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Hegel & Hume Talk It Over

Chris Christensen watches Hume and Hegel argue about how they can have knowledge of reality.

I doubt there are two philosophers further apart in their ideas than George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and David Hume (1711-1776). Hegel’s rationalist metaphysics, based on the arguments of reason, ranges far afield and is difficult to understand. Hume’s empiricism, on the other hand, with its conclusions derived through experience, is accessible to the layman. A thoroughgoing skeptic, Hume thought that metaphysics should be “committed to the flames.” Hegel was six years old when Hume died, so there was no professional overlap. But here they’re in the philosopher’s afterlife outside of time, able to see the entire history of philosophy. I see them in comfortable chairs before a cozy fire, each sipping brandy as they talk.

Hegel: [Gesturing at the fire.] So, Hume, you say that metaphysics should be committed to the flames. Does this contempt for thinking beyond what we can observe derive from a philosophical stance? Or does it simply stem from insecurity regarding your unease in tackling pure reason?

Hume: The flames are figurative of course. I’m not a book burner, and I wouldn’t stand in the way of people who wish to publish nonsense. But I readily admit to unease over any speculation that professes absolute certainty.

Hegel: Yet you yourself claim a sort of certainty regarding experiences that arise from the senses; those which you call ‘impressions’.

Hume: You misinterpret me. I make no such claim. I concede certainty only in mathematics, where, to quote myself, there are “relationships among ideas true and certain.” Three times five equals fifteen, Hegel, and always will. I do however say that the liveliest thought is inferior to the dullest sensation.

Hegel: But Kant taught us that the mind does not simply passively receive information through the senses, but organizes our experience. So our ‘impressions’ are partly a creation of our intellect. In other words, we know the world by the work of the mind, and the world just as we experience it does not exist independent of us.

Hume: True enough, Kant said we could not comprehend the world without the mind first putting its stamp on it; and he added that this means that the true external world – what he called the ‘thing-in-itself’ – is forever beyond all knowledge for us.

Hegel: That statement is contradictory! How can he say we know nothing of it, yet also claim that he knows that it exists and is a ‘thing’?

Hume: I leave that for you metaphysicians to play with – if only you would admit that it’s merely play! But Kant’s idea brings Barzun’s metaphor to my mind. Barzun likened Kant’s idea of the mind putting its stamp on reality to a waffle iron acting on batter. Fortunately, there’s another metaphor that reverses Barzun’s. Locke says that at birth the mind is a blank slate upon which the chalk of experience writes. That makes much more sense. To put it briefly, Hegel, ideas arise from experience. However, abstract rationalism such as yours depends more on invention than experience!

Hegel: Yet there are cases in which the ideas arising from pure reason are later empirically demonstrated. For instance, through pure reason Leucippus and Democritus theorized the existence of atoms over two thousand years before your vaunted empiricism confirmed their philosophy.

Hume: I grant the Greek atomists their luck. But most such cases don’t get beyond speculation. Plato’s nether world of Forms has yet to be proved empirically, and I dare say it will remain in his metaphysical cave. Incidentally, you just said so yourself: atomic theory was confirmed by empiricism. Still, I must concede that if Plato’s Ideal Brandy is better than the superlative stuff we’re drinking, then I tip my hat to him.

Hegel: We agree on that, Hume. Here’s to Plato.

[They raise their glasses and drink.]

Let’s leave the ancients and move to more modern times. We rationalists believe that so-called ‘empirical proof’ is unnecessary: one can gain knowledge purely through step-by-step reasoning. Descartes proved this when he concluded ‘I think therefore I am’. He proved his existence by doubting it, then through pure reason carefully built a logical proof that overturned his doubt.

Hume: Descartes wrote that he wanted absolute privacy for a few days, and so squirreled himself away to think. But his solitude demonstrates the two main weaknesses of pure rationalism – its need for error-free rigor and its extreme subjectivity. Bertrand Russell illustrates the first well when he describes rationalism as an inverted pyramid, with the first premise pinpointed on the ground. If it and all subsequent premises and conclusions are sound, all is well. But if just one mistake is present – one brick is weak – the whole subsequent argument collapses. Empiricism, on the other hand, avoids both weaknesses. Its foundation is wide and broad, constructed from a careful gathering of facts. Experiments prove the facts by testing and study. Relationships among the facts are then determined. Moreover, many thinkers cooperate in the endeavor – they seek objectivity. Once the foundation is perfected, the next level is built, using the same method, and so on. If a mistake is made – if a brick in the edifice is weak – it can be removed and corrected without the collapse of the whole argument.

