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A Critique of a Standard Misreading of Hegel

I was bored a few days ago and decided to put on a random Hegel lecture to listen to and waste away my time more than usual, but it happened that I found this lecture in many ways more amusing with how much is wrong coming from a professor whom, I had already assumed, must have studied Hegel with those people we call supposed experts. Unlike the hilariously bad “water + not-water = Water” from this gem(1:57:22-2:00:10) of a lecture that qualifies as not even wrong, this one is at least plausibly wrong for very understandable reasons… except for some parts which I’m puzzled as to their source. I don’t expect everyone who ever teaches a lecture on Hegel to be an expert and be up to date with Hegel scholarship and the ‘acceptable’ interpretations, but I do expect someone to at least teach me what the philosopher actually thinks rather than talk about and around what he or she thinks the philosopher thinks. Most of my problems with this lecture would frankly be solved if it was all qualified with ‘This is what I think Hegel means‘ rather than with ‘Hegel says/thinks…’

2:13—The knowledge (“fact”)/Being distinction set up by Kant. “It doesn’t make any sense if Being is real.” (according to “Hegel”)

I don’t get where this notion that Hegel is against Kant on the basis of the question of Being’s reality comes from considering Hegel tells us no such thing. The question is about the Absolute and the rational limits of our cognition and knowledge. Can we have ANY absolute knowledge whatsoever, or are we indeed stuck with opinions? This can be knowledge of Being itself or of beings of one kind or another. This has nothing to do with Being’s “reality.” One would be stupid to deny that there is whatever there is; Kant himself did not deny there is something, whatever it may be in-itself. The question is whether we can know the something without the doubts that maybe we’re muddling it up just with our mere determinate form imposing something upon it. Of course, being charitable here, Mr. Stroup likely means to convey the skeptical question of so-called external reality to the subject which was taken up by the likes of Fichte who denied the thing-in-itself in total—this, of course, cannot be understood as the denial of the reality of Being, but the denial of a reality of a certain kind of Being. The question is: can we know the absolute, whatever it may be, whether it is an epistemic framework or an ontological category, or are we stuck with mere opinions? Even Kant is ultimately under attack for being too satisfied to remain in opinion when he himself can explain neither the subject nor the categories of its objects. Schelling first offers the question of the unity of unity and difference, and though he is unable to answer it, this is the question of any conception of an absolute: how do we go from the complete in-itself (universal) to the obvious incompleteness of its manifestation (particular/individual)? How does that make sense? How can there be things that are connected yet are thought to be radically disconnected at the same time (neumena/phenomena, or the knower and the known)? That’s something Hegel quietly sets out to answer.

5:35—Reading from a textbook, he says “In part B of the Phenomenology, Hegel discusses a relationship that he calls Lordship and Bondage to illustrate how it is through conflict and struggle that the world evolves and moves forward by means of a synthesis of opposing forces. . . . What Hegel attempts to do here is something like a reconstruction of his own [mind] of events that have already been carried out over past philosophical history. The theme of Lordship and Bondage that he emphasizes appears to be his own subjective reconstruction of a process of thought beginning with Socrates and ending with Christian philosophy.”

The historical reading here is one of those common mistakes people obsess about when they learn that Hegel is very historically minded, thus there is a temptation to attempt to map the Phenomenology’s forms of consciousness onto historical eras or events despite there being very little purpose to apply it in such a way according to the work’s own epistemic and phenomenological aims—these are, after all, forms of consciousness, ways of thinking, and their resultant activities, not historical events. This is like the foolish attempt to read Sense Certainty as the caveman’s cognition, Perception as the Greek’s, and Understanding as the modern. In truth, this categorization makes little sense since all three are far more basic and universal to humans than people realize. Nobody can live with mere Sense Certainty, cavemen definitely needed to Perceive, and the Greeks, for all their errors, very much understood things. The Phenomenology of Spirit IS NOT The Philosophy of History, yet it is a common mistake to read it as if it were. The Phenomenology is, from Hegel’s own telling of it in the Introduction, about the journey of Spirit to discover what  scientific knowledge is. It’s not meant to explain to us the trajectory of our history except as a logical history of the progression of knowledge.

In this section, Mr. Stroup speaks of Self-consciousness in the mode of mere consciousness focused outwardly as the Greek form of consciousness, but this is a very broad paintbrush over Consciousness and why Hegel even gets to the master-slave position in the first placeReading the Phenomenology as if it were The Philosophy of History completely misses the point of what the Phenomenology itself is meant to show.

Here, there are quite the errors, mostly because what is claimed is simply not there and is being externally read into the argument. For one, Hegel doesn’t speak of the “revolt of the slave who then becomes the master of the master, and the master the slave of the former slave” or that this transitions to medieval Christianity from Greece/Rome because “Christianity is about the meek overcoming the strong.” His Nietzschean reading of this about force and weakness is just plain false in the text itself.  There is no passage about the weakness or meekness of a slave and its inversion into the dominant master form in this in the whole section. This section has nothing to do with the Nietzschean inversion of master and slave morality, and it is not Hegel’s point that “Christianity must be overcome” because of this.

What there is plenty of is about the slave’s fearful existence under the master and the ultimate master, death itself. There is also a lot on internal and structural contradiction: the slave is the master insofar as the master depends on them, and the master is the slave insofar as they need the slave. The slave is master of his desires, master of his craft, master of his knowledge of concepts—he is the master in content, but not master in form and vice versa. No one wins in this situation, for the next three forms of consciousness are all forms which slaves and masters alike may have. This relationship falls apart only to reappear right after as an internalized duality of a master aspect and slave aspect of all self-consciousnesses.

12:30—”Everything for Hegel is necessary.”

Everything logical is necessary for Hegel, not ‘everything empirical is necessary.’ There is a big difference between logical and empirical necessity—they don’t quite align. There is a real contingency in empirical Nature, and Hegel is not Spinoza and hasn’t much love for sufficient reason—Spirit can fail to achieve the logically necessary for a myriad of empirical contingent reasonse.g. we could indeed be stupid enough to nuke this world to oblivion. Mr. Stroup mentions the so-called necessity of Napoleon invading/conquering Germany and says that if Hegel can say that it was a historical necessity, then a Hegelian would say that Nazism was necessary because it happened. Stupidity and civilizational collapse sending us to the stone age can happen, but that’s not a logical necessity that will advance anything towards greater knowledge. If there were a metaphysical logical necessity for something like the Holocaust and WWII happening, we would not claim it had to happen just because it empirically happened, but have to prove some logical advance that comes with it, either as a negation or as a positive advancement towards some teleological end.

15:44—”Hegel is looking as history in terms of Being.”

No, Mr. Stroup, he certainly is not, and I have no idea where you got that notion. Hegel is not Parmenideshe’s not worried about substance or Being. Hegel is looking at the history of knowledge approaching scientific knowledge from the standpoint of those structures of knowing as they are in their abstracted and purified form. These forms of knowing match historical epochs because they are indeed real forms of knowing we have employed and keep employing. 

16:00—Genocide as necessary

The example of Nazism and genocide to show a point of “We needed a little bit of genocide to learn it was wrong” is a bit silly. Hegel has no monopoly on the wisdom that in order to answer a problem one has to have a problem to begin with. Jay Bernstein comments on the outright stupidity of this point by precisely pointing to the Holocaust and the “path of despair of Spirit” in order to get a much more interesting and fitting interpretation concerning the idea of total irretrievable loss: historically bad shit happens on individual and collective levels from which we unfortunately learn nothing, and all we have is a set of horrendous memories to keep—sometimes events really advance nothing, and this too is a Hegelian point about empirical existence. Everything makes sense on some level, but Hegel is not stupid enough to claim that everything makes complete sense at any particular level. If anything, the very system he builds is one in which this is a precluded possibility: the only thing that will ever make complete sense is Absolute Spirit itself; everything else is in one way or another more or less irrational, arbitrary, and contingent.

16:45—”Don’t worry; it’s all good in the end.”

