Greatest thinker NOT: Hegel


Yesterday I threw down the gauntlet: to look for and find the greatest thinker in world history. Today I want to kick off this series of posts by laying down some criteria for our search, with the aid of a negative example: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Criterion: Simplicity.

You’ve read my opinion on the importance of simplicity before. We can go one step further and define thinking as simplifying something complex, bringing order to something unordered, uncluttering something cluttered, and thereby making it accessible and meaningful.

So thinking is not wowing everybody by making something simple complex, or something complex even more complex. It is not making long lists of ideas. If you cannot boil down all your thinking into a digestible morsel, you have not actually thought.

Hegel: Archetype of the Teutonic Windbag

So what does Hegel have to do with this? Well, he represents the archetype of every confused and pompous academic or intellectual snob out there who has ever used his students or the pages of his book as a garbage dump for undigested idea-snippets. He apparently once said that in order to understand anything he has ever written one must first read everything he has ever written. That pretty much says it all.

Am I being unfair? No. I did my fair share of suffering through his verbiage, in German and in English. So he tells you that “history is the dialectical process whereby spirit comes to know itself and realizes its Idea,” that “freedom is the idea of the Spirit and Spirit is Reason in-and-for itself,” and so forth. Folks, it is time to call his bluff.

The reason he got away with it for so long is that, like many of his ilk, he intimidates a lot of people. If you’re smoking Gitanes and wearing black turtlenecks in certain cafés, you cannot afford to poopoo Hegel, because you would not get laid again. If that is you, the answer is to get out of that particular café. (I did, thank god.)

White Knights of common sense

Fortunately, windbags cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Eventually, they will run into somebody who is both clever and confident. That’s when you get a refreshing Emperor-has-no-clothes moment. I will let Arthur Schopenhauer do this service (via Wikipedia). Hegel’s “thought”, said Schopenhauer, was

a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage…

And so we have established our first criterion: Simplicity. Next time, let’s move on to contemplate another issue: Is it necessary for the winner to have been … right?

20 thoughts on “Greatest thinker NOT: Hegel

  1. Three good ones.

    Richard, I deliberately said “thinker”, not “philosopher”. So we don’t care what university department the person would be in today. In fact, my proposed winner is not a philosopher…

  2. You’re being modest. I’m not convinced that you’re out of your depth. The Hannibal Blog’s header with the photo of worn books is totally Martha.

  3. The problem is that you misunderstood him. He thinks of the will as more of a spirit, since this collectiveness of spirit does bring desirability and workability, but it can only be accessed through interiority of the dialectical mutation. His argument is highly tautological, but he does bring some epiphinal points. He uses these epiphinal points to break down the reader. Schopenhauer fought for individualism and subjectivity in a negative fashion. This doesn’t work in the postNietzschean age that surmmounts to postmodernism and always deviation away from any held truth. Thinking was much more aligned in his era, but Max Stirner blackholed his entire operation, and that was barely noticed until Nietzsche.

  4. I confess that I do misunderstand him, and I wish I understood him better. The problem is that whenever I try I get lost. Even your explanation, for example, only confuses me.

  5. I happen to disagree with you regarding good ol’ Hegel.

    Hanging around gloomy cafés, wearing black turtlenecks, smoking Gitanes, and praising Hegel in order to get laid with Beatnik chicks is what really, really matters in life.

    Hedonistic utilitarians unite?

    • Why yes, now that you put it that way, I find that entirely convincing.

      But: what if you’re hanging around gloomy cafes, wearing black turtlenecks, smoking Gitanes and praising Hegel and ….. the babes are not coming to you but going off with the Patanjali and Nietzsche guys?

      Would you not suddenly discover the philosophical merits of those other thinkers?

      As you can tell, the intellectual rigor never wanes on the Hannibal Blog. 😉

  6. Marcus Aurelius has long been one of my favorites. His teacher Epictetus said “When anyone shows himself overly confident in ability to understand and interpret the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, ” Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this person would have had no subject for his vanity.”

    I also like Emile Cioran in this regard – Wikipedia says “Cioran denounced systematic thought and abstract speculation in favor of indulgence in personal reflection and passionate lyricism.”

    I know the above Schopenhauer citation (and had used it in my own arguments some time ago). However: Schopenhauer (a contemporary of Hegel’s) is no easy read either. Isn’t any work that is sufficiently specialized incomprehensible (especially one that is two hundred years old) to the non-expert?

    “history is the dialectical process whereby spirit comes to know itself and realizes its Idea” – This means (IMHO) that when civilizations, peoples, and ideologies/theologies clash new better and more complete/advanced civilization/societies emerge from the synthesis or so called ‘sublation’ (by spirit Hegel really means the human consciousness as distinct from the animal).

    There are many errors in Hegel (and his thought was used brutally and monstrously by the Bolsheviks/Soviets see: The Captive Mind of Czeslaw Milosz) Non the less, I have got allot out of reading him.

    I think a tendency many of us have is that if we don’t agree with say the thesis of Freud’s work, what laborious task; to study him only in order to refute him in his own language (i.e. out of his own rascally mouth:P).

    • You’re clearly well read on these matters, Zog Kadare.

      Which are your nominees for “greatest thinker ever”?

      Would it be marcus Aurelius?

      I’ll have to read up on him.

  7. “Philosophers write for professors; thinkers for writers.” – Emile Cioran

    Aurelius evokes, for me, the emotional kinship/affection to/for a personality – “the emperor Hadrian noticed him and punned on his name, Verus (“True”)”, calling him Verissimus (“Truest”).”. If all Philosophers who write “in the jargon of professional philosophy” are ruled out of the category of “thinkers” then Aurelius is certainly one of the best “thinkers” in this precise sense (or one of the best reflectors i.e. meditators on life).

    This reminds me of Aristotle in so much as he is very difficult to the non expert, but is said to have written many accessible texts (worthy of a “thinker”) in the form of dialogs (like Plato’s) that have all been lost (fire at Alexandria et cetera).

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