How to Begin (Notes on the Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology)

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It’s no use starting with the assumption that thought and being are identical. For one thing, no one will know what you’re talking about.

Hegel started by looking at the philosophical thinking of his day and showing how it was wrong. This was the task of the Phenomenology of Spirit: to reveal the assumptions of modern philosophy and show how they are mistaken.

We’re only going to get to the identity of thought and being at the end, once we’ve exhausted all other possibilities. By the time we’ve done all that, it’ll be clear what “identity of thought and being” means.

Hegel thinks it is impossible to state some truths simply and positively. You need to take the long, negative route: showing step by step what the reality is not, so that what it is can finally appear in sharp focus, fully understood.

Some of us who’ve read the Science of Logic can make the mistake of thinking that beginning is a simple thing. We’ve forgotten the circuitous routes we took to get here. “Just begin!” But you need to know exactly how to begin. And you need to know what exactly you’re doing when you begin in this way, and why it is important. This is only possible once you have tried and tested the other ways, and seen why they fail.

If you simply do something without knowing why you do it, then it might seem just as well to do something else, should the opportunity arise. There is a persistent temptation to deviate from the path. The Phenomenology is about showing us what lies at the end of all those other paths, so that the simple thought of being finally becomes the obvious and correct way to begin philosophy.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Hegel’s Democratic Spirit

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The Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit is a good place to begin with Hegel. The key question he’s asking in these pages is: What is philosophy? And his answer tells us a lot about what kind of philosopher he was.

He begins in a typically Hegelian way: by making a seemingly absurd and contradictory claim. He opens his Preface by telling us that prefaces to philosophical works are a waste of time, because philosophy is a subject that can’t be explained in an overview, and philosophical truth can only be “expounded” by closely setting out the method so that, through it, a definite result is reached and the necessity of the result is understood. He contrasts philosophy with anatomy, to explain what a special sort of “science” philosophy is: anatomy, understood as “the knowledge of the parts of the body regarded as inanimate,” is a mere “aggregate of information” that can be learned by rote, whereas philosophy requires the reader to follow the text closely, following and approving for themselves the steps of the method, in order to discover the conclusions for themselves.

Later in the Preface he explains what happens when you mistakenly believe philosophy to be like anatomy, a collection of facts to be memorised, a means to a definite end: you end up with “dogmatism.” When there is a clear fact of the matter, it is an easy thing to give a straightforward answer – the examples he gives are “When was Caesar born?” and “How many feet were there in a stadium?” A dogmatic philosopher is one who thinks that the answers to philosophical questions are as straightforward as matters of general knowledge, and who will give responses to philosophical questions that are immediate and simplistic, and will be unwilling and unable to show any kind of working. Truth is a simple matter, for a dogmatist: the important things can be immediately seen to be true or false.

For Hegel, philosophy is not about facts, but about the process of knowing itself. This is why philosophy must be a journey, begun by reader and writer together. By working through the subject matter yourself, you gain an insight into your own thought processes. By comparing your own thoughts to those set out by the writer, you get a sense of what is universal in your thinking, and what is not. You learn to think for yourself, but more deeply than you could ever have done without the guidance of the philosophical tradition, which you find condensed here in the book you’re reading.

I suggested at the start that What is philosophy? is the question of Hegel’s Preface. The answer Hegel gives is, on the negative side: that philosophy is not a mere collection of facts; it is not merely a method; and it is not merely a result that can be read and memorised without doing any of the difficult work. On the positive side: that it is the science of knowledge, understood as something that a human individual must partake in themselves in order to take anything of value away from it.

And we can see, from Hegel’s answer to the question, what kind of philosopher he was: an egalitarian and democratic thinker who believed that real philosophical truth can only be discovered for the individual by the individual, and must never be unquestioningly accepted from any authority that would dogmatically assert their own system of philosophical truths.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The “Preface” makes up the first 72 sections of the book.)

(Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Notes on Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”

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Stepping off a train onto a crowded platform. Anxious glances of the passers-by. Shevek wonders at this anxiety: is it a function of the capitalist economy here? The fact that each of these people must make enough money to live? And the fact that, no matter how much money they make, they will always be expected to make more? Worry and guilt on these faces. He’s seeing these people in work mode: on their way to work, at work, on the clock. But he’s seen it elsewhere too: it seems to invade every aspect of the lives of these people. They measure themselves in terms of money and their ability to make it.

He’s alone here now, at the centre of the city, having escaped those who guarded him and kept him isolated at the University. He feels a little afraid: he is surrounded by people who are mutually distrustful, who cannot rely on others for aid, and who cannot be relied upon to provide it. The glances of the commuters are hostile and fearful.

