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Hegel for beginners

Apart from occasionally wandering the countryside playing cajun music with Webdiary's resident fiddler, Trevor Maddock trained to be a teacher during the Whitlam era, before completing a PhD in philosophy at the Flinders University of South Australia. Since then he has taught at a number of universities, colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology throughout Australia. He has published extensively in professional journals. Throughout his career his main focus has been on the thought of the German philosopher, social theorist, musicologist, musician and composer, Theodor Adorno. This is Trevor's first piece for Webdiary. Bienvenu m'sieu, laissez les bon temps rouler!


Hegel for beginners
by Trevor Maddock

I am writing out of a sense of frustration with talk in general about critical theories. A recent instance of this kind of talk is to be found in Anthony Nolan’s article on critical economic theory published in Webdiary, where alternative economic worldviews to neo-liberalism from what might be called the ‘left’ are countenanced, in particular, those advanced by the Monthly Review. One commentator on Nolan’s article (Jay Somasundaram) is gently critical of this strategy, claiming that “the problem with some critical theorists is that that they disentangle themselves from one mental model, only to become completely hypnotised by the alternate monotheism.” I quite agree! As I understand it, to be critical is the very opposite of the approach of adopting an alternative worldview, whether from left, right or centre. What we need is not an alternative economic worldview so much as a critical approach in the real sense of the word.

The German Enlightenment philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, made a distinction which is crucial to the idea of criticism that concerns me here, a distinction between what he called ‘abstract negation’ and ‘determinate negation’. Abstract negation refers to the process whereby some object of criticism is found to be inadequate. A good example of this is the now common criticism of economic rationalism and neo-liberalism which leaves us wondering why no-one could foresee its consequences years ago. The response is to search for alternatives, some form of beneficial re-regulation or perhaps what Nolan has called ‘post-Marxist’ models. This is common, ordinary everyday criticism. Hegel considered that it was vain and vacuous to stand above or outside the object of criticism in this way.

He contrasted this abstract form of criticism with determinate negation, which for him essentially meant criticism informed by experience and understanding of the working of the state. Criticism of this kind goes beyond simply confronting some concept with its consequences – say, neo-liberalism and economic collapse – by relating the object of criticism to those circumstances that necessitated its appearance. In the case of neo-liberalism and economic rationalism, the critical task is to relate these phenomena to the organic development of capital, rather than to sit outside, note their faults and capriciously seek alternatives.

There is only space here to most briefly sketch this development but such a sketch must note the end of the age of liberal capitalism, where the state had no role in the market-place, with the Napoleonic restructuring of political administration throughout Europe and in the particular case of England with the movement of the cabinet from the House of Lords to the House of Commons in the early nineteenth century. It must also note the birth of corporate organisations by the middle of that century and in the twentieth century the almost complete restructuring of the public sector along corporate lines. It was Mussolini who noted that at this stage fascism would better be called ‘corporatism’ because it consists in the merging of state and corporate power. By the end of the twentieth century this merger had administratively transformed almost all of our public institutions into corporations. Rather than searching for alternatives to end the current economic crisis, neo-liberalism and economic rationalism need to be understood in this specific historical context. Such a critical task does not require us to adopt any particular theoretical perspective. This, at least, is what I understand by criticism and critical theory.


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US banking system is in complete and total collapse

The Turner Radio Network has obtained "stress test" results for the top 19 Banks in the USA. The stress tests were conducted to determine how well, if at all, the top 19 banks in the USA could withstand further or future economic hardship. When the tests were completed, regulators within the Treasury and inside the Federal Reserve began bickering with each other as to whether or not the test results should be made public. That bickering continues to this very day as evidenced by this media report

The Turner Radio Network has obtained "stress test" results for the top 19 Banks in the USA.

The stress tests were conducted to determine how well, if at all, the top 19 banks in the USA could withstand further or future economic hardship.

When the tests were completed, regulators within the Treasury and inside the Federal Reserve began bickering with each other as to whether or not the test results should be made public. That bickering continues to this very day as evidenced by this "main stream media" report.

The Turner Radio Network has obtained the stress test results. They are very bad. The most salient points from the stress tests appear below.

1) Of the top nineteen (19) banks in the nation, sixteen (16) are already technically insolvent.

2) Of the 16 banks that are already technically insolvent, not even one can withstand any disruption of cash flow at all or any further deterioration in non-paying loans.

3) If any two of the 16 insolvent banks go under, they will totally wipe out all remaining FDIC insurance funding..

4) Of the top 19 banks in the nation, the top five (5) largest banks are under capitalized so dangerously, there is serious doubt about their ability to continue as ongoing businesses..

5) Five large U.S. banks have credit exposure related to their derivatives trading that exceeds their capital, with four in particular - JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, HSBC Bank America and Citibank - taking especially large risks..

