The Owl of Minerva:
The Evolution of German Ideology Critique and Social Theory
from Hegel to Nietzsche:
A Sketch

by Ralph Dumain


This hardly qualifies as a primer on the subject, but it may prove helpful nevertheless. This piece was compiled from a series of e-mail exchanges with a group of philosophically inclined Washington professionals. Those with formal education in philosophy were predominantly familiar with Anglo-American philosophy, dominated by the analytical tradition. In political and social philosophy as well as epistemology, they knew their Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mills, Popper, Rawls, etc., with no comprehension of what is misleadingly marketed as 'continental philosophy'. My quixotic aim was to interject a radically different perspective on the philosophical tradition and the development of social theory by calling attention to some key features in the development of German philosophy from Hegel to Nietzsche via the Young Hegelians, using Hegel's 'Owl of Minerva' as an organizing metaphor. Sketchy as this is, I make three important original claims: (1) progress in ideology critique is not equivalent to progress in social theory, (2) a key but oft overlooked contribution of Marx was his overthrow of hypostatized metaphysical concepts such as volksgeist, (3) compared to the evolution of the Young Hegelians, Nietzsche represents a regression in social theory. (RD—2 August 2006)


Not only has universal anarchy broken out among the reformers, but also every individual must admit to himself that he has no precise idea about what ought to happen. However, this very defect turns to the advantage of the new movement, for it means that we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old. Hitherto philosophers have left the keys to all riddles in their desks, and the stupid, uninitiated world had only to wait around for the roasted pigeons of absolute science to fly into its open mouth. Philosophy has now become secularized and the most striking proof of this can be seen in the way that philosophical consciousness has joined battle not only outwardly, but inwardly too. If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be. . . .

Reason has always existed, but not always in a rational form. Hence the critic can take his cue from every existing form of theoretical and practical consciousness and from this ideal and final goal implicit in the actual forms of existing reality he can deduce a true reality. . . .

Nothing prevents us, therefore, from lining our criticism with a criticism of politics, from taking sides in politics, i.e., from entering into real struggles and identifying ourselves with them. This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with true campaign-slogans. Instead, we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not.

The reform of consciousness consists entirely in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in arousing it from its dream of itself, in explaining its own actions to it. Like Feuerbach's critique of religion, our whole aim can only be to translate religious and political problems into their self-conscious human form.

Our programme must be: the reform of consciousness not through dogmas but by analyzing mystical consciousness obscure to itself, whether it appear in religious or political form. It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality. . . .

— Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge (Sept. 1843),
Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February 1844


Prelude: German Idealism & Mythology

"Reason has always existed, but not always in a rational form."

— Karl Marx

There is a large tradition of the study of mythology and myth criticism in German thought. Some of this coincided with the development of German idealism and Romanticism. And a certain tendency to be found at that very historical moment persisted up through the 20th century in a certain Germanic equivocation about truth claims pertaining to myth and religion, i.e. a convenient elision of a distinction between symbolic content and literal truth claims. If you've ever followed the weasely, manipulative intellectual dishonesty of a Carl Jung or a Fritjof Schuon, you'll know what I mean. But rather than recapitulate this huge swath of intellectual history, I want to focus on one line of development from Hegel (which also involves his confrontations with F. Schlegel and Schleiermacher) down to the Young Hegelians (with intermediate turning points at Strauss and Heine), principally Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. The story climaxes with Marx, in that Marx takes off into regions the rest could not follow, yet Marx's revolution in thought would be impossible and his early works unintelligible without understanding the revolutionary intellectual milieu in which he germinated, esp. the contributions of Bauer and Feuerbach. I won't delve into Marx except to say that the sensationalist quotation of the phrase you know, i.e. religion as "the opium of the people", does not remotely do justice to the content of the text in which it is contained.

I adduce this line of intellectual development because if I don't say it, it won't get said, and we'll be stuck in the sludge deposited by the disgusting likes of Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, not to mention [our own] resident obscurantists. And I'm afraid the contributions of Humeians and Popperians are rooted in an intellectual history too thin and narrow to be of much help here.

While Hegel may well be guilty of a major equivocation himself (to be discussed shortly), he was resolutely on the side of reason against the irrationalist reactionary intellectuals of his day, e.g. Friedrich Schlegel and Schleiermacher. More details will follow in due course. The main points to keep in mind about Hegel's position, in my view, are these:

(1) There is rational content in mysticism (e.g. Jakob Boehme), but the mystical form in which it is contained is underdeveloped and often confused, and hence it must be converted to rational form.

(2) There is rational content in religion. Its popular form exists in picture language or religious representations (vorstellung), whose content is identical but whose form differs from its conceptual form or notion (begriff). The equivalence marks the equivocation I referred to, and becomes the focal point in the rift in the Hegelian movement in the 1830s following Hegel's death. But note:

(3) Hegel places philosophy above religion, which was, in the political climate of the time, a delicate maneuver.

(4) Hegel rejects anti-philosophical fideism (á la Schleiermacher) and philosophy as unaccountable mystical intuition (Schelling), and insists that philosophy must be a "science", i.e. explicit, logically constructed, publicly discussible and verifiable, independent of persons, etc.

(5) Hegel sees the mythical as repository of truths, but inferior, not superior to their ultimate rational form (contra Schelling). Parenthetically, Hegel's "orientalism" (borrowing a concept from Edward Said) differs from Schlegel's, and his prejudicial (though changing throughout the 1820s) attitudes towards non-western philosophy has a relationship to the uses to which they were put among his contemporaries (e.g. Schlegel's valorization of Indian mysticism).

Schelling (one of the key figures in the progression Kant-Fichte-Schelling-Hegel) claimed that philosophy should take the form of art and be based on intuition. Hegel opposed this conception as hieratic and unaccountable, privileging unique individuals gifted with an indefinable higher power not subject to rational scrutiny.

Once the cautiously liberalizing trend within German higher education was reversed circa 1840, several years after Hegel's death, Schelling was brought to Berlin to combat Hegel's dangerous radical influence. There Schelling taught seminars attended by such future notables as Kierkegaard, Bakunin, and Engels.

Lukàcs (The Destruction of Reason, 1952) accuses the later Schelling as being the progenitor of the trend of irrationalist philosophy that culminated in Nazism.

19 Sep 2005


The Owl of Minerva

First, here's the quote. I prefer other translations of Hegel's famous statement, but this one is immediately handy:

Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

— Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Preface

I prefer the translation that ends "The owl of Minerva only takes flight as the dusk begins to fall."

There are at least two points to consider.

(1) Hegel doesn't argue that philosophy ought not to preach to the world, but that it is not equipped to do so.

(2) This is because the fullness of comprehension of an epoch only comes into being as it reaches its end, and the new order that is coming into being has not yet penetrated consciousness to the point of being able to be articulated theoretically. If you think about it, this is what happens in the course of both an individual lifetime and in social development. Neither you nor the theoreticians of your society have a full conceptual grasp of what you lived through until the world you grew up in has changed so dramatically that the underlying assumptions of the time come into relief. But yet, as a product of an earlier time, you may not be fully in tune with what is going on now and cannot articulate its inner experience. This is what the generation coming up now will have to do when it gets an intellectual grasp on what it was like its inhabitants to live through this period.

This very question as to whether philosophy can be pro-active became a bone of contention within the Hegelian movement itself following Hegel's death. This is the story of the Young Hegelians in the 1840s. (You can see some of this in the Marx quote I provided.)

Old Hegel, the author of The Philosophy of Right, was deemed by many to be a conservative defender of the status quo. This doesn't justify the lies that Dewey, Popper and others told about him, but it's been a bone of contention since Hegel's death. Hegel was in fact a cautious liberalizer, testing the limits but careful not to jeopardize his own position by going too far. This can be seen in the ambiguity of his statement—what is real (actual) is rational, what is rational (actual) is real. (Note that these terms may not mean what they do in ordinary language.) That statement itself has been seen as either an apology for conservatism or for revolution.

Heinrich Heine recounted an alleged conversation with Hegel, spinning it in such a way—i.e. in his version of Hegel's mien as well as his words—to emphasize that for Hegel, what is rational must become real; i.e. that Hegel was a closet Jacobin.

There was much talk among the left Hegelians as to whether Hegel accommodated himself to the status quo. Marx thought this was a superficial consideration:

In regard to Hegel, too, it is out of mere ignorance that his disciples explain this or that determination of his system by accommodation and the like or, in a word, morally. They forget that a very short time ago they enthusiastically adhered to all aspects of his one-sidedness; clear evidence of this fact is found in their own writings.

If they really were so much affected by the completed scientific knowledge they received that they submitted to it with naive uncritical trust, how unconscionable it is to reproach the master with having a hidden motive behind his insight—the master for whom scientific knowledge was not something received but something evolving as his own intellectual life's blood pulsed to its outmost periphery. Doing this, they throw suspicion on themselves, as though formerly they were not serious, and they combat their own former position in the form of ascribing it to Hegel. They forget, however, that he stood in direct, substantial relationship to his system, and they in a reflected relationship.

It is conceivable that a philosopher commits this or that apparent non sequitur out of this or that accommodation. He himself may be conscious of it. But he is not conscious that the possibility of this apparent accommodation is rooted in the inadequacy of his principle or in its inadequate formulation. Hence, if a philosopher has accommodated himself, his disciples have to explain from his inner essential consciousness what for him had the form of an exoteric consciousness. In this way what appears as progress of consciousness is progress of knowledge as well. It is not that the particular consciousness of the philosopher is suspect; rather, his essential form of consciousness is constructed, raised to a particular form and meaning, and at the same time superseded.

— Karl Marx, Philosophy after Its Completion

The rest of this fragment is equally remarkable. As this comes from a footnote to the incomplete remains of Marx's doctoral dissertation, it sometimes gets omitted when the dissertation is reproduced.

20 Sep 2005


German Idealism & Mythology (2)

Let me continue with the sketchiest of sketches of the evolution of Hegelianism in the German sphere following Hegel's death in 1831. As I've indicated, there is enough of a slipperiness in Hegel that completely opposing religious and political tendencies grew out of his thought. Religion and politics were basically the same thing, and the 1830s was a battlefield of these conflicting tendencies.

In 1835 David Friedrich Strauss published Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus), a landmark in the higher criticism and demythologization of Christianity. Strauss also dubbed the factions of the Hegelian movement the Left, Center, and Right Hegelians.

Another pivotal figure of that period was Heinrich Heine, the radical German-Jewish poet and essayist, friend to both Hegel and much later, Marx.

Hegel was, in my view, a cautious liberalizer, radical in respect to the reactionaries of his time, but perceived as conservative by the standards of the years to come. That curious situation is embodied in the preface to The Philosophy of Right, in which Hegel asserts that every philosophy is the creature of its time, and no one can jump over one's own historical epoch and based one's philosophy on radically different sets of assumptions.

In any case, there was a modus vivendi that enabled Hegel to function, and he had some liberal allies in the state educational apparatus. I don't know what the scholarly consensus is, but in my view there is a tacit correlation between Hegel's views of religion, philosophy, and the role of the philosopher in the division of labor. Religion (vorstellung = representation, picture thinking) is for the masses, while philosophy is for the intellectuals. Philosophy is more evolved than traditional religion, expressing its content in conceptual form. Perhaps you can see that here we have neither conservatism nor radical rupture with tradition, though in fact Hegel was skirting the edge.

