Hegel and the Overview Effect

25 September 2013


G. W. F. Hegel

G. W. F. Hegel

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.

Previously in An Illustration of the Truncation Principle I quoted a passage from the Annales school historian Marc Bloch:

“…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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Grand Strategy Annex

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Not long ago in The Prescriptive Fallacy I mentioned the obvious symmetry of the naturalistic fallacy (inferring “ought” from “is” ) and the moralistic fallacy (inferring “is” from “ought” ) and then went on to formulate several additional fallacies, as follows:

The Prescriptive Fallacy — the invalid inference from ought to will be
The Progressivist Fallacy — the invalid inference from will be to ought
The Golden Age Fallacy — the invalid inference from ought to was
The Primitivist Fallacy — the invalid inference from was to ought

The first two are concerned with the relationship between the future and what ought to be, while the second two are concerned with the relationship between the past and what ought to be.

While we can clearly make the fine distinctions that I drew in The Prescriptive Fallacy, when we consider these attitudes in detail we often find attitudes to the future mixed together so that there is no clear distinction between believing the future to be good because it is what will be, and believing the future will be what it will be because that is good. Similar attitudes are found in respect to both the past and the present.

Recognizing the common nexus of the prescriptive fallacy and the progressivist fallacy gives us a new fallacy, which I will call the Futurist Fallacy.

Recognizing the common nexus of the Golden Age fallacy and the Primitivist fallacy gives us a new fallacy that I will call the Nostalgic Fallacy.

Recognizing the common nexus of the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy (when we literally take the “is” in these formulations in a temporal sense, so that it uniquely picks out the present in contradistinction to the past or the future) gives us a new fallacy that I will call the Presentist Fallacy.

Hegel is now notorious for having said “the real is the rational and the rational is the real.”

These complex fallacies that result from projecting our wishes into the past or future and believing that the past or future simultaneously prescribe a norm in turn may be compared to the famous Hegelian formulation — from the point of view of contemporary philosophers, one of the most “notorious” things Hegel wrote, and frequently used as a philosophical cautionary tale today — that the real is the rational and the rational is the real.

Volumes of commentary have been written on Hegel’s impenetrable aphorism, and there are many interpretations. The best interpretation I have heard comes from understanding the “real” as the genuine, in which case, once we make a distinction between genuine instances of a given thing and bogus instances of a given thing, we are saying something significant when we say that the genuine is the rational and the rational is the genuine. The bogus, in contrast, is not convertible with the rational.

However we interpret Hegel, it was part of his metaphysics that there is a mutual implication between reality and reason. Hegel obviously didn’t see this as a fallacy, and I can just as well imagine someone asserting the convertibility of the future and the desirable or the past and the desirable is no fallacy at all, but rather a philosophical thesis or an ideological position that can be defended.

It remains to be noted that our formulations here and in The Prescriptive Fallacy assume without further elaboration the legitimacy of the is/ought distinction. The is/ought distinction is widely recognized in contemporary thought, but we could just as well deny it and make a principle of the mutual implication of is and ought, as Hegel made a principle of the mutual implication of the real and the rational.

Quine’s influence on twentieth century Anglo-American philosophical thought was not least due to his argument against the synthetic/analytic distinction, which was, before Quine, almost as well established as the is/ought distinction. A few well chosen examples can usually call into question even the most seemingly reliable distinction. Quine’s quasi-scientism had the effect of strengthening the is/ought distinction, but it came at the cost of questioning the venerable synthetic/analytic distinction. One could just as well do away with the is/ought distinction, though this would likely come at the cost of some other venerable principle. It becomes, at bottom, a question of principle.

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Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

An unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy

The Truncation Principle

An Illustration of the Truncation Principle

The Gangster’s Fallacy

The Prescriptive Fallacy

The fallacy of state-like expectations

The Moral Horror Fallacy

The Finality Fallacy

Fallacies: Past, Present, Future

Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology

Metaphysical Fallacies

Metaphysical Biases

Pernicious Metaphysics

Metaphysical Fallacies Again

An Inquiry into Cognitive Bias by way of Memoir

The Appeal to Embargoed Evidence

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Grand Strategy Annex

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An Exposition of Hegel

9 February 2010


Giving an exposition of Hegel's notoriously difficult philosophy is no small achievement. Hegel himself didn't do so well at communicating his own ideas.

