Sunday, August 9, 2015

Reading William James: Hegel and his Method

I am reading James and he relates Hegel's weirdly phrased notion that: an object completes itself with its own negation. James goes on with several pages of discussion leading to a list of examples:
 "Extreme anarchy and extreme despotism lead to one another. Pride comes before a fall. Too much wit outwits itself. Joy brings tears, melancholy a sardonic smile."

But actually Hegel's notion (or at least Jame's version of Hegel which I do not think is quite right) is not so strange. Those phrases are all versions of Truism 7: X*::X (or flouting this truism).

The neat thing about semantics is that it can be a very concrete empirical science that studies real world words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. To assert that a rule like Truism 7 is assumed implicitly is a concrete observation, easy to demonstrate with simple examples (like James's list).  Its validity as a truism can be analyzed or disputed much more concretely than how one would analyze or dispute Hegel. At the same time, expressing such ideas as language phenomena frees up philosophers either to do other work or else focus more on the connection of their problems to language.

James also complains that Hegel's vagueness leaves his reader always confused as to whether Hegel is writing about physics, psychology, or philosophy. It makes broad sense if Hegel is talking about the mind that studies those subjects. To me it is gratifying to simply say those subjects are semantically constrained, just like Newton Laws of Motion..

For the record I do not think Truism 7 is the equivalent of Hegel's dialectic. My understanding of the latter is that it had to do with the act of becoming meta (going up one level of abstraction) and how when that act turns upon itself and is reabsorbed back into the original perception, is when and how we learn about the object.


  1. I keep wanting to add: "James reads Hegel so you don't have to".

    But I think James is guilty of following the common opinion about what Hegel was saying...and it is not quite right, perhaps oversimplified.

  2. ....something equally strange but quite a lot subtler than James's interpretation