Back by Popular Demand: It’s Hegel!

Back by Popular Demand:  It’s Hegel!

Hegel is one of the philosophers from whom I’ve learned a lot.  Though he was born and died in nineteenth-century Germany, he’s still timely.

In the Anglo-American sphere, the question I get is, “What’s a nice girl like you doing with him?”

As for the rest of the world, insofar as it feels accountable to post-modernism, I sense a belief that whatever is of value in Hegel was captured by Marx, and rest can be deposited in the dustbin of history.

Yet Hegel and Marx have very little to do with one another.  Marx is a materialist.  He holds that the moving forces of history can be comprehended in terms of mindless entities like the means of production (or, in post-modernist versions, the power to dominate and oppress).  Anyway, Marxian history is moved by powers beneath the conscious level.

Hegel does think the material side of history is real.  So he’s not what they call a metaphysical idealist.  But the decisive element is not merely material.  He thinks people live and die by ideas – by what they believe.

I think so too.

That doesn’t mean people’s beliefs can be understood as merely wrong or right.  It doesn’t mean you could perfect the world by putting correct beliefs into people’s heads.  People identify with their beliefs.  There is a lived connection between who I am and what I think.

Needless to say, ideas aren’t the only things to be discerned in history.  A lot of things go on: earthquakes, rock slides, plagues, droughts, ice ages and contests between groups for sheer brute domination.  However, in the midst of the big playing field, you will also find beliefs.

Take a play by Corneille or Shakespeare, or a novel by Jane Austen.  What do the characters believe?  That’s an important key to understanding what they do.  So it is, Hegel held, in real life too.

Given the choice, most of us would prefer to hold true beliefs rather than false ones.  So, why don’t we just … do that?  Well, as you won’t be surprised to learn, it’s not so easy.  Homo sapiens sapiens didn’t start out ignorant and then, step by step, acquire one true belief after another, layer on layer.  We put our beliefs, such as they are, inside big pictures of reality, our world views.

About our big pictures, we don’t just make mistakes.  We tend to make certain kinds of mistakes.  Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind notes some of these.  For instance, one of the errors he tries to expose is the error of thinking one can get at the truth directly, without setting it in the context of other things we know.  Thus the empiricists make this error when they believe “truth” to be just what we directly perceive, sense data for example, denuded of cultural interpretations.

The political mistake that accompanied the French revolution was of the same kind.  A passionate desire to get rid of inherited privileges drove the mistake that one could get to freedom directly, without having to go through channels of any kind.  The layered institutions of society were associated with the privileges inherited by office-holders.  So the aim of the revolution became to clear all that away.  Power would then be swept — clean and instantaneous — into the hands of the people. 

(Analogously in our country, we have all kinds of structures that channel our freedom: at the level of towns, counties, states, the federal level, administrative regulations, as well as voluntary associations that form structured webs within civil society.  Although hereditary castes are not legal entities in our system, all these structures give lots of scope for human unfairness, voluntary and involuntary.  And scope for fairness as well.)

For the French revolutionaries, the aim was to let nothing stand between the whole people acting as one and its unfettered will.  The result, possibly unforeseen at the outset, was that virtually any expression of will or desire – coming from an individual — could be deemed deviant from the General Will.  The deviant person could then be denounced as an enemy of the people.  And the guillotine followed, “logically.”

The ensuing orgy of suspicion and denunciation was brought to a close when its chief perpetrators found themselves denounced in their turn, just as they had denounced others.

The lesson Hegel draws from this (oft-since-repeated) experience called the Reign of Terror is that there is no getting away from mediating institutions in human governance.  The notion of unqualified freedom seems a harmless and appealing ideal.  In practice, however … .

Of course, things are much better now.  We don’t chop heads.  The knitting women (les tricoteuses) don’t sit in front of the guillotine counting stitches as heads drop.  That’s not done.

Here’s an example of what we do now.  I have a collegial friend, a nice guy and a clear thinker, whom I’ve known for many years.  He has only one trait that might be called “odd.”  He won’t lie.  I’ve never seen him tell even a diplomatic fib.  It’s not that he tries to be embarrassing or tactless.  It’s only that, if asked point blank whether x is true or false, he’ll answer that it’s true, if he thinks it is, or false if that’s what he thinks.

Now it happened that my friend had a colleague who was also a philosopher and had gotten himself into a damn-fool scrape with a woman.  Although he was married at the time, and the woman was his graduate student, he decided to embark on a peculiar sort of shared fantasy with this woman.  So far as I know, he never laid so much as a glove on her. At least, that was his version of the events.   (My own view is that, fantasy schmantasy, you don’t fool around with students, though it does happen — sometimes initiated by the professor and sometimes by the student.  Come to think of it, I’ve had more students than professors come on to me.  In case you were worried, I said no.)

So what happened to the errant professor?  What happened was everything that can befall someone professionally and socially, short of the guillotine.

Now what happened to my friend?  He was asked point blank: Is Professor X a good philosopher?  Given that my friend, along with many other colleagues, did think that Prof X was a good philosopher, how did he reply?  Well, you already know.

My friend said yes.

Professor X is a good philosopher.

After which he too was ostracized, saw his graduate courses taken away, etc. etc. etc.  You know the drill.  Now for the big question:

What would Hegel say?

Like their eighteenth-century French forerunners, the tricoteuses of today also believe that they serve the interests of the oppressed, which is to say, le peuple, the downtrodden.  For them, whether Prof X is or isn’t a good philosopher is beside the point.  Likewise, who seduced whom (the boy or the girl) is beside the point.  The only question is, who has le pouvoir — the power?  The fact that Prof X has been deprived of quite a good hefty chunk of power — professional and social standing, his position and the credit for a lifetime’s achievement – is not the point.  To allow him even a reasoned assessment of his achievements is to make oneself an enemy of the people.  To react that way is not felt as joining a mob of merciless bullies.  It’s felt as being carried aloft by a Rushing Wind of Freedom Unalloyed.  One has joined the Gnostic Elect, the Companions of The Pure.

Hey guys, how can I say this?  There’s no such thing as freedom unalloyed.  When we come, as we all do, to die, we won’t regret our failure to join a bullying mob.  What we might regret is any mercy we might have shown, or understanding we might have allowed ourselves to feel, but failed to show or to feel. 

If we have been bullies, and the wind turns, and they turn on us, for little or for much, we will regret that we stand on no high ground when they come.

All that protects any of us finally

is our hold —

and it’s always a qualified hold —

on truth.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Back by Popular Demand: It’s Hegel!

  1. Abigail says:

    Thanks so much for this helpful elaboration: we don’t get to the freedom we desire tout court, shaking off the institutions that shape our courses through life. And of course the family is at the fundaments here.

  2. Macon Boczek says:

    I really appreciated the reminder of the importance of mediating institutions in this column. It arises out of the principle of subsidiarity which is reflected in the political insight that freedom in a nation is served by federalism—those closest to the real life affairs of persons and communities is best able to understand and meet the practical needs of life. An important mediating institution in society that can best meet the daily needs of children is the family. This is a mediating institution that we should do everything to aid to be freely flourishing.

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