dietrich von hildebrand Hegel

Is Philosophy Revolutionary?

11:40:00 AMAlexander S. Anderson

Is philosophy revolutionary? Or, more accurately, should philosophy be revolutionary? I’m not asking if philosophy is intrinsically on the far left politically; I’m asking how much philosophy is (or should be) involved in re-making the world. 

At least one great philosopher, GWF Hegel, claimed it could not—that philosophy is only descriptive.

"One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it... When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly." (1) 

An opposing view is provided by Karl Marx, something of a Hegelian himself. "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." (2) For Marx, the descriptive truth of a philosophy was almost beside the point. Philosophy was a tool to effect social change, or it was nothing.

Reading the philosophy of these two men, it’s quite easy to get the opposite impression. In Hegel’s dialectical world, history is pushed forward by ideas which are played out in the concrete by the people enacting history. In contrast, history is driven forward by material conditions in Marx’s world, and thought arises from these (often unrecognized) material conditions. 

I’m thinking about what ways philosophy might be considered revolutionary as I read The Far Reaches, Michael Gubser’s book on the impact of phenomenology on social thought in central Europe in the 20th Century. Gubser challenges the common claim that phenomenology is closed off and academic, unable to deal with social questions. 

On the contrary, Gubser shows that Husserl’s philosophy had much to say about the social and ethical, and that this is better exemplified in his followers like Max Scheler, Edith Stein and Karol Wojtiła than in his more recognizable followers such as Heidegger and Sartre. 

Specifically, Gubser names Dietrich von Hildebrand as the first to implement the social implications of phenomenology in a practical way:

To this point, we have seen that phenomenological interest in ethical and social themes coincided with the birth of the movement itself. Outside of the war writings of Scheler and Husserl, however, these were largely academic, accompanied largely by impotent hand-wringing about modern despair. When it came to practical concerns like choosing values or acting morally in a world of ethical disharmony—not to mention political action—phenomenology came up short of guidance… Hildebrand was the first really to mobilize it in the service of activism. (3)

Gubser continues telling the story of Hildebrand’s defiance of the Third Reich and his move to Austria, where he would write against the Nazi ideology. “Most obviously, he defended the existence of a Christian-cum-Schelerian ‘hierarchy of goods’ that National Socialists rejected in favor of ‘blood materialism.’ The Nazi ‘heresy’ elevated the vital over the spiritual, degrading the person to a ‘mere function of blood and race’ and denying the value-richness that phenomenology revealed.” (4)

Like Hildebrand, phenomenologists sought to return to the roots of the European culture in order to combat the totalitarianism and atomism of the modern age. “[I]ts proponents celebrated the Ancient Greek bequest of philosophical self-questioning as Europe’s defining innovation, and they decried European modernity as an era of perpetual crisis induced by scientific fragmentation, relativism, and subjectivism.” (5)

The whole story of Hildebrand’s defiance of the Nazis can be read in his own words in his memoirs, My Battle Against Hitler, and it provides, I think, a stark contrast to the Hegelian and Marxist models of philosophy’s engagement with politics. Instead of philosophical truth being in time and judged by it, Hildebrand is able to draw on a philosophical truth beyond time to judge the Nazis. How he applies this concretely, and what that means to us is something I will get to next week.


Alexander Anderson 

Dietrich von Hildebrand's thought, like the philosophy of the Catholic Worker movement, is deeply rooted in personalism.  It's this aspect that drew me to philosophy.  Hildebrand understands deeply that philosophy begins in wonder, which is something rather important to me.  



(1) GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right, “Preface” 
(2) Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, Eleventh Thesis.
(3) Michael Gubser, The Far Reaches, p. 105.
(4) Gubser, Far Reaches, 110.
(5) Gubser, Far Reaches, 13.

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