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The Legacies of Idealism

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3:AM: What vision of humankind was the legacy of Hegelian idealism – or of the combined German Idealism of the time? Can we really be Hegelian – or Idealist in the German tradition – without any appeal to theological metaphysics? Some contemporaries say we can but someone like Frederick Beiser says no, that to do so distorts. Where do you stand on this?

TP: The combined idealism of the movement is a picture of human agents interacting on a free and equal basis – from Kant’s kingdom of ends to Hegel’s “all are free” shorthand for the sense of history. This sounds a bit like either puffery or a platitude until you start to work out what it would mean in concrete life. In Hegel’s case, you have a picture of us as self-conscious animals in the “transformative” sense, who are also always a problem to ourselves. We’re finite creatures faced with an infinite problem, that of how to make sense of ourselves, all the more problematic since all our reasoning capacities are fairly well socially indexed and bounded on all sides. Resolving the issues that come up in that picture implicates us in patterns of mutual recognition and deep struggles about who has the authority to enforce the standards. Likewise, on Hegel’s view, our history is a mostly chaotic, violent series of events that has always involved a basic human hope and, sometimes, demand for justice. That’s because in the course of history, we keep finding that the basic commitments we have collectively undertaken – our “shapes of life” – have ended up placing unlivable burdens on us because of their own internal irrationalities, and that is a great part of what has led to their breakdown. In those cases of meaning breakdown, where the old order not only is ceasing to make sense but faith in the idea that it could be patched back together is also fading out, things fall apart.

In those situations, people collectively pick up the pieces, keep what works and discard what does not, and fashion a new shape of life. From out of all those breakdowns, Hegel argued, we have in modern times come to the realization at least in theory that nobody by nature has the authority to rule over others, that “all are free.” Justice conceived as the normatively correct natural order begins to be replaced by justice as an order actualizing people’s freedom. This didn’t mean that the older hierarchies were all going to go poof and vanish. It meant that nobody could any longer defend any of these older, so-called natural hierarchies. This has, as Hegel realized, explosive consequences, including some he himself resisted, such as the breakdown of the older view that men by nature have authority over women. (It’s not to say that men aren’t still lording it over women – look at the representation of women in philosophy, for example – but that nobody in his or her right mind thinks anyone could now produce an argument that justifies that.) Furthermore, this “all are free” order can be real only under the conditions whereby we practically and institutionally acknowledge the deep metaphysical dependence of our own agency on our sociality. This is the “I can be free only if others are free” condition of modern life, which is continually being strained by the way in which such a view creates a kind of individual who has powerful motives to think he is not so dependent on others.

Hegel was obviously overly optimistic about how the right argument would win the day, and he certainly didn’t accurately assess the looming poisonous force of nationalism, crazy views of ethnicity and the other madhouse stuff that led to twentieth century’s moral catastrophes. But that’s the vision, as you put it.

So can you hold these Hegelian views without a theological base for them? Beiser seems to think Hegel meant more or less what Schelling meant and that the only deep difference between Schelling and Hegel has to do with indifference points versus dialectic. That is a big issue, and it’s all a matter of which interpretation stands up philosophically. But if we just keep pointing to the texts and saying no, no, no, that’s not the real Hegel, then all we end up doing in the history of philosophy is reading the texts back to each other. In doing the history of philosophy, you have to take a stand philosophically on how the thoughts fit together and not just summarize what the author happened to say fit together. If you can put together an interpretation that isn’t so overtly Schellingian-Theological and that stays true to the texts, why not? It may well be that Hegel himself (or even Kant) thought you could get away with this only if there were a properly functioning Protestant church at work in people’s lives, but that’s just one more argument in the corpus to be assessed, not a basic normative fact on which you must swear your creed to be a Hegelian.

So where do I stand on the outlook for Hegelianism? I think that a properly reinterpreted Hegelianism is as much an option as is a properly interpreted Kantianism or a properly interpreted Aristotelianism (among others). Moreover, Hegelian themes are popping up all around us in areas removed from the arcana of Hegel scholarship. Think of the “Pittsburgh Hegelians,” or of Robert Pippin’s work on modernism or philosophy of action, or Axel Honneth’s neo-Hegelian Freedom’s Right, just to mention a few places where Hegel’s ideas are resurfacing and reasserting themselves. There’s lots to be done there.

3:AM: When discussing the aftermath of German Idealism you use Beethoven and Wagner to illustrate some of the important features of that aftermath. So can you say firstly what you think Beethoven illustrates?

TP: Talking about Beethoven and Hegel here is really hard without sounding terribly pompous. Even worse: I’m competing with Adorno on the topic, and he had a fair amount to say already. But, to start: First of all, we don’t know what Hegel himself thought of Beethoven. We know his family had a piano, there was Beethoven sheet music in the house, and there was the presence of A. B. Marx in Berlin celebrating Beethoven. We know that Hegel’s friend, Zelter, pooh-poohed Beethoven, and that might have influenced Hegel to make a negative judgment against Beethoven. But Hegel never addresses his great contemporary who shared his birth year (1770). Still, like Adorno, I see affinities. Hegel thought music, like all art, was a way in which we collectively and individually try to make sense of what it is to be a minded creature.

Music was, as he explicitly put it, a way in which we experience our being in time. In some of his lectures, Hegel also says that the use of harmony in (Western) music is the key to why music has the kind of elemental power of emotional expressiveness that it does. Sort of like us, the musical piece materializes out of nowhere, and, expressing our own being in time, it harmonically moves in some directions rather than others as it faces forking alternatives, it builds up a thickness behind itself, and, unlike us but as we sometimes would like to be, heads for an end that resolves its harmonic dissonances. In a couple of places, he speaks of how great pieces of music run up to the limits of harmony and then pull back, so that we are hearing in them, as it were, the struggle of freedom and necessity. Now, that’s very “Beethoven,” or at least the Beethoven about whom musical commentators like Rosen, Burnham, Kinderman and Solomon have spoken. In many of his works, Beethoven effectively combined a kind of classicism about order with a spontaneity and explosions of chaos – out of order it suddenly sounds as if everything is falling apart only to be pulled back completely again into order. Beethoven combines a kind of substantial, intelligible order that suddenly falls apart on its own terms and then puts itself back together, embodying agency’s temporality. Doesn’t that sound a bit like a metaphorical description of the path of the Phenomenology, which as Hegel says, might at first seem like a path of despair? (There’s also a bit of a disanalogy. I think we can update Hegel. But can we really update Beethoven?) There is a suggestion that just as that just as we can’t write “Beethoven music” any more, we perhaps have trouble being the agents that Kant or Hegel thought we were. Maybe we don’t have the sense that we can stage the kind of reconciliation in thought that Beethoven staged in music. There’s too much disunity in our lives, or maybe there’s too much of a sense of despair over the connections we see between, say, the effects of climate change and an affluent life-style and our seeming inability in the face of global capitalism and its allure of vast wealth to do anything about it. In Beethoven, we “hear” what it would be like to know where to go. Adorno said that Beethoven never goes out of style because reality hasn’t caught up with him. Maybe the same is true of the German idealists?

3:AM: Wagner – and particularly the star hero Siegfried – gives us a different impulse doesn’t he? Here you see a proto-Nazism rising up don’t you?

TP: When I wrote those few sentences about Wagner and German idealism, I was still very much under the influence of Bernard Williams’ interpretation of the Ring and its dangers. Schacht’s and Kitcher’s book on the Ring changed my mind on a lot of aspects of Wagner. While I was living in Chicago and Berlin, I also got a chance to hear Barenboim with two different orchestras performing Wagner’s operas, and that too changed the way I thought about Wagner. I do not think that in Wagner we are hearing proto-Nazism, but we are hearing something that does have its own dangers.

Here, again, it’s next to impossible to say anything briefly on this topic without sounding even worse than pompous and gassy. But here goes. Make a contrast: first, what Kant says in the beginning of the Groundwork about how the good will would, even it accomplished nothing, shine as if by a light of its own; second, Schopenhauer’s accusation that individuation was a painful illusion, something which at one point Wagner seems to have somewhat accepted. In Tristan, however, Wagner seemed to be saying, no, we do shine as if by our own light but only when we are recognized by another in a very specific way: Love. And, yes, the light does go out, but it shines as long as the lovers keep it alight, and when it is gone, individuation vanishes, and we pass over into the “one.” We go through that each time we hear Tristan. In the Ring, there is also the theme of recognition of a sort and, of course, as Schacht and Kitcher argue, Brünnhilde turns out to be the heroine, to bring about the real end which was being sought all along.

