Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Try Everything: Hegelian dialectic, Shakira, and American politics in the Age of Trump

Sometimes it's good to take a step back from the day-to-day craziness of 2018 politics and think big. Instead of asking what we should think about the latest insane think Trump just did, or whether the Democrats have a shot at taking back the House, we could ask: How does human history work? 

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said - paraphrasing an 1853 sermon by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker  - 

 The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

That's a nice thought - especially in 2018 - but is it true? Is there a "direction" to history or is it just "one damn thing after another?" And if history is "bending" towards justice or freedom, how exactly does that happen?

This may sound like pointless philosophical speculation, but it's not. Or, at least, it's not pointless. Because whether you are conscious of it or not you have your own "story" about how human history works, and you use it every day to help you know what to think every time you see a new piece of news about Trump, the stock market, the war in Syria, of the Democrats' chances in November.

I don't know for sure, but my guess is that your story goes something like this:
  • In history there are good guys (people like me) and bad guys (the people who don't like people like me). 
  • Politics is about the good guys and the bad guys fighting
  • When the good guys win, that's good, and when the bad guys win, that's bad. 
Every day, when you scroll through social media or listen to the news your brain is trying to fit different pieces of the news into your "story," to tell you who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and whether you should feel good or bad when a candidate wins or looses. Whether things are getting better or worse.  This story is simple and intuitive. And it might even be right. But it's not the only story that makes sense.

A Different Story

There's another story we could tell ourselves about how history works. In this story it would actually be really bad if the good guys always won. And sometimes it's good when the bad guys win.

The guy who came up with this story is the 18th century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. And although it may sound crazy at first, you might be surprised at how convincing you find it.

In the insanity of 2018, where it seems like so many of our previous assumptions about how the world works have fallen apart, it can be really helpful to just spend a few minutes looking at American politics though Hegel's eyes.

Hegel's "Try Everything" View of History

Maybe you've never heard of Hegel at all. Maybe you know him as the philosopher who inspired Karl Marx. Most people who do know Hegel think of him as the "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" guy. But just like Sherlock Holmes never actually said "Elementary, my dear Watson," and Kirk never said "Beam me up Scotty!" Hegel never said "thesis, antithesis, synthesis"1 and it's actually pretty bad summary of his philosophy. Of course, explaining what Hegel did think is tough because he was such a terrible writer. Trying to actually read Hegel means wading through endless strings of gobbledygook like this:

The One is the moment of negation; it is itself quite simply a relation of self to self and it excludes an other; and it is that by which "Thinghood' is determined as a Thing.2

To be fair, this stuff is hard to explain no matter how good a writer you are. Fortunately, I found a short introduction to Hegel's philosophy that lays out the key points in clear, simple language.

Take a listen.

Shakira wasn't trying to be a Hegel scholar, but her song from Zootopia is much better summary of Hegel's philosophy than "thesis, antithesis, synthesis." Plus, it's got a backbeat.

I'm going to walk us through the lyrics bit by bit, to help explain Hegel's view of history - what he called the dialectical process - and talk about what this could mean for American politics today.3

I messed up tonight
I lost another fight
I still mess up but I'll just start again

In Hegel's view we're always messing up. Any idea that humans come up with, no matter how big or small  - capitalism, socialism, punk rock, existentialism, cryptocurrency - is inevitably going to "mess up" in some way, even if gets a bunch of stuff right.

There's a subtle but important point here: Hegel doesn't think our ideas fail because they get "defeated" by some other idea (an "antithesis"). Rather, he thinks that built into every idea is an internal logical flaw that will eventually cause the idea to defeat itself, and fail by it's own standards. 4

One example Hegel uses is slavery. When I enslave someone my goal is to dominate them, to become their master, and to maximize my own freedom to sit back and relax while they do all the hard work. But as time goes by and my slave does more and more of my work for me, I start to become dependent on the slave. Eventually I lose the ability to do anything on my own with my slave's help.5

When this happens it's the slave, not the master, who holds the real power. So not only does slavery fail because it's"bad" by some external moral standard, but it fails to accomplish the very thing it was trying to do in the first place: giving the master freedom and dominance.

Hegel thinks the same sort of thing will keep happening with all of our ideas.

I keep falling down
I keep on hitting the ground

But Hegel thinks this is a good thing, because whenever we fall, we lean how to get back up.

