Friday, March 24, 2006

On the political manifestations of Hegelianism

Yesterday I outlined Hegel's Idealism in his words, today I'll use my own. Idealism, in a general sense, is the view that the objects of our mind are mental, not physical. We can think about a tree, but the tree itself, if it exists, does not enter our mind.

There are many branches of the view from this starting point. Empiricists in general argue that the objects of our mind are reflections of reality. Going further, Hume argued that our thoughts of a thing were images of the thing or nominal reflections, thus the term, nominalism. The key assumption of this branch of thought is that there is a material universe which provides the datum of our perceptions.

Hegel's view takes the follower away from realism. The idea, an objective, top down idea, is all. Particulars are but reflections of the whole as citizens are but reflections of the state. Hegel embraces Rationalism, the view that truth can be discovered by thought alone, without the need to check for empirical confirmation.

In my view, Hegel argues for deductivism from the assumption that the world is understandable. There is no mystery left in the universe, nothing left to discover. History, for Hegel, had run its course, the only thing left to do is lead the slow to the truth.

You might notice a similarity between Hegel and Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Although she describes the view as realistic, she too argues for a conflation of thought about existence and existence itself. The world is at it seems to her and those who dispute her view are just wrong. Theodor Adorno's intolerance of ambiguity is a key feature of both Hegel's and Rand's views. There are no experiments here, just certainty. Like a prophet claiming to know the mind of God, these apostles of human wisdom know how the universe will unfold.

As I was dozing off to sleep last night, after reading some Hegel, I realized that the exercise leaves a reader with the impression that the universe is understandable. Even though you might disagree with his particular slant, which would ordinarily lead one to wonder if Hegel was just fooling himself, the sense that one could get one's head around the universe is a difficult temptation to avoid.

Flowing from this sense of understandability is a sense of determinism. That is, if the universe is understandable it is determined, there is no waiting to see what will happen, it is already known, at least by those who profess the view. In The Dilemma of Determinism, William James asks:

What does determinism profess?

It professes that those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be. The future has no ambiguous possibilities bidden in its womb; the part we call the present is compatible with only one totality. Any other future complement than the one fixed from eternity is impossible. The whole is in each and every part, and welds it with the rest into an absolute unity, an iron block, in which there can be no equivocation or shadow of turning.

Indeterminism, on the contrary, says that the parts have a certain amount of loose play on one another, so that the laying down of one of them does not necessarily determine what the others shall be. It admits that possibilities may be in excess of actualities, and that things not yet revealed to our knowledge may really in themselves be ambiguous. Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one becomes impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact. It says there is a certain ultimate pluralism in it; and, so saying, it corroborates our ordinary unsophisticated view of things. To that view, actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen; and, somewhere, indeterminism says, such possibilities exist, and form a part of truth.

You can now perhaps see how Hegelianism Idealism lends itself to the view of Deterministic History moving with a purpose man can see. Whether the event is the rise of the Jacobins in France, which Hegel applauded as necessary antithesis, Marx's inevitable communist revolution, or Kojeve's and Fukuyama's inevitable capitalist victory, the path of the future is clear. No matter that each view flowing from the same basis saw his own team as the victor, a curious plurality of views from a presumed unitary universe, while each was riding the wave, they were right.

The prognostications of the Hegelians remind me of the old commodity broker trick. Call 50 people and tell half oil will rise and half oil will fall. The next day, tell half of the people who profited from your forecast that soybeans will rise and half that they will fall and so on. After a few days, those remaining few people will think you a genius because they are unaware of your errors. Which ever side won in the Cold War, Hegelians would claim victory.

One of my favorite physical arguments against determinism involves a pool table. The challenge to determinists goes as follows. Rack the balls, fire the cue ball using a finely calibrated machine and tell me where and when the balls will come to rest on the pool table. You can use the best super computers in the world and you can't do it. If the outcome is determined, it is beyond the ken of man to grasp.

If the motion of inanimate objects is beyond our ken to grasp in toto, how much more difficult would it be to determine the actions of animate objects like man. Today the army fights because they believe in the mission and fear the consequences of not fighting. Yet, history shows that tomorrow that might not be true. While I might, after the fact, explain the change, I doubt I could forecast it.

Not that such doubts cloud the minds of the neo-Hegelians. Fukuyama argues in his End of History that consciousness will ultimately remake the material world in its image which recalls the words of one Bush insider to Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,' 'but the real world seems as reluctant to oblige more than a decade later as it was when Hegel argued similarly in 1806.

On the policy side, Paul Wolfowitz, whose reading of the Hegelian tea leaves led him to assert that Iraq had WMDs, has perhaps the best intellectual pedigree of the neo-Hegelians. He studied under Allan Bloom at my alma mater Cornell, and with Bloom's mentor, Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. Thus far, Mr. Wolfowitz has managed to avoid the downside one might think would flow from the inability of his ideas of the world to manifest in the world.

It is tempting to argue that the rise of neo-Hegelianism is a function of the teachings of Mr. Kojeve, Mr. Strauss and Mr. Bloom, among others but in my view, their views merely found an always ready audience. In other words, the unitary objective world viewpoint, understandable by a single man, lends itself to those who wish to consolidate power. Hegel had his Napoleon and Wolfowitz has his Bush. The philosophy, whether by intent or not, cloaks the drive to power, any drive to power, in an aura of respectability.

If not Hegelianism, then what? you might be wondering. My recommendation is to walk out of Plato's cave yourself, and begin to see the world with your own eyes. I write "begin" because as of yet, the universe has yet to stop revealing itself to my curiosity, nor will I have time, during my short stint in the material plane, to grasp even a small part of the wonder of the world. This for me is the spice of life, a universe of surprises. The more I open my eyes to the unknowns the more ignorant I realize I am.

Who knows what tomorrow brings? Not me. The Hegelians however know. Just ask them tomorrow and they will tell you that the events of the day were obvious. Of course, if you ask them today about tomorrow you might find, when questioning them about forecasts that didn't come to pass, that you didn't really understand them. Whether they understand themselves seems to me a more important question.

But be kind to the Hegelians. Each of them is but an unforeseen disaster or two away from a more humble view of life.