Cloud Mind Shadow

“I believe that only a dreamer who has fear neither of life nor death will discover this infinitesimal iota of force which will hurtle the cosmos into whack – instantaneously.”

What do you do when you have no fear of life and death? Perhaps you sit outside a quiet pub and drink a beer on a mild September afternoon. And dream. This moment belongs to you: a moment to do nothing. You live a lifetime in such a moment.

“For him who is obliged to dream with eyes wide open all movement is in reverse, all action broken into kaleidoscopic fragments.”

The ideologues have it in reverse, with their emphasis on seizing opportunity: if you keep your eyes open for every opportunity to act (to “get on”, to “add value”) then you’re living like an animal. Gilles Deleuze said that this is what it means to be an animal: always on the lookout, always on alert. If you live like this you’ll never know what it can mean to be human, a rational being whose mind encompasses the earth and sky, and the cloud rolling above and shadows that move below are this human beer-drunk mind moving away and back into itself. If you live for opportunity you will remain warily separate from the human nature-mind of cloud and shadow. Clouds mean rain, shadows mean danger. Keep your eyes open.

“I believe, as I walk through the horror of the present, that only those who have the courage to close their eyes, only those whose permanent absence from the condition known as reality can affect our fate . . .”

On every inhabited planet in every galaxy of every universe is the same “identical misery . . . identical insanity.” It will be back to the same insanity once I finish this beer. But for now everything seems in order. The cosmos? It’s all in whack as long as I can sit in this peace in the cool air. A moment alone with myself. A lifetime before the deluge.

(I’ve been reading Black Spring by Henry Miller, published by Alma Classics in 2012. Most of the quotations in this post are from the chapter entitled “Walking Up and Down in China.”)

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The Garden Pool

(Painting from The Tomb of Nebamun, 18th Dynasty Egypt)


“Viewed from above, as if through the eyes of the gods”

To the eyes of a god the world appears flat. The trees lie flat around the flattened pool, and the ducks and fish lie flat on a water that is all surface. And the goddess sits in the same corner carrying out her work setting out the fruit and water she has collected that morning. She moves too fast for the god’s lazy eye-blink and he finally sees her only when her task is almost done. Each day the same, the goddess ready with the fruit and water.

The goddess’s task is easy: the fruit falls ready from the trees. Each day the feast is prepared – but for whom? The god never sees: his gaze is moving on past the garden just as the guests arrive.

(I’ve been reading 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, published by Cassell in 2006. The quotation in italics under the picture is from there. I found the picture itself on Wikimedia Commons.)

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Reading Spengler Again

This preface I’m reading says I shouldn’t be literal-minded when reading Oswald Spengler. Yes, his presentation of the facts is dubious, he exaggerates and distorts, he’s polemical – but I mustn’t let this spoil my enjoyment. I’d be missing out on something important if I gave Spengler a miss on the grounds that he’s imprecise about historical detail. But how can I read a work of this kind and not be literal-minded? Shouldn’t I evaluate a work of history on the basis of whether it’s true or not? Of whether it gets the facts right?

The author of the preface I’m reading invites me to compare Spengler to Arnold J. Toynbee. Toynbee took great pains in his empirical approach. He appears “more precise” with his data, and “more reasonable” in his tone. But ultimately this was just an appearance: he is “as dogmatic as Spengler.” Behind Toynbee’s apparently reasonable claims are Christian assumptions, and he effectively “composed . . . a history of salvation.”

