Necessary Structure and Contingent Success, A History Boy, 06/08/2013

My first encounter with Hegel was while I was doing my MA. Antoinette Stafford, who had supervised my undergraduate honours essay on the 1797 version of Johann Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre, taught my first graduate-level course. And we were reading the entirety of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It was a brilliant course, but it was also, if I can be bold, difficult work. 

It's difficult to underestimate the subtle influence that
Hegel's conceptions of reason and history have had on
subsequent philosophy and politics.
I was impressed with Hegel, but there was something about his system that kept me from dedicating myself to studying it in more detail at the time. In this case, I think it has to do with the immense difficulty of Hegel’s writing style: I was hesitant about being bogged down in the interpretation of details. I wanted to do progressive philosophy, and so much of Hegel scholarship came down to philology. I think there was a larger suspicion lurking underneath this, but I’m not sure whether this is my memory retroactively editing my first interpretation, or an actual suspicion I had at the time.

Also, I had just discovered Deleuze. While my own relationship with Deleuze is too complex and multifaceted to go into right now, he did colour my relationship with Hegel, I think deservedly. See, Deleuze wrote piles of books about particular figures from the history of philosophy (Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, Leibniz), literature (Kafka, Sacher-Masoch), and art (Francis Bacon, the Cinema books). He never wrote a book specifically about Hegel, but references in various parts of Deleuze’s corpus certainly give a very negative view of the essence of his philosophy.

The terrifying essence of Hegel’s thinking is a strange necessity, as I’ve mentioned in several previous posts on my reading of various bits of his Philosophy of History. There is a necessary structure to reason. This is the horrifying principle, that thought itself has a structure that is inevitable, necessary, and inescapable. The necessity of reason’s structure means that there is only one best way to think, and all other ways to think are inferior attempts to approach that perfection. 

This necessity of thought is inextricably united with a contingency of the material. This is why, when I’ve spoken to some other scholars of Hegel about my position, they respond that there is no necessary path of historical development in his philosophy. But the contingency of the material development of history means that whether any particular civilization achieves a structure that articulates the highest form of reason at individual, social, and institutional levels isn’t necessary at all. A society develops as it does, and this development is shaped by the winds of inheritance of customs from previous generations, vulnerability to invasion, and with today’s tools of ecological history, I can add environmental changes and crises. If circumstances give it the opportunity, it can articulate the necessarily highest reason. If not, it doesn’t. Whether any individual or society discovers the highest form of reason or lives according to it is historically contingent. But the structure of reason itself is necessary. And I can’t accept that, because it’s so vehemently opposed to the possibility of creativity in reason, which I consider the task of philosophy itself. 

Deleuze first warned me that this necessity was present in Hegel’s system. However, it puts me in a strange position. I like to approach philosophy as a creative figure, someone who doesn’t simply accept a philosophical point wholesale, solely on the word of an authority. I want to be someone who arrives at his own views. But what about my take on Hegel’s philosophy? I have my own attitude, but it accords very much with Deleuze’s. I read Deleuze’s idea first, and took it as a reasonable interpretation such that I would cite is as why I was hesitant about Hegel’s philosophy before I returned to him in my detailed study for the utopias project. When I came back to studying Hegel in focus, I discovered this idea all over Philosophy of History

Did my investigation validate the interpretation that I had already found in Deleuze? Or did my investigation confirm the interpretation that I had already accepted from a philosopher for whom I have much more sympathy? Do I have to differ from the view of an established philosopher just to say I have my own point of view? Is individuality undermined by agreement?


  1. I suppose a Hegelian would say, show me the other form of reasoning, the one that does not share the few rules Hegel posits as necessary for the ideal manifestation of reasoning, and show me a community that has used it to some efficacy. I'm reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The baby being logical reasoning as a most-perfected form of communicative exchange, and the bathwater being imperfect human manifestations of same. As you know I'm highly sympathetic to your criticisms of disciplinary philosophy but I'm not convinced that the baseline of what Hegel posited as the best and truest form of reasoning is so easily countered by creative thought. It seems to me that creativity is a powerful tool for revealing category mistakes, pernicious assumptions and the like, which you do to great effect in this blog, but I would have to be convinced that this cuts more deeply than being (as I see it) a corrective back to the ideal.

    I realize of course this puts me in a conservative camp and in an unfashionable way, but I do wonder what really fundamental logical propositions can really be rejected without bringing down the edifice of shared scientific knowledge. The law of noncontradiction for example can be twisted and played with to great effect, as pretty much every sage, wise man and prophet of human history has done, but can this really undermine noncontradiction as a necessary law in logical reasoning? Maybe the ideal is so far from being manifested that this doesn't matter and is not historically ascertainable anyway, but surely there has been a lot of productive acts of communication among, say, engineers building a bridge that simply cannot be achieved without those rules tacitly in place.

    Obviously, there are other forms of human understanding and communication which are due respect, but I don't see such alternative forms as really challenging Hegel's historical idealism on its own terms as a means of generated empirically verifiable truths with a minimal of auxiliary assumptions/ cultural structures in place.

    1. See, Hegel's logic is much more specific in its structure than orthodox logic per se. The logic of Hegel is plotted step by step in his book Logic: a series of steps beginning with a simple concept of existence (the concept of 'is') and proceeding through a long series of negations (the first step being the concept of 'is not') until the process reaches its highest possible form in a perfectly reconciled concept that unifies subjective and objective, universal and particular.

    2. Ah, understood. So the historical dialectical process he traces is for him metonymically the very structure of logic. I can see how this irks you!

      I would be interested then to see where he places more traditional logical axioms in his configuring of things that humans have achieved. The law of noncontradiction to continue with my earlier example is in tension with dialectical negating if you think of both as axiomatic and structural conditions of understanding. I guess there are reconcilable on some level. And Occam's Razor would be reconcilable with the synthetic outcome? Or not? Hm. Quite a febrile mind.

    3. I don't know that an Occam's Razor principle would quite apply to a Hegelian way of viewing history. Over the past few years, I've come to be very suspicious of any epistemic approach that would validate simplicity. Comprehensiveness, cleanliness, order — maybe. But not simplicity.

      It's a bit of a platitude among my people today, but it's worth saying: the universe is vast and complicated, and sometimes impossible things happen. They're only impossible insofar as we consider them impossible, unanticipated in the stock of concepts and interpretive frameworks we've come to accept. When we are surprised, we must change, and that change is usually in the direction of greater complexity of our knowledge. The problem with Occam's Razor is that its most common users don't realize that the universe is naturally very hirsute.