Confused? Reading Hegel has that effect on people so don't be discouraged. Bertrand Russell described Hegel as the most difficult to understand of all the great philosophers. Reading Hegel can lead you to think that he must be a very clever man, which was, I believe, at least partially the intent.

However, his view that the universal only is real, which he used to negate the individual above lends itself to the view that the state trumps the individual, thus the attraction of Hegel to political absolutists on the left and the right.

I'll pick up here tomorrow, hopefully.