What The Hell, Hegel?

I’m reading through Marx: A Very Short Introduction, and one of its best features is its focus on Marx’s influence from Hegel. Hegel is really interesting.

I should rephrase that. Hegel is famously boring. His books are boring. His ideas are boring. He was even apparently a boring person – a recent biography of him was criticized on the grounds that “Hegel’s life was really not eventful enough to support a graceful biography of eight hundred pages”. But the phenomenon of Hegel is interesting. I don’t know of any other philosopher with such high variance.

Engels says of Hegel:

One can imagine what a tremendous effect this Hegelian system must have produced in the philosophy-tinged atmosphere of Germany. It was a triumphal procession which lasted for decades and which by no means came to a standstill on the death of Hegel. On the contrary, it was from 1830 to 1840 that Hegelianism reigned most exclusively, and to a greater or lesser extent infected even its opponents.

Such sweeping statements might be expected of the somewhat pro-Hegelian Engels. But even Russell, who mocked Hegel incessantly, admitted that:

“By the end of [the 19th century], the leading academic philosophers, both in America and Britain, were largely Hegelian”

It is fun to see what comes up on a Google search for “Hegel dominated”:

Rockmore in Marx After Marxism: “As Marx was forging his conceptual arms, Hegel dominated the philosophical debate in a way that is now difficult to comprehend.”

A Christian Appraisal Of Contemporary Philosophy: “Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel dominated all philosophy…after his death his philosophy spread from Germany, overshadowed all else in England, and was widely held in American Universities.”

Tufts course catalog: “At the end of the nineteenth century, a form of Idealism derived from Hegel dominated philosophy.”

Psychoanalysis and Culture: “Freud grew up in a Hegel-dominated cultural universe. Though we have no record that Freud read Hegel, that was unnecessary, for Hegel’s thought defined an important part of the philosophical world in which Freud’s thinking developed.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica: “From 1818 until his death in 1831, Hegel dominated the highest thought.”

A Historical Sketch Of Sociological Theory: “According to Ball, it is difficult for us to appreciate the degree to which Hegel dominated German thought in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It was largely within the framework of his philosophy that educated Germans discussed history, politics and culture”

Or, to merge all of these together, it is “difficult for us to appreciate” and “now difficult to comprehend” how Hegel “dominated”, “defined”, “overshadowed”, and “reigned” in “Germany”, “England”, “American universities”, and “the philosophical world” in “the beginning of the nineteenth century”, “from 1818 until his death in 1831”, “the time from 1830 to 1840”, “the second quarter of the nineteenth century”, “the end of the nineteenth century”, and “the time Freud’s thinking developed” (Freud was born 1856 and would have been in university in the 1870s).

I will take this as evidence that Hegel was really really important for the entire nineteenth century.

On the other hand, it’s hard to find many people who will put in good words for him now. In fact, hilarious pithy denunciations of Hegel are an entire sub-genre. Hegel’s Wikiquote page, among other sources, includes:

“Hegel’s philosophy illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.” – Bertrand Russell

“When I was young, most teachers of philosophy in British and American universities were Hegelians, so that, until I read Hegel, I supposed there must be some truth to his system; I was cured, however, by discovering that everything he said on the philosophy of mathematics was plain nonsense. Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.” – Bertrand Russell

“Among Noah’s sons was one who covered the shame of his father, but the Hegelians are still tearing away the cloak which time and oblivion had sympathetically thrown over the shame of their Master.” – Heinrich Schumacher

“Hegel’s was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Mane and Spengler after him, possessed both these qualifications.” – Bertrand Russell (are you starting to notice a trend here?)

“While scientists were performing astounding feats of disciplined reason [during the Enlightenment], breaking down the barriers of the “unknowable” in every field of knowledge, charting the course of light rays in space or the course of blood in the capillaries of man’s body — what philosophy was offering them, as interpretation of and guidance for their achievements was the plain Witchdoctory of Hegel, who proclaimed that matter does not exist at all, that everything is Idea (not somebody’s idea, just Idea), and that this Idea operates by the dialectical process of a new “super-logic” which proves that contradictions are the law of reality, that A is non-A, and that omniscience about the physical universe (including electricity, gravitation, the solar system, etc.) is to be derived, not from the observation of facts, but from the contemplation of that Idea’s triple somersaults inside his, Hegel’s, mind. This was offered as a philosophy of reason.” – Ayn Rand (unsurprisingly)

A book review by Roger Kimball helps round out the picture. Along with presenting the legend that Hegel said that “only one person ever understood me, and even he misunderstood me”, Kimball writes:

Like many people who have soldiered through a fair number of Hegel’s books, I was both awed and depressed by their glittering opacity. With the possible exception of Heidegger, Hegel is far and away the most difficult “great philosopher” I have ever studied. There was much that I did not understand. I secretly suspected that no one—not even my teachers—really understood him, and it was nice to have that prejudice supported from the master’s own lips.

Is it worth the effort? I mean, you spend a hundred hours poring over The Phenomenology of Spirit—widely considered to be Hegel’s masterpiece—and what do you have to show for it? The book is supposed to take you from the naïve, “immediate” position of “sense certainty” to Absolute Knowledge, “or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit.” That sounds pretty good, especially when you are, say, eighteen and are busy soaking up ideas guaranteed to mystify and alarm your parents. But what do you suppose it means?

Despite trying really hard to say some nice things about Hegel, just about the best that Kimball can do is:

So why read Hegel? Just as doctors learn a lot about health by studying diseases, so we can learn a lot about philosophical health by studying Hegel.

The phrase “damning with faint praise” seems insufficient here.

Worse, Hegel has been criticized as a racist, a totalitarian, a proto-Nazi, and the kind of rationalist everyone hates – complete with stories about how he proved from first principles that there were only seven planets (not quite true, although he does seem to have made some similar inexcusable scientific errors. He was mocked (with some justice) for believing that his own work represented the final achievement of God’s plan for the Universe, and that the objective progress of history had culminated in the early 19th century Prussian state.

As a result, when I spent four years getting a bachelors in Philosophy, not only did I not receive a word of instruction in Hegel, but I was actively pushed away from him with frequent derogatory references.

I should qualify all this. Part of it is the analytic-continental divide. Hegel ended up well on the continental side of that, so even though analytics have a dim opinion of him, I’m pretty sure he remains studied and well-respected within continental circles. Indeed, the split may have necessitated analytics dismiss him in order to justify ignoring him, given that not ignoring him would mean engaging him would mean reading him would meaning not having the time or energy to do anything else.

But since we’ve already brought in Google as a philosophical authority, we might as well note that it autocompletes “hegel is” into “hegel is impossible to understand”. This seems to be pretty close to a consensus position right now.


I know pretty much nothing about Hegel and am not nearly qualified to have an opinion on the debate about whether his inscrutability conceals deep wisdom or total nonsense. But there are a few points I draw from his rise and fall without being able to judge it philosophically.

I deliberately avoided discussing philosophy in my post How Common Are Science Failures?, first because it’s outside the reference class but second because philosophy can’t even get its act together enough to fail. These sorts of “science failures” are cases where the scientific community unites around a single consensus belief, but later discovers that belief was disastrously wrong. But philosophy can practically never unite around a single consensus belief, and it rarely disproves anything thoroughly enough to admit the error.

Hegel seems like a rare example of a philosophical consensus caught in contradiction. For a good chunk of the 19th century a very large part of the philosophical community agreed Hegel had solved everything, was a genius, was the be-all and end-all of philosophy. Later, at least the British and American communities did a total about-face and concluded that Hegel was a crackpot who, if he didn’t invent the technique of “if you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em”, at least perfected it.

You can go one of two directions with this. First, you can say that people in the past were very gullible, that this confirms our prejudice that philosophers are silly people who will believe pretty much anything if it is billed as metaphysics and contains some confusing references to being and spirit.

Or you could say that people nowadays are so vapid, so demanding of instant gratification and unwilling to cover large inferential distances, that we’ve lost the ability to understand difficult ideas like those of Hegel.

I am the first type of person by temperament, but trying to become more sympathetic to the second way of thinking. Part of this is because on the rare occasions I do understand something difficult, I am acutely aware of all the people accusing it of being a confusing mass of jargon disguising a lack of real insight – and of how wrong these people are. “Ha ha, look at all these smart erudite domain experts who believe a stupid thing, that just proves smart domain experts lack common sense” now seems like a huge failure mode to me. There’s also a certain intellectual version of Chesterton’s Fence which looks kind of like “Don’t dismiss an idea until you can see why it would be so tempting for other people to believe”. Right now I don’t see the temptation in Hegel or for that matter any of Continental philosophy. That half of the philosophical universe, including many people who display objective signs of brilliance – has decided to just wallow in pointless obscurantism seems to beggar belief.

My inability to be tempted by Hegel brings me to another point: what parts of my thought, right now, are Hegelian? Hegel seems like a classic case where we should read history of philosophy backwards – if almost all philosophical thought for fifty to a hundred years was Hegelian, modernity should be absolutely saturated with Hegelian ideas. That means I might get less gain from trying to read Hegel forward (to see if he has startling insights I didn’t know) and more gain from trying to read him backwards (to see if he is the source of things I assumed unquestioningly, and that negating them – as the contingent opinions of some German guy who thought 19th century Prussia was objectively perfect – would produce startling insights).