6) Bank of America`s total credit exposure to derivatives was 179 percent of its risk-based capital; Citibank`s was 278 percent; JPMorgan Chase`s, 382 percent; and HSBC America`s, 550 percent. It gets even worse: Goldman Sachs began reporting as a commercial bank, revealing an alarming total credit exposure of 1,056 percent, or more than ten times its capital!.

7) Not only are there serious questions about whether or not JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs,Citibank, Wells Fargo, Sun Trust Bank, HSBC Bank USA, can continue in business, more than 1,800 regional and smaller institutions are at risk of failure despite government bailouts!

The debt crisis is much greater than the government has reported. The FDIC`s "Problem List" of troubled banks includes 252 institutions with assets of $159 billion. 1,816 banks and thrifts are at risk of failure, with total assets of $4.67 trillion, compared to 1,568 institutions, with $2.32 trillion in total assets in prior quarter..

Put bluntly, the entire US Banking System is in complete and total collapse.

Fiona: Oh dear, Justin, I read something about this in the last few days which included, among other things, that Turner is a self-promoting white supremicist who "engineered" the leak himself. Don't have time to search just now - can anyone help me here?


This is precisely the problem I think Trevor is getting at in his introductory remarks. All the public is served up in the media is at best an abstract negativity that does not really criticise the corporate financial crisis in any significant way. Where is the determinate critique? There simply is none. No-one dares to say the Emperor has no clothes - that the corporate system doesn't actually work. A democracy needs determinate negativity as a form of critique.

Fiona: Welcome to Webdiary, Ivan Krisjansen.

The Vanguard - a bit sluggish, but she still goes...

Ivan Krisjansen: "A democracy needs determinate negativity as a form of critique."

It'd make a great slogan in a rally, wouldn't it?

"What do we want?"
"A determinate negativity as a form of critique."
"When do we want it?"

I've heard worse.

Commodification and reification

I applaud Ivan for his employmentof that example of the terminology.

I'd say that many know full-well, despite all the efforts of the system to obscure this truth, as Ivan does, that the system doesn't work and that its maintainence represents an unsatisfactory status quo arguably turning on commodification and reification.

The problem for a long time has been translating this understanding into action of of a sort that does not worsen the situation, as the history of the twentieth century demonstrates all too well. Stalin's example alone is an example of the wrong mentality in the right place at the right time.


Found it. From the Crikey email of 21 April 2009 (subscription essential - can't find it on the website), Glenn Dyer writes:

Here's how Wall Street was conned by a white supremacist who claimed he had a scoop on the US Treasury's "stress tests" of the 19 biggest banks.

The US market fell heavily, helped by some poor results from major companies, including a major bank. Big falls in Europe didn't help, but an early factor was a claim that the US Treasury's so-called stress tests of the country's 19 biggest banks had come up with some very poor results.

That news, on an obscure blog, got into the market and was reported. It was circulated around the world, including in Australia without too much checking. And yet by the time this had happened this morning, the US Treasury's rejection was in the market, as were details of Turner's background.

Here's how Bloomberg reported the situation:

A US Treasury spokesman said there’s no basis to a blog posting that buffeted financial stocks by saying that most of the nation’s largest banks are insolvent.

Andrew Williams, a Treasury spokesman, dismissed the report from Hal Turner of North Bergen, New Jersey, "particularly given we don’t have stress test results yet". Turner has advocated violence against blacks, Jews and immigrants on his website and internet radio show, according to the Anti-Defamation League, created in 1913 to monitor anti-Semitism.

The Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund, an exchange-traded fund tracking banks, brokerages and insurers, fell to $10.62 from $10.75 in six minutes after FlyOnTheWall.com cited Turner’s blog post at 8:14am in New York. At 8:30am, FlyOnTheWall advised readers to disregard the earlier story.

Harold Turner is a US nutter of the most miserable kind and yet Wall Street analysts (and some around the world) and investors paid attention when he published a claim on his website that the stress test results had shown many of the 19 biggest banks were insolvent.

It added to concerns after Bank of America released profit figures that didn't convince investors. The combination sent the US market down, (which took its lead also from big falls in Europe) which was added to by a string of poor results from the likes of IBM, Hasbro (the toys group) and Texas Instruments, showing that the recession is punching holes in revenues and profits for some of America's biggest companies.

But it was the way that the Turner claim on the banks conned so many on Wall Street that stood out.

The FT’s blog site Alphaville explains:

The blog attached to the Hal Turner Show (fronted by a white supremacist -- "Honest talk in a time of universal deceit") adds that the FDIC’s "Problem List" of troubled banks includes 252 institutions with assets of $159bn. Furthermore, 1816 banks and thrifts are at "risk of failure", with total assets of $4,670 bn, compared to 1568 institutions, with $2,320bn in total assets in prior quarter.

So far, something of a scoop ... except that Mr Turner and friends seem to be worried that the outside world might not believe them.