I always get up to see what's next

For Hegel, falling down is essential for learning, because we're probably not going to admit that our own ideas are wrong just by thinking about them. We're so biased, that it's really hard for us to objectively see the problems with our own ideas except by watching them crash and burn right before our eyes. We need to loose the fight, fall down and hit the ground before we can admit that we were wrong. 

Hegel thinks that this is the way we learn things about ourselves and the world around us. 

Birds don't just fly
They fall down and get up

Every time a young bird tries to fly and fails, it learns something new: "well THAT didn't work." Having learned that, it can move on and try something different. Eventually, if it keeps trying, it will stumble upon the right method. 

The last line of this verse is the most concise and accurate summary I've ever seen of the Hegelian dialectic:

Nobody learns without getting it wrong. 

Of course, for Hegel, this isn't just a one time thing. 

I won't give up, no I won't give in
Till I reach the end
And then I'll start again

That new idea - the one that we came up with by noticing the failure in our old idea - will inevitably have problems of it's own. Once we reach the end of the dialectic process, we have to start it all over again, keep going, finding the flaws in the new idea. The process continues forever, but each time we get a little "less wrong" then we were before.

Hegel's view of human history is a long chain of screw ups, one after the other, which gradually make us more and more wise.

So what's the practical upshot of all of this? What does it mean we should do?

I wanna try everything
I wanna try even though I could fail

If you buy Hegel's view of history, then you want a political and social structure that encourages trial and error, that allows us to "try everything" and experiment, learning more and more from each failure.

That means that we don't want a governmental structure that will force us to follow a single ideological system forever.  Any particular ideology that we come up with - democratic socialism, anarcho-capitalism, liberal democracy, whatever - is inevitably going to screw up in some way. When that happens we need to be able to change how we're doing things to fix the mistake.

But on the other hand, we want to make sure that when a new idea DOES fail, it doesn't fail so badly that it destroys us all!  We need to limit the amount of "damage" that any one person or party can do when they inevitably do fail. Going through a global thermonuclear war would teach us a lot of important lessons...but there wouldn't be anyone left to learn those lessons.

The idea that no matter how hard we try we're going to fail may sound fatalistic, but Hegel is actually optimistic about human progress:

Look how far you've come, you filled your heart with love
Baby, you've done enough, take a deep breath
Don't beat yourself up, don't need to run so fast
Sometimes we come last, but we did our best

For Hegel this is just how it works. We’re never going to get everything perfect, but each time we screw up we get a little wiser. Don’t “beat yourself up” when you get something wrong – because that’s what being human, and getting smarter, is all about! And look at how far we've come already! There was a time when a huge portion of the human race thought slavery was fine! Now, despite all of our disagreements, we at least agree on that. Hegel thinks that human society is gradually moving towards greater and greater freedom.

Of course, this progress isn't always in a straight line. And Hegel does acknowledge that, even when it works, the process of "trial and error" can be bloody and painful. He talks about innocents being scarified on the "slaughter bench" of history to teach us these lessons and move us towards freedom.

It would be great if there was another way - if we could learn our lessons without having to see so many people die. And maybe there is. But in the mean time we at least need to make sure that these sacrifices are not in vain.

I'll keep on making those new mistakes
I'll keep on making them every day
Those new mistakes

For Hegel, the only way to grow as a nation, or a species, is to keep making new mistakes.

The Dialectic in Action

That's Hegel's theory. Now let's see how it plays out in real history. 

One example that Hegel himself was inspired by was the French Revolution, which overthrew the Bourbon Monarchy in the name of Liberty, Equality, and "Brotherhood."

The basic idea of the French Revolution seems sound: overthrowing a terrible and autocratic monarchy and installing a democratic government which would be responsible to ALL people, not just the nobility.

But flash forward a few years to the Reign of Terror. Now we have a society with 

Precisely by "freeing" the French peasants from control by the nobility, the revolution planted the seeds for mob rule, mass murder, and (eventually) the rise of an autocratic emperor: Napoleon.

Because it messed up in so many ways the French revolution taught us a lot about the dynamics of political revolutions, mob rule, despotism, democracy, and human freedom in general.  But we're obviously still learning.

