“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to Teach the Phenomenology of Spirit to Undergrads

@philosophyerin just asked a very pertinent question, since I'm about to do it today! So here goes.

How you teach Hegel to undergrads is very much how you teach Blake to undergrads. Blake and Hegel are fascinated by how ideas come bundled with attitudes, or as Lacan calls them, subject positions. If you think about it this is what phenomenological sincerity means, in part. Ideas are not floating around in some neutral space. Just think of the notion of “welfare” or “entitlements.” What Americans call welfare the Brits call social security: whole different attitude, right?

Think of a perspective painting. It has a vanishing point. The vanishing point determines how you look at the picture. If you look at it at a funny angle, the picture makes no sense. If you line up just right in relation to the vanishing point, it looks 3D. The vanishing point in a picture is the subject position of that picture. It's IN the picture, not in you. Bad news for subjectivists and for a certain freedom of choice theory. 

The fun for Blake and Hegel is to figure this out. In the 70s the fun available in UK newspapers was called spot the ball. A bunch of players on a football pitch: figure out where the ball is. Hegel and Blake play a perverse version of this called spot the player. There's a ball hanging in space (the idea). You have to figure out where the player is who kicked it there.

Okay. Now we're ready to proceed to the next part. The attitudes ideas code for are implicit or as we might now say unconscious. No one really includes them when they think about ideas. Hegel's genius is to include them. His way of arguing is not to attack an idea head on, but to explore the limitations of the attitude that comes bundled with it.

Now when you “spot the player,” you collapse the idea and its attendant attitude into one gestalt. Guess what? This gestalt is now yet another idea. Which means? It codes for yet another attitude. Which you have to figure out. This goes on not just in Hegel's mind, but in the minds of those who live those ideas.

So philosophy is the history of philosophy. Not just the history of ideas that happened to occur on some external linear timeline. Time from this point of view is internal to the progress of ideas and their bundled attitudes. Once you figure out the attitude, poof—you're in a new historical moment. (Of course, you have have more fun with this than Hegel does. Ideas overlap. For instance, some of us are still living in the eighteenth century—just look at the current British government.)

Basically, I argue to my undergrads, this is what dialectics is. Not some jiggery pokery involving a thesis and an antithesis and (heaven forbid) a synthesis, but this inner temporality that has no reverse gear (you can't un-know what you know).


Anonymous said...

"you can't un-know what you know", which makes it really hard for an undergrad to unlearn Nature while writing a humble paper on Thoreau. :)

Erin said...

Thanks for this post! I like the emphasis on the temporality/historicism of ideas and attitudes. I'm wondering if you can say more about what you mean by 'code for,' though. Do you just mean 'implicit within' or 'concomitant with'?