Hegel: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

Peter Singer is a famous philosopher (as famous as philosophers can be these days) known for his very strong utilitarian views:

He is known especially for his work on the ethics of our treatment of animals, for his controversial critique of the sanctity of life doctrine in bioethics, and for his writings on the obligations of the affluent to aid those living in extreme poverty.  

But he has also written on German philosophy. In 1983, he published Hegel, a brief introduction to the highly influential 19th century philosopher. Hegel is now part of Oxford University Press’s colorful series of “Very Short Introductions”.

Hegel (the philosopher, not the book) wrote a lot and is notoriously hard to understand. That’s one reason so many academics have written about him. Singer does an excellent job. He devotes chapters to four of Hegel’s works (Lectures on the Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Right; The Phenomenology of Mind; and Science of Logic), the principal topics of which are history, freedom, mind and rationality. But since Hegel is what is known as a “systematic” thinker, none of the topics stand alone.

I came away from Hegel with what feels like a better understanding of his thought, although not good enough to explain it to anyone. All I’ll say is that Hegel seems to have viewed Geist (translated as either “mind” or “spirit”) as a real but abstract entity that has progressed through history, advancing toward more and more freedom, culminating in total rationality (the “Absolute”). Singer concludes that Hegel may have been a panentheist:

The term comes from Greek words meaning “all in God”; it describes the view that everything in the universe is part of God, but – and here it differs from pantheism – God is more than the universe, because he is the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts. Just as a person is more than all the cells that make up his or her body – although the person is nothing separate from the body – so on this view God is more than all the parts of the universe, but not separate from it. Equally, just as no single cells amount to a person, so no individual parts of the universe amount to God. 

[This] interpretation is plausible, not only because it is consistent with what Hegel says specifically about God, but also because it makes sense of the dominant theme of his philosophy. If God is the absolute idea, the ultimate reality of the universe, the whole of its parts, we can understand why the absolute idea must manifest itself in the world, and there progress to self-comprehension. God needs the universe in the same way a person needs a body.

… Hegel sees God not as eternal and immutable, but as an essence that needs to manifest itself in the world, and, having made itself manifest, to perfect the world in order to be perfect itself…. It is a vision that places immense weight on the necessity of progress: for the onward movement of history is the path God must take to achieve perfection. Therein may lie the secret of the immense influence that Hegel, for all his outward conservatism, has had on radical and revolutionary thinkers [note: Karl Marx being the most obvious instance].

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Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

This is Nelson Algren’s impressionistic essay about his hometown. It was published in 1951 and wasn’t warmly-received by Chicago’s upper crust. Algren looks back fondly on Chicago’s history with an emphasis on the rougher parts of town. An alternate subtitle would have been “I Love This Dirty Town” (a line Burt Lancaster delivered in Sweet Smell of Success about a big city further east).

I read the 60th Anniversary Edition, which includes an afterword Algren wrote in 1961 about Chicago and his book:

In the decade since Chicago: City on the Make appeared, it has gained pertinence. At that time it was a prose poem about my hometown; nothing more.

It was received unfavorably, locally, and I was disappointed when the editor who had solicited it took fright… The book went under the counters…

Under the counters, yet not lost. A translation by Jean-Paul Sartre gained the essay readers abroad…

The essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from the privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present resolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption… [105].

The book is filled with references to Chicago characters and events that most outsiders won’t recognize, so the editors kindly added explanatory notes. The notes sometimes explain what doesn’t need explaining and don’t explain what does. That’s one reason I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book, but if you like prose like this, you might give it a try:

Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.

In Vachel Lindsay’s day, in Carl Sandburg’s day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow’s and Masters’ and Edna Millay’s day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light.

Now it’s the place where we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance… No giants live on Rush Street any more [52-53]. 

On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald

The German writer W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, so he had no memories of World War 2. But memory was one of the principal themes of the books he wrote. In 1999, he published the long essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Its subject is the Allied aerial bombardment of Germany in the final years of the war, or rather the failure of German writers to properly document and reflect on the effects of that bombing on Germany’s civilian population. Sebald believed that such horrible events deserved to be discussed and written about clearly and honestly. Instead, the survivors of the bombing avoided speaking about it and few German writers addressed the subject at all, or if they did, they did so poorly. Sebald doesn’t defend the German government and doesn’t spend much time criticizing the morality or the rationale behind the bombing. He is trying to understand what the experience was like for the German population and why the memory of it doesn’t seem to have been directly confronted.

There are three shorter essays in the book, each dealing with a writer who lived through the war, none of whom are well-known in America. The essay about the bombing, which is actually titled “Air War and Literature”, is the one that is worth reading.

A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Chicago, won the very first National Book Award for fiction for his 1949 novel The Man with the Golden Arm, and was Simone de Beauvoir’s lover. Among other things, he also wrote a long essay with the cool title Chicago: City on the Make. It upset the city’s elite. 