The modus vivendi upon which such a theoretical schema thrived was destroyed with the reactionary regime of Frederick IV, and the turning point was 1840. The next chapter of this story will be taken up with Bruno Bauer.

I have several mini-bibliographies on my web site on selected aspects of Hegel and Hegelianism. The relevant ones for this discussion are:

The Young Hegelians: Selected Bibliography

Ludwig Feuerbach: A Bibliography

For you black history buffs, there's an indirect connection between Feuerbach and Strauss and Frederick Douglass:

Letter to Ludwig Feuerbach from Ottilie Assing about Frederick Douglass

20 Sep 2005


The Owl of Minerva: 1831-1844 — Part 1

I suggested that Hegel's notion already underwent a transformation in the wake of his death, driven by the changing political circumstances in Prussia. I've also very sketchily begun to outline the changing configuration of the relation between philosophy and religion (hence myth) during this time period. Before I pick up this latter thread again, I want to return to the 'Owl of Minerva' theme, which can be seen to bear some relation to this other question. More directly, it ties into the relationship between philosophy and the future.

Aside from Hegel's aversion to romantic adventurism (he saw his friend Hölderlin go insane after his hopes raised by the French Revolution were dashed), he didn't see much value in subjective world-beating pretensions. He was rather soberly realistic about the possibility of philosophers haranguing the world into heeding radical prescriptions. Hence the question became: what is the relationship between real possibility, social change, and theoretical reflection? Here the natures of the 'cunning of history' and the 'world-historical individual' come into play. The world-historical individual may have a sense of his own mission, but he does not know the ultimate consequences of his actions, and does not act from impartial motives. Rather, in pursuing his subjective ends and ambitions in connection with epoch-making interventions, he does the work of the weltgeist (world spirit), the ultimate motor of universality. Ergo, the world-historical individual accomplishes universal ends without possessing universal consciousness. On the flip side, the philosopher may theoretically analyze the meaning of his epoch as it reaches maturity, but that very theoretical activity is but a complement to the world of action. To put it another way, Hegel could never imagine himself or anyone like him a philosopher-king. (Important to remember given accusations that Hegel was arrogant, saw himself the culmination of history, etc.)

In Hegel's lifetime, and presumably immediately after, it seemed like Hegel's positioning was the wave of the future. That is why he could be rated revolutionary, cautiously liberal, or conservative. But this modus vivendi was not to last. By the mid-30s there were already schisms among the Hegelians (left, center, right) and Strauss's controversial demythologization of Christianity. The Left Hegelians went out on a limb the closer they gravitated to atheism. But also, with the political reaction of 1840, they were deprived of the possibility of university posts, which effectively undermined the social role of the philosopher (intellectual) as Hegel envisioned it. This, in combination with political liberalism/radicalism, drove the Left Hegelians to a more proactive conception of the philosopher's role. The philosopher had to help bring the future into being, not merely analyze a state of affairs after the fact.

Thus the whole Young Hegelian movement in the 1840s was confronted with the relation between theory and practice. As big changes waited in the wings, it was thought that with a revolution in theory, a revolution in practice could not be far behind. (I don't recall who made this claim.) This scenario engendered complications on both the theoretical (philosophical) and practical (political) sides of the equation.

Karl Marx was a protégé of Bruno Bauer, whose views on religion and self-consciousness I will say more about when I pick up the other thread. Marx inherited the dilemma of theory and practice (Owl of Minerva) as he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Epicurean viz. Democritean materialism (which also had to do with determinism and freedom). On the theoretical side, what happens when a completed philosophical system breaks up in a period of ensuing change? What does philosophy do?

Soon, Marx was to write about two responses to that situation. One of them he called the 'party of the concept' (at that moment it was Bauer's and Marx's tendency, I believe), which adheres to the priority of pursuing theoretical concepts. Anyway, up to 1842, one can see how closely Marx adheres to the Young Hegelian paradigm even as he asks fundamental questions and enquires more deeply into social reality. You can see it in that letter to Arnold Ruge I quoted in my first intervention on myth.

You can see something else there, too. Note that Marx abjures arbitrary preaching to the world as a detached outside observer; rather he seeks to clarify (and ultimately to act on) principles and tendencies imminent in the world. This can be seen both to carry on and transmute the Hegelian conception (going beyond the 'Owl of Minerva' formulation while eschewing romantic subjectivism).

Eventually, Marx will confront a cardinal weakness of the Young Hegelian movement. The Young Hegelians wanted to find a proactive role for philosophy in a way that Hegel did not. But what happened to the analysis of existing society in the process? Did they improve on Hegel, or did they fall behind?

20 Sep 2005


The Owl of Minerva: 1831-1844 — Part 2

As I indicated previously, the Young Hegelians, the most prominent among the pack being Bruno Bauer (dean of the circle "The Free"), took on a proactive role for the philosopher as agent of social change. In what capacity did they do this and with what concepts? Primarily through the written word and the critique of the underpinnings of society as they saw it, esp. religion. I'll reserve further treatment of this for my parallel thread. As I suggested, the key thing to look out for here is not their overt political beliefs or action, but their concepts about society. In their attempt to advance beyond Hegel both theologically and politically, did they also advance in historical and sociological conception?

Hegel cast his perspective on history in the format of speculative idealism, but he did not work with empty metaphysical concepts alone. There was ample substantive content and assimilation of extant knowledge in Hegel's system, with ideas on the family, the state, civil society, political economy, etc. (Hegel was very much influenced by Adam Smith, for example.) This, along with his methods of analysis, provided much to work with.

Compare by contrast the vacuous sociological content in the speculative metaphysics of Whitehead, who developed his ideas over a century later, in an era in which speculative idealism constituted regression, however modernized by the concept of process. The most vociferous advocates of Whitehead have come up with nothing save vacuous philosophical categories which illuminate nothing about how society is put together or how it evolved. (And while Whitehead knew the thought of the reactionary Bradley, which embodied the most conservative, retrograde side of Hegelianism, he knew nothing at all of Hegel.)

Marx's criticisms of the lack of substantive sociological analysis among his peers who had once inspired him—esp. Bauer and Feuerbach—are known to most who know the basic story. I find it remarkable, however, that popularizers of Marx's ideas neglect to highlight what I consider to be one among many decisive accomplishments of Marx—the overthrow of the concept of volksgeist inherited from German Romanticism.

Marx was to criticize Hegel's conception of the state and civil society (1843) and of Hegel's dialectic (1844), and in so doing, the opposition between scientific method and what we now call hypostatization comes into play. While Hegel rejected the irrationalist dimension of German Romanticism, he nevertheless inherited the concept of volksgeist (spirit of the folk) from his contemporaries. To be sure, he enriched his philosophy of history with much concrete content and looked for a rationally understandable evolution of history rather than to remain content with an unaccountable, inexplicable postulation of essences. But there were consequences of preserving the notion of volksgeist even while attempting to construct a rational understanding of social development. Very briefly, we can number the issues thusly:

(1) Fundamental principle of categorization and classification of social formations and entities. Conversion of empirical information into metaphysical entities. Marx criticized the Hegelian method of smuggling uncriticized empirical content and then inverting it to make it the product of hypostatized essences. (Very important for understanding how scientific theory differs from metaphysics.)

(2) Postulation of fictitious generative entities: e.g. (allowing for bad memory) Orient: one is free; Greece: some are free; Germanic-Christian: all are free. World Spirit's differential manifestation, in temperate zones, Africa, etc.

(3) "Expressive totality" (cf. Althusser): manifold of social and cultural expressions all emanate holistically from a central source (geist). Contrast to this emergent materialism.

(4) "Civilization" or "culture" as a fundamental explanatory principle (as consequence of above).

The ultimate practical as well as ideological results of such an approach are deleterious. While Hegel himself may not have been the identifiable decisive historical influence on this way of thinking (being a general inheritance of the worst of German thought), this mystical volkish way of thinking polluted the entire 19th century. In the last third of the century, volkish racism merged or interacted with with newly emergent biological racism in various ways. (Note that under the Nazis many philosophers, Heidegger included, refused to embrace biological racism while upholding the old volkish racism.) Imperialist notions of race and nation infected the incipient black nationalism of the 19th century, which prefigures the fascist sociopath Garvey of the 1920s and developments therefrom. (Cf. the works of Wilson Jeremiah Moses.) In the 20th century you have the retrogressive obscurantist drivel of Spengler, a degenerate version of a conception born under a different social prospective with Herder and his contemporaries. And we have it now in the American neofascist excremental propaganda of the "clash of civilizations."

Given how crucial this is, I am astounded that popular introductions to Marx fail to highlight and underscore something so crucial as the fact that historical materialism pulls the rug out from under any type of volkish thinking.

The unabridged version of The German Ideology (1845-6) used to be somewhat hard to come by. Now it is available from Prometheus Books. Years ago, while reading through hundreds of pages of sarcasm directed against Max Stirner (the last of the significant Young Hegelians before the movement self-destructed (there was one later person whose name I can't remember), I noticed that Marx tore Max a new one while repeating certain ideas copied from Hegel by Stirner. It then occurred to me that Marx's general accusations leveled elsewhere were probably true—that the Young Hegelians not only did not advance beyond Hegel's grasp of society, but fell far behind, losing a sense of the material foundations of social organization while criticizing its ideological manifestations (chiefly religion, political concepts, and—not as well known—aesthetics).

Philosophy as the avant-garde of revolutionary thinking was in fact proving its total inadequacy for understanding what it was attempting to revolutionize. The "party of the concept" (Bauer's party) was in the end nothing more than hollow thundering against society without not only a program or organization to effectively change it, but just as crucially, maybe even more crucially, without a substantive social theory to enable foundational criticism. This should be borne in mind, lest political activism be touted as the one and only issue at stake.

21 Sep 2005


The Owl of Minerva: 1831-1844 — Part 3

". . . it is nevertheless a notorious fact that there do exist reflecting individuals, who imagine that in and through reflection they have risen above everything, while in actual fact they have never risen above reflection."

— Marx and Engels, The German Ideology

We have seen that the Young Hegelians were discontent to wait for the "Owl of Minerva" to arrive to theorize the state of social development as an epoch reaches maturity. They sought to be proactive, via the development of critique and intellectual agitation (which, given the realities of censorship and persecution, was no small matter).

Their strongest point was the development of critique of what we might call the ideological forms of appearance of society—its world view and legitimating doctrines. The concept of 'ideology' in its pejorative sense was not named at that time, but the most powerful outcome of the work of the Young Hegelians was what we would call critique of ideology. First, there was the acceleration of the critique of religion with Bruno Bauer. Religion was seen to be a form that needed to be transcended for the furtherance of 'self-consciousness'. (More on that later.) Feuerbach ratcheted up critique some decisive notches, first for his critique of religion as an alienated projection of the human essence, but just as importantly, his critique of philosophy in general (which meant, effectively, Hegelian philosophy) as an alienated, inverted form of consciousness akin to theology. This general schema had a decisive impact on Marx. Max Stirner raised the stakes by criticizing Feuerbach's abstract humanism as yet another form of alienated consciousness. And Marx raised the stakes even further in response to Stirner by generalizing critique of the alienated forms of ideological appearance and criticizing all the critiques for failing to transcend the very basis of their critique, i.e. to take society as it really existed and not its ideological forms of appearance as the point of departure (The German Ideology, with Engels, 1845-6).

This rapid-fire progression of ideology critique all took place in the first half of the 1840s—a revolutionary development in the history of thought (in its own right, mind you, not solely because it led to Marx), but insufficiently attended to in our neck of the woods. Much of this material has never been or is only now being translated into English. There was no major study of Bauer in English until a couple years ago with a book by Douglas Moggach (and that is focused and selective), all the more amazing considering Bauer's contributions to the Higher Criticism. (Perhaps the theologians were scared to translate him?) Even existing English translations may be difficult for the average person to come by (of Czieskowski, for instance, or selected essays by various of these people. See my bibliography.) Perhaps were we to attend to this revolutionary development and draw consequences from it, we might end up with a rather different perspective on what happened to philosophy in the 19th century.

Marx's brilliance was fueled by this process of the inversion of ideological appearances, and once he departed from the self-enclosed terrain of German idealism, generalized his scope to the critique of utopian socialism, political economy, and analytical methods applied to all social phenomena. Marx rejected his erstwhile colleagues not just because they were not prepared to follow in his direction politically, but just as crucially because he left them in the dust theoretically, as their approach to social theory never outgrew metaphysics, and their analysis of social institutions (i.e. what lies beneath ideologies) in effect fell behind the level of sophistication of Hegel himself.

Publicly, Marx in his first joint work with Engels—The Holy Family, 1845—leveled his guns at his former colleague Bauer. Their key transitional work, The German Ideology (1845-6) was never published in their lifetimes, and I don't think was available even in abridged form until the 1930s. Marx's famed 1844 Manuscripts—a pivotal development that occurred when Marx was still impressed with Feuerbach—was not even known until the 1930s, and while publicized in the 1930s by Marcuse, really took off as an object of study after the war, especially by anti-Stalinists and dissidents in the Eastern bloc as well as the West.

This period also witnessed on Marx's part a rather sarcastic reckoning with 'philosophy' and its capacity to deal with reality, e.g. the infamous quip:

"Philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love."

— Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, I, III, 1, 6, C, 1845-6

For a selection of revealing quotes, see my compilation:

Quotable Quotes from The German Ideology by Marx & Engels.

The notorious 11th thesis on Feuerbach, taken from an unpublished manuscript (Theses on Feuerbach, 1845) and abused out of context for the past century and a half, is highly misleading without an appreciation of the context from which it sprang: 'the philosophers have hitherto only explained the world in various ways, the point is to change it.' The point, however, involves a theoretical transformation far more profound that this aphorism immediately suggests.

But what again is the impetus behind my historical précis? It came from questions regarding the Owl of Minerva notion and the analytical-continental split in professional philosophy.

Let's return to that quote from Marx (Letter to Arnold Ruge) I adduced at the beginning. Note that this letter encapsulates the high hopes for critique of that time, which was also when Feuerbach was at the height of his influence on Marx (leading to the turning point of 1844, though later leaving Feuerbach behind). But here Marx also relates the 'is' to the 'ought'. His position is neither a passive acceptance of the order of things, nor is it a deduction of either the existing social world or an alternative world from first philosophy and metaphysical premises, but a conception of the transformative process of critique and its mediation of the now and future prospectives.

There is a dimension to this line of thought which involves the social role of the theorist (in the division of labor) himself. Popper did a poor job of preparing his devotees for such considerations.

Briefly, the issue is encapsulated in Marx's 3rd thesis on Feuerbach (Theses on Feuerbach):

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

From here we could launch into a discussion of freedom and determinism from the Marxian standpoint, which would leave Popper's juvenile ravings in the dust, but that is another dissertation, and this is only an hour show.

But the two big points that tie our inquiry are these:

(1) Given the relation between prescriptions for (a better / ideal) society viz. a theoretical grasp of existing society implied in the development I've outlined here, how would this perspective change our valuation of several philosophers that come up in discussion? For example:

Hobbes
Rawls

What value do either of these perspectives have from an altered perspective?

Nietzsche
Popper

What value do either of these thinkers have for social theory and the method underlying a proper social theory?

(2) What are the implications of this piece of the history of philosophy for this duplicitous, fictional conceptual construct known as 'continental philosophy'?

22 Sep 2005


Interlude: Impact of German Idealism on the USA

I cannot answer the question as to the (non-)influence of German political theory in the USA, but I would pose some key questions myself. At what point did the abortion we know as 'political science' cease to absorb influences from abroad, if that is what happened?

In actual fact, Hegelianism had a significant impact on good government in the USA. The American Hegelians were instrumental in building the public educational system of this country, and their leader W. T. Harris was US Commissioner of Education (as well as inspirer of the Dewey Decimal Classification). Basically, these folks provided an alternative to the cowboy mentality that governed the state of affairs (and to which we have regressed today), favoring the use of the state to promote social goods. But what specific concepts of the state these folks got from Hegel I couldn't tell you.

Nor could I tell you what viable prescriptive ideas would still be / have been usable from Hegel, in distinction from his analysis of the state. The idea of a constitutional monarchy, for example, may have had some relevance to the prospectives of pre-unified Germany, but may not have outlived its time.

I would also ask to what extent was social theory integrated into Anglo-American political theory in general. (I'd rather choke first than ever have to engage in a conversation with a political scientist ever again, including close personal friends.) After all, German sociology was once the main event and it must have had an impact here (aside from the fact that W. E. B. Du Bois studied it in Germany) before this dull-witted dreck from Talcott Parsons took over, along with the number-crunching imbecility that ruled when I studied this stuff. In sum, if American sociology and American poli sci weren't dreadful enough by themselves, did they ever get together to compare notes?

22 Sep 2005


The Owl of Minerva: 1831-1844 — Part 4

[Reviewing the discourse among us], it is evident that the Owl of Minerva was sent to the taxidermist and its loss of brain cells is now a moot issue.

