Kant and Hegel: Oh. Now I Get It

Was reading the inestimable John C. Wright, who writes faster than I can think, on one of his whirlwind tours of Philosophy, History and Modern Culture, when a connection I had not made dawned on me: That Hegel rejects logic and embraces the dialectic because the definitive German Protestant take on logic – Kant’s – doesn’t, you know, work. Hegel  cannot work with the belief that nothing in this world is knowable in itself – and nobody else can, either, for that matter. Kant “proved” logically, following Descartes and Hume, that the only things we can really know are a few aspects of our own mind, that there is an unbridgeable gulf between everything that exists in the world and us. We know only perceptions – a smell, a color, the squeaks and scratches that make up Beethoven’s 9th – which can tell us nothing certain about the thing in itself.

Hegel accepts that view. Never mind that, to accept that view means that he learned something from Kant, Hume and Descartes, and learning something from somebody else disproves the view that you can’t learn anything from outside your own mind – Hegel is convinced that following logic to the end leads to nowhere, to a mind trapped in itself and beset by phenomena both tricksy and false.

And so, in answer, Hegel adopts the notion that logic is for the little people – mathematicians and physical scientists and craftsmen – while true Philosophy and true knowledge come through the Dialectic, in which things can both be and not be at the same time in the same respect (which, as far as I can figure, is merely embracing perception as the final arbiter – you do the ‘hard thinking’ and see it my way, or you’re wrong – there’s really no room for or point in trying to explain it logically).

Note that the characteristic moments in the life of the Perennial Philosophy are crowd shots: Socrates asking questions to Meno or Ion or Callicles, Aristotle delivering a lecture at the Academy, Thomas formulating his opponent’s arguments in front of a class. The characteristic moment of modern philosophy is Descartes, alone in his room, shades drawn, contemplating his navel.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “Kant and Hegel: Oh. Now I Get It”

  1. Since I don’t believe that there is any evidence that Kant was religious, much less a Protestant and I don’t think any significant Protestant movement ever followed Kant, I’m curious why you link Kant with German Protestants.

    Also, I’ve read a lot of philosophy and I’ve never seen any convincing argument that Kant’s logic doesn’t work.

  2. Thanks for commenting.

    In general, the entire philosophical exercise after Descartes – indeed, after Luther – was an attempt to come up with something better than Thomism & Aristotle. We hear the clear echo of this effort whenever we see, most often in connection with Galileo, some minor and peripheral error in Aristotle – e.g., that, in principle, heavier weights fall faster than lighter weights – trotted out as the reason to dismiss Thomism whole. Comes up when talking with science types who know no history or philosophy – in other words, almost all of them, in my experience. This effort to discredit Aristotle and Thomas is a central feature of the Enlightenment disinformation campaign: Slander the great art and architecture as ‘Gothic’, promulgate the lie that the Church persecuted Galileo for his free-thinking ways (and killed Hypatia, and slaughtered millions as witches, and so on), while ignoring or glossing over anything bad associated with the new improved way of thinking. Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series is the flagship of this effort for my generation.

    I make this claim not based on any one text – although, once you think to look for it, it’s all over the place. Mike Flynn, who in addition to writing good sci fi is a very good science historian, has a number of essays and links illustrating this process.

    So, is Kant writing as a Protestant? On the philosophical side, Protestantism is protesting Thomism – as is clear from Luther – so, as part of the effort to overthrow the Angelic Doctor, he is. Unlike Hegel, who is expressly Protestant (and takes the mandatory digs at Catholicism when the opportunity presents itself), Kant’s Protestantism is not made explicit (as far as I can remember) in his writings. But, you couldn’t get a job at a German university in the late 18th century if you weren’t a Protestant. At the very least, you’d have to lay low about your non-Protestant beliefs if you wanted a job. (see, for example, the trouble Fichte had fending off (well-founded) accusations he was a pantheist/atheist).

    On the ‘Kantian logic doesn’t work’ front: in the Prolegomena, Kant plays curious games with the implications of his method. The most glaring is his claim that our inability to know anything at all about noumena doesn’t mean that noumena don’t exist – in other words, Kant rejects the criticism that he is merely a solipsist. But, wait a second – existence is *precisely* the sort of noumenal information we’d expect to get under Thomas and Aristotle. Soooo – how is this an improvement? How is it that we know that at least one noumenon exists? That we are not all that is? Kant gives away the entire game by making this claim.

    Another problem: after all the heavy rhetoric, after mustering Aristotelian logic to the cause in a way Descartes and Hume could only dream of, Kant, in several places, reveals that he, himself, doesn’t take his fundamental position seriously. He does all this heavy thinking, which leads inexorably to solipsism – and he knows it – so he makes light of it, so much as saying, sure, if you want to go down this rabbit hole, here’s where it leads – not much happening here, so let’s pretend we didn’t really do that, and talk about ethics and practical reason. Just the title ‘Practical Reason’ is telling you that Pure Reason isn’t Practical – that Kant’s logic doesn’t work.

