Hegel and the Pitfalls of the Abstract

Here’s a comment on Hegel that appeared in the December 1848 issue of the Tory London “Quarterly Review,” long before the Communists had appropriated him once and for all:

For a long time (during the third decennium of the present century, and even later) the Prussian Government patronized the system of Hegel as a kind of state-philosophy, and those persons who adopted the terminology of this system were regarded as good subjects, and were readily promoted. Hegel’s system, however, was then very unpopular amongst the Constitutionalist party of south-western Germany, whose leaders for the most part were practical men, or belonged to the older school of Kant or Fichte. But when Frederick William IV succeeded to the throne of Prussia, the system of Hegel was abandoned for a kind of romantic pietism of the middle ages, whilst the Hegelist school assumed a decided attitude of antagonism against religion and the state. Some few years before Hegel had been regarded as the philosophical defender of Crown and Altar. Now the New Hegelians proved, by philosophic deductions, the necessity of abandoning all religion; they utterly scouted the principle of faith; they attacked the Prussian system, and went beyond the most extravagant lengths in liberalism.

Writing about the same time, Herzen fills us in on what happened to Hegelian philosophy once the leftists hat gotten hold of it:

They discussed these subjects incessantly; there was not a paragraph in the three parts of the Logic, in the two of the Aesthetic, the Encyclopaedia, and so on, which had not been the subject of desperate disputes for several nights together. People who loved each other avoided each other for weeks at a time because they disagreed about the definition of “all-embracing spirit,” or had taken as a personal insult an opinion on “the absolute personality and its existence in itself.” No one in those days would have hesitated to write a phrase like this: “The concretion of abstract ideas in the sphere of plastics presents that phase of the self-seeking spirit in which, defining itself for itself, it passes from the potentiality of natural immanence into the harmonious sphere of pictorial consciousness in beauty.”…Perevoshchikov, the well known astronomer, described this language as the “twittering of birds.”

Far be it from me to pretend to a more perfect knowledge of Hegel than Herzen’s dueling intellectuals. I merely point out that, when ideas become so abstract and obscure that no one can agree on what they mean, they are of little practical value. In looking at our history, one cannot escape the conclusion that we are creatures of limited intelligence, liable to wander off into intellectual swamps unless we keep things simple. If at all possible it behooves us to check our speculations against experiment as we go along. Unfortunately, we can’t always do this. Not all of our ideas are subject to experimental confirmation. Religious beliefs, or the lack thereof, are a notable example. Yet even when our knowledge isn’t perfect, sometimes we must act regardless. Then, it seems to me, we should base our actions on what is most probable. Keep it simple, and apply Occam’s razor.

That’s why thinkers like Ardrey appeal to me (see my earlier post). He writes on human nature, a subject that has always invited speculation leading to conclusions as disparate as those of Marx and Freud. Unlike them, and many another thinker before and after him, Ardrey avoided the pitfalls of the abstract. He presented profound ideas clearly, illustrating each step along the way with copious examples from nature while citing the related ideas of others, both pro and con. He was no more infallible than any other human being, but he made his points. One could agree or disagree with him based on the merits of the evidence he presented, but one didn’t have to try and follow him as he disappeared into a mist of jargon, or lost himself in the swamps of the abstract. Today he lacks the intellectual gravitas of others with similar ideas, such as Konrad Lorenz and Edward O. Wilson. No matter, I still suspect his “pop ethology” comes closer to the truth than Lorenz’ German abstractions in “On Agression,” or Wilson’s high falutin’ “Consilience.”

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

Leave a Reply