Sunday’s blog post -- entitled "LEAKED! Bank Stress Test Results!" -- was followed up with a strange update in the early hours of Monday morning, stating that anyone sceptical of the veracity of the story should check out the radio network’s coverage of a leaked Department of Homeland Security memo a week earlier.

Then there is a reference to Reuters somehow "confirming" the stress test results with an article on April 6, although the report linked to is actually a piece of analysis by an independent firm, Weiss Research.

Oh, and then there’s a post on how the Hal Turner Show was allegedly first to publish details of the CIA torture memos, time-stamped Friday night -- at least 24 hours after the New York Times and others published all the details.

Clearly a nutter, as this entry on Wikipedia explains:

Harold Charles "Hal" Turner is an American white nationalist and white supremacist from North Bergen, New Jersey. He ran his program, The Hal Turner Show, as a webcast from his home once a week, and depended on donations from his listeners. He quit the show in July 2008. In August his website also closed down, though he retains a blog.

Turner promotes anti-Semitism (including the rounding up and killing of Jews) and opposes the existence of the state of Israel. He also denies the Holocaust. In 2005, Turner organised what he billed as a "rally against violence" after a white student was beaten by a black student at a high school. In 2006, he got into a fight with Jaime Vazquez, a former Jersey City deputy mayor, after Vazquez called him a "racist coward". Turner has made numerous threats against political figures on his website and in other forums.

And to think someone on Wall Street gave this man credence.

Thanks Fiona

Thanks Fiona, I have just found same myself - a nasty little unit. I have just been reading some of the US blogs re this chap and yes it would appear that he has used material from Dr Weiss, mentioned above, to make his case.

Material from this link confirms same.

Having said that, when one connects the dots it would appear their could be quite a bit of truth in Turner's "engineering".

They only way to reveal the truth would be for the banks to be totally transparent re their balance sheets and reveal their current valuations of toxic securities and related derivatives etc. But how does one value a Mortgage Backed Security in the current economic climate?

It would mean getting your hands on every mortgage contract, then physically visiting each property to value it in todays market. A nightmare.

Recently the US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) have decided to ease their guide lines on market to market accounting allowing companies to use their judgement to determine a fair value for their assets.

Good for banks, bad for investors for obvious reasons.

The real problem as explained to me some years ago is keeping the derivative thing from unwinding.  If assets were valued at their current market to market value then the system could very well implode.

Many derivatives have no intrinsic value; it takes an event to trigger the contracts, such as a ratings downgrade, a move in interest rates or what ever weird and wonderful bets these financial wizards have created.

In short an incomprehensible tangled web of financial  "cleverness".

It would appear the best way to handle this one (as far as the plutocracy goes) is to stick one's head in the sand and hope things will pick up and the valuations of these weapons of financial destruction will return to "normal".

It's not going to happen.

All in all my gut tells me that Turner is more right than wrong (as far as this "leaked" document goes). Time will tell.

PS. Apologies to Trevor Maddock for taking this thread off topic. Maybe someone could attempt a post on the dialectics of derivatives - that would get me old sweetheart Eliot really excited ;-)


Sorl right

It was a pleasure, Justin.

I remember, back in the mid 1980's (when I was pretending to be a solicitor in the employ of a very large Oz law firm), encountering these pretty little mortgage-backed securities for the first time and thinking – in my utter naïveté – wft?

Maybe, just maybe, marking to market is the way to go. Might stop the CEO's spending ridiculous amounts on exquisite commodes (by which I don’t mean gorgeous chamber pots), focussing their minds instead on the location of the nearest lanterne (sans-culotte version) ...

merry death abounds

Fiona, Mererdith Hellicar looked like she was in need of a good commode by the time the judge had finished with her over James Hardie and Bernie Banton yesterday.


Yes Fiona, that was the whole idea of introducing mark to market back in the late 90s (I think).  The Enron stuff up had a lot to do with that. The game they are playing now is like sticking your head in the sand.

The stock market is now on the rebound but don't be surprised to see the Dow back at around 5,000 (or less) and the All Ords at around 2,500 (or less) sometime in the not too distant.

For any mum and dad investors hoping to make a quid out of the current rebound one would hope they are paying attention - timing is everything.

I was in town yesterday; attempted to get some work done but spent most of my time discussing stuff with some (wealthy cashed up) clients - they have decided to sit it out, hold on to their cash for they also believe the worse is yet to come. The numbers support same.

For the cashed up and patient there will be many bargains down the track - I reckon our Paul Morrella may agree with that.

Anyway I have to go and deal with that Geoff guy on another thread - he has nailed me beautifully - the bastard   ;-)

thats nuttin.


Where's the difference here, between this lout Turner, and our own  home-grown version trying to talk down the economy; dog in the manger, kick the poor when they're down, mealy-mouthed Malcom Return-the-bill!!??

