Phenomenology of Spirit: Prelinminaries

Just started reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, not past Hegel’s preface. A couple preliminary comments, sort of set the stage.

Caveat 1: these are very preliminary impressions, subject to change as I finish this up;

Caveat 2: much of what I’m about to say comes from other Hegel I’ve read (LogicLectures on Aesthetics) and some are even based on the forward to Phenom of S by Hegel fanboy J. N. Findlay. While I habitually read forwards, translator’s notes, introductions, prefaces and the like, I also try to make it a practice to ignore anything they say  by way of explanation about the work itself, as I try to take my impressions directly from what the author has to say, and not through the filter of a critic or apologist. (I’m stuck with the translator’s decisions and biases, which is a major thing that separates me from the real scholars. Oh well.) In this case, Findlay confirms or reinforces impressions I’ve gotten from other works, so I’m bending my own rules to include his thoughts in this analysis. A little. Subject to revision.

1. Hegel & the Galileo Trap. Readers may recall a little essay on what I’m calling the Galileo Trap, the tendency to think that a theory that contradicts all common experience and appearances is more likely to be true, rather than facing a problem that needs to be very carefully overcome. This trap exists because, according to the modern world’s foundation mythology of Galileo, he was persecuted by those who refused to look at the evidence, evidence that supported a theory of reality that contradicted every common experience – the world sure looks to be motionless; the stars sure look like they move around the earth. But Galileo’s triumph (nearly 100 years after he died is when the Newton’s theory and the available evidence caught up to the theory) is seen as a template: find a theory that contradicts everything everybody thinks – that will be the true one. At the very least, the simple fact that common experience contradicts every aspect of your theory is no reason to abandon it – just look at Galileo!

So, we have Hegel, via Findlay, proposing that there is something called a Phenomenologist. A phenomonologist notices that, despite what they think they are doing – looking at individual observable things and learning what they can through them – observers (I think this is directed at scientists and perhaps technicians of all sorts) are really only observing different aspects of the same thing, which is ultimately identified as the Understanding. The world is a mirror, we are the world, etc.

Now, I’m expecting this to be heavily nuanced if not out and out contradicted in the hundreds of pages Hegel devotes to it, but for now I’m calling Galileo Trap on it – that certainly doesn’t seem to be what we commoners are doing. We’d need fairly overwhelming evidence to replace our common understanding with this sort of weird pantheist/we-theist mishmash. Hey, maybe it’s in there. I sort of doubt it.

2. I’ve written elsewhere also on the divide between Philosophy and Science. Here, I’m having a twinge of sympathy for our Analytic Philosopher brethren – if I thought Hegel representative of philosophy in general (and how could a person educated at a modern university not?) I would be repulsed by these claims that what a scientist is doing amounts to high-falutin’ navel gazing. I might, in a fit of intellectual integrity blended with a need for revenge, reject anything in Philosophy that can’t be derived from the scientific endeavor. It’s not an unreasonable reaction, and, if I had to choose between Science on the one hand and Hegel and his spawn on the other, I’d go science every time.

3. Finally, Hegel is more restrained than his followers, mostly I suspect because he was a devout Lutheran, and therefore had to square his thinking with his religious beliefs on some level at least. Once you cast aside that restraint, it’s open season. Combine that lack of restraint with the rejection of logic and the Galileo Trap, and you get things like Marxism and Freudianism. No amount of evidence or logic is allowed to be brought to bear on the fundamental claims of Marx or Freud. Common experience and common understanding are to to dismissed not despite, but because of their commonness.

Years ago, I read a ton of Freud, and was most struck by how he on occasion answered his critics with “because I am Sigmund Freud!” In general, he and his followers contented themselves with ad hominem attacks, wherein they slathered on the Bulverisms: for example, I am just the sort of sexually repressed person whose mommy issues prevent me from grasping the TRVTH of Freud’s claims. This has a wonderfully universal applicability to ALL objections. But once or twice, when confronted by a challenge to one his arguments, where he was hanging an entire psychic universe off a single dubious interpretation of an observation,  Freud would respond to the “but how can you know that’s true?” challenge by simply asserting his personal authority – Because I am Sigmund Freud. No, really.

Hegel makes a lot of outrageous claims, but at least he doesn’t claim to know the future or to know in every case what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

Much more later. I’m switching off between Hegel and John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land, to keep my sanity. So I’ll be interspersing reviews of each as I go. I hope.



Author: Joseph Moore

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

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