While Hegel is an optimist, there is plenty in his philosophy which speaks quite against this. Let’s not forget this is one of the philosophers of endless despair and all things falling apart the moment things seem to get good and safely sublate. Logically, sure, it’s all good in the end, but empirically there is no guarantee of this. Modernity is not considered by Hegel to be nearing the “end of history” for an arbitrary reason of being a status quo lover, it’s actually because he sees structures of absolute self-determination begin to appear and match somewhat what they logically should look like insofar as we have logically derived them. This is good… because self-determination is the only logically valid normative rule. Try to derive any prior historical formation as a completely immanent and positively derived logical development, and you’ll see what happens in the Phenomenology: things will fall apart.

17:05—Marx on the master/slave

All I have to say is that, since Mr. Stroup misread the Master/Slave to begin with, this further misreading of Marx does not sit well with me. “The master will resist the slave revolt to overcome and become masters themselves”—truly, if that was the insight of Marx to destroy Hegelianism, I would think both to be thinkers so poor as to be banal. Marx’s refutation of Hegel is far more sophisticated than this, and Hegel’s argument in the master-slave is not that eventually one day we realized we were all equals and recognized each other, and that that is why slavery ended. It’s implied that the slaves may rise up and become masters to the master, but this is logically not an advance, and here Mr. Stroup is right. If the slave revolts, the real advance would be the dissolution of slavery in general, for the slave has gained and internalized the universal structure of self-consciousness and conceptual thinking—the slave can conceive of the universal required to recognize others like oneself unlike the master who treats them only as objects and denies their subjectivity.

19:30—Mr. Stroup interprets the dialectic to be primarily about faith and reason while still ignoring the onto-epistemic conceptions being carried out in each shape of consciousness on the way, each itself—including faith—a form of reason itself.  Somehow, he ends this with the resulting concept of Nothing “after reason and faith and spirit vanish.” This is what he takes to be the explication of Hegel’s reasoning for why we arrive at the notion that Being and Nothing are one and the same. This could not be farther from Hegel’s result of Absolute Knowing in the Phenomenology—it’s not about Nothing, but about the knowing of knowing. Once again, this is reading into the work what isn’t there.

21:50—Once again, the mistake is made from the textbook reading of thinking the Phenomenology to be the Philosophy of History. This ignores that the Phenomenology is about a logical history of consciousness’ KNOWING coming to scientific absolute knowing, not about explaining human history in general. Once again, the Phenomenology is about explaining how and why we were able to get from the mere appearance of knowledge to true absolute knowledge and how we had to go through these various forms due to the logical way they develop and interrelate despite not appearing in the order of our empirical historical meandering.

23:00—The myth of progress.

No, Hegel is not the source of the myth of progress. This myth was around long before Hegel, and it’s silly to blame Hegel for the misuse of his ideas others made through their own misunderstandings—that’s like blaming Marx for the USSR. No, wage work is not slavery by any stretch of conception; we make distinctions for a reason—slaves, serfs, and proletarians are not the same thing and do not exist in the same relation of domination. No, the master-slave dynamic does not continue forever between us—it continues within us. One merely has to read the section right after concerning Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness to know that the dynamic of knowledge regarding recognition turns inward to an inner split self that enables internalized self-consciousness.

30:00—History proving Hegel, or Hegel using history to back himself up

Hegel never tries to explain our empirical history as empirical. Once again, the difference between logical and empirical history must be made. The reason for Hegel’s logical ordering of history and its difference from empirical history is ignored here, and unfortunately, it’s a very common point of ignorance.