I don’t know enough Hegel to do a good job of this. One easy target might be the modern belief in human progress or linear history. Fukuyama (“The End of History”) writes:

For better or worse, much of Hegel’s historicism has become part of our contemporary intellectual baggage. The notion that mankind has progresses through a series of primitive stages of consciousness on his path to the present, and that these stages corresponded to concrete forms of social organization, such as tribal, slave owning, theocratic, and finally democratic egalitarian societies, has become inseparable form the modern understanding of man. Hegel was the first philosopher to speak the language of modern social science, insofar as man for him was the product of his concrete historical and social environment and not, as earlier natural right theorists would have it, a collection of more or less fixed “natural” attributes. The mastery and transformation of man’s natural environment through the application of science and technology was originally not a Marxist concept, but a Hegelian one. Unlike later historicists whose historical relativism degenerated into relativism tout court, however, Hegel believed that history culminated in an absolute moment — a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious

But I find both more unexpected and more plausible David Chapman’s theories that Hegel inspired modern Westernized Buddhism, the hippie movement, and the New Age. He breaks his arguments into a bunch of posts that aren’t really collected in any organized way, but I would recommend An Improbable Re-Animation, Bad Ideas From Dead Germans, and Zen vs. The US Navy. Chapman’s argument isn’t very developed, but just raising the idea is enough to make its evidential support obvious. Hegel’s system was based around the principle that the key principle of the universe was a divine Mind trying to find itself, that everything was interrelated and purposeful, that as this Mind became more self-aware it would be reflected in increasing levels of consciousness among human beings culminating in an ideal utopian social arrangement. This is the daaaaaawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius…

Philosophy makes for strange bedfellows. Imagine: December 21, 2012. A ray of crystal light emerges from the Temple of Kukulcan in the Mayan ruins, piercing the center of the Milky Way. Humans ascend to a new level of consciousness. And all around the world people throw off their shackles and self-organize into intentional communities exactly resembling early 19th century Prussia.

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152 Responses to What The Hell, Hegel?

  1. Steve Johnson says:

    Hegel’s system was based around the principle that the key principle of the universe was a divine Mind trying to find itself, that everything was interrelated and purposeful, that as this Mind became more self-aware it would be reflected in increasing levels of consciousness among human beings culminating in an ideal utopian social arrangement.

    Plainly ridiculous.

    All reasonable people know that the future is a FAI which will perfectly simulate everyone who’s ever lived’s minds so they can live in perpetual bliss.

    And all around the world people throw off their shackles and self-organize into intentional communities exactly resembling early 19th century Prussia.

    The world being simulated? The most objectively wonderful time and place – the progressive early 21st century Bay Area.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Is it fair to phrase your argument as “Once someone said something that sounded impressive or ambitious, therefore all impressive, ambitious-sounding claims will always be false”?

      (for example: “the ancient Greeks said Daedalus was able to fly by gluing wings to his body, therefore anyone who thinks flight is possible is a stupid person who believes in myths”)

      (or: “the ancients thought diseases were caused by invisible demons that could be driven off by holy water. Moderns, after centuries of ‘progress’, think diseases are caused by invisible ‘bacteria’ that can be driven off by specially manufactured liquid solutions. Ha ha!”)

      There’s a long complicated way you could turn this into an argument that wouldn’t be an incredibly annoying waste of everyone’s time, but even that version wouldn’t be very interesting.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        It’s more of a joke on the superficial similarities.

        The other level is that it’s an answer to your implied question – you can see the appeal of a worldview that I find ridiculous for similar reasons that you find Hegel ridiculous.

        Right now I don’t see the temptation in Hegel or for that matter any of Continental philosophy. That half of the philosophical universe, including many people who display objective signs of brilliance – has decided to just wallow in pointless obscurantism seems to beggar belief.

        Yep, I know how you feel.

    • Anonymous says:

      >All reasonable people know that the future is a FAI which will perfectly simulate everyone who’s ever lived’s minds so they can live in perpetual bliss.

      Nah, it’ll probably just kill us.

      >The world being simulated? The most objectively wonderful time and place – the progressive early 21st century Bay Area.

      … I am not sure where you got this idea.

    • Eli says:

      All reasonable people know that the future is a FAI which will perfectly simulate everyone who’s ever lived’s minds so they can live in perpetual bliss.

      Poppycock. You can’t simulate the minds of past people. You might be able to create a new person with a similar personality (after all, conditioning on an excellent understanding of the human mind-design and how it gets formed over the body’s development gives us a smaller space to search in), but the actual facts of a specific person’s memories and experiences are utterly lost to history once they die.

      The world being simulated? The most objectively wonderful time and place – the progressive early 21st century Bay Area.

      This is so ridiculous a proposition I can do little other than laugh at it. Proclaiming present-day society perfect is more-or-less the opposite of what utopian transhumanism intends.

  2. Thank you for the links!

    I believe that the canonical authority on the influence of Hegel on contemporary culture would be Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. It’s typically described as “monumental,” which is academic code for “infinitely long and incredibly badly written.” It’s hugely influential, however, even if (like Hegel) practically no one has actually read it.

    • aguycalledjohn says:

      Can you recommend a short/better written book with the same content?

      • Well, I should say first that I haven’t read Taylor and I haven’t read Hegel, and I basically don’t know 19th century Continental philosophy at all, so it’s kind of embarrassing that Scott has cited me.

        I got started thinking about this when I read David McMahan’s The Making Of Buddhist Modernism, which uses Taylor’s framework to analyze, uh, modern Buddhism. His book is an easy read, and I’d recommend it if you have any interest in Buddhism.

        If you aren’t interested in Buddhism, then no, I’m afraid I don’t know what to recommend. I’ve read a ton of stuff that confirms that there’s a direct line of descent from Hegel to contemporary “spiritual but not religious” stuff, but I don’t know of an introductory overview specifically on that topic.

        By the way, I think Hegel also strongly influences current neoreaction, via German Romantic Nationalism. I find this highly ironic.

        • Nornagest says:

          By the way, I think Hegel also strongly influences current neoreaction, via German Romantic Nationalism. I find this highly ironic.

          The first neoreactionary I interacted with much in the wild had a fetish for the Song of Roland. I found that inexplicable then, but now I think I know why.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Wait, Rottweiler was a neoreactionary?

          • Nornagest says:

            I keep forgetting that some of you guys know me from elseforum.

            Anyway, I don’t remember if he ever described himself as such, but he passes the duck test. Though you sound surprised enough that I should perhaps adjust my confidence downwards.

          • taelor says:

            Wait, Rottweiler was a neoreactionary?

            I remember him being explicitly in favor of monarchy.

      • Two books that might help:

        Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull)

        Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music

        I’ve read Sincerity and and about half of Faking It. They’re overviews of the idea that want people want from each other is much more socially constructed than you might think, and (of course) that what’s completely obvious in your own culture isn’t a human universal.

        This subject is a particularly nasty application of Goodhart’s Law. What’s rewarded is the natural, spontaneous self…. but how do you recognize the natural self, if not by socially developed indicators?

    • Emile says:

      Hey David, I really liked your articles on Buddhism, how reliable would you say the information in them is? Have you encountered stuff that offers a different picture? Would most historians accept that point of view? (that a lot of modern “buddhist” ideas as we perceive them in the West are actually repackaged Western ideas)

      • Hi Emile, glad you liked the Buddhism articles!

        I try to be careful about fact-checking, and to make it clear which are uncontroversial facts and which are my speculations. Presumably I get this wrong sometimes.

        It’s harder to make this clear separation for interpretations rather than facts… All historians (and modern Buddhists) would agree that many Western ideas have fed into modern Buddhism. However, few were aware that Romantic Idealism was a major source before Thanissaro and McMahan pointed it out. So far, I haven’t seen anyone challenge their interpretation (other than to pick a few very minor nits around the edges). My impression is that McMahan’s work is broadly accepted by academics, and is increasingly influential among practicing Buddhists as well. Of course, many Buddhists prefer to ignore what he says; but none have seriously attempted to refute it as far as I know.

  3. Alejandro says:

    I have no reason to doubt Chapman’s argument that modern Western pop versions of Eastern philosophy can be traced back to Hegel. But it is curious that the first notable Western philosopher to seriously study Eastern philosophy and incorporate it in his system was Schopenhauer–the man who hated Hegel with a burning passion and wrote of him:

    Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense. This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted as such by all fools, who thus joined into as perfect a chorus of admiration as had ever been heard before. The extensive field of spiritual influence with which Hegel was furnished by those in power has enabled him to achieve the intellectual corruption of an whole generation.

    (Anyone who wants a taste of post-Kantian German idealism should read Schopenhauer. He is everything the Hegelians are not–clear, methodical, witty, a model of engaging and often beautiful writing. His system is untrue, of course, but it is still admirable as a purely aesthetic object, like Spinoza’s and the first Wittgenstein’s.)

    • Sean Pearce says:

      And of course, Schopenhauer has been of great influence as well, particular on Nietzsche and arguably Freud. You could argue that a great deal of Nietzsche’s project is a reaction to and against Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Nietzsche, indeed, refines Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the Will into Will-To-Power.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I don’t think Chapman cares about the first step, but about the last step. Mainly he just cares that the Germans were in the middle, without too much emphasis on anyone in particular (he does not emphasize Hegel). But the founders of quantum mechanics did get it straight from Schopenhauer.

      Another point that is important is the blending of Romantic Idealism. That is a German contribution that is pretty clear in the Hippies. I do not know the individual Germans and whether that can be traced to Schopenhauer.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I was completely wrong about the first/last. Everyone Chapman names is older than Schopenhauer. The point is that the Germans had the ideas first, before Schopenhauer read Eastern Philosophy.

  4. Can we talk about the Very Short Introduction series? I’m curious about other people’s experience of them.

    I’ve read several now, and I’m very keen on the idealised form of the VSI, (< 200 page overview of the subject and a list of further reading) but there seems to be a lot of variance in tone, quality, difficulty and sophistication. Some also seem terrible, (Geopolitics, I’m looking at you).

