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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Defining Liberalism / Hegel as a Liberal

"Her own mother lived the latter years of her life in the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house." - James Thurber


"According to Dr. Pelczynski, Hegel was a “champion of political rationality,” in the same sense as Jeremy Bentham. The difference between them is to Hegel’s credit, for whereas Bentham’s moral utilitarianism prevented him from making sense of “natural rights” and “the law of reason,” Hegel was their stout defender. “In this respect Hegel is much nearer Paine than Bentham.” Not since the baptism of Aristotle has anything as bold as this transfiguration been attempted.

If Dr. Pelczynski’s interpretation is valid, then we must indeed conclude that Hegel has been one of the most misunderstood of philosophers in the history of thought. But it seems to me, to put it mildly, to be invalid...

Herbert Marcuse contends that the Burschenschaft and others whom Hegel denounced were proto-Nazis; but this is absurd. If all who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments are to be considered Nazis, or “as bad as Nazis,” we would have to include among the precursors of Hitler not only Voltaire but Marx himself...

Perhaps those who see in Hegel a prophet of liberalism are using the term “liberalism” in a Pickwickian sense. It is wrong to assume with Russell that liberalism is necessarily wedded to empiricism or vice versa. Socially, the connections between the two are less than logical and more than merely psychological. A thinker can defend a liberal position on the basis of an idealistic (even theological) metaphysics in the sense that his justifying reasons are expressed in the idiom of his system or creed. But what defines a liberal position in social and political affairs? Not any one trait or program, to be sure, whether it is “free enterprise” or the conception of the state as a neutral umpire between warring social groups. There is a family of traits which define the liberal temper, several of which must be present before we can justifiably classify a thinker as liberal. Among the things we look for in a liberal thinker are recognition of the moral primacy of the individual in appraising institutional life, acceptance of a free market of ideas, tolerance of political opposition, appreciation of diversity, openmindedness to alternatives, endorsement of the right to self-determination, national, social and personal, including the moral right to revolution if the demand for self-determination is persistently frustrated. And, underlying all, reliance on the methods of intelligence conceived not as Reason carrying out ends of which we are not aware, but as common sense fortified by relevant scientific knowledge. Liberalism is not so much a doctrine as an attitude toward political affairs which is aware of human finitude and the tentativeness of human judgment and yet is prepared to act vigorously in moments of crisis. When it is given to religious language, it regards the ascription of Perfection or Divinity to the State (which we find in Hegel), or to any other human institution, as blasphemous...

Nonetheless there is something that contemporary liberals can learn from Hegel. This is the importance of the principles of continuity and polarity in avoiding lapses into doctrinaire positions. History abounds with illustrations, and we need not go far in our own time to find them. Not every plausible plan is a workable one. Readiness is not all the ripeness and maturity of conditions, independently determined, count for some thing too. We cannot wipe out history and begin as if we were born yesterday. There is no one principle that can guide us in human affairs whether it be the principle of freedom, peace, survival, justice, love, or what not. Each one exacts a price in terms of the others. Effective as these and similar maxims are in diminishing the risks of excess, by themselves they do not constitute an adequate philosophy. All they add up to is a counsel of caution.

Despite contentions to the contrary, the philosophy of the Enlightment in its best exemplars, save for its optimism and absence of the tragic sense of life, took note of the dangers Hegel feared. Except for Rousseau, whose false and mischievous doctrine of the “general will” Hegel took over, they were free from obscurantic romanticism. For all his invocations to Reason, Hegel distrusted the critical and sceptical spirit of the Enlightenment, its striving for clarity, its exposure of theological and philosophical humbug. The Hegelian philosophy did not become, except for its fetishism of the State, the ideology of the counterrevolutionary restoration."

--- Hegel Rehabilitated? / Sidney Hook

Ironically, by this definition of liberalism contemporary liberals wouldn't be liberal. But then Hook wrote this in 1965.

Hook again on Hegel:

"Hegel is the very model of a small-minded, timid Continental convservative. There is no more reason to regard Hegel as a liberal than Plato as a democrat"

"By the most specious reasoning that ever disgraced a philosopher, he tries to 'prove' by Hegelian logic that state sovereignty must be embodied not merely in an individual, not merely in a monarch, but in a hereditary monarch! No wonder Hegel declares that this feat is beyond the power of 'the understanding'... It is difficult to tell what is more nauseating in writing of this kind - its sycophancy or its obfuscation"
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