Although I have been drawn to Hegel at times, I have always come back to the pat Anglo-American opinion that he is a crackpot civil servant of the Prussian state, spinning abstruse jargon in the void while presuming to contemplate the whole of history from his armchair. I remember a vivid passage of Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason in which Allan Megill explains how Marx was captive to the mad “historical dialectic” Lectures on the History of Philosophy (compiled and published posthumously by his student Eduard Gans). The madness is the premise that history unfolds rationally in “determined negations”, like a logical argument. Megill’s gloss delights:
missed trains, broken condoms… marital disagreements, random murders, fornications… [all history] proceeds like the working out of a deductive argument (29-30)
Is there a sensible Hegel underneath all of this much-derided Hegelian madness? In his article “Was Pragmatism the Successor to Idealism”, Terry Pinkard takes up this question. He turns not to Aristotelian logic, but to natural science to contextualize Hegel. Hegel opposed Lamarckian evolution in favor of Georges Curvier’s theory that “each organism is an internally structured teleological whole that exists in harmony with its environment”, and so
Hegel’s acceptance of Curvier’s hypothesis (widely held among German intellectuals at the time) also colored his view of history, leading him to see the various forms of life of Greece, Rome, and the like as if they were strictly analogous to the self-contained nature of a Curvierian organism. (156)
So why did C. S. Peirce and John Dewey understand Hegelian idealism to be closely related to their eminently practical pragmatist philosophy? For Hegel, history itself does not proceed like a dialectic, Pinkard takes pains to show. Instead, our practical Idea of history — “how people imagine their social existence, how they see themselves as fitting together with others, etc.” (158) — is a subject for practical reason.
At the core of Pinkard’s reading of Hegel (and an entire century of German idealism) is the ‘Kantian paradox’. Kant argued that autonomous persons self-legislate non-arbitrary laws for themselves. What keeps self-legislation from degenerating into relativism? What keeps the search for non-arbitrary laws from amounting to some kind of “given”? On Pinkard’s view, Kant fails to resolve this paradox. So Hegel takes a stab at it:
Hegel’s proposal is that in effect we need to take Kant’s rather bold assertion in the Grundlegung [Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals] that all prior attempts at securing the principles of ethical life had to fail because of their failure to see that such principles had to be self-authored and follow that out to its conclusion. In Hegel’s hands, that in turn demands a different kind of philosophy, a developmental, social, and historical account about what is at work in our subjective commitments to those practices, which nonetheless cannot be merely a ‘positive’ history. It must instead make it intelligible how it is that these given set of commitments has come to be regarded as authoritative… (156)
Pinkard admits that this shifts the question. Hegelian philosophy analyzes why old-fashioned sets of commitments lose their purchase. The goal of Hegelian philosophy is to start with these pre-reflective given commitments, which come from our history, and elevate them as a collectively authored ‘practical Idea’ of a free life for all. For Hegelian idealists this is a peculiar modern (i.e. post-Kantian) demand, although pragmatism (from John Dewey to Jürgen Habermas) views this reason-giving exchange as inherent to human being or language itself.
Can Hegel be repristinated shorn of the ‘ontology of Geist‘ and the much-maligned necessitarian view of history that views historical societies as Curvierian organisms? In Hegel and Modern Society, Charles Taylor called his ontology of Geist “close to incredible” (1979; 69). But he also spoke about the necessity of taking up Hegel’s need for freedom situated in society, to recover a new Sittlichkeit (1979; 136-7). Charles Taylor has taken up the project of a non-necessitarian “phenomenological account” of our given commitments in Sources of the Self (1989; 32).