The Dialectic Today 

Once you look at history through Hegel's eyes you see examples of the dialectical process everywhere. I've talked before about American progressives of the 1900s  - who had a lot of great ideas, but also thought that it was fine to forcibly sterilize "inferior" humans to improve human genetics. And just as Hegel predicted, it wasn't arguments that finally convinced supporters of eugenics to abandon their position, it was the Nazis - who demonstrated the horror of eugenics better than any anti-eugenics advocate group ever could.

For a more recent example, think about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. For many Americans the core ideals of the Civil Rights Movement are summed up by MLK's famous quote:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

This was an eloquent rebuttal of the explicit racism of the time - which segregated Blacks into second-class citizens purely because of the color of their skin. And the Civil Rights Movement did a lot of good for society by eliminating legal segregation in America.

But more recently, it's become clear that, just as Hegel predicted, there's an internal logical flaw in this dream of a "colorblind" society.

Because racial inequalities in economics, education and politics have existed in America for so long, suddenly making everyone in America blind to race will just allow these inequalities to persist.

Imagine a 1000 meter footrace between a Black and a white runner. Because the footrace organizers are racist, they give the white runner gets a 30 second head start, but then, halfway through the race, they decide that racism is wrong and agree that for the rest of the race, they will no longer judge people by the color of their skin! Of course, that doesn't do anything to fix the injustice that already happened. The Black runner still doesn't have a fair shot at winning the race.

This is why many racial justice advocates today claim that to achieve racial equality we need to acknowledge the existence of structural racism and white privilege and use things like affirmative action and "inclusion riders" -  which explicitly judge people purely on their skin color - to actively eliminate the "head start" that whites have already gotten, due to racism.

 MLK himself - who studied Hegel extensively- was aware of much of this. But it was the simplified story of the civil rights movement, epitomized by MLK's famous quote, that became part of American cultural mythology. And inevitably, the popularity of this "colorblind" view of race in America ended up undermining the very goal of racial equality that motivated the civil rights movement in the first place. Indeed, as far back as the 1980s politicians like Ronald Reagan were citing MLK's "dream" to argue against affirmative action. And today even Trump supporters bring it up:

Of course Hegel would say that our new ideas about race - concepts like structural racism, white privilege, and cultural appropriation  - also have internal flaws in them, just like every other idea humans have ever come up with! That doesn't mean that these ideas are totally bogus, just that they're eventually going to "fall down" in some way.

Some argue that the rise of the alt-right - who have embraced the new liberal view that skin color should matter in order to bring back old-school racism under a new guise - is an example of just such a flaw.

Whether that's true or not, Hegel would say that there's clearly some problem with our new ideas about race...because that's just how history works. And to move forward we need to figure out what the problem is and come up with a new idea that can solve it. It's a never ending process.

Nobody Makes America Great Without Getting it Wrong

If you think the way Hegel did, then maybe Donald Trump's election wasn't such a bad thing! In fact, Hegel might argue that Trump's victory was best possible outcome of the 2016 election precisely because Trump is so awful!

Giving Trump a chance to fail, Hegel would say, is the best way to disprove his ideas, and teach America something profound about race, democracy and partisanship.

For example, during the campaign, Trump claimed that he could easily put up a boarder wall, and get Mexico to pay for it

Now, in 2018, no amount of fake news can cover up the fact that there is no wall, and no possibility of Mexico paying for anything. The only person who could really prove that Trump couldn't build the wall was Trump himself. Trump is also proving that racism and sexism are alive and well in America. That running a business doesn't prepare you for running a country. That winning a trade war isn't easy. That he wasn't the best person to "drain the swamp" of D.C..

In these and other areas Trump's victory is helping the cause of liberalism better than any liberal president ever could. We certainly see that this happening in special election results. But this isn't just about Trump. We've known for a while that presidents make their own party less popular the longer they are in office....perhaps this is just the dialectical process in another form. 

From a Hegelian perspective, what really makes America great is that (in theory) all our "checks and balances" give us an opportunity to watch someone like Trump screw up really badly - teaching us all sorts of lessons in the process - without it destroying the entire country. If Hegel is right, then all we have to do is survive until the end of Trump's time in office and we will be a stronger, better, more equal and more just country.

