Monday, June 16, 2008

Thinking Hegelian Thoughts

It can happen to you anywhere, and sometimes with the least provocation. You can be having a good day, a clear day, a day when you know what you know and what you should do. It can be a day of teaching, of administrating, or of reading and studying. It can be a day like other good days. . . But then it happens: Suddenly, capriciously Hegel makes sense.

Now I don’t mean to say that one suddenly grasps the system, that one comes to clarity about how mediated immediacy works with respect to the whole of ideal and historical reality, or even that one succeeds in actually learning something more about Hegel’s thought. It is not really a greater appreciation of Hegel that one has, but rather that all of a sudden, and quite out of the blue, one discovers one is Hegelian; one grasps that what Hegel says is deeply true.

My own recent insightful moment occurred on a day like other days. I was lecturing on the problems bequeathed by Kant and was talking about how Fichte, Schelling and Hegel responded to these problems. I was talking about how, for Kant, the forms imposed by the subject on things were due to our autonomous transcendental synthesizing activity, and that Hegel believed that Kant had allowed that the particularity of the forms so imposed was ultimately inexplicable, or, in Hegel’s terms, “shot from the pistol.” Famously, Hegel had accused Kant of allowing these forms to stand in “bare externality,” and that what was thus needed was a way to show how this “moment” was itself the result of some higher movement of the Spirit, or some more lofty unpacking of the Idea. (At this point undergraduate students are generally thinking about something fun they shall be doing in the summer.) On this recent day in class, I appealed to Hegel’s implicit presupposition of the Principle of Sufficient Reason in explaining why Hegel could not leave the forms in mere bare externality and, I must admit, I was even a little proud in showing how Hegel was thusly continuing in the German rationalist tradition. But then it happened: Hegel’s solution simply seemed inescapable! Of course, one cannot merely leave the Kantian subject in externality; one must finally “take it up” in the higher movement of Spirit. If one does not do so, one is guilty of hanging the Kantian subject out to dry in the arena of the irrational; one is, in other words, condemning the Kantian subject to the abyss of Value.

The story goes like this: For many philosophers prior to Kant, the world is merely given; it is thus the subject’s obligation to conform itself to the objective structure of the world. But the skeptical trajectory culminating in Hume had shown how the objectivity of the natural sciences could not be maintained without a move to the subject. In order to ground the objectivity of experience, Kant deduced those necessary conditions for the possibility of experience. These included, as is well known, the pure a priori forms of intuition (space and time), and the pure a priori forms of understanding (quantity, quality, relation, and modality). Of these, the two most famous fall under ‘relation’, the pure a priori concepts of substance and cause. Since philosophers had shown that substance and causality were not part of the structure of the world in itself, they must be located elsewhere if they are to be retained. Kant famously located them in the autonomy of the transcendental synthesis that gives rise to the self/world structure. It is because human being in its transcendental be-ing, imposes form upon the world, that human being in its subjective be-ing can come to know the world as a formed content. Kant showed, in effect, that since the necessary forms employed in modern science could not be derived from the content of the world in itself, that they must be grounded in the synthesizing activity of the subject. The transcendental condition for the possibility of a formed world was not a world that came as formed, but a synthesis that imposed the form of the subject upon a formless world. (Theologically, one could say that without the Word there could be no World.) So Kant did not allow the world to stand in its immediacy, but rather showed that all knowledge of the world demanded a mediacy by the subject.

Now enter the heroic Hegelian solution: Instead of leaving the transcendental condition for the possibility of a formed world to be just the way things are (“shot from the pistol”), Hegel showed how this transcendental synthesizing activity was itself accounted for by the movement of Geist (Spirit) that is, by definition, no longer something that needs accounting for. Whereas the content of the world is formed by the form of transcendental synthesis, the form of that synthesis is itself the result of the content of Spirit, a formed Spirit whose content is both form and content. So it is that the abyss of Value is grounded once more in Truth.

Thinking about Hegel makes one think Trinitarian thoughts. The content of the world is the result of the form of the Word: God speaks all things into being. But this divine speaking is never something wholly external to those with eyes to see, because the One speaking is identical to the One testifying to the speaking. There is thus an identity of being and thinking.

Lutheran theology is a Trinitarian theology. Hegel is a Lutheran. And so it happens that Hegelian philosophy is profoundly Trinitarian theology.

So with the insight that Hegel is true, what does one do? One approaches with ontological humility the contour of the world; one explores with epistemological humility the contour of the self knowing the world; and one discerns with religious humility the contour of the divine upon whose absolute ground the subject knows its object.