This post starts to respond to points raised mainly on Facebook after I put in a link to my previous blog post.

The response divided fairly evenly between supportive and critical. That there should be criticism does not surprise me given how seriously some leftists take Hegel.

I think it is only worth my replying to those comments that actually reference substantive papers to support their view. I will start with an examination of a defence of the relevance of Hegel by Gegenstandpunkt, who can I think be fairly described as hyper-Hegelian leftists. The paper is here.

I am not much concerned with what they have to say about Hegel’s criticism of Kant, which is hardly a live topic today. What is, in my opinion, more telling about the deleterious effects of studying too much Hegel are places where they cite him criticising ideas from science. The first of these is a critique by Hegel of the idea of force. Gegenstandpoint indicate that they consider the idea of force to be unscientific. They cite the following passage from Hegel in support of their view:

“It is often said that the nature of Force itself is unknown and only its manifestation apprehended. But, in the first place, it may be replied, every article in the import of Force is the same as what is specified in the Expression: and the explanation of a phenomenon by a Force is a mere tautology. What is supposed to remain unknown, therefore, is really nothing but the empty form of reflection-into-self, by which alone the Force is distinguished from the Expression — and that form too is something familiar. It is a form that does not make the slightest addition to the content and to the law, which have to be discovered from the phenomenon alone. Another assurance always given is that to speak of forces implies no theory as to their nature: and that being so, it is impossible to see why the form of Force has been introduced into the sciences at all.” (G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, § 136)

Let us look at this from two historical perspectives, that of Hegel’s own time, and that of the present day.

  1. Was this critique valid given what was scientifically known two centuries ago?
  2. Secondly are Gegenstandpunkt justified in adhering to this position in the present day?

When Hegel wrote that force is not to be distinguished from its expression, and that using force as an explanation is a mere tautology he is pretty clearly refering to the Newtonian definition of force given in the equation F=MA, force is equal to mass times acceleration.

It would fair enough to say that this is a tautology, if that was all Newton and 18th century science had to say about it.  Hegel could say that since Newton defined force in terms of its effects on acceleration, it would be tautology to explain acceleration by force. But this is not all that Newton or 18th century science had to say about force. Newton’s other rule of universal gravitation

F= G m1m2/d2

which gives the force as a product of the masses of the two bodies and the Gravitational constant, and says that it is inversely proportional to the square of distance.

So even from the standpoint of pure orbital dynamics it is clear that the accusation of tautology against mechanics falls, since a second equation is given to define the force. The concept of force defined in terms of the gravity equation explains and predicts the acceleration of the planets.

In addition, even in the 17th century, other laws defining force were known – the law of Hook that the force of a spring is proportional to its strain F=kx. By the end of the 18th century the concept force was being used in other contexts – the force on a piston due to steam pressure, the force on a mercury column due to the atmosphere etc. So Hegel’s criticism of the idea of force was pompous nonsense when it was written.

Now, after additional physical forces are known, the weak and strong forces in physics, the criticism is even more groundless. Hegel could not know of this, but Gegenstandpunkt certainly should.

They go on to cite Hegel to the effect that it is meaningless to say that something is impossible:

“As Possibility is, in the first instance, the mere form of identity-with-self (as compared with the concrete which is actual), the rule for it merely is that a thing must not be self-contradictory. Thus everything is possible; for an act of abstraction can give any content this form of identity. Everything however is as impossible as it is possible. In every content – which is and must be concrete – the speciality of its nature may be viewed as a specialised contrariety and in that way as a contradiction. Nothing therefore can be more meaningless than to speak of such possibility and impossibility.  (G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, § 143)

Are we to suppose then that it is possible that by praying to God, Joshua was able to stop the sun in the sky to enable him to slay the enemies of Israel?

Are we to suppose that it was possible that Jesus could walk on water?

No it is not meaningless to speak of some things as being impossible. The universe is governed by physical laws. The conservation of momentum precludes stopping the rotation of the Earth to continue a battle. Archimedes law of bouyancy precludes walking on water.

Why does anyone take this sort of stuff from Hegel seriously?

The problem is that once you spend too much time reading this stuff it warps your view of things. You programme your mind to work with the terminology and categories of a prescientific world outlook.

Let us take another example, that is, incredibly, cited with approval by Gegenstandpunkt, the relationship between species and genera.

“The particular contains universality, which constitutes its substance; the genus is unaltered in its species, and the species are not different from the universal but only from one another. The particular has one and the same universality as the other particulars to which it is related. At the same time, by virtue of the identity of the particulars with the universal, their diversity is, as such, universal; it is totality.” (G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic II, § 1336)

Recall that Hegel is writing before Darwin, and before the discovery of DNA, so his qualification to talk about this subject is very limited. So Hegel sees the relationship between species and genus purely in ideal conceptual terms. He is unaware that a genus, or in modern terms a clade, shares common descent from an ancestor species. He is unaware that the genus pantera which includes lions, tigers, leopards etc have common traits because they share DNA from this common ancestor.

Hegel had an excuse. Gegenstandpunkt have no excuse for reprinting this kind of absurd and pretentious idealism in the 21st century.