When In Doubt, Read Hegel.


So I happened to get to this part of the most awesome collection of articles bound to change the world forever and it sounded very familiar:

However, as promising as this point of entry [critique] appears, when we look about the battlefield of contemporary philosophy it very much appears that the project of critique today finds itself at a point of impasse in which it has largely exhausted its possibilities. Paraphrasing a title of a famous book by Paul Ricoeur, we could say that everywhere we look in both Continental and Anglo-American thought we encounter a ‘conflict of critiques’, without the means of deciding the truth or priority of these various critiques and which constitutes the proper point of entry into philosophical thought. The Kantians tell us that we must first reflexively analyze the a priori structure of mind to determine how it conditions and structures phenomena. The phenomenologists tell us that we must first reflexively analyze the lived structure of intentionality and our being-in-the-world to determine the givenness of the given. The Foucauldians tell us that we must analyze the manner in which power and discursive constructions produce reality. The Derrideans and Lacanians tell us that we must analyze the manner in which language produces the objects of our world. The Marxists tell us that we must analyze history and social forces to determine the manner in which the world is produced. The Gadamerians tell us that we must analyze our historically informed understanding inherited through the wandering of the texts through which we are made. The Wittgensteinians tell us that we must analyze ordinary language to determine how it produces the various pseudo-problems of philosophy. The list could be multiplied indefinitely. And among all of these orientations we find disputes within each particular orientation of thought as to how the project of critique is to be properly completed. How is one to choose among all these competing orientations of critique? Each mode of critique appears equally plausible and equally implausible, such that any choice takes on the appearance of being an arbitrary decision based on temperament, political orientation, and interest without any necessitating ground of its own. [The Speculative Turn, 262]

Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? So many philosophical opinions out there. Or as Hegel puts in it:

Thus we now meet the view very usually taken of the history of Philosophy which ascribes to it the narration of a number of philosophical opinions as they have arisen and manifested themselves in time. This kind of matter is in courtesy called opinions; those who think themselves more capable of judging rightly, call such a history a display of senseless follies, or at least of errors made by men engrossed in thought and in mere ideas. This view is not only held by those who recognize their ignorance of Philosophy. Those who do this, acknowledge it, because that ignorance is, in common estimation, held to be no obstacle to giving judgment upon what has to do with the subject; for it is thought that anybody can form a judgment on its character and value without any comprehension of it whatever. But the same view is even held by those who write or have written on the history of Philosophy. This history, considered only as the enumeration of various opinions, thus becomes an idle tale, or, if you will, an erudite investigation. For erudition is, in the main, acquaintance with a number of useless things, that is to say, with that which has no intrinsic interest or value further than being known. Yet it is thought that profit is to be derived from learning the various opinions and reflections of other men. It stimulates the powers of thought and also leads to many excellent reflections; this signifies that now and then it occasions an idea and its art thus consists in the spinning one opinion out of the other. [Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy]

So, if philosophy is full of opinions that claim to be true only to be replaced by the next set of opinion, then what are we do about it?

Scenario I:

Faced with such a bewildering philosophical situation, what if we were to imagine ourselves as proceeding naïvely and pre-critically as first philosophers, pretending that the last three hundred years of philosophy had not taken place or that the proper point of entry into philosophical speculation was not the question of access? […] In short, what if we were to ‘bracket’ the project of critique and questions of access, and proceed in our speculations as the beginning student of philosophy might begin? This, of course, is impossible as the history of philosophy is, as Husserl might put it, sedimented in our consciousness. Nonetheless, we can still attempt such an experiment to see where it might lead. At the very least, such a naïve and pre-critical beginning might give us the resources to pose differently the philosophical questions we have inherited, thereby opening up new possibilities of thought and a line of flight from a framework that has largely exhausted itself and become rote. [The Speculative Turn, 262-63]

Scenario IIa:

In view of such manifold opinions and philosophical systems so numerous, one is perplexed to know which one ought to be accepted. In regard to the great matters to which man is attracted and a knowledge of which Philosophy would bestow, it is evident that the greatest minds have erred, because they have been contradicted by others. “Since, this has been so with minds so great, how then can ego homuncio attempt to form a judgment?” This consequence, which ensues from the diversity in philosophical systems, is, as may be supposed, the evil in the matter, while at the same time it is a subjective good. For this diversity is the usual plea urged by those who, with an air of knowledge, wish to make a show of interest in Philosophy, to explain the fact that they, with this pretense of good-will, and, indeed, with added motive, for working at the science, do in fact utterly neglect it. But this diversity in philosophical systems is far from being merely an evasive plea. It has far more weight as a genuine serious ground of argument against the zeal which Philosophy requires. It justifies its neglect and demonstrates conclusively the powerlessness of the endeavour to attain to philosophic knowledge of the truth.  When it is admitted that Philosophy ought to be a real science, and one Philosophy must certainly be the true, the question arises as to which Philosophy it is, and when it can be known. Each one asserts its genuineness, each even gives different signs and tokens by which the Truth can be discovered; sober reflective thought must therefore hesitate to give its judgment. [Hegel, again]

So those who inform us of the well-known fact that there are in fact many philosophical opinions are giving up on philosophical search for truth and play around because apparently that is all they are capable of since they have abandoned that search for truth that drives all true philosophy. With an “air of knowledge” they add yet another opinion to the pile, not claiming to know the truth, but just playing around to see what happens.

Scenario IIb:

As to this reflection, the next thing to be said of it is that however different the philosophies have been, they had a common bond in that they were Philosophy. Thus whoever may have studied or become acquainted with a philosophy, of whatever kind, provided only that it is such, has thereby become acquainted with Philosophy. That delusive mode of reasoning which regards diversity alone, and from doubt of or aversion to the particular form in which a Universal finds its actuality, will not grasp or even allow this universal nature, I have elsewhere likened to an invalid recommended by the doctor to eat fruit, and who has cherries, plums or grapes, before him, but who pedantically refuses to take anything because no part of what is offered him is fruit, some of it being cherries, and the rest plums or grapes.

But it is really important to have a deeper insight into the bearings of this diversity in the systems of Philosophy. Truth and Philosophy known philosophically, make such diversity appear in another light from that of abstract opposition between Truth and Error. The explanation of how this comes about will reveal to us the significance of the whole history of Philosophy. We must make the fact conceivable, that the diversity and number of philosophies not only does not prejudice Philosophy itself, that is to say the possibility of a philosophy, but that such diversity is, and has been, absolutely necessary to the existence of a science of Philosophy and that it is essential to it.

So it looks as though the first view is: “But there are so many philosophies! Where do I begin? Isn’t it easier just to pretend that the last 300 years didn’t in fact take place and play around with some words and concepts?”

While the second view is: “Yes, it is obvious that there are many philosophies, but they are all philosophies and therefore they are after the same result. Instead of treating them as competing claims, why not treat them as necessary steps of the universal search for truth? Instead of using the diversity as an excuse to abandon true philosophical pursuit of truth, however cool and sexy the result might appear, why not work even harder at it, taking the diversity as a blessing, not a curse?

8 thoughts on “When In Doubt, Read Hegel.

  1. Everything goes. When you intend to avoid a “philosophy of access” ( the perils of the subject / object duality ) and you come up with something different, why not? I don’t even understand why one shall be conservative while feeling stuck?

    Now you can come up with something completely insane, which scares the hell out of others. For example a philosophy which has lost interest in explanations and which hasn’t any critical method. It plunders science and the history of philosophy for its own rhetorical engagement and appeal to intuition.

    When “post” was the predominant prefix characterizing the philosophical endeavours of the late 20th century then it gets replaced with the now fashionable “dark”. “Dark” is not badly chosen for an enterprise which rejects the project of enlightenment and acknowledges that “we were never modern”. Instead we are dealing now with the bestiary of vampires, zombies and a sick, exploitative, ‘energy sucking’ vitality – expressions of not only a subjective but objective irrationality, a world which organizes itself to a machine running amok.