As I am able to find them in the library, I have been listening through a series of lectures titled, “The Odyssey of the West”, published under the series The Modern Scholar, which is a collection of lectures on CD published by Recorded Books. In previous posts I have mentioned several of the courses that are part of The Modern Scholar series; all have been excellently produced and have been intellectually stimulating and satisfying.

I‘ve just finished listening to Part V of “Odyssey of the West”, subtitled, “Enlightenment, Revolution, and Renewal.” The whole “Odyssey of the West” series has been produced under the editorship of Professor Timothy B. Shutt of Kenyon College, and I notice that many of the lectures are his colleagues from Kenyon College.

Joel Richeimer

Lecture 11 of Part V is a lecture about Hegel given by Joel F. Richeimer, associate professor of philosophy at Kenyon College. This is, hands down, the best brief treatment of Hegel that I know of. I’ve listened through this lecture twice now, and I will probably listen to it a couple more times before I return this to the library. Within the compass of about a half hour it gives a sense of Hegel that is largely free of schematic oversimplifications. I heartily recommend this.

Another good treatment of Hegel is from Darren Staloff of the City College of New York. He recorded a wonderful series of lectures for The Teaching Company titled “The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophies, Theories and Interpretations of Human History.” This must be the only set of lectures devoted exclusively to the philosophy of history and available to the general public. Unfortunately, I suspect that the course was not too popular, as The Teaching Company has discontinued it. I own a copy of the lectures, and one of the cassettes became damaged. I wrote to The Teaching Company to request a replacement, and they told me that there were no replacements available because the course had been discontinued. It is a great course, and certainly better than many Teaching Company offerings that remain available.

Darren Staloff

Staloff also contributed a lecture on Hegel to The Teaching Company’s “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition.” I have listened to this also (though I don’t own it) and it is very similar to the Hegel lecture in Staloff’s no-longer-available “The Search for a Meaningful Past.” While I enjoy Staloff’s insights on the philosophy of history, his lecture on Hegel is nowhere nearly as good as Joel Richeimer’s lecture of Hegel, though, to be fair, Staloff is focused on Hegel’s philosophy of history while Richheimer is more concerned with an overview of Hegel’s thought, not even mentioning Hegel’s famous efforts on the philosophy of history.

Perhaps the best known portrait of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – 27 August 1770 to 14 November 1831.

I own a lot of Teaching Company courses because they are affordable. It is unfortunate that The Modern Scholar makes their courses so expensive, though I am deeply grateful to the library system for owning as many of them as they do. I will listen to Richeimer on Hegel, and I will probably check it out and listen to it again in the future to get all that I can out of it, just as I listen to my Teaching Company courses over and over again to get all the benefit out of them that I can.

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I’ve given another take on Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past in If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History…

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Idea of Empire

28 December 2009


To speak of empire today, or to describe anything as “imperial”, is to employ a turn of phrase that is highly tendentious and politically charged. In other words, the term has come to have a primarily emotive meaning. This is as much as to say that the idea of “empire” has become useless for anything except slander, and this is an unfortunate turn of events because the idea of empire has played a significant role in the history of Western civilization.

Western Roman Empire

I have just finished listening to The Decline and Fall of Rome, fourteen lectures by Professor Thomas Madden from the Modern Scholars series, and obviously indebted to Gibbon’s famous treatment of the theme. Madden focuses on the Western portion of the Roman Empire, so he only mentions the Byzantine continuation of the Roman Empire in passing. This allows Madden to concentrate to canonical historical issues of the decline and fall of Roman power in the West. I really enjoyed this historical review.

Augustus, the man who, more than any other, created the Roman Empire, but retained the fig leaf of Republican institutions.

