Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Hegel: An Analogy of Hegel

Penned upon the 12th of October, 2010

Georg Hegel is very likely the world’s best-known philosopher of history (though not, if I might be candid, the world’s best philosopher of history.) Of course, in some circles, Hegel is chiefly remembered for influencing Marx… and in others, Marx is chiefly remembered for deriving from Hegel. Academia is nothing if not delightfully inconsistent, no? (Incidentally, Friedrich von Schelling is frequently – one might even say traditionally – referred to as the philosopher who bridges Fichte and Hegel, which is rather like saying Europe is the continent which bridges Asia and Africa – arguably true, but misleading without elaboration. But, I digress.)

Hegel’s system of history is rationalistic and progressive, describing the growing recognition of the supremacy of the individual reason across empires and eras. His arguments are provocative, at the very least, but it is his richness of metaphor which carries his philosophy. For instance, he compares the march of reason to the light of the rising sun, appearing in the East and gradually bringing its illumination to the West. However, unlike the real sun, progress ceases its journey in the constitutional states of Europe, moving no further but shining there forever, turning night to day, withering crops, driving birds and beasts mad, and starving what cities it doesn’t burn.

Hegel also describes the progress of reason as alike to the ages of a man; it grows from the innocence of childhood into youthful vigour and braggadocio, and then into maturity and old age. However, unlike a real old man, progress does not suffer from infirmity, but becomes ever fitter and wittier, untouched by grey hair or the decay of grey matter. Presumably, the tyranny of cellular degeneration having been overcome, power becomes centred in the class of everliving elders, barring the young from office or command unless they seize them by force… metaphorically speaking.

With these examples, I think we can invent a few of our own Hegelean analogies. For instance, the progress of reason is like a cow, humble but unrelenting in its labours. However, unlike a material cow, the rational cow grazes not on grass and clover but on the other cows in its herd, nibbling off small pieces of them to give itself strength in its march. Also, cannot we compare progress to a costermonger with his barrow, peddling his goods along the high street? Although, while a real costermonger would be low on stock by the end of his round, the costermonger of the illuminated mind gains more oranges and courgettes back than he sells, until finally his cart bursts under the strain, scattering produce and upsetting unstable grandmothers.

Am I too hard on the fellow? I must admit, when I quibble his philosophy, it’s in the details, not the core. I might say “oh ho, surely the march of history is less linear; surely it follows the Greek example” – or whatever – but he was at the top of his field for a reason, no denying it. No, it’s just that he constructed similes like a crab precipitating doilies – he sculpted the most attractive ice-cream ox-plow, but never introduced himself formally to Grover Cleveland. And how is the modern reader to surmount an obstacle like that?

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