Hegel and the Overview Effect
25 September 2013
Hegel is not remembered as the clearest of philosophical writers, and certainly not the shortest, but among his massive, literally encyclopedic volumes Hegel also left us one very short gem of an essay, “Who Thinks Abstractly?” that communicates one of the most interesting ideas from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. The idea is simple but counter-intuitive: we assume that knowledgeable individuals employ more abstractions, while the common run of men content themselves with simple, concrete ideas and statements. Hegel makes that point that the simplest ideas and terms that tend to be used by the least knowledgeable among us also tend to be the most abstract, and that as a person gains knowledge of some aspect of the world the abstraction of a terms like “tree” or “chair” or “cat” take on concrete immediacy, previous generalities are replaced by details and specificity, and one’s perspective becomes less abstract. (I wrote about this previously in Spots Upon the Sun.)
We can go beyond Hegel himself by asking a perfectly Hegelian question: who thinks abstractly about history? The equally obvious Hegelian response would be that the historian speaks the most concretely about history, and it must be those who are least knowledgeable about history who speak and think the most abstractly about history.
“…it is difficult to imagine that any of the sciences could treat time as a mere abstraction. Yet, for a great number of those who, for their own purposes, chop it up into arbitrary homogenous segments, time is nothing more than a measurement. In contrast, historical time is a concrete and living reality with an irreversible onward rush… this real time is, in essence, a continuum. It is also perpetual change. The great problems of historical inquiry derive from the antithesis of these two attributes. There is one problem especially, which raises the very raison d’être of our studies. Let us assume two consecutive periods taken out of the uninterrupted sequence of the ages. To what extent does the connection which the flow of time sets between them predominate, or fail to predominate, over the differences born out of the same flow?”
Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, translated by Peter Putnam, New York: Vintage, 1953, Chapter I, sec. 3, “Historical Time,” pp. 27-29
The abstraction of historical thought implicit in Hegel and explicit in Marc Bloch is, I think, more of a problem that we commonly realize. Once we look at the problem through Hegelian spectacles, it becomes obvious that most of us think abstractly about history without realizing how abstract our historical thought is. We talk in general terms about history and historical events because we lack the knowledge to speak in detail about exactly what happened.
Why should it be any kind of problem at all that we think abstractly about history? People say that the past is dead, and that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Why not forget about history and get on with the business of the present? All of this sounds superficially reasonable, but it is dangerously misleading.
Abstract thinking about history creates the conditions under which the events of contemporary history — that is to say, current events — are conceived abstractly despite our manifold opportunities for concrete and immediate experience of the present. This is precisely Hegel’s point in “Who Thinks Abstractly?” when he invites the reader to consider the humanity of the condemned man who is easily dismissed as a murderer, a criminal, or a miscreant. But we not only think in such abstract terms of local events, but also if not especially in regard to distant events, and large events that we cannot experience personally, so that massacres and famines and atrocities are mere massacres, mere famines, and mere atrocities because they are never truly real for us.
There is an important exception to all this abstraction, and it is the exception that shapes us: one always experiences the events of one’s own life with concrete immediacy, and it is the concreteness of personal experience contrasted to the abstractness of everything else not immediately experienced that is behind much (if not all) egocentrism and solipsism.
Thus while it is entirely possible to view the sorrows and reversals of others as abstractions, it is almost impossible to view one’s own sorrows and reversals in life as abstractions, and as a result of the contrast between our own vividly experienced pain and the abstract idea of pain in the life of another we have a very different idea of all that takes place in the world outside our experience as compared to the small slice of life we experience personally. This observation has been made in another context by Elaine Scarry, who in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World rightly observed that one’s own pain is a paradigm of certain knowledge, while the pain of another is a paradigm of doubt.
Well, this is exactly why we need to make the effort to see the big picture, because the small picture of one’s own life distorts the world so severely. But given our bias in perception, and the unavoidable point of view that our own embodied experience gives to us, is this even possible? Hegel tried to arrive at the big picture by seeing history whole. In my post The Epistemic Overview Effect I called this the “overview effect in time” (without referencing Hegel).
Another way to rise above one’s anthropic and individualist bias is the overview effect itself: seeing the planet whole. Frank White, who literally wrote the book on the overview effect, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, commented on my post in which I discussed the overview effect in time and suggested that I look up his other book, The Ice Chronicles, which discusses the overview effect in time.
I have since obtained a copy of this book, and here are some representative passages that touch on the overview effect in relation to planetary science and especially glaciology:
“In the past thirty-five years, we have grown increasingly fascinated with our home planet, the Earth. What once was ‘the world’ has been revealed to us as a small planet, a finite sphere floating in a vast, perhaps infinite, universe. This new spatial consciousness emerged with the initial trips into Low Earth Orbit…, and to the moon. After the Apollo lunar missions, humans began to understand that the Earth is an interconnected unity, where all things are related to one another, and there what happens on one part of the planet affects the whole system. We also saw that the Earth is a kind of oasis, a place hospitable to life in a cosmos that may not support living systems, as we know them, anywhere else. This is the experience that has come to be called ‘The Overview Effect’.”
Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 15
“The view of the whole Earth serves as a natural symbol for the environmental movement. it leaves us unable to ignore the reality that we are living on a finite ‘planet,’ and not a limitless ‘world.’ That planet is, in the words of another astronaut, a lifeboat in a hostile space, and all living things are riding in it together. This realization formed the essential foundation of an emerging environmental awareness. The renewed attention on the Earth that grew out of these early space flights also contributed to an intensified interest in both weather and climate.”
Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 20
“Making the right choices transcends the short-term perspectives produced by human political and economic considerations; the long-term habitability of our home planet is at stake. In the end, we return to the insights brought to us by our astronauts and cosmonauts as the took humanity’s first steps in the universe: We live in a small, beautiful oasis floating through a vast and mysterious cosmos. We are the stewards of this ‘good Earth,’ and it is up to us to learn how to take good care of her.”
Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2002, p. 214
It is interesting to note in this connection that glaciology yielded one of the earliest forms of scientific dating techniques, which is varve chronology, originating in Sweden in the nineteenth century. Varve chronology dates sedimentary layers by the annual layers of alternating coarse and fine sediments from glacial runoff — making it something like dendrochronology, except for ice instead of trees.
Scientific historiography can give us a taste of the overview effect, though considerable effort is required to acquire the knowledge, and it is not likely to have the visceral impact of seeing the overview effect with your own eyes. Even an idealistic philosophy like that of Hegel, as profoundly different as this is from the empiricism of scientific historiography, can give a taste of the overview effect by making the effort to see history whole and therefore to see ourselves within history, as a part of an ongoing process. Probably the scientists of classical antiquity would have been delighted by the overview effect, if only they had had the opportunity to experience it. Certainly they had an inkling of it when they proved that the Earth is spherical.
There are many paths to the overview effect; we need to widen these paths even as we blaze new trails, so that the understanding of the planet as a finite and vulnerable whole is not merely an abstract item of knowledge, but also an immediately experienced reality.
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