Thesis and antithesis give rise to synthesis

The usefulness of thought is that it should provide a light and a map. We are progressing and our recent incredible wealth is as a result of widespread use of plentiful energy. But we are also spiritually empty having gone to the well and returned full. So we reject some aspects of progress and move on. But the great philosopher of today is the TV. Those who control it, control the map and are the light, for 90% of the developed world. Who controls them? Capital is uncontrolled except by the "owner" who is actually, often the titular manager of the capital.

We have allowed corporate persons controlled by humans to control our destiny. This is unwise. With such funds through laundering havens, governments have been subverted. Blackmail is used to control those who should be independent and suicide visits those who refuse to shut up. The trails exist in bank records.

That system is now broken but who is to fill the apparent vacuum? Democracy is merely representational and reflects the capital system in that the managers/representatives are actually in charge. The strengths of a democracy are much weakened. A theocracy for the world?

There are two types of people: those who give their power to others, who claim it. Why not give machines a chance to decide? Or a hidden government which is accountable only to itself?

What do they mean when they promise us a New World Order? Will it leave us free to find deeper meaning in teams?

The end is nigh

Pat Donnelly: "We are progressing and our recent incredible wealth is as a result of widespread use of plentiful energy. ... We have allowed corporate persons controlled by humans to control our destiny."

(my emphasis)

These are examples of the teleological reasoning I spoke of earlier as being inherent in dialectical meatphysics.

That there is an assumed 'destiny' and that we are 'progressing' towards it.

There's no evidence for such ideas anywhere. None.

We could be made extinct tomorrow if a suitably sized meteor was on the right trajectory. Would that be the 'destiny' we were 'progressing' twoards?

Probably not what you had in mind.

What about protozoans and mice? What's their 'destiny' and 'purpose'?

No evidence for destiny?

Eliot Ramsey: No evidence for destiny?

If we are to believe Darwin, we have evolved from single celled life forms. One could say that billions of years ago the single celled animal was destined to become human. Who knows what the human destiny is but a destiny we must have. We may be at the beginning of our journey or at the end, who knows? We may be destined to inhabit the universe or we may be destined to become gods. We may be destined to blow ourselves up or destroy our planet.

We have come a long way from the single celled animal and the history is one of steadily increasing complexity. All life has played its role in this destiny. With a consciousness and self consciousness we are now able to control our destiny to a limited degree. We should try to protect all life because we have no idea where the next step in evolution will take place. The intelligent thing to do is to make sure all life has the possibility to reach its full potential. In a way we have become gods: we can choose which species survive and which species go extinct. We can choose to destroy the planet and all life on it. That is why the smart ones among us are trying their best to build better societies to give evolution a chance. It is about change and our possible destiny is only limited by our imagination.

Dinosaurs versus bacteria - survival of the fittest

John: "We have come a long way from the single celled animal and the history is one of steadily increasing complexity."

Most living things are still single-celled, either as bacteria or other single-celled life-forms.

Indeed, the vast, vast bulk of living things have always been that way. And still are.

Darwin never said anything about evolution moving in a "direction".

Nor did he ever say that it moved "toward" greater complexity or any other "destination".

Dinosaurs were immeasurably more complex than today's single-celled animals and plants. But they went extinct, while single-celled protozoan creatures and bacteria cover the entire planet in vast numbers.

Survival may depend on complexity. Or it may depend on simplicity.

That's to do with environmental context. It's nothing to do with life "going somewhere."

The genetic material inside a single-celled animal is hardly less complex than that of a multi-celled animal.

Complexity is a relative (not absolute) outcome, and certainly not some "destiny" that all living things will share in to the same degree or extent.

Most species that have ever existed are extinct.

"Destiny" is a false concept, or at any rate not an earthly nor mundane concept that can be demonstrated.

English is limited


Yes English is limited but my German is worse! We have a destiny but we will only know what it is by arriving there and I suspect it is reversible. What other word should I use? The problem is that others are driven to their view of our destiny.

Yes progress, also is limited in my use. The additional ability to feed and amuse is materialistic increase. Better?

Dialectics, epistemology and common sense

Hegel once said  "To be a philosopher one must first be a Spinozist". Bertrand Russell claims the Hegel's system would have never been had it not been for Kant. Will Durant claims "to be a philosopher, one must first have been a Kantian." The dialects of philosophy?

The dialectical process according to Hegel is a continuum where the later stages contain all the previous stages and to understand the whole one must understand all the steps of the dialectic. But what do we really understand, what do we really know?

Dialectics is a term that can be easily defined and understood within our neat and tidy minds, yet to use dialectics to make sense of our complex real world (as we know it, epistemologically speaking) is a fools errand; well, it is to me. I reckon Lao Tzu would agree.

It is interesting that we are attempting to use philosophy to understand economics. Just recently the blogger Caz posted a link to Our Epistemological Depression by Professor Jerry Muller who made an attempt to understand the collective stupidity of the Wall Street banksters and the US Government / regulators using theories of knowledge; a little too sophisticated for my liking.

