Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hegel's philosophy of history

While I was on the bike at the gym today, I read the chapter on Hegel's philosophy of history in Herbert Marcuse's book Reason and Revolution. This is probably the most derided and dismissed part of Hegel's philosophy, maybe even more so than his philosophy of nature, owing to what some take to be its political and moral implications. As Marcuse himself puts it:
Hegel's picture of the Reformation is fully as erronenous as his description of the subsequent social development, confusing the ideas by which modern society glorified its rise fo the reality of this society. He was thus led to a harmonistic interpretation of history, according to which the crossing to a new historical form is at the same time a progress to a higher historical form—a preposterous interpretation, because all the victims of oppression and injustice are witness against it, as are all the vain sufferings and sacrifices of history. The interpretation is the more preposterous because it denies the critical implications of the dialectic and establishes a harmony between the progress of thought and the process of reality.
I'm not really in a position to refute Marcuse on this point, not being familiar enough with the text he's interpreting. What he's saying sounds true. From the perspective of the current order (whatever it may be), there is going to be strong pressure, just by virtue of being embedded in the culture, to view everything that has come before as not only leading up to the current state of affairs but also justifying it and making it appear rational. It's one thing to say that the basic categories by means of which we understand history—justice, freedom, and emancipation—could not have come about but through the experience of humans of their opposites (injustice, slavery, and oppression). It's quite another thing to say this makes history rational and thereby justified. This is the move that Marcuse calls a "harmonistic interpretation of history". The philosopher's job is not to justify or rationalize what has come before and what exists now. It's the opposite. It's to engage in the act of immanent critique, by means of which the highest categories of civilization are turned against civilization itself. It's only by means of the most ruthless self-criticism that we arrive at the self-consciousness which Hegel sees as constituting the ultimate law of history.

And that law of history is, I believe, more or less correct. It's the idea that universality means something, i.e., is a real historical force, when individuals self-consciously understand themselves as acting in accordance with it. The whole point and purpose of history is so that individuals understand themselves as acting in accordance with notions of freedom, justice, equality, and the like. Hegel's understanding of history is in an important respect a Kantian one, in that there are always two, not one, preconditions of rational action: I must act in accordance with the notion, but I must always also take myself to be acting in accordance with the notion. Anything else is mere mechanism. This is why, according to Hegel, history is the story of man's emancipation from and domination over nature. Again, it's a basic Kantian move. The given (be it nature, the thing in itself, or the local Catholic bishop) has no intrinsic authority for freedom. Whatever authority it gets it gets by means of the free act of reason.

In my opinion the major metaphysical (as opposed to moral or political) weakness in Hegel's philosophy of history (at least as explained by Marcuse) is in Hegel's understanding of the relationship between historical change and natural change. As Marcuse puts it:
Since Aristotle, historical change has been contrasted with changes in nature. Hegel held to the same distinction. He says historical change is 'an advance to something better, more perfect,' whereas mutation in nature 'exhibits only a perpetually self-repeating cycle.' It is only in historical change that something new arises. Historical change is therefore development. (emphasis mine)
As Aristotle puts it in Physics B1, "[W]hen we speak of nature as being a generation, this is a process toward nature [as a form]." From the time of Aristotle but until roughly the time of Hegel, the process of nature was understood as roughly cyclical in kind. It was an imperfect replica of the perfect cyclical generation of the heavens. While species occasionally passed into and out of existence (the Greeks knew of fossils), the overall tendency was for nature to "keep with itself". So humans give birth to more humans, deer give birth to more deer, acorns eventually become acorn-bearing oaks, the Nile flooded according to schedule, etc. This idea was under attack in Hegel's day, but it wasn't really until the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species that people began to realize the extent to which the opposite position was true. Even Darwin wasn't aware of the extent to which nature generated novelty. He thought the entire process leading up to humans might have transpired over the course of a few million years. We know now the process was several orders of magnitude greater. The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

The implications of this for the philosophy of history are staggering. Hegel thought going back to the beginning meant going back to the Greeks or to "oriental" society. We know now that Hegel's history covers approximately 1% of the actual history of mankind. But apart from the mere quantitative adjustment, there is a qualitative one, too. Evolution makes it impossible to regard human history as constituting a realm entirely separate from that of natural history. On the one hand, we now know that nature generates radically new forms. Evolution is the original avant garde modernist. On the other hand, it no longer makes sense to think of the human act of creation (be it artistic or technological or otherwise cultural) in abstraction from the tendency of nature to increase in complexity and in order. The transition from genetics to memetics in human beings does not designate a radical break with nature but rather a smooth continuation of this increase in complexity and order toward an as-yet unrealized terminus.

Historical change and natural change appear to be two species of the same genus, and so neither reduces to the other. The genus appears to be change itself, or time, which is not an empty form as Kant thought, but which has a rational structure. As Marcuse explains:
The work of thought was destroyed by thought. Thought is thus drawn into the process of time, and the force that compelled knowledge in the Logic to negate every particular content is disclosed, in the Philosophy of History, as the negativity of time itself. Hegel says: 'Time is the negative element in the sensuous world. Thought is the same negativity, but it is the deepest, the infinite form of it...'
As Hegel argues repeatedly, negation is not mere destruction but rather determinate negation. It is an annihilation which remembers and builds upon what it annihilates. A community or way of life does not merely come into existence. It kills the parent-society that gave birth to it, and it understands itself and justifies its way of doing things in contrast to the previous way of doing things. Modern society is a rational society that takes itself to be rational for rational reasons! (Enter Nietzsche and Adorno here...) Whether or not you buy into all these trappings about rationality, though, this much is true: people in a society have a shared memory or history which constitutes who they are. Furthermore, it constitutes how they reflect upon that identity—which especially in the United States has huge implications for the critique of racial, gender, and sexual identity.

What I'm suggesting is that there is an analog for this in nature. All life based on DNA "records" everything that has happened to it so far in the evolutionary process. Every species in existence today is a descendant of one, common, universal ancestor, the basic chemical traits of which we still all possess. That genetic information gets expressed in an organism which gets acted upon by an environment, which in turn causes the organism's genetic information to change over the long-run. Those organisms in turn impact and change the environment in drastic ways (the oxygenation crisis, the snowball earths, etc.), resulting in a dynamic feedback loop. This is precisely why the evolution of life has been accelerating. It's a result of (a) the ability of nature to store and destroy information and (b) the dynamic feedback loop between nature and itself as it acts on this information (blindly carrying out those instructions). Eventually large brains allow for greater memory and self-conscious, rapid information storage and retrieval. The invention of culture causes an increase in the order and complexity of information in the universe, but it does more than that. For once, the instructions don't have to be carried out or destroyed blindly. The information can be used and changed consciously, in accordance with other experiences. Language allows people to share these experiences and information with one another in one life time. The arrangement of the information is more ordered and complex now than previously, but a qualitative change is also taking place with the introduction of consciousness. Information has now become knowledge. Knowledge allows me to act upon my own experience, rather than waiting for nature to do it over the course of many generations. I direct myself by means of knowledge only if there is a self to mediate the relationship. Thus, individual subjectivity. Yet only agriculture allows societies to grow much larger than they could before. This in turns sets the stage for the complex social relations that give rise to what Hegel calls Geist: the relationship in and through which individual subjectivities are validated as subjectivities, but which is constituted by those very same subjectivities. And that's where Hegel's story takes off.

The fact that Hegel is blithe about history being a "slaughter bench" and that there are people who are "outside of history" is distracting, to say the least. But I think a proper understanding of the world requires something like Hegel's account. The main problem with it—once you get past the 19th century German-isms in it—really isn't in the account of history so much as it's in the account of nature behind it. The quote about time being the negative element in the natural world comes very close to the truth. The problem is with seeing nature as a less perfect form of thinking. That's a remnant of the old Aristotlean idea that the earth is a less perfect image of the stars, and the stars are an image of pure thought, so therefore life is an imperfect image of pure thought. That's where you get a lot of weird teleology and retroactive justification. I think the correct view is that, as Aristotle said, nature is form [morphe and therefore eidos or "idea"]. But once the last universal ancestor came into existence (and perhaps before), nature developed the ability to act destructive upon itself. It could "negate" itself. (And by the way, this is why Wolfram's cellular automata can't really explain why we have thought and culture and jazz and whiskey. It's because there's no dynamism in cellular automata. You need to introduce evolutionary algoritms. These cause the laws (the "forms") by means of which the automata act to themselves change. This is precisely the destructive, reflexive ability nature already has after the LUA.) And that's the key right there. That's why you can get from cyanobacteria to Mahler. That's why you can eventually get from the blind destruction and creation of information in "brute" nature to the self-conscious construction and use of knowledge in a human being. It's because nature isn't just "form" or "in-form-ation". It's because—for whatever reason—nature is already reflexive.

No comments: