How Hegel Helps
A British analytic philosopher friend read my “Obit” column of last week and noticed that I’d spent some of my professional time with G. W. F. Hegel, the nineteenth-century German philosopher. He emailed to ask what on earth I ever saw in him. Something like the philosophic equivalent of “What was a nice girl like you doing with that guy?”
Many philosophers in the Anglosphere see Hegel as unintelligible at best – and at worst inspiring utterances like “How good it is to die for the Kaiser!”
My friend’s question inspired me to figure out why, at a certain phase of my own development as a seeker, trying to find her way within the forest of philosophy, Hegel looked to me like the answer to a maiden’s prayer.
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Women have to find some way of getting a handle on what’s happening in this man’s world. If we are to rise above passivity and get some perspective on the goings-on around us, we need advice. I don’t mean cosmetic advice. Nor help mastering some saleable skill. Those supports are already available.
I mean, what’s motivating people? Why are people doing what they are doing? Why are they saying what they are saying now, but weren’t saying a decade or two back?
What produces the coloration, the texture of an era? What sets the boundaries on desire at a given time and place?
Why did the great 19th-century novelist Henry James come to regret having lived to see World War I?
Why did European and Anglo-American girls in the 1920’s suddenly decide to show off their legs, their jazz dancing and agree that life was meaningless?
Why did feminism become a viewpoint no eligible male would want to be heard deploring?
Why did postmodernism arise from a tiny circle of Parisian intellectuals to suddenly sweep American universities and cultural platforms?
There is something to be explained here, and it very much concerns any woman who doesn’t want to arrive at the status of groupie for the latest cultural fad, merely repeating what everyone else is saying today.
Where can she go to get that explanation or even admit the question in the first place? Current philosophy, literary studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, queer studies, psychology, history are, often as not, incompetent to furnish answers because they too are at the mercy of the Zeitgeist. They don’t necessarily know that. They may take themselves to be state-of-the-art thinkers.
Yeah. That’s the trouble. The “art” of opinion-forming is at the same “state” for everybody that has learned it at the “right places” from the “right people.” Sincere seekers aren’t likely to get the overview they need from them.
What Hegel discerned is that a cultural era has – is defined by – a certain way of thinking. It doesn’t just feature a style of dress, or way of communicating, or a channel for power and prestige. Let me repeat this:
A cultural era is
a way of thinking.
That means, ladies, that you, who can also think, can penetrate to what is going on if you look in the right direction.
So what are the opinion-shapers thinking? Well, like anyone, they are thinking about their next dental appointments, their next meetings with their editors, their regrets, petty humiliations, muffled hopes, kids, wives, lovers and losses. That’s private thinking. It might shake out from the culture-shaping thoughts, but it doesn’t constitute them.
What does “a culture” think? Can a culture think?
Yes (Hegel says). Every culture is defined by what it thinks is true. And true on the highest plane of truth. True vis-a-vis ultimate things. To put it in Hegel’s terms:
A culture is defined by what it thinks about the Absolute.
When does a culture go down? I mean fall from internal causes, not get buried under a typhoon or volcano.
It falls when what it thinks is true can’t be held as truth any longer. Why not? Because the culture’s key claims look refutable.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Today’s column is just a Hegel primer. It tells our reader that Hegel encourages her to look for the thought-forms that define the Zeitgeist and to ask herself to what degree they are really believed.
Since a culture can also be undermined by shallow arguments and false claims, we should not only ask what people presently claim to believe about ultimate matters – or disbelieve. The consequential question is the next one:
Are they right — the latest opinion-shapers? Have they themselves framed the questions rightly? Do their questions fit reality as our reader has experienced it?
If we learn to ask questions closer to our lives, we might even get on with the business of women’s liberation.