    • The only one I’ve read was Nothing: A Very Short Introduction. I enjoyed it, even though it does a bit of a bait-and-switch. The introduction talks about the philosophical, metaphysical, and religious concepts of nothingness, but then the vast bulk of the book is taken up with explaining the scientific history of vacuum and empty space, ending with quantum foam. All very interesting, but not what the intro promised! And then at the end he sort of tacks on a few more paragraphs about metaphysical nothingness, as if to apologize for completely ignoring that question for the rest of the book.

      Nonetheless, I would happily read more books in the series if they were well-written, which this one certainly was.

    • James says:

      I read the Very Short Introduction to Mathematics (one of the earlier entries in the series?) some years ago and found it a very good, erm, introduction to mathematics. In particular, it demonstrates some of the forms of thought, reasoning and proof which are common to degree-level and higher mathematics but which one doesn’t tend to come across in school, worked through in test cases which are clear and simple enough to follow without much effort.

      I also read the Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism (twice, with a gap of several years) and didn’t find it especially useful. I seem to recall that it did do a decent job of separating the baby from the bathwater; that is, at differentiating the useful ideas from the useless or overblown ones. Its faults probably had more to do with the subject matter than poor writing per se.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I thought that the math book was great, but I’d like feedback from people who didn’t already understand what math is.

    • My own experiences go as follows:

      History – I read this after reading two other introductory texts on historiography, both of which were quite dry. The VSI made a much stronger effort to be engaging (it starts with a murder mystery), and covers both the history and philosophy of the discipline, as well as giving a sense of what it is historians actually do. Of particular interest, the author carries out some novel historical research specifically for the purpose of writing this book.

      Wittgenstein – Successfully answered my question on whether I should make an effort to read into Wittgenstein, (answer: probably not). I’d be tempted to read some more of A.C. Grayling’s offerings. The biographical section was interesting, the overviews of his works were fairly lucid, and his summary (Wittgenstein did a lot of work covering not very much distance) left me feeling like I got exactly what I wanted.

      Intelligence – An area I’d read around before, but it was very nice to have the background laid out like pretty ducks all in a row.

      Game Theory – I have an existing background in game theory, and while I found it fine, it seemed a bit beyond introductory level. I certainly wouldn’t give it to, say, my mum if I wanted her to have an understanding of what it was about.

      Geopolitics – This read like a particularly cynical Guardian opinion piece. I ended up abandoning it after fifty pages when I realised it didn’t seem to be teaching me anything.

      Political Philosophy – Part of a what-belongs-in-political-philosophy fact-finding mission. Some bits would probably irk LessWrongy sorts. Applies a lot of what Scott would call “selective rigour”, subjecting some concepts to scrutiny for being “subjective”, but giving other (massively subjective) concepts a free pass. Basically fine, though. Followed up with some of the further reading recommendations and wasn’t disappointed.

      The Cold War – I’d read a bit around the Cold War (plenty of other subjects intersect with it), and this was a nice concise overview of the timeline, eras, defining elements and important events of the period. Didn’t focus too much on the proxy wars, which is a plus as far as I’m concerned.

      Consciousness – Started this one yesterday. My background is a couple of Dennett books, an arbitrary amount of basic CogSci, and various Less Wrong articles. So far it hasn’t thrown up anything new, and also has a slightly patronising Fisher-Price tone about it.

      It occurs to me that I started reading most of these because I’d finished another book half way through a long train journey, I have a bunch of them on my Kindle, and they’re low commitment.

    • aguycalledjohn says:

      They vary a lot by the author. I would google the name of the author and see if they are respected in their field before gettong one

    • Franz_Panzer says:

      This is the first time I’ve hear about this series. And now I’ve looked at the Wikipedia page. There’s shitloads of them, a lot of them have REALLY interesting topics I know little about, probably more than I’d ever read. So I very very strongly second the questions which ones are worthwile, or (since I’m pretty sure no one has read them all) how you can identify the ones really worth reading. (And thanks to those who have already given their oppinion)

    • Anonymous says:

      I took a class on 19th century Continental philosophy in college, and aside from primary texts we used the Hegel VSI book during the unit on Hegel. It seemed pretty good, quite a bit more readable than Hegel himself, although if I recall correctly it was focused a bit more on his historical and social philosophy rather than the metaphysics it’s derived from. The problem with any contemporary book on Hegel is that there is much less of a consensus on how to interpret Hegel than there is for almost any other philosopher, so any book you read about his philosophy will probably offer only a limited view on his thought.

      From what I read of it I would recommend the Hegel: VSI book, but I would supplement it with at least this: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hegel/

      His social philosophy is what is most widely discussed, but personally I find his metaphysics much more interesting. A lot of the particulars of his historical work have been falsified, but his metaphysical logic is much more general, and I think much worth while. A terrific, and very short, book on the subject, actually written in a more analytic style, is http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Hegels-Hackett-Classics-Series/dp/0872204243

      An interesting, albeit rarely noted, thing if you are at all interested esotericism or western occultism, is that Hegel can be very easily seen as a part of the Hermetic tradition. His metaphysics fits very nicely with a traditional, “as above, so below”, hermetic view of the cosmos. His logic describes how abstract ideas are first formed and then come into conflict with concrete reality. This clash leads to the annihilation of the abstract idea, which is then reborn as a new abstraction in a such a way as to taken into account that concrete reality. This has some striking parallels with western occultism’s account of ‘initiation’

      I think to an extent the fact that his writings are so obscure is very much a product of the fact that he is attempting to grapple with fundamental metaphysical and philosophical questions. These problems and their solutions, commonly put aside unaddressed even amongst philosophers, are often the very same ones that occultists and mystics have called ‘ineffable’. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that much of Hegel’s writings were him trying to explain ‘ineffable’ experiences that he had undergone in the philosophical language of German Idealism.

  5. Andy says:

    I used to sit in the evenings at the campus pub with a few Philosophy and Religious Studies undergrads and grad students, enjoying a beer or three before their evening classes, and I remember Hegel being guaran-damn-teed to get them cursing each other and all dead Germans, second only to Kant in difficulty. I know Hegel is taught in the philosophy curriculum, but I don’t know what the consensus was, or even the substance of their complaints. (I’m much better at concrete thought and technical skills, which is why I went into Geography/GIS rather than Philosophy.

  6. Rob Miles says:

    I think the ability to reliably differentiate obscurantism from genuinely complicated and difficult to explain insight is a very useful skill, and one that I’d like to get better at. Intuitively, reading a person desperately try to make clear a very difficult and complicated idea ought to *feel* different to reading a person making no attempt to optimise for clarity. But perhaps a very incompetent explainer reads similarly to a deliberate obfuscator, or a good obfuscator is able to accurately emulate an honest but failed attempt at explanation.

    Has anyone discovered any good heuristics for this?

    • Viliam Búr says:

      You could ask people who claim to understand that person to provide a simplified explanation of their insights. If no one can, that’s suspicious. (Even more suspicious if they say you have to read the book in the original language, because it can’t even be translated meaningfully.)

      • coffeespoons says:

        Hmmm, lesswrongers often tell people to go and read the sequences.

        • Anon256 says:

          They seem to do that a lot less than they used to (I think having realised that it was triggering reasonable suspicion heuristics in others and generally making them look bad).

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Hmmm, lesswrongers often tell people to go and read the sequences.

          The Sequences are not obscurantist; they are written in a very clear language which takes pains to explain how each new insight follows from ideas already covered in earlier posts. They’re just freaking long. But, well, sometimes you can’t do an idea justice in the short form.

          • Anonymous says:

            In fact, most of the individual posts by Eliezer are quite short, shorter than is now acceptable on LW.

          • James says:

            The amount of invented jargon used in the sequences and on Lesswrong in general makes “The Sequences are not obscurantist” a slightly debatable point. Granted, that jargon is explained elsewhere in the sequences, but my general feeling has always been that they could be made more accessible if they were expressed in more standard language where possible.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            @James: Men who are annoyed by jargon should read The Sequences in chronological order; as a book, not a wiki. Fortunately, ciphergoth has made that easy.

        • gattsuru says:

          There’s likely some distinction between telling people to read a work because they don’t want to retype it, badly, and telling. I can pretty easily give a one-sentence analysis of many of the sequences, and while I can’t do them justice, the worst result is it’ll seem obvious rather than seeming like goobly-de-gook.

          Of course, there’s some obvious overlap — part of why they’re supposed to be discouraging comments with nothing more than “read the sequences”.

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        This is a good heuristic but I think it is too harsh a criteria. Can anyone give a simple explanation of this?

        • Corey says:

          First we need to find someone who claims to understand it. John Baez, maybe?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          There is a separate issue of motivation. No one is suggesting that reading that paper is necessary to understand where hippies come from and why they are wrong. If you don’t know the words in the title of that paper, you don’t care. Maybe someone is saying that you should read that paper to understand homotopy type theory, but no one is saying that you should start there. If you are the president of a university, or even a mathematician in another field, trying to judge whether to hire these people, then there’s a problem.

        • Toby Bartels says:

          The main problem is the large inferential distance (if I’m using that term properly) between that paper and the math that most people here would know. But to my mind, what really distinguishes it from anything in philosophy is that every claim being made there has a fairly unambiguous meaning. Of course, the philosophers can respond by attacking the nature of that meaning, and that’s fine; but at the end of the day, competent mathematicians with expertise in that field will be able to agree whether it is correct or not.

          I would have to read some background material, besides the article itself, before I could tell you whether or not this paper actually suffices to prove that any presentable model category has a single Quillen equivalence to a model category in which all objects are cofibrant. I never got the hang of model categories. But it’s clear to me how I would go about doing this. I just don’t want to make the effort.

          But there’s no way that people are going to write papers going back and forth arguing the case one way or the other. Nor is there any way that anybody will argue that this claim (about the Quillen equivalences) is true in some sense and false in another, unless by reducing it to some more familiar debate about constructivism or whatever. (It is just possible that the claim will depend on some new large-cardinal axiom or the like, but even that would indicate a definite mistake by the authors.)

          There are things in mathematics that people can go back and forth arguing about, but not things like this.

      • Steve Reilly says:

        Similarly (if you know the explainer really well, and don’t mind possibly sitting through a few minutes of awkwardness) you could ask the person to try playing this game: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000024.html

        • Ken Srromdee says:

          I don’t think that game works. It’s possible that a little bit of what someone says is comprehensible, even though its major insights are not. Altering the whole text will then alter that little bit of comprehensibility and therefore be recognizable, without implying that the whole thing is comprehensible in a way that really matters.

          If someone likes comparing things to spaghetti, reversing the sentences would produce lots of “is not like spaghetti”. You can recognize the alteration, but it doesn’t mean the original has meaning.

          • Steve Reilly says:

            Yeah, both your examples are possible, but if you look at the game as a rule of thumb it would probably work well most of the time. If a writer has small bits of lucidity in a sea of incomprehensibility, you’re unlikely to choose the lucid bits if you pick a random passage.

            And I can’t think of a writer whose tics are so pronounced that, from a small randomly-chosen passage, the reader is likely to be confused by the meaning but still know for sure that the writer would never use the word”not” in conjunction with, say, bacon bits or phenomenology.

        • Anonymous says:

          Reversed intelligence is not stupidity, in the same way that reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

          • Steve Reilly says:

            Eh? Not sure I get this. Stupidity is really easy to achieve, and intelligence is hard to achieve. So reverse the latter and you’re pretty sure to end up with gobbledygook. Reverse the former, and you’re likely to end up with, well, also gobbledygook. (OK, maybe that Bohr quote about the opposite of profound truths being profound truths applies. But even if he is right about that, we’re limiting ourselves to “profound truths” which is a pretty small subset of written sentences. For the most part, they’re, at best, truths that aren’t too embarrassing to admit.)

      • Ozy Frantz says:

        I recommend this because it turns out that postmodernism and poststructuralism have very interesting insights if you can get someone else to explain them!

        • Steve Reilly says:

          Is there an insight that’s easy enough to explain in a comment here? I’ve tried some of the difficult postructuralists like Derrida and easier ones like Eagleton’s popularizations and didn’t get much out of them. Just curious what insights you liked.

          • Lemminkainen says:

            I’m not ozy, but I can share a few sample insights which I acquired from reading philosophers who are generally considered postmodern or poststructuralists. Below are some insights paired with works I read before producing them, and their authors. Except in the case of Latour, who I think I’m representing fairly directly, these insights are slightly steelmanned versions of ideas from those texts. If you’d like, I could share more about the original arguments.

            “The meaning of almost any significant piece of text you read depends on the meaning of other texts which it refers to.”– Of Grammatology, by Jacques Derrida

            “After European states abandoned the theatrical punishments and wanton violence of the early modern period, they actually became more powerful as they developed social technologies which they used to monitor and persuade their subjects.”– Discipline and Punish, by Michel Foucault. (James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” is essentially a book-length steelmanning of Foucault’s political philosophy which is very clearly written and tightly grounded in evidence. I highly recommend it).

            “There are significant inconsistencies between the world as it actually exists, the symbolic representation of the world which we hold in our mind, and the way we represent the world in language. These gaps cause mental unease, produce interpersonal conflict, and are deeply important to the formation of our culture as well as the literature and entertainment which we consume.”– Looking Awry by Slavoj Zizek. (Which is itself a steelman of Lacan, which is a reinterpretation [although I wouldn’t say steelman] of Freud).

            “Our scientific knowledge of the world is produced at once by physical, social, and discursive factors, because it’s driven by physically-caused experimental events in laboratories which are interpreted, verified, and disputed by a community of scholars with complex social rules, who frame and interpret the evidence within their pre-existing worldviews.”– We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour.

          • Steve Reilly says:

            Thanks, Lemminkainen. I think I’ll try the Scott book since Foucault’s always seemed like the clearest of the post-modernists. Do you know what page of OG the Derrida quote comes from? It seems like a standard tenet of literary criticism, but I’m assuming in context there’s more to it.

          • I extracted what I think are important historical and psychological insights from Paul Veyne’s ‘Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths?’, e.g., a concrete sense that people treat bodies of truths and truth-conditions as domain-specific projects or programs, not as a single realist world-model. I don’t think background ideology is a big encumbrance for this essay.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Things various humanities people have informed me they learned from what they were reading:

            “Stories are cocreated by their readers and their author– the story I read is fundamentally different from the story that you read, because we bring different things to the table.”

            “People tend to think in binaries a lot, and you can get very interesting outcomes if you play with them.”

            “There is no Authentic Self prior to socialization and performance; people are made in interaction with other people and become their selves through pretending to be their selves.”

            “The above thing about Authentic Selves totally also applies to gender.”

            “The concept of sexual orientation was made up in the nineteenth century. In cultures where the gender you’re attracted to is not considered relevant, people tend to be more sexually fluid. We have heterosexuals and homosexuals because we believe we do.”

            Like I said, I’ve never read any of them; I’ve just picked things up from friends, which seems like the ideal way to get interesting insights here.

          • Lemminkainen says:

            @Steve: The page numbers will probably vary depending on your edition, but Derrida elaborates on this in the chapter called “Linguistics and Grammatology.” Granted, he actually believes that the regress of symbols pointing to symbols is infinite and that nothing actually grounds text, which I think is wrong for reasons which Wittgenstein elaborated in his private language argument.

            @Ozy– The first is from reader-response literary critique– the big name in that field is a guy named Stanley Fish. The second comes out of a body of knowledge called “Queer Theory”– the biggest intellectual associated with that particular position is probably Judith Butler. The third shows up in stuff by Foucault, the fourth is also Butler, and the fifth is from Foucault’s History of Sexuality. (A whole bunch of historians have elaborated on the last one– George Chauncey’s “Gay New York” is probably the best book I’ve read about old-timey sex practices)

    • This subject occupies an annoying amount of my thinking time. My current best candidate is distinguishing written style.

      I’m not sure if bad communicators would have a divergent or convergent written style. I can see arguments for both (“Anna Karenina principle” vs. “common beginners mistakes”). Either way, it seems plausible that obscurantist written style diverges systematically from garden variety bad communication, either through emulation of their academic influences or certain stylistic constructs being more “obscuranty”, and better at making things look profound and mystifying.

      This approach has the advantage of potentially being tractable to computational procedure. There is a slim chance I may now devote my life to writing document classifiers that identify intellectually-worthless texts.

      • James says:

        There’s a Hofstadter essay in Metamagical Themas about identifying garbage writing based on surface details. I’m not sure that he has any specific pointers, but you might find it of interest nonetheless. Rather, a lot of it is philosophical musing on the (very Hofstadter) paradox of judging content by style, depth by surface, “semantics” by “syntax” (in his terminology).

        I don’t have the book to hand and can’t remember what the essay is called, though, except that it’s near the front.

        • Thanks for the tip. Metamagical Themas is currently sitting in my unread pile of ominously thick books. I’ll share the details if I find it.

        • Irenist says:

          Perhaps ironically, were it not for the esteem in which Hofstadter is held by LWers and other smart folks, the woozy title “Metamagical Themas” is exactly the sort of surface detail that would trigger my own heuristic for garbage writing.

          • Ken Srromdee says:

            The title comes from the Scientific American column which came right after Mathematical Games. Anyone in the target audience would instantly recognize that that’s an anagram. Seeing the title by itself is basically taking it out of context.

          • Irenist says:

            Thanks, Ken.

            I figured Hofstadter must’ve had a good reason–too many thinkers I respect love the guy for him not to be useful. But it does illustrate that I’d be missing out on a valuable thinker if I didn’t tweak the “silly-sounding books are probably silly” heuristic.

          • 27chaos says:

            Hofstadter is a smart person. His ideas are often correct and his reasoning processes are intelligent. Despite this, nothing unobvious or broadly useful ever was revealed to me by reading his work. Recursion is cute and fun to play games with, but not really worth as much respect as it has netted Hofstadter. In fairness to Hofstadter though, playing such games can lead to very unexpected insights for some lucky people. Still, he is overrated as a source of useful ideas. His entertainment value is high, but that is mostly it.

          • James says:

            I love the book, but it contains about as much whimsy (charming or irritating depending on one’s temperament) as the title would lead one to assume.

          • Ialdabaoth says:

            Funny enough, for anyone who’s ever studied Chaos Magic and/or Robert Anton Wilson’s “maybe logic”, Metamagical Themas is a perfect title for Hopfstaedter’s book.

        • The Do-Operator says:

          I haven’t read this essay, but it sounds like if people start doing this, it will not be long before we see the ugly head of Goodhart’s Law being reared

          • If the obscuranty feature is just associated with obscurantism, this might be the case. If the obscuranty feature is somehow functionally involved with the obscurantism, and obscurantists veer away from using it, M. F. A.

          • Emile says:

            Eh, if the result is that we have the same proportion of charlatans, but everybody writes more clearly, making it harder to distinguish charlatans – then it still counts as a win in my book.

    • rrb says:

      I don’t think clarity is a good heuristic in general. Legitimate experts are often unclear, when writing for other experts.

      • pneumatik says:

        Legitimate experts should be clear to those other experts, though, and those people can vouch for the clarity of the original writing.

  7. coffeespoons says:

    I did philosophy BA some time ago (2004-2007) in the UK and I specialised in continental philosophy. Hegel certainly was still influential among continental philosophers when I did that degree. The two continental philosophers we were offered for our final year dissertations were Hegel and Heidegger.

    • nydwracu says:

      I did one in America and there was no Hegel at all, but the one continental in the department talked about Heidegger all the time.

      I still have no idea what the hell Heidegger said, other than that it involved a lot of capital letters and probably isn’t worth reading. (Or is it?)