    At the same time the project of enlightenment goes on and on but it has become science almost entirely. Since scientists are now informed by humanism and critical philosophy ( keyword: responsibility ) there is no need for a distinctive project any more. You occasionally need to reinforce morality but that is consulting and maintenance. Since you are not a scientist and you can’t contribute anything of value to scientific research you can look at it from a distance and even admire it like a fan. You might feel disgusted by its methodological radicalism ( reductionism ) in the way you are disgusted by the craft of a butcher whose products you nevertheless enjoy to eat.

    I’m not sure what Hegel would make of it. Is this scenario the expression of the whole truth, a miserable aberration from it, the way distinctions are organizing themselves in real history … ?

    • I don’t think Hegel would consider this to be a philosophy, period. In the same Introduction I cite, he writes:

      An opinion is a subjective conception, an uncontrolled thought, an idea which may occur to me in one direction or in another: an opinion is mine, it is in itself a universal thought which is existent in and for itself. But Philosophy possesses no opinions, for there is no such thing as philosophical opinions. When we hear a man speaking of philosophical opinions, even though he be an historian of philosophy itself, we detect at once this want of fundamental education. Philosophy is the objective science of truth, it is science of necessity, conceiving knowledge, and neither opinion nor the spinning out of opinions.

      So it might even be fair to say that what he calls philosophy is really science today, no?

  2. Lou, good quotes to bring back into the light of day. I’d say it’s a little more complicated by the fact that Hegel also wants us to return to a degree of speculation, something which the critical philosophy forbade, to our loss. But we need to do so in the light of the critical philosophy, as I said yesterday, to measure some of the wilder claims of speculation. We need both a speculative and a critical tendency. Needless to say only one has been chosen by the group of which we speak. It’s a classic ‘one-sidedness’ and ‘abstract negation’ of critical philosophy as Hegel himself would say, just as they’ve given us a one-sided and abstract negation of humanism. Any grad students reading this – feel free to use it for your thesis, I certainly won’t copyright it.

    Kay, I’m with you on the semiotics of ‘darkness’. I guess I’m a little more optimistic than you that Enlightenment exists in more places than just science today. Hegel of course doesn’t fit neatly into an Enlightenment tradition. Again there’s a two-sidedness to him, trying to marry elements of Enlightenment and Romantic (that is, anti-Enlightenment) thought. I always found Charles Taylor good on this. And yes, I’m sure there could be some link between philosophical tendencies and real conflicts in history (a la The Differenzschrift) here. I think I said when I first encountered OOO that it seemed a rational but flawed response to the ecological crisis, taking humanism to be its cause.

    • I guess I’m a little more optimistic than you that Enlightenment exists in more places than just science today.

      Until the mid of the 20th century the perception of what science is wasn’t entirely fixed and it certainly wasn’t for Hegel. Remember that phenomenology was a science and psychoanalysis and dialectic materialism. Even Rudolf Steiner claimed to work scientifically. All the stuff Popper was railing against. Science was hold for a methodical search for the truth while sticking to the facts, not a set of proven frameworks and mainstream practices, compliant to critical rationalism, which ruled out all others.

      It is interesting to see what happened to science since we talk about it in the singular. The public is permanently informed by the work of ( mainstream ) scientists but this won’t turn anyone of us into a methodical thinker. Instead scientific knowledge is turned into opinions and unlike Hegel claimed, opinions are hardly ever private and grow uncontrolled, but they are supervised and modified by public discourse and by “opinion leaders” in the media who feed back. In this circle the media enclose the expert who can provide methodically derived but limited knowledge on demand. We don’t have to worry about decreasing complexity. In some sense the trajectory of our media systems is even less determined than that of history and it might have become our unstable history for that reason.

      Whether or not it is a light or dark history is unknown to me. There seems light enough for us to enjoy and celebrate the aesthetics of melancholy, darkness, vampirism, entropy and decline.

      • So do scientists themselves worry about “methodology” at all these days? Or are they simply “doing science”? I think I understand what you mean by opinions and so on and I think Hegel’s point was referring us back to Platonic distinction between “opinion” and “knowledge” – i.e. the distinction between the two inevitably produces a kind of dichotomy of “correct views” and “false views” and a multiplicity of claims to truth. I suppose my overall point was Hegel’s attempt to say: Look, diversity of opinions is not a curse for philosophy, philosophy is about truth and such diversity shows that there are many attempts to find that truth and that is what makes those efforts philosophical. However, if everyone is wrong, no one is wrong and if everyone is right, no one is right – we must still strive for truth, but not in the same way of rejecting wrong opinions and accepting right ones.

