Caputo: Chapter Four—The Enlightenment and Its Critics: A Short History—Part Two

As noted, Caputo then moves on to the first critics of the Enlightenment and those who set the stage for what we now call postmodernism.  These are Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831); Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55); and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).  Caputo notes that these three were the ‘canaries in the coal mine of modernity…’and although they would have disagreed with each other (Kierkegaard made fun of Hegel) over many things, they knew something was wrong with the Enlightenment narrative.
To finish out chapter four, we start with Hegel.  There is the famous story of Hegel, a young professor watching from the crowd in Jena (Germany), as Napoleon, riding through on horseback, appears with his marching army.  Hegel was struck by this and he thought here was more than just a man on horseback, but rather, here was the very spirit of the age embodied in this scene before him.  This was history marching.  This was the ‘zeitgeist’ taking up residence in this man on the horse.  Now we may think Hegel is just showing the naivety of the young here–they are impressionable and easily influenced.  He is simply being overwhelmed by the grand style and power present in a marching army—he is caught up in the moment and his emotions have taken over.  However, Hegel is really attempting to show in a picture, in an anecdote, a story, his rather complex and difficult philosophy.  Caputo notes:
“It contains the very nub of his critique of the Enlightenment and of the way in which it had impoverished the idea of truth.  Truth, Hegel said, is not accessed by bucket thinking (I am paraphrasing!) but by a holistic sense of the ‘concrete’.  But by insisting upon the concrete, he is not making a pedagogical point, that if you cannot give an example you cannot understand it.  While that is true, Hegel is making a more fundamental philosophical point about the nature of reality and truth, which is, we might say, that if reality cannot exemplify itself, it is not really true.”  Caputo goes on:
“Hegel is opposing Kant’s very formal, analytic-discriminating approach to truth, so typical of the Enlightenment, to an organic, synthesizing way of thinking, where things are bound together from the start in a living unity and a developing whole.  Hegel thus meant ‘concrete’ in a literal way, where the universal and the particular, the transcendent and the immanent, the eternal and the temporal, God and the world, the spirit and the individual mesh together (con + crescere), as they do in the figure of Napoleon, not merely so that we can understand the truth but in order for the truth to exist!  Truth is not just an abstract name: it actually appears in history, sitting on the back of a horse.  Truth is not merely a formal property of propositions reached by following the rules of method; truth is something substantial, something concrete, the substance of our lives, of history.”
Or to put it another way, truth is lived.  Truth is experienced.  Truth is felt.  I might recognize a piece of information, say for instance, that the sun is hot and this is of course to recognize a “truth”.  However, I can also experience the sun on my face, the warmth, and the way it makes me feel, and as I do so, I am also experiencing a “truth”.  Both aspects, the recognition of factual information and the felt experience, are “true” and they are joined together now whereas Kant tried to keep these separate and dichotomized.  In reaction to Kant, Hegel puts the emphasis on the lived and experienced aspects of “truth” as opposed to the abstract formality of “truth”.  Caputo again:
“Think of the analytic method of Kant and the Enlightenment as the knowledge someone has of a city they have never visited but only read about.  They have seen books of photographs in which various parts of the city are displayed in an orderly way, each chapter devoted to a separate neighborhood.  Compare that to the knowledge people who have lived in the city all their lives have, who know the short cuts and the best restaurants, who have watched neighborhoods change and seen the city evolve into its present form.  Whereas the Kantians have an abstract, pale and piecemeal knowledge of the city, Hegel thinks truth is the whole, the concrete unity of the whole, the way things mesh.”
We might say that Kant saw truth as a cadaver laid upon the table.  We then as objective observers could dissect, examine, probe, and sort of carve up this thing called “truth” from a distance.  Hegel saw truth as a living thing walking about and connected to its living environment.  Therefore, it was connected to us, intimately, we are involved, and thus we are never neutral observers.  This doesn’t mean we are biased in a determined straight-jacket sort of way.  It simply means we bring ourselves to our observations.  We live in the city—we are never just talking about some city, somewhere, we’ve seen pictures of.  It is actually the very thing that will sort out our biases.  If I think I’m a neutral observer, I am much more likely to just presume my observations are pure, direct, unmediated, a simple correspondence, universal, and without any philosophical commitments (the view from a drone flying above Afghanistan).  Thus I can confidently claim I have the “truth”.  This is what leads to scientism.  (As an aside, this is also a recipe for modern colonialism and capitalism as a “natural” reading of social and economic life.  Just- the “way things are.”  It actually is a “blind” reading, not in being unbiased, but as a hindrance to seeing one’s own hidden presuppositions.)  Caputo:
“Hegel launched a full-scale attack on the Enlightenment in the name of truth.  No philosopher since antiquity has ever made truth more central than Hegel.  He reminds us of Plato and the medieval theologians on this point, where truth is not treated only as a correspondence between a proposition and reality (propositional truth) but as the very substance of reality itself (ontological truth) and the very light of the mind (Augustine).”
Of course Caputo thinks there is plenty wrong with Hegel’s approach and general philosophy.  But none of that takes away from Hegel’s critique of the Enlightenment, one which stands to this day.  Still, Hegel was a man of his time, and it is hard to completely pull one’s self out of the time in which he lives (true for all of us). Caputo notes:
“So for all the criticism he directed at the Enlightenment, Hegel remained in the grip of the deepest assumption of the Enlightenment, which is that the world is indeed a system of reason—so long as reason is understood concretely.  There is nothing about reality to which reason is denied access.  The postmodern view, on the other hand, is that this is a bit of overreaching, that truth is on the go but we are not sure where it is going or whether it is just one unified thing, and we reserve our opinion about what is finally going on.”
Further, we see in Hegel the temptation to say that the Spirit, the Zeitgeist, the movement of history is taking place, of course, in our country, city, or culture.  There is an over-identification with history as the unfolding of God or Truth’s march into the future and it is too often seen as happening only here, where I am from—my generation or culture—not somewhere else.  In contrast, it could be that each moment is risky and could take one road over another; thus, as we look back historically, it’s possible that a road was taken (anywhere in the world) not because of any “spirit” working intentionally, but rather through the mysterious and incomprehensible vagaries of existence and freedom.  Such is beyond “reason’s” gaze.  For instance, the Holocaust cannot be made sense of no matter how many underlying historically supposed causes one could note as acting as its conductor.  Reason can take us only so far.