      • Creutzer says:

        Actually, it’s quite possible to escape Hegel when studying philosophy even in Europe. He seems to have nowhere near the level of centrality that is attributed to both Kant and everything called “Phenomenology”, although there certainly are people who concern themselves with him.

      • coffeespoons says:

        I don’t really think Heidegger is worth the effort :(. I would study more analytic philosophy if I could take my degree again.

        • nydwracu says:

          I didn’t like analytic philosophy very much. They’re good at ethics sometimes, but their theory of language is just wrong.

          If I had to do it again… no, I couldn’t do it again, philosophy is too damned insular. But I should probably read Deleuze someday.

          • Multiheaded says:

            I have tried to, and my impression is: don’t. All the vague stereotypes I’ve acquired as a commie – being 30% Foucault trying to cut the freaky anti-modernist shit and say something nice, 70% “whoa, free your mind dude, have you heard bout that underground flick Matrix?” – got confirmed. There’s still some really nice useful residue, but just read the cliffsnotes and you’re set.

          • Creutzer says:

            Their theory of language… ? Whose theory of language, precisely? I have literally no idea what you mean and what it could be that you think is so wrong. Analytic philosophy of language is far from unified.

    • aguycalledjohn says:

      Thats interesting. From my own experience of doing a Philosophy degree in the UK continentals are generally not popular at all, though I suspect that would vary by department.

      Could you summarise what you think Hegel contributes? (Or continental philosophy in general)

      • coffeespoons says:

        The Sussex philosophy course had much more continental philosophy in it than most other philosophy courses in the UK.

        When I finished my degree I basically stopped reading continental philosophy, and I’ve read very little since (I became very disillusioned) so I’d need to do some reading before I could summarise Hegel’s contribution. I suspect his influence is mostly on Marx/Marxist philosophy (and there are still at least some Marxists I believe) and Heidigger’s influence is mostly on post-structuralism.

  8. BenSix says:

    I suspect your inability to be tempted by Hegel is related to your inability to be tempted by Marxism. KM criticised GWFH but was influenced by him. If the elder German’s ideas were worthless, then, it reflects poorly on his ideological descendant, and if one has a taste for class war one might shrink from this conclusion. (On the other hand, you might just disdain his drinking.)

    That suspicion aside, I agree that one must take care to distinguish between the use of unfamiliar terms to illuminate the meaning of ideas and the use of unfamiliar terms to obscure their vacuity. Mainstream commentators can be idle in doing so. Several English columnists have mocked one paragraph in the work of Butler, for example, while offering no evidence that they have read anything else from her books. This kind of laziness is dangerous for other, better thinkers, as their work might dismissed on similarly crude grounds, and gives obscurantists an excuse to dismiss their critics as philistines.

    • coffeespoons says:

      But Hume outdrinks him and I would imagine that SSC likes Hume :).

      Also, I’d forgotten about Philosopher Foodball – it’s adorable!

    • Multiheaded says:

      Uh, Scott feels to me like one of the most tempted-by-Marxism people among everyone I’ve ever read who has ever countersignalled against internet leftism. If by “Marxism” we mean Marxism and not things like fuckyeahmarxismleninism dot tumblr dot com, of course.


      • BenSix says:

        Hm. Well, yes, it’s possible. (Though it is also possible that all readers of Slate Star Codex read their own political sympathies into it.)

        Naturally, I paid a visit to that blog. Old school Soviet apologists are entertaining. England’s Stalin Society is still promoting its cheerful tome “George Orwell – Anti-communist propagandist, champion of Trotskyism and state informer”.

        • social justice warlock says:

          I realize how quaint and silly it is for us to care about such things, but in the interests of accuracy I should note that he was all of those.

          • BenSix says:

            He was indeed. From my perspective it is not the charges but the implication that they are damning that is ludicrous. The first inspires the response “good for him”, and while the second and the third give one no cause for admiration, it seems a bit like being accused of laziness by Harold Shipman. He was sentimental about LT but for a 1940s leftist that was no great shame, and he said some unfair things about people to Celia Kirwan but it is not as if the Information Research Department was the Cheka.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think you meant to link somewhere more specific, perhaps the actual essay on Orwell.

  9. Johannes says:

    Hegelian dialectics is not too bad as a model for the history of ideas. Of course I probably understood only a trivialized version of it (I gave up on the phenomenology of spirit after the “Master/Servant” chapter), but quite a few historical developments are often taught as involving something very similar to the “three-step” of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, where the first two have a special relation to the synthesis that has three aspects: i) they are denied/refuted, but ii) some aspect of them is conserved, and iii) the whole problem is elevated to a new, more sophisticated level without the implicit contradictions that plagued it earlier. But until Hegel’s own philosophy it is never stable, but keeps going in this fashion (Hegel uses the German “aufheben” which can have all three meanings: negate, keep, lift up)
    Think Plato or the Atomists as syntheses of Parmenides and Heraclitus, similarly Aristotle, Kant as a synthesis of the British empiricists and Leibniz etc.

    Another aspect is that Hegel (as the other idealists, of which Schelling is probably the closest to Neoplatonism and Eastern Philosophy (some Vedanta Schools) seems to be going a step beyond Kant by getting rid of the “thing in itself” and turning to fully fledged idealism. And instead of a timeless a priori the categories are dynamiczed/historized. So although a philosopher/historian of science like M. Friedman is usually described as Kantian, the idea of a historical relative a priori is probably better called hegelian.

    Marx took this dialectical model and applied it to society and economy. Including the “real contradictions” both of economical theory and as tensions in society. I do not know enough about this stuff, but one could probably take as an example that profit drives the capitalist market, but in an ideal market the profit of each capitalist should go to zero in the limit.

    Of contemporary philosophers, Brandom and McDowell are sometimes said to fuse Hegelian ideas with analytic/language-centered philosophy.

    • Eric Rall says:

      The dialectic was the first thing that leaped to mind in terms of “ideas Hegel promoted that now seem obvious”. Indeed, it’s the main thing I remember about Hegel from the survey of political philosophy class I took my first year of college, apart from Hegel’s writings being impenetrably dull.

      The idea of truth emerging from a debating process between arguments supporting and opposing an idea or proposition is much older than Hegel — it was used in criminal trials at least back to classical times, and it formed the core of the Scholastic Method used by scholars in the Middle Ages. I think the idea of a synthesis developing rather than either the thesis or the antithesis triumphing might be Hegel’s main contribution here.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Did Hegel believe that truth emerged from the dialectic, or that it was discovered via dialectic?

        • Eric Rall says:

          That’s too fine a distinction for something I half-remember from a class I took 15 years ago.

        • Creutzer says:

          What does the first even mean? If “emerge” is to be read epistemically, then it effectively means “discover”, and if it’s to be interpreted non-epistemically, I don’t understand what it means for truth to emerge.

        • Jaskologist says:

          It’s the difference between truth being something humans create, and Truth being something independent of humans which they try to discover. It’s a very very important difference, at least as old as the divide between the Sophists and Socrates. Marxists have generally been in the first camp, which is the only way the concept of “revolutionary truth” can be a thing.

    • The ‘Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis’ model seems to be another one of the ways Hegel is misunderstood. That model actually comes from Fichte (or perhaps Kant), and Hegel preferred other framings. Fichte is the one who fully denied the thing-in-itself and argued that the mind creates all things.

      ‘Idealism’ is a misleading term in this context, because it gets applied to nearly every view that’s a direct descendant of Berkeley (‘subjective’ flavor), Leibniz (‘objective’ flavor), or Kant (‘transcendental’ flavor). Hegel was more like Leibniz than like Fichte or Berkeley; in fact, the best comparison is probably to Aristotle.

      Aristotle and Hegel would agree that there’s an objective world transcending our experience, one that’s in no way our creation; but they think that world must at its core structurally and constitutively resemble our minds, in order to be orderly and intelligible. (And, contra Plato, this order is immanent in the perceptible world, and the perceptible world is enlightening rather than delusive; so science / history can tell us about the world’s essential order, not just conceptual analysis / pure mathematics / divine revelation.)

      It’s a bit like ‘we can understand ourselves, the world, and formal systems; so our selves and the world and our formalisms must be of one kind, which we can call “math”‘. Except at the time it wasn’t obvious that ‘math’ was any more universal or fundamental than, e.g., philosophy or chemistry or theology. So words like ‘form’ (μορφή) and ‘Spirit’ (Geist) were used instead of ‘math’ to gesture at the world’s intelligibility and its affinity with human thought.

      Unfortunately, when you have a nontechnical quasi-monistic / pseudo-reductive insight like that, even a correct one, it increases the temptation to become overconfident in your intuitions, and in particular to endorse Mind Projection Fallacies. It’s perfectly possible for a true insight about the relation between mind and world to make you worse off epistemically in the end.

      • Anonymous says:

        As someone who has never studied philosophy, this is the first comment ever to have left me an intelligible impression of Continental Philosophy. This may have to do with my visceral awe that our universe is anything more a heat bath.


    • Any thoughts (based on Hegel or not) about the likelihood of the synthesis being closer to the truth than the thesis or the antithesis?

  10. coffeespoons says:

    Also, I’m delighted that you’re reading about Marx – looking forward to future blog posts 🙂

  11. von Kalifornen says:

    Hippie Prussia?


    Your blog has reached a new height.

  12. Anatoly says:

    Maybe Hegel was neither silly nor profound. Maybe he was talking about things they thought there very important in the 19th century, and we no longer do.

    With writers, I’m struck again and again by how thoroughly some incredibly popular (and/or admired by critics) novelist or poet can be utterly forgotten in a generation or two. Not just moved to the minor authors, clean forgotten by everyone except academics. Maybe the same thing happens to philosophers.


