Sunday, June 11, 2023


Time it was
And what a time it was
It was....

Thus begin the brief lyrics for the tune bookending Simon and Garfunkle's third album.

Bookends were what the Old Friends sat on a park bench like, occasioning Paul's "How terribly strange to be seventy."

 Not there yet, but close enough to know he was right.

So, it occurred to me, in the last post, that I have increasingly been doing what there I described, re-reading something that I read when young, sometimes in the original language, and not only remembering what I had forgotten, but seeing much new in it, and bringing a new understanding to it.  Thus with Hegel's Philosophie des Weltgeschichtes, now with Heidegger's Sein und Zeit.

Please don't misunderstand--I'm still over a hundred pages from China in Hegel.  This is the usual overreach.

But, as I've noted before (see two posts on August 8, 2014 and another on March 11, 2020) Martin Heidegger was a particular interest of mine in college, having finished up a philosophy major with an "honors thesis" (a kind of lengthy undergraduate paper) comparing some of his ideas to those of the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead.  It's still the longest thing I've ever written.

Now the volume of Sein und Zeit I've just started I actually purchased in college before starting the honors thesis, but of course I relied almost entirely on the English translation, Being and Time, with a major assist from Michael Gelvin's A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time.

But why in heaven's name start the thing when there are so many reasons I may not want to or be able to finish it?  Partly, for me, it's a more significant "bookend" than Hegel.  And part of it is that odd dissatisfaction that this is something I've already read, already studied, but that I didn't really grasp it then, and what I did grasp I didn't really retain.   And he seems important enough to the course of my lifetime to make that effort.

Why?  Well, there is the attraction to what came to be called the existentialist tradition, conventionally attributed to the anxious cry of Kierkegaard, to the obsessions of Nietzsche, to the anguish of Unamuno, suddenly taken up analytically and set out in technical German by Heidegger--and then read backwards into Pascal, Augustine, and the psalmists.  As one who's been attracted to philosophy since I was able to ask questions it's always seemed the closest to the heart of things, not divorced from the great tradition starting with the Greeks, but presupposing it and asking, That's all very well, but what does that mean for me, for us, those of us who don't sit outside of it all, but are caught up in it, a part of it, who must live and die in it?

This is part of the paradox--all these writers who today are almost universally considered so difficult, so obscure, so elusive, are remembered because they are striving after what is arguably the  simplest, the most central, the most burning questions of the heart, all stemming from the stubborn remembrance of one's own existence.

I think of a wonderful passage from Fielding's Tom Jones.  Tom and his friend Partridge have been pressed into the English army and are marching to battle.  Tom, good-hearted and clear-eyed, exhorts Partridge to courage:  "Nothing can be more likely to happen than death to men who go into battle.  Perhaps we shall both fall in it--and what then?"  Partridge knows exactly:  "What, then? why, then there is an end of us, is there not?  when I am gone, all is over with me.  What matters the cause to me, or who gets the victory, if I am killed.  I shall never enjoy any advantage from it.  What are all the ringing of bells and bonfires to one that is six foot under ground?  there will be an end of poor Partridge."  He is perhaps not a model existentialist, but he does remember his own existence.  Tom, though he loves Partridge dearly, can't help but think of him as something of a coward.  Neither can we--but we see he has a certain point.

So, existentialism.  What else?  I have always had a certain attraction, not only to philosophy, but to Christian theology.  I don't know why; to me it's more puzzling that so many people don't.  But in looking at many of the most original twentieth century Christian theologians, the seminarian-turned-(conventional)-atheist Martin Heidegger seems to have had a decisive influence.  Bultmann knew him and corresponded with him throughout his career.  Rahner studied under him.  Tillich, like the other two, considers Heidegger the embodiment of the modern, and shapes his theology around his categories of Being and Existence.  Even Barth, whose landmark commentary on Romans was published shortly before Sein und Zeit, was so influenced by Kierkegaard that he and Heidegger come to look like intellectual cousins.

And then I guess there is the challenge.  Many not unintelligent people have waded into Sein und Zeit and found it unintelligible gibberish.  The old joke is that, before you translate it into English, you have to translate it into German.  Its hard going, and since Heidegger himself abandoned the thing before being near finished with it, there may be always the sneaking suspicion that he gave up on it as well.  ("Later Heidegger" is still a closed book to me, though I own a couple of volumes of essays that I may someday finish.)

