“You Just Don’t Get It” and the Death of Reason

Started to write an essay on how ‘You just don’t get it’ as used in modern discourse (to use the term loosely) is among the scariest and most dangerous phrases you’ll hear. That effort got totally out of hand, metastasizing into several thousand words on the Death of Reason, with side trips through my meager understanding of the history of philosophy, theology, the Reformation, Descartes, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Freud as well as science, modern politics and education and, well, frankly, what I think about just about everything. Came to three conclusions: The ‘You just don’t get it’ essay deserves another (shorter) shot; that the other stuff I wrote I can maybe refashion into a series of posts on the death of reason; and that Marx Freud would be an OK name for one of those ironic alternative bands.

So, here’s the short essay on ‘You Just Don’t Get It’ ™

First, a distinction: I just don’t get integral calculus. I sort of got it a little, years ago, when I was studying math, but have frankly allowed that part of my mind to atrophy. In this case, were somebody to truthfully say: you just don’t get integral calculus, they could correctly mean that I do not comprehend the carefully laid out reasons, assumptions and tools created by Newton, Leibniz and their successors. To say I don’t get it in this sense is true and potentially even helpful: it is tantamount to the suggestion that I *could* get it, in theory at least, if I just worked through all the logic and examples a bit more. It’s a criticism, perhaps, but a true and helpful one.

But this is very different from being told I just don’t get a world-view presented whole, unencumbered by arguments or logic, but assumed to be so luminously perspicuous that only people of bad will – let’s call them ‘oppressors’ for short – could possibly fail to grasp it. It’s an entirely different game to have your understanding fall short because the reasoning is long and hard – like integral calculus – as opposed to failing to grasp what is assumed to be obvious to the well-intentioned ‘open-minded’ observer. In the first case, you, the unseeing one, is assumed to be capable of understanding, at least in theory. In the second, your failure to see is a moral failing – you’re close-minded or bought off – and, short of some sort of magically endowed enlightenment or insight, paradoxically both incapable of understanding and culpable for your failure to understand.

Now, philosophy is often hard.  It can be hard in two ways: either the subject matter is hard in itself, or the presentation is infelicitous. Or, sometimes, both. The most trouble occurs when the presentation is so impenetrable that the level of difficulty of the ideas is difficult or impossible to ascertain. Such is Hegel, an all-time Hall of Famer in the You Just Don’t Get It game. For example, from the Phenomenology of Spirit:

Φ 178. SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or “recognized”. The conception of this its unity in its duplication, of infinitude realizing itself in self-consciousness, has many sides to it and encloses within it elements of varied significance. Thus its moments must on the one hand be strictly kept apart in detailed distinctiveness, and, on the other, in this distinction must, at the same time, also be taken as not distinguished, or must always be accepted and understood in their opposite sense. This double meaning of what is distinguished lies in the nature of self-consciousness: — of its being infinite, or directly the opposite of the determinateness in which it is fixed. The detailed exposition of the notion of this spiritual unity in its duplication will bring before us the process of Recognition.

1. Duplicated Self-Consciousness

Φ 179. Self-consciousness has before it another self-consciousness; it has come outside itself. This has a double significance. First it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as an other being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other.

Φ 180. It must cancel this its other. To do so is the sublation of that first double meaning, and is therefore a second double meaning. First, it must set itself to sublate the other independent being, in order thereby to become certain of itself as true being, secondly, it thereupon proceeds to sublate its own self, for this other is itself.

Φ 181. This sublation in a double sense of its otherness in a double sense is at the same time a return in a double sense into its self. For, firstly, through sublation, it gets back itself, because it becomes one with itself again through the cancelling of its otherness; but secondly, it likewise gives otherness back again to the other self-consciousness, for it was aware of being in the other, it cancels this its own being in the other and thus lets the other again go free.

And so on. Now, it is a little unfair to take Hegel out of context, but I aver that, in this and many other cases, context doesn’t help all that much (1). Based on the immediate appearance of a variety of factions and flavors of Hegelian thought, which disagree among themselves about all sorts of basic issues, it doesn’t seem that his thinking is any clearer to the experts than it is to me (2). But the main point here is that in this passage Hegel makes no argument. He is not inviting you to agree to premises, follow logical arguments, and reach conclusions. Instead, he presents – he unfolds – reality for you. You either get it or you don’t.

