Friday, December 8, 2017

Critics Corner 7: Hegel & Marx

Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) is not an author I would read with the expectation getting much pleasure. The passage presented in The Critical Tradition, an excerpt from 'Introduction to the Philosophy of Art", however, performs an interesting trick. Conventionally the word 'concrete' suggests a substantial material presence. Hegel turns that signification on its head; 'concrete' has its address in the responses of the soul, as an appeal to the hearts and minds of men, participating in the essence of the World Spirit as a unity of the universal and particular. The concrete in Hegel's sense is the genuine and real, not like poured cement.

"Only beyond the immediacy of sense and external objects is genuine reality to be found. Truly real is but the fundamental essence and the underlying substance of nature and of the spirit, and the universal element in nature and in spirit is precisely what art accentuates and makes visible. This essence of reality appears also in the common outer and inner world, but it appears it the form of a chaos of contingencies, distorted by the immediateness of sense perception, and by the capriciousness and conditions, events ,characters, etc. Art frees the true meaning of appearances from the show and deception of this bad and transient world, and invests it with a higher reality and more genuine being than the things of ordinary life."

Hegel is more interested in the motions and, indeed, the progress of the World Spirit- what's 'concrete', true and genuine about life- than what role art plays in expressing it. The categories to which he assigns various artistic productions -Symbolic, Classical and Romantic - are more or less drawn arbitrarily on the basis of his own taste, prejudice or incomplete knowledge of the societies and cultures(contemporary or historical) from which his exemplars are selected. He establishes a hierarchy of high and low stages, the  civilized and primitive, of the 'self-unfolding idea of beauty."

The unfolding of the idea of beauty occurs  in transcendentally dialectical fashion, summarized by the triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. An aspect of life becomes a thesis when it is abstracted from the background of nature and made into an absolute. Each absolute calls into being its Other [why? how so? we might ask], the antithesis, which it negates and which in turn negates it. At length the conflict is mediated by a higher transcendental being (idea) that can resolve the negations and contradictions.

Perhaps a passage like this is better understood if one substitutes 'a skeptical attitude' or 'sneaking suspicion" for 'negation.' Of course that all this struggle goes on in the world of ideas, as a matter of Spirit, and it seems even as a matter of Pre-Destiny, is preposterous, as Marx recognized- 'turning Hegel on his head'- as the saw goes- but did not succeed in adding all that much more clarity to the situation.

Both Hegel and Marx posited man's alienation from the world and himself, in the Romantic literary tradition. Hegel was like : "Don't worry, be happy, everything is on course". Marx was like "be very worried", you are more of a puppet than you realize, fight back". Hegel believed that human progress was a spiritual achievement. Marx believed it was a material achievement.

" In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real active men, and on the basis of their real-life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process (productive force). The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound on material premises."

Marx was excited by this idea, much in the same way Hegel was excited by his. They both proceeded to add more weight to their 'carts' than they could reasonably bear.

"Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. . ." and so on. You can tell by the way he keeps repeating such bald statements that he has not quite grasped the complex interactions that take place between the productive forces of men and their consciousness, though his passionate engagement with the fate of the working class men of his day is excuse enough.

I doubt that either Hegel or Marx will fail to appear in the remaining 1,600 pages of the book of which these notes give an account.

1 comment:

  1. The method of Emerson's work given in the text- "The Poet"- from an analytic point of view, might best be described as 'cluster-bombing'. the more that can be said about something, the more that can be known about it." Man is only half himself, the other half is expression." The more than can be expressed the closer we get to the moral order of the Universe of which nature is the reflection.The whole essay- more of a sermon really- repeats this thought in various more or less Kantian 'moments': qualty, quantity, relation, modality etc.

    "Since everything in nature answers to a moral power, if any phenomena remains brute and dark, it is because the corresponding faculty in the observer is not yet active." Words themselves have the same transcendental transformative power as actions, actions as words. All men, even the uneducated, are revelatory agents who decode nature to obtain the nectar of the universal good, though the true poet- not necessarily the creator of poems per se-by stint of unfettered thinking, stands above others as representing man in the most universal sense.

    Emerson is, however, rather more democratic than other Romantics. His peons to American industry , landscape people (even addicts and so forth) tend to be very 'Whitmanesque". He doesn't seem to have a problem with cities, trains, factories, the hurdy-gurdy of modern life, the great varieties and manifestations of human character both high and low, the way others do.

    Emerson is 'Swedenborgian", its almost enough to say something to have it be true. Of course, William James' pragmatism was largely developed in reaction to his own father's Swedenborgianism.