32:00—Hegel describing modernity as just another contradiction, ‘predicting the next movement’

…except he doesn’t, and we can see this in the Philosophy of History and the Philosophy of Right. There is something unique about modernity which isn’t like what prior forms of society in history are like, that is, modernity shows an immanently systematic and organic logical structure unlike slave societies, feudalism, and what have you. Its foundations are not arbitrary like the others, and it is why modern structures can be developed in a positive internal dialectic instead of an internally self-undermining negative dialectic. Modernity for Hegel is a time in which legitimate structures of freedom are beginning to appear. Hegel is not in the business of prediction and says so himself. He is convinced of and logically develops a priori that the structures of self-determination and reason are arising in his day, but they are incomplete, and Hegel admits to not knowing how the system of society is to come to completionhowever, he does screw the dialectics up with injecting contingent historical bias in quite a bit, so I have to give Mr. Stroup that one. Though Marx assumes the modern state and economy are just another negative dialectic like any other, Hegel thinks no such thing, but is well aware that there are problems he does not know how to solve. He certainly would not predict a master-slave class struggle to keep occurring if the structures of self-determination are actually upheld in a society that is freely free. Of course, someone like Marx and many after Hegel question whether this society can be freely free, but one must first ask what that state of affairs would logically look like to make some judgment about that which wouldn’t be mere opinion.

34:00—Description of the diremption and unification

It seems Mr. Stroup completely misses the point of the ‘synthesis/unification’ as itself the structure of an absolute form of a specific total movement. He is unaware of the concrete universalwhat Hegel in the Phenomenology terms Infinityas the genuine basic conceptual structure which explicates the possibility of a unity of unity and difference, a self-differentiated whole that dirempts and in its diremption is unified. With this being missed, of course the endless diremption seems to arbitrarily be said to stop in a final synthesis of Absolute Spirit. For Hegel, the diremption never endsit just finds self-grounding systematic closure in which the process is absolute unto itself and fully self-contained in its total resulting structure. The Absolute isn’t a state of thingsit is a structure and process of the coming to be of that structure: ‘The Idea is Life.’

34:20—Mr. Stroup mentions: Being, Nothing, Existence as the realm of Becoming; life in the realm of Becoming; Being “wants to experience itself,” Being posits itself as Nothing, God posits something outside itself that isn’t him. How do you get movement in Being/Absolute Spirit? The Absolute posits necessity outside of itself, and that necessity must get back to the Absolute….

First off, no, Being does not posit Nothing and Becoming is not the return of Nothing back into Being. Where the hell did this come from? Being can’t posit anything because positing is a structure of Essence, the major logical form after the Doctrine of Being. See the Doctrine of Being. This is just textually outright wrong.

Second, everything is Becoming; Life is so far beyond simple Becoming it’s mind boggling—Life is in the “realm” of the Concept. Thinking there is anything that isn’t Becoming is to show you misunderstand what Becoming is as the very moment of all transitioning vanishing—the very differentiated unity of black text on white background is itself a Becoming. Third, Existence is NOT the “realm” of experience. What that ontological order is called is Nature. Mr. Stroup is not to blame here, I think, so much as the poor teaching his Hegel instructors gave. This mix-matching of categories is typical of people who are chronic superficial readers of Hegel who constantly read into his work rather than read out of it.

Being isn’t God and it doesn’t want anything in Hegel’s account… This is close to Schelling’s conception, except Schelling’s God does not posit something outside, and this seems far closer to Fichte, yet I do wonder if it’s right. Where, then, does this come from? Here, I think, one can find things hinting at this in the Philosophy of History. This reading, however, would miss Hegel’s points on teleology in the Science of Logic concerning immanent telos which is just…the principle of development of things. God no more wants to come into existence than an an electron wants to float around a positive atomic nucleus or matter wants to come together with other matter in gravitational attraction.

The Absolute does not posit anything outside itself to get motion going. This, again, misunderstands what the Absolute is. Hegel has no issues with change, it’s the very beginning of the system as Becoming in the Logic. Read the 1st chapter of the Doctrine of Being.

Finally, to respond to a comment reply of his to a comment I made: Hegel is not a “monist.” He’s not Spinoza, he’s not Parmenides, and he’s not Fichte. He’s not a metaphysical/ontological monist for there is more than one kind of thing around. If there is one thing one could say about his “monism” it would be epistemic monism: everything is understood relative to one normative standard, the Absolute (cf. James Kreines’ work on the issue of thinking Hegel is a metaphysical/ontological monist).