Reaction Against Hegelian Idealism -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Reaction Against Hegelian Idealism

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In Britain, the dominant philosophy in the universities in the second half of the 19th century was, oddly enough, Hegelianism, which was presented in a suitably mystical and religious manner. Empiricism is a deeply-rooted tradition in the Anglo-Saxon world. Russell and G. E. Moore reacted against the vapid idealist caricature of Hegelian philosophy represented by the likes of Bradley, McTaggart and Stirling, the author of The Secret of Hegel (of which Lenin remarked that "The secret was well kept!"). These idealists taught a bowdlerised version of Hegel, omitting all of value, and preserving only the mystical side. McTaggart, for instance, taught that the concept of time is inconsistent and therefore cannot be exemplified in reality. Such mystical twaddle repelled a whole generation of younger philosophers, such as G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell.

This started as a healthy reaction against idealist mystification. But what to put in its place? They searched around for an alternative, and found a good old British one—"common sense" and "the facts." They advocated a return to empiricism, in an attempt to purge idealism from philosophy. Their watchword was that of Isaac Newton: "Physics, beware of metaphysics!" In place of wrong-headed idealist theorising, empiricism prefers no theorising at all. Regrettably, that is not possible. Philosophy, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

The only viable alternative to metaphysics is consistent materialism—dialectical materialism. By ignoring the philosophical revolution effected by Marx and Engels, who had stripped the Hegelian philosophy of its idealist trappings to reveal its rational core, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. They were thus obliged to return to an earlier standpoint which had already been completely overtaken and surpassed.

The line of development of the British empiricist school founded by Bacon, Hobbes and Locke entered into a prolonged decline with Berkeley and Hume, eventually ending up in a complete blind alley. The attempt of J. S. Mill to revive it was merely a lifeless vulgarisation. The fundamental proposition of empiricism is: "I interpret the world through my senses." To this self-evident proposition, it is necessary to add: "the world exists independent of my senses."

The senses are ultimately the source of all human knowledge. Equally, it is the source of many errors. At its birth, empiricism represents a giant leap forward in human thought. It marked a rejection of the dictatorship of the Church over science, and the victory of the genuine scientific method, based on experiment and observation, as opposed to the stultifying idealism of the Schoolmen.

But this materialism remained incomplete and one-sided. Above all, it fell prey to the prevailing mechanistic mode of thinking. It is a paradox that the greatest advances in philosophy were made by idealist philosophers like Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant and, above all, Hegel. This contradiction was solved by Marx and Engels, combining for the first time dialectics with the scientific method of materialism.

To his credit, G. E. Moore tried to oppose not only Hegelian mysticism, but also the mysticism that inevitably arises from a one-sided empiricism. The example of Berkeley and Hume shows where this leads—to the morass of subjective idealism and solipsism (the idea that only "I" exist). In his paper The Nature of Judgment (1899), Moore argued for a theory of knowledge that accepts the existence of the physical world independent of the senses.

In his 1925 essay Defence of Common Sense, he says: "I had breakfast this morning, (therefore time exists) and I do have a pencil in my hand (therefore the external world exists)." While this is preferable to the mystical nonsense of Mach and Heisenberg, it is hardly satisfactory. Such superficial arguments do not carry philosophy a single step forward from the time when Diogenes the Cynic "proved" the existence of movement simply by walking up and down. Within certain limits, "common sense" can stand on its own. But beyond that, it breaks down utterly, and leads to even more serious mistakes. Let us not forget that "common sense" tells us that the world is flat, and the sun goes round the earth.

Try as we may, we cannot do without theoretical generalisations which take us far beyond the world immediately given in sense-perception. Moore’s attempts to combat metaphysics by appealing to the "beliefs of common sense" are quite empty from a philosophical point of view. Why appeal to these beliefs, rather than any other beliefs? What this amounts to is an appeal to the commonplaces and prejudices of the society in which we live. Thus, at the end of the day, we once again find ourselves stuck with an essentially subjective philosophy, and moreover, one that is firmly rooted in the status quo.

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