At the time of publication in 1993, Rockmore reveals that there were 9,000 philosophers or teachers of philosophy in AmeHegel in an Historical Context
At the time of publication in 1993, Rockmore reveals that there were 9,000 philosophers or teachers of philosophy in America (not counting undergraduate students). No wonder that, in his view, "the field of Hegel studies had become a minor philosophical cottage industry".
This work is mainly intended to contextualise Hegel's philosophy, both chronologically and thematically.
It describes the debates at the time of Hegel's emergence (about a quarter), explains some key ideas in the context of his predecessors (about half), and summarises his impact on subsequent nineteenth century philosophy (about a quarter).
At 174 pages, it doesn't purport to be detailed or complete. It was actually written in French as part of a series for French college students with only a tangential interest in philosophy. The aim was to make Hegel's theory accessible to those who are not professionally engaged in philosophy. It gives students of philosophy and allied disciplines "a way into the theory of one of the most important thinkers in the philosophical tradition".
This wasn't my first book on Hegel. As lucid as it is, I wouldn't recommend it as an entry point. It's clear that Rockmore holds back a lot of his expertise and personal perspective in order to meet the requirements of the series. I would love to see him let loose on a more academic or specialist work. In the meantime, this book is better suited to somebody who already has some understanding of a wider range of Hegel's key ideas.
Does a System Require a Foundation?
The most valuable aspect of the book is its location of Hegel in a debate about the extent to which a philosophical system has to have a foundation or a grounding in a first principle whose truth can be proved.
Descartes and Kant regarded such a foundation as essential to the quest of philosophy to be considered a science.
Before Hegel, philosophers like Fichte and Schelling never quite agreed about the need for such a foundation or whether Kant had satisfied it in his system of critical philosophy.
Ultimately, Fichte asserted that the first principle didn't need to be provable. It was sufficient that it be compatible with the theory that follows on from it. He spoke in terms of a circularity in which the first principle underlies the theory, and the theory returns to the first principle. In his view, this didn't detract from the scientific pretensions of philosophy.
The Circular Legitimacy of a Philosophical System
In the second part of the book (which is subtitled "An Unfounded System of Knowledge"), Rockmore asserts that Hegel "breaks with the entire prior discussion on this most important point in arguing that a system without a foundation is still able to legitimate its claim to knowledge".
Fichte argued that, if a system was circular, its claim to knowledge would be hypothetical. However, he wasn't deterred by this.
In contrast, Hegel argues that the legitimacy of the system derives not from the beginning or first principle. Instead, the end justifies the beginning. The end justifies what has come before it. The result of a theory justifies its becoming.
In this way, Hegel makes of the circle a virtue or a strength, rather than a hypothesis or a weakness. Hegel "substitutes a concept of a philosophical system that justifies itself progressively through the process of its constitution."
Equally importantly, once the emphasis is shifted to the end, the starting point becomes less crucial. The significance of the journey depends less on where you started than where you ended up. It is enough to begin, and we can begin anywhere.
Truth doesn't derive from the beginning, but from the completion or realisation of the circle.
Experience and History
This theory accommodates experiences that appear to contradict or refute our expectations or theories. All that is necessary is an adjustment. This is consistent with Hegel's view of history:
"Human history consists in a long effort to construct a trustworthy view, a theory that emerges from our history and which is constantly updated as a function of our further experience."
To this extent, knowledge and truth reflect our personal experience and history: "a given theory is abandoned only because its limits appear."
For a long time, I wasn't sure why Rockmore had singled out system and foundation as such primary issues in his book. However, eventually it became clear that this was the mechanism by which Hegel attached his philosophical system to the march of history.
In his own way, Marx would later attempt to point the march of history in a particular direction, that of Communism.
Time for a Refresher
Having read "The Phenomenology of Spirit" last year, I wanted to retain (or at least recall) as much of what I had learned from it, even if my understanding proved to be misguided or inaccurate. I didn't want it just to go in one year and out the next.