With my next post, we will turn to chapter five, the “postmodern prophets”.
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1 Response to Caputo: Chapter Four—The Enlightenment and Its Critics: A Short History—Part Two

  1. Burk says:


    “He reminds us of Plato and the medieval theologians on this point, where truth is not treated only as a correspondence between a proposition and reality (propositional truth) but as the very substance of reality itself (ontological truth) and the very light of the mind (Augustine).”

    Well, that is why the enlightenment happened, because these flowery images of truth are, well, not meaningless, but subjective and unavailable for rational thought. What are we to do or make with “the very substance of reality itself”? We can not, per Kant, actually perceive it, being confined to phenomena. We can not communicate about it, since it is no propositional. And whatever it is we can not trust it as truth, because it can not be reasoned about. So it is mystical mumbo jumbo.

    You and Caputo will have to try a little harder. Hegel is not going to do the heavy lifting of knocking down reason and redefining truth to your taste. Remember that Hegel brought us Communism and German nationalism, out of his wonderful science of history and its soul. No thanks.

    Anyhow, what you are claiming to be beyond reason is subjectivity and personal idiosyncrasy … the psychological complexities of humanity. They may be unreasonable, but are not, ultimately, beyond analysis insofar as our brains are where it all happens. Perhaps you would like to buy a primitive brain monitor!


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