Monday, August 2, 2010

Enter the strength of one's opponent…

This is a maxim used by Hegel to describe how "immanent criticism" could, and should, be used to critique a differing system of thought on its own terms. I immediately disclaim any pretense of real knowledge about Hegel, and I only bring the topic us since I am about a third into Michael Rosen's Hegel's Dialectic and Its Criticism. If nothing else, it has cemented a maxim I've held for a few years: The only thing harder than reading about Hegel's thought is reading Hegel himself. This is allegedly true about Kant, but, in fact, Kant is merely dense and elaborate, not abstruse and byzantine per se, whereas Hegel exemplifies the latter characteristics to a tee. Not always, but enough to lead me to coin a term: "I've got another hegelache coming on."

Reading Rosen's book is humbling, to say the least, and places his book in the small coterie of books I call "head-benders". Books that I can only keep reading with my eyes at times, since the meaning of the contents is frequently way over my head. Books that cover so much intellectual ground paragraph by paragraph that all I can say (to the author) is, "Whatever you say, dude," or, "I'll have to take your word for it." Based on this notice in the Harvard Gazette (dated 2006), Rosen cuts quite an impressive academic figure. Hegel's Dialectic is getting less inscrutable as I go, since I am now tracking Rosen's main theses and the shape of his argument, but Hegel is such a large terra incognita in my studies that I am only reading Rosen's book as a primer to keep me more or less clear about how Hegel ties into other areas of thought in which I have greater interest. In terms of prior reading and written output so far, I'm more of an "analytic" than "continental" thinker, though in terms of sentiment and style I certainly find "continental" thought appealing in its own ways. (I put the terms in square-quotes since it's not entirely clear how meaningful the analytic-Continental divide is. Wittgenstein is to the divide what Russia is to the Occident-Orient divide, but I digress.) I shall cite the product description of Rosen's book available at

Hegel's philosophy has often been compared to a circle of circles: an ascending spiral to its admirers, but a vortex to its critics. The metaphor reflects Hegel's claim to offer a conception of philosophical reason so comprehensive as to include all others as partial forms of itself. It is a claim which faces the writer on Hegel with peculiar difficulties. Criticism, it would appear, can always be outflanked; criticism of the system can be turned back into criticism within the system. Michael Rosen discusses the philosophical issues involved in historical interpretation before presenting a novel and challenging solution to the problem of Hegel's openness to criticism. Contrary to received opinion, Hegel's philosophy does not, he argues, draw upon a universal and pre-suppositionless conception of rationality. Rather, Hegel's originality lies in founding his system upon a particular, avowedly mystical conception of philosophical experience. This experience - Hegel calls it 'pure Thought' - is fundamental. Pure Thought makes speculative reasoning intelligible and, hence, underpins the claim to rationality of the entire system. Dr Rosen's conclusion is that all attempts at rehabilitation of Hegel are based on misunderstanding. When restored to their speculative-mystical shell the irrational kernel of Hegel's concepts becomes apparent. …

Dr Rosen's conclusion to this book is that all attempts at rehabilitation of Hegel are based on misunderstanding. When restored to their speculative-mystical shell the irrational kernel of Hegel's concepts becomes apparent.

What grabs me about Hegel's thought is threefold. First, the way his absolute idealism has been used for centuries to propagate and justify radically concrete political upheavals, on both the Right and the Left. Second, his grounding of rationality and its challenge to rationalistic foundationalism. Third, the often obscure pedigree that makes up Hegel's thought. There is, for instance Alfredo Ferrarin's Hegel and Aristotle, which is described thus:

Hegel is, arguably, the most difficult of all philosophers. Interpreters have usually approached him as though he were developing Kantian and Fichtean themes. This book is the first to demonstrate in a systematic way that it makes much more sense to view Hegel's idealism in relation to the metaphysical and epistemological tradition stemming from Aristotle. No serious student of Hegel can afford to ignore this major new interpretation. It will also be of interest in such fields as political science and the history of ideas.

I am not, I repeat, a serious student of Hegel, but I am an amateur historian of thought and a devotee of broadly Aristotelian metaphysics, so Ferrarin's book is right up my dialectical alley. In a similar fashion, Glenn Magee, in Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, elucidates how Hegel was more of a theosophical disciple than a philosopher. Combine such reading with Frances Yates's works on early modernity, the art of memory, Rosicrucianism, and Hermeticism (esp. vis-à-vis) Giordano Bruno), and you can gain a robust sense of the hidden lineaments of much of modern thought. Meanwhile, though, I shall continue to trudge through Rosen's book––trudge with a grin, mind you. One of my inspirations for thought is Charles Taylor, himself a major Hegel scholar, and reading Rosen's book, which, I should add, disputes one of Taylor's central claims about Hegel and German Idealism, is whetting my appetite for a reading of volume 1 of Taylor's Philosophical Papers: Human Agency and Language, up with which I plan to follow (!) by reading volume 2 next month or so. For, by the tingly beard of Thor, both volumes are available in Taichung's humble but sturdy national library! By humble I mean its relatively paltry selection of non-Chinese and 'serious' academic works… but I am grateful for it all the same! I've donated numerous books to it, enriching it over the years, and various foreigners obviously donate some pretty great titles as well, so I really can't complain. So I don't. Stay tuned.

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