I finished My Mother Was a Computer yesterday afternoon, and am about to embark on the most difficult reading the utopias project has asked of me so far: I’m going to get back into Hegel.
I’m not about to spill all the beans here, especially because there are literally years ahead of me working on a project where Hegelian conceptions of history and time play a significant role, and this blog updates daily. But Hayles marks a good transition for me in this research, in terms of how her book ends.
One of the ideas in Hayles’ last chapter is her discussion of the “anthropic principle” in physics. Essentially, this is the idea that because we exist, the universe must have the physical constants and underlying laws that permit us to exist. The flaw in this reasoning: it mistakes an effect for a cause. Another way to think about the flaw in this reasoning: taking some contingent facts (our existence and the physical regularities and natures that are the conditions for our existence) for necessities. Mistaking what is the case for what must be the case.
My suspicion is that the Hegelian approach to history commits the same fallacy of reasoning. Taking the contingent fact of our current existence (or in his case, his current existence in 1820s Prussia) for a necessity to which all the significant structures of the past condition and constitute. The causal history of the universe necessarily brings about the subjects who, through their power of thinking and understanding that history, create it.
I have a serious problem with this idea, mainly its flagrant and nauseating egotistical humanism. Of course, as I explore Hegel’s Philosophy of History, I’m sure to find more nuance than my brief summary above. The man wouldn’t have been as influential if he didn’t have a little flexibility in his thought. But sometimes, I’m not so sure. If one common theme can be found in the Hegelian-Marxist trajectories of political philosophy and action, it’s that history seems to culminate in the revolution that allegedly creates a new workers’ state for humans in which all resources are mobilized to create humanity’s new Eden. When history is defined in terms of human goals, then there will be no room in your thinking to consider that which isn’t human. This despite nonhumans making up the vast majority of what exists and has existed.
The Hegelian rejoinder to this might be that only humans have history anyway, and that there was no history before humanity. Now, that sentence certainly does seem to stack the deck against Hegel. You might accuse me of a bias before I start my exploration again, but that was an actual conversation I had with one of the most remarkable Hegel-influenced philosophers in the United States. But that’s a subject for A History Boy.