Reality for the sake of theory

11 04 2011

Notes on Hegel’s Philosophy of History

The premise of Hegel’s work can be summarized, oddly enough, in a very simple phrase: “the Eastern world knew that one is free; the Greek world knew that some are free; and the German world knows that all are free”. The movement of the Spirit through history is manifested through man’s increasing separation from Nature. Spirit, simply put, is freedom, and modernity is the realization of that freedom that has been developing through the centuries. Hegel uses the figure of the Egyptian Sphinx, the human face climbing out of the animal body, to show this emergence of the free from the primeval muck of nature.

Perhaps the other thought on Hegel’s work is that reality exists for the sake of theory, and not the other way around. Hegel’s great philosophical insight is that there is no real “noumenal” world as there is in Kant which the mind is constantly trying to grasp. The appearance, the phenomenon, is the reality; the dialectical procession through history is powered by the gap between the idea and the specific manifestation of that idea in any given time and place: that it cannot perfectly embody that Idea, and so it is moved forward. “Caesar” is a perfect example: the first manifestation is merely a name of a man, it is only in the repetition, when it becomes the name of an office or position of power, that it takes on its real essence. Hegel, at least in his advanced years, stopped trying to find the “outside” of the Idea; the Idea itself is a product of its own failure. Theory is primary because theory is all there is.

“Freedom” is thus moved forward in the same way. In Hegel’s telling, in ancient Chinese and Hindu society, only one person is free, such as the Emperor or the Enlightened One. Everyone else is merely an appendage to the unruly laws of nature or this one free person. In ancient Persia, there begins the separation from such fatalistic laws of nature, and in Greece, it is the Greeks who are considered to be free as opposed to the barbarians outside of them. But their own failure to realize this freedom, and the internal contradictions within it, led to their decline, the rise of Rome as an extension of the Greek world, and ultimately the long march of the Germanic barbarians towards civilization. Ultimately, in their adoption of the Christian message, these barbarian descendants would conclude that all men are indeed free, that in order to be free, one must consciously choose one’s course of actions, and will the common good. Freedom for Hegel, unlike the Anglo-Saxon definition, does not simply entail license to do whatever one chooses, but the power to act according to reason. And for Hegel, it is the State that is the ultimate manifestation of Freedom, and ultimately, God, in history.

That is my very (very) superficial sketch of what Hegel is trying to say. As usual, many would say that he is painting with too broad of a brush, stereotyping, outright bullshitting, and so on. But that is where the important premise of “reality for the sake of theory” comes in. For even if all of this is true, what difference would it make in the general scope of history? Are there any societies today or nations that do not abide by “Eurocentric” rules of what reason is, what the State is, the concept of nation, and so on? For all the talk of postmodernists wanting to create local, pluralistic modernities, the actual shape of all of these modernities is pretty much the same: liberal, capitalist, bureaucratic, and so on. Even the most “reactionary” responses to these tendencies, such as Islamic fundamentalism, are really products of the drive towards “Freedom”, even if only in the negative sense.

I am willing to concede, however, that such things are not as clear-cut as Hegel makes them out to be. Sometimes, ancient forms are not simply crushed by the juggernaut of progress, but are assimilated into them and used (as in the “cunning of reason”) to bring about the aims of modern development. I think here, for example, of Hindu fundamentalism. Hegel has nothing nice to say about Indian religion, but in its modern manifestation, in spite of looking ancient to us, modern Hinduism is very much a product of modern capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state. Since it tried to mimic Christian missionary societies in developing cohesive narratives and fundamental texts, it tends to overshadow more local forms of religiosity. This of course takes place in Latin America, and for that matter, Haitian voudou. The Petro lwa in voudou are the gods who have manifested themselves in the New World around the struggle against slavery. The cult of Maria Lionza in Venezuela is a reaction to the emergence of neoliberalism and state building, and so on. Sometimes, even if the form seems atavistic, it is quite possibly an example of modernity just as much as an iPhone or a treatise by John Locke.

As someone of a more Marxist bent, of course I cannot endorse Hegel’s vision 100%. I will never side with the State since the State is the “gendarme of the bourgeoisie” according to Lenin, built to protect the interests of capital. What Hegel did not see, or at least did not emphasize, is that society is not an organic whole, but is rather made up of classes… basically, Marxism 101. Nevertheless, I think it is good at times to envision that history exists to give birth to a particular Idea, that there is a World-Spirit that makes all of the toils in life worthwhile. I am not sure. Maybe that is God, in the end: the general Idea compared to which all the particulars are failed trial runs.

