Two Flavours of One Man That Make Him Seem Like Two (or More) Men, Research Time, 17/10/2013

Some of the future philosophical projects I want to work on involve aesthetic theory, or at least reference it. The first signs were a few passages throughout Félix Guattari’s book Chaosmosis, where he discusses how ethics and even ontology can be considered, after a fashion, an aesthetic matter. 

This doesn’t have strictly to do with arguments about the nature of the beautiful, or any of the traditional topics of aesthetics. Guattari’s thought begins redefining aesthetics as a set of philosophical tools for understanding how the parts of bodies assemble to work harmoniously. That’s the ontological way of thinking about it. He also connects ethical reasoning to his model of aesthetics, but doesn’t do much with it in that book. Shortly after its publication, Guattari was dead of a heart attack and didn’t do much of anything following that. I think one way to pursue this line of inquiry is in virtue ethics; we can consider a set of virtues as derived from an aesthetic analysis of what makes a good person. This idea is still very rudimentary.

But to familiarize myself with some of the core concepts of aesthetics, I’m doing a little research. Right now, I’m periodically reading a short book by Joseph Margolis, On Aesthetics: An Unforgiving Introduction. I met Joe in Summer 2011 at a week-long conference at University of Oregon where he was a keynote speaker, and we stayed in periodic contact.

Hegel is a brilliant example of my basic idea of
how the history of philosophy works. There is no
one absolutely correct interpretation of a
philosopher's writing and ideas. This is why I
don't like going to conferences and presentations
by historians of philosophy: their professional
debates all seem to be over who is right as if
there can be only one.
One thing this book reminded me of was a different sort of reading of Hegel than I had typically made myself, as you might remember from some of these posts. To make sense of where I’m about to go, it helps to remember that after Hegel’s death in 1831, there were two traditions of philosophy that took up his work over the 19th century. One group, today called the Old Hegelians, took Hegel to have described in his Logic the only possible structure of rationality, and how that rational structure culminated in the perfect knowledge of Hegel himself and the socially conservative German society that produced him. This was my reading of Hegel, and the source of my dislike for his philosophy. The emphasis in this reading is on the structure of thought’s progressing through a series of conceptual negations to a perfection of rationality that contains all possible ways to understand the world, and rejects all alternatives it hasn’t already accounted for as not true reason. This was the Hegel of Deleuze’s interpretation, which I share.

However, Margolis takes his reading of Hegel in a different direction. He focusses on the historicity of knowledge, the idea that what thought is capable of changes over time, that thought is never truly impersonal but is always expressed within a partiality, a worldly context. The universal structure of knowledge is created and attained by people in a given time and place, and their ability to create systems of universality in thought frees them in a positive sense. Essentially, Margolis historicizes Hegel. He considers that vision of reason's progress to perfection in Absolute Idealism as Hegel's own mythmaking, his contingent philosophical response to the problems of his own day. The idealist metaphysics that the Old Hegelians fetishized is one set of beliefs that will be made obsolete as the world changes in history. Margolis keeps the mechanism of generating grand visions of the world, while rejecting the particular grand vision Hegel himself offered. This interpretation is more in line with the people who were called the Young Hegelians, people who applied Hegel’s philosophy to their theories of social revolution. 

You might expect me, having encountered such a reading (and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this; after all, I’ve read some Ludwig Feuerbach and Max Stirner), to let go of my previous reading of Hegel and embrace the socially progressive one. But I won’t, because Hegel didn’t. 

Rather, I should say that Hegel’s philosophical corpus was sufficiently complex that different emphases within his works result in widely divergent interpretations. It’s no problem for me to accept the validity of a position like that of Margolis, but remain on my own path, and my own engagement. The works of the Young Hegelians had, on their own power, a more far-reaching legacy than those of the Old Hegelians. This is the natural tendency of works that progress beyond the conclusions of those who inspired them. The Old Hegelians were philosophical conservatives; they considered Hegel unsurpassable, so restricted their works to commentary and application of their visions of Hegel’s own philosophy. Just like social conservatism, philosophical conservatism dies out from a lack of creativity, the inability to adapt to changing times. To the flux of history.

The whole reason I don’t want to inform my own work with too much of Hegel’s thinking is precisely because the conservative interpretation can so easily exist alongside the progressive. There’s a duality to his thought that I’m philosophically uncomfortable with. Even though some of the most progressive and utopian social and political philosophy flowed from Hegel’s influence, this shuttered conservatism of the forgotten Old Hegelians follows these progressives like a vampiric shadow. I find this shadow too dangerous.

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