15 September 2020

A look back at Hegel

For various reasons, I’ve been seeing if I can take stock of certain of my intellectual formations and habits of mind. One of the biggest ones is the impact reading GWF Hegel – who I idol-worshipped as a college student, and later rebelled against – had on me, and what stuck with me from him. Going back and reading some of my old textbooks and articles from my college days has been interesting, if a bit wince-inducing considering my immaturity. My college philosophy professor, Dr Chris Latiolais, correctly diagnosed – when I reacted with a kind of overbearing disgust to some of the ideas that I encountered in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – that a lot of what drove my philosophical inquiry was a political anger against George W Bush and Dick Cheney. I had been looking for, and thought I had found in Hegel’s thinking, something of a radical answer to the ills of an American culture that had produced neoconservatism… and something of a way out. Of course, had I been a bit more astute as a college student, I might have noticed that the neoconservatives themselves had onboarded more than a few of Hegel’s conceits – but when one is younger and more self-assured of one’s own rightness, such delicious ironies are rather lost.

One of the drawbacks of putting my philosophical and religious ideas onto a blog like The Heavy Anglo Orthodox, is that it’s necessarily fragmentary, and I often have to go haring back to fetch one or other particular fragment and hold it up to the light to determine its worth. Hegel was a systemic thinker – which I very much am not. This blog post does not purport to be a full and exhaustive treatment of that system, or of its impact on the way I think or act; it’s more than anything a bit of a retrospective on the ways in which some of the more salient points of Hegel’s thinking have guided me to where I am now.

So, in that spirit, looking back at what Hegel was doing, I can certainly see how deep the impressions of certain elements of his thinking on my intellectual development have been (and still are)! For one thing, even though Dr Latiolais tried to steer me in a direction he thought I was headed anyway – into the Marxist ideas of the New Left – my basic philosophical instincts have nonetheless remained ‘right’-Hegelian. The conceit that most drew me back ad fontes to Plato a couple of years ago, for example, was completely Hegelian. I had been convinced of two things: firstly, that we had arrived at a disastrous, civilisation-breaking moment in our history; and secondly, that we weren’t going to politicise our way out of it without some kind of grounding in metaphysics. I realise now that I was simply slipping, again, into a well-travelled wake that my Swabian shangbei had ridden long before me, writing as he was from a vantage-point in which the European ancien regime was breaking apart and in which forms of scepticism like those of Hume and Kant were ruling the day in intellectual venues.

Like Hegel, I desired a rational understanding (or Begriff) of my world and of my cultural moment – the failures of liberalism in particular. And like Hegel, I felt sure that there needed to be a metaphysical grounding for that understanding. And so, just as Hegel seems to have set out to redeem the metaphysical neo-Platonist and Christoplatonist tradition from Kant’s wicked sceptical clutches (and as Marx later set out to redeem Aristotle from Hegel’s idealist clutches!), so too I was setting out to redeem Plato from those who were reading him as an apologist for obscurantism, tyranny and unfreedom – and possibly in the process finding within Plato a kind of key for ‘discerning the times’. As I said after my year of reading Plato, I found much, much more than that: I found a questioner and a doctor for some of my own intellectual and personal vices and hang-ups. In this way the broad outlines of my philosophical process still seem to have some resemblance to Hegel’s.

Other aspects of Hegelian thinking have always been kept near the forefront for me. The rather messy idea of Sittlichkeit (the situated ethical life), articulated both in Hegel’s Phänomenologie and in his Philosophie des Rechts, has always been close to the surface of my embrace of both epistemological and ethical communitarianism: our awareness of moral commitments in fact stems from, and depends on, the concrete, down-and-dirty exigencies of lived customs, traditions and habits. It is, in fact, the single most charming point of his philosophical system for me, and it reflects what is most beautiful in Hegel’s southern German upbringing: I cannot help but feel that Hegel must have had something in mind, of the hospitality and warm-heartedness of the old Swabian Sitten when he came up with this term. Hegel propounded his Sittlichkeit, in part, as a response to the categorical imperative, the absolute Kantian Moralität which was to be fully derived from the powers of reasoning. I was not slow – growing as I had been in awareness of Chinese philosophy – to connect the Hegelian Sittlichkeit in my thinking with the Confucian concern for liyue 禮樂 or ‘rites and music’, which Confucius held to be the intermediating force by which the self’s sense of right and wrong was to be tutored.

For Hegel, as for Confucius, a person’s sense of right and wrong is conditioned first by her contact with her family, and the concrete habits they build together. Thereafter, ethical behaviour is conditioned by a broader circle of neighbours and contacts, the Gesellschaft or ‘civil society’. Only thereafter, when differing neighbourhoods and bodies of civil custom come into contact with each other and have to deal with each other do common ethical guidelines become codified in the field of law – under a state. Hegel’s concentric circles of ethical development share something very much in common with Zengzi’s Doctrine of the Mean, which places the primary burden for moral development upon the family.

But it was precisely this awareness of similarity and overlap between Hegelian ethics and Confucian ethics – though not an identification of the two with each other – that made me begin to rebel against Hegel on certain points. Hegel himself had a certain patronising and belittling attitude toward Asia and its civilisational potentials, which he inherited (I believe) from his French tutors and which he bequeathed to his pupil Marx – who himself would come back to revise that belief. I could begin to see his shamelessly-triumphal attitude toward history, and his arrogant attitude that it was the German worldview and German values that should and must prevail in the teleological process of history. In fact, a more careful study of history itself in various places of the world led me to doubt the idea – which I attributed to Hegel, but on which point Hegel was in fact much more subtle than I previously gave him credit – that the teleological outcome of human history had been foreordained and we were all being inexorably swept toward it. I rebelled particularly against the idea that reason – Vernunft – was something which consisted in itself without being attached to a personal, sittlich agent. Here, I suspect I may have been guided by a naïve or simplistic reading of Hegelian ideas. At the same time, I could not deny the justice of the Slavophils’ semi-Schellingian critique of Hegel, that he did more than a little indulge a certain sense of German chauvinism, and that he was indeed carried away by the self-evident perfection of his own rationality. To him, the future of humankind did belong to German state and the German idea, just as for the neoconservative readers of his pupil Fukuyama, the future did and must belong to the American state and the American idea.

Still, I think Hegel may have been far more cautious on the historiosophical point than his critics – particularly those in the vein of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, whom I also consider to be influential on me – have given him credit for. Hegel did believe that there was a telos to human endeavour. He was a firm believer in the Absolute, in the Logos, just as his classical masters were. Here I can hardly blame him. And he did have a firm, postmillennarian belief in reason and believed reason to be the impelling force driving us toward that telos. I do demur from Hegel here on Orthodox Christian, personalist grounds, but let’s give him his due and consider his position honestly. I suspect that it’s a caricature, driven by careless readers approaching him from a hermeneutic of suspicion, that he subscribed to an idea that the final triumph of reason was something that would be circumscribed within history and fully accessible to (German) knowledge. For Hegel, situated customs, traditions and habits were the place from which all moral progress had to start – and these things did limit the knowledge available even to rational, deliberative states like Germany. Hegel was, on this point, neither the monstrous totalitarian nor nearly the hyper-modernist archapostle of Progress with a capital ‘P’ that some of his critics make him out to be.

Even in this discussion, though, I’m inadvertently showing additional layers to my Hegelian philosophical upbringing in the sense that I have long had this interest in the inner workings of history and the social-historical ways which impel human movement on the scale of societies and nations. Hegel’s style of thinking has guided me in these directions, more so than his stated philosophy of history, or his concrete commitments to particular political forms. Here too, though, Hegel’s socially-minded constitutional monarchism is something with which I still tend to sympathise… for similar reasons, I confess, to those on which I still find his concept of Sittlichkeit to be beautiful and right and good.

So… even if I tend toward the older Christian belief, that history is in fact a ‘long defeat’ to use Tolkien’s wording, and that the final victory of the Logos is something ever only glimpsed ‘in a mirror darkly’ within history, it is still worth taking stock of Hegel’s system and some of the good points which can be salvaged from it. Hegel’s intimations about the sittlich nature of human ethics actually point to an area in which his belief in Vernunft and Kantian Moralität are conditioned and almost humble! And his unwillingness to ascribe rationality to anything above the state – and indeed, even that rationality only ever imperfectly, because no state was capable of correctly predicting the whole future on its own terms – actually tends to undercut the common caricature of Hegel as being the overbearing chauvinistic triumphalist and determinist par excellence. Hegel is still worth being read seriously, even if reading him is more than occasionally like trying to scale a mountain.

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