<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Discussion 5

Agenda for Discussion, Wednesday, February 13, 2008

While you are trying to make sense of the the first set of assigned readings from Hegel's Lectures, as well as the required readings from Taylor, Krieger, and Kolakowski, think about the following:

1. What is Hegel seeking to accomplish with his approach to history?  How is he critiquing the Enlightenment, and especially a "Kantian" aproach to epistemology, ethics, and freedom?  At the same time, how is he also acting within that tradition as well.  Remember how I have described the flowing "river" of philosophy. Hegel's philosophy doesn't come from nowhere. In fact, if you take his own theorizing seriously--as well as evolutionary theory--it cannot come from nowhere.

2.  It is easy to dismiss everything Hegel says about Reason in history.  But look at the argument from the other side:  When it comes to the essential aspects of life, how might he be right?  Remember that he is talking about essentials and not  contingent, everyday events. So, what are the essentials?

One approach to understanding Hegel today is to think about both the positive consequences and the negative implications of modernity. None of us would want to go back to medieval Europe (think: disease, alchemy, and monarchical incest), but there is still a sense of loss even among the most modern societies (think: California). Remember Heine's quote about a dying God from our first day of class.

I recommend that you occasionally think back to the various theories about the degeneration of philosophy in the 20th century.  I mentioned Arendt's approach during our last class.  You have raised some others.  Which critic might attack Hegel's interpretation of history, and how?

The larger issue revisited.....

At this point in our investigations, it may be helpful for me to reiterate our broader agenda in this course.

We are occupied with a single puzzle:  How do we account for the fact that four eminent philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century chose to support totalitarian regimes?

My focus on philosophy is deliberate.  Typically, when I and others focus on support for such dictatorships, we emphasize factors like totalitarian institutions, social movements, and fanatical leaders.  In contrast, this seminar is only concerned with a particular group of intellectuals, those who in one way or another can be traced back to the philosophical debates of the Enlightenment.  I am not arguing that these thinkers caused totalitarianism.  That would be to give philosophy too much credit.  Rather, my  focus is on ideas, specifically those ideas that caused certain very talented thinkers to act in a perplexing way.

In selecting our four philosophers--Gentile, Schmitt, Lukacs, and Heidegger--I have deliberately chosen individuals who, as far as I can determine, espoused fascist or Leninist ideals and associated themselves (in print and or in public) with dictatorial regimes.  I am assuming that there is something "perverse" about their support for these regimes.  This is my bias.  However, I am not saying that all of these philosophers' thinking in the period  between World War I and World War II was totalitarian.  In fact, I would argue against such a position since there is merit to certain, even many aspects of their overall philosophies.  In addition, other thinkers at the time shared in these aspects, even though they simultaneously distanced themselves unequivocally from dictatorship.  Arendt's shifting philosophical relationship with Heidegger is a good case in point.

In this course, comparative politics meets political theory because I am comparing ideas (and not institutions).  I want to know what aspects of a philosopher's thinking might contribute to support for dictatorial regimes.  Admittedly, I am making an assumption here, that is, that there is a link between ideas and action---but this is an assumption I am willing to defend.

We enter the realm of controversy in the following ways.  First, we could identify a particular issue, even a recurring  issue, that seems to have driven these philosophers down the wrong path.   In fact, I think I can identify several such issues in their positions on epistemology, morality, and/or human agency.  This requires that we draw a line of some kind  between these approaches and their antecedents.  But you might disagree with my claims, arguing either that 1) my positions are flawed or that 2) I have simply drawn the line in the wrong place. Second, controversy could arise in almost the opposite way.  That is, we could argue that all of the "perverse" positions can be traced back to a consistent and constant evolution of ideas from various philosophical periods, such as Enlightenment thought, or even as far back as Plato (see Popper's critique of Plato and Hegel).  On this matter, I agree that there are certain constants that appear across all of our thinkers.  However, I share Arendt's concern that we not indict the entire tradition of western philosophizing in taking this position.  Hegel might add that there is a methodological problem with this approach: if we postulate a situation in which everything is related to everything else, we end up with "a night in which all cows are black"  By failing to draw distinctions, we end up making no argument at all.

So, this is where we are right now.  We are collecting evidence, looking for patterns, and making distinctions.  By the end of the seminar, we should realize our goal---to  formulate an argument.