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13 responses

11 04 2011
Charlie Jackson

I’m working on my undergraduate degree in history; Hegel’s come up a lot, especially in historiography, but only in snippets. The Abbey actually dissolved it’s philosophy department early last summer, so most hope of exposure to Hegel or any other philosophers has been shot. It’s too bad, because I don’t really think I have the framework to just pick these guys up and start reading.

I enjoy these posts though, they sort of fill in some gaps for me.

11 04 2011
Chris

A Catholic college dissolved its philosophy department? Why?

11 04 2011
Charlie Jackson

Officially, because we don’t have enough students pursuing philosophy degrees to justify retaining the department. In reality, the philosophy teachers got on the wrong side of the new, neoconservative administration. They’re too liberal, they’re not Catholic enough, but they had tenure. So they dissolved the department. Some of them were on the wrong side of the birth control controversy the Abbey went through when they changed insurance.

I come here for my daily dose of philosophy, just wish I had a better grounding in the basics.

11 04 2011
sortacatholic

Charlie: Does Belmont Abbey have an Index room of the library under lock and key? Reactionary academics, hallowed be thy name! Heck, in Latin class at Fordham we used to read the transvestitic portions of Martial’s Epigrams with all the excitement of Ben Stein on Quaaludes. Mind you, this is coming from someone who’s a Latinist and an Extraordinary Form adherent (albeit a very liberal one).

Comrade, get your hand on everything your profs told you not to read. You have a need to know as an educated person, even if your educators are unwilling to educate.

———————————————

Arturo on Hegel:

“Caesar” is a perfect example: the first manifestation is merely a name of a man, it is only in the repetition, when it becomes the name of an office or position of power, that it takes on its real essence.

Hegel brings up an important conflict that is found in the liminal state between the presence of an actual, tangible phenomenon and the sublimation of this phenomenon in ideology. Once the historical antecedents for a conflict have receded, only the acrimony and defiance remains. While it is true that sometimes the memory of opposition can blossom into a positive force for change, often this memory can languish in the cul-de-sac of resentment.

Your example of the survival of West African religious traditions in the Americas through syncretism highlights the survival of a socio-cultural disjunct through cooperation in other religious traditions. The Extraordinary Form is another good example of positive change after liturgical abrogation. The EF today isn’t the EF of the 1950s: liberated from the strictures of compulsion, the “traditional faithful” are free to enjoy the Tridentine rites in their full length and performative integrity, rather than a 20 minute mumbled requiem mess.

Sometimes, ancient forms are not simply crushed by the juggernaut of progress, but are assimilated into them and used (as in the “cunning of reason”) to bring about the aims of modern development.

Still, there are some still emerging translations from actual strife into ideological incarnations of strife which are still being forged in sorrow and muted violence. The implications of the subcontinental Partition are far from resolution, even almost seventy years later. Sure, Hindu fundamentalism has borrowed on Christian mission models to create a socio-economic fusion of Vedic philosophy and pragmatic postmodern government. Still, someone in Lahore still stings at his or her expulsion from their ancestral Punjabi homestead. The electoral and political success of the BJP cannot hide these still suppurating wounds.

11 04 2011
E

“All that is holy is profaned.” Religion is the opium of the masses and the US is the perfect bourgeois republic because it is religious zealots who ruin this country over the restriction of abortion and other moral issues. Ancient forms of religion are fostered in order to divide countries, look at the entire Sunni-Shiite debate. They kill each other, while the Imperialists laugh all the way to bank. It is stoked as a mechanism of control, it is order through chaos in these tribal societies. Post-modernism is a system of control, even Michel Foucault hailed the Iranian Revolution; of course if he were there they would have executed him for his sexual orientation.
In the US, many go by the golden rule, “Do onto others, before they do on to you.” I don’t know why these idiots fear Sharia Law, they would be comfortable stoning adulterous women and gays.
Only in this country will people accept starving in the streets for the rich through austerity, well at least abortion is restricted and the gays stay in the closet. Where as other countries at least there are massive demonstration or even coup d’etats before the governments ram austerity down the throats of the masses. Yup, for American Imperialism, religion is an effective tool of management.

11 04 2011
sortacatholic

E:

Post-modernism is a system of control, even Michel Foucault hailed the Iranian Revolution; of course if he were there they would have executed him for his sexual orientation.

[...]