At least with Spengler the assumptions are there on the surface. But how can these historians be so subjective, so free with the facts? The preface I’m reading seems to suggest that the trouble is they’re not really doing history at all, but anthropology, or “cultural comparisons across time and space.” Or perhaps in Spengler’s case, it’s suggested, what he’s really written is a kind of poetry: Spengler, after all, referred to himself as a poet. Maybe there’s something about cultural comparison that lends itself to a poetic approach, rather than a scientific one: a rational or scientific approach demands that we begin with a set of underlying principles, and which principles can we begin with that could be universally applied to all cultures? If you are a poet, on the other hand, you accept that you are looking with your own eyes, that the truth you see is your own. Though he says “thinker,” Spengler sounds like he’s describing a poet when he writes:

“A thinker is a person whose part it is to symbolise time according to his vision and understanding. He has no choice; he thinks as he has to think. Truth in the long run is to him the picture of the world which was born at his birth.”

And the paradox seems to be, that once you acknowledge that your vision is your own, that you are describing the world as you see it and not from a god’s eye view, you begin to see the object more clearly: it shines and stands apart as you describe it, and through your work, if you write well, the simple truths of the world become clear and visible to the attentive reader.

(I’m reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, an abridged edition from the translation by Charles Francis Atkinson, published by Oxford University Press in 1991. The preface is by H. Stuart Hughes.)

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Dostoevsky, Death and Paradise

Why write? Not to create original truths, but to remind ourselves of old truths. We need to be reminded: we are forgetful. Original stories to remind us of what we’ve always known. The history of humanity, and the duration of a life, is the coming round and round again to what we already knew in the beginning: that the mind is the body, the moment is eternal, and each day is a paradise.

In The Karamazov Brothers, there’s a story of a young man who is dying. Having been an atheist until now, he begins to go to church – he says he does it to please his mother, who fears for his soul. He’s too ill to go to church for long, and now he must confess and take the sacrament at home. And one day it becomes clear that a change has come over him: “his spirit seemed transformed.” He no longer fears death. He has a serene look in his eyes, he smiles at everyone. He weeps to see the innocence of the birds in the garden. He blesses the sunrise each morning, and declares that we live each day in paradise. Blissful and serene, the whole house feels the joy of his transformation. The doctor says he won’t live much longer: the disease is affecting his brain.

Dostoevsky reminds me of what I, like the doctor, have forgotten. What I learn and forget and learn and forget again and again: that life, like a well-written story, is simple. That you only live the day you are living. That the sun is a blessing, a gift, and so every day the world gives you something for nothing. These are eternal, simple truths. Truths that must come to mind when faced with the beauty of a simple story, or, I imagine, with the sublime finality of death itself.

(The story of the young man is at the beginning of Book Six of The Karamazov Brothers, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’ve been reading the translation by Constance Garnett, published by Wordsworth Classics.)

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The Very Last Love in the World

Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “The Backbone Flute” is a poem about desire, the mystery of where desires come from, and how they can fade and be forgotten. And it’s about the suffering of an artist, a poet, whose desires seem too wide for the world.

The poet depicts himself at work where

“the nails of words

“nail me to paper”

Nailed to paper in the dim light of his study. But we should not just imagine the poet here hunched over his writing paper, but also leaving his house, out in the street, still carrying the grey darkness of the study with him. The words, his own words, are still driven through him. Crucified, he is held in position. Boris Pasternak wrote of Mayakovsky: “His way of carrying himself suggested something like a decision when it has been executed and its consequences are irrevocable. This decision was his very genius . . .” The poet has created himself according to his own decision, his own genius, and his very being is now determined by this decision, the decision made in the dark of his study. He’s heavy with his genius.

Outside, the streets are full of “gaiety.” Light and laughter threaten to penetrate his self-enclosing gloom. Nature turns green and gold with spring. “Flowers and grasses, turn gold in the sun!” But, being crucified, the poet can only look inward at his own words, his own suffering:

“I desire only one poison –

“to drink the deep draught of verse.”

And by this draught the poet’s gloomy genius is hardened, impenetrable.

He leaves his study and steps outdoors, to visit the woman he is in love with. She is a creature who has forgotten how to desire, with “the gaping hollows of two deep graves” for eyes. He feels he might fall into these graves, but he saves himself, “juggling with words” as he “totters above” first one abyss, then the other.

