Hegel Update 5: And Just Who Is This God Person Anyway?

Finished up the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, then started in on the Introduction. The last quarter of the Preface (it’s about 40 pages long) is the most easily understood and, in a not unrelated development, the most interesting. As usual, these are preliminary observations, subject to revision and correction as I work my way through the text.

First, we get a preview of Hegel’s concept of Negativity, and even a couple examples about what he means. But, as I’ve pointed out previously, while the lack of concrete examples in support of his more, shall we say, wild or challenging claims is a source of perpetual annoyance, the once in a while where he does give examples are perhaps worse: they leave one wondering what it was about that example that Hegel thought illustrated his point. The most egregious such examples – until now – that I’ve run across were in his ponderous and just so explanation of the history of art (Lectures on Aesthetics). I know just enough art and art history to be very dubious of efforts to dump the vast expanse and variety of human art over the ages into a couple of tidy Hegelian buckets, so that his few examples rang of both cherry-picking and forced-fitting.

But here in the Preface, we find the most curious example of all. Hegel starts a prolonged attack on traditional reasoning by offering a criticism which assumes his conclusions: that all logical propositions are fundamentally Negative (true: defining something means saying what it is not) yet fail to reintegrate the Negative into the Notion as is required to be Truth in any nontrivial, philosophical sense.

As an example, he offers the proposition: God is Being. Now, to a philosopher, that little proposition has a massive history behind it, and is, when properly understood, unique. The Thomists would say that God’s existence is of his essence, or, to parallel Hegel’s construction, God’s essence is existence = God is Being. God is the only non-contingent Being, meaning the identity of Being with any other thing besides God is false. For example, if I were to say: Socrates is Mortal,  or Horses are Quadrupeds, neither proposition does or can say anything about the existence of Socrates, mortality. horses or quadrupeds being necessary. Nope: the whole of Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics is directed toward contemplation of the real existence of an Uncaused Cause, an Unmoved Mover, that for which, unlike Socrates and horses, its existence is of its essence.

From this, Aristotle reasons toward the divinity of truth, of the immaterial yet profound reality of such immaterial things as mathematics, logic and natural law, and ultimately, to the necessary existence of an immortal human soul.

Notice the process here? Aristotle starts, in the Physics, with observable Nature – that which is most knowable by us – and, using Logic, moves us toward what is most knowable in itself – God. Aristotle concludes all truth is divine, not because he was suckered in by somebody’s mystic woowoo – there has never been a more hard-headed realist than Aristotle – but because *logic* compelled him.

The Medievals’ embrace of Aristotle, and equally eager embrace of the physical world as manifested in their invention of systematic natural science, sprang most naturally from their faith in the God of the Gospel of John, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and through and in Whom all things have their being.

And on and on, this being one of the most enthusiastically developed thoughts in all of Western philosophy and theology.(1) And Hegel knows all this, of course. He uses the ‘God is Being’ example in the course of outlining what the true Science of Philosophy is, knowing full well that he’s inverting the historical reality of thought. The inherent and limiting ‘negativity’ in the proposition ‘God is Being’ applies to that proposition and its logical equivalents *only*. It is not, or at least it has not been shown to be, a characteristic of any other proposition that the act of definition removes something important from the understanding – the Truth – logically arrived at. Everybody – any philosopher steeped in the Western Tradition, at least – knows that. Only by assuming the conclusion – that traditional logic and all reasoning based on it are hopelessly out of date and misleading – can traditional philosophic and logical propositions in general be thus tarred. (Tell that to a hard scientist! Or a plumber, for that matter.)

Nope, we’d need an example of how traditional logic and its inherent ‘negativity’ is missing something on its way to arriving at the One Thing for which definitions become problematic in concept.(2) Because otherwise, one may simply choose to humbly stick with Aristotle and Thomas, recognizing that no human attempt at definition can squeeze all the mystery out of our attempts to understand God, yet that the logic and rigor with which we got to this point is valuable and honorable both because we could never have gotten to this level of divine contemplation with out, and because by its ruthless application we can in fact better understand the created world that is a true reflection of the Nature of that God.

1. And the distinguishing characteristic of Western Philosophy, the reason why – pace, Guns, Germs, & Steel – all the ‘good stuff’ from food to medicine to freedom comes from the West.

2. Lots of definitions are problematic in practice, for example, what, exactly is heat or gravity. But that doesn’t mean that the attempt to define something is necessarily doomed to failure. In fact, the very sense of inevitable “progress” that constitutes the emotional underpinnings of Hegel’s whole approach has as its critical support the stumbling, often wrong but incredibly fruitful attempts to scientifically define things.


Author: Joseph Moore

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

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