“In escaping his guides and guards he had not considered what it might be like to be on one’s own in a society where men did not trust one another, where the basic moral assumption was not mutual aid, but mutual aggression. He was a little frightened.”

Not just Shevek: everyone on this planet is alone and afraid. If you can’t trust anyone, you are alone. That’s how life appears amidst the busyness of the city streets: he is far away from any sign of the familial warmth and comradeship that exists in the private lives of these people. Just the anxious faces rushing past each other, wary.

He is himself caught up in their anxiety. A paradox: in feeling isolated and afraid in a crowd he is truly of a mind with them, sharing with them the experience of what it is to live and work in a city on this planet. Solidarity in the lack of solidarity: in the mutual hostility and fear.

The hurrying he sees all about him is infectious too: he feels like he should be going somewhere, doing something. Someone brushes past him, another jostles him and offers a brisk apology. He’s moving at the wrong speed, he’s blocking the flow. He corrects himself and speeds up. He looks purposeful as he walks the streets, though he has no clear idea where he is going.

He finds himself in an art gallery, and hopes it will offer him some respite. But he notices all he art-works here have price tags on them. This one is selling for the same amount as would feed a family for two years. “Yes, well, you see, sir, that happens to be a work of art,” says the man in the shop. This makes no sense to Shevek. To him a work of art is something made out of necessity. “Why was that made?” he asks. He already knows the answer. It was made to make money.

A necessity in this society: to make money. In the anxiety of the passers-by, in the irritability of the shop assistant, in the work of art with a price tag, Shevek sees the same thing: a people with needs disconnected from life. Money was supposed to be something to help things along: an incentive to motivate people to get the important work done. But money itself has become the all-important thing, at the expense of the peace of mind, mutual assistance, and creativity that truly ground and constitute the life of a human being.

(The Dispossessed is a novel by Ursula Le Guin. Shevek goes on his journey into the alien city in chapter 7 of the book.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Notes on Nabokov’s “The Seaport”

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The whole scene is bright, with sunshine everywhere. Colours: the blue of the sea, the green of the woman’s dress. These things stand out. The sunshine gives colour to everything.

Each thing seems to have its own distinct colour: no shades of grey. Grey is for other days, not today. Here we have “puddles of molten honey” on the ground – the canvas is filled with gold, the backdrop for the parade of colours. Each individual thing alive and itself. Sunlight is generous – it shines and gives life. And to be alive is to be what you are, and nothing else is asked of you.

And evening comes, and even the evening is bright – the twilight is blazing purple. The sun has done its part and yet it continues to bless the people with its warmth and light as it retreats, filling the evening with its joy. A marvellous thing to see a sun set on a day like this – no regret that the day is gone, when we have such an evening to enjoy. And the sun will return tomorrow.

Nabokov does so much with so little in this story. When you analyse it: what information does he give us about a seaport? And yet he produces an impression of light and life so full of impressionistic detail that I’ll always see it in my memory, as if I too stayed there for one glorious summer’s day.

(I’ve been reading the Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, published by Penguin Books in 2010. The image at the top of this post is from Pixabay.)

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Happenings

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In W.H. Auden’s poems, there are “happenings” and there are “ways of happening.”

Poets create ways of happening, and this is why such people are generally considered useless – at least by the practical people in our society who concern themselves with politics and finance. The way something happens is unimportant. All that matters is that things happen. Progress, get on, grow the economy.

When a life is reduced to happenings, things are very simple. Three or four things will happen to a person in a life, and then the course of that life is set. A first love, an inspiring lesson, a career decision – three or four happenings to set a course, and the rest is just the flow of pure being. “That’s just the way I am,” you can say by the time you reach the age of 25.

Where did you go to school? Who was your first love? What was your first job? Where do you see yourself in five years? Four questions and a life is mapped out, for all practical intents and purposes.

Auden is ambiguous on the question of whether even a poet can escape the bounds of a life determined by happenings. W.B. Yeats, the subject of one of Auden’s most famous poems, was himself a poet, a dreamer, a creator of ways of happening; and yet, like the rest of us he is “silly.” Like the rest of us he is confined to seeing the world in terms of “things” and so in terms of “certainties.” And now that he is dead his poems have left him, his physical form emptied of his own dreams and ideals and certainties, and his words are merely things in a world that is not his own, to be read by people with their own needs, to signify new certainties, to be used independently of the will and desires that their author once had.

(Sources: “Detective Story”, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and “Brussels in Winter” by W.H. Auden. Image is from Pixabay.)

