Wednesday, June 18, 2014

truth and falsehood or consequences for philosophy

I’m reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, a text not often discussed in Hegel literature, perhaps because it’s obscure, even for Hegel, and contains gross errors regarding scientifically explained phenomena—including mistakes about the science of Hegel’s day. Now, I adore Hegel for some perverse reason, and his errors are embarrassing.

That’s only a minor problem compared to Hegel’s racist and sexist comments, and those occur in texts that are taken seriously not just by Hegel scholars. For instance, his account of women in marriage as the material moment through which the ethical relation becomes manifest takes up a significant if small part of the Phenomenology of Spirit (the most-read book by Hegel in the English speaking philosophy world). Sexism and racism appear in the Philosophy of Right as well (probably second most-read).

I recently had a brief chat at a conference about this basic problem in the canon of philosophical writing. The woman I was talking to summed things up well by saying that if she stopped reading any philosopher who wrote something outrageous about women or that was racist, she’d have to give up reading philosophy just about altogether.

Since almost no one but academic philosophers reads books from the tradition of philosophy, this may seem like a picayune problem. People don’t seem to quit reading novels by racist authors, or stop looking at paintings by sexist painters. If there is a difference, it could be that unlike literature or art, philosophy is supposed to reveal the truth. Since we have rejected the notion that the truth could be racist or sexist, racism or sexism in philosophical writing could seem to undermine its status as philosophy altogether.

I don’t know if I believe that, in part, ironically enough, because of the influence of Hegel on my thinking about philosophy. Hegel’s concept of the truth as “the whole,” which would include “moments” of would-be truths that turn out to be false—indeed, which at times Hegel writes includes the false. If racism and sexism are false, they nevertheless are moments in the development of truth, in the same way that an immediate sensation of something, while not taking in the “whole” of it and thus false, must still be part of knowing that something. Put another way: philosophical texts that involve racism and sexism are necessary for the articulation of philosophical truth because we (philosophers, people) have been and are racist and sexist. That means that racism and sexism must be uttered, but not left simply posited. The positions of racism and sexism must be posited in order to be thought through, in the “labor of the negative” (Hegel’s so-called dialectic), to recover and bring forward what is true in racism and sexism. And that could turn out to be that the opposite of racism and sexism is the truth of racism and sexism.

That’s not to defend Hegel’s racism and sexism, because, at least as I read him, he posits racist and sexist ideas and leaves them standing. To refer to his own language, Hegel commits falsehood whenever he fails to undermine these positions. In as much as the truth and the revelation of the truth would require that negation, Hegel’s books do not tell the truth.

All that is preface to the question of the day, which is what the relationship is between philosophy and truth. Is that a strange question? Anyway, I have two ideas in mind.

First is whether philosophy or philosophers should tell the truth. I think that by reputation, philosophy and philosophers are very much concerned with truth, even dedicated to it. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates seems to prefer the truth to everything, even life itself. (Everything except for hot guys, that is. In the dialogues, Socrates unfailingly prefers hot guys to the truth.) All the same, Socrates lies, a lot. Plus, if philosophy and philosophers should follow Socrates’ lead in the practice of recognizing our own ignorance, philosophy  and philosophers should be reluctant, even reticent, to posit anything as true. (Hegel was hip to this, and as much as said that every position is untrue, just because no position can propose or state the whole that is the truth.)

Second is whether philosophy or philosophers should be held to a standard of truth or truth-telling. Here I mean something like whether philosophy or philosophers that cannot tell the truth should be ejected from the canon. For instance, if a philosopher’s work was based on patently false premises and obviously faulty reasoning, should that disqualify that philosopher from the traditional canon? By analogy with sciences like physics or biology, in which theories are not taught that have been demonstrated to be false, should philosophical works also be excluded? If not, then should those works not be presented as falsehoods, in the manner in which one might tell a biology class about Lamarck’s surmise about evolution? Perhaps no one should read Hegel, given his works’ repetition of bad (or evil, depending on your point of view) ideas. Or perhaps, like a joke in the old Monty Python’s Flying Circus series, we could read it, provided we understand that he was wrong. In that case, what does the tradition of philosophical texts amount to? I hate to think that it is nothing but a special form of literature, having as its differentia specifica that these are texts that pretend to the truth—or are just very badly plotted novels.

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