    “During most of the 19th century, Christian writers favoured and extensively used sickness and deathbed experiences. However, and partly because of this morbid theme, the book, while extremely popular for three-quarters of a century, is not well adapted to the tastes and the requirements of the 20th century and beyond. The book is now not widely known…”


    “Robert Elsmere is a novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward published in 1888. It was immediately successful, quickly selling over a million copies and gaining the admiration of Henry James. […] it is about an Oxford clergyman who begins to doubt the doctrines of the Anglican Church after encountering the writings of German rationalists like Schelling and David Strauss. Instead of succumbing to atheism or Roman Catholicism, however, Elsmere takes up a “constructive liberalism”, stressing social work amongst the poor and uneducated.”

    • Protagoras says:

      There certainly are philosophers who were huge in their own time who are completely or almost completely forgotten. Herbert Spencer was the most influential philosopher in the world at the end of the 19th century. Now he’s only very dimly remembered outside the narrowist academic circles because once he had almost completely faded, a major critic of Social Darwinism chose to identify Spencer (not particularly fairly or historically accurately) as the prophet of that movement. There are probably examples who have faded even more completely that I can’t cite because I haven’t heard of them.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Another example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_to_Be_Done%3F_(novel).
      “Lenin is said to have read the book five times in one summer, and according to Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford, Joseph Frank, ‘Chernyshevsky’s novel, far more than Marx’s Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.'”

    • Ava Banana says:

      I was very struck by the facade of the Paris Opéra, which features large busts of seven great composers. They are Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini… and, um, Auber, Spontini, Meyerbeer and Halévy. I keep meaning to give the last four a listen.

  13. Jaskologist says:

    There’s a third direction you could go: People are still very gullible, and philosophers are still silly people. They’re just in thrall to different errors now.

  14. piwtd says:

    Is anyone aware of there ever being anyone who would explicitly identify AGI/singularity as the Hegelian divine mind finding itself? In other words, are there any self-professed Hegelian transhumanists? The only person I know who is in non-trivial way part of both the world of continental philosophy and the world of transhumanism is Nick Land. How can it be that the main stream of the western philosophical tradition is so completely ignored in a movement aiming to solve the most difficult problem in history?

  15. MugaSofer says:

    the legend that Hegel said that “only one person only understood me, and even he misunderstood me”

    Hmm. This is a legend that Google assures me has only ever appeared here.

    Even with the plausible typo “only understood me” removed and the wording contorted into various plausible-sounding synonyms.

    Anyone have the correct phrasing or something?

  16. Sam Rosen says:

    I have a hunch that all intellectual discussions veer towards obscurantism unless the people inside it are trying REALLY, REALLY HARD to avoid it. This has something to do with Moloch, but I’m too tired to explore this right now.

    Herbert Spencer is another philosopher who dominated in his own time, but is largely ignored today. I’d love to see someone do a steel-man of Spencer’s ideas.

    • Irenist says:

      Re: Herbert Spencer.

      Hmm. Well, Spencer was a Social Darwinist libertarian with anarcho-capitalist tendencies. I think you can find arguments for those things on . . . well, on pretty much the entire Internet? (Snarky tone intended to be directed at the silly subculturalism of the Internet, not at you. In case that didn’t come through.)

      From Wikipedia’s Spencer entry: “Economist Murray Rothbard called [Spencer’s] Social Statics the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.'” So I imagine Rothbardian libertarians would be a place to start.

      • Salem says:

        Social Darwinism is one of those labels (neo-liberalism is the archetype) that only seems to exist as a kind of loose invective, and has practically no descriptive content. Wikipedia itself states that it has many, inconsistent definitions. Neither Spencer, nor Rothbard, nor anyone in that vague line self-described as a Social Darwinist, and I am unaware of any major contemporary writer or grouping who self-describe as such.

        Now, Spencer is the Ur-“Social Darwinist”, in that the term itself was originally devised as pejorative against him specifically. But I won’t find arguments for Social Darwinism all over the internet, and your telling me that Spencer was a Social Darwinist tells me next to nothing about him. Given that his works are all out of copyright, I suggest that interested people just go ahead and read Social Statics.

        • Irenist says:

          “But I won’t find arguments for Social Darwinism all over the internet”

          Under that name, no. As an attitude? Sure.

          The Richard Hofstadter perjorative version (racialist fascism) isn’t very popular on the broader web (although race realists and other neo-Rx types give steelmanned arguments aplenty for broadly similar intuitions), but the Spencerian “survival of the fittest” mentality (which frequently gets shorthanded as “Social Darwinism” nowadays) that constantly applies pop Darwinism to cultural and economic phenomena, is basically, y’know, the Internet, from evo-psych to the business/managment press to even some rationalist and free market precincts. And it’s not all bad. Not at all: some of it is very worhtwhile, very thought=provoking stuff. But it’s certainly not unavailable, and some of it might be more accessible to a modern inquirer than going back and reading Social Statics. Or not. YMMV.

          FWIW, I didn’t have any pejorative intent in discussing Social Darwinism. Just trying to point out that, IMHO, steelmanned Spencerianism is abundant, if it’s desired.

        • Matthew says:

          It doesn’t seem to be online, but I recommend taking a look at Gertrude Himmelfarb’s article “Varieties of Social Darwinism,” which is basically about how Victorians of every ideological stripe from libertarian to Marxist greeted Darwin’s work as vindication of their own views.

          • Anonymous says:

            …in her book Victorian Minds. Is it collected anywhere else?

            I think she said similar things a decade earlier in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution.

          • Toby Bartels says:

            >Victorians of every ideological stripe from libertarian to Marxist greeted Darwin’s work as vindication

            I don’t see libertarians and Marxists as particularly far apart in the range of 19th-century views. Surely the Catholic traditionalists didn’t greet Darwin’s work this way! And what did the monarchists think?

      • Protagoras says:

        Hadn’t noticed this comment when I mentioned Spencer. The association of Spencer with Social Darwinism is largely the work of later critics, so the fact that it’s the main thing he’s remembered for is pretty much a testament to how little he’s remembered.

        • Irenist says:

          There’s a common phenomenon where some critically acclaimed movie or tv show’s innovations in craft are so widely disseminated that it becomes hard for later audiences not to see the show as kind of primitive and lame, because the things the show was special for getting right seem so obvious now.

          I think Spencer is one of those figures whose views (e.g., free markets, a preference for the practical and scientific in education over the classical) are so triumphant, for the most part, that they seem commonsensical. So Spencer is less interesting to people. Also, AFAIK, he was more of a publicist and popularizer than an innovator akin to an Adam Smith or a Darwin. And we have our own popularizers for economic and scientific ideas akin to Spencer’s, but who speak in 21st century idiom and illustrations, rather than Victorian. So there could be that, too.

    • Nornagest says:

      This has something to do with Moloch, but I’m too tired to explore this right now.

      First theory that comes to mind: intellectual discussions aren’t purely analytical, they’re also status games. Writing opaquely signals that your ideas are difficult and profound. Failing that, it signals that you’re cool enough for others to do the hard work of interpretation for you. Clarity’s thus neutral to negative in the context of academic politics or coffee-house sparring, even though it’s likely good for the long-term propagation of your ideas.

      It’s also a lot easier to write obscurely than it is to write clearly.

      • Anonymous` says:

        Sometimes you feel obligated to provide some piece of supporting evidence, but you don’t really want to get side-tracked in a debate* about that particular evidence, so you quickly bring it up without much clarity so your opponent can’t quickly refute* it, and then you quickly move on to what you actually want to say.

        (*It’s not always this malicious, even. Sometimes you’re not anticipating a challenge; you just don’t want to take the time to explain the evidence piece clearly right now, because, again, the point it helps establish is what you really want to talk about.)

        And as for the Molochy-part, of course… people who don’t do this take longer and don’t hammer home their main point as much, so they sound less convincing… so when optimizing for winning arguments doing this is very tempting.

  17. 27chaos says:

    I think your concept of “failure mode” is so easy for you to use that it itself has become a “failure mode”. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and while you’re not saying that we should do the opposite of whatever dumb people do, you are saying that we should distrust an argument if it falls into any category of arguments generally made by stupid people, which has certain similarities. But applied consistently that view would rule out just about any argument because basically every idea gets adopted in a stupid way by majority opinion at some point or another. If we’re supposed to be reluctant to call people in the past stupid, I think we’ve gone away from truth or rationality and into weird political correctness taboos. Chesterton’s fence has merit, but not if you insist that underlying every action there is a hidden system of belief or value that makes the irrational rational.

    I think ignoring the masses would be better for you than trying to avoid their mistakes, because in trying to avoid their mistakes you’re undermining your ability to make confident judgments about the world. Of course, the best approach of all would be a balance between these poles. This is only my lone opinion, but I think you’ve started to teeter, and some kind of course correction will be necessary soon. Consider exposing yourself to some random noise, I think you’ll return to a desirable equilibrium if you try this.

    • Irenist says:

      I think it depends on whether Scott is using “failure mode” as an excuse to dismiss ideas, or as a series of cautionary tales to guard against his own H. sapiens cognitive biases. In Scott’s very admirable case, I’ve not yet ever noticed it be the former. YMMV, of course.

      • 27chaos says:

        I don’t think he’s using it as an excuse to pursue his own biased motivations. I think he’s too averse from bias which is itself just another subtler form of bias.

  18. Furslid says:

    I try to see why Hegel’s ideas are tempting, and I can come up with dark arts reasons. But very few light arts reasons. The more I think of reasons, the more they seem like religious reasons. I’m not doing the idea justice with any of the following.
    It allows messianic fervor without requiring Christianity. It offers the certainty of triumph from a secular source (history) rather than God. It can justify any political position except reactionary conservatism. It sets up the Hegelian to be a sycophant for any regime. Its very dense complexity is a virtue by discouraging opponents. Anyone who rejects it can be easily dismissed as not really understanding it, and given an impossible reading list. If they come back, they can be dismissed again with a reading list of commentaries. When they don’t come back, declare victory.