Hegel: But with empiricism, unlike with pure logic, no argument is ever proved absolutely. You yourself admit that by using the scientific method, high probability is the best we can attain. Let’s return to Kant’s statement that there is an in-itself external world beyond our experience. That’s an idea that Kant claims is demonstrated by reason. It follows that we can employ reason to further that knowledge.

Hume: But ideas don’t come first, they derive from impressions. So you cannot gain knowledge without employing the senses. Proof that impressions come first can be seen in the stark example that a man born blind has no idea of color.

Hegel: A man born blind has only an idea of color! Precisely what he lacks are your impressions!

Hume: That’s absolutely wonderful, Hegel! You’d have made a great Sophist! I can see you in my mind’s eye, traveling with Libanius, teaching the untutored the wiles of argumentation, the two of you completely unconcerned about truth…

Hegel: Careful, Hume. You don’t want to infect your precious empiricism with the mind’s eye.

Hume: A predictable rejoinder from a rationalist! You seem to think you have a monopoly on the mind – that empiricists don’t employ it at all. Well, let me disabuse you of that notion. The intellect’s greatest contribution to knowledge is being acutely aware of impressions and emotions as they surface. In short, mind is best used for awareness of its own processes. In this way it can tame the passions – and prevent flights of Hegelian fancy. Unfortunately, few are very aware.

By the way, there’s a revealing statement by your fellow rationalist Descartes, seemingly unconscious. He writes, and I quote, “We must occupy ourselves only with those objects that our intellectual powers appear competent to know certainly and indubitably.” Isn’t that wonderful?

Hegel: It’s perfectly reasonable. What’s your point, Hume?

Hume: His recommendation certainly seems wise. But first note the words ‘only’, ‘certainly’, and ‘indubitably’. These are words of certitude. But in the statement is also a word that conveys uncertainty. That word is ‘appear’. It’s an escape word – a means of explaining how one could be wrong, despite all the certitude that reason can attain! I find it charming.

Hegel: Whereas you put great stock in the senses and in empirical proof, yet in the end you caution us that even science can be wrong. That is, in truth, you admit that science is in fact a process of finding temporary approximations to knowledge that eventually gives way to better approximation. It must make continual adjustments to accommodate new circumstances, new evidence. So your skepticism leads to a dead end. We can know precisely nothing!

Hume: I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I concede that my skepticism can often paint me into a corner. One wag even said that I throw the baby of science out with the metaphysical bathwater! But science does not totally do away with acquired knowledge. It can find error and correct it, or we may refine our knowledge. Nonetheless, science comes close to reality despite its tentative knowledge – or rather, because it admits to tentative knowledge. With the exception of mathematics, we’ll always be without certain knowledge. Yet it’s true, the human mind thirsts for certainty. This is why religious belief – and theories like yours – will forever be with us.

Hegel: But my theory is not religious. It has nothing to do with man’s religion. It’s based on rational thought, bereft of superstition. I believe merely that humanity is on a journey. We are here to develop the self-consciousness of the world, which is the consciousness of freedom. Beginning in China, then in Persia, and now in Europe, humanity has gradually developed a higher consciousness of freedom, and an actual freedom of living, which in turn feeds into a greater consciousness of freedom, until –

Hume: – until – and correct me if I’m wrong – humanity arrives at an ideal state of pure consciousness, which you call Absolute Mind, or Absolute Spirit.

Hegel: Now you’re getting into the spirit of it yourself, Hume! In fact, reality is actually constituted by mind. At first, mind is unaware of this: it sees the world as something independent of it, even hostile or alien to it. It’s estranged from reality, tries to understand it, and fails. Only when mind awakens and realizes that reality is a creation of mind can it give up reaching beyond itself. It then knows there is nothing beyond itself. On the contrary, objective reality is thought; and thought is objective reality.

Hume: Indeed, Russell called your Absolute Mind a sort of God: “truly a professor’s God” – Mind dwelling on its own thoughts! The whole thing is quite fascinating, even if it is nonsense. But let me see if I have it right. The engine that propels this metaphysical journey is your dialectic. One stage of this journey of human culture is negated as development continues: as you phrase it, a thesis meets its antithesis; there is a clash; then the two are melded into a synthesis, which becomes the new thesis; and so on it goes.

Hegel: I never used those terms. They were added to my theory by my followers. But there is a stage-by-stage advance, yes. And each stage of human culture is an advancement of human consciousness until we reach the stage of Absolute Mind. That ideal state no longer requires, nor allows, an ‘antithesis’.