I started reading The Man with the Golden Arm recently, but found the Chicago slang difficult to follow, so I moved on to his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side. It was hard to follow at times too, but I’m glad I made the effort. 

It’s the story of Dove Linkhorn, an uneducated, poor young man from Texas who hops a freight train at the beginning of the Depression and ends up in New Orleans. There he scrambles for a living, gets drunk a lot, commits various crimes, and mostly associates with prostitutes, pimps, beggars and thieves. Dove comes across as a simpleton a lot of the time, and his vagueness often makes him invisible as a character. It also takes a while to understand what’s happening in some scenes, but Dove’s experiences and the people he bumps into on the very seedy side of New Orleans are almost always interesting. And Algren’s gritty, sometimes political, often poetical prose is even better (“Self-reliance for the penniless and government aid to those who already had more than they could use was the plan”).

If there’s a theme to the novel, it’s that the down and out people are often a lot better than the other ones.

The city fathers, Do-Right Daddies and all of that, Shriners, Kiwanians, Legionaires, Knights of this and Knights of that, would admit with a laugh that New Orleans was hell. But that hell itself had been built spang in the center of town…

There were stage shows and peep shows, geeks and freaks all down old Perdido Street. But it wasn’t geeks who ran that street. It wasn’t panders who owned the shows. There were chippified blondes and elderly rounders, bummies and rummies and amateur martyrs. There were creepers and kleptoes and zanies and dipsoes. It was night bright as day, it was day dark as night, but stuffed shirts and do-righties owned those shows.

For a Do-Right Daddy is right fond of money and still he don’t hate fun. He charged the girls double for joint-togs and drinks, rent, fines, towel service and such. But before any night’s ball was done, he joined in the fun. 

Later he had to be purged of guilt so he could sleep with his wife again. That where the pulpit came in….

There was a 1962 movie based on the book but, aside from the New Orleans setting and a few characters, I doubt they were able to cram much of the story – a lot of it not very nice – into a Hollywood movie. Years later, Lou Reed was approached to turn A Walk on the Wild Side into a musical. He only kept the title.

Here’s one more quote, part of which is pretty famous. An “old-timer” named Cross-Country Kline, “the only true criminal in the whole tankful of fools, the only one who had soldiered honestly against law and order”, is giving advice to Dove Linkhorn:

“Blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ’em all and I know. They don’t work.

Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel

Mary Astor played Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She’s the pretty woman to whom Sam Spade says “You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice” and “I hope they don’t hang you, precious” and “You’re taking the fall”. She began her film career early in the silent era, easily transitioned to sound, won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, played the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, and was still appearing on TV and in movies in the early 60s.

She might have been a bigger star but, having a fear of failure, she chose to take smaller roles. She also mismanaged her money, drank too much and had sex with a lot of men, including her four husbands. She discussed all this in two well-received autobiographies. She also kept a diary. Reporters said it had a purple cover, but it was actually brown.

Edward Sorel is an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist who is best-known for his political satire. The story he tells in this short book is that he was tearing up the linoleum in his New York apartment one night in 1965 and found some 30-year old newspapers. They were filled with accounts of a Los Angeles child custody trial involving Mary Astor and her first husband. What made the trial such a big deal was that Astor had kept a diary that supposedly described her private life, including her many affairs, in lurid detail. Although the diary was never shared with the public, the nation’s imagination ran wild.

For reasons he can’t explain, Sorel quickly became fascinated with the trial, the diary, and Mary Astor. But it took him 50 years to finally get around to writing this book.

He isn’t a great writer, but he tells the story reasonably well. Unfortunately, he inserts his own life story here and there, which isn’t very interesting. It also wasn’t clear to me where exactly the diary was during the trial. Apparently, the lawyers for Astor’s husband claimed to have lost it, possibly so they could make the diary sound more incriminating than it actually was. After the trial, the diary and some photostatic copies (possibly altered by the husband’s lawyers) were placed in a safe deposit box. Years later, the court ordered the contents of the safe deposit box to be destroyed.

The story Sorel tells is entertaining but isn’t as racy as it sounds. His illustrations, however, are excellent, especially the one with Mary Astor, mostly naked, holding her diary while lying on a fainting couch, with the big Hollywood studios in the background.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, is a brief book. It begins with a short “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and concludes with a longer “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.  It relates some of Baldwin’s experiences, but it’s real subject is racism in America:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt the he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and conform a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority…. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school [pp. 98-99].

It’s easy to say that Baldwin exaggerates sometimes, but nobody who hasn’t been part of an oppressed minority can say what it’s like to be told over and over again, in violent and non-violent ways, that you’re not as good as other people. Baldwin points out that his ancestors were brought to America decades before millions of immigrants whose descendants think of themselves as the “real” Americans. Racism truly is one of the fundamental factors in American history (just look at how people voted seven months ago).

The Fire Next Time concludes:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

If Baldwin were alive today, maybe he wouldn’t fear America’s end in hellfire and damnation. Then again, given the current crisis, maybe he would.