You log on to classesV2 and click on the “Resources” tab with expectation. Your eyes pass over essays past: Paper Topics No. 1 and 2 have faded into memory. Further down is the document you’ve been waiting for: Paper Topics No. 3.
Click. Upon maximizing the window, there are a number of simple tasks waiting for you:
“Evaluate Hegel’s argument on the outward manifestation of the inward subjectivity of the objectively determined consciousness.”
“Does Kant succeed in proving the necessity of divine grace?”
While these are hypothetical examples from philosophy classes in particular, many humanities students face similar challenges over the weeks leading up to finals: Find a weakness or an internal contradiction in the work of the greatest thinkers of all time.
Of course, the professor may have offered contradictions to Hegel in class. We will do our close readings, puzzle over the assignment and search for that “Eureka!” moment in which the thesis finally appears. We’ll eventually find a contradiction — a better or a worse one, but a contradiction nonetheless. We will find some way to challenge the life works of people far more learned than we.
What does it mean that students who have recently begun to study a subject seriously — or even professors, whose worldviews have been shaped by the writings of their field’s greatest examiners — can identify weaknesses in the subject’s foundational texts?
The disagreement is not simply between students and Hegel. Many great thinkers themselves have strongly disagreed with their predecessors. But in the series of objections and counter-objections, students are left wondering whether we can use our intellects to understand the world as it truly is.
In response, we could say it’s a mistake to hope for a rational system that ties together the entire variety of human experience. Maybe some questions cannot be answered by rational investigation; we ought to rely on other sources such as our intuitions or divine revelation as well. Or perhaps we simply haven’t yet reasoned well enough.
Humans, over the millennia, have greatly refined their understandings of the world — not only in the sciences, but also in the humanities. The process of introducing more points and counterpoints brings us closer to the truth, even if we won’t reach it in our lifetimes.
If all else fails, we could throw up our hands and stop trying to understand the world because so many before us have failed.
What cannot be denied, however, is that we have come a long way. Let’s take a step back to appreciate the enormous intellectual achievement of the thinkers we critique.
Here’s one way to go about it: Write down the basic elements of what you believe about the world. Picking a starting point is an immediate problem. Do you begin with why you think there are other minds, or your beliefs about the legitimacy of the welfare state, or your ideas about international affairs? As you progress, many of the things you say might seem either patently obvious or lacking adequate justification. Every statement you make might raise a hundred further questions. Keep going, and you might discover surprising implications of your beliefs or contradictions or insights. This doesn’t mean that your specific beliefs may not change, nor that you hold them with complete confidence. You may find out that you do not.
But what you will certainly discover is that the process of representing your ideas on paper is as difficult as it is interesting.
It also gives us a way to inform our reactions to Hegel and Kant. These individuals tried to develop a coherent system that was true to the variety of their experiences. They attempted to take into account all the possibilities — to avoid saying, “It’s just so because.” In seeking to grasp everything, they left themselves open to criticism. The criticism is an important part of the original intellectual project; it furthers each thinker’s ultimate goal of understanding the world in the deepest sense possible.
So as we work on comparing, contrasting and countering over the next few weeks, let us appreciate the ambition of the achievements we examine. Let’s ask, “How would we have started out?”
Beyond showing us the value of Hegel’s thoughts, this process may just help us focus our own.
Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.