Seeing the forest for the Hegelian trees

•August 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“The reason why he wishes to admit contradictions is that he wants to stop rational argument, and with it scientific and intellectual progress.”
Karl Popper

“A beautiful oasis around a treacherous pool of nonsense, and nowhere beneath the foliage is the ground really firm.”
Roger Scruton

“This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.”
Bertrand Russell

“Hegel was a flat, witless, disgusting, revolting, ignorant charlatan who, with unparalleled impudence, kept scribbling insanity and nonsense.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

What is going on here? Hegel is well known as one of the major figures of western philosophy and he was widely influential. Yet all to often he is the butt of jokes and derision, even from fellow philosophers.

The problem
Part of the problem is the prose. German has a grammar that can maintain clarity through long and complex sentence structures. This clarity is often lost in English translation. Hegel also uses a highly technical vocabulary and frequently uses words in ways that differ from their typical usage. Contemporary philosophers use the work “logic” to refer to a formal axiomatic system of relations unrelated to their content. In Hegel, “logic” is the rational, structural core of all of reality.

A bigger problem is the lack of context. Hegel was a systematic philosopher. He created a system. His books and lectures explain or elaborate parts of that system. Yet none of these books or lectures provides an overview of the entire system. A person is expected to know, on their own, where they are in the system and how the particular book or lecture relates to the whole.


The names of the books are not much help. We have the Greater Logic, the Lesser Logic, the Lectures on Logic, the Science of Logic, and the Encyclopedia Logic. There is the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Spirit, including a chapter called the “Phenomenology of Spirit.” Not to mention the Philosophy of History and the History of Philosophy.

It can be a daunting task. As Allen Speight describes “One’s choice as first-time student of Hegel seems often, then, to be determined either as a resort to the misleadingly formulaic or as a gesture towards giving up on the effort altogether in favor of caricature.”

The solution
The individual books and lectures make much more sense when you see how they all fit together. When you understand how the entire system is constructed it is much easier to see how the arguments and conclusions of one book provide the presuppositions and foundation for the next one. Questions and puzzles from a particular book receive clarification and elaboration in the supporting lectures. There are still obstacles and difficulties. The prose is dense, the structure is elaborate and the project is enormous. But with a roadmap it is much easier to follow the overall direction and when you are able to stand back and view the entire project one forgets the thorny and difficult sentences and starts to see a rather sublime and magnificent philosophy.

Two things will help us:

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The Roadmap: A visual outline of Hegel’s entire system

1) The Roadmap. An outline of Hegel’s entire philosophical project which will hopefully help to situate our reading in the context of the overall system. Download here.

2) Stephen Houlgate’s The Hegel Reader. This anthology includes key excerpts from all the major works systematically arranged in the order of Hegel’s overall argument.

These two taken together should help to get a more comprehensive picture of Hegel and to see and understand his philosophy in a new, and hopefully less confusing, light.

Stephen Houlgate’s The Hegel Reader

For the September meeting we will be reading Parts 1-3 (pp. 1-250) which includes Hegel’s Early Writings, Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic as well as Houlgate’s excellent introduction. These writings provide the introduction and foundational principles of Hegel’s philosophical system.

For the October meeting we will be reading Parts 4-6 (pp. 251-527) which includes some of the most interesting parts of Hegel’s system including the Philosophy of Nature, Subjective Spirit, Objective Spirit and Absolute Spirit. We will be reading excerpts from two of Hegel’s most frequently read works, The Philosophy of Right and The Philosophy of History, as well as the culmination of his entire system, the writings on Absolute Spirit encompassing Art, Religion and Philosophy.

Critique or Paralipomena?

•February 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“Kant … could not simply have put these two topics together casually. That Kant might act in a manner undeliberate in anything should strike those familiar with him as a man or thinker as suspect from the outset. All the more so in one of his major enterprises. Some effort to grasp the work as a whole is therefore essential.”

John Zamito-Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment

The Critique of Judgment holds an unfortunate place in the contemporary view of the history of philosophy. Most readers of Kant today appreciate the important influence of the first part, The Critique of Aesthetical Judgment, and ignore the rest of the book. They refer to the Critique of Judgment as merely Kant’s theory of aesthetics. Others, looking at the whole, are confused or bored by the Critique of Teleological Judgment and assume that Kant was collecting together some ideas that he couldn’t find a place for anywhere else, calling it a patchwork.