Are we being a little too clever by attempting to make practical sense of our current political and financial reality by resorting to dialectics and epistemology?

In my neat and tidy mind I have come to conclude two things in relation to current events. One political and one financial yet both are intimately related, in a very unhealthy way.

1, The Political Problem - simply speaking our democracy is stuffed, especially democracy as we see it in the US. Democracy as practised today is more of an oligarchy, government by the few - the few being the political elite and their corporate puppet masters/financiers. I suppose  the US is more of a plutocracy and that plutocracy has trashed their constitution and engaged in many illegal activities, including stupid wars for the benefit of the few. Much has been written on this topic already and it is hard to disagree.

Maybe this explains why we are in the mess we are. To paraphrase Plato, "Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principal... oligarchy ruins itself by the incautious scramble for immediate wealth." For those paying attention it would appear Plato was/is somewhat on the money.

2, The Financial Problem - simply speaking money has become "the thing in itself". We have been subject to the perversions of financial capitalism inflicted on us by financial corporations (and their puppets - our governments)  that have become "too big to fail" - or so they tell us. You simply cannot create wealth by building a house of debt/credit. Wealth is created by producing stuff and providing real services we need, or don't need but want. Western democracies have allowed the economic rationalists (global corporations and their bidders) to run the show. Of course this has not been lost on communist/capitalist China that has done very nicely indeed by making stuff we need and stuff we think we need.

Money is the catalyst for production (productive capitalism as opposed to financial capitalism); production creates jobs and a healthy community; when money becomes the thing in itself the system implodes - as we are witnessing today. The taxpayer will take / is taking the fall - as was always going to be the case. At present the financial infrastructure in the US is being kept together by dodgy accounting and taxpayer "donations" to the greedy and incompetent few.

Understanding dialectics or epistemology will not be much use in solving our current problems. Understanding and returning to basic business and democratic fundamentals will. Somehow the powers that be have conveniently muddied the water to our detriment.

The Taoists understand dialectics in a wonderful Way. Ying and Yang, or thesis + antithesis = The Way, a process that is and always will be unknowable and indefinable by us mortal souls.

Only a revolution will save us now; we must get back to basics rather than back to university.

On the squandering of resources

Yes, re Justin Obodie's "Financial Problem".

Particularly when you consider that $billions are spent worldwide on advertising and propaganda to brainwash people into acceding to gross and malicious waste, it behoves folk to contemplate the sort of mentality that can condone and promote this and wonder then how things could get so out of whack, in the broader sense.

All those productive and human resources squandered on producing junk , on no other basis than the functional one that people can be fooled into purchasing it and actually welcome the system responsible for it.

Meanwhile, people are unable to understand the significance and the connotations of hundreds of millions of fell human "others" unnecessarily, rotting in poverty, pain and starvation.

How about technology + plus purpose = the ending of human suffering, ecological degradation, and the freeing of the West from the (induced and exploited) fears and anxieties of consumer fetishism?

Why is it that if one argues even theoretically for that heretical notion "rational purpose" purpose one can being tarred with the Popperist red smear of plausible deniability?

The cosmetic surgery / botox industry comes to mind, as with the hot car industry. The latter has allowed a window for technological development, but still has skewed the imperatives of global society away from more important concerns concerning the declining ecosystem and the requirement for a level playing field thru the feeding up and returning to health of billions of poor people, ruined by the system, creating as much damage to perception as cosmetic follies.

I'd be hopeful that a discursive or dialectic approach would head people eventually away from habituated, unconsidered self absorption and unconsciousness, toward an appreciation of possibility in its myriad and usually alternative forms.

Hopefully I think I'm still on basically the same track as John Pratt, who I think is closer to the Spinozians and Hegelians, at least in outlook although misled as to Hegel, Marx, etc; against the economic rationalists, Malthusians, self-involved neolibs and De Maistre-ite authoritarians who are the real culprits in the war against rationality and possibility.


Jay, it is true that truth may reside in more than one location, but still the truth is a unity. It cannot, by definition, be untruth.

Eliot, because something is processive, it should not be inferred from this that it must have a purpose.

Running on empty

I suspect that while thinking of things as bipolar, with truth lying somewhere between the two ends of a string is sometimes useful, truth is closer to a  pantheon, a smorgasbord, or a wardrobe-full of clothes that one changes to fit the occasion.

One model that I’ve found very useful for expressing critical theory/ the journey to enlightenment is that of William Perry . As a kid I’d sometimes wonder what contained the universe. I’d get an unpleasant empty feeling in my heart, and decided I really didn’t want to think about it. Perry’s model suggests that the truly enlightened realise that the tank is empty but continue driving.

Has anyone consider that whether a person is conservative or liberal may very well be 50% genetic, 30% environmental (20% of it before the age of 5) 5% intellectual analysis and the other 15% random?

