Transition Milwaukee

Rebuilding Community Resilience & Self-Reliance

In Defense of Difficult (and Why Hegel Matters)

A Defense of Difficulty 

From time to time readers complain that my essays and posts are too long and too difficult to follow.  They are long and difficult, I agree, but I do not agree that length and difficulty are a fault of the writer.  I would even suggest that readers have become lazy, expecting new and complex ideas to be delivered with the brevity and wit of a good twitter post (were such a thing to actually exist).

I’m going to illustrate my point of view by describing my experience with Hegel.  While I am not claiming to be a new Hegel, we are at a point in history where we need the introduction of the sort of new vocabulary that Hegel invented in the early nineteenth century.   I have spent about five years of my life reading Hegel, and of course re-reading Hegel, and re-reading Hegel with guides to Hegel in one hand and Hegel in the other.  At this point, I think I’m a pretty good reader of Hegel and understand him at a level shared by other living in the humans that measure no more than the thousands.  I certainly understand him better than the tenured philosophy professor whose class on the Phenomenology of Spirit I took as a graduate student.  Nevertheless, drop me into the middle of the Phenomenology without any context, and I’m as lost as I would be if released blindfolded in Instanbul, Moscow, or Calcuatta.  His books are uncompromisingly difficult.

For Hegel invented a new language and did little to provide explanatory sign posts to guide his reader through his prose.  The reason is rather simple, though.  He was providing an autobiography of the development of Western consciousness, and expects his reader to suffer the confusions and difficulties that this consciousness, itself, experienced in its development.  He doesn’t want simply to summarize this evolution, but, to an extent, reproduce it.   From this perspective, his work is generously accessible.

Sitting at the cusp and beginning of modernity, Hegel believed that the old language used to explain morality, politics, logic, truth, humanity, history, and aesthetics was no longer valid—thus his insistence on a new language to explain these.  Although few of us have the patience, luxury, and aptitude to spend five years reading Hegel, all of us use Hegelian concepts.  The language he invented is in some ways the language we all use.  Hegel, for instance, first noticed the newly developing tension between the overriding modernist goal of freedom and the remaining philosophical longing for necessity, one that also haunts our modern and postmodern psychologies as we look for purpose and meaning.  The tension between the legal code and our moral codes—the former’s obsession with a certain sort of arbitrary hard distinction vs. the moralists constant urge to show who is, to put it bluntly, fucked-over by these distinctions—has its roots in Hegel.  So also does the very notion that truth has a history and that different people in different times might reasonably maintain different values.  Anthropology is a child of Hegel.  So also is modern psychology, with its overriding value of adjusting to contingent circumstances instead of holding oneself to a transcendental moral code, as the Priest, the psychologist’s mortal enemy, would have it.

Of course Hegel imagined that all these tensions and contradictions would be sorted out and transcended in the next stage of human development, which they did not.  As I write this, I am personally struggling with a tension between my pursuit of legal redress and my deeper understanding of human emotions and choices.  We may have identified the identity of identity and difference, but we haven’t found a way to institutionalize it.  But the dream of progress and a society that transcends very old problems of living a human life on Earth contain vestiges of Hegel’s progressive view of history.  Like us, he believed we could “work-through” our various difficulties (Freud, a consummate, if unconscious, Hegelian, believed that this would involve “remembering, repeating, and working-through”).   That we may not be solve the problems of death, scarcity, and conflict requires a new language, and this new language risks being a naïve Hegelian reincantation unless at least some of us are familiar enough with Hegel to avoid a naïve reinscription.  I have achieved great intellectual wealth from this five year investment.  Everything I say bears a Hegelian imprint, even if an anti-Hegelian one.   Nearly all current “solutions, ” in contrast, are warmed-over Hegel, even though the solvers have no familiarity with Hegel in the original.  He invented many of our concepts, and in order to resolve a problem that is not exactly ours.

Action oriented activists will be impatient with all this, but they, of course, are the most egregious reinscribers.  An effective post-carbon discourse will require a new language.   While this new language may not require a rewriting of The Phenomenology of Spirit, it may ask you to read 30 or 40 paragraphs filled with unfamiliar concepts without complaint. 

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