But it should be clear from what we have read so far that Kant isn’t a patchwork kind of thinker. He was meticulous and systematic. Clearly Kant thought there was something important here as he called the work a Critique, the name he reserved for his most meticulous and systematic writings (and not, for example Parerga and Paralipomena, which is a wonderful Kant-inspired work, but an altogether different kind of construction).

We could easily spend all our time thinking about Kant’s aesthetic ideas, but as we are reading all three critiques we have the unique opportunity to think about Kant the way he would have wanted us to — viewing all three critiques as part of one systematic philosophy, with the Critique of Judgment as the final and ultimate expression of that system.

What to read:

To get the full effect of the Critique of Judgment in all its strangeness it is best to read the entire thing. More realistically we can limit ourselves to the selections found in the Modern Library Classics’ Basic Writings of Kant.

If you don’t have that edition the selections include:

Introduction (Sections I, III, IV, V, VI, IX)
First Part: Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (Sections 1-7, 10-12, 23, 55-57)
Second Part: Critique of Teleological Judgment (Sections 61, 64-67, 69-71, 64-67, 69-71, 74, 80-84, 91)

Recommended translations:

Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Free online translations:
J. H. Bernard translation (1914)

James Creed Meredith translation (1911)

Auf Deutsch:
Akademieausgabe Text:

Projekt Gutenberug-DE:

Other related works by Kant

While Kant’s most systematic and mature discussion of teleology is in the Critique of Judgment, there is also extensive discussion of the topic in the Only Possible Argument for the Existence of God (1763), included in Theoretical Philosophy 1755–1770 (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), translated and edited by David Walford and Ralf Meerbote (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). Kant also discusses teleology in two essays about race, “Determination of the Concept of a Human Race” (1785) and “On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy” (1788); both are included in Anthropology, History, and Education (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), edited by Gunter Zöller and Robert B. Louden.

Secondary works

Frederick C. Beiser –The Fate of Reason:German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1993.

Paul Guyer, P., (ed.) Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment: critical essays, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. 2003

Paul Guyer, P., “Kant’s Principles of Reflecting Judgment,” in Guyer, Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment: critical essays(2003).

Jonathan I. Isreal, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Religion, and Human Rights 1750-1790, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2013.

John H. Zammito, The Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Chicago: Chicago University Press. 1992.

Kant’s Technical Terms

Howard Caygill-A Kant Dictionary

Andrew N.-Kant Glossary

Stephen Palmquist-A Glossary of Kant’s Technical Terms

Internet Resources:

A Leibniz Bibliography

•July 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The Monadology

Leibniz’s Monadology: A New Translation And Guide by Lloyd Strickland
An in-depth, section-by-section commentary that explains in detail not just what Leibniz is saying in the text but also why he says it.

G. W. Leibniz’s Monadology : An Edition for Students by Nicholas Rescher
Section-by-section text of the Monadology with excerpts from Leibniz’s discussions of the matters at issue providing a commentary and exposition of his philosophy using the Monadology as an outline.

Other Major Texts
New Essays on Human Understanding by G. W. Leibniz (Author), Peter Remnant (Editor), Jonathan Bennett (Editor)
Leibniz’s longest and in some ways his best philosophical work. A philosophical dialogue that responds chapter by chapter to Locke’s Essays on Human Understanding.

Theodicy by G.W. Leibniz

Shorter Texts
Philosophical Essays (Hackett Classics) G. W. Leibniz (Author), Roger Ariew (Translator), Daniel Garber (Translator)

Philosophical Texts (Oxford Philosophical Texts) G. W. Leibniz (Author), R. S. Woolhouse (Editor, Introduction), Richard Francks (Editor)

Philosophical Writings (Everyman’s University Library)
Leibniz (Author), G. H. R. Parkinson (Editor), Mary Morris (Translator)

Leibniz Selections (Mass Market) Leibniz (Author), Philip P. Weiner (Editor)

Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)
Leibniz (Author), Patrick Riley (Editor)

Leibniz Translations by Lloyd Strickland
On this site you will find English translations of various papers including many not previously translated. There are currently translations of around 175 texts on this site.

