So you married a Hegelian

A defense of Reddit’s much-loathed philosophy guy, written by a very nice and normal philosophy guy.

So you married a Hegelian

A defense of Reddit’s much-loathed philosophy guy, written by a very nice and normal philosophy guy.

“Philosophy begins in wonder,” Socrates tells us in Plato's dialogue Theaetetus — in that “dizzy,” vertiginous experience one undergoes when considering questions one simply does not know the answer to: What can I know? What should I do? What can I hope for? Are there really tables, or just particles arranged “table-wise”? Do I really have hands, or have I just been tricked into thinking I have hands by some sort of evil hands-demon? And so forth.

Although, as the Theaetetus later indicates, it is entirely possible that philosophy in fact began when Thales of Miletus — renowned in the ancient Greek world as the “first” philosopher — fell into a big hole.

“The story,” Socrates says, “is that he was doing astronomy and looking upwards, when he fell into a pit; and a Thracian servant, a girl of some wit and humor, made fun of him, because, as she said, he was eager to know the contents of heaven, but didn't notice what was in front of him, under his feet.”

“That same gibe,” Socrates continues, “will do for everyone who spends his life in philosophy.”

Canonically, Thales later got his revenge on the “real” world, becoming incredibly wealthy after using his philosophical knowledge to predict a successful olive harvest, stockpiling olive presses then selling them at a profit once demand rose. But there has always remained the suspicion that philosophy — and philosophers — are somehow not “of” the real world: that in truth all philosophy amounts to is the idle, speculative chatter of a self-ordained class of (usually) independently wealthy, (usually) men, who have always been shielded from the needs, wants, and other concerns of actual people, and end up making idiots out of themselves as a result.

Enter, I suppose, the Hegel Wife Guy (a miracle! There is a Hegel wife guy! Suddenly, all my interests have aligned!). Yesterday, there was posted on the consistently fascinating r/relationships subreddit a story from a user calling herself “hegelianwife,” “33F with a husband who is 35M.” Both the Hegel-wife and her husband are, she tells us, academics: she is a physicist, he a philosopher. They have been together for six years, but for some reason only recently started talking about each other's academic interests. And this, we are told, is the problem.

The husband primarily works on Hegel: The imperious, notoriously difficult, monolithically systematic philosopher of early 19th century German Idealism. And according to his wife, “his work apparently involves claims about physics that are just wrong, and wrong in a very embarrassing way.”

“I’ll admit, I'm a terrible person, but I had never read his thesis before. I tried reading it and it's riddled with talk about for instance the necessary relationship between matter having ‘extension’ and possessing mass. He also talks about the ‘shape’ of fundamental particles. This is obviously nonsensical/wrong; electrons have mass and are point particles (they don't take up space really). In the thesis and some other papers he wrote he seems to think of himself as ‘scientific’ and a ‘materialist’ but his entire idea of what these words mean is stuck in like, outdated 19th-century ideas about atoms as little billiard balls flying around in space.
I've gently tried to help him and explain how he might start to engage seriously with contemporary physics (he has never read a book on the subject and is by his own admission "bad at math"), but he just gets angry with me and explains that Hegel's system is presuppositional and the basis for all possible rational thought so there is no need at all to read other texts in the first place (I have no idea what this means)... On top of that, he will repeatedly say German phrases or terms that he uses (and pronounces) incorrectly (I am a native speaker) or nonsensically. He claims to understand the language (he doesn't) and tells me that Hegel can only be understood 'in the original German’ but he clearly can't read the language and when I've tried to read the original texts they make even less sense.”

It gets worse. In dedicating his life to perpetuating this (apparent) nonsense, the husband's “obsession with Hegel himself has reached the point of creepiness... He keeps a framed picture of Hegel on the nightstand in our bedroom. In fact, he even changed his phone's background from a picture of me to this same picture of Hegel. I feel like I am competing with a 200-year-old philosopher for my husband's attention.”

All of this came to a head, we are told, “about a day ago,” when the Hegel-husband was attempting to demonstrate “the Hegelian concept of the ‘unity of opposites’ (whatever that means)” by asserting that “right and left hands are opposite but also identical,” and the couple ended up having “a huge fight.”

“I told him this is just wrong and that right and left hands are not ‘identical’ in any meaningful sense (chirality is a basic concept in geometry/group theory: left and right hands are not superimposable). He kept putting his hands together and tried to show how they were ‘identical’ and kept failing (because they're not) and then got angry and stormed out of the house. I haven't seen him since... and texted him and haven't heard back.”

Of course, some people are claiming that the whole story might be a hoax (another r/relationships Hegel story, about a woman whose “ex-boyfriend says he's going to be reading Hegel his entire life” was I know for a fact posted as a joke). At any rate, even if it is a joke, it works because it presents us with the epitome of the out-of-touch “philosophy bro”: a man who has dedicated his life to Hegel (of all things), despite the fact that (a) Hegel offers us nothing that makes any real-world sense, and (b) even if he did, this guy (the husband) appears to be completely unable to explain his ideas to anyone not already very into Hegel.

So yes, he seems ridiculous — which almost certainly explains why the Hegel Wife Guy story has been so widely shared. His whole life, it turns out, has been his falling into a hole. His wife posting on Reddit is the Thracian peasant girl laughing at him.

Usually, if I’m honest, I’m kind of on the side of the peasant girl — I’ve often written about how academic philosophers need to contend more with the world how it is. But I nevertheless feel compelled to object slightly to what seems to be a pretty consistent consensus, in response to the Hegel Wife post, that Hegel is very obviously silly/useless.