Hopefully, though, my endeavor to sketch some of the relevant intellectual history around the stuffed and mounted Owl has not been a waste of time. In any event, the wish of philosopher qua philosopher (social roles which even many of the most radical philosophers have recognized as logically distinct—e.g. Nizan, Adorno, Habermas) to be proactive rather than retrospective involve more than just the subjective will to be political; there is the objective nature and content of the subject matter to consider.

That is one reason why it is so important, given the substandard intellectual level on which [life in Washington] thrives, not to succumb to the natural entropic tendency to allow one's own intellectual processes to disintegrate in adaptation to the environment with which one contends. And life is, as recent circumstances have driven home so sharply, much shorter than you think. This is a reminder to [my friend], who, in his desire to find discourse more relevant and substantial, insists that philosophy should endeavor to change the world, but upon occasion succumbs to the ethos of [neocon and other] half-wits who don't know what a philosophical discussion is. The missing middle term is the conceptual nature of what philosophy does, and thus its relation to natural science, social theory, and everyday life. I've unsuccessfully attempted to inject a more sophisticated understanding of these relationships into our group for nearly six years, obviously with minimal success.

Anyway, given the question about the relation of Hegel to the analytical-continental split, Hegel is very much symptomatic, even central, to the nature of the split, but did not cause it, nor does the notion of the Owl specifically epitomize it. Analytical philosophy until recently was in some sense predicated on the exclusion of Hegel from the legitimate philosophical canon. This may, in retrospect, explain much of its naïveté and tortured history, but the historical causality and the historical trajectories involve require detailed, complex narratives. The reception of Hegel alone, as his work migrated beyond the Germanic sphere to Britain, the USA, Italy, Russia, and other countries, was bizarre, perhaps unique in its weirdness, because Hegel served as a slot-filler to the ideological needs if its importers, and the actual continuity between Hegel and later Hegelians is often rather strained. Hegelianism even in its original social setting was skewed, after Hegel's death, to the struggle over religion and politics, and thus other questions that might have been addressed were not. There is a great deal of discontinuity in intellectual history, which affects the reception of both Hegel and Marx (in different ways), and I would have to presume others.

I ended my last installment by posing two questions, both of which involve how we would change our perception of the progress of philosophy over the past century and a half by taking the story of the Young Hegelians into account. The first point involved a reevaluation of various later thinkers. The second involves the very conception of the analytical-continental divide I have called into question.

Re the first point, I could take a single example: how to view Nietzsche in light of the Young Hegelian movement, especially in comparison to his obvious predecessor, Max Stirner?

23 Sep 2005


The Owl of Minerva: 1831-1844 — Part 5: From Stirner to Nietzsche

The penultimate Young Hegelian, and essentially the last major innovator en route to the dissolution of the movement (which did not survive 1848), was Max Stirner, whose most famous work was The Ego and his Own. Stirner was a progenitor of anarchist thought. Anarchism itself has an ambiguous lineage, and some have placed Stirner on the right. (Bakunin, you will remember, attended Schelling's lectures at the same time as Kierkegaard and Engels. Bakunin was Marx's major rival in the First International. Though the left claims anarchism as well, there are romantic autocratic tendencies in Bakunin as well despite his overtly anti-authoritarian stance.) Stirner excoriated his predecessors—e.g. Feuerbach and Marx—for establishing 'humanity' as yet another abstract principle to tyrannize over the concrete individual. This was the latest stage in the successive escalation of ideology critique in the Young Hegelian movement. Bauer had criticized Christianity as an alienated denial of self-consciousness. Feuerbach extended the concept of inversion to cover not only religion (for which is most famous) but philosophy (i.e. Hegelian philosophy) as well, thus providing another key stimulus for Marx. But Stirner attempted to outdo them all by criticizing Feuerbach's abstract humanism as yet another alienated, inverted metaphysical principle. However, Stirner took a different route in doing so than Marx.

This proved to be Marx's final challenge in breaking with the whole lot of his peers—Bauer, Feuerbach, Stirner, and the "True Socialists". Marx also broke with merely abstract philosophical principles, but rose to Stirner's challenge, by attempting to prove (with Engels' input) that Stirner's own advocacy of the unique individual had no concrete content but was in effect yet another vacuous metaphysical abstraction. This was in the humongous manuscript The German Ideology (1845-6). For the longest time only an abridged version was readily available, as it was assumed that much of this volume could not be of interest to the general reader, since several hundred pages were given over to a line-by-line skewering of Stirner. The astute reader might nevertheless find some interesting tidbits in it that are still significant.

Scholars differ in their assessment of Marx's reaction to Stirner. Some deem Marx anxious and defensive in the assault on his alleged collectivist ideal. Since I don't see Marx as a collectivist, I don't buy it. I have a short bibliography on the subject somewhere, but to my recollection my favorite treatment of this skirmish is Paul Thomas' Karl Marx and the Anarchists.

One of the observations I made when plowing through the unabridged text of The German Ideology was the stagnancy and evident deterioration of the social theory that Hegel had bequeathed to the movement. Stirner, like the others, not only failed to make any new contributions to sociological analysis, but preserved all the old shibboleths of geistig thinking (volksgeist) in a thoughtless, uncritical form, which Marx can be seen to be eviscerating in his critique. I don't recall others pointing this out, but I do recall making this observation myself.

Again, my memory is off-base, but I'm pretty sure that Nietzsche read Stirner. There are certainly similarities and parallels between the two thinkers, e.g. their atheism, individualism, and opposition to metaphysical stances. Stirner is not exactly a hot topic in philosophy right now. You are far more likely to be familiar with Nietzsche's thought. Nevertheless, one may pose the question: how should we view Nietzsche in light of the Young Hegelian movement, especially in comparison to his obvious predecessor, Max Stirner? I submit that this is a significant question, though neglected by the philosophical establishment. But as we shall see, this blindness indicates a highly suspect selectivity of the engagement with intellectual history and shows up the fraudulent, artificial nature of the construct known as "continental philosophy", as well as the ideological and moral bankruptcy of that wing of the philosophical establishment that slobbers over Nietzsche while conveniently neglecting the regression in social theory that he represents.