Hegel messes up too

As brilliant as Hegel's view of history may seem, its got some serious issues. Hegel thought he had discovered a "system" which could explain, well, basically everything: politics, religion, science, art, even the structure of human consciousness.6

In hindsight, pretty much everyone agrees that he went too far. Even the philosopher Robert Solomon, who was one of Hegel's biggest modern proponents, argued that Hegel suffered from what Solomon calls "the transcendental pretense" - thinking that the way the world looks to white male Europeans is the way the world actually is, and that the way white male Europeans tend to think is just "human nature."

In general I think it's a good idea to be skeptical of someone who thinks they've discovered one (relatively) simple key for understanding any huge and complex system - like history.

But the crazy thing about Hegel is that this is exactly what his own theory predicts. If every human idea has an internal logical flaw in it, then Hegel's own dialectical theory of history too must have such a flaw. So it seems like the "Hegelian" way to view Hegel's own theory is that it has some good ideas, but also some problems. But thinking about this too much can make your head hurt.

Big Ideas are Tools

The reason I want to tell you about Hegel is not because I think his ideas are perfectly correct, but because I think they are useful. Today, almost all scientists and philosophers agree that theories -  like Hegel's -  are tools for understanding the world. And it's fine to have different tools for different purposes. A screwdriver is good for screwing in screws, but it makes a poor hammer. Hegel's way of seeing things can help us to understand some things that are going on in politics now, but not others. It's up to us to figure out when it's helpful and when it's not.

The reason that philosophy is important is because most of us go through life with only one "story" of how the world works - the story we were raised in. That's like trying to build a house with only a hammer. Learning philosophy is way of expanding your "toolbox" for understanding and dealing with the world.

So if Hegel's ideas make sense to you, then spend some time "banging on things" with them: try using Hegel to understand the latest Trump meltdown, or the #MeToo movement, or Twitter. Maybe it will be helpful, maybe it won't.

On the other hand, if all of this sounds like malarkey, then feel free to just throw it in the bottom of your toolbox, and continue on looking at the world the way you used to. But don't forget that it's there. Someday you might come across a problem that would really benefit from a Hegelian perspective.


1 The phrase "Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis" was actually coined by Hegel's predecessor Johhann Gottlieb Fichte, but Fichte seems to have stolen the basic concept from Immanuel Kant. Hegel himself used the German word "Aufhebung" to describe the process I discuss here. Aufhebung doesn't really have a good English translation. It technically means "uplifting" but with the dual connotation of both "preserving" and "changing" the thing you are lifting up. 

2 From the Phenomenology of Spirit, section 114 (p. 69). FWIW, even Hegel scholars have trouble with this stuff. In the version of the Phenomenology  cited below J.N. Findley tries to translate each section into "normal English" but his commentary on this section ends with "very uncertain of interpretation." (p. 510).

I should clarify that this is my own interpretation of Hegel's philosophy, in particular his early work The Phenomenology of Spirit.  I'm sure some Hegel scholars would take issue with my characterization here, although  I do draw on Terry Pinkard's excellent book "Hegel's Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason." If you actually want to learn more about Hegel I'd strongly recommend reading Pinkard's book instead of Hegel himself.

Here's how Hegel himself puts this in the Phenomenology: "...knowledge is only actual, and can only be expounded, as Science or as a system; and furthermore, that a so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle. It is therefore, easy to refute it... If the refutation is thorough, it is derived and developed from the principle itself, not accomplished by counter-assertions and random thoughts from the outside. The refutation would, therefore, properly consist in the further development of the principle, and in thus remedying the defectiveness..." (p. 13).

5Hegel makes this point in the famous "Lordship and Bondage" (or "master and slave") section of the Phenomenology, sections 178-196, pp. 111-119

This gets really crazy in Hegel's later works, including in The Science of Logic (which isn't actually about logic at all) where Hegel seems to think that Aufhebung can help humans achieve a state of "absolute knowledge" where we actually become God. Or maybe not? I'm not ashamed to admit that I have no freaking idea what Hegel is talking about throughout most of The Science of Logic, although there's definitely some good stuff there. The point is that Hegel is really weird.


Hegel, G. W. F. (1807). Phenomenology of Spirit (A. V. Miller, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1812). The Science of Logic: Volume One (W. H. Johnston & L. G. Struthers, Trans.). New York: The Macmillan Company.

Pinkard, Terry (1996). Hegel's Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason. New York, NY. Cambridge University Press.

Solomon, Robert, C. (1979) History and Human Nature. Yew York, NY. Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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