General Internet Resources
All of these look at Leibniz from a primarily philosophical perspective. The notion that philosophy is an abstract intellectual exercise is particularly problematic when applied to 17th century philosophy in general and Leibniz in particular. Leibniz, viewed outside of his political, religious and social context, can too easily fall prey to the kind of Panglossian caricature we find in Voltaire.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography by Maria Rosa Antognazza (Author)
Covers the full breadth and depth of Leibniz’s theoretical interests and practical activities, it weaves them together into a unified portrait of Leibniz and the world from which he came. At the core of Leibniz’s huge range of apparently miscellaneous endeavors, Antognazza reveals a single master project lending unity to his extraordinarily multifaceted life’s work, ultimately grounded in a practical goal: the improvement of the human condition and the the celebration of God’s creation.

Secondary Reading
The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) by Nicholas Jolley (Editor)
One of the best of the Cambridge Companion Series, the essays work well together to create a comprehensive picture of Leibniz and his work.

On Leibniz: Expanded Edition by Nicholas Rescher (Author)
Examines many aspects of Leibniz’s work and life: including the fundamentals of Leibniz’s ontology, the theory of possible worlds, the world’s contingency, space-time frameworks, and intermonadic relationships and positions Leibniz as a philosophical role model for today’s scholars.

Leibniz Re-interpreted (Bloomsbury Studies in Philosophy) by Lloyd Strickland (Author)
Reexamines the central idea in Leibniz’s philosophy, that we live in the best of all possible worlds and argues that Leibniz’s theory has been consistently misunderstood. Provides an elucidation and reinterpretation of a number of concepts central to Leibniz’s work, such as ‘richness’, ‘simplicity’, ‘harmony’ and ‘incompossibility’, and shows where previous attempts to explain these concepts have failed.

Intellectual Environment
The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart (Author)
By comparing the lives, approach and philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz, Stewart does an excellent job of outlining the intellectual, social and political stakes of 17th century philosophy.

Philosophical and Political Context
Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan I. Israel

Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man by Jonathan I. Israel

Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790 by Jonathan I. Israel

If you are not ready to read the entire 3000 page trilogy you can get an excellent overview in his 300 page summary:

A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy by Jonathan Israel

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Making the best of all worlds possible

•July 6, 2015 • Leave a Comment

This is the best of all possible worlds. Substances do not interact. Choices are determined but free. How could any serious philosopher have made such absurd and patently false claims? What in the world was he trying to do? Why should anyone today bother to read Leibniz?

“If a great philosopher says something stupid or obviously false, you have not understood what they are saying. It is not that understanding a philosopher requires seeing that they are right, but it requires seeing what they say as a plausible meeting between their historical context and our common human experience.”
Franklin Perkins, Leibniz: A Guide of the Perplexed

The Problem of Leibniz
There are three problems that interfere with understanding this unusual philosophy. The first is Voltaire’s Candide, a comic masterpiece that reduces the Leibniz/Wolff philosophical system into the absurd proclamations of the pedantic Dr. Pangloss. The second is Leibniz collected writings—massive, complex, written in multiple languages and across many disciplines—to this day they have not been entirely collected, edited, published or translated. Finally, and most importantly, we view him through the wrong perspective. We think of him primarily as a philosopher or occasionally as a scientist or mathematician. But the main focus of all his life’s work was political and to understand his philosophy we must understand the 17th century European political context that he was reacting to.

Leibniz’s Writings

“They read like the syllabus for an entire university written with the zest of a society tabloid.”
Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic

One of the main problems with understanding Leibniz is the sheer magnitude of his writings. There are over 200,000 pages written in seven languages. He wrote 15,000 letters to more than 1,000 recipients—many of these letters are quite substantial in length and content.

Systematic cataloguing of his writings only began in 1901. The Berlin Akademie started work on the standard reference edition of his collected works in 1923. The series is expected to be completed some time in the 22nd century. The Länder critical edition has so far published 32 volumes of political writings, 15 volumes of mathematics and science and 10 volumes of philosophy. The volume and scope of his writing is overwhelming for even the most determined readers.

