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 "A Hard Look at a Philosopher",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Evening Star, July 29, 1965,
of a book:
HEGEL: Reinterpretation, Texts, and Commentary,
by Walter Kaufman.
Doubleday & Co.: New York, 1965


"A Hard Look at a Philosopher"


HEGEL: Reinterpretation, Texts, and Commentary.
By Walter Kaufmann.
Doubleday & Co. 498 pages. $6.95.



   Thirty years ago, when I was reading the works of the great philosophers, they (with few exceptions) seemed to me surprisingly incompetent. Their writings were filled with undefined terms, with unstated assumptions, with egocentric attitudes, and with absolutes based on ethnocentric conceit. From dusty rooms, men like Kant pontificated on the structure of the human mind without ever taking time to examine how a person's mind develops as he grows up, or how minds in other periods or other societies were developed (and how they came to be constructed in the way they were).

   In recent weeks, a reexamination of some of these writings has strengthened my earlier, tentative, impressions. Four advances in human knowledge, in the last few generations, make much of older philosophic writings seem unbearably verbose and misled. These four are: (1) advances in our awareness of the process of socialization and personality development in our own society; (2) our increased knowledge of the comparative study of such processes in other societies: (3) our greatly increased awareness of the role of unconscious processes and motivations in human actions and attitudes: and (4) less obviously, our more sophisticated understanding of the nature of logic in rationalization.

   The weakness of most philosophic writing is well shown in respect to Hegel in the present volume. The book has real merit in the sense that it is based on close examination of what Hegel really wrote; it studies Hegel's ideas in terms of their development from his early years; and the author has a real (and somewhat amusing) enthusiasm for Hegel. But the merits of this book and the basic honesty of its author reveals the ineptness of his hero as a philosopher, or even as a writer.

   In the latter connection Kaufmann does not hesitate to admit Hegel's frequent lack of clarity or even coherence. He says, of his efforts to find Hegel's meaning (p. 137): “The highly allusive style turns the reader into a detective rather than a critical philosopher: One looks for clues and feels happy every time one has solved some small mystery. . .. The question whether the author is right drops from consciousness. Allusions replace arguments. Understanding, because it has become so exceedingly difficult, takes the place of critical evaluation for which no energy seems to be left. It is so hard to get the point, and so few do, that the big problem is no longer whether the point stands up but rather whether one has got it. And the main division is not between those who agree and those who do not, but between those who understand and belong and those who do not."

   Prof. Kaufmann is fully aware that this failure of communication in Hegel reflects a confusion of thought. His deepest admiration is directed toward Hegel's "Phenomenology," whose preface is translated with a commentary in this volume. Of this work Kaufmann says: "Hegel writing the 'Phenomenology' is worlds removed from the . . . timeless image of the sober scholar. He is far closer to the world of Dostoevsky's novels" (p. 111). And he adds immediately: "It was not written with a clear outline in mind as if Hegel had known exactly what he proposed to do and then had done it."

   It is clear that Hegel, to Prof. Kaufmann's broad and cosmopolitan outlook, has greater value as a personality than as an expositor of eternal philosophic truths. From this point of view, and as a figure of considerable historical significance in subsequent thought, Hegel has some value, and Prof. Kaufmann is an excellent guide for such a study. In this connection, however, Kaufmann is most helpful in his frequent indications that Hegel's thought is, in fact, quite different from what is usually attributed to him and that most subsequent commentators found in his writings what they hoped or expected to find rather than what was actually there. The most astonishing example of this is the attribution to Hegel of the three-stage dialectical method which Marx and others are supposed to have obtained from him. On this subject Kaufmann writes (p. 168): "Fichte introduced into German philosophy the three-step of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, using these three terms. Schelling took up this terminology; Hegel did not."

   Information such as this shows the value of Kaufmann's volume, just as Hegel's pretension to "absolute knowledge" reveals the naive presumption which he shares with most other philosophers.



Scan of original review



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