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?