11 Oct 2005


The Owl of Minerva: 1831-1844-? — Part 6: From Stirner to Nietzsche (cont'd)

One of Hegel's greatest contributions was to link the historical development in all its complexity to the evolution of forms of consciousness. The ontological basis of the social totality, however, was unified in the concept of geist, which Althusser termed 'expressive totality'; i.e. the explanation of society as an emanation from a single guiding principle. While Hegel's was an embryonic contribution to social science, its metaphysical form could not be maintained if science was going to advance. We have seen how Hegel's synthesis broke down as the Left Hegelians ventured further into the critique of religion and ultimately into what would later be termed ideology critique. But the material basis of society, which was also part of Hegel's system, to which the forms of consciousness were linked, did not receive a more advanced treatment and even fell behind as the Left Hegelian movement advanced. Hegel had a theory of the state, had incorporated Adam Smith's ideas on political economy, but the Young Hegelians, though political radicals in their social context, had nothing to offer beyond the general critique of politics and religion. This was the point at which Marx, who had ridden the wave of the innovative Young Hegelian movement, jumped off.

Now let's take a gander at Nietzsche. Here we have a critique of the forms of consciousness: the genealogy of morals, the critique of philosophy as symptomatology, militant atheism, etc. Nietzsche's pre-psychoanalytical approach to philosophy and religion may in some respects contribute something new to ideology critique beyond the Young Hegelians.

The question, then, is where is Nietzsche's social theory? There is none. Nietzsche has nothing to offer but a crude biologism, characteristic of the rising social darwinism of the time. For Nietzsche there is only sickness and health; the critique of religion and philosophy is the critique of sickness. Instead of political economy and the means of social organization of material production giving rise to the forms of consciousness, what do we get? The exceptional individual vs. the herd, slave and noble morality, genealogy of morals—for the forms of consciousness. Biologism and breeding for social theory.

At the 2003 APA meeting here in DC, James Winchester (Georgia State U.) delivered an illuminating paper on "Nietzsche's Racial Profiling". It was part of a program on philosophy and race. Programs like this are usually too nauseating to bear (as is the academic race porn industry in general), but this symposium was surprisingly good. (The paper on Spinoza and race was inspiring. These papers can be found in: Valls, Andrew, ed.; Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.) I would put it this way: Nietzsche was essentially the bearer of a non-racist racialism. That is, he believed in racial breeding but he did not believe in racial purity or the permanent superiority of any given race. For example, he recommended the interbreeding of Germans and Jews to produce a superior race. Anyway, listening to this extensive treatment of Nietzsche's race/breeding theory drove home to me his utter bankruptcy for social theory. While Nietzsche was lied about and distorted for political purposes, first by his sister, later by the Nazis, the structural affinity of Nietzsche to fascism cannot be overlooked.

Nietzsche also has a history of appropriation by the left, but it is important to specify what this implies. For example, anarchism has an ambiguous political history, and certain tendencies to cross over into fascism, a tendency of romantic extremism. Other tendencies are also accountable. George Bernard Shaw, for example, was a Fabian (i.e. managerialist social democratic welfare-statist) and vitalist crackpot (á la Bergson et al), and admirer of Nietzsche. So the parameters of leftist engagement with Nietzsche in the late 19th and early 20th centuries need to be gauged.

Before addressing postmodern onanism, we should once again attack this slippery term of art 'continental philosophy', a grab-bag of just about anything selectively dipped into for opportunist purposes. Georg Lukàcs as progenitor of what is later culled together as 'western Marxism' as well as predecessor of critical theory, is also part of this amorphous category known as 'continental philosophy', receiving more or less attention depending on the priorities of those proffering this questionable category. I'm not aware of Rorty having written on Lukàcs—someone correct me if I've missed something. (Rorty is in any case incapable of engaging the legacy of the Frankfurt School, which would show up his childishness for what it is.) Anyway, it is noteworthy that most of the folks who dip into Lukàcs won't touch his The Destruction of Reason (1952), opposed on principle to all the later developments of postmodernism. I.e., Lukàcs skewers the irrationalist tradition from late Schelling down to Heidegger and Hitler, not saying much about Kierkegaard (still less about the ambiguous legacy of Husserl, a rationalist in any event), and certain others, but not favorably disposed towards Dilthey, Nietzsche, and others.

Lukàcs places irrationalist philosophers after 1848 in opposition to the workers movement, certainly true in the case of Nietzsche. Though Nietzsche as a disaffected aristocratic individualist would hardly support any autocratic or bureaucratic government, his romantic anticapitalism (i.e.: philosophical disgust with rational calculation, moderation, prudence, the English shopkeeper mentality, etc.) and his avowed contempt for the labor movement marks him as a rightist. His aristocratic indifference to human suffering coupled with theoretical cruelty (a tough guy on paper, that is) is the ideological correlate of his lack of a substantive social theory. To properly understand Nietzsche's ideological position, it is necessary to place him not only in the context of his specific intellectual genealogy but in the total context of ideas extent in Germany in his time. For example, a comparative analysis of Nietzsche and Kautsky (intellectual guardian of the German Social Democratic Party) is indicated.

The connection between forms of consciousness and social theory? Let's take up one point: the aristocratic individual vs. the herd mentality. Is this in itself a socially explanatory principle? To be sure, the majority of any society generally conforms to standard ideas and behavioral norms, and there are always individuals who stand out and don't fit in. However, is this a transhistorical constant, apart from any societal specificity? Let's return to Stirner for a minute to see what's at stake.

