Philosophers and the One Right Answer

A very bright guy named Richard Marshall interviews academic philosophers at a site called 3 A.M. Magazine (as of his latest interview, Mr. Marshall is still “biding his time”).

This is from an interview with Thom Brooks of Durham University:

“Hegel’s Science of Logic reveals a fascinating insight into the philosophy of punishment. He writes that punishment should not be considered as either retribution, deterrence or rehabilitation. Instead, punishment is grounded in retribution – those punished must deserve it and cannot be innocent – but retribution is only one part of a larger view. Punishment is not retributivist, preventative or rehabilitative, but rather all three in one. Three in one. Why would we expect to find anything different in Hegel than this anyway?”

With all due respect to Hegel (one of the most influential yet incomprehensible philosophers ever), is it really a fascinating insight to note that punishment is justifiable for different reasons? Philosophers are too often prone to seek a single justification or analysis for some phenomenon. Philosophical arguments can sometimes remind you of that beer commercial (“Tastes great! No, less filling!”). 

The entry on “Punishment” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an example of this tendency:

“The practice of punishment must be justified by reference either to forward-looking or to backward-looking considerations [or both?].

If the former prevail, then the theory is consequentialist and probably some version of utilitarianism, according to which the point of the practice of punishment is to increase overall net social welfare by reducing (ideally, preventing) crime.

If the latter prevail, the theory is deontological; on this approach, punishment is seen either as a good in itself or as a practice required by justice, thus making a direct claim on our allegiance. A deontological justification of punishment is likely to be a retributive justification.

Or, as a third alternative, the justification of the practice may be found in some hybrid combination of these two independent alternatives. Recent attempts to avoid this duality in favor of a completely different approach [such as saying that neither theory captures the whole truth?] have yet to meet with much success…”

Practically speaking, meeting with “success” in this case means being found convincing by other academic philosophers. It might be that recent attempts to avoid this duality haven’t been successful because most philosophers interested in punishment (and ethics in general) are committed to an either/or solution, finding the single right answer. There is relatively little to be gained, professionally speaking, by pointing out that both sides of a traditional argument reflect part of the truth.

What sometimes happens in philosophical argument (aka “combat”) is that philosopher A offers his theory and philosopher B suggests a counterexample. Philosopher B then offers her theory and philosopher A suggests a counterexample. Philosopher C then concludes that neither theory is successful. An alternative approach would be to agree that the counterexamples show that neither theory captures the whole truth, although they each capture some of the truth. Then everyone could pack up and go have a drink (or a slice of pie).

Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, translated by H. B. Nisbet

According to Hegel, history is the process by which Spirit, or the Absolute, or God, or the Idea, or something like that, becomes conscious of itself, understands itself, and thereby becomes more free or generates more freedom in the world, or something to that effect. World-historical figures like Napoleon and Goethe play a crucial role in this process of increasing freedom and self-knowledge, as do certain world-historical nations (e.g. Greece, Rome, Prussia). The state is the principal mechanism by which history progresses, and such progress occurs in a dialectical manner (although Hegel didn’t use the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” terminology; those were Fichte’s words).

This is an interesting theory, even if it’s simultaneously obscure and implausible. Although this relatively short book is supposed to be the best introduction that Hegel wrote to his own philosophy, that isn’t saying much. It is filled with statements like “the spirit is essentially the product of its own activity, and its activity consists in transcending and negating its immediacy and turning in upon itself”, and “world history is the expression of the divine and absolute process of the spirit in its highest forms, of the progression whereby it discovers its true nature and becomes conscious of itself”. Repeating such statements does little to clarify their meaning.

Hegel was able to express himself clearly in some cases, however. For example: “A mighty figure” — someone like Napoleon, for example — “must trample many an innocent flower underfoot, and destroy much that lies in its path”. And “duty requires that men should defend not whatever country they choose but their own particular fatherland”, for “the worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect and represent the national spirit”, not by their pursuit of goodness for its own sake, since that is an “empty notion”.

Hegel’s obscurity has helped make his writings a popular object of scholarly interpretation. He might have been referring to himself in this passage: “The intellectual attitude which adopts such formal points of view certainly affords unlimited scope for ingenious questions, scholarly opinions, striking comparisons, and seemingly profound reflections and declamations; their brilliance may in fact seem to increase in proportion to their capacity for indefiniteness”.  (12/4/11)

Hegel in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

I’m struggling through Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History and thought this little book might help me understand what Hegel is getting at. It didn’t help at all. The author concentrates on Hegel’s life while disparaging his terrible writing style and overblown, incomprehensible, inconsistent and inaccurate ideas. The book is funny at times, however, and easy to read. It’s a book that someone might look at in order to get an idea who Hegel was and how he expressed himself.  

One of the best parts of Hegel in 90 Minutes is this quotation from Schopenhauer: “The height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously only been known in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most barefaced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result that will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a monument to German stupidity”.  (11/25/11)