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The Legacies of Idealism

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3:AM: His was friends with Hegel and Holderlin wasn’t he? Was Hegel sympathetic to Schelling’s approach? I guess the idea of process is something he would have liked? Was this incredible friendship group one where they bounced ideas off each other or did they see themselves as rivals trying to outdo each other?

TP: They were all friends and very close at first. From 1790 to a little after 1800, they were more than just bouncing ideas off each other. They were intensely engaged in a common project that began in their student days in Tübingen. Hölderlin got Hegel to come to Frankfurt in 1797, and from all the evidence we have, it was pretty much Hegel, Hölderlin and a few others who spent every free moment arguing philosophy, going to concerts, and drinking a lot of very good wine. Hegel has a passage in his lectures on aesthetics where he speaks of young men who originally take all for one and one for all, but as they grow up, they split off and have to proceed on to their own careers and how painful this can be. It’s hard not to read that passage as autobiographical.

By 1800, Hölderlin was on the downward path of several mental breakdowns leading to the final debilitating one. Schelling had become the quintessential roommate who rose to stardom immediately after graduation (while the rest of us were still trying to figure out what we wanted to do and how we were going to pay for it). Hegel had been the lesser achiever of the three amigos, but now, especially after his father’s death in 1799, he realized he had to get his act together. While he lived in Frankfurt Hegel more or less lost touch with Schelling, but in 1800 he finagled Schelling into inviting him to Jena where Schelling was now a famous professor. The two began editing a journal together, but which in effect amounted to carrying on Schelling’s project with Hegel as a kind of sidekick water-boy. Hegel bristled more than a little under those circumstances, and Schelling didn’t seem to notice that he was treating his friend as merely a subordinate character in his own drama. (Was Schelling a bit self-absorbed? Well, a bit…) When Schelling left in a huff in 1803 for Würzburg, he left Hegel high and dry. They no longer had a common journal to edit, and Hegel had to find his own way. (He had no real paying job at that point, having to lecture at an emolument that rivals the most exploited adjuncts in some places today.) When in the Phenomenology, Hegel characterized what was clearly Schelling’s philosophy of intellectual intuition as the “night in which all cows are black,” Schelling had trouble forgiving Hegel for what Schelling seemed to think was a lack of gratitude and maybe insubordination, and after Hegel’s rise to fame he complained to anyone who would listen that Hegel had stolen all of his ideas from him.

They met again by accident at a spa in 1829. In his letters to his wife, Schelling complained about having to deal with Hegel again, whereas Hegel wrote to his wife about how great it was to see Schelling again, how it was just like the old days and all that. At a royal dinner in Berlin in 1830, Hegel even went into a little reverie about his old days in Frankfurt with Hölderlin. After Hegel’s death, Schelling later befriended Hegel’s son when he noticed him attending his lectures, staging his reconciliation through the son. It was clear that there had been a pretty intense time of philosophical togetherness, but that had long since faded. From their recollections of the period, we can also surmise that they all also regretted it having fallen apart.

3:AM: You say Hegel is much more Kantian and Fichtean than Schellingian don’t you? So what are the main components of Hegelian idealism?

TP: There is a long history of reading Schellingian ideas into Hegel’s philosophy, and that’s understandable. For one reason, Hegel started in Jena in 1801 as a Schellingian. Second, when you start wondering what Hegel means by “Geist” and all that, the Schellingian answer seems like the easy one. Geist is something like God, God is coming to some kind of self-awareness of Himself through us, and history, even the whole cosmos is the process of this coming to be. Schelling thought it all happened through indifference points tipping over, Hegel thought it was via dialectic. That’s easy to state and teach, even if it is knotty as to what it might possibly mean.

Hegel says in several places that animals are idealists because they don’t take things to be mere appearances of some hidden underlying reality. Instead, they just jump on them and eat them. That’s pretty much an indication that Hegel didn’t mean by “idealism” something like the view that all reality is ultimately mental. Here’s a kind of sloganistic way to think of Hegel’s idealism: It’s the old Aristotelian idea that there is nothing that is not intelligible by thought, or, to use Hegel’s animal metaphor, that there is nothing that can resist the ends set by thought to comprehend it. (In the sciences, when we find something incomprehensible, we pounce on it and seek to think it through and explain it.) Once we have made sense of things and made sense of making sense, there’s no residue left over, nothing about which we then say: Yes, that’s right, but it’s impossible to make any sense of it. That is very different from what Hegel dismissed as “subjective idealism” which either held that worldly things were constructed by us or that we had to content ourselves with second-best, knowledge only about how “we” feeble human beings on the planet earth have to comprehend things but not of how they really are (as if, say, physics was species dependent).

Like Fichte, Hegel rejects the way Kant draws the concept/intuition distinction, but he thought Fichte’s way of reordering that only amounted to another form of subjective idealism. From Schelling, he got the idea that we had to move beyond the standoff between subjective idealism and naturalism, but he thought Schelling’s basic ideas about the “intellectual intuition” of nature’s idealities was a non-starter. Furthermore, we couldn’t simply naively go back to Aristotle. Kant has blocked that, and so Hegel says in the Phenomenology, everything hangs on seeing the true not merely as substance (i.e., the longstanding consequences of Aristotelian metaphysics) but also equally as subject (i.e., Kantian philosophy). Hegel’s idealism is the faith that reason does not run out so that something else (revelation, whatever) has to take its place. That’s why he continually says that the “infinite” is only available to thought. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the basic idea.

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3:AM: Hegel’s Logic is you say central to his system. Its complicated, and there were three distinct logics within itself, but can you say what Hegel was doing with this, and why it’s crucial for his system?

TP: In many ways, it’s in the Logic that Hegel thinks he has given the basic account of how the true must conceived not only as substance but equally as subject.

But briefly summing up Hegel’s Logic, which has brought legions of people who have tried to read it to grief? That’s more than really hard, not only because are there so many different things going on in that book, but because there is the unfortunate situation that, to put it as bloodlessly as possible, it’s just not the most accessibly written book in the canon. It has what may be the ultimate “user-unfriendly” interface. Anyway, here’s a stab at a quick answer. The Logic is a kind of “account of all accounts,” a descendent of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre. It starts out from the ground zero of intelligibility, with a kind of “Well, I do know that being is different from nothing,” at which point it turns out that this little banality is philosophically more fraught than one would at first think, and out of the difficulties attending that assertion, you have three big sections of the Logic: Being, Essence, and Concept. In each of them, we have a different way of accounting for things. The first two comprise the basic findings of traditional metaphysics. In “Being,” we speak of the ways we account for individuals by pointing them out (“That one, not that one”), classifying them (“It’s a blue one.”), generalizing them (“Sea turtles live about 50 years”), or counting them (“There’s four of them, sir” or “The set of all even numbers is infinite.”). Such accounts differ from those that explain something in terms of some background condition which is not immediately apparent to observation (“The tie looked green in the shop but looks blue in the daylight” or “The weak nuclear force causes some elements to decay”), and accounts like that ultimately leads you to the in’s and out’s of the modalities. That’s the “Essence” book.

The first two make sense (in the broadest possible way) of things (in the broadest possible sense) and thus, as Hegel says, take the place of traditional metaphysics. The third book, “Concept,” is where we try to make sense of making sense, as when we say, “Your conclusion did not follow from your premises,” or “What you say makes no sense within the standards of contemporary physics.” It introduces a “better and worse” element into discourse. There are bad arguments, good theories, clumsy artifacts, and so on. A “subject” is the kind of creature who can move around in the inferential conceptual spaces made up by those three logics, so that a “subject” can do things better or worse or even fail at them. As moving around in normative space, “subjects” have to have the capacity for self-reflection. But as he says, this Logic only gives us the “possibility” of subjectivity. How that gets fleshed out, what the reality of subjectivity is, depends on how we further work out that we are living, breathing self-conscious animals engaged in social practices of mutual recognition, subjects whose rationality, to appropriate a distinction made by Matthew Boyle in another context, is not some additive feature merely grafted onto an animal but a feature that transforms that animal from “animal” into “rational animal” (from “substance” into “subject”). (Boyle calls that a “transformative” view.) The Logic culminates in thinking about what is implied by the view of a rational animal moving in an inferential space. The rest of the system after the Logic fleshes out how those rational animals pursue more concrete aims, both individually and collectively.

Now, of course, Hegel doesn’t present his Logic in the casual way I’ve just given. For him, each of the separate sections in each book breaks down on its own terms – it ends up contradicting itself – and the end of each section is supposed to generate the next one. “Being” and “Essence” together are supposed to be the condensation of all the fundamental moves you can make in explaining things and to show why those traditional conceptions fail meet the internal standard of consistency or beg some questions, all of which necessitate a move to “Concept” (making sense of making sense). The big claim to emerge from it is that subjectivity and objectivity have to be phrased in terms of different accounts of what they are but that we are also not dealing with a dualism.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 14th, 2015.