The Context
Most importantly, to understand Leibniz one must understand the context in which all this writing was produced. Europe in the 16th Century was almost constantly at war. Leibniz was born during the Thirty Years War, which devastated central Europe. The later half of the century saw a succession of European wars too numerous to mention. One of the factors that contributed to these wars was the continuing fragmentation of Western Christianity. This began with the Reformation and by the 16th century had created many competing factions closely aligned with powerful political interests. Scholasticism at that time was not just a method of learning and teaching, it had serious political implications. In 1624 the Parlement of Paris decreed that all teaching at the university should be based exclusively on Aristotle. Criticism of Aristotle carried a penalty of death. The proclamation was reissued again in 1671 by Louis XIV.

The Solution

“When one compares one’s own small talents with those of Leibniz, one is tempted to throw away one’s books and go die peacefully in the depths of some dark corner.”
Denis Diderot,“Léibnitzianisme ou Philosophie de Léibnitz”Encyclopédie

Leibniz hoped to prevent future bloodshed and strife by reconciling the different political factions through their associated religious (and philosophical) foundations. His approach worked simultaneously across multiple fronts: political negotiation, legal mediation, philosophical and theological reconciliation as well as the advancement of methodology and learning through scientific and mathematical research and discovery. Some of the more counterintuitive claims in Leibniz philosophy make better sense when understood as building blocks toward his practical social and political goals.

“Leibniz claimed we lived in the best of all possible worlds but that didn’t stop him from spending his every waking moment trying to make a better one.”
Jim Williams

Recommended Edition:
The text we are using is Lloyd Strickland’s The Shorter Leibniz Texts: A Collection of New Translations.

One of the benefits of this collection is that it provides an opportunity to see Leibniz operating simultaneously across the disciplines of philosophy, theology, law and science. It includes a wider range of material than most anthologies, which focus primarily on the philosophical. This should give us a chance to think about how the different pieces fit together and hopefully move us toward a more comprehensive understanding of what he was up to.

The book is available on Amazon with many reasonably priced new and used copies from a variety of sellers:

My year in reading: 2014

•March 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I finished fewer books this year. There are many reasons: health, travel, work, house. The main reason was a shift in focus from moderate sized works that I could finish reading in a few days or weeks to massive sprawling complex works. They were definitely worth the time and effort, but they require a substantial amount of it. It might be said that the highlight of this years reading was not the books I read but the books I didn’t (completely) read.

The really amazing books I did not finish:

Walter Benjamin-The Arcades Project

This year I was able to do extensive reading in the five volumes of the Harvard Press Selected Works have finally arrived at a good and consistent understanding of the enigmatic Benjamin. This was good preparation for digging through the Arcades. While not reading the entire collection cover to cover I was able to get good sense of the overall structure of the work as well as its general purpose and direction. It is still a very fragmentary experience but that is fitting. It is reminsicnet of One-Way Street’s “Construction Site” which appears to be the way Benjamin used it as well.

Antonio Gramsci-Prison Notebooks

I had first read the Hoare & Smith Selections from the Prison Notebooks when I was in college but had very little sense of the material they were working from. With Buttigieg’s translation of the first three volumes of the original notebooks I was finally able to get a good sense of what they had been working with. The notebooks are far more fragmentary than I imagined and this explains the rather strange and disjunctive arguments in the Selections. Reading this just after Benjamin’s Arcades provided an amazing picture of how difficult it was to be a socialist writer trying to survive fascist Europe.

Thomas Picketty-Capital in the 21st Century

I would like to have read this one cover to cover but it was a timely and I just did not have the time for a deep dive. Still was able to get a good impression by looking at the methodology, several examples and his conclusions and recommendations. I think the key takaway is that we now have the ability to collect and analyze this kind of data better than ever before which means that economics should move from a rationalist theory-based approach to a more empirical evidence-based approach. He also makes the point that wealth distribution should not be a dirty word as that is what banks are doing all the time, just not in a way that is transparent or democratic.

Richard Wagner-Works 8 vols.

