ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"On Reading Philosophy after Hours", by Ricardo Nirenberg

Quite a few of my friends suffer from insomnia, and I’ve heard them say that a good remedy is to take to bed a book of philosophy, start reading; after a couple of pages they fall asleep.  I have also heard it said that some philosophical works are better sleeping aides, more soporific than others, Hegel being one of the best.

As for me, I do not suffer from insomnia: it works the other way around.  On occasion, reading poetry in the evening will keep me awake: it happened three months ago with the French poems of Christian Bobin, as I reported in the previous issue of offcourse.  But reading philosophy before going to bed almost guarantees that I won’t be able to fall asleep any time soon, that I’ll be mulling over what I’ve read, turning it in my head non-stop, finding this unintelligible and that absurd.  In that regard and in my experience, Hegel is one of the worst.  About a month ago I spent two hours tossing around in the dark: I had just read that a week before he died, in 1831, Hegel wrote about what he thought was the most worrisome aspect of his times.  Surrounded by unavoidable diversions resulting from the multitude and changeability of people’s interests, and by “the loud din and stunning garrulousness of the day,” Hegel said he doubted that the human imagination could find room for participating in “the passionless calm of the pure experience of thinking.”

— “What a dumbbell,” I heard the critical part of my brain saying to myself; “didn’t he know that a hundred years later the din and the garrulousness were going to be ten times worse, and yet we had great pure thinkers like Einstein and Wittgenstein?”

— “You are the dumbbell and the dimwit,” replied another part of my brain.  “Are you blaming Hegel for not knowing what was going to happen or how the world was going to look like a century after his death?  Strange way of writing history!”

— “My dear Moishe Kapoyr, that is precisely the point. Yes, strange way of writing history.  The strange way, however, is not mine – I don’t write history, as you know – the strange way is Hegel’s.  It was Hegel who insisted that history is rational, that there are no accidents or random happenings, no changes that can be attributed to the will and agency of a man, be he a hero like Alexander, Julius Caesar, or Bonaparte.  When Bonaparte emancipates the Jews, he is only an instrument of the spirt of the times, of the Enlightenment Zeitgeist.  An accident, like the falling from the sky of a huge fireball in the Gulf of Mexico, appears to our ignorance as a random event, yet, again, it is truly the Zeitgeist of those remote ages, which had determined that certain species should vanish so as to make room for other species, the ones that would one day culminate in that most glorious species of all, humankind.  No randomness, no accidents.  For Hegel, events that look like accidents or look like products of an individual will, are really Ruses of Reason, Reason dressed in drag.  Napoleon was such a ruse.  When Einstein said, “God does not throw dice,” he was saying basically the same thing, except that Einstein’s God was Spinoza’s God, the All or Nature as a whole, while for Hegel it was the Geist.  Both, however, Einstein’s All and Hegel’s Geist, follow the rules of reason, except that, again, in Einstein’s case those rules are taken from the logic that underlies mathematics, with the addition of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, whereas in Hegel’s case the rules of the Geist are contained in his own treatise, Wissenschaft der Logik.”

— “Oy vey,” said Moishe, the other part of my brain, “I still remember when you and I were trying to go through that monster of a book.  What a leaden doorstop.  And I remember way before, when we were nineteen, studying math at the university, and our dad was discussing with his brother Abraham, one of those long, heated discussions covered by clouds of cigarette smoke.  Uncle Abraham, who was a Marxist-Leninist and an unrepentant Stalinist, maintained that Hegel’s dialectics, the word that he used for Hegel’s logic, has superseded all other logics, including the one that had been used in math.  Then Dad, rebuffing his brother’s assertion with an explosive ejection of spit and smoke, asked us whether that was true or not.  What were we to say?  Of course it’s not true: in math contradictions are fatal, forbidden, not to be bridged, conciliated, subsumed, or synthesized in some higher plane.  2+2 = 4 and 2+2 ≠ 4 do not stop contradicting each other and do not work together for ever higher ends, as it happens in the dialectics.  But saying the truth would have hurt our uncle and we didn’t want to do that, so we finessed the situation by saying that there were many brilliant mathematicians in the Soviet Union, and that they might be using Hegel’s logic in their work, but that here, in the West, as far as we knew, mathematicians still used what is basically Aristotle’s logic.”

— “Yes, I remember that too.  Dad and the uncle had recovered their composure, their antagonism seemed to have calmed down, and they were both left wondering about how thick and impermeable the Iron Curtain was, since even logic and math were different on both sides.  Ours was truly a virtuoso dialectical performance.  Hegel would have been proud of us.”

For a moment, I felt at peace, and I thought I soon would fall asleep.  But Moishe squashed that hope. — “I still don’t see how you can expect Hegel to predict what the world would look like a hundred years after his death.  He was a philosopher, not a prophet.”

— “I’m not saying that he should have been able to predict that a guy named FDR would win the 1932 election against another guy named Hoover.  But he should have been able to predict that “the loud din and stunning garrulousness” of his world was here to stay and grow worse, that the number of journals and the number of journal readers was bound to increase, even if he could not have foreseen the invention of telegraph, radio, and television, or of the computers, the Internet, the I-phone, and fake viral news.  For such was, and still is, the direction in which the Geist blows, you see.”

— “I see it now,” said Moishe, and we arranged the pillows under our head, ready to fall asleep.

Alas, it was not to happen.  Another part of the brain called from a corner of the cortex, — “Hey bros, wait a minute, listen.  I remember that Karl Rosenkranz in his Life of Hegel quotes an aphorism of his master: ‘Each man wills and believes himself better than the world in which he is, but he who is better only expresses his world better than others express it.’  I find this aphorism deeply disturbing.”

The voice was easily recognizable as belonging to Little Schiller, as we call the fellow within who always insists that we should drop logic and ethics for a while and become better educated in esthetics.  By the end of the aphorism, the voice sounded almost panicky.  — “What did Hegel mean by those words, ‘to express one’s world’?” he went on.  “Literally, to press out of one’s world its essence, and, in order to communicate it to other human beings, transform that essence into words, into music, into images, or perhaps into dramatic action, just as one presses the juice out of a lemon to make lemonade or lemon sorbet?  If what’s pressed out is turned into words, isn’t that what the press, the journals, are supposed to do?  If music be chosen, tell me what kind of music would best express the world of a man who, a week before his death, as you guys were saying, characterized his world as a place inhospitable to ‘the passionless calm of the pure experience of thinking,’ because of ‘the multitude and changeability of people’s interests,’ and ‘the loud din and stunning garrulousness of the day.’  Thrash metal full volume, I suppose?”

— “It seems to me that Hegel, being Hegel, was referring to himself: he thought he was the one who had best succeeded in explaining his world,” said Moishe Kapoyr.

— “To explain is not to express,” objected Little Schiller.  “A philosopher is not supposed to express but to explain.  A poet expresses, but Hegel was no poet, I can assure you.  No Hölderlin he, not even a good prose writer.  As you already said, he’s plumbeous.”

Moishe interjected, atypically affirmative, — “Yes, yes, and I know what you’re going to bring up next: that the poet is the only true human being, and that the best of philosophers, by contrast, are mere caricatures.  I wonder where you got such a sharp and absolute judgment.”

— “You know it perfectly well,” said Little Schiller, “it’s from a letter of Schiller to his friend Goethe.  Don’t tell me you haven’t read it.  Anyway, what I find most disturbing in Hegel’s aphorism is not the question of whether it should be to express or to explain, to describe or to decipher, but the fact that it is definitely a transitive verb.  Hegel puts the world in front of a man and asks him to do something to it or with it; the actor and the acted-on, the he and the it, the I and the not-I stand as opposites to each other.”

— “Just as in Fichte, our father’s favorite philosopher,” said the critical part of my brain, and then added with old filial animus, “I hold Fichte responsible for authorizing Dad’s megalomaniac ego and his irresponsibility, his tendency to ignore or minimize the difficulties of being in the world and the duties and dangers it entails.”

To which Moishe, as usual, opposed an objection.  — “Surely Dad was like you describe since his day go; I mean, such was his temperament.  Someone must have advised him to read Fichte when he was twenty or so, and there he found the philosophy closest to his heart.”

— “You guys keep interrupting me!” shouted Little Schiller.  “What was I saying?  Ah, yes.  The supposedly original opposition between the ego and the rest of the world.  That opposition is the most fateful error of German thought at the cusp of the Enlightenment, when God was dethroned and replaced by Königin Vernunft.  We belong to the world, and we cannot simply be there without changing it, all the more so when we try to describe, or express, or act in any way.  The Jena Romantics were closer to the truth when they proclaimed their mission to be, as Novalis put it, to ‘romanticize’ the world, by which he meant, ‘to give the commonplace a higher meaning, the customary a mysterious appearance, the known the dignity of the unknown, and the finite the illusion of the infinite.’  But Novalis was a poet and Hegel was most definitely not.  Hegel despised the Jena Romantics; he aspired to objectivity and pretended to stand, if only for a while, outside the world and observe and describe the logical self-movement of the Geist, the predetermined march of History.”

— “Excuse me, just one word, Schillerlein,” interjected my critical part, “What you just said there, ‘We belong to the world, and we cannot simply be there without changing it,’ brings to mind the situation in modern physics.  The fact that our mere presence as observers alters the outcomes, the fact that our increased knowledge of nature may cause the entropy of a thermodynamical system to decrease, those and other discoveries of the 20th century show how naïve was the Cartesian belief in a sharp separation between the object and the subject, the ego and the world.  As a result, the dreams of the philosopher Schelling, of the poet Novalis and the other Jena Romantics, to end the divorce of the sciences and the arts, appears more feasible to us than it did to Hegel.”

To which my Moishe objected, — “I don’t see why you have to bring up quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and all that jazz.  What are you trying to do, impress us with your never too sure, half-forgotten scientific knowledge?  A much simpler proof of the inner inconsistency of Hegel’s system is what it does with freedom.  The terminal station of human history, which for the Abrahamic religions is the Last Judgment, and for us, with considerably more evidence and better sense, is the total and self-inflicted extinction of humanity, for Hegel was the total and universal attainment of freedom on earth.  The surprising part is what Hegel understood by freedom.  It is not libertinage, not free love, or a daily free lunch for everyone, not even freedom from fear; it is rather freedom from the Kantian antinomies.  Which means that oppositions such as between the ego and the objective world, spirit and nature, finite and infinite, real and ideal, reason and passion, are synthesized, sublated, superseded by unity, suspended and bridged into a harmonious whole.  Now, one of Kant’s four antinomies of pure reason is the opposition between free will and determinism or necessity.  In Hegel’s system, therefore, to achieve freedom we must overcome, among other things, the opposition between freedom and necessity.  What does this mean?  Is it just a rephrasing of the old Stoic maxim, Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt?  Perhaps, if fata, the fates, are replaced by Geist, or by the System: The System guides the willing, drags the unwilling.  In other words, to become free, we must recognize and yield to this necessary, rational truth: the Hegelian System will make us all free. Socrates felt free to despise Meletus, Anytus, and the other guy whose name escapes me, and to tease the jury that condemned him to death; Boethius in jail could denounce the injustice of the judges, the envy of his accusers, and the hatred of the corrupt; but the true, loyal Hegelians who were Marxist-Leninists, who were purged and thrown in jail, sent to the gulag or to face the firing squad, they could not even enjoy that satisfaction.  No way they could denounce their tormentors and curse the tyrant, since it was the Party and its Central Committee who had condemned them, and who, at the same time and in the very act of doing so, were directing the process of setting all humans free.  There’s an example of Hegelian Aufhebung for you.”

— “Have you finished your peroration?  May I continue now?” said Little Schiller, with real or feigned childish irritation.  “You talk about freedom, about Hegel and freedom, and I listen to you and wonder, have these two chatterboxes forgotten the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man of my admired master, le citoyen Schiller?  Sixteen years ago, to the day, when we were writing our essay “The Dissolution of Esthetics,” I wanted to mention my Master’s most memorable teaching, but you vetoed it.  You must remember that!  Let me remind you, just in case.  An aesthetic education must be pursued, my master wrote, because it is through beauty that we arrive at freedom.  Don’t nudge and smirk at each other, wise guys.  I know what you’re thinking: Jesus said to the Jews that truth would set them free, Hegel wrote that work would make slaves free — Arbeit macht frei, the horrifically placed phrase that has replaced in our nightmares Dante’s Lasciate ogni speranza —, and here comes Master Schiller and tells us that it’s neither truth nor work, but beauty.  Do not dismiss it out of hand as you did back then, my brothers, but give it some thought, and you’ll see that there’s more in it than meets the eye.  In fact, I’m thinking of writing a longish essay on beauty as the road to freedom, or given enough time, a whole book.  What I want to point out in regard to Hegel, however, is simply that no credit should be given to what he said about freedom, since he didn’t know the first things about beauty.”

— “You mean because of his heavy prose?” said the critical part and the Moishe part at once.

— “No, because of what he said about Don Quixote.  You and I remember that book by heart, we treasure it, and so did the Jena Romantics.  Ludwig Tieck translated it into German, and Friedrich Schlegel called it “the greatest Romantic novel.”  Hegel, typically one-track minded, wanted to put the stamp of his dialectics, his logic of dissolution-cum-preservation, on Cervantes’ novel.  Here’s what he had to say about Don Quixote in his Lectures on Aesthetics:

‘The adventures of Don Quixote are only the thread on which a series of genuinely romantic novellas is most charmingly strung, so as to show that what in the rest of the novel is dissolved in a comic way is at the same time preserved in its true value.’

Only the thread!  Nur der Faden!  Hard to believe that for Hegel the romantic nature of the stories or novellas interspersed in the First Part (1605) of Don Quixote is ‘preserved in its true value.’  The story of Crisostomo and the shepherdess Marcela, for instance, is as dissolving of the pastoral fashion brought from Naples to Spain by the poet Garcilaso — as dissolving of El dulce lamentar de dos pastores — as ‘the rest of the novel’ is dissolving of knight-errantry books.  The other innocuous, Italianate tales such as ‘The Ill-Advised Curiosity’ and the adventures of Cardenio and Lucinda, of Dorotea and don Fernando, which Hegel calls ‘genuinely romantic novellas,’ were included because Cervantes feared that the adventures and misadventures of don Quixote and Sancho could be by themselves too ‘dry’ for the idle reader.  His lack of confidence is quite understandable since he was writing the book that created a new literary genre, the modern novel.  The Second Part of Don Quijote, published ten years later, after the international success of the First Part, contains no ‘genuinely romantic novellas,’ and the reader can tell that Cervantes is now conscious of the import and importance of ‘only the thread.’  Hegel must have read only the First Part.”

I don’t remember any more.  Perhaps I fell asleep.

Ricardo Lida Nirenberg is an editor of Offcourse

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