Fiona: Congratulations, Jay - no formatting problems whatsoever.

Is paradise coming?

By definition, any dialectical system is teleological.

A teleological school of thought is one that holds all things to be designed for or directed toward a final result, that there is an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists.

Not proximal, physical causes mind you - but some over-riding Destiny that is unfolding. Some cosmic final destination.

That's a metaphysical proposition, and not one that is accessible to empirical demonstration.

Religion is a good example of a teleological system

However, the major empirical predictions made in the name of the most famous secular dialectical system, that of Karl Marx, a system actually based on Hegel, have by and large have not been anyway realised.

The idea that History has a Purpose is an anthropocentric nonsense, and it's about time dialecticians faced up to it.

Dialecticism is stupid.

Hegel as the Devil

My article ‘Hegel for Beginners’ has provoked comment, although I must say that the remarks are more directed at Hegel than what I had to say about criticism. I am not sure I would even want to take umbrage at all of these comments on the limitations of Hegel’s thought, but my point is that Hegel made a very important distinction between kinds of criticism that I feel is crucial in dealing with current social, economic and political events. The approach of judging some particular socio-economic theory on the basis of its practical shortcomings and then advocating a replacement is strictly limited in terms of social action and it is blind to the possibility of any real social understanding. In contrast, the critical task I suggest is to understand the historical circumstances which made this socio-economic theory a necessity. Hegel is quite right in this, whatever may be the limitations of his overall thought.

The first of my commentators, John Pratt, begins by quoting from a web article called What is the Hegelian Dialectic? by Niki Raapana and Nordica Friedrich (October 2005). Paul Walter suggests that this article is a bit reductionist. I would go much further. My objection to it is that it is not a scholarly text. Instead, I would direct any readers who want to understand Hegel to the Stanford Internet Encyclopaedia as an immediately accessible option satisfying scholarly demands. Those who seek a clear, readable introduction to Hegel’s early thought cannot go past Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution (Routledge, London, 1967). Some of this text is available free on the Web.

What I fear to see in this interchange is yet another example, albeit unintentional, of a common response to any suggestion of engaging with Hegel, a powerful conviction that he should not be considered, that his thought is possibly even dangerous, coupled with the most flimsy of reasons for such a strong sentiment. I detect elements of this kind of response in the interchange between Pratt and Walter, it is obvious in the writings of Raapana, but most notably it dominates the work of one of the most proclaimed British philosophers of the twentieth century, Sir Karl Popper, whose conviction that Hegel – along with Plato, Marx and Freud – is an implacable enemy of the ‘open society’ is made on the poorest of evidence and argumentation. This kind of response to Hegel brings to mind the words of the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, whom I paraphrase: ‘the will to condemn always seizes the most readily available implement.’

Popper’s critique of Hegel collapses before it begins. It rests on a fallacy – the fallacy of the straw man. A key idea of hermeneutics, the science of understanding, is that the hermeneutic task is complete when I can express in my words your ideas to your satisfaction. Then we have established an understanding and may proceed on common ground. This is precisely what Hegel’s condemners characteristically fail to do. In the case of Popper, he quite explicitly creates a conceptual model which he then demolishes through criticism, but the conceptual model bears no resemblance to the actual Hegel, as represented in his writings. For details of how Popper constructed this straw Hegel, see: From Shakespeare to Existentialism: Studies in Poetry, Religion, and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, Beacon Press, Boston 1959, in particular Chapter 7: The Hegel Myth and Its Method, pages 88-119. This too is available free on the Web. Let me summarise the salient points of Kaufmann’s criticisms. ‘Popper has relied largely on Scribner’s Hegel Selections, a little anthology for students that contains not a single complete work’, and he seems ‘unaware of crucial passages, if not entire works’, not included in this book. But far worse from Kaufmann’s perspective, ‘Sentences are picked from various contexts, often even out of different books, enclosed by a single set of quotation marks, and separated only by three dots, which are generally taken to indicate no more than the omission of a few words. Plainly, this device can be used to impute to an author views he never held.’ I won’t go on. I’ve made my point.

The interesting question is, why do people respond to Hegel in this way? I am not qualified to go into the individual motivations of particular critics and I don’t think the answer lies there anyway. I think the answer is to be found in the historical record. Here we find that Hegel’s ideas were dominant in European universities through the early decades of the nineteenth century, where they produced their critics, including the so-called ‘Left Hegelians’ or ‘young Hegelians’, as well as Marx and Engels, and Kierkegaard, the progenitor of existentialism. The dominant conservative interpretation focused on Hegel’s later works, which contain many of the features that antagonise Pratt, while neglecting his earlier works, particularly the Phenomenology of Spirit, which contain arguably the most advanced expression of liberal thought; Marcuse’s book concentrates on the young Hegel. Marxism and existentialism represent critical responses to Hegel, as in a different sense do the works of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but by the middle of the century a different attitude prevailed in the universities. Hegelianism was simply rejected and replaced, in Germany at first by neo-Kantianism, in Britain and increasingly the United States by philosophies based on the logical empiricism of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore. There was a profound restructuring of the universities over this period and there was no place for Hegelianism in that process. In Germany, the goal of university education shifted from Humboldt’s notion of facilitating the self-actualisation and enculturation of the individual to the aim of producing technicians with the skills to operate in an increasingly technological world. There was no critical intellectual development from Hegel to Russell but rather a forgetting of the philosophical tradition, a kind of social amnesia. And, as with all amnesia, the constant problem is the return of the repressed.