He wants to save his beloved from her own emptiness: “Find your youth in my soul,” he tells her. It’s strange that one who spends his days nailed to paper, hidden from the warmth of the life-giving sun, blind to the cheerfulness of the street, should feel he has a youthful soul, a soul so overflowing with youth that he has enough to spare to save the soul of another. But this is something of the magic of the “crucifixion” of the writer: he’s reborn, resurrected, and thereby immune to nature’s cycle of birth and decay.

She, however, is dead (even as she lives.) And the world is loveless: people have forgotten even that the sky is blue. Perhaps the poet’s love is the last love in the world, and the flush of his cheek is the last red in the world:

“the very last love in the world

“to dawn like a consumptive’s flush.”

The poet doesn’t expect his reader to understand. To him, we are all like this woman: dead to our desire. There is no desire left in the world, and you must go beyond the world, be otherworldly, to find your desire. The poet is superhuman in comparison to his lover, and in comparison to everyone else, all of us:

“If you carry your faltering steps to a bridge,


“how good to be down there –

“then it is I,

“the Seine pouring under the bridge,

“who call you,

“baring my rotted teeth.”

Reborn with spring, the poet is the shadow of nature. A dark imitation. A river to call you down to your destruction. The work in the dark study, the dark magic of the crucifixion, has created this power in him. You are empty of desire, and so the poet can create desire within you. You are unable to resist. Stripped of your own desire, you are a blank canvas to be sketched upon:

“then it is I, climbing high,

“expectant and stripped like the moon, who make you yearn.”

You have forgotten how to desire. And so the poet will draw you down to despair, or raise you up to sublime yearning. The poet says: if you have no desire of your own, then I will create desire in you. I will lend you my youth, or make you desire death, or make you weep at the expectation of an impossible desire. You will see the world as I see it because, empty of desire, what is there in you to offer the least resistance? You’ll be filled, an empty vessel.

But perhaps the poet, like us, is not his own master. Perhaps not godlike after all. The only godlike one is God Himself. After all, it was God who put him in this position, and made him desire the woman he now loves. Made him want to nail himself to paper and give away his youth, rather than enjoy the joys of spring. The poet despairs and addresses God, God the greatest of all artists:

“remove that cursed woman

“whom you have made my beloved!”

But “the streets are too narrow for the storm of joy.” If God makes us desire, then why did He make the world, the streets, so narrow? Too narrow for this joy that the poet feels. There’s a moment in the poem “The Cloud in Trousers” when Mayakovsky expresses the same thought: God, if you are so good, then

“. . . why didn’t you see to it

“that one could without torture

“kiss, and kiss and kiss?!”

What use is this desire to kiss and kiss in this world so empty of desire, so narrow and constricting? Why must a poet drive nails into himself and shroud himself in darkness to communicate with the woman he desires?

Perhaps the answer is: God loves artists most of all. And He knows that an artist must suffer. And so he blesses His favourites with desire, knowing the suffering this will bring. It’s fitting that the instrument the poet chooses is his “own backbone”: the backbone God gave him. “The backbone flute”: an imperfect instrument, and one that only a poet, one meant for suffering, would dare to try to play. Needs to try to play, inspired by God to desire his own crucifixion.

(Quotations are from Vladimir Mayakvosky’s The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, translated by Max Hayward and George Reavey, published in 1975 by Indiana University Press. The quotation from Boris Pasternak is found in the introduction, written by Patricia Blake.)

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Hegel, Theodicy and Contradiction

This is a paper I presented at the “Hegel’s Conception of Contradiction: Logic, Life and History” conference in Leuven on 17th May 2013. In retrospect, it seems strange to talk about theodicy without also discussing God and the problem of evil. A quick google search for “theodicy” brings up the following definition: “the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil.” Well, Hegel is arguing for a sort of providence: the whole of human history, and all the suffering and evil that goes with it, is a necessary preparation for the end of history, where our deepest human needs can finally be realised.