One of my motives in reading Rockmore, therefore, was to refresh my memory and confirm or alter my hard-earned understanding of Hegel.
I found it more useful as a refresher than as what might otherwise have been an entry point.
My main criteria were how Rockmore dealt with three issues of particular interest to me: the explanation of consciousness and self-consciousness, the Master/Slave relationship and the dialectic.
Of the first, Rockmore explains that "Hegel speaks of the experience of consciousness...our experience of the external world is not something that remains external to us...experience presupposes that its object is, so to speak, in consciousness."
There should be emphasis on the word "in".
Once you've read both Hegel and other philosophers, you'll realise just how economically Rockmore conveys this idea. His brevity is a good way to lock in what you have already learned.
The Master/Slave Relationship
Rockmore's explanation of the Master/Slave relationship is cogent, even if the underlying idea is unfamiliar or difficult:
"...the basic human need to acquire recognition by another creates a double dependency. For the relation to another, to someone who could acknowledge me, is the mediation of my relation to myself that necessarily passes through a relation to another person.
"It follows that this double relation takes shape as a double opposition in which each person strives to achieve recognition through the other, in the first place through the means of suppressing the other, so to speak, in order to discover only oneself in his or her place...he calls this struggle the struggle of opposed self-consciousness...each person satisfies his or her desires at the expense of the other who, in turn, does the same.
"We arrive, then, at a rather realistic view of modern social life where, more often than not, each exploits the other to satisfy his or her own needs."
Perhaps the least satisfying aspect of the book is the failure to devote much time to Hegel's dialectic. What little discussion there is of it in the middle section doesn't relate to its role in "The Phenomenology of Spirit".
In the last section, we simply learn Marx' criticism, without much context to assess its merits:
"The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell."
Unfortunately, Rockmore doesn't explain Hegel's views on the operation of the dialectic or Marx' reason for suggesting that it needs to be inverted or turned right side up.
Marx' Inversion of Hegel
It's often suggested that Marx felt that Hegel paid undue attention to the mind as opposed to experience in the material world. (view spoiler)[I'm not sure whether this is true of either Hegel or Marx. (hide spoiler)]
Marx' inversion was therefore supposed to mean that experience in the material world should have a greater prominence in philosophy and history.
However, I think there's a sense in which Marx used the inversion as a metaphor that would allow the dialectic to stand on its feet instead of its head, at which point it could start walking in the direction of a revolution.
Thus, the inversion was a precondition of getting the slaves (the working class) to overcome the masters (the capitalists) by way of revolution.
Hegel linked philosophy to history for the first time. However, he didn't purport to anticipate where it might be headed (except, perhaps, towards Absolute Truth). Marx, however, tried to determine the direction and speed of history by harnessing the potential of the working class. In a way, history in his view had become a vehicle with both a steering wheel and an accelerator.
Rockmore doesn't discuss this aspect of the relationship between the two philosophers. However, if my speculation is accurate, then the main difference between the two philosophers was their embrace of activism and proactive attempts to shape the direction of history.
Hegel definitely created a foundation upon which Marx could develop his ideas about an alternative philosophical, political and economic system. Whatever the view of Marxists, the influence of Hegel on Marx (and Engels) cannot be overerestimated.
Rockmore briefly discusses Hegel's positive or negative influence on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. However, again, he just doesn't allow himself time or space for a sufficiently robust discussion. I would love to have read more about Hegel's influence on twentieth century Continental Philosophy. (This is a major theme of my planned reading in 2015.)
For all its merits, Rockmore's otherwise excellent achievement is compromised by the limitations he imposed on himself when he undertook this project.
This is definitely a case where I was hungry for more of the quality of scholarship that Rockmore hinted at. I hope to read much more of him in the future, particularly his writing on Heidegger as well as "Cognition: An Introduction to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit"....more