[Photograph by Will Godfrey]
In an essay Hoffmeister suggests was written in 1808 or 1809, Hegel — certainly not without some irony — identifies an important ethical connection between abstract thought and power:
Who thinks abstractly? The uneducated, not the educated. Good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy, because it is too lowly (not referring to the external status) — not from an empty affectation of nobility that would place itself above that of which it is not capable, but on account of the inward inferiority of the matter.
[G. W. F. Hegel, Who Thinks Abstractly?]
Abstract thinking sets the thinker apart from good society, for their general opinion considers it too easy, too small, too obvious, even in poor taste. As Hegel understands it, abstraction is that faculty through which we spontaneously discover nothing in the subject but an abstracted notion of his concrete behavior. The inner life, the event of being, the very actuality of the will, is subsumed beneath an objective product. Ontology precludes apology.
Judgment indeed confirms the event in its original and fundamental movement, but every human quality in us is erased by the absolute imposition of a simple meaning — the reduction of living to some finite series of directions: past-tense, third-person verbs. Thus abstract thought — which we will now recognize as something common, even inferior or “ignoble,” at least in its operation and chosen material — functions effectively as providing (social) justification for punishing, terrorizing and humiliating others: “This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.” (ibid) Our capacity for abstract thought is what allows the army officer to beat a soldier like a dog, like an object, without any trace of empathy.
However, somewhat paradoxically, it can also be seen as that faculty whereby we become capable of transcending simple explanations for complex phenomena, and for recognizing the corruption of morality indicated by the folly of such ‘abstract’ justifications: “This woman saw that the murderer’s head was struck by the sunshine and thus was still worthy of it. She raised it from the punishment of the scaffold into the sunny grace of God, and instead of accomplishing the reconciliation with violets and sentimental vanity, saw him accepted in grace in the higher sun.” [ibid] Abstract thought may be considered then as similar to a faculty of metaphor, a kind of improvised or dancing thought which reaches the real only indirectly, as though it had to be transmitted by an “untrustworthy” third.