In Defence of Hegel
Never 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.