The Roman Empire began in fiction and ended in fiction. By this I mean that when the Roman Republic effectively ended and Octavian became the first Augustus, he made this possible in part by pretending to maintain the forms of the Republic while replacing it with the actuality of imperial power concentrated in the hands of one man. For several generations this ruse was perpetuated, with Roman emperors allowing the Roman Senate to confer upon them an office that had no legal status within the law of the Roman Republic. Ultimately, the role of the emperor was codified into law (the emperor was officially above the law, by the way), and when the Roman Empire ended in the West the opposite fiction came into play. German kings of invading tribes called themselves Roman emperors. Indeed, Charlemagne had himself crowned Roman emperor, and throughout the Middle Ages there where Holy Roman Emperors (indeed, there were Holy Roman Emperors through the early modern period). It is ironic that medieval kings sought the status of Roman Emperor as an indicator of their legitimacy, since, as we have seen, the office of emperor originated outside the law.

Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800.

A week ago in Ideas Again I made a distinction between embodied ideas and abstract ideas. I could go on to make a further distinction between embodied universal ideas and embodied particular ideas. The idea of empire is a universal idea that has been embodied by many different political entities; the idea of the Roman Empire is an embodied particular idea that has only the Roman Empire as its embodiment, and this particular idea — the idea of the Roman Empire — has been so powerful in Western history that it has played an intellectual role out of proportion to any other conception of Empire. The Roman Empire for Western thought exemplifies empire itself. Medieval kings sought legitimacy by calling themselves Roman; they did not simply declare empire for empire’s sake, but appealed to the tradition of the Roman Empire in particular as a continuing influence in their world. In this sense, in the sense of continuing influence over our history, we are all of us Romans and all of us imperialists if only because our minds have been constituted in part by a long-defunct empire.

Hegel used to talk about something he called a “concrete universal.” I was never able to make sense of Hegel on this score, but now, in retrospect, it occurs to me that one way to explain Hegel’s concrete universal would be to characterize it as what I have called an embodied particular idea. Sometimes, in roundabout way such as this, by my own reasoning I come to a plausible interpretation of a concept that previously had escaped me.

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For more on the idea of empire see The Imperial Idea, its Imperfect Execution, and its Eventual Undoing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Challenge and Response

22 November 2008

Hegel or Popper? Dialectic or falsifiability? Pick your formulation.

Hegel or Popper? Dialectic or falsifiability? Pick your formulation for theory revision.

In Today’s Thought on Civilization I proposed a principle for the historical viability of civilizations (A civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes”), and in More on Republican Disarray I formulated a schema from this principle that was at once more general and generally applicable to particular circumstances (An x fails when it fails to change when the world changes”) and then applied it to the current woes of the Republican Party.

A philosophical principle always marks both a beginning and an ending. To arrive at a principle is already to have performed a significant act of abstraction that allows one to cut to the chase, conceptually speaking, and get to the meat of the matter. However, as soon as a principle is formulated, and one begins to work on applications of that principle, one immediately perceives its inadequacy, and the process of revision begins. We can describe this revision in terms of Hegel or in terms of Popper, as you prefer, though I don’t think Popper would have been pleased by his fungibility vis-à-vis Hegel (1).

In Hegelian terms, the process of revision is a dialectic: the initial insight, with its illuminating simplicity, finds itself confronted with the messiness of the actual world, its complex contradictory, as a result of that confrontation of the simple thesis with the complex antithesis, one arrives at a synthesis that is a more comprehensive conception than the initial insight. In Popperian terms, the process of revision has a structure like the logic of scientific research, in which a theory is formulated, tested, falsified by the test, and then revised in light of the results of the test so that it can be tested again. (I suppose I could also formulate a version of theory revision based on Quine’s “web of belief”, but I will leave it to the reader as a philosophical exercise.)

So I ought now to point out that my above enunciated principle ought to be amended to read, “An x fails when it fails to change as the world changes” (instead of “…when the world changes”). In other words, the kind of change an historical entity must undergo in order to remain historically viable must be in consonance with the change occurring in the world. This is, obviously, or rather would be, a very difficult matter to nail down in quantitative terms. My schema remains highly abstract and general, and thus glides over any number of difficulties vis-à-vis the real world. But the point here is that it is not so much a matter of merely changing in parallel with the changing world, but changing how the world changes, changing in the way that the world changes.

It becomes awkward to always write “my principle mentioned above”, so now I come to the point where I will give my aforementioned principle a name in order to identify it in the future and distinguish it from other principles: the principle of historical viability, or PHV. Not only can we apply my principle of historical viability to historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations, we could do the same with Toynbee’s schema of “challenge and response” (2) as the mechanism by which historical entