Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reading Hegel

I am currently reading Hegel's Philosophy of Right and thinking about his critique of certain aspects of the liberal tradition. Needless to say, this is a frustrating experience. I was raised with the weird mashup of libertarian capitalism cheerleading and Christian triumphantalism that makes up most of the religious right in the U.S. As I dropped the Christianity I moved towards a more liberal viewpoint (what I later learned to call Rawlsian political liberalism). However, I've maintained some sympathy for the sense of communal identity represented by the postmillenialist thinking of my childhood. I just am not sure how to combine it with the ideals of freedom and equality that incline me towards liberalism.

Anyway, according to reputation, that is the project that Hegel sets himself--to combine the ideal of freedom that is a necessary part of the modern identity with the Aristotelian notion that human nature is social--that it is a mistake to treat humans as separable from the communities in which they live.

So this should be interesting stuff. But Hegel is a very difficult writer. And, in my experience, still controversial over not just whether his ideas are interesting, but whether he is worth reading at all. This is the problem with esoteric writers--in order to properly read them you must make a significant commitment of time.

This has a number of effects. First, it makes it more likely that if you do make such a commitment that you will think the work important. After all, in difficult works there are more interpretation choices which means that you put more of yourself in your understanding of the text. This also leads to a wider range of interpretations, leading to a larger literature, which further increases the impression that a particular writer is important. Plus, there is the cognitive dissonance element: it is a natural part of the human psyche to find justifications for difficult or painful actions whether or not they exist.

Another result of obscurity is the backlash. I believe it was Plantinga who who said that one of the best ways to become a famous philosopher was to be unclear. Thus, the suspicion arises that famous philosophers who are famously unclear are perhaps simply frauds, famous not because of the appearance rather than the reality of depth in their ideas. Anglo-American style philosophy has a tendency to prize clarity and so has become especially suspicious of vagueness in philosophy (at least the wrong kinds of vagueness and unclarity).

Of course, there is then the backlash backlash. Philosophers accused of obscurity will sometimes (probably the most obvious example being Derrida) develop philosophies that actually predict the difficulty and obscurity of their views, and in fact the inevitability of some significant amount of obscurity in all writing--even of those writers deemed paradigms of clarity and simplicity.

But, while deconstruction might be internally consistent (at least insofar as consistency is possible within a deconstructed discourse), it is still vulnerable to the original accusations of obscurity disguising emptiness. Notice that this claim is not one purporting to show the falsity of the views of the obscure philosopher, but is rather a probabilistic argument: that it is much more likely that the well-known, but obscure philosopher will not reward the time spent studying her. Oddly enough, this is a hermeneutic of suspicion, something more explicitly used to critique texts in the so-called Continental philosophical style.

So: Hegel, is it worth it?


Ryan B. said...

I have a simpleton's question for you. Since almost nobody can understand what philosophers are talking about, including people with philosophy degrees (that would be me), what is the practical function of the philosopher? Has any change in philosophical thinking made a bit of differemce in actual society in the last thousand years? I guess I'm wondering the motivation is to become such an expert in philosophy, which as I see it, is largely irrelevant to almost everyone.

I suppose it could be like me and disc golf. Nobody else cares, but I'd do it all day if I could.

Sabina's hat said...


Maybe sometime I'll do a post addressing some of these issues, because these are pretty huge questions you are asking.

However, the quick and dirty answer is this: first you are just wrong about the lack of understanding of philosophical ideas. For instance, take Hegel, who I was complaining about. Probably his most famous critic is Marx (who is himself a widely read philosopher), who used some of his ideas to develop communism--which ended up making a pretty huge difference in "actual society."

If you want a more practical change, all modern computer languages are based on some form of mathematical logic--first invented by Gottlob Frege back in the 1880's.

But those are only the sort of obvious large scale changes made by philosophers. Another important impact of philosophers is in the education of the citizens of modern republics. For instance at my college every student is required to take a philosophy class in order to graduate. Why is this?

I would argue that as a society we've accepted that certain ways of thinking about the world are useful and conducive to stable and just societies. For instance, we want the FDA to be run by scientists. In order for that to be acceptable we must enculturate a respect for science among U.S. citizens. It is thought the best way to do this is to require everyone to have a basic level of scientific training.

Although there is not as much consensus about the usefulness of philosophy in the U.S., there is still enough to make it part of the core curriculum of many universities. The questioning, skeptical, tolerant, curious attitude that is thought characteristic of the philosopher is a good attitude for people to have. But that is something that only happens through exposure to different ideas and ways of thinking--not from just telling people to be tolerant.

Related to this are the Hegelian notions about identity. He claims that human identity is bound up in the relations we have with different organizations in our communities. That means that some kinds of ideas, whether they be ethical, religious, or philosophical form core parts of how we think of ourselves. A critical examination of these notions would seem to be necessary if we are interested in understanding who we are or how to live.

I would argue that your perception of the irrelevance of philosophy is based more on your own decisions to pursue some ends rather than others--not because of anything about the subject. For instance, do you often read technical scientific articles? Or history journals? Perhaps you are a regular reader of JAMA? Yet I would assume that you consider all of these disciplines both relevant and important to contemporary culture. Philosophy is often the same way. Philosophers fight over certain ideas, and the ones that end up winning filter down to the rest of society either directly or indirectly.