For starters: this point about the hands. Now, the way the Hegel-wife describes her husband making this point, it ends up sounding completely ridiculous — sure. A right hand is not a left hand: one's right hand is not identical to one's left hand. They are not, as the Hegel-wife correctly points out, superimposable.

But this is not what Hegel's doctrine of the unity of opposites actually entails. Rather, the point is that there are certain pairs of opposed concepts — like infinity and finitude, positive and negative, identity and difference, and of course left and right — where the one simply cannot be understood except somehow through the other. Thus, we cannot understand a left hand as a “left” hand, unless against a background where there also exist right hands, and vice versa.

Now, that might sound like a pretty trivial point, but it’s central to Hegel’s thought. This is because it's through the various tensions which emerge between these paired opposites that we get the whole movement of his thought: the dialectical development of his philosophical system from its starting point, “being, pure being” to nature, art, politics, and everything else. This relates to the idea that Hegel's thought is “presuppositionless” (in the Reddit text it says “presuppositional,” I think this is a typo).

Often, we only really understand philosophers when we are able to treat them with a certain healthy disrespect.

The thought here (which is especially associated with the reading of Hegel pursued by a professor at the University of Warwick named Stephen Houlgate) is that Hegel's system is, in a way, the ultimate answer to philosophical skepticism. Descartes, at the outset of modern philosophy, famously answered global skepticism by declaring that: “I think, therefore I am.” Hegel takes this even further by starting out with no thought more loaded with presuppositions than: “There is thinking, therefore there is something.”

Hegel’s Science of Logic thus opens by asking us to think “being, pure being — without further determination.” So, just: that there merely is something. If you perform this operation correctly, Hegel tells us, you will realize you have just thought “pure indeterminateness and emptiness,” so not really something, but rather nothing. We thus secure our first paired opposite: being and nothingness, “there is” and “there is not.”

The tension between these two opposites then gives us the concept of “becoming.” In order to think “nothing,” we must think “nothing is,” so the truth of nothing turns out to be “being.” But that just leads us straight back to nothing again! Thus “the truth is being nor nothing, but rather that being has passed over into nothing and nothing into being.”

I get that this probably all seems very abstract. But the point is that throughout the Science of Logic Hegel builds on this basic thought — and this basic dialectical procedure — to give us every metaphysical concept he thinks we need in order to make sense of our experience (existence, magnitude, appearance, and all the rest), in a way that is (as I’ve said) ostensibly secure against any and all skeptical attacks. This is why Hegel scholars feel entitled to claim that Hegel’s Logic gives us the basis of, as the Hegel-wife quotes her husband as asserting, “all possible rational thought,” and thus why physics must be subservient to Hegel — not the other way round. If physics is legitimate at all, then it ought, by Hegel’s lights, to be derivable from the Logic.

We are to a certain extent thrown back on the rocks of the initial problem, namely that all Hegel scholars seem liable to come across as entitled dweebs vastly overreaching what might plausibly considered the proper domain of their field. If Hegel's thought is, ultimately, incompatible with the claims of modern physics, then perhaps the real conclusion Hegel scholars should draw from this is that he did his Logic wrong and ought to change it.

This would be an entirely fair suggestion — although equally, the opposite point might still apply. Famously, contemporary physics tells us a lot of things about the universe that seem, from our finite, earthbound perspective, to be pretty counter-intuitive. Hegel's philosophy of nature might thus prove useful, not as an absolute, final and true account of what nature is “really” like, but rather of how nature must necessarily appear to us — a map of what philosophers in the German Idealist tradition would call the “transcendental” structures of our mind. This might then help explain the various tensions between how we experience the world, and how physics tells us that the universe works.

Although, it should also be noted that there is far more to Hegel than just the philosophy of nature. Indeed, Hegel's philosophy of nature is in many ways a really weird thing, even for Hegel scholars to study — for the reason, of course, that the science he drew on is now so desperately outmoded. Hegel scholars are far more likely to focus on his metaphysics, or his political theory; both also have elements that might strike contemporary readers as super-outmoded (not least, Hegel's notoriously starry-eyed view of the Prussian state of his day), but in practice they contain elements that are much easier to adapt to contemporary debates.

So what's the lesson here? Well, for one thing: we don't necessarily get all that far with philosophy (or philosophers) by turning them, as the Hegel-husband has, into idols — gods, essentially, whose thought forms an insurmountable edifice, against which all other things must be measured. Often, we only really understand philosophers when we are able to treat them with a certain healthy disrespect, being willing to read them against the grain; ignore certain aspects of their systems, translate their thought into a jargon that is not their own. This is a big part of thinking about philosophy — and a big part of communicating philosophically, as well.

But there is also another lesson, a lesson that, I fear, may be just as difficult for the Hegel-husband to learn. By Hegel’s own lights, the Hegel-marriage is failing. For Hegel, as he tells us in the Philosophy of Right, marriage consists in “the free consent of... persons... to make themselves one person, to renounce their natural and individual personality to this unity of one with the other.” “From this point of view,” Hegel says, “their union is a self-restriction, but in fact it is their liberation, because in it they attain their substantial self-consciousness.”

Thus marriage is an institution in which one, as it were, finds oneself in another. This can mean all sorts of things (Hegel ultimately emphasizes reproduction, through the family). But certainly, the relationship between the Hegel-wife and her Hegel-husband appears to be marked by a tragic failure of recognition. The Hegel-husband is not at all interested in the work of the Hegel-wife, because it has nothing to do with Hegel; meanwhile, when it comes to Hegel, the Hegel-wife herself is unable to summon anything but scorn. I'm sorry, but from the description in the Reddit post it sounds like this might just be one of those times when the tension between an opposed pair simply cannot be — dialectically or otherwise — overcome.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.