Owl of Minerva: An Imaginary dialogue with Hegel – Dialogues with Philosophers In COVID-19 Times” by Saurabh Todariya
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With the possible end of the lockdown in the offing, life seems to gather its usual pace in Bangalore. The desolateness of the roads is now giving way to the traffic, honking and rush. However, still we have a long way to go. It really amazes me how a crowded city which never knew of the silence became absolutely like a ghost town. Right now it is absolutely looking like the ghost of its earlier busy self. Perhaps it shows how deeply COVID 19 affected us.

It seems that we are standing at the crossroads between lull and din, slowness and rush, friendship and isolation. Mostly, we analyse the events of life in this way only. We try to resolve the contradictions between the incompatible experiences which life throws at us despite our calculations. Life is full of ironies, paradoxes, agonies and fragilities which make it a great riddle. I remember the song  late S D Burman in the classic movie Guide: Kehte hain gynai, duniya hai faani, pani mein likhi likhai. Hai sabki delhi, hai sabki jani, haath kisi ke na ayi. Until poststructuralism, philosophy has been thought as the way to resolve the contradictions through the thought. The lone philosopher in the picture broods about the meaning of life in the hope of arriving at the complete picture. But isn’t it this unknowing, finitude makes life what it is? Isn’t it knowing everything is already a death for consciousness where it would become an automat?

The great German philosopher who forever changed the terrain of philosophy through his notoriously difficult writings esp. Phenomenology of Spirit. He is the inspiration behind the works of Karl Marx who famously said that Hegel stands on his head. However, Hegel spoke powerfully even  in that awkward position and   engaged  with philosophers and political theorists for centuries. His views on  Master-Slave dialectics, labour of the negative, self-consciousness as desire, Sittlichkeit and End of the history are conundrums even for the experts.

Let me engage in dialogue with him in contemporary times.

Me- Hi!

Hegel- Hello.

Me- I very much like your notion of dialectics; thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

H- But I have never used it!

Me- Is that  so?

H- I have used the words contradiction (Gegensatz) and  sublation (Aufhebung) in my work Phenomenology of Spirit. Dialectics includes contradiction and later these contradictions are resolved and encompassed into a wholesome unity.

Me- What is Aufhebung?

H- It resolves the contradictions but while doing this, it does not negate the opposite points of view but preserve it in the next stage. Spirit moves through the dialectics only.

Me- Can you explain it through some examples?

H- Well,  Phenomenology of Spirit is full of examples of this. But in order to understand it, you must understand the journey of Spirit.

Me-  All right. This seems to have been done in Phenomenology of Spirit, depicting the journey of Spirit from the Subjective to Objective spirit and finally to  the Absolute Idea.

H- Yes. Basically my idea is that the flow of events in history  is not blind rather it follows an order which can be unravelled through reason. That’s why I say that rational is real and real is rational. Whatever happens in history does follow the rational order. And Dialectics is the  method by which we can comprehend this journey of Spirit.

Me-  How?

H-  Well, if you notice the course of history you will find that it has been progressing in dialectical manner only. First some stage comes then the contradiction is generated and finally the contradictions are resolved in the next stage. This process goes on.

Me- If it is the case then ultimately all contradictions would be resolved.   Won’t it be the end of history?

H- Yes, in fact history is progressing and finally it should come to halt when the progress is over. This is the teleology inherent in history. But till then there remains the restlessness of the negative which moves the history. Some philosophers criticize me that I conceived the end of history as the culmination of the western state; while others defend me by saying that the labour of negative in dialectics can never reduce self-consciousness into a dead substance. They find the seeds of singularities in my philosophy against the closed system.

Me-  Interesting!  But  what is the telos then?

H-  I conceive human history as the restless journey towards the Absolute Idea which would finally resolve the contradiction between an individual and the collective. At the final stage, the individual will recognize its personal well-being in Whole.

Me- How?

H- The various stages in history basically depicts the struggle between individuals and the collective. However, this struggle resolves when an individual starts to recognize that his growth and well-being basically depends on the well-being of the community. This I call Sittlichkeit, ethical life.

Me- What is  ethical life?

H- We need to distinguish ethical life from the moral life. In morality, individuals focus on their personal virtues and try to fashion a moral character. While in ethical life, an individual develops an ethos which leads to the harmony between an individual and the collective life. In the absence of this harmony, humans get alienated from social life and escape into their personal world, which I call ‘Unhappy Consciousness’. For e.g., when Civil Society fights for the institutional laws, it sees these laws as an extension of the well-being of an individual. If the State does not enact these laws then there would be alienation from the State.

 Me- But why do you call Self-consciousness a desire?

H- Subject has to lose identity before becoming itself. The sense of self is lost in desire, as desire is a pull towards an Other. It is the hunger for that which is not present within.

Me- Yes, that’s what the desire is. But how do you connect it with the master-slave dialectic?

H- In the battle of recognition between the Master and Slave, the ultimate lord is death. Hence the triumph of the master is not the victory of any subject or man, but of death and desire itself. Death and desire are inherently linked. And all desire is ultimately a wish for that which is not. Desire is the impetus towards non-existence. Death is the ultimate fulfilment of all human desires.

Me- That’s an interesting explanation and Judith Butler also endorses it on the basis of psychoanalysis. But Charles Taylor, Nancy Fraser and other political theorists interpret the Master-Slave dialectic as the struggle for recognition in the political life. The whole discourse of Identity-politics, as they say, is based on the struggle for recognition. On the other hand, Sartre, Simone and others use the struggle to explain the self and other relations. Recently, poststructuralists philosophers and Zizek as well emphasize on the restlessness of the negative.

H-  These interpretations are also right as fundamentally the struggle between the master and slave is for recognition only. As Master knows that it cannot kill the other as he is dependent on the slave; on the other hand, the slave struggles to get recognition. Finally, the slave becomes master and vice-versa. This is what the section on ‘Lordship and Bondage’ suggests. However, what is to be noted is the dialectic struggle which moves the history. Humans can only realise the significance of the historical event post-facto, not at the time when it happens.

At this time, I remember what  Hegel said about the owl of Minerva in the Preface of Philosophy of Rights where he discusses the restlessness of the negative in the Spirit.

The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

The Owl of Minerva is a Greek reference to Athena, which is the goddess of wisdom and love. We can only come to understand wisdom after having taken up the mistaken perspectives. Whenever we recognise a stage of ideas to be old, it has already become old, and as such can never be taken afresh as we did without the recognition. The significance of wisdom comes only after we’ve made our mistakes, and when it’s too late to not make them. As such, we can only know them as mistakes.

Disclaimer: The opinions endorsed by the speaker is solely the author’s and not in any way endorsed by the Institute/Programme.