THEORY, PRACTICE

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Wed Jul 26 11:54:30 MDT 1995


WHAT THE HEGEL IS GOING ON HERE? (WITH ASIDES TO BLAKE)

Sorry, I didn't mean to be so coy.  For, as I suggested after
making fun of myself, there could a more objective approach to the
history of philosophy that might throw some light into the dark
night of how philosophers serve as embodiments of social forces.
Indeed, given your considerable erudition and your sincerity, I
would be remiss by failing to elaborate on my cryptic remarks.
Cruel coincidence, however, has intervened, and I must on short
notice prepare for another out-of-town trip in two days (maybe
this time I'll buy that book on recognition in Fichte and Hegel),
so I will have to be brief for now, and still cryptic.

1.  Let's start off from one of the few things I know about Walter
Benjamin, his famous quote: There is no document of civilization
that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.  When I
think of this, I immediately think of "Philosophy", not only
"Western Philosophy", but the whole works, including the
Philosophy of China and India (which poor Hegel never thought were
really Philosophy) and the rest.  I go back to Plato, for whom I
have had an aversion since early adolescence before I knew
anything about western-civ-bashing.  I remember years later
reading a quote from Whitehead, to the effect that all philosophy
is a footnote to Plato.  My respect for Whitehead and Philosophy
plummeted thereafter, even though I thought Whitehead was full of
it though I also knew what he had recognized in Plato.

Now let me jump ahead (but still backward) in time to a conference
program I attended a few years ago in which a pair of postmodern
feminist radical philosophers attacked Plato's tropes which
disguised his patriarchal world-view.  Tropes, I thought, how sad.
What wimps.  These fools are piddling with trivia, with tropes
instead of abstract concepts.  They have missed the most
formidable challenge presented by Plato, and by his counterparts
in China, India, and other places, i.e., Plato is what happens
when the ruling class discovers the power of abstraction.  That
profoundly contradictory historical force is the key to
understanding both the power and the menace that constitutes
"Philosophy" throughout the history of civilization, of whose
records are both civilized and barbaric at the same time.

2.  An immediately striking impression about Hegel to an ignoramus
such as myself is how he both continues and radically transforms
like nobody else the metaphysical heritage of Plato and his boys:
the static, motionless cosmos of pre-industrial slave empire takes
on life and motion, reflects the dynamism of material life in
motion itself, becomes modern, like geometry becomes calculus.
Yet how unlike those Brits, who privatized metaphysics and
religion so as not to cause too much uproar nor let that stuff get
in the way of Business, so in public we will not bother ourselves
with anything that gets in the way of counting and measuring,
except of course to chant God Save the King to keep the social
order together.

Here I introduce the issue of the sacred.  All civilizations in
history have sacralized the social order ... the Divine Right of
Kings, the Mandate of Heaven, ad nauseam.  They all use the same
metaphors: the farmers and laborers and artisans are the hands and
feet, the soldiers the chest, the merchants the belly, and the
aristocracy or the Priestly caste (intellectuals) the head that
governs the rest.  (I'm fudging the details, but you get the
idea.)

I don't recall any of this in Adam Smith (not that I would swear
to it).  What cares the Invisible Hand for all this organicist
sacred rubbish?  But those Germans.  They've got one foot in
feudalism and their eyeballs on capitalism, and history is the
march of God in the world.  And then there's that equivocation
about religion.  (Ignorant as I am, I'm not making this up, 'cause
I checked with a Schelling scholar who takes his Catholicism (God
Bless Catholic U. for bringing these people to me) seriously.) The
Germans don't just dump God and Bible off the bridge like those
shameless French materialists and Brit empiricists (some of them),
no, they bask in the numinous power of myth: they don't take it
literally but they don't proclaim its falsity literally either;
instead, they fudge the boundaries between exoteric meaning for
the unwashed masses and its esoteric content for the cognoscenti.
As Arsenio Hall used to say, it's one of those things that make
you say "Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm."

3.  Now, on to my ad hominem cynicism and my insinuendos of bad
faith.  My first instinct on reading the preface to THE PHILOSOPHY
OF RIGHT was one of intense suspicion.  In my experience, when
people are smart enough to recognize and to admit that they are
creatures of their time and place and may thus harbor assumptions
about the world that wouldn't hold up to external scrutiny, I find
that they are already experiencing philosophical guilt pangs not
just about an abstract possibility of error, but are already
trying to cover up their doubts about positions they suspect deep
down to be untenable.   Hegel's statements reminded me of Lyndon
Johnson's credibility gap.  Unlike a true psychopath like Reagan,
when Lyndon would lie through his teeth he looked like he had a
load of crap in his pants.  I thought Hegel's drawers were
steaming too.