    • coffeespoons says:

      I am suspicious of continental philosophy in general as I think this as a major reason for me getting into it as a 21 year old:

      Its very dense complexity is a virtue by discouraging opponents. Anyone who rejects it can be easily dismissed as not really understanding it, and given an impossible reading list. If they come back, they can be dismissed again with a reading list of commentaries. When they don’t come back, declare victory.

      A bit of me found it diffcult to justify certain of my ideas in plain English, and I found knowing something about obscure continental philosophy really helped (my god I must have been insufferable).

  19. Eloise says:

    Scott: I will bet you 100 dollars that if you go down the Hegel rabbit hole you’ll find nothing but obscurantist nonsense.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Expected result of taking the bet is that I start reading some Hegel, read a little more Hegel, think “It would only cost me $100 to not have to read any more of this,” give up, and give you the money.

  20. The Do-Operator says:

    There’s also a certain intellectual version of Chesterton’s Fence which looks kind of like “Don’t dismiss an idea until you can see why it would be so tempting for other people to believe”

    It is in principle not possible to understand an inconsistent idea. At most you can deceive yourself into a false sense of understanding. If we tell young smart people not to dismiss ideas until they understand why other people believe it, and throw a lot of inconsistent ideas at them (Hegel,Kant,Derrida), they will have a very strong incentive to try to understand the idea. What will happen is that the precise thinkers give up on philosophy, while the field selects for imprecise people with the ability to deceive themselves, people are willing to declare “understanding” when no real reduction has occurred.

    I believe this meme explains much of continental philosophy, and may even explain the horrible state of continental philosophy. Moreover, it can become a problem in rationalist communities because even genuine thinkers such as Eliezer and Scott may have false ideas that a rational agent should not be able understand.

    I therefore believe this meme is actively harmful and should be purged from the rationalist community. Possibly we can replace it with “Do not claim to understand an idea unless you can explicitly state the assumptions, are comfortable with every step of the deductive logic, and are willing to defend the claim that the formalism is an appropriate representation of the territory”

    • Even if an idea is inconsistent, it should be possible to understand the assertions which it makes, and thereby to point out why it is inconsistent. The problem with (accused) obscurantists is that it’s usually difficult to understand what assertions they are making, and therefore difficult to judge whether those assertions are correct or even coherent. Sometimes this is because the content of their assertions is just meaningless obscurity, sometimes it’s because the assertions are actually complex and require lots of context and familiarity with prerequisite concepts.

  21. Philipp R says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’ve been reading your blog for months now, and mostly I enjoy it tremendously. Posting about a Marx introduction finally makes me want to comment.

    I read Singer’s book some years ago, and i wasn’t that impressed. If you want to get an impression of Marx’ magnus opus, Capital, I’d advise you to get “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital”, by Michael Heinrich , translated by Alex Locascio. The interesting thing about Marx’ work is his critique of economics as a science and ideology that naturalizes capitalism. Anything else is just a bonus that has been used as a foundation for some of the most stupid ideological frameworks of the 20th century

    Oh, and by the way: The National Socialists for Israel you mentioned on August the 17th from that Haaretz article from 2008 were a hoax. I know the person that made that hoax. Background is a rather strange faction of the German radical left wing that’s strongly pro-israel, and the hoaxer wanted to make fun of this position:


  22. Johannes says:

    Hegel and the Hegelian style were so “popular” that there are contemporary parodies, one of them called “Der absolute Stiefel” about a Hegelian journeyman shoemaker who, instead of producing a boot as proof of his having mastered the trade, involves the Master Shoemaker in Hegelian discussions.

    I would not really recommend reading Hegel, but people who simply dismiss it as obscurantist nonsense without having read it, is simply lazy.

    Some transhumanistic ideas could be seen as Hegelian: With the Super-AI the Absolute Mind or Weltgeist is finally coming to itself

    • Irenist says:

      “Some transhumanistic ideas could be seen as Hegelian: With the Super-AI the Absolute Mind or Weltgeist is finally coming to itself”

      Indeed. I think a lot of transhumanists might understandably bristle at the comparison (since there’s a lot of “Rapture of the Nerds” snark out there), but a scenario in which, say, replicators rapidly fan out through the galaxy, converting everything into computronium for a network of matrioshka brains, is very reminiscent of the Hegelian themes you mentioned, and that doesn’t at all logically entail that those scenarios are discredited. Even if an intellectual genealogy can be constructed from Hegelianism or New England Transcendentalism or whatever to that “matter waking up” aspect of the transhumanist imaginary, that doesn’t discredit the latter, either: every idea has some antecedents, after all.

      It’s like Scott’s Elua/Moloch post a while back: his view of Elua is indeed very similar to how many Christians view Christ, but that doesn’t logically require that Scott is just talking about a Christianity manqué, or contrariwise imply that a rationalist who rejects Christianity needs to discount what Scott had to say there. Ideas resemble other ideas, and if the Worst Argument in the World can be avoided, that shouldn’t have to be a converstation-stopper.

      W/r/t transhumanism in particular, the “transhumanist idea X resembles religious idea Y” thing rarely does rise above the level of hostile snark. Which is a shame, because the similarities in the relevant intellectual edifices’ structures are kind of beautiful.

      • Eli says:

        W/r/t transhumanism in particular, the “transhumanist idea X resembles religious idea Y” thing rarely does rise above the level of hostile snark. Which is a shame, because the similarities in the relevant intellectual edifices’ structures are kind of beautiful.

        To a great extent, older, pre-Medieval, pre-rationalization religions, the ones people actually believed were literally true to the last detail, should be read as a kind of “attempted transhumanism”.

        After all, if you really did believe that the world was created for an ethical purpose by a supreme being capable of optimizing for any possible target, who specifically chose to optimize for ethical targets and created you, humanity, as the crowning jewel of His work of art that is the world… well the whole damn worldview finally makes perfect sense. Of course you’ll do what God says in those circumstances!

        What made religion less and less sensible as a way of fitting human experience into the larger universe with benefit to human-kind was the increasing falsification of the actual beliefs.

  23. Douglas Knight says:

    The paper on Hegelian astronomy you mentioned is here. Another paper with the same name is here. (I was very surprised to find full text on adsabs.)

  24. social justice warlock says:

    Obligatory link.

    Randal Collins’ explanation of Hegelian dominance is (like everything else in Sociology of Philosophies) pretty interesting: he notes that philosophical idealism peaked in pretty much every country concurrently with the introduction of the modern research university. The causal mechanism (something about a sympathy between the intellectual’s world of pure thought and discourse and also freedom from the Church being reflected in ontology) seems a little ad hoc but the empirical pattern, at least as he frames it, is pretty striking. Perhaps a more prosaic mechanism is that Hegel was super-important in German academic philosophy for political reasons, and German academics were super influential across that century because they had the research university first.

    I concur with the above comment that Singer’s summary of Marx is not all that great. I would personally recommend G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History or Fine and Saad-Filho’s Marx’s ‘Capital’, depending on what precisely you are interested in. (These are actually somewhat controversial recommendations, but given where you’re coming from I suspect they would be the most useful.)

  25. Viliam Búr says:

    My experience with Hegel was rather short. I took his book “Logic” and decided to go step by step, not skip anything, and diligently try to understand. (As opposed to just memorizing a few buzzwords and pretending to understand. What I suspected other people were doing.)

    I read the first sentence, which was something highly abstract (sounding like “Nothing is Something, but Something is not Nothing”). No explanation anywhere near; no definitions. So I tried thinking about some possible explanations what could author have meant by this. Okay, so I had a few explanations, and didn’t know which one is the right one, if any. Second sentence; the same story. Third sentence; the same story. Fourth sentence… well, at that moment I gave up, because I no longer could come up with a hypothesis of what the hell could the author have meant by this.

    Skipping those sentences and jumping forward would probably only make things worse, because the author tried to create an impression of a “mathematical textbook”, where the later sentences are explained as logically following from the former sentence. And there were hundred pages like this.

    So I came to conclusion that this was either a hoax, or some kind of mental disorder. The fact that other people were impressed by it didn’t make much impact on me. People are impressed by many stupid things. I suspect that for a mathematically illiterate person, seeing this and seeing an algebra textbook would look the same; only the Hegel’s book would seem higher status, because it “proves” things about spirituality and whatever.

  26. Kiboh says:

    “German philosophers are incredibly influential” factoid actualy just statistical error. Average German philosopher has no influence. Georg Hegel, who dominated Western philosophical thought for half a century, is an outlier adn should not have been counted.

    • Protagoras says:

      “Average” perhaps, but it’s not just Hegel who was huge. Kant’s influence may have been greater; it probably wasn’t ever quite as extensive as Hegel’s, but not far behind, and it has been more enduring. And if you discount Kant as well, you’re moving toward the point that no group is influential if you discount all the influential members of the group.

  27. Toby Bartels says:

    It’s very interesting to hear that Hegel was a doofus with math, considering the mathematicians I know who like to cite Hegel when talking about the philosophy behind their mathematics (and these are people whom I agree with too). The principal example is William Lawvere.

  28. Johannes says:

    With the caveat that my knowledge of Hegel is mostly 2nd hand (from stuff like “Short intro” etc.) the more interesting aspects which can be connected to “anglosphere” philosophers from Peirce to Bob Brandom are maybe something the following:

    There is no ready-made world.
    There is no ready-made subject.
    There are no ready-made categories/concepts.

    Rather, there is a dynamic history (dialectic) of all these influencing each other.

