Are you a reasonable person? A faithful, humble and patient servant of reason? If so let me tell you about something that should delight you; a Hegelian split. We’ll wade through some philosophy to get there but I think it’s worth it.
Hegel was born in the Duchy of Württemberg a reformist hold out from Catholic France, in 1770 and died only 61 years later in Prussia having seen the rise and fall of Napoleon. In my opinion, Hegel is a far more influential philosopher than he is given credit for. Given that he is already super famous I’m making a bold claim here. I think a lot of the ideas of the 20th century across most of the world, both good and bad, can be traced back to his way of thinking. Marx for example called his ideas dialectical materialism and he got the dialectical part from Hegel. I’ll leave it to you to put Marx in the good or bad column.
Hegel’s dialectic is a type of reasoning. You might be thinking “there are types of reasoning? Well that’s no good.” because it does somewhat undermine reasons promise to discern truth, to think that two reasonable people mightn’t even follow the same process. Such is our human condition, I guess.
Moving quickly on from that grief, let’s remember what reasoning is. A lot of reasoning helps us determine between two mutually exclusive theories. Either the butler killed Mr. X or they didn’t. Either God exists or they don’t. Either the cheese toastie is healthy due to its calcium or the doctor was right and it’s mostly fats. This sort of reasoning produces conclusions from premises and those conclusions either must be right or must be wrong or if our reasoning is inconclusive may be right or wrong. Generally we use reasoning to sort ideas into those three boxes ; necessary, impossible or possible. A successful run of our internal reasoning program will complete this sorting process.
Hegel’s dialectic describes a process when two ideas that both contain some good and some error bash up against each other and what emerges is a new idea with the good from both and the error from neither. This process tends not to produce any sort of definitive answer. The old answers and the new answer are all called theses. The new thesis has it’s own errors revealed by the emergence of it’s own anti-thesis and the dialectical process continues.
Hegel saw this dialectical process as the process by which history occurs. Hegel also saw society in terms of ideas rather than individuals or even nations. For Hegel, Napoleon represented a set of ideas particularly about how society should be run and Napoleons’ real opposition was therefore other ideas about how society should be run. Through the dialectical process it was unlikely that one idea would crush all others with it’s absolute truth. Rather Hegel expected that society would vacillate between opposing ideas until it resolved that ideological conflict, probably by absorbing insights from both into a new concept and then history continues from a new floor so to speak.
A few things are worth noting. While Hegel was disillusioned by both the excesses of European Romanticism and Napoleons’ dictatorship he was still optimistic to the point of arrogance by today’s standards. As a citizen of reformed, enlightened Prussia, Hegel believed that his society was much further along the progress of ideas than that of “primitive” people around the world. Post World War 2, the rise of Stalin and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with human extinction a real possibility from climate change, it is a lot harder to have Hegel's upbeat view of human progress, especially one which views European society as superior to all others. Secondly, Hegel had no access to the ideas of evolution. Hegel’s idea of human progress was towards a transcendent truth that drew us towards it and the relative relativism of a society adapting to its conditions like an organism evolving, just wasn’t an idea Hegel would have contended with.
Thirdly, Hegel was pessimistic about our ability to use a dialectical method to predict or imagine the step beyond us. For Hegel, we stand in our time and place belonging to a certain set of ideas. The synthesis of our current ideas and their opposites is not available to us as a thought and certainly the dialectical outcome of that new concept and whatever anti-thesis to it that emerges is completely unfathomable to us. We might be able to guess that the next fashion trend will be a combination of small badges and large earrings or French-Korean fusion cuisine served in bamboo boxes but we’d mostly be lucky to get that right and what comes after that is anyone’s guess. Hegel was not a futurist, rather he thought the sole purpose of the dialectical process was to uncover the past history of ideas. By using the Hegelian split, a good natural philosopher, could uncover the ideas of the past that produced our own.
A Hegelian split is a division of an idea so perfect that everything on one side of the cleave is on that side and everything else is on the other side. I wonder if you are thinking, “That’s nothing special.” and I really don’t know if I have the words to describe the sheer delight of a genuinely perfect cleave in the realm of ideas. Let’s look at the example of liberty as a political concept.
Freedom is a political idea that is banded about a lot. The people who demand freedom as a political good don’t usually mean total freedom. They might for example want the freedom to discriminate against others which impacts on those other people’s freedoms. Or they might want to be free to marry who they want but happy to obey the speed limits while driving. They might want to be free to smoke but able to compel doctors and nurses to treat them if they get sick. If we want to understand the type of thing they are talking about and that we ourselves might mean by freedom we can separate the idea into two competing opposites.
On the one hand there is total absolute freedom. On the other hand there is restraint, control and regulation. The freedom that people demand in our politics is a synthesis of these two ideas; a sort of freedom that incorporates a level of restraint that is itself regulated and subject to correction. This isn’t to say that everyone is arguing from this synthesised idea of freedom. Some people generally might mean that they want zero restraint while others might want for a system where those in control are never questioned. But if we want to have a more sophisticated conversation about the freedom most people are talking about we need to see it in the dialectical process from which it emerges and we do that by uncovering its preceding ideological opposites.
When we make a Hegelian split we end up with everything on one side or another. Lots of distinctions are much more messy than that. European and U.S. culture is not a neat split. A character like Charlie Chaplin’s hobo is both quintessentially U.S. and arguably French in every way but geographically. Talking in terms of European and American cultures will throw up numerous messy overlaps like trying to cut a pizza so that one slice only has ham and the other only pineapple. We can name this “a shitty distinction” and point out how a phenomenon may lie across this distinction rendering it useless in its regard. Hegel encourages us to keep looking for the better distinction.
I am not entirely sure Hegelian splits are real things. They live in the realm of ideas and belong to a model of history that has it’s own robust anti-thesis at it’s throat. One thing I desperately want to express is the intellectual pleasure of them. For that I should probably just link to similar pleasures like watching things perfectly fit. Or if you want to know what I think a perfect Hegelian split audibly sounds like then enjoy Wu Tang Clans’ Da Mystery of Chess Boxing. You don’t have to own an authentic katana to know what I am talking about but I do think anyone who does will be nodding at this point.
The other point I want to mention is that by making this perfect split so central to doing philosophy and history well, Hegel does something very important. Hegel values precision of language. In a way this is a critique of all reason because precision of language is not simply present or not present. Instead we are only ever more or less precise. To speak in idioms, precision is an art rather than a science. (What a shitty distinction that is by the way; art and science.) We feel pleasure when we achieve some measure of precision and we lack that pleasure when our distinctions are sloppy and incomplete but solving a lack of precise language is not something that running a logical program in our heads can overcome. We may even lack the words in our current language. The frustration this creates only amplifies the sweetness when we find or coin the words to make the slice perfectly.
Full confession; I'm not a Hegelian scholar. This blog post draws on vague recollections of having read very little of Hegel's writings and other people's descriptions of his ideas. I may have misrepresented him terribly and I'd appreciate comments that describe his ideas differently. Googling Hegelian split doesn't indicate anyone else on the internet using the term. I didn't invent it just for this blog post though. It's a concept that I have valued, rightly or wrongly as Hegel's, for a very long time.