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Hegel and Universality

(by Will Godfrey)[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.


Who this third objectively “is” tends to vary radically, but the formal structure of this relationship remains unchanged. But it is important to realize that Hegel describes the action of abstract thought in quite different terms for those different conditions in which it operates. For example, in religion or in the law, it is an abstract thought which allows us to see only in the murderer’s hands the still-running blood of his victim: all murderers have murdered, and deserve the “proper” punishment. Abstract thinking underlies the capacity for memory and therefore learning — it contains and elevates the faculty responsible for preserving the past in the present, for seeing the future in the present and for [remembering] the past in the future. It is neither purely interior or purely universal. Abstract thought involves an uncanny combination of logic and forgetting, and moves beyond the merely sensible, bringing a penetrating insight to bear onto reality along with a thoughtful resignation to a certain kind of undecidability.

For example, in the army, the soldier is the generic component of the war machine, the docile, “canaille” abstract element able to be beaten to a jelly and reformed into a functional component of the assemblage. Hegel observes, without explaining his cryptic remark, that this situation could drive an officer into making a “pact with the devil”… Some light may be shed upon this curious relationship between abstract thought and human social behavior by considering the distinction Hegel makes between feeling and thinking. He argues in the Encyclopaedia Logic that feeling is inferior, in spiritual terms, to thinking proper, and that Thinking, again in the non-trivial sense — of Pure Thought — is the only way what is in-itself may be grasped:
“Feeling as such is the general form of what is sensible; we have it in common with the animals. This form can indeed take hold of the concrete content, but the content does not belong to this form; feeling is the lowest form that the spiritual can assume. It is only in thinking, and as thinking, that this content, God himself, is in its truth. In this sense, therefore, thought is not just mere thought; on the contrary, it is what is highest and, considered strictly, it is the one and only way in which what is eternal, and what is in and for itself can be grasped.” [Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic s. 19]

It is only by knowing what we do and are — and their inter-relation — that we distinguish ourselves from animals (even the most ‘self-aware’ or ‘sensitive’ animals.) Thought bids farewell to the last element of the sensible, and so is alone able to experience the highest truth. To pierce the supersensible is to be occupied with it, to “sojourn in it” like a newly discovered continent.

Hegel does not mean for us to abandon objective judgment or deny the coherence of rational institutions; on the contrary, we have found the power of an objective judgment consists in submitting to an abstract law, a universal, which reduces the human will to an objective signification. Hegel is acutely aware that these judgments actually do exist, reflected by the public order and even in the equality which such universality assures. Yet Hegel himself opposes the blind tyranny of the impersonal, the inhuman indifference of the pure universal.

Is it possible that Hegel isolates this extremely critical moment wherein man affirms himself against the universal as irreducible, as a singularity exterior to the system of society — what we should recognize is a properly religious moment? Is there a moment in the dialectic where philosophy finds a completely new point of departure, a pure immediacy which overturns the order of signification in producing recognition as such? This will undoubtedly be a moment strangely familiar to readers of Emmanuel Levinas wherein, as he puts its, “the recognition of the individual concerns him in his singularity, an order of joy which is neither cessation nor antithesis of pain, nor flight before it…” (Totality and Infinity, 242)

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8 thoughts on “Hegel and Universality

  1. stellarcartographies says:

    There is a basic interpretive problem here. It is difficult to believe that Hegel presents us with “a pure immediacy which overturns the order of signification in producing recognition as such” or where “man affirms himself against the universal as irreducible, as a singularity exterior to the system of society.” Hegel is the philosopher of mediation not immediacy, and equally, immediate thought is sublated towards mediation.

  2. Justin McDaniel says:

    “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.”

    A few points here. If you really read the article (apparently written for newspapers and the common public), Hegel is indicating that ‘abstract’ thought is common in so far it is what comes easiest and resists change; that is, abstract though is a underdeveloped human virtue that inclines one to overlook ‘concrete’ reality, the historical totality in which events are perceived to be unfolding, in favor of a ‘quick fix’. This is basically a critique of heuristics, Hegel’s social critique in this article develops abstract thought as a shortcut utilized to make form opinions and make decisions without taking the time to really understand the matter in it’s historical completeness. So you are pretty much on target except that, I believe, Hegel would argue that abstract thought does not (as you say) indicate any ‘notion’, as for Hegel the notion is actually in close proximity to the absolute. However abstract thought on the other hand misses any sort of notion of the absolute, because by it’s nature abstract thought only becomes aware of the ostensible and not the essence.
    Hence the abstract is not at all a faculty, and does not suppress “The inner life, the event of being, the very actuality of the will”, these are just additional components the the absolute being of the subject.

    Your definitely playing in the ballpark this time, but I don’t believe Hegel (in P of S, anyway) wants to be rid of the reality sense experience all together, but instead to subordinate it to so called absolute thought. Like Sid indicates, the relation of sense to thought is one of mediation.

    Hegel himself opposes the blind tyranny of the impersonal, the inhuman indifference of the pure universal.”
    I’m not sure that Hegel in this article seeks to criticize thought for not being ‘personal’ or empathetic, but rather that abstract thought posits an axiomatic or concrete representation of situations without coming to grips with an event or persons historical development, genesis, and direction of its overall unfolding of absolute truth..

  3. Justin McDaniel says:

    OK i just reread the hegel articule and then your initial post. You do understand that, throught all your work, you are taking bits and peices of this or that particular philosphic system and manipulating it to fit your presonal paradigms. this is not at all a bad thing, it in fact quite human (and irronicaly, just the type of thing that Hegel was derriding: ostensible understanig of deeply complex issues!)

  4. I would have to agree with Justin McDaniel’s reservations and amendations to the thoughts you expressed here. I would add that it’s quite likely that “Who Thinks Abstractly?” is an unfinished work, which he may or may not have actually submitted for publication.

    Abstraction for Hegel is not a faculty per se. Abstract thinking is the banality of immediate thought, conceptual one-sidedness. It is more of what we commonly refer to as “thoughtless” judgment; it lacks the thoughtful mediation one acquires through more thorough reflection on a matter.

    The townspeople (Hegel would probably refer to them in The Philosophy of Right as what is translated as “the rabble”) define the murderer according to a single trait, which is taken to preclude other traits. The women who are attracted by the danger and romance of the criminal instead identify him as handsome, and are scorned for expressing any admiration whatsoever to the condemned man. Oppositely, the facile sentimentality of the Rosicrucians (I believe that’s it) is chided by Hegel.

    As far as the personality of the Absolute is concerned, I would say that it certainly possesses a dimension of personality. This would be its aspect qua Spirit, while its impersonal aspect would be its identity qua Substance. See the Preface to the Phenomenology for details.

    Interestingly, the reason why Hegel also posits immediacy as partaking in the Absolute is because the mediation of dialectic mediates itself, thereby becoming immediate. It is the reflexive negation he so often relies upon for the dynamics of his system. Were it one-way negation backwards to the Unconditioned, Hegel would have simply been Spinoza. Hegel assimilated part of Jacobi’s spiritualist/personalist critique of Spinoza into this conception of immediacy. See the forthcoming Cambridge translation of Hegel’s foreword to Volume 4 of Jacobi’s collected works (a piece written during his few years in Heidelberg).

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