Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hegel, Time, and Culture

A number of years ago I read Horst Althaus's Hegel: An Intellectual Biography, and I recall being struck by a short passage concerning Hegel's intentions to visit Bamberg.  The episode was relatively inconsequential, but it has been the one point of the book that has remained with me in a very significant way.  In correspondence with Schelling in 1800 he writes,
"I am looking for inexpensive board, the opportunity of good beer for my physical constitution, the chance of meeting a few people", and then significantly adds: "I should prefer to live in a Catholic rather than a Protestant town; I should very much like to observe that religion at first hand."  What he was looking for, and later avowedly found, in Bamberg was 'Catholicism' as an unadulterated expression of the 'mediaeval world', as one particular stage in the course of 'world history'.  He was willing to expose himself directly to the phenomenon in order to experience it for himself as a still living and experienced reality. (46)

Taken without too much reflection, this sort of idea sounds perfectly normal.  In the United States, a possible analogy (at least for someone like me who grew up on the East Coast) might be traveling to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to encounter in the Amish an earlier world "as a still living and experienced reality".

A moment's consideration, however, will present the idea as absurd.  Georg Hegel and the Catholic townspeople of southern Germany were all just as much present at the turn of the 19th century; in the same way I am no more at home in the 21st century than an Amish family that doesn't use electricity.  The corollary can also be affirmed, that the 19th century Catholic is as little "medieval" as is Hegel himself.  Time doesn't eddy for the sake of particular communities, nor is anyone ever "ahead of their time".  We simply move forward in a rather unimpressive fashion, all of us just like everybody else.

Of course, the reason why Catholicism was for Hegel a window to the past is obvious enough... I'm not saying the man made no sense.  Periodization is not strictly the same thing as timing, and someone could conceivably be described as "medieval" on the basis of their culture if it were in some sense true to the culture of their chronological predecessors.  A tradition needs to be identifiable with its origins by some sort of transaction in order to be identifiable at all.  But this shouldn't blind us to the fact that we are all equally up-to-date (in the literal sense) without even trying.  Merely by maintaining a pulse we stand on the cutting edge of the entirety of human history.

This realization should deflate two opposing tendencies: nostalgia, whereby we seek either a return to the past or a return of the past in the present; and progressivism, whereby we understand the present and posturing towards the future as identifiable with certain particular causes or technologies.  Both of these tendencies conveniently forget that our neighbor occupies the same position that we do, and that this temporal solidarity can't be abrogated by the mythology that we have attached to our understanding of what counts as out-dated or contemporary.

On the other hand, this realization can open up two possibilities that both oppose these unhelpful tendencies and can stand complementary to each other: we can recognize the continuation of past practices (however quaint it may seem) as coherent and good within the present so long as it contributes to edifying interaction with our circumstances, and we can recognize the break with past practices (however severe it may seem) as worthwhile so long as it is adequate for the preservation of meaning and the fulfilling of work within the world that we now face.

1 comment:

  1. "...and progressivism, whereby we understand the present and posturing towards the future as identifiable with certain particular causes or technologies."

    Sure, but Americans at least from birth are raised on a constant diet of whiggery.


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