  3. I see a lot of vigorous hand-waving in your comment, but few particular facts, and of those some are wrong. Hegel may have been a member of the Lutheran church and preferred Lutheranism to Catholicism in some ways, but it is highly doubtful that he believed in the Resurrection, which would make him not even a believer. He, then, would be speaking for Protestant thought in the same way that Fidel Castro, born and baptized a Catholic, speaks for Catholic thought.

    Your conflation of the Reformation with the Enlightenment is pure sophistry. The Reformation was inspired by a belief that the Catholic church had abandoned the principles of Christ and the apostles and was an attempt to return to purer Christianity. The Enlightenment was a rejection of Christ and the apostles and the raising up of man as god. You can disagree with the factual beliefs behind the Reformation, and you can argue that the Enlightenment exploited the history of the Reformation, but to conflate the God-seeking Reformation with the God-hating Enlightenment is a vicious calumny.

  4. Thanks again for commenting, and I do apologize for sort of throwing stuff out there – it is kind of the nature of blogs that many half digested things get posted. If I ever write a book (God forbid!) I’ll do all the scholarly stuff such as references and footnotes.

    First of all, Hegel himself believed himself to be a completely conventional Lutheran, so take up that argument with him. And, in his writing, he *expressly* contrasts his view as the enlightened Protestant view versus the benighted Catholic view – there’s got to be at least half a dozen incidents of him making exactly this claim in the last 200+ pages of Hegel I’ve recently read. He’s the one making the claim you dispute.

    Second, right, Protestantism and the Enlightenment are not the same thing, but they are hardly unrelated. The Enlightenment followed closely on the heels of Protestantism in same countries where Protestantism also flourished. Enlightenment writers routinely go out of their way to point out how enlightened they are – enlightened specifically and expressly versus the Catholic Church – following the pattern established by the 95 theses. Protestantism is a secondary target at best. Eventually, yes, the Enlightenment rejected the Christian god entirely in theory and piecemeal in practice, substituting anything from pantheism to nothing at all.

    So, is the fact that the Reformers sought to know God and the Enlightenment sought to remove Him sufficient to assert that they are not intimately related? Let’s take a look at Hegel: some of his followers became Marxists. Some became Nietzscheans, others Freudians, Progressives, Pragmatists and so on. Does the fact that these groups often despise one another and espouse absolutely contradictory positions mean that they aren’t fundamentally related? That they are not equally dependent on one man’s thought?

    Why would Enlightenment thinkers toy with a 1500 year old idea of God? Where would they ever get the idea that God is a plastic concept subject to debate? Well, look at what happened once Luther rejected the idea of the authority of tradition as well as Scripture – immediately, within Protestantism, people are toying with the idea of God so much so that, within a few centuries, we’ve got Calvinists and Unitarians and Evangelical Non-trinitarians and Seventh Day Adventists and – evidently, toying with the idea of God is pretty much a full-time hobby within Protestantism, along the lines of bi-monthly hobby of establishing a new branch of Lutheranism. The Enlightenment only took it one small step further – the contradictory and ridiculous ideas of God made it almost inevitable that God Himself would be rejected.

    It seems to me beyond argument that the Enlightenment was at the very least the bastard child of the Reformation – and I am arguing that it is merely the logical conclusion of the Reformation – it’s legitimate child, as it were.

  5. Well, I didn’t say that Hegel didn’t call himself a Protestant, I said that he isn’t a part of Protestant thought, in the sense that I believe he had minimal influence on Protestantism. He did have some Protestant followers, but as far as I know the school didn’t go anywhere.

    Furthermore, I think your characterization that “Protestants” were seeking an alternative to Thomism is completely misplaced. The Protestant alternative to Thomism is empirical science. Most Protestants have little use for more abstract philosophy.

    “So, is the fact that the Reformers sought to know God and the Enlightenment sought to remove Him sufficient to assert that they are not intimately related?”

    You are seeing things from a Rome-centric point of view that makes you view all criticism of the Catholic church as stemming from the same source. And you are right, but not in the sense you intend. The common source of these criticisms is the Catholic church itself and all of the highly criticizable things that it has done. Not all of the criticism has been fair, but then the Roman church’s persecutions and murders were not fair either.

    So, yes, there is a sense in which the Reformation and the Enlightenment have a common source –they both spring from the failures of the Catholic Church. The Reformation reacted by throwing out the priests. The Enlightenment reacted by throwing out God.

    Was the Enlightenment skepticism induced by the multitudinous views of God that followed the Reformation? In a way, maybe, but multitudinous views of God is not Protestantism; it is simply the natural effect of lots of people thinking about God when there is no Church to go around killing them for thinking wrong. Good or bad, that’s what happens. Religious speculation happened a great deal everywhere that there wasn’t a powerful political organization that acted to enforce orthodoxy through persecution. It didn’t just happen in Protestant lands.

    So what your claim comes down to is that the Enlightement was caused by a situation that could not have happened if the Church had retained the political power to mercilessly persecute heterodoxy. Do you really intend to argue that the Catholic persecutions of dissent were a good thing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: