Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bertrand Russell on Hegel (2)

But this purposeless see-saw, which is all that science has to offer, has not satisfied the philosophers. They have professed to discover a formula of progress, showing that the world was becoming gradually more and more to their liking. The recipe for a philosophy of this type is simple. The philosopher first decides which are the features of the existing world that give him pleasure, and which are the features that give him pain. He then, by a careful selection among facts, persuades himself that the universe is subject to a general law leading to an increase of what he finds pleasant and a decrease of that he finds unpleasant. Next, having formulated his law of progress, he turns on the public and says: 'It is fated that the world must develop as I say; therefore those who wish to be on the winning side, and do not care to wage a fruitless war against the inevitable, will join my party.' Those who oppose him are condemned as unphilosophic, unscientific, and out of date, while those who agree with him feel assured of victory, since the universe is on their side. At the same time the winning side, for reasons which remain somewhat obscure, is represented as the side of virtue.

The man who first developed this point of view was Hegel. Hegel's philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious. What follows is not a caricature, though of course Hegelians will maintain that it is.

Hegel's philosophy, in outline, is as follows. Real reality is timeless, as in Parmenides and Plato, but there is also an apparent reality, consisting of the every-day world in space and time. The character of real reality can be determined by logic alone, since there is only one source of possible reality that is not self-contradictory. This is called the 'Absolute Idea'. Of this he gives the following definition: 'The Absolute Idea. The idea, as unity of the subjective and objective Idea, is the notion of the Idea—a notion whose object is the Ideas as such, and for which the objective is Idea—an Object which embraces all characteristics in its unity.' I hate to spoil the luminous clarity of this sentence by any commentary, but in fact the same thing would be expressed by saying 'The Absolute Idea is pure thought thinking about pure thought.' Hegel has already proved to his satisfaction that all Reality is thought, from which it follows that thought cannot think about anything but thought, since there is nothing else to think about.

from "Philosophy and Politics" in Unpopular Essays

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