Incan brain surgery
When one part of the brain is damaged, sometimes another part eventually takes over its function. I think something analogous can happen in a person’s philosophy. Here are two paragraphs that I just cut out of my book manuscript, partly because they seemed too difficult, but mostly because I went out on a limb and then decided that I was wrong.
An example of the beauty of philosophical truth is less clear, but for that reason more interesting. Hegel’s 1807 masterpiece, The Phenomenology of Mind, describes every apparent mode of knowing in order to express its claim to being absolute and to show how that claim refutes itself by its own implicit logic. Hegel’s survey of the forms of mind is profound, notoriously difficult to understand, and full of insights and problems. But his overall conclusion is clear: only philosophical understanding of the unfolding sequence of these self-subverting modes of knowing (each of which entangles itself in contradictions when made fully explicit) amounts to absolute knowing. None of the modes of knowing is absolute, but each is a necessary part of the circle, which is absolute.
Including a quote from the poetry of Schiller, the last lines of his book express Hegel’s rejoicing in the beauty of what he thought he had achieved. He refers to the Phenomenology’s historical and conceptual narrative as “the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone. Only ‘from the chalice of this realm of spirits [forms of mind] foams forth for Him his own infinitude.’” By the end of the book, Hegel had redefined God and dismantled so much of the truth of religion that his claim to absolute knowing rings hollow—but it could be that he had studied enough, thought deeply enough, reasoned incisively often enough, and integrated enough to redeem his celebration.
[Here’s some added detail that I put into a footnote.] Hegel’s Phenomenology begins with the certainty of sensing the immediate here and now, moves on to perceptual knowing of the properties of things, and then to Newtonian physics. Next, it probes basic forms of social conflict and social structure as ways through which persons attempt to gain social recognition and a satisfying sense of self. It continues by examining the independent thinking of ancient skepticism that called knowledge into question, and then focuses on medieval religion, which projected its own categories into a realm of heavenly images, deflating the happiness of persons on earth. Then the book goes on to consider biology, psychology, and other forms of reason; major forms of ethical order and culture from the ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment; and morality, art, and religion. The concluding quotation from the book is taken from G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit A. V. Miller, trans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) 493.
I think my analysis of Hegel can be sustained if we expand the time frame to take into account some later works of Hegel (I am thinking about the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, for example, but I am not willing to undertake the work necessary to spell out that argument). If I am right, then Hegel’s sharpness in critique ended up by performing surgery on his religion, removing some key components of the truth of God; but he left enough truth alive that, as the years went on, he regenerated something akin to genuine faith.
The main point I am after goes beyond Hegel. A thinker can find (or seem to find) so many serious problems in religious faith that s/he judges that integrity requires throwing it all overboard; but at the same time, spiritual meaning and value is brought in the back door through the treatment of other topics. Reading these discussions might possibly incline us to entertain the possibility that—maybe, maybe—there was a living faith under the surface.
It is tempting for us to entertain hypotheses like that; but only God knows us deeply enough to pronounce on such matters. I suppose that’s another reason to do surgery on my manuscript. Maybe I’ll remove this from my weblog—someday. But there is one useful practical upshot of this speculation: we should not confuse a publication with a person. Not only can we misinterpret what persons write, but there is a tendency to say “Hegel” as though by discussing his writing we are getting a hold of the man himself. While I don’t want to drive an enormous wedge between person and product, I do believe that we can look for continuing growth in a truth seeker, even one who has said no to some pretty important truths (to begin with, for Hegel, the very idea of a Creator).
By Thomas Quine (Incan Brain Surgery (rotated 90 degrees)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons