In Defence of Hegel

Published by timdean on

Hegel_speechNever thought I’d write a post like this. But it took a politician to cast aspersions against a University of Sydney philosopher of the continental persuasion in our recent election campaign to get me to take real notice of Hegel. And I’m pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen.

I can generally sum up my feelings towards Hegel to date as being a combination of incredulity and abject dismissal. From what I understand of his philosophy – largely gleaned from Bertrand Russell’s adroitly droll treatment in A History of Western Philosophy – Hegel’s main themes are reasonably interesting, if unremarkable. His notion that carving the world up into discreet chunks for contemplation mars the unity of all things – an idea I am more familiar with from Taoism or Madhyamaka – is one to which I am very sympathetic. His other big idea about the intrinsic progressiveness of history is also of interest, even if his argument as to why it is so is almost certainly wrong.

However, these ideas, along with many others, are couched in such obfuscating language as to be so widely interpretable that almost anything can be read into them. This appears to have spawned such a prodigious industry of commentary, interpretation and reinterpretation of Hegel as to support entire cadres of philosophers for at least a century. But this outstanding lack of precision in his writing means it’s difficult, if not impossible, to hone in on what he actually said and determine whether it is of genuine value or not.

My personal penchant is for precision in my philosophy. Which is probably also why I am so fond of science, at least when it comes to tackling questions transparent to empirical enquiry. That’s why I have tended to dismiss Hegel in the past, often with a passing disparaging remark. But I may have spoken too soon.

Since Jamie Briggs, the head of the conservative coalition’s Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee, flagged the work of Professor Paul Redding’s “The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian Idealism” as being a waste of taxpayer’s money, there has been a spurt of spirited (no pun intended) defences of Redding – and Hegel – appearing in the Australian popular press.

Daniel Stacey explains how philosophy can transform us, arguing that philosophy sits just under the surface – often just out of view – of many of our beliefs, including our political beliefs. Even the political beliefs of the present coalition Prime Minister-elect.

Meanwhile, Miriam Cosic shows how Redding’s analysis of god is eminently relevant in today’s world, and that Hegel is a useful tool to conduct such an analysis. She also points out that one of modern conservatism’s favourite theses – Francis Fukuyama’s, The End of History and The Last Man – harkens to Hegel, particularly his notion of the progressiveness of history. Hegel was the very hinge Fukuyama used to make his point.

Both articles are wonderful reads. I highly recommend them. They have also made me rethink my former aversion to Hegel.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still think Hegel is an obfuscationist who could have benefited from a copy of Strunk and White. His philosophy is overburdened with references to insubstantial notions and elusive metaphors that muddy the water rather than clear it up. But I may have too readily dismissed those who take the effort to peer into the murky depths of Hegel’s work in order to fish out important nuggets of insight.

And it only reinforces my aversion to politicians picking which research projects deserve funding. If Briggs thinks Hegel is such a waste of time, he should publish a paper saying so. Then he wouldn’t need a hasty political directive to cut government funding to Redding. The system would do the work for him. But I suspect Redding – and Hegel – won’t go down that easily.


Nick Byrd (@byrd_nick) · 24th September 2013 at 11:36 pm

It sounds like you are saying that Hegel is important for ideas like god and history. But I wonder if you would say, from your newfound perspective, that he is important for philosophy in general. Even with my limited exposure to Hegel, I cannot answer affirmatively.

I ask because there are many so-called philosophers, including Hegel, who I have more or less given up on since it seems that their work is surely less important to philosophy than the growing list of authors who I have yet to read. So when deciding who to study, I Hegel (and the others) are never at the top of my list.

Tim Dean · 25th September 2013 at 12:57 pm

Hi Nick. I guess the extent of my ebullience towards Hegel is that he might, in some senses, be more interesting than I had previously thought – particularly in the discussions triggered by those who have read him.

Whether he is important though… I’m not yet convinced.

And whether he’s worth the effort of reading in order to glean what might be there, I am thoroughly unconvinced, as far as my priorities go.

But the main point is that I’d rather philosophers debate these points rather than politicians.

    Nick Byrd (@byrd_nick) · 26th September 2013 at 11:09 pm

    I see. I think I was misreading you.

    GTChristie · 22nd December 2013 at 11:50 am

    That part I agree with … what’s in a curriculum should be up to the curriculatorists.

Greg F. · 25th September 2013 at 1:16 pm

Good to see you back blogging Tim – your posts have been missed!

Tim Dean · 25th September 2013 at 2:03 pm

Thanks Greg. I’ve been focusing my efforts on my thesis over the last several months – almost done! When complete, I’ll return to blogging with greater vigour.

Mark Holsworth · 26th September 2013 at 11:23 am

I read some Hegel for my thesis because of his importance to philosophy in general due to his influence on his students: Engels, Stirner and Kierkegaard (for example and to show Hegel’s diverse influence). I like your suggestion Tim that Briggs should publish a paper on why Hegel is a waste of time but I know that Briggs and Hockey got into politics because they didn’t want to waste their time on such intellectual pursuits when they could rely on the unthinking support of their party and the mob who support them to cut off funding.

@EdGibney · 17th October 2013 at 1:36 am

That’s a very spirited defence for one that’s also a bit damning! Thanks. I enjoyed that, even though, like you, I found Hegel’s work quite lacking in my analysis of the “survival of the fittest philosophers.” ( I wish people would spend less time on Hegel, but I’m not the academic expert overseeing the funding process, so I have to acknowledge I don’t have control over this. As ignorant politicians should as well… Good point.

GTChristie · 14th November 2013 at 9:27 am

Ha-ha @ED!!! Fainting with damned praise!!! LOL.
When I was 19, I loved reading Hegel mostly because it sounded so … beautiful. You could hear the angels singing, nearly. But the more empiricist I became, the less impressed I was. Another invisible hand! Well, here’s my take, 45 years later: if you have to dig that much for a few diamonds, yet they’re worthless once you’ve gathered them in one pile, why spend the time?
Thank you for this post, Tim. I’ve been dying with curiosity, how your work is going.

Persons of Interest – Philosophers | Black Mark · 30th September 2013 at 12:54 pm

[…] as a waste of taxpayer’s money, I am unpleasantly not surprised. (Read more about this on Ockham’s Beard.) The Federal Member for Mayo is not a philosopher, has no serious academic qualifications and […]

Persons of Interest – Philosophers | LocalHero · 30th September 2013 at 1:03 pm

[…] as a waste of taxpayer’s money, I am unpleasantly not surprised. (Read more about this on Ockham’s Beard.) The Federal Member for Mayo is not a philosopher, has no serious academic qualifications and […]

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