In the US, many go by the golden rule, “Do onto others, before they do on to you.” I don’t know why these idiots fear Sharia Law, they would be comfortable stoning adulterous women and gays.

I think you’re missing Arturo’s point. Conservative American politics’ hypocrisy feeds upon the undergirding derivations of historical and ideological memory. The Republican glorification of a reified/ossified constitutional and moral pseudo-dominionist fantasy state and Larry Craig’s airport restroom cruising are children of the same Hegelian transition from discrete historical event to phenomenological meme.

A focus on discrete effects of the Hegelian derivations of history fails to understand the extrapolation of ideology from a historical flashpoint to the farthest reaches of ideological manipulation. As a kid I read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in school. Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, by itself, meant nothing to a snot-nosed 16 year old. The priests impressed on me the notion that reading Caesar cultivated education. The priests certainly did not imply that discrete events in ancient Gaul would (or could) help me understand Clinton’s foreign policy. Cultural-memory-as-phenomenon, as a heuristic method, trumped content.

12 04 2011
E

My point was that religion is used by American Imperialism to dupe everyone. The Christians build their past conveniently forgetting the horrors of slavery and racism. After the savage destruction of the world during World War II, the US was on top of the world. There was an economic boom after WW II where white America lived on top of the world. Many of these white Teabaggers grew up in this. These people did not grow up during the Depression or before the establishment of the great social welfare programs that we have today. Before there was Social Security and free Labor Unions, there was repression and a low standard of living. These idiots, many of whom are ex-military and receive pensions, don’t want anyone else to get what they get anything– screw the Welfare moms, right. A few hundred million dollars from the Koch Brothers goes a long way to create a movement in this country. Also you see a shift of philanthropic money go from Liberal Think Tanks to Right Wing think tanks starting around the time of Nixon. I am more of a social Marxist, I tend not study too much theory, I prefer languages. I tend to follow the money.

I look at history and economics more than staring at my naval which a lot of wanna be Marxists tend to do. I hate it when people show up to an activist meeting and only want to discuss the merits of pre-1848 Marx or how Marx and Kant differ. I can care less. And I really hate hanging out with cult leftists, you can get stacks of paper just to cover up personal disputes. You want to see how the left works, watch the Life of Brian. Of course, I am not condemning this blog for this, I am just BSing myself. It was what the Internet was invented for.

As for Post-Modernism, this dispersion of power theory and relativism has always bothered me. I see a jaded ruling class, the bourgeoisie, who will fund any group will help it preserve its hegemony. It obfuscates the real source of the problem, capitalism. The CIA funded Gloria Steinem as well as various French Universities to come up with this ideology of conformity, post-modernism. The CIA also funded Islamic fundamentalism too under Carter and Reagan at the same time as the rise of this Teabagger movement (Christian Fundamentalism). Islamic fundamentalism was fostered by British Intelligence in the 1920′s and used sporadically to beat down Arab and Muslim Nationalism. Movements can be created by the bourgeois classes, all you need is money and a few dupes, plus a complaint media. It is that easy to create a world spirit to prostrate yourself too. Hegel sold himself to the Prussian throne, right?

13 04 2011
Arturo Vasquez

“Hegel sold himself to the Prussian throne, right?”

Maybe, but he also always toasted to the French Revolution on every Bastille Day. That’s like saying Robespierre sold out because he wasn’t for the proletarian revolution. It just wasn’t their time yet. Hegel was all for the bourgeois revolution.

“I look at history and economics more than staring at my naval which a lot of wanna be Marxists tend to do.”

Perhaps this is true, but it is better than a bunch of embittered leftists in trade unions or aging wannabe reformists calling for a new civil rights movement and bitching all the time that kids are more interested in their playstations. Really, it sucks to be a leftist these days, which is why I play the role of misanthropic, petit-bourgeois, armchair Marxist. The subjective conditions just aren’t there, comrade. Not even close. It’s going to take something on the level of a Kantian sublime to wake people up. People are just too comfortable, at least here.

And if it were just about action and not theory (8th thesis on Feurbach and all that), I would become an anarchist who just wants to fuck shit up. Break the windows of small businesses just because it makes me feel good. Talk about petit bourgeois frustration and faux masculine bravado. At least the champagne gauche are enjoying themselves.

