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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hegel on Acid

So which is it? Does the world as it already is shape and structure our understandings of reality? Or do our understandings of reality shape and structure the world? Karl Marx thought Georg Hegel had got the relationship upside down. Marx said Hegel had said that ideas shape reality. Marx said reality - the material forces of production- shapes ideas. What led Marx to this argument was his analysis of late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century political economy.

Marx was a doctor of philosophy. He wrote his doctoral thesis on The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature with an Appendix in 1841, ten years after Hegel‘s death. [Democritus and Epicurus were ancient Greek philosophers.] So a few years later, after his mate Friedrich Engels had drawn Marx’s attention to the ‘industrial revolution’ in Manchester and its importance, Marx started reading up on the theories of political economy which were supposed to explain this industrial revolution, he was shocked. They explained nothing. All they really did was provide a set of justifications for exploiting the labour of the workers in the new factories. It became obvious to Marx that the theory, the idea of industrial capitalism came after the system was already up and running.

So first came the shift from traditional ( originally medieval style) ways of making things to the modern, steam-powered factory way of making stuff and only then did political economists come up with their theories about how the new way was the only way to organise this form of production. Not only that, but the political economists then made out that this new way of organising and ordering society was natural and inevitable.

Although Hegel had also read up on political economy, but, by the time he died in 1831, the industrial revolution had hardly begun in a still ununited Germany. Hegel, influenced by the French Revolution which broke out when he was 19, saw history as a long struggle through which an idea- reason- would eventually achieve self-consciousness and thus liberate humanity. At the same time, Hegel also believed that the world was rational so the idea of reason was also material and physical. Optimistically, Hegel expected that having broken through into the collective consciousness with the French Revolution, the political, social and economic structures of the post-Revolutionary world would be based on reason and enlightenment.

Instead, the forces of political reaction, social conservatism and (industrial) economic exploitation prevailed. So Marx had to re-structure Hegel’s work to take into account these realities, focusing in particular on the irrationality of rapidly expanding industrial capitalism. To overcome this new form of unreason, Marx realised, would require a further revolution. Capitalism had become the new superstition which only a new enlightenment could banish.

Marx hoped that as it expanded, the internal contradictions, the irrationality of capitalism would become increasingly obvious and socially divisive until the proletariat were forced to organise its overthrow for their own survival. So far, Marx’s restructuring of Hegel has not led to this expected outcome, although the crisis of capital which began in 2008 shows no signs of ending.

While Marx’s revolution may happen corner, its continued delay is a reason to stand Hegel back on his feet again to see what results. This is no easy task. With Hegel we have a ‘foundationless’ or ‘presupposition- less’ account of reality. With Hegel the map is/ becomes the territory and the territory is/ becomes the map. Hegel’s account cannot be summed-up or condensed, it can only be re-presented in slightly different ways which themselves become as dense and complex as Hegel’s account itself. We set out to try and know the world, but to know the world we have to understand the world. To understand the world we have to enter into a relationship with the world. As this relationship unfolds our knowledge and understanding expands to encompass the world, so we become more and more conscious of the world. The end result is that we come to realise ourselves as the consciousness of the world understanding itself - through reason.

This may sound very close to a form of mysticism, but Hegel believed it was the Science of Logic and set out the workings of this science in minute detail over hundreds of densely written pages exploring each stage of the process. In mysticism there is usually a gnostic ‘jump’ to the conclusion- the whole is suddenly realised all at once and in its entirety. There are no such jumps with Hegel, he slows the process down so much that it becomes almost exhausting to read.

Which is a bit of a problem in this age of instant access. So I will take the very un-Hegelian step of jumping forward to Andy Roberts’ book Albion Dreaming - the History of LSD in Britain (London, 2008). The key suggestion I want to focus on is the influence of LSD/ acid on the UK counterculture. One example is that after taking acid, some people became ultra aware of the food they ate - which led to the organic/ whole food movement. Similar experiences stimulated interest in ecology and the environment - and all things Green.

Lumped altogether we get a radical and revolutionary counterculture which challenged/ rejected the structure of capitalism from a perspective closer to Hegel than Marx. The effect of acid was/is to challenge taken for granted preconceptions about the nature of reality in itself (in ourselves). To an extent, the commodification of nature and human labour under capitalism is (as Marx argued) taken for granted and unquestioned, so the acid inspired counterculture was a critique of capitalism and so Marxist…but the countercultural critique went beyond Marx to question -as Hegel did- notions of knowledge, meaning and understanding which had developed since the time of Plato.

This aspect of Hegel’s work, its deep structure, has generally been rejected as ’meaningless’. It is still too revolutionary, too radical to be accepted- since if it was accepted our understandings of ourselves and our world would be turned upside down. After reading Andy Roberts’ book I now wonder if what acid/ psychedelics reveal is a ‘foundationless’ reality similar/ equivalent to that so minutely constructed by Hegel in his Logic. This would also fit with the quantum information theory of reality explored by Vlatko Vedral in Decoding Reality (London, 2010). This connection can be established via Robert Ware’s Hegel The Logic of Self-consciousness and the Legacy of Subjective Freedom (Edinburgh, 1999).

The point of overlap between Ware (1999, pages 52 and 230) and Vedral (2010, page 198) is mathematician John von Neumann’s ’empty set’ theory where - quoting Vedral ‘The mind observes the empty set. It is not difficult to imagine the empty set also containing an empty set within itself. But hold on, now we have an empty set containing an empty set, so does this mean that the original set now contains an element (albeit the element is an empty set)? Yes, the mind has thus generated the number one by producing the empty set containing an empty set…’. Thus something has emerged out of nothing.

In his Logic, Hegel starts with pure being which is also pure nothing and something only emerges after pure being has (immediately) become pure nothing - so pure being precedes or rather becomes von Neumann’s empty set. This allows Hegel to get around the problem that Vlatko’s interpretation of von Neumann presupposes an observing ’mind’.

Although the experiment has never been ( is unlikely ever to have been) performed, engaging with Hegel’s Logic while under the influence of LSD - Hegel on acid- would reveal the revolutionary potential of the Logic. On the other hand, is there any need to carry out such an experiment? As Andy Roberts shows, acid has already had a revolutionary impact on society . And, as the ecological/ environmental impact of global climate change through global warming kicks in, the useful/truthful value of the acid inspired counterculture’s critiques of the dominant culture will become increasingly pertinent. The big problem is that through its attempts to suppress / repress the counterculture, the dominant culture has made it much harder - almost impossible- for alternatives to emerge, evolve and reclaim the future.


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