Nietzsche and Hegel in Salt Lake City

G.W.F._Hegel_(by_Sichling,_after_Sebbers)I had the opportunity yesterday to present a paper to the Nietzsche Society, which was meeting within a larger conference of the Society for Phenomenology and Existentialist Philosophy. The people I met were generous, knowledgeable, and interesting, and my paper seems to have been well received. It was a good time.

friedrich-nietzscheAt bottom, I was trying to figure out what the value is in works (like Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality and Hegel’s Philosophy of History) that seem like they’re supposed to be grounded in some kind of historical argument, but are obviously bad works of historiography. Nietzsche writes broadly as if he can stretch western civilization out on a couch and psychoanalyze it, and Hegel write as if every segment of history is focused on a nameable set of ideas in a nameable place (Athens, Rome, Berlin (*ahem*)). They are both seeing history as an expression of some sort of dynamic within the human spirit or psyche. They are fascinating works, but when they are held up in comparison to straight-ahead historiographical works – of the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries – they don’t look so well.

So why are they valuable? I think they’re not really meant as works of historiography. They are works of “philohistoriography” – attempts to construe the past and present in such a way as to motivate future actions. They are ideologies: distortions, exaggerations, and oversimplifications of the past for the sake of persuading readers to embrace a certain set of values.

We probably feel the urge to shrink away when we hear “ideology,” but in fact I think ideologies are necessary in order to get people to accept short-term, evident losses for the sake of long-term strategies. The problem, of course, is that we are not all that good at seeing the future, and there are complications, and ideologies often backfire. But what can we do, other than muddle along, and try to dream up illusions that guide us into a direction we think we ought to take?


About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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8 Responses to Nietzsche and Hegel in Salt Lake City

  1. Alex says:

    I’m not sure it makes sense to separate history and ideology in any firm and categorical way, if that’s what you mean. Historians are ideology-creators by nature, poor buggers. Yes, Nz tries to psychoanalyze entire swaths of human populations using giant dumb cardboard cutouts, like a really nasty puppet-master. But as far as historiography he is certainly on to something when he brings up its further implications (well, OK, he shouts and drools) that history without purpose is arcane and mummified. (Of course when he brings in *his* purpose, it’s time to back away slowly.)

    He might be way off about details and facts, but what use are those to a puppetmaster? No historian today talks about “the facts” without wincing a little and thinking twice about his own strings. It’s no longer silly to champion ancient approaches over modern ones, since in some ways the oldies seem less confused in their understanding of truth-making more than a century after Nz’s suggestions. Prosopography or character studies (Plutarch) or folk wisdom (Herodotus) or epic political moralizing (Thucydides) are all more interesting than the vacuum of facts to which Nz was exposed. As an art, regardless of its factual accuracy (whatever that is!) it can really be meaningful to people in the world in positive ways – possessions for all time – as opposed to those impotent volumes that lack any sort of bigger message, for all their hesitation under the cold eye of modern science. Maybe that sounds really great, or maybe it sounds extraordinarily slimy. Depends who’s writing. Well, if nothing else, he reminds us to watch carefully when authorities use reason as an authority to create persuasive stories about “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” Those are the scariest ideologues in the end. So whether or not he was a good historian, Nz kicked the ball in a necessary direction – er, hopefully far away from Nz.


  2. Huenemann says:

    Wow, you are more skeptical than I am! I do think every bit of knowledge is a mix of “ideology” (or psychology, or prejudice, what-have-you) and fact. I can’t shake the notion that there is a way things are/were, even though coming up with a perfectly objective account of that way is impossible. Still, some accounts are better than others. (What’s that? You think I’m wrong? What could that possibly mean?)


    • Alex says:

      …There might be a way things happened, but who cares? The only thing interesting about history is what happens tomorrow.


    • Alex says:

      There’s a bouquet of flowers on my desk right now. It would be hard enough to describe those. And they exist *today*. What words would I choose? Yellow?

      “Derived from the Proto-Germanic word gelwaz… It has the same Indo-European base, gʰel-, as the words gold and yell; gʰel- means both bright and gleaming, and to cry out (yell) …”

      Aaah! Even words have a history behind them. What a mess! Should I take a picture, then? From what angle?


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