I compare Raymond Geuss’s views with those of John W. Burbidge. Geuss seems to take a conventional view of what Hegel’s “end of history” looks like: it’s a world where post-Revolutionary liberal ideals have been put into practice and actualised in society. For Burbidge it’s more complex: at the end of history new conflicts arise again and again, new ideas about what’s best for society challenge the old ones: but from the “launching pad” of these conflicts we’re able to find, each time, a way to be “at home” in the world through compromise. Whether Geuss or Burbidge is right, Hegel’s “theodicy” means a vindication of the providence that he finds to be evident in history, an assertion that the suffering, conflict and evils of history prepare us for the better state of affairs that waits for us at its end.

Theodicy and Contradiction in Hegel

In this paper I’m going to discuss Hegel’s “theodicy”.  This is a term that Raymond Geuss makes use of when describing Hegel’s philosophy of art and philosophy of history.  In his essay “Art and Theodicy”, Geuss describes Hegel’s view:

“As human beings we have a fundamental – in fact Hegel calls it an ‘absolute’ – human need to be genuinely ‘at-home’ (either ‘zu Hause’ or ‘bei sich’) in the world, where ‘the world’ includes not just the natural universe, but also the social, cultural and political world in which we live.” (Geuss p.80)

We can find evidence that this is Hegel’s view in Hegel’s “Preface” to his Philosophy of Right:

“To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual.” (Philosophy of Right, p.12/26-7)

“What Luther initiated as faith in feeling and in the witness of the spirit, is precisely what spirit, since become more mature, has striven to apprehend in the concept in order to be free and so to find itself in the world as it exists today.” (Philosophy of Right, p.12/27)

Geuss describes this need for reconciliation with the world as a “human” need; for Hegel, “it defines what it is to be human”:

“Hegel claims that the need to be-at-home in the world is ‘absolute’ in that it is not relative to any other set of possible human purposes.  We humans want to satisfy this need for its own sake, i.e. just because we are human and it defines what it is to be human.” (Geuss p.81)

So on Geuss’s reading of Hegel what defines us is a need to be reconciled with the world.  Now, what form does this reconciliation take?  Well, as we just saw, it is a reconciliation with the natural and the social, or political, world.  I’m going to focus on the social and political aspect in this paper.

To be reconciled with the social, or political, world, we need the world to be more or less as we think it ought to be. Hence:

“This absolute need gives rise to an associated set of expectations about how the world ‘ought’ to be, a set of expectations that aren’t automatically satisfied in human life as we know it.  Especially in more complex human societies humans will easily fail to find their social world comprehensible or will feel alienated from it.  Oddly enough, then, being ‘at home’ in our world, although part of what we absolutely need, is not, at least for inhabitants of the ‘modern world’, our ‘natural’ state, i.e. it isn’t the state we would find ourselves in if we, as it were, failed to exert ourselves.  Philosophy, art, and religion are for Hegel all forms of what Hegel calls ‘absolute spirit’; they are, he thinks, just various ways of trying to satisfy our absolute need.” (Geuss p.81)

The point is that the need to be “at home” becomes something ethical; what I mean is that this human need we have amounts to a need to make the world live up to our ethical ideals.

Theodicy is something that teaches us that our absolute human need will be met.  Philosophy, art and religion serve as theodicy if they teach us that our good actions will lead to good results.

Geuss tells us that there are: “Two conditions that must be satisfied for there to be a fully satisfactory theodicy, namely that

“a) in a world that is basically rational, good, and commensurate to us,

“b) the ‘theodicy’ shows us that (a) is the case”. (Geuss p.83)

So, it is not enough for a theodicy to make it seem that the world is good and rational; it must also be the case that this is in fact so.

Geuss does distinguish between “true” and “false” theodicy: a false theodicy convinces us that we live in a rational and good world where this is not the case; whereas a true theodicy describes an actual rational and good state of affairs.  For example, ancient Greek art dealt in false theodicy, because it made the world appear good even though slavery existed, and for Hegel no society can really be good where slavery exists.  But true theodicy is possible in the modern state:

“Because post-revolutionary society is fundamentally rational and good – the right principles are publicly recognised and are in the process of being fully implemented – condition (a) above is satisfied and ‘true’ theodicy is possible; because the process of construction of the fully free and rational society is not yet complete and because people still cling to old-fashioned abstract conceptions, philosophy is needed and has an important social role to play both in guiding the constructive activity and in ‘reconciling’ people to that task and the world that is coming into being through it. ” (Geuss p.84)

So, Geuss’s Hegel tells us that we live today in a state that is rational and good (here in the West at least, Hegel would probably say); though there are improvements that could be made, nevertheless we have in our political constitutions and bills of human rights all the principles we need to make things match up more closely with our ideals.  In other words, we have the right ideals, but we don’t always, or yet, live up to them.  Making the world a better place is a matter of “exerting ourselves”, rather than a matter of inventing new and revolutionary ideals.  For example, we recognise homelessness and unemployment as problems because we believe people have a right to a home and meaningful work; solving these problems is a practical question, since we all agree at least that they are indeed problems that need to be solved.  That is the Hegelian view as someone like Geuss sees it, I think.

If we take this view, then we can see the Philosophy of Right as setting out the political ideals that we still strive toward today; Hegel teaches us what the ideal state looks like – no slaves; everyone has a right to property; the state is sovereign; and so on – and the task of a theodicy, as we might find in philosophy, art or religion, would be to reconcile people to their duty to try to maintain these ideals, or bring them about, as the case may be.  The point is that we can recognise in the state our own ideals and so be reconciled to whatever work we have to do within the state; some of this work will maintain the state as it is, some of it will make things even better.  Philosophy, art and religion show me that if I and others like me get on with our work within the state, we will collectively make the state a better place and so will find satisfaction in our work.

Now, Geuss describes three theses of theodicy:

“a) weakest thesis: the world isn’t (metaphysically) set up so that it will systematically thwart our deepest interests.

“b) strong thesis: the world is actually set up so as (on the whole) to foster the realisation of at least most of our deepest (rational?) interests most of the time.

“c) strongest thesis: the world is metaphysically constituted so that the realisation of our deepest human interests (eventually) is virtually ensured.” (Geuss p.88)

Hegel takes the third position, ‘c’, according to which the world is “metaphysically constituted” so that in the end we will find satisfaction of our “deepest human interests”.  All this means is that whatever ideals we have which are not satisfied right now will eventually be met.  In other words, we work not just for ourselves and our contemporaries, but also for our children or future children, grandchildren, and so on.  We can say the world is “metaphysically constituted” in this way because it is really the case that we live in a state of affairs where things will (almost certainly) get better if we exert ourselves.  Any philosophy that shows this to be true is a theodicy in the “strongest” sense.  So:

“The final result of a theodicy is to show us that life as we know it in our world is inherently worth living; this satisfaction of our absolute need should generate in us an affectively positive optimism.” (Geuss p.89)

And the function of this optimism is that it encourages us in our activity in the state (our work, civic duties, and so on).  Good things come to us if collectively we work to make the world a better place: this is what a theodicy shows us.

As I’ll explain, I like a great deal of what Geuss has to say about Hegel and theodicy.  Hegelian theodicy is indeed about reconciling ourselves to meaningful activity; and Hegelian theodicy does, I think, consist in the “strongest thesis” that the world is really constituted so that our deepest interests will almost certainly be met (in the long run) if we exert ourselves.

However, by identifying our deepest interests with the post-Revolutionary ideals described in the Philosophy of Right, Geuss’s Hegel takes too fixed a view of the ideals that we strive towards.  Geuss’s Hegel – and I should add here that I’m fairly sure Geuss’s Hegel is not Geuss himself – Geuss’s Hegel seems naive, since the picture is of a modern society in which we are all agreed in our ideals, and we just have to work towards achieving them.  Geuss’s Hegel is a conservative, in the broad sense of the term, since everything we take to be ideal in politics is found in the nation state.

I think this conservative and naive version of Hegel neglects his own law of contradiction, which Redding describes:

“The law that Hegel calls ‘the law of contradiction’ states that ‘everything is inherently contradictory’.  It is a law, Hegel says, that expresses the ‘truth and the essential nature of things’.” (Redding p.200)

If everything is essentially contradictory, the picture seems to become more complicated than the one Geuss has described.  Remember that if everything is essentially contradictory, then, for Hegel, everything is changing, or at least susceptible to change, since contradictions have a tendency to resolve themselves.  So any ideal state of affairs would not be an end state toward which we strive, but only the beginning of a new state of affairs which in turn would eventually be sublated.

There is no doubt more than one way to account for contradiction in Hegel’s theory of history and politics, but I’m going to suggest one that takes us in a slightly different direction from Geuss.  During questions, perhaps we can discuss how we might square the law of contradiction with Geuss’s view, or a view like it, a view according to which the Philosophy of Right describes the ideals towards which we strive in order to fulfil our needs.  (I don’t think it’s very useful for modern philosophers to read the Philosophy of Right in this way, which is why I don’t wholeheartedly subscribe to Geuss’s reading of Hegel; I think the Philosophy of Right can only turn out to be out of date if we try to use it as a guide to the way political life should be.)

In his Hegel’s Systematic Contingency, John Burbidge describes what he takes to be Hegel’s view of history:

“Here is no purposive development, organising events to produce an order that matches what reason tells us it ought to be.  Reason works with universals, not simply the abstract universals of moral laws, but also the concrete universals where many components are fitted into a coherent whole.” (Burbidge, p.3)

If history has no purposive development, then it does not move towards an ideal.  So Burbidge seems to be taking a very different line to Geuss’s.  Whereas Geuss suggested that we can be sure that our purposeful activity will help us move towards our ideal, Burbidge emphasises the fact that, for Hegel, we cannot know where our actions will lead:

“Indeed there is no way of knowing what will happen once we introduce these radically new events into the turbulent cauldron of human affairs.” (Burbidge, p.3)

As you’d expect, Burbidge looks at Hegel’s Lectures on World History for Hegel’s view of history.  In this work he finds an important concept that is central to his understanding of Hegel’s view:

“What is interesting about these key passages from the Lectures on World History and from the two Logics is the recurrence of another phrase.  This similarity is lost in translation, however, for our translators have adopted different conventions.  Let me remind you what they wrote.  In Nisbet we have: ‘The particular interests of the passions fight and wear themselves out.’  In Miller, reason ‘exposes the means to attrition,’ while from Geraets and his colleagues we have: ‘mutual friction.’  All these English expressions translate either the German verb, sich abreiben, or its cognate, die Aufreibung.  The English terms that most closely capture its sense would be ‘abrade’ or ‘abrasion,’ perhaps even ‘chafe.’  While the Lectures on the Logic of 1831 omit this phrase, it does talk of objects coming into conflict with each other.  The image that comes into mind in all four passages is that of stones on a wind-beaten shore grating against each other until all awkward edges are rubbed away and smooth circles emerge.” (Burbidge, p.5)

“Because we are passionately committed to our causes, we do not surrender, but wage war with each other, struggling for a dominance that is never achieved.  In the process we are worn down until, together with our opponents, we find a modus vivendi, a  way in which all of us can find satisfaction, even if our primary purposes have been frustrated.” (Burbidge, p.5)

“The universal structures of social intercourse, then, are not the products of social planning, says Hegel.  They emerge from the struggles of the participants: between the landed gentry and the agents of commerce; between the workers and management; between Francophone and Anglophone; between parents and teenagers; between analytic and continental; between suburb and inner city; between fundamentalism and secularism.  Out of these struggles emerge the conventions and customs by which humans create great societies.” (Burbidge, p.6)

The picture of world history in which “abrasion” plays a key role is a picture quite different to the one Geuss presented.  Geuss’s Hegel seemed to be talking about a state in which everyone works together in order to get to a set of shared ideals.  Since being “at home” in the state means making the state a place where one’s ethics can be realised, and this ethics is found embodied in the principles of the state, every person must work towards the ideals of the state if they are to be happy.  That seems to be Geuss’s Hegel’s view.  But if Hegel’s view, as Burbidge suggests, is that we not only don’t know what the consequences of our actions will be, but furthermore, will inevitably be frustrated in our desires, then it seems more difficult to view Hegel’s philosophy as a theodicy.  Burbidge’s Hegel might seem to be offering the very opposite to a theodicy, since he seems to be saying that it is guaranteed that our desires will be frustrated.  However, Burbidge insists that his Hegel has us move towards happiness:

“And so we move toward happiness, toward the end of history.  But … passion is not so easily disposed of.  We continue to be individuals with our particular interests.  The resolutions of past conflict oppress and confine us.  We become restless.” (Burbidge, p.6)

So Burbidge’s Hegel seems to present us with a limited form of theodicy: philosophy can assure us that we will move towards happiness, but this happiness will not last forever, and eventually, sooner rather than later, we will arrive at a new conflict which will require a new resolution before we can be happy and arrive at the end of history again (only to, sooner or later, have to begin the process once again).

Burbidge’s view does seem to be compatible with the law of contradiction.  I should point out that not every conflict is a contradiction, since a contradiction, for Hegel, is a self-contradiction, and so, for example, if you disagree with me then we might have a conflict but not a contradiction; whereas you might say there is a contradiction in my argument if you can show that I disagree with myself.  Or to take another example: two politicians disagreeing over an issue might be a conflict; but it might become a contradiction if both these politicians are in power and so the state is simultaneously pursuing two conflicting policies.  But the point is that the fact that everything is contradictory fits with Burbidge’s view that anything can descend into conflict and require a new resolution.

In his book, Burbidge’s point is to demonstrate the role that contingency plays in Hegel’s thinking.  What is new is truly new, and was not made necessary by what came before.  Contingency is necessary:

“Not only is there no precedent that anticipates any particular event, but any reflection on its significance starts by taking note of the way it differs from what has gone on before.  Before it happened, the novelty was not even entertained as a possibility.  Although the connections and similarities between the action and its prior setting may be noticed once it has taken place, prior to its emergence there was nothing in the preceding conditions that would enable thought to predict that things would happen in just this peculiar way.  Any process of anticipating such a result would need to appeal to some general principle or rule; yet the uniqueness of the historical action rules out the presence of any such principle.” (Burbidge, p.10)

The post-revolutionary ideals described in the Philosophy of Right are not therefore principles that determine which actions are ethical, and therefore take us towards our ideals, and which do not.  Ideals such as those described by Hegel must change, and we are perhaps seeing this as our attitudes towards the nation state change.  For Burbidge it is essential that we do not see Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, or any of his other books for that matter, as a “template” to be followed by future philosophers:

“It is not surprising that, given the presuppositions we have identified, his [Hegel’s] conclusions can never become a template to be followed by later philosophers.  It is rather a launching pad for initiating new explorations of the way the contingencies of history interact with the traditions we carry forward from the past.” (Burbidge, p.15)

I suggested just now that Burbidge had a “limited theodicy”; but now I want to suggest that it is this notion of tradition as a “launching pad” that I think constitutes the real theodicy in Burbidge’s work.  Since everything is open to change in unprecedented ways – and I think Hegel’s “law of contradiction” means this must be so – there can be no theodicy conceived as progress towards a prescribed set of ideals.  Let’s look again at Geuss’s conditions for a “strongest” theodicy.  These are: the world must be good and commensurate to our aims and philosophy must show this to be the case; also, the world must be constituted so that our deepest interests are almost certainly going to be realised.  What Burbidge shows us is that our deepest interests are not met by setting up a world that fits with an ethical ideal, as Geuss’s Hegel thinks; instead, our deepest interests are served by whatever makes us most happy, even if this means the defeat of our ideals.  Burbidge’s Hegel offers a theodicy because he shows that our deepest interests are met not by the realisation of our ideals, but by the destruction of both ideals and traditions, where such destruction helps us to overcome an obstacle to our happiness; and he shows us that both traditions and ideals have a tendency to give way when we need them to.  Since we can trust traditions to disappear when we need them to, we can feel safe and “at home” in them.  Burbidge’s Hegel offers us the contradictory notion that happiness consists in not (necessarily) getting one’s own way, and offers us a theodicy by showing why it is that our ideals must always be frustrated.


Raymond Geuss, Morality, Culture, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford University Press, 1967)

G.W.F Hegel, Grunlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (Suhrkamp, 1970)

Paul Redding, Analytic Philosophy and the Return of Hegelian Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (Humanity Books, 1969)

G.W.F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik II (Suhrkamp, 1969)

John W. Burbidge, Hegel’s Systematic Contingency (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

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When is it Life? Part 3. Final Part: “Life Presents Itself”

Something is wrong with Henry Miller, as he wanders Broadway, lost, unable to write. This is what we’re really seeing when Miller gives us his picture of impersonal Broadway. Broadway reflects Miller himself: inhuman, sleepwalking, living dead, an abyss for human spirit. He’s a failure and he feels it. He looks around at the world he ought to be writing about and he sees nothing but death. He can’t see the life in the individual human being for the crowd he finds us all so lost in. He decides the crowd is the problem. He in a world of machines and death, draining the life out of him, and that’s why he can’t do the work of an artist. The meatballs he chose to eat instead of that delicious pork chop, it’s all the same. “Food makes energy,” he reflects. He’s dragged on by a dogged nihilism, nothing more. A thread of life only.

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which have to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

Imagine stopping Leopold Bloom on his way to the butcher’s that morning and asking him Miller’s question: “Why do you go on living the way you do?” He’s thinking about that delicious kidney. “Relish” is the word: he lives to enjoy. If you’d asked him that question on that morning perhaps he would have explained he was on his way to the butcher’s and no reason in particular, and that might seem a good enough answer, coming from this contented soul.

Remember Guy Debord: if you’re not connected to life, you see it as representation only. Bloom’s jolly hedonism has no justification, his answer won’t suffice. To Miller, Broadway is a giant spectacle, a representation of life. And as a mere representation, it is not life. It is death. A living death, but death all the same.

What’s the work of an artist? “His eyelids sank quietly often as he walked in happy warmth.” It’s taking the ordinary and finding the life in it, and giving that life expression. The life that presents itself. Leopold Bloom is alive and lives to eat the inner organs of beasts and fowls. James Joyce has Leopold Bloom burn with inner life as he moves along the street eyes open, alive to the people he meets, the things he sees, his own imaginings. Henry Miller, as he sat on Broadway watching the crowds, could not yet do that. He could not yet be an artist. He gives us a vision of Broadway as he saw it on that day: not as a crowd full of vibrant, living souls, souls like him who live their lives step by step, moment by moment, contented or unhappy, thinking about their next meal or remembering the meal they just finished, but as a grey crowd, confused, shadows among the bright lights. Grey and empty and confused shadow as he himself is shadow in this reflective moment. A pair of eyes, tired but still open, sat watching the other shadows pass, holding the patterns in his mind, but unable yet to find the life within.

(Quotations are from Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller, and Ulysses by James Joyce)

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