I think it was Michel Foucault who remarked to the effect that every time we try to go beyond Hegel we find ourselves back before him. In his second set of comments on ‘Hegel for Beginners’, Pratt says, ‘I am trying to find an alternative to the Hegelian dialectic’, but isn’t this effectively the kind of approach Hegel criticised in distinguishing between abstract and determinate negation? Before we can abandon Hegel it behoves us to understand him.

Just trying to get a grip on Hegel

Thanks, Trevor, I am trying to get a grip on Hegel and your comments on his works. I admit when I did a bit of internet research on the subject, one of the sites that I went to seemed to help me understand something about his thinking  by explaining the Hegel Dialectic. It is a quandary but I am a simple man and I need to put things into simple terms in an effort to understand.

I really appreciate your comments and thoughts. I am still at a loss to understand how anyone would disagree with such logic.

I am doing my best to understand the conservative mind and motivation. I am hoping it is more than greed and self interest. 

weather forecast: passivity, ideology, philosophy, action(?)

I suppose I'm led back to the Prof. George Friedman Stratfor forecast Fiona Reynolds lent me, just at this juncture.

Here a framework was established by which certain proposals concerning mid century wars, technological advances and cultural changes were advanced.

But Friedman, an educated conservative, in no way expected his speculations to be taken as concrete, irreversible and immutable in the minutiae. They were musings as to what might "realistically" happen, in IR terms, given the accuracy of his framework based on the notion of the continuance rather than decline of the US as dominant, self interested and not entirely benevolent or self knowledgeable hegemon powered by the winds of economy, secular rationality, technology and a continued movement to cultural and social homogeneity.

A sort of "Playboy Lockheed Martin" type of thing, if that helps.

Friedman can't see changes to the dominant materialist capitalist neo-colonialist mode now operative for some time. He does not "rate" our current ecological crises, confident that techno fixes are within civilisation's grasp, and dismisses all religious fundamentalism as self -defeating, influential but not the determinant factor in the upcoming historical scenario.

The cataclysmic upheavals in the middle east he sees merely as another chapter, now becoming resolved within a wider historical process. This is to the extent that, confident of his scholarly framework, he is quite happy to acknowledge that the US has been quite happy to be as disruptive as possible in the middle east and all other locations across the globe, subordinate to the imperatives of US "Grand Policy".

No Huntingdonian cultural sentimentality tinged ideology here! The stuff is apparently realist and materialist, for hard-asses, but as unsafe as anything else when its underlying rationale and presumptions are not questioned.

For example, it remains possibly unconsciously or even expediently coloured by its writers own background as a Jewish conservative East-coast establishment academic. Is he happy to dismiss the long term upheavals of the Middle East as just a Jihadist scrub war manifestation of the cultural clash between secularism and modernism, and religious conservatism. That is, in the hope that the minimisation of its consideration enables his wider perspective even aspirations, to become self-fulfilling, for example.

Who does he hope, in his heart of hearts, triumphs between Palestine and Israel, for example? and he certainly does have a niche within American Establishment academia to guard - no telling how this factor could subconsciously impact on the framing of his model.

All this is a long way away from Hegel in the original context of the thread, but it does involve this human propensity to "know", including as a determinant in human affairs that colours human ability to predict and change according to theoretical, including arguably objective, frameworks.

The dank forests of Teutonic theory

OMG what have I done? I've woken an Hegelian from his slumber. Sorry to disturb your peace Trevor Maddock, but you may have noticed that the trajectory of what I've been writing is directed towards beginnings of critical theory rather than endings. In the meantime I've also been trying to club down the occasional neolib trog, or at least send them to the back of the cave so the light of rationality won't upset them with the play of shadows.

So far as I'm concerned these days the political project is as follows:

1. The maintenance of an intact ecology sufficient to allow the flourishing of all beings;

2. The maintenance of social life sufficiently democratic and reciprocally respectful to allow those who seek their own freedom to pursue that objective.

After that whatever others choose to do is entirely up to them. In other words after we have secured material conditions adequate to sustain human social life and curtailed human excesses enough to guarantee the life of other species then the matter of freedom is very much one of individual choice except in so far as the choice made does not curtail or limit the life options of others. To greater or lesser degree. The issue of exactly what are the conditions to sustain human social life is what has been at stake in these discussions of course. But more on that at some other point.