“The CIA funded Gloria Steinem as well as various French Universities to come up with this ideology of conformity, post-modernism. ”

Good point. As I said previously, the New Left was the best thing to ever happen to capitalism. Heck, they are probably even giving money to Zizek and Naomi Klein, amongst others. But as the believers in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other bigot conspiracy theorists would be able to point out, Lenin was shipped on a sealed train through enemy lines. Gramscian Marxism is actively used to dismantle “traditional values”, whatever, fuck it, I’ll take it. The key to the dialectic is that things turn into their opposites, the Idea turns against itself, and so on. Many of those reformists would turn either revolutionary or fascist given the right circumstances, many of those Teabaggers would turn the guns on the generals, etc. The moral arguments of people who “talk left” have more in common with the Kantian categorical imperative than a dialectical view of history. After all, Abimael Guzman of Sendero Luminoso fame was teaching Kant before he went into the mountains to force peasants to join his revolution at gun point. [How's that for bringing Kant into the conversation?]

13 04 2011
E

Well I am just a bitter trade unionists and a trade union bureaucrat who is just trying to get paid. I am rolling in riches right. Lenin definitely took money from the Germans, there is no doubt about this. However, what he did was change the world with the most monumental change in the 20th century. And Marx did take refuge in London, probably some type of British agent who was thought to help destabilize the European Continent. However, he did create a theory that changed the world, leading to Bolshevik Revolution. Klein and Zizek are part of the champagne left, supporting Obama instead of struggling for something better, a third party. I respect Ralph Nader more than I respect people who just go with it and Nader ain’t no socialist. As long as they get their paycheck right and sit in an Ivory Tower and don’t even rock the boat.

13 04 2011
Owen White

E,

While I would never dispute the assertion that Klein and Zizek are a part of the champagne left, Zizek at least has made some fairly thorough and uncompromising attacks on the bourgeois liberalism of Obama. See: http://postochlophobist.blogspot.com/2011/03/friend-on-fb-posted-this-so-fitting-at.html for instance. Klein was very cautiously optimistic about Obama in 2008, calling for him to replace some of his advisors. By 2009 she had seen the obvious ( http://www.openleft.com/diary/16231/naomi-klein-nails-brand-obama ), and by 2010 I think it safe to say she was on the side of the Left we see in the recent comments of Cornel West on Obama. But I do agree with you that anything they say is to be taken as tainted because of their champagne left status. When the revolution comes, they will probably need to be liquidated as well. Klein for sure, as a rich person who self identifies as social dem. And Zizek was married to that Argentine underwear model for awhile. Decadent bastard.

13 04 2011
E

I have no problem with decadence and I ain’t calling for anyone to be liquidated, I ain’t no Shining Path. Hey if given the same opportunity to have an Argentine model and…oh I forgot this was a Catholic blog. However, when people who should know better work for the system. They should have seen this Obama mirage early on. The Left put so much into Obama and people should know better that all politicians are vetted by Wall Street. He was put into office to offer a brown face facade to justify American Imperialism. Also Obama was put there to screw us while the Banks and Wall Street get us. Maybe I have this fetish for not starving in the streets because of lack of unemployment or because I don’t want old people and the poor to starve to death because they take away Welfare and the rest of the social welfare net.

It is people like this that Marx said “He was not a Marxist”. Yeah, you can get a lot out of their writings. However, you can get a lot of the writings of Libertarians as well. And to some extent, I respect the Libertarians because, they may be fools, but at least they are consistent. Truth is truth. Maybe I set my bar too high. I have respect for people who are consistent and help people and pay the price, like MLK and to some degree Ralph Nader. Obama has done nothing but behave like a puppet for Wall Street. I respect action more than ink spilled on pages.

14 04 2011
Duncan

It is people like this that Marx said “He was not a Marxist”.

I just found it amusing to note that some Christians say something similar about those who have left Christianity, that they were never truly ‘saved’ to begin with.

14 04 2011
E

Marxism is not about who is going to be saved or not. It is matter of applying a scientific study of society on society and help change it. I just can’t stand people who claim to be Marxists and don’t learn from the study of history. And these people are not young and inexperienced, they know what they are doing. Some of the most vocal advocates of neo-liberalism have been people from the Second International such as Tony Blaire and other so-called Socialist leaders in Europe. You don’t see the result of their actions in the afterlife, you see it with people not having jobs, people losing their Medicare and Medicaid, while the rich laugh all the way to the bank. But never fear you can take out your Nihilism by reading Zizek or Naomi Klein and also keep voting for the lesser of two evil. I hold no one to that standard here, this is a Catholic blog.

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