Sunday, May 22, 2011

Progress with Hegel

In Plato's Apology, Socrates tells the story of the origins of his philosophical mission. The oracle at Delphi, he says, once announced that no one was wiser than Socrates. Socrates didn't think himself wise at all, so, bewildered by the prophecy, he set out to interrogate people who had reputations of wisdom. But he found that none were wise, although they all thought themselves so. Since everyone proved unwise, Socrates' conclusion was that the only difference between himself and these others -- his only superiority in wisdom -- lay in knowing that he was not wise.

I'm a fan of intellectual humility. All the evidence points to it as the proper attitude. Intellectual pride causes problems and makes people obnoxious. Our daily routine of mistakes and forgetfulness indicates mental weakness in humans. And faith tells us that God is beyond our comprehension, indicating a constitutional limit to our intellectual capacity. So it's with great trepidation that I set out to comment on something as complex as Hegel's philosophy, a system that causes many experts to admit their befuddlement. But here's a report of my limited view of Hegel.

His system begins with an interesting observation about being and identity. Psychologists tell us that a baby doesn't begin with a concept of self but develops it only when he figures out that these other characters running around are other selves. Hegel may have been the first to suggest such a process of discovery, although he described it not in relation to a single human's intellectual development but in relation to the whole universe. Whether anyone understands it yet or not, Person A can't be a person without the existence of Person B to establish the boundaries of what is and isn't Person A. Even more fundamentally, a thing called Being has no identity without a thing called Nothing. In fact, pure Being -- Being that doesn't serve as a quality of some existing thing -- is therefore not the Being of anything; it is Nothing. And since we can think of Nothing, Nothing is something that can be thought; Nothing has Being. The two have equal status and are reconciled by a constant process of Becoming.

Hegel bases his philosophy on these observations, and everything he discusses, he describes as existing in a perpetual flow of Becoming, as having both a history and a destiny. Importantly, this change, says Hegel, is overall one of progress. Humans become more wise, governments become more just, society becomes more free over time, and this progress is simply the inevitable way of the world. Peter Singer, the author of the extremely helpful Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, says that of all philosophers, Hegel would be the most disappointed to see how later generations adapted his ideas. Many totalitarian states (all of the Marxist states) drew justification directly or indirectly from Hegel's tenet that countries develop and change according to a fixed pattern. Surely Hegel, the great proponent of progress, wouldn't see Hitler's Germany as an improvement over the Fatherland he knew in the nineteenth century.

But progress in political history forms only one part of Hegel's theory of Becoming. According to Hegel, the fundamental truth of the universe is something he calls Spirit. This Spirit, like everything in Hegel's view, develops over the eons to a state of perfection. The appearance of humans and the psychological development of our race play parts in the progress of Spirit. Every advance we make, we make on behalf of universal Spirit. Art gets us closer to our destiny, but religion surpasses art, and philosophy even surpasses religion. And philosophy itself follows a determined path toward perfection. Every new idea, every discovery of the hidden truths of existence lends to the progress of the universe toward Absolute Spirit, a state in which the totality of existence (which our minds represent and serve) knows itself truly and knows that knowing itself is the only true knowledge. There is no distinction between an object and the perception of that object, no distinction between the knower and the known. As soon as humanity has discovered this truth, the purpose of all of history will have been met, the goal of the universe reached.

Considering this fuller picture of Hegel's system, should one be surprised at how people received and used the philosophy? As Singer points out, Hegel claims to have found the perspective that serves as the destination of the history of the world. Although Hegel doesn't say so directly, the amazing message is clearly implied: Hegel is the goal of history. The fundamental force of the universe has been operating for all of existence in order to prepare the way for Hegel, to produce him, and to have him discover the truth. His ideas complete the search undertaken by philosophy. His thoughts have reached the resting place that all art, all religion have longed for. In some ways I'm surprised that no one has started a Hegelian cult. (I was going to say "Hegelian religion," but that would be a contradiction, since Hegel claims that his philosophy surpasses religion.) A philosophy propounded by a man with such astonishing confidence in his unique importance can only have two consequences: either many people of many temperaments and levels of intelligence will find him a holy man and find his words spiritually nourishing, or else the masses will find the system lacking and the powermongers will adopt it as a tool.

At the very least, couldn't we guess that Hegel shouldn't be surprised that humanity might slip downhill after having reached the pinnacle? Claiming to have found the answer to life, the universe, and everything is like carrying a torch in the dynamite shed. It's much safer to follow Socrates and admit ignorance.

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