Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Hegel's Moment of Despair

In 1821, Hegel concluded his series of lectures on the philosophy of religion with a remark that he did not repeat in the later versions of these lectures in 1824, 1827, and 1831. Still, this remark was in the original manuscript of the lectures, and it is the very last paragraph. Thus, it seems noteworthy even if it does not survive the redactions of later years. Here it is (from the Hodgson three-volume edition of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, vol. 3, p. 162):

Religion must take refuge in philosophy. For the theologians of the present day, the world is a passing away into subjective reflection because it has as its form merely the externality of contingent occurrence. But philosophy, as we have said, is also partial: it forms an isolated order of priests--a sanctuary--who are untroubled about how it goes with the world, who need not mix with it, and whose work is to preserve this possession of truth. How things turn out in the world is not our affair.
The first part about theology is to be expected. As he perceived it in his era, theology had been so thoroughly co-opted by rationalism that it had removed itself from any real engagement with the world and the substantive issues of theological doctrine. Hegel saw this especially in Kant's rational theology--the epitome of subjective reflection that dismisses the world's religions and their histories, symbols, and doctrines as so much cognitive pathology and pith, but this problem was also evident in Jacobi's resolute defiance of "reason," which for him leads ineluctably to his distorted version of Spinozism tantamount to fatalism and atheism. Schleiermacher's theology seemed to be no solution but only a mixture of these two influences by virtue of a transcendental deduction (there's the Kantian rationalism) of religious feeling (there's Jacobi's anti-rationalism).

But the last part represents a stunning confession from the philosopher whose project from his earliest writings (such as the Early Theological Writings and the Phenomenology) had been to resolve the lasting cultural ills that plague the modern world--dualisms that urgently call for reconciliation: first and foremost, the dualism of the divine and the world; second, humanity and nature; third, the individual and the community; fourth, thought and reality. And here in this final sentence, all of these aspirations seem to come crashing down on the rocks of despair: philosophers are an “order of priests” who do not mix with the world but only preserve their private possession of truth. How things turn out in the world is not the business of philosophers! First of all, what sort of Verstand-thinking is this, presupposing a philosopher/world dualism such as this? Furthermore, no wonder the Young Hegelians felt pressed to part ways with their master.


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