    On every stage of this development there are tensions/contradictions, so something’s gotta give, but by the dialectical evolution the more primitive versions of subject/mind, object/world and concepts that mediate the relationship between them are improved until finally everything is conceptually “grasped” free of contradictions (scare quotes, because this grasping would probably presuppose a readymade subject that grasps readymade objects/concepts), because mind/consciousness has “come to itself”.

    The whole thing is so convoluted and hard to understand, because epistemology, ontology, philosophy of mind, natural philosophy or science, sociology, history of ideas and whatnot are somehow fused into one development, none of them really independent.

    With all the points that may be dubious about Hegel or even Kant, one should at least try to understand that the more or less Humean (sometimes maybe also Neo-Kantian) scientism dominating lots of contemporary philosophy seems to be utterly naive to someone who grew up with these guys. (Sellars supposedly said he wanted to contribute in getting analytic philosophy from the Humean to the Kantian stage, and as hinted at, some claim that with McDowell and Brandom some Hegelian aspects may be found.)
    It’s similar to how Humeanism (and therefore maybe also the Kantian project to rescue objective knowledge) seems completely misguided to an Aristotelian-Neothomist like Ed Feser, just from the other side. As someone with Aristotelian leanings myself, I tend to reject both Hume and Hegel, but I can still try to be curious and historically minded enough that they may be wrong, but are treating problems that are interesting from a certain perspective.

  29. Schopenhauer was a contemporary with Hegel, one of the first to jump off the Hegel train and say the emperor had no clothes. (He spent most of his life fuming in obscurity as a result.) He seems to have understood the problem pretty early: “But the greatest disadvantage of Kant’s occasionally obscure exposition is that it acted as exemplar vitiis imitabile [an example whose vices can be imitated]; in fact it was misinterpreted as a pernicious authorization. The public has been forced to see that what is obscure is not always without meaning; what was senseless and without meaning at once took refuge in obscure exposition and language. Fichte was the first to grasp and make vigorous use of this privilege; Schelling at least equalled him in this, and a host of hungry scribblers without intellect or honesty soon surpassed them both. But the greatest effrontery in serving up sheer nonsense, in scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses, finally appeared in Hegel. It became the instrument of the most ponderous and general mystification that has ever existed, with a result that will seem incredible to posterity, and be a lasting monument of German stupidity.”

    I usually think of Hegel as ‘that guy who cost us a century of philosophy by transmuting Kant into mysticism’. Hegel helps make idealism and phenomenology and historical / sociological theorizing trendy, but his substantive contributions are mostly weak-manned Kant doctrines. Schopenhauer’s contributions are mostly steel-manned Kant doctrines. (Perhaps more important is that post-Hegel idealists were in large part the philosophers Russell and the logical positivists were rebelling against.)

    Schopy writes well, and without Kant or Hegel’s obscurity, so he’s a useful path into Kant. Schopenhauer’s metaphysic and ethic is also central to understanding Westernized Buddhism, Freud, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Borges, Tolstoy (whence Gandhi, King, etc.), and above all Nietzsche, whose life goal was to defeat Schopenhauer’s nihilism.

    I don’t know how essential Hegel was for the rise of spiritualism and orientalism. He clearly made a difference, but religious pluralism / syncretism, Romantic revolts against dispassionate intellectualism, and curiosity about foreign cultures all seem to have been in the air — in the Zeitgeist — before Hegel. Cause and effect are hard to sort out. Perhaps the Fichteans and Hegelians gave academics an excuse to join in artists’ and laypeople’s trendy rejection of jarring industrialization and hubristic, tradition-defying science-mongering.

    Kierkegaard’s a good example of an anti-Enlightenment thinker who treats Hegel both as the culmination of the Enlightenment’s excesses, and as an inspiration to shadowy mysticism. Obscurantism, and the proto-existentialist/Romantic focus on the personal and emotional, make it easier to reject both the Enlightenment and the more absurd and stodgy institutions that were the Enlightenment’s initial target.

  30. peterdjones says:

    A Defense of Hegel, Craziness, and Hegel’s Craziness.

    Even Hegel’s admirers think he loses it in the fine detail. : he starts much better. The lofty abstractions that his Logic begins with still have their attractions.

    If common sense, and its associated logic, could answer the questions it poses, there would never have been philosophy, or a desire for it. The classic philosophical questions like “where did everything come from” cannot be answered by common sense, and therefore the answer, whatever it is, must be crazy, in common sense terms.

    To take an analogy, mathematicians could not answer every question in terms of integers, the counting numbers of common sense, so they had to invent fractions, and then real numbers, and eventually complex numbers, which include the notoriously crazy “imaginary” numbers.

    And then there is physics…the subject that gave us, thanks to Wolfgang Pauli, the phrase “not crazy enough to be true”.

    And physics gave us physicalism, the default philosophy of sensible, uncrazy philosophers. What can that tell us about the origins of the world, the nature of consciousness, or how one should live ones life? If you are lucky, the answer will be “consult science”..if not it will be “don’t ask that question”. Denial, dissolution and deflation are the fate of anything that doesn’t fit physicalism’s Procrustean bed. Consciousness is an illusion, ethics merely subjective, and so on.

    Daniel Dennet’s answer to “is this a question” is “only if I can answer it”.

    When addressing the question: where did it all come from, physicalism tends to generate one of a set of three unsatisfactory answers, the famous Munchausen trilemma. Either a chain of contingent entities and events stops dead at a contingent entity or event;
    or it continues forever; or the chain cycles. Empricism can answer proximate “why” questions, but it is not able to answer ultimate ones because it is unable to eliminate contingency and arbitrariness.

    The uncommonsensical logic of Hegel and his predecessors and successors unwinds the notion  of an individual empirical entity as being composed of the existence of a thing combined with a set of contingent individual characteristics. Existing empirical things always have their individual characteristics .. and that is a contingent empirical fact, not a necessarily truth, for all that it is built into commonsense logic. Hegel proposes a being that is just Being without any contingent characteristics as a non-contingent starting point, of the sort physicalism can’t provide. Such a Being, devoid of definite characteristics is also a sort of Nothing, which is where his dialectic starts.The idea is illogical in terms of the commonsense logic of beings and their characteristics, what we now call predicate logic, but Hegel critiques that logic as inapplicable to the Whole. It is not that he does not understand conventional logic, it is that he does not want it.

    Hegels being would have been a nothing without Kant. Kant puzzled his readers by stating very confidently, on the basis of certain concepts he had, that we were disbarred from knowledge of the ultimate nature of things, stuck behind a veil of perception. Part of Hegels attraction, to those who like him, is his ability to put an optimistic spin on Kant. For Hegel, it is impossible to be stuck entirely on one side of a dichotomy — subjective versus objective, phenomenal versus noumenal – because to understand a concept is to understand it’s complement.

    The end point of Hegels philosophy, his views on the Prussian state are his own, but his starting point can be found in earlier philosophies and later ones, too. Plotinus and Shankara preceded him.
    David Loy has recently announced his own version of the Being=Nothing argument in order to reconcile Vedantic substantivism with Buddhist nihilism.

    And let’s not forget that STEM types have their own version of rationalistic theory-of-everything in Tegmarks mathematical universe. And that’s an everything=nothing theory to because, according to some robust but crazilly uncommonsensical theorems, the information content of maximal
    sets is zero.

  31. G Joubert says:

    The Hegel takeaway from my undergrad years studying political philosphy is how the dialectical imperative (thesis–> antithesis–> synthesis) drives human behavior, and ultimately social change, and how Marxists glommed onto it as a means of advancing their agenda. Other than that, Bupkis.

  32. SanguineEmpiricist says:

    I have heard Hegel can be redeemed in spite of the analytic critique against him. Yes, in spite of all the nonsense. I do not know how myself but intelligent and respectful individuals have somehow managed to see past all this. No, they are not ultra-leftist’s.

  33. Lemminkainen says:

    If you’re interested in Marx, I’d recommend reading “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” to get a sense of the way he interpreted world events. You’ll probably need to look up the main participants in the events which he describes on Wikipedia (since the events in question happened within Marx’s lifetime, and he wrote the piece for a contemporary audience), but the book is short, clearly written, frequently funny, and quite representative of Marx’s theories of history– which are basically very, very steel-manned versions of Hegel’s theories of history, so you would get a grasp on them too. It would probably get you a lot more understanding of Marxism/time invested than reading Capital would.

    • Mercy says:

      I usually recommend that as a starting point for Marx as well but, even more so than the rest of his stuff it gives the impression of being, not so much even a steelmanned version of Hegel so much as using analogies to Hegelian concepts to explain more straightforwardly logical ideas. But that might just be because my interest in Marx comes through the analytic/rational choice school (I’d like to echo SJW’s suggestion that Scott would probably find Cohen’s analysis of Marx more interesting).

  34. Crataegus says:

    It is fun to see what comes up on a Google search for “Hegel dominated”:

    For me the first two google results are now links to ssc :).

    (This is true and intended as nice, so I hope it doesn’t violate the comments policy).

  35. Phil Goetz says:

    Right now I don’t see the temptation in Hegel or for that matter any of Continental philosophy. That half of the philosophical universe, including many people who display objective signs of brilliance – has decided to just wallow in pointless obscurantism seems to beggar belief.

    I’m not convinced that the point of Continental philosophy is philosophy. I think it is seen as more of an art form. That’s why philosophy is more respected on the continent.

    Hegel was the first philosopher to speak the language of modern social science, insofar as man for him was the product of his concrete historical and social environment and not, as earlier natural right theorists would have it, a collection of more or less fixed “natural” attributes. The mastery and transformation of man’s natural environment through the application of science and technology was originally not a Marxist concept, but a Hegelian one.

    Hegel might parallel Freud. People today routinely denounce Freud for his bad methodology and many absurd conclusions, but his ideas were foundational to our modern conception of psychology, and to modernity. We just don’t give him credit for those ideas, because we’ve forgotten they were his.

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