I toyed with the idea of comparing it to Finnegans Wake, but the obscurities are really entirely different in nature.  Joyce is trying to obscure, trying to parallel the patchwork obscurity of life, of dreams, of the night.  And he loves to joke, and make puns, and use portmanteau words.  Heidegger is working as hard as he can (I am convinced) to make clear and intelligible something that is hard to express, maybe impossible, the working out of what it means to be.  Yes, I think at one point he did say something about his work being akin to a poetry of Being--but it's not.  Though Heidegger has famously pointed to Holderlin as a poet sharing his sense of Being, Der Ister does not in the least read like Sein und Zeit.

He starts off with his fundamental distinction of Sein and Seiende, of Being Itself from particular beings.  He is interested in the former, but recognizes that he can only get at it through the latter.  He wants to investigate a forgotten, pre-Socratic concern with what it means to be, and considers the focus of all Western philosophy on beings--things--or their totality--nature--not so much as misguided as premature.

Now Heidegger hardly can set out forgetting about the last 2500 years.  In fact he takes us through a brief history of our false starts, though Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Suarez, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Bergson.  But his program is explicitly destructive, and I have just reached his exposition of the method that must be followed to make progress--phenomenology.

Oh, and before I forget, he has also identified the being, the Seiende, whose analysis will be our focus:  Dasein.  Now Dasein in German is ordinarily translated into English simply as "existence."  But Heidegger identifies it as the being which I am, which, being the same as the investigator, is the natural one to investigate.  Or something like that.  It seems a little rushed, and that fact that the being being investigated is human being seems a little, well, anthropocentric.  Yes, human being is one I'm most concerned with, but human being seems rather a small part of Being Itself, and rather peculiar, and might possibly skew our results.  No matter, that is where we will begin.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Hegel's Philosophy of World History--well, why not?


There's been a lot of water under the bridge, and many a time I've thought about writing here, but over the course of dismaying politics and the pandemic there seemed quite enough talk going around, and my wife and I have been largely content to keep doing the work we enjoy and be parents to our grown children and grandparents to a few new arrivals.

Completion of Girard's Je vois Satan tomber comme l'eclair led to a round of classical mythology through Apollodorus, Ovid, James Frazer, Robert Graves, ending with a quixotic and as-yet-unfulfilled determination to read Robert Calasso's Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia in Italian.  A detour to Aesop's animal fables, in various incarnations, led to Goethe's Renard, and then to early German romantic verse:  Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin and Heine.  And having read English translations of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Mann's Doctor Faustus in the 1980's, I thought the time might have come to re-read them in their original languages.  Given my age and seriously undisciplined reading habits I realized I would probably never finish them, but decided I didn't care, and that in turn led me to pick any number of other things I realized I would probably never finish.

Among them was Karl Barth's commentary on St. Paul's letter to the Romans, which revealed anew how it's still possible at any age to be astounded by something not exactly new, but new to me, and the concomitant urge to read Tillich's Systematic Theology, Barth's mid-twentieth century dark twin which was, not unimportantly, the kernel of the thought that formed those who formed me among post-war mainline Protestants.

But Hegel's Philosophy of History?  It is most correct that I have done little more than knock about in Hegel's work.  I did indeed read an English version of the Philosophy of History in college.  I took a Metaphysics course which emphasized Hegel and, oddly enough, in high school I had discovered, in my attic, a box of old books, of uniform size, black covers, with stiff yellow pages, printed around 1910, and one was Hegel's Philosophy of History.  We were each supposed to choose a work of Hegel's and do a report to the class on it, and since I already owned a copy I chose the Philosophy of History.

Since that time I've taken superficial cracks at the Phenomenology of Sprit and the Science of Logic, quickly abandoned.  But a little less than ten years ago I acquired a volume from a series of lectures entitled Philosophie der Weltgeschichte and thought that I might well one day tackle it.  This set of lectures was given during the 1822/23 term at the University of Berlin, and, to the extent that I have understood the Preface, differs from later texts based on the 1830 lectures, edited after Hegel's death by his son Karl.  I am fairly certain that it was that later edition that I read back in college.

My impression is that Hegel's reputation is quite mixed, even among (perhaps I should say especially among) the educated.  His work generated an enormous reaction.  In my own reading he was, to Kierkegaard, comic, to Marx, naive and utopian, and to many simply a pompous windbag who thought he know the mind of God better than God did.  But...but...I don't know if Hegle created the post-Hegelian world or simply anticipated it.  But so much seems to flow out of the Philosophy of History I am convinced that it is worth getting to know better.

Take our politics (please).  Broadly we are Progressives or Nationalists.

Now for Hegel, as a philosopher, history is not simply a series of events, not just "one damn thing after another."  It has a meaning.  That meaning is, in a nutshell, to realize Freedom in the unfolding of Spirit's expanding wisdom.  History has, so to speak, a motor and an end.  Now I don't want to get ahead of myself, but insofar as Hegel asserts that history is necessarily unending change, that nothing persists in ist present form, that all institutions and peoples and empires pass away, all in the gradual realization of a universal, self-fulfilling, and absolute Freedom, Hegel is the father of the Progressives, what we broadly call the left, which strives for constant improvement, with constant criticism, sometimes with reform, sometimes with revolution, but, from Marxists to socialists to humble liberals, insisting on the world's imperfections, and with a firm faith that, no, the clock cannot be turned back.

But, on the other hand, in his Philosophy of History, Hegel does not describe a world of random, incremental changes. Just as the theory of natural selection produces, not a world of undifferentiated life forms, but a hierarchy of distinct species, so history, under the power of the Spirit, produces distinct peoples, nations, empires, civilizations.  And these "species" of human political and cultural forms exist in a sort of hierarchy, defined by what stage of the Spirit's development they manifest.  This cannot help but produce a ranking of higher or lower peoples, nations, empires and civilizations.  

The crudest way to illustrate this is from those who don't get beyond the table of contents.  The lectures begin with the Oriental World, then Greece and Rome, and end with the German world.  Where else have we seen the idea that the German Volk is the highest form to appear in history, the superior race?

Now that crude example is in fact unfair to Hegel, but it shows one possible reading of his concrete account of the Spirit's march through history.  China demonstrates Oriental bondage; in India the Spirit is dreaming.  The West's embodiment of the genuine progress of the Spirt accounts for the superiority of the West over the East, and over the global South.

More than that, one talks about a people's Spirit, as a real, separate reality.  It's all very well that Hegel asserts that every concrete people will decline, but, in the everyday Hegelian world, the Spirit of the Jews is essentially an oriental Spirit, alien to that of the "West," and if the Spirit of the global South is different from the Spirit defining the more advanced culture of an Anglo-Saxon America, then Jews and southern immigrants become a threat, and the only response must be culture war, to protect the nation from decadence and decline.

Hegel's reification of peoplehood, of nationhood, is, for him, simply a way of talking about the necessarily transient nature of such phenomena.  But it also anticipates and to some extent justifies the claims of nationalism, the imperative to keep a given culture "pure," the need to preserve the superiority and maintain the control of a perceived superior race, the need to wall one's people off, or to bring others, by conquest, into the hegemony of the empire, into a superior "American way of life," or, more recently, into an autonomous "Russian World."  It is not Hegel, but it is a way of thinking fostered by Hegel's judgment on civilizations, and thus for all that see the people, the culture, the nation, the empire, as the greatest value needing preservation and defense, he is, to that extent, speaking broadly, also their Father, their progenitor.

Many have noted that the philosophy of history is Hegel's more popular work, because it is his most accessible, and I can't disagree with that.  The Phenomenology and the Logic are maddingly abstract; the philosophy of history tracks the development of the Spirit, so to speak, with a series of stories.  The Spirit enfolds on stage in a play we mostly know already.

In a certain way Hegel uses history to exemplify his notion of freedom as Plato used the polis in the Republic.  There recall that Socrates was asked to define justice, and he found it was easier to change his focus from the individual to the polis, where the ideal of justice, being exemplified in classes whose virtues were wisdom, courage and temperance, could then return to the individual as individual virtues.  In much the same way Hegel writes the development of the Spirit over a large canvas, and thus makes it perhaps more accessible to those of us having difficulty with its more abstract manifestations.