Stirner had a very similar perspective—he as the sole intellectually emancipated 'unique one' vs. the conformist herd. (And one could go back to Bauer, posing 'critical criticism' against the mindless mass.) And yet what is the concrete content of this postulated individuality? Marx ridiculed Stirner's pretensions in The German Ideology But there is another dimension: I don't recall it from the text itself, but I do recall a secondary treatment, perhaps Thomas': individuality was already being lost by the standardization instituted by the system of industrial capitalism in breaking down the differentia specifica of human abilities and propensities, homogenizing and and standardizing the producers of goods as well as the products themselves. Stirner's failure to engage the objective forces operant in society indicates the bankruptcy of his unreflective self-reflective attribution of uniqueness. To be sure, the tradition of romantic anticapitalism has always disdained homogenization and standardization, but what has it had to offer in way of analysis and transcendence?

For all his exceptional ability, what has Nietzsche offered to improve one whit on Stirner in this regard? He not only has not advanced, he's regressed. Nietzsche belongs to the second half of the 19th century. Already the old geistig volkishness was being superseded (and sometimes combined with) the new biological racism and pseudo-evolutionism. Although having been hammered into a vulgarized and truncated form, the new doctrine of Marxism' was in circulation, with its philosophical foundation of historical materialism and the materialist dialectic of Engels. (Again, what to say if we put Nietzsche into juxtaposition with Kautsky?)

An addendum on the unique individual vs. the herd: in the 19th century, only dribs and drabs of intellectuals were in a position to imagine themselves as exceptions to the mindless herd. (Though it would be useful to comb the literature of working class autodidacts for similar conceits.) But in the latter half of the 20th century, in the industrialized and relatively prosperous western world, this existential situation was no longer the exclusive prerogative of small coteries of elite intellectuals out of step with their society. If you've been around, you may have noticed the Nietzschean attitude to be relatively commonplace among bright fellows of all social classes a bit cleverer than their neighbors. Indeed, the very conditions of urban bourgeois society leads one to this experiential feeling: I am the sole conscious person among automatons. Yet, as a form of alienated consciousness, this sentiment cannot penetrate beneath the phenomenal form of lived experience to the structural conditions that generate it.

In light of the foregoing, it's no less than outrageous than the Nietzsche-addiction of the pomo crowd could be allowed to pass as it is. After all, for the past quarter-century, the theory industry has been in high gear. A smorgasbord of ideas from continental Europe (i.e. the non-scientific, the non-analytic ones) hitherto marginalized by the Anglo-American philosophical establishment, which taken together span different eras as well as movements, all come flooding in (e.g. by way of translation) all at once, seemingly, as the academic publishing industry makes this stuff available to the literate public in the bookstores. There is no question that the inventory of theoretical resources enables a level of sophistication hitherto rather scarce in these parts. Those of you old enough to remember the '70s and who were not members of the inner circles where this stuff was introduced into the USA, know how things have changed. (Back then I would have rather read novels than philosophy to get my understanding of human behavior in social context.) Yet, for all the social and cultural theory out here, the flawed foundations of its configuration and utilization are covered up by the shell game being played with reality.

Nietzsche's contribution to ideology critique is counterbalanced by the regression he represents in social theory. All these people fawning over Nietzsche have their nerve; they ought to be made ashamed, in lieu of the kick in the nuts they deserve as the objective correlate of Nietzschean philosophy.

Meanwhile, the culture of show and bluff, of striking a pose while standing for nothing of substance, which is all that is left of American liberalism, showed itself in the philosophy of Richard Rorty as it did in the presidency of Bill Clinton. The play of ironic vanity—the superficiality and fakery of a Rorty who is insipid at both ends of the spectrum—viz. the forms of consciousness and social reality (social theory)—and its intervening shades—is another shell game with reality as well as with reflective consciousness. The inability to do justice to social theory, i.e. the analysis of social structure and function—and to relate the forms of consciousness to substantive social theory—is what this shell game covers up. Hence, as analytical philosophy disintegrates and 'continental philosophy' receives more and more token representation (you can see this happening in essay collections, and also coincident with the revival of pragmatism in its muticulti incarnation—Cornel West & similar BS), the selective rehabilitation of continental figures and their incorporation into contemporary agendas progresses. Nietzsche, as one of the progenitors of the pomo dispensation, figures into the picture. And while the philosophical canon among Anglo-American ignoramuses is undergoing some revision and expansion, the overall picture of how and why it all hangs together as it does remains a problem. Hence my effort to inject a very different perspective on the history of ideas. And it all relates to the Owl of Minerva. The dusk is surely falling. Will we at least be able to comprehend what we've been through before we are extinguished?

13 Oct 2005

Compiled, edited & uploaded 2 August 2006


Hegel on the Owl of Minerva

Bruno Bauer on Christianity, Alienation, and the Dialectics of Religious Consciousness

Philosophy after Its Completion (Karl Marx)

Quotable Quotes from The German Ideology by Marx & Engels

Marx & Engels on Skepticism & Praxis: Selected Quotations

Nietzsche & the Analytic-Continental Divide: Denouement of Bourgeois Reason; Or, Analytical Philosophy's Being-for-Death
by R. Dumain

Howard L. Parsons on the Role of the Philosopher

The Frankfurt School: Philosophy in Relation to Social Theory, Cultural Theory, Science, and Interdisciplinary Research.
Phase 1: Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in the 1930s.
Study Group Syllabus

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

Alvin Gouldner: Notes & Commentary by R. Dumain

Ideology Study Guide

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

The Young Hegelians: Selected Bibliography

Ludwig Feuerbach: A Bibliography

Anti-Nietzsche Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Annotated Selected Bibliography

Links to Philosophical & Related Web Sites
(also critical thinking links)


Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 3 August 2006

©2006-2010 Ralph Dumain