Thanks to John Vervaeke for hosting me on his channel. It was a wonderful conversation. As you’ll hear, we are planning to do a few trilogues soon with Jorge Ferrer and Evan Thompson.
Below are a few reflections after teaching a module on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit this past week. My natural inclinations draw me to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, but every time I return to Hegel’s writing after some time apart I start to worry I’ve allowed myself to fall into a caricatured understanding of his trickster-like dialectical method.
I’m reminded of Foucault’s famous admission (Discourse on Language, 235):
…our age, whether through logic or epistemology, whether though Marx or through Nietzsche, is attempting to flee Hegel….But truly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.
Hegel offers something other than a “history of ideas.” Instead, he narrates an evolution of consciousness. A history of ideas usually presupposes that the same sort of self/subject apprehends the same sort of world/object, with the only change occurring when the self employs new ideas to represent the world to itself. In other words, only the conceptual content changes, i.e., what is thought about the world. Left unaccounted for by historians of ideas is the form of thinking, i.e., how experience is constellated in each epoch such that a certain kind of self comes into relation to a certain kind of world. It’s not just the ideas that shift in the course of history; the whole self-world Gestalt transforms itself. Hegel’s account is an evolution of consciousness rather than a history of ideas: the very essence of the way an object appears to a subject dialectically morphs through the course of history, until finally at the end of history, both the essence of the world and the way this essence appears to itself coincide in “Absolute Knowledge.” For Hegel, there is only one Idea: the identity of identity and difference, or the subject-object identity. The so-called “history of ideas” is just Spirit’s tragic comedy of errors, a laborious journey from childish naiveté to the rational recollection of ultimate reality.
Or so Hegel’s story goes. The next module of the course I’m teaching focuses on Schelling’s late philosophy of mythology and revelation. Schelling offered it as an alternative way forward for philosophy after Hegel.
Bryant posted recently about how he would define the notion of “Enlightenment.” I agree with part of what he has to say, in that clearly Enlightenment does concern the bursting forth of critique. Where we seem to disagree is on the extent to which critique can ever lift itself entirely above the mythopoietic structure of the cultures to which it belongs and out of which it came. Here is my response to him:
So “mythic” modes of consciousness are “immature” across the board? Are you arguing that the Enlightened are those grown ups who have entirely transcended myth to live in the full light of Reason? Or would you admit that story and narrative are essential and inevitable factors in all human knowledge of self and world?
To my mind, the Enlightenment represents a new awakening to (or remembrance of) a 2,500 year old axial form of mythospeculation that is not only reflexive (as the Greek tragedies and Jewish prophecies were), but now also self-reflexive. Individuals begin to step into their own authority as legitimate grounds for reasons. They need no longer draw explicitly on gods or kings or even kin when they argue for an essential rightness, or goodness, or truth concerning the world. Truth needs no intermediary. Of course, individuals always implicitly draw on ancient traditions of interpretation when they reason, whether they are deriving a mathematical formula in a lab, protesting for their freedom in the streets, or reading the first verses of John’s gospel at their bedside.
The Enlightenment didn’t do away with transcendence or myth. The Enlightenment offered us a new myth, the myth of mythlessness, and a new transcendence, that of Theory and Science. God was killed, but the Mind of Man was crowned in Its place.
I don’t think we need more Enlightenment. We don’t need more myth, either.
We need to integrate theory and story. We are more than merely rational beings. Rational intelligence emerges only within a matrix of culture and symbolism and finds its bearings amidst the stories sustained by this matrix.
Certain passions have haunted and lead us to cruelty, no doubt; but other passions provide the heart’s very reasons for living, “reasons that reason doesn’t know.”
I’m all about the Light.
But let’s not forget that the most brilliant lights casts the darkest shadows.
Update: the discussion continues over at Knowledge-Ecology.
To sum up:
Levi and I seem to be disagreeing about whether myth penetrates to the level of ontology, or whether it is merely an epistemic limit or veil that can be removed and discarded after logical, scientific thought has revealed the pure light of truth hiding behind it. Myth need not be a limit to thought; it can provide a doorway to the infinite if we do not allow it to collapse into narrow literalisms and closed ideologies.
Speculative philosophy is the telling of what Plato called “likely stories,” open-ended accounts of what may be the case, all known things considered.