In the Science of Logic, Hegel lays out (somewhat) his approach. What he does is invite you to agree with him – his method is to show you, in words, how it is that things are the way they are – how things exist on many levels at the same time, how the Idea, the rational basis of any knowable thing, is unfolded over time in concrete circumstances. The problem – what is supposed to be convincing about this? Unfolding is an important term for Hegel – he lays out in front of us what he has discovered about reality – at which point, only our direct perception of reality as it relates to Hegel’s description of it can convince us that his description is ‘true’ (while simultaneously being ‘false’ on a logical level, but sustaining and integrating that contradiction at the next level of dialectic, so nonetheless true in being….)

You see where this is going? You either get it – or you don’t. There is no step-by-step logical laying out of the issues, no chance to review the individual steps – there are no steps. Those who get it – who agree with Hegel – are by definition enlightened, hip, happening and now. Those who don’t, well, they are unenlightened, wedded to the past, and not to be taken seriously.

Another key point: Hegel asserts that logic as traditionally understood is for the little people. Real thinkers don’t need to concern themselves with trivia like the law of non-contradiction. Therefore  (oops! Slipped into logic, there) one is conclusively revealed to be unenlightened if one insists on addressing things logically. You’re a goober, in other words, if you insist on things making sense.

Bulverism becomes the pinnacle of argument – you merely need to show why your opponent is such a man as to propound his argument, and you’ve won! No need to even acknowledge his arguments exist, let alone answer them.

Skip ahead a bit: Hegel has consigned all science as we understand the term to the outer darkness inhabited by us little people. Science, to advance the project of understanding the real world in profitable ways, demands exactly the Aristotelian logic Hegel pooh-poohed. Therefore, if you’re looking for the cause of the shotgun divorce of Science from Philosophy, you’ve found it. If you expect Science to come to the rescue when disputing Hegelian proposals, you’re out of luck.

Next, we encounter the ‘thinking’ of Marx, who claimed to be standing Hegel on his head, causing his pockets to empty all over Greater Germany and risking lower back injury. Marx has a point: the useful part of Hegel, at least for Marx, it the ‘you just get it or you don’t’ part, and the rejection of traditional logic.  This permits the classification of the world into oppressors (capitalists and their bourgeois lapdogs) and oppressed (workers), and removes the need to respond to critics. And, it doesn’t even have to make sense!

Batting third is Freud, who, while less obviously a Hegelian than Marx, nonetheless uses exactly the Hegelian/Marxist form of Hegelian argument – when his critics questioned how he could claim, even in theory, to have reached his conclusions scientifically, he pulled the familiar ‘you just don’t get it’ argument, and deployed the Freudians favorite Bulverism of accusing his questioners of being sexually repressed.

Now we reach the modern age, in which no fully trained academic or their slavering sycophant students would ever dream of making a coherent argument. You just have to know – and it will be beaten into your head, so no worry you won’t know – what the ‘right’ positions are. Once you know who the oppressors are, you’re done. The only thing left is to imbue all issues with moral outrage: for the oppressors are evil, and anything they might want or do is evil; the oppressed are good, and anything they want or do is good, or at least instantly forgivable.  That’s why Marxists, feminists, gay rights activists, and any other group that can be set against a vaguely defined oppressor are instantly forgiven or even praised for behaving as bullies and bores; why attempts to reason are invariably met with scorn, the only variable being the sophistication with which the scorn is administered; and why discourse has largely died in this country.

And anyone foolish enough to disagree Just Doesn’t Get It.

1. I’ve read the context for this passage – the sections and chapters before and after, as well as a number of Hegel’s other works, and it didn’t much improve things. My conclusions: either Hegel is saying something vastly more simple than the language he is drowning us under here would suggest, or he’s blowing smoke.

2. A translator of one of the editions I was reading said that whenever you come up with a paraphrase of Hegel that seems to more clearly capture his thinking, you can be certain you are wrong. He also warned about reading more coherence into the text than is actually present. Wise man.


Author: Joseph Moore

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

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