I agree with you that the history of the political economy of capital is considerably more complex than the format here allows but that is one of the limitations under which these discussions labour.

I daresay there will be more on this topic and I look forward to that but for now I'm off to a cabin on a mountaintop in the middle of what is categorised as "wilderness" for some respite. It is a romantic construction of nature to say that it is wilderness, for which understanding I have partly to thank Adorno, but wilderness is an aesthetic formation of nature that I enjoy a lot.

Cheers. Later.

Trapped in the Hegelian dialectic

I am trying to find an alternative to the Hegelian dialectic. This is as close as I can get.

We are all participants in the dialectic until we introduce absolutes such as ideas of right and wrong, or true and false for example

It seems to me that one man's right is another man's wrong. How do we meet somewhere in the middle? How do we find truth? It is only by discussion and an exchange of ideas that another man could show me that what I think is right today may in fact be wrong?

I think we need to accept that there are nearly always shades of grey and in fact sometimes what I think is right is wrong.

Whether we like it or not we are trapped in the Hegelian dialectic.


Yes, John Pratt, the problem underlying is the problem of teleology, in both the Hegelian Christian version and the materialist variations.

The first problem is, that although conclusions may rationally be drawn from observations of previous events, it is still not possible to write off the possibility of an exception to the rule, as Hume and the sceptics pointed out. Hence Lenin's corollary involving Capital's ability to adapt, as revealed in the phenomena of Imperialism, or Fukuyama's much later emendment involving "the end of history".

History is what is yet to happen, and our attempts to identify the operative dialectic, anticipate its trends and act pre-emptively to forestall what we feel to be undesirable, remains tricky, not least because of our subjectivity.

Neitzsche, the anarchists, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as Marx and Feuerbach, have all had their responses to Hegel and their own subsequent system (non-system?) amendments focussing on internal components involving the state, the individual and personal transformation/responsibility, base, superstructure and reality.

In fact as to the dialectic itself, which is merely an exposition of the mechanism of a dynamic but not necessary teleological, process involving eventing thru space and time, this theoretically itself remains open to verification, despite our impressions to the contrary.

A bit reductionist

Followed your link, John, and found it a bit reductionist.

I'd have moved directly to the Feuerbach/Marxian corollary to Hegel, which advances Hegel beyond the point to which the idea of discourse can be employed to obfuscate and hold up.

Specifically, if the underlying ethics are crook, this a factor that must not remain immanent but form part of a conscious understanding of the correct dimensions of the discussion. Along with the realisation that in this form it remains, solely, a discussion (as with emission trading, no action!!)

Basically, capital, by its nature, applied in reality as a determinant based on oppression and theft, refuses compromise. Consider (nothing more than) emissions trading versus even a mild carbon tax, let alone sequestration of global resources to deal with the environmental disaster; and on a parallel movement involving a different manifestation, well-being of the global poor relating to the refusal even of Tobin taxes, for example, as part of the remedy.

We can have the goose a big bit dead or a little bit dead, but capital dictates its death as non- negotiable. We may find out later there were no golden eggs stuffed up the dead goose (plausible deniability), rather as we find, at the end of neoliberalism an environment bordering on ecological collapse and no hope of much advancement when ideology is so skewed with red herrings like the one on the link, as to split consensus even on preconditions for progress.

Israel "negotiating" over Palestine is another good analogy.

"We can talk, as long as you understand there is to be no fundamental change".

One seldom succeeds in negotiations from a position of weakness and ignorance, so I think that the future may be a bit rockier than some hope.

The Hegelian dialectic

The Hegelian dialectic is the ridiculous idea that constant conflict and continual merging of opposite ideologies, as established by extreme right or left belief systems, will lead spiritual mankind into final perfection. (Americans understood man's spiritual quests to be outside the realm of government control). Hegel's brilliance rests in his ability to confuse and obfuscate the true motives of the planners, and millions of people world-wide have been trying to make sense of why it doesn't work for over 150 years. But like the AA definition of insanity, the world keeps trying it over and over expecting different results. ...

When Frederick Engels and Karl Marx based their communist theory on Hegel's theory of spiritual advancement via constant resolution of differences, they based the theory of communism on an unproven theory.

While Darwin's theory of evolution is still being debated, there's absolutely no proof that societies are continually evolving. When Engels and Marx later based their communist theory on Lewis Henry Morgan's theory of anthropology in 1877, they again based the theory of communism on an unprovable theory.

I think Hegel's idea  of societies continually evolving is close to the truth; otherwise we would all be living in caves.

We progress by trial and error. Those that develop the best social systems become dominant.  We have taken capitalism to its extreme. Now we need to evolve an alternative system by the merging of ideologies.

We must constantly evolve - it is a natural law.

By the way, what is the alternative?

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