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Spengler’s Logic of History

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Oswald Spengler tells us that he’s trying something new, a kind of historical study that he calls “predetermining history”: he’s going to use an historian’s methods in order to tell us something of what is going to happen. History is usually about the past, Spengler’s is also about the future.

Spengler asks “is there a logic of history”? A logic of history would be something “independent of the outward forms” underlying them: the things that we see happening in the world do not happen merely by random chance or even by cause and effect, but because of something larger, that determines the pattern of history as a whole.

There is a logic of history, says Spengler, although “logic” might seem a strange word for what he goes on to describe. He says that just as humans and animals are born, flourish, grow old, and die, so we can see the same pattern in human culture. The logic of history is the logic of the organism. The most basic rule is: nothing lives forever. And so cultures come and go, rise and fall.

Spengler is interested in Western culture, the “West European-American.” Not only is this the culture he belongs to, but it is also, he believes, the culture of the present day – of a hundred years ago, at the time of writing. For better or worse, Western culture dominates the world. And there are two more important facts about it: firstly, it has yet to reach its “fulfilment”; secondly, it is in decline.

In carrying out his predetermining history, Spengler will trace the path that is “still untravelled” by Western culture, that it must yet tread. We’ll soon learn what “fulfilment” means: the hardening of the once organic, flowing and growing characteristics of a culture, until they finally become ossified when the culture dies, to make room for new cultures to emerge. Spengler will take us into the future so that we can look back on the present with cold scientific eyes, and we will learn the meaning of Western culture as we examine the fossils that remain after its demise.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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The Perfect Critic

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In an essay by T.S. Eliot called “The Perfect Critic” we learn, above all, that art criticism is difficult. For one thing, many art critics don’t make art themselves, and so the criticism they write is shaped by their own suppressed creative urges. An artist is a better critic than a non-artist: the artist spends her creative urges in her creative work, so that they don’t flow out into her criticism. So that when she takes on the role of critic, she is able to put aside her own personal and emotional responses towards the art work, and write criticism that focuses on the object itself.

Conversely, critics can be too cold, by being too “verbal, or philosophic.” They use words that have no meaning that you can trace back to the senses. Hegel reaches the heights of this tendency: every word has a definite meaning in its own right, according to him, and no reference back to the sensible is necessary to define any given technical term. This (mistaken) belief gives rise to dead, empty prose. “Vampiric prose” as William Burroughs calls it: the prose relies on the good will of the reader to feed some sense into it, since all sense is lacking in the text itself.

The key to good criticism is “sensibility”: awareness of the object of criticism – the art work itself – and sensitivity towards it. This is what is lacking in the two inferior kinds of criticism: on the one hand, the critic is sensitive only to his own emotions; on the other hand too detached altogether from any kind of sensible response.

If you have sensibility, then you can describe the work of art with “lucidity.” The reader will benefit from a clear exposition of the work and where it fits into the tradition. And from that plain depiction of the work they will be able to form their own judgement of it, as if they had seen the work themselves through the perceptive eyes of the critic.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Fantasy and Escapism

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Fantasy books, TV shows, and films all provide entertainment and escapism. I enjoy fantasy but I’m troubled by this notion of escape – of using art to “wind down” and “switch off.” It seems to me that this is potentially deadening to the human spirit: making a habit of retreating every evening so that you can become dead to the world. Is reality so terrible that you need to escape from it? (Rather than face reality so that I can change it, I seek a means of escape.)

My favourite fantasy author is Michael Moorcock. In his preface to the Eternal Champion series he writes:

I wrote these books rapidly and with pleasure. Although they have continuing themes and develop certain ideas, they were conceived as entertainments, to be what I hope is intelligent and imaginative escapism.

I enjoy the books for the themes and ideas, but the escapism is always pleasurable. And that troubles me. And escapism as temporarily “switching off” is just the surface: the human being’s desire and capacity for escape runs deeper.

Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” is an essay about sci-fi films. But it contains this paragraph about fantasy in general:

Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin spectres. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors – real or anticipated – by an escape into exotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalise what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralises it.

Reality can be both dull and terrifying. Fantasy can beautify the world so that, for a moment, it no longer appears dull or terrifying. Or escapism can take a deeper and more sinister form: not just a distraction (an evening’s “switch off,” a few hours of delight after a hard day) but a repetition of this trick of distraction from reality, so that reality becomes neutralised, so that we become detached from it, so that we are no longer capable of feeling, in reality, the gut-wrenching boredom or terror that we used to. (Remember how bored you could get as a child? And part of growing up is learning to suck that feeling up without complaining. Until finally you no longer get that feeling. “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting …” Remember how frightened you could get as a child? “Growing up” means neutralising the world.)

I’m interested in fantasy because it can offer more than escapism. For all Moorcock tells us his books were written as entertainment, they are more than this. The fantasy writer’s vision is not just a perspective on the world, but a world in itself. This is the dilemma: a new world is a promising place to escape to. But more than a world, more important, are the dreams these writers offer their readers. A powerful dream lingers with the dreamer, and we as readers carry these dreams with us day by day. It’s those themes and ideas that linger in our minds as dreams that empower us to face reality with courage, and offer more than those tempting dreams of escape.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Know Thyself

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Know Thyself” seems to offer up two possible interpretations, and I wonder whether Coleridge believed self-knowledge was possible or not.

The poet asks “Say, canst thou make thyself?” and urges his reader to “Learn first that trade.” Self-creation, it seems, comes before self-knowledge. A human being is not merely made, but self-made.

But is self-knowledge possible even after you have made yourself? The poet describes “Man” as all “Dark fluxion, all unfixable by thought” and merely a “phantom” in his being. Self-knowledge then seems hopeless, and better then to “Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God!” For “What hast thou, Man, that thou dar’st call thine own?” All belongs to God.

If this were the whole of the poem’s message, then it would be clear: a human being is unknowable, and so self-knowledge is impossible. The poem would carry a Platonic message: the world of flux and change is unknowable, and all that can be known are the eternal Forms that come from God.

But there is a line in the middle of the poem. If you have first made yourself then “Haply thou mayst know what thyself had made.” On the one hand, this “haply” (meaning “perhaps”) might be ironic: perhaps you might know what you’ve made, but what you’ve made of yourself will still be phantom and illusion, and therefore cannot be the object of true knowledge.

On the other hand, if we take this line without irony, the poet could be saying: perhaps you will know what you’ve made, but only if first you have sought knowledge of God. The final line of the poem, that command to forget yourself and seek God, would be the poet’s clue as to how self-knowledge is possible, describing the essential first step on the path to discovering what you truly are as a human being. The first step is to be humble before God, and know thyself as one of God’s creatures.

I find this poem interesting for the relationship it posits between knowledge, creativity, and faith. All were important for Coleridge, it seems, but one must be wary of raising knowledge, or at least self-knowledge, above all things.

I find this poem interesting for the relationship it posits between Self and God, with the former being nothing without the latter. And what is God, for Coleridge? Reading his poems it seems that “God” signifies the source of all self-making and self-knowing, so that Coleridge is presenting a Platonic picture after all, with God as the eternal Good at the centre of all creation.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Above and Below

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If Henry Miller’s Nexus begins in a slough of despair, in its final chapters the rays of hope begin to emerge. The day he’ll leave for Europe is approaching, and knowing he will be leaving soon makes his remaining days in New York seem rosy.

He’s out for a walk, taking in his surroundings: “The river below, the seagulls above. And above the gulls the stars invisible.”

He’s still not keen on New York itself: his mind is more concerned with those stars far above. The city streets he still finds repulsive. Down here are the beat and broken people of America: “Once again the weary pedestrian wends his way homeward, pockets empty, stomach empty, heart empty.” Above is hope: the possibility of escape from these shores, to Europe and beyond.

For now, it’s just he and Mona who will escape: the rest of humanity can follow later. For now, he just needs to regain body and soul so he can write his book, the “real” book, that might just shake up the world enough to save its shattered people.

Looking across at the city he sees a vision of the city become a huge “orchestra pit” which “is rising, all sixty-four players donned in spotless white. Above, the stars are beginning to show through the midnight blue of the domed ceiling.” They were up there all the time! Even in these skies! Even here in New York City!

But though the stars can shine even here, the people of New York won’t know how to make use of them: “The greatest show on earth is about to be ushered in, complete with trained seals, ventriloquists, and aerial acrobats.” The same old tacky affair that Miller detested, that sapped the spirit, that he would find himself morbidly drawn to from time to time nonetheless: the spectacle, the show, the price of the ticket, the promise of a momentary escape into an idiot’s fantasy …

Everything waits for Henry in Europe: “Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato … Hegel, Marx, Lenin …” Everything? It will turn out that Henry had everything he needed right here, all the inspiration he required. “As above, so below”: Henry seems to have forgotten this piece of wisdom for the time being. He can see nothing of the stars among his fellow Americans.

Yes it was all here, even in America, but he was missing a “body” and a “soul” able to make use of it. He’ll find that body and soul in Europe, then return to find the light that was here in the earth all along …

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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