Friday, November 16, 2007

Hegel Myths

Thom Brooks over at The Brooks Blog has a post here on Hegel's first name and the thesis-antithesis-synthesis myth. Thom credits Fichte, as do others, with a thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic, which might be right. Fichte certainly uses these terms, but his synthesis never seems to be a true synthesis in which two things are unified. Think of how the I and not-I are "synthesized" in Fichte's development of his three principles. The not-I can't be unified with the I, at least not in any absolute sense, as that would leave us without an I or not-I. Rather, the two are limited, and that is in some respect the synthesis. I have always found these issues somewhat opaque, so if anyone has thoughts on Fichte's notion of synthesis they are more than welcomed.

In terms of the Hegel myth about the thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic, Marx should be credited, as far as I know, with its origination. In his The Poverty of Philosophy, a work on the anarchist Proudhon, Marx writes:
If we had M. Proudhon's intrepidity in the matter of Hegelianism we should say: it is distinguished in itself from itself. What does this mean? Impersonal reason, having outside itself neither a base on which it can pose itself, nor an object to which it can oppose itself, nor a subject with which it can compose itself, is forced to turn head over heels, in posing itself, opposing itself and composing itself — position, opposition, composition. Or, to speak Greek — we have thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. For those who do not know the Hegelian formula: affirmation, negation and negation of the negation. That is what language means. It is certainly not Hebrew (with due apologies M. Proudhon); but it is the language of this pure reason, separate from the individual. Instead of the ordinary individual with his ordinary manner of speaking and thinking we have nothing but this ordinary manner in itself — without the individual....

All things being reduced to a logical category, and every movement, every act of production, to method, it follows naturally that every aggregate of products and production, of objects and of movement, can be reduced to a form of applied metaphysics. What Hegel has done for religion, law, etc., M. Proudhon seeks to do for political economy.

So what is this absolute method? The abstraction of movement. What is the abstraction of movement? Movement in abstract condition. What is movement in abstract condition? The purely logical formula of movement or the movement of pure reason. Wherein does the movement of pure reason consist? In posing itself, opposing itself, composing itself; in formulating itself as thesis, antithesis, synthesis; or, yet, in affirming itself, negating itself, and negating its negation. (Chapter 2)
That this characterization of Hegel was to become so popular makes some sense when we realize its source is in Marx's at times unfair take on Hegel. Unfortunately, this schema played a prominent role in the film Half Nelson, where it was beaten into the heads of school children and unsuspecting filmgoers, though I don't remember it being credited to Hegel or Marx in the film.


Michael Macomber said...

Nice post, I've often struggled with whether or not to speak of Hegel's dialectic in those terms (or buzz words). However, I believe you offer a misguided and unfair criticism of "Half Nelson." I used to get so upset when philosophical concepts were misinterpreted in films, especially when the scene takes place in a college philosophy class, but in the case of "Half Nelson" I believe that it was a character-based decision. After all, a young, disillusioned, drug addled high school teacher isn't meant to get the theory correct. And I'm sure that the audience is meant to locate this, at least that was my thought of the scene to which you are referring.

But I guess this speaks to a larger point, and that is how do you teach these concepts to high school, or 101 college students, or do you at all? Clearly you cannot trace the entire genealogy in an introductory course. How do you simplify philosophical discourse without destroying its inherent integrity? Why do almost all professors get Hegel wrong (here I'm thinking of the Preface to Terry Pinkard's biography of Hegel)? It may not be because they have misunderstood Hegel, but that they are limited in their means to discuss it within the classroom. Anyway, just some random thoughts.

Lisa Rivera said...

Hi Gabe--

Lynne Tirrell sent us the URL to this. I just wanted to stop by and say hi from the UMass Philosophy Department. (I hope I will have time to read your posts sometime...maybe Christmas break!)

Come visit us sometime...

Gabriel Gottlieb said...

Hey Lisa, Thanks for stopping by to say hi!

I guess I think that teaching history as a thesis, antithesis, synthesis is just a misrepresentation of its development. Things just aren't that clear, clean or simple. So pedagogically it's misleading, and if we are talking about teaching 101 Philosophy I think we can tell a better story.

About the movie, I do think his dialectical schema is meant to represent a philosophical insight and not a misunderstanding of one. I just don't think there is any insight in the thesis-antithesis-synthesis schema.

The question about how to simplify philosophical discourse without misrepresenting the ideas and insights the discourse is about is an important one.

The Brooks Blog said...

Thanks for the note on my blog. I certainly agree with what you say about Fichte on synthesis. Of course, my aim was only to note that the term is Fichte's (however interpreted) (and I have the Science of Knowledge in mind), not Hegel's.

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