But this is too subjective a reaction, hence my constant
comparisons of the Germans with their contemporaries the befogged
Brits across the channel.  And most of all a comparison not with
the laissez-faire theorists or the empiricists -- the intellectual
representatives of official society -- but with William Blake,
who, had he known and studied Hegel, might well have reacted with
even more revulsion than he did to Bacon & Newton & Locke.  The
thing he was most wary of about the calculus, for instance, is
that the ruling class's power of abstraction had come far closer
to living, breathing, moving reality and could thus more readily
insinuate itself as a simulacrum of the real and dominate it.
Blake, that 18th century antinomian autodidact artisan uncultured
slob (Plato's and T.S. Eliot's worst nightmare), already hated
(pardon my slipshod quotes) the "stolen and perverted writings of
Homer & Ovid", "the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword",
"The Classics, not Goths nor monks, who devastate Europe with
wars", Plato, Religion, Government, Marriage, Family -- the entire
oh-so-precious heritage of "Western Civilization" -- Blake, for
whom history was the march of Urizenic Antichristic depredation,
how we would have spit upon history and family and ethical
substance and the State and the march of God in the
world.................
					     Forgive me, time is
					     a-wasting, so I'm
					     going to have to
leave several gaps here.  However, the above scenario does not yet
solve the riddle of Hegel's "accommodation".  The ultimate
significance of this Blake-Hegel comparison will have to be
elaborated another time.  It should be nonetheless clear that the
issue is deeper than simply retrojecting our suspicions based on
late 20-th century thinking into the clouded motivations of social
actors of former times.  That even those former times produced
radically alternative ideologies demands explanation, since not
everyone even then was innocent with respect to the same
presuppositions.

Anyway, once I got over my self-indulgent gut-reaction, I realized
that the question of bad faith was too superficial a point of
departure.  Ever since Marx and Freud everybody wants to know with
respect to ideology: was so-and-so faking or did he really
sincerely believe his own BS?  Can one answer a question so posed?
Impossible!  Better to take a look at the necessary
presuppositions with which an ideologist constructs his
world-picture and how those came to be.  So if it looks to us
outsiders (with respect to time and place) at times as if Hegel
has his tail tucked between his legs, the question is not a naked
one of his sincerity or integrity, but rather of his will to
reconcile the contradictions of his world based on certain
presuppositions about the value of speculative metaphysical truth
and the saturation of the world-picture with the sacred.

The only document of Judaeo-Christian theology I ever took
seriously was a play by Archibald MacLeish we did in high school:
"J.B."  The modern Job summarizes the contradiction better than
anyone else I know about: "If God is God he is not good; if God is
good he is not God."  Case closed.

Now, to still promulgate the western God knowing the above but not
wanting to sever oneself from the Tradition, one has to do some
fancy tricks with one's heterodoxy.  Over and over I have read
about Hegel's morose and melancholy demeanor, his manner of speech
in delivering his lectures, also about Hegel's view of the tragic.
I'm not up on Hegel's theology, but isn't it obvious that his
project of "reconciliation" is predicated on recognition of that
very truth about "God" summarized by J.B.?  The guilt, the bowed
head, the melancholy resignation, the timorous liberalism, the
heroic plunging ahead with a political metaphysics that one knows
beforehand to be doomed, the simultaneous recognition and denial
of one's own provincialism, the quixotic attempt to rationalize
the irrational, the ironic sacralization of modernity -- to
investigate the willful assumptions behind this project and their
historical-social provenance is to dig beneath the questions of
sincerity and accommodation and begin to crack this terrible
uncertainty that so plagues you.

4.  I am already running behind schedule, so on the question of
the role of scholars today and their guilty innocence or innocent
guilt, which is the only thing I wrote about that really
interested you, I'm going to have to respond even more briefly and
unsatisfactorily.  There are two questions: (a) what's the story
with intellectuals in general today, (b) what's the scoop on this
Hegel forum?

As to the latter, I will say only that the discussions about the
role of the philosopher as engaged actor or detached observer, the
interpretations of the historical significance of philosophy and
philosophers, the general approach to intellectual life and
society, that take place in this discussion group strike me as
charmingly old-fashioned and innocent.

As to the former question, though I try to avoid the pomo-ho's as
best I can, I do have occasion to read the scribblings of the
"contemporary mountain of self-examination" (what C.L.R. James
used to ridicule in the early '50s before his deportation) of
professional intellectuals about professional intellectuals.  For
example, I've just read two books by Bruce Robbins on the social
history and functioning of intellectuals.  One of them is an
anthology, actually, so I get to read what all the bigwigs have to
say about their profession.  They are a very sophisticated bunch,
most are leftists or liberals, they invoke the holy trinity of
race-class-gender, sometimes they even berate themselves for
obscuring class in favor of the more opportunistic route of race
and gender, they are versed in Foucault and Gramsci, they question
their own social usefulness, etc. etc.  Yet I can't help thinking
they are all innocent even when they feel guilty.  Why is this?
We'll have to talk another time.

(Ralph Dumain, 26 July 1995, 1:25 pm EDT)



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