        Maybe I’m off here, but it seems to be that the pessimism in the face of diversity is childish – it’s a kind of lazy philosophy. I remember in college a prof was trying to make a point (I forget now about which specific philosopher) that in order to write something about X you must read all that has been written about X in order to know the field – many people reacts with a genuine “But that’s impossible!” attitude. It seems that for Hegel it is in fact that case that we cannot do philosophy without history of philosophy and pretending that 300 years of philosophy didn’t happen is unproductive.

  3. Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy are a gem indeed. I’d like to see that sort of scholarly span today – imagine Hegel applying for a job asking for “history of philosophy” expertise:

    AOC: Pretty much everything from pre-Socratics to, well, me!
    AOS: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, me

  4. Great post title. Provocative way to juxtapose two moments in the history of philosophy. But (you knew there was a ‘but’, this is dialectics, after all), at the same time, Hegel is Hegel, one thinker attempting a panoptic recapitulation of the history of thought, whereas the anthology you cite is, well, an anthology (the piece you are quoting is Bryant’s, I note), that is, a collection of disparate pieces more or less united in their orientation but hardly a single project. The difference is important because this more jumbled trend is actually presenting itself as precisely one more step in the process Hegel claimed to be examining (& thus to be contesting Hegel’s claim to having got it right).

    As to the charge of ‘laziness’…. no; it’s an experiment, and in order to see how well it comes off, one has to not only try to start over from one’s chosen starting-point (pre-Kant, if that’s your thing), but to compare what you come up with with the history of thinking as we have it. The proof of how effective the experiment is would be in showing that one’s detour around Critical Philosophy succeeded in answering the problems Kant had in mind without generating the difficulties that gave rise to the Idealism (and the later fallouts, all that hermeneutics and linguistic-turnism and so on) one presumably wants to avoid. But of course, in order to be able to test this, one must after all read this bewildering panoply. So no, it doesn’t get anyone off the hook.

    In fact, plenty of thinkers have claimed we need to “go back” to some previous point (often it is Descartes, but sometimes it’s Ockham, or Constantine, or whatever) where thought took a wrong turn. If you don’t buy Latour, you can try John Deely, who suggests in Four Ages of Understanding that the entire modern era has been a cul-de-sac.

    In short, I am with Kay on this one. Even though, as I said, I like the title & the conceit.

    • These are fair points. However, I’m not suggesting that going back is a vice in itself – I was mainly objecting to the reason for going back (or, pretending to go back for the sake of an experiment, even if I didn’t see any “experiment” in the essay – saying “what if this wasn’t the case” is not an experiment, it’s a hypothetical) – that is to say, it’s fine to argue that that last 300 years were a waste, it’s not fine to simply suggest that because there are so many approaches to critique that it’s best to abandon it altogether. This is where Hegel’s observation came in: this excuse (there are so many philosophies, therefore philosophy is a confused and useless science that must be abandoned) is the excuse of the lazy who are not interested in working through the philosophical positions in question and simply wants to either reject it all or to simply add another philosophical opinion to it without any serious contemplation as to the nature of the philosophical truth.

      Ultimately, I’m conflicted about Bryant’s work for this very reason: on the one hand, he continuously calls for fresh philosophical thought (“quit relying on authoritative father-figures and just do philosophy”), yet, on the other hand, his own work is full of names (often 3-4 per paragraph) and reads as a strange, perhaps creative, potion-making instruction or a recipe (“take a bit of Aristotle, throw in a bit of Latour, slowly mix in Hegel and Kant, season with Harman”). Of course, doing original work does not prevent one from commenting on the work of others, but one thinks of it in terms of relying on the work of others. I saw that he posted a paper on Derrida and I read it until my head went dizzy from all the names and concepts thrown together, a great big stir-fry of philosophical options without much, according to Hegel, at least, actual philosophy. That’s what I meant (mostly).

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