I read across all eight volumes but did not complete any single one. This reading provided a firm understanding of the theoretical and philosophical basis for Wagner’s music dramas and the development he went through to get there. Finally I feel I have a firmly grounded understanding of Wagner’s intended meaning for Parsifal and The Ring—which are entirely consistent (and not how Bernard Shaw describes them in his otherwise excellent The Perfect Wagnerite). This reading also gave me a chance to further explore Wagner’s relationship with Nietzsche and how that effected Neitzsche’s development. (And Wagner’s supposedly problematic association with the National Socialists).

Isaac Newton-Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica

I ran across this almost by accident. I always knew this is an important book in the history of science but I never had any intention of reading it. I had been reading some Medieval logicians and Francis Bacon’s New Organon. At the same time was researching Leibniz and the Rationalist philosophers. Newton seemed central to this universe and I casually picked up Prinicipia to take a look. His formulations are unusual compared to contemporary practice but the thought process was incredibly detailed and rigorous. But also solidly based in empiricism. The book is not easy going but really was an eye-opener. In fact it seems central to the development of philosophy in that era and I wonder why it is rarely (or never) treated as an important philosophical text.

What is to be done?

•March 21, 2014 • 2 Comments

NASA recently released a report with some dire warnings. Natural and social scientists developed a new model which suggests that a ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global social and economic systems.

This article has been passed around the Internet and caused a friend of mine to react in dismay:

  “…on a personal level, what do you all DO with this information? I’m asking in all sincerity and not really looking to debate. [I’m} just trying to wrap my head around how to keep moving forward, raising my little family, while still trying to make conscious choices about our impact on the environment. but not feeling like it really even matters at this rate….”

It is easy to despair at such news. We feel small and the problem feels huge. Our political leaders do not inspire confidence and seem focused on defending the profits of large Wall Street and Energy companies while the world falls apart around us. Does it matter? Is there anything we as individuals can do? Yes, there is a lot that we can do on both the political and personal levels.

On the political level there is much that needs to be done. I live in central Virginia which has been a nexus of climate change denial and preservation of inequality. We have a long way to go and much hard work that needs to be done. However, it is important that everybody everywhere do what they can. First of all, talk to your neighbors about these problems. The news media keeps us distracted with a disappearing Malaysian airliner and celebrity gossip. People need to know what is going on. It seems like small steps but they build over time. Join local grassroots activist groups. Invite speakers to talk about these issues in community forums. Work to support politicians that address these issues.

On the personal level there are also many small things that you can to reduce consumption. They add up if done by many people over time. Here are a few ideas. They are focused on global warming, but in practice address most environmental problems which are derived from waste and over-consumption. I’m sure you are already doing some, others you might have missed:

Pseudoscience and social networks

•February 27, 2014 • Leave a Comment

If scientific accuracy in the public sphere is your jam, is there really that much of a difference between Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, who seems to have made a career marketing pseudoscience about the origins of the world, and John Mackey, a founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, who seems to have made a career, in part, out of marketing pseudoscience about health?
Michael Schulson “Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience”

This is not just a problem for the left or right. This is a basic function of how our brains (and social networks) function. We can’t know everything so we use heuristics. Much of what we believe is based not on fact, experience or scientific evidence but on what others believe. For people who trust the right it is denial of climate change and evolution. On the left it’s nutriceuticals and colon cleanses. The facts are often secondary to building social networks and support. From a basic survival perspective it is more important to bond with your local group than understand if the sun revolves around the earth or vise versa.

On the right, denial of climate change and evolution is clearly wrong, but dogmatic acceptance of market economics and deregulation frequently lead to outcomes that undermine other, more essential, conservative values.

Similarly, on the left, Organic and GMO crops are accepted or rejected without any understanding of context or distinctions. While there are great benefits from most organic growing practices there are times where small farm, local, non-organic are better. Similarly with GMOs, rapidly becoming the tobacco and DDT of the twenty-first century. But not all GMOs pose the same risk to health and society. Golden rice can prevent vitamin deficiencies that cause death and blindness in millions worldwide yet has none of the potential health concerns associated with other GMOs.

These social heuristics can be useful in a complex world. Yet, too often they get in the way of clearly sorting out complex open issues because we view them as a credo and not a hypothesis.