Hume: Tell me, what happens to our bodies when we reach that exalted state? Do we shed them and ascend to an intellectual heaven like a rapture? All I can say is that one would miss one’s brandy.

Hegel: You make light of it, Hume. That’s a familiar reaction to profound thought from someone who shies away from metaphysical exploration. Unfortunately, I cannot describe the particulars of the final destination of consciousness.

Hume: Sorry, Hegel, but you strike me as taking yourself too seriously. Nonetheless, your metaphysical edifice is exceedingly impressive. Your theory is magnificent – truly a monument of unprecedented intellectual achievement. It puts you at the pinnacle of philosophical idealism. It’s unfortunate that it smacks of bloody rubbish. But this is unsurprising, since you follow in the rationalist footsteps of Pythagoras, Parmenides, Plato, right on up to Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, even surpassing them in speculation.

Hegel: I take that as a compliment, Hume. I see myself as standing on the shoulders of my predecessors. After all, my philosophy is all-inclusive. The dialectic of history is a process; it does not do away with what came before.

Hume: But in the final analysis your majestic edifice is a religious one, despite your claim to the contrary. That’s the great irony of pure rationalism. It claims the mathematical precision of logic, but its conclusions ultimately require faith. I suspect you rationalists secretly crave the approval of empiricism.

Hegel: Recall Democritus and his atoms. Perhaps some day my metaphysical theory will be proved empirically – even if it takes over two thousand years!

Hume: There’s an important distinction between your thinking and that of Democritus. While you both employ pure reason, you propose a metaphysical theory, concerning a purpose and end to human development. Democritus, on the other hand, proposed the physical existence of atoms. You dwell on metaphysics, he on physics. He was a materialist, let’s not forget. His theory was provable by empiricism. I doubt yours is.

Hegel: You doubt everything, Hume. That’s a certainty I find quite ironic. And in the twentieth century your skepticism lead to its own extreme result – analytic philosophy. It seems that speculative philosophy is now dead. Philosophy’s role has become merely to analyze the workings of language. Still, my theory cannot be disproved.

Hume: It’s not incumbent on the doubter to disprove an assertion: the onus is on the maker of an assertion to prove it. But you can dream, Hegel; and your dream never ends. Even in the twenty-first century you have an ally who’s picked up your torch, a fellow whose name rhymes with yours – Nagel. He took a shellacking from materialists for his ideas on consciousness. Even I thought the reaction against him was a bit knee-jerk.

Hegel: Yes, I’m aware of Nagel – an American, no less. In fact, he attempts to find a middle ground between my idealism and materialism by saying there’s a gap between the explanations available to science and explanations for consciousness. He says the physical sciences can describe the behaviour and physical constitutions of organisms like ourselves, but they cannot describe our subjective experiences, such as how things appear to our different points of view. This gap, he says, reflects a deep metaphysical difference between consciousness and the brain – between mind and matter. Dualism dies hard, eh? Still, I am encouraged by his existence, and by your defense of his idea.

Hume: I didn’t exactly defend his idea.

Hegel: No, but you seem to caution his critics.

Hume: I don’t like knee-jerk reactions. But I do like Nagel’s idea that science is limited regarding its knowledge of subjective viewpoints. However, he says it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process – that the theory of evolution must incorporate a mental aspect.

Hegel: But the greater theory need not be theistic, Hume. It can be seen as an expanded form of understanding that includes the mental, but is still scientific.

Hume: Of course I find that appealing. But his leaping from that to speculating that consciousness has a purpose in the cosmos strikes me as reaching too far.

Hegel: Hume, you ought to let your imagination soar a bit. So let’s imagine that there’s a post firmly lodged in the ground – the Post of Skepticism. A rope is attached to the post, with the other end tied around your waist. My guess is that you, my friend, would never stray far from the Post of Skepticism, and would always keep a firm grip on the rope.

Hume: And you?

Hegel: I would venture out wherever my mind demands, in the search for higher knowledge.

Hume: And, dear Hegel, when you felt the tug on the rope, you would slip the knot and float away into the metaphysical mists. But I must say – and this may be the brandy talking – despite our differences, I would miss you. A toast, Hegel – to philosophy!

Hegel: To philosophy!

[They raise their glasses and drink.]

© Chris Christensen 2016

Chris Christensen is a delivery driver in Portland, Oregon. In addition to studying philosophy, he and his wife Bobbie produce a blog called Red Stitches: Mostly Baseball.

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