"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
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.