Williams worried that the celebration of the death of the least self-conscious of all of Wagner’s heroes (Siegfried) was in effect Wagner’s way of proposing some kind of order that is beyond the messiness of politics and which is thus only a couple of steps away from demanding a leader who will be beyond politics. I think that is still there in Wagner, but it’s balanced by other concerns. Wotan’s order is that of contract, but contracts require enforcement, whereas love doesn’t. The purely contractual world is a cold, even commercial order of things, which Brünnhilde brings it to an end in the name of her love for Siegfried. Just as Aristotle said only a beast or a god could live outside the city, only the gods could live by contract alone. Brünnhilde brings Valhalla down and does so in order to initiate a new and more human order of things. In Wagner, the theme of recognition and what it can and cannot do takes center stage, as it does in much of Hegel’s writing. But we hear the struggle between freedom and necessity in a different way than we do in the classical style. Wagner can’t decide if he wants to endorse an order based only on love (and not therefore political) or if he is hoping for a new, more enchanted world. In a way, he’s straddling Schelling’s romanticism, Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Kant’s ethics, and Hegel’s idea of mutual recognition. The music gives us no reconciliation of those alternatives, nor could it. Wagner leaves the harmonies in tension, so they keep inviting new interpretations. Wagner’s tension laden harmonies with their astonishing reconciliations are a sort of musical idea that has a loose kinship with those defenders of Hegel who hold that nonetheless Hegel spoke too hastily in declaring his philosophy to have achieved a real reconciliation.

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3:AM: Do you take German Idealism to have died out when revolutionary potential failed to ignite in the nineteenth century – or was Hitler actually a legitimate (and deadly) consummation of one of the implications of German Idealism? I recently went to the Anselm Keifer exhibition and it seems he thinks the latter.

RP: I don’t think German idealism died out. It just got set aside and left to rust. After Schelling’s failure to light a fire in Berlin in the 1840’s, there was a new generation, and it was not looking in particular for an update on the French Revolution. Instead, the new ethos of industrialism and the new industries being created by German science stepped into the forefront of things. Especially after the failures of 1848, the new watchwords were materialism and pessimism. For a while, idealism was taken to be the possible teleological supplement to Darwinism, but when that hope for it faded, it just got set aside as a historical curiosity. Since then, it’s rematerialized again only to be killed off, then rematerialized again only once more to be killed off, and then rematerialized again. In the USA, since the first world war, it led more or less a closeted existence until the late 80’s and mid-90’s, and in 1994, as it were, it came out and declared itself for what it was, and it has been a public presence since then.

German idealism also got caught up in the argument about how much of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany were due to German culture. For a long time, the historical account seemed to focus on how German culture somehow prepared the way for the third Reich and the holocaust. Recently, historians have been taking a slightly different point of view, showing how the madhouse of Nazi ideology came from a mishmash of sources, some of them German, some not (for example, the American cleansing of the continent of the Native Americans for colonization by Europeans, French racial theories, and the techniques used by European colonialists). We have now moved beyond the time when pre-Nazi German “culture” served as the explanatory be-all. Of course, the enormity of the crimes makes even slight complicity in them good grounds for condemnation, but I don’t think that the idealists were all that complicit. It takes a lot of distortion to move from the kingdom of ends or “all are free” to Nazism, but philosophical reasoning was never really the strong point for the Nazis. Even so, this doesn’t get the idealists completely off the hook. Kant and Hegel both bought into the bogus ideas of “race” being proposed in their own times, and even though they were not alone, they still did accept some of the disturbing ideas around that. (Even Hume, the most enlightened and open of men, had terrible things to say on that matter.) There’s no way to get them and almost all the modern philosophers off the hook for that. Some post-modernists have said that the Hegelian concern for “totality” is itself really just a recipe for “totalitarianism.” I happen to think that’s completely bogus. Had we but world enough and time, we could go into that more, but we don’t.

3:AM: The latter half of the nineteenth century found German philosophy concerned with different matters – materialism, historicism, pessimism, the identity crisis of philosophy and the limits of knowledge (based on the mind matter problem). Yet today there’s a resurgent interest in Hegel – perhaps due to the emergence of pragmatism – is this interest surprising to you and what does this renewed interest tel us about the state of philosophy today – and of perhaps the state of the world. I’m thinking that across the globe there are movements appearing asking for self determination and revolution of various kinds and maybe a politics of autonomy of the kind the German Idealists were developing seem relevant again.

TP: We’re coming into a different state of materialism and pessimism right now. Philosophical topics about agency, animals, thinking machines, the hard problem of consciousness, and the ethics of just about everything look like they are up for grabs. We are living in a philosophical age, and it is not exactly clear if professionalized philosophy is up to the challenge. It’s maybe no wonder that people are looking back to modern philosophy’s heroic period, when Kant, Reinhold, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel et al. took on modern life in all its complexity and tried to fit it all together in a fully rigorous fashion. After all, Kant said that in the darkness of pure reason, it’s philosophy that gives us orientation, and that’s what people by and large seek from it. In large parts of the world outside of the USA and Europe, big chunks of everyday life are lived out in terms of philosophical questions such as “What would it mean for me to be leading my own life,” or even “What is it to be modern? Do I have to stop being me to be modern?” When people ask those questions, it’s not long thereafter that they start turning to the idealists to see what they had to say. The idealists believed that we had to look at things in a big holistic way, to ask our questions in terms of what Heidegger later called the “meaning of being.” We are always orienting ourselves in terms of the “whole,” even if much of it necessarily has to remain the background and defies full explicitation.

John McCumber joked that maybe Hegel was the great tyrannosaur who was too big for his environment and thus went extinct, so that all we have are his better adapted descendants: Birds. We’ve got no Hegel – only his reconstructed skeleton – but we’ve got lots of smaller and more nimble occupants of the different places in the dialectic. Maybe idealism is still chirping at us although no longer roaring in its old way. Or maybe it could shed a few pounds and be back in business again.

3:AM: And are there five book you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

TP: Only five?

First on the list would be Robert Pippin’s work. I could fill up the five books question with books by him alone. Faced with that, I’ll just fudge the whole matter and treat three of his most recent books as if they were one, since they well could be. They are all very short and taken together would be shorter than many of his other books – call them the “Pippin Film and Painting Trilogy.” They would be Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy (Yale, 2010); Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy (University of Virginia press, 2012); and After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago, 2013). The trilogy is a great response to your question about the relevance of idealism to contemporary issues.; Christopher Yeomans, The expansion of autonomy: Hegel’s pluralistic philosophy of action (Oxford, 2015). Hegel meets contemporary action-theory head on – a close reading that also has new things to say about action; Eckart Förster, The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy: A Systematic Reconstruction (Harvard, 2013) Just when you thought that everything that might be said about the move from Kant to Hegel had been said, Förster found new things to say;
Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust: A Semantic Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom is a force in his own right in contemporary philosophy, but he keeps insisting that his work is just carrying forward Hegel’s philosophy. If you’re curious, my own worries about the part of the book dealing with the philosophy of history are laid out here; Rahel Jaeggi, Kritik von Lebensformen (Suhrkamp, 2013). This might look like cheating, since it’s not in English, but there is an English translation underway which will appear in a couple of years. Jaeggi looks at a “form of life” from a standpoint of a kind of Hegel-based Frankfurt critical theory, where the history of forms of life involve a “learning process” about how they fail and where they need to go; Axel Honneth, Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life (Columbia, 2014) Honneth’s book takes Hegel further than Hegel might have wanted to go, but he’s got good reasons for doing so. Even if Hegel himself might have gotten his back up if he had to confront Honneth’s arguments, he would also have realized that he had to answer them. If I’m allowed to sneak in a 6th after fudging three on the first one, I’d say anything and everything written by Michael Thompson – although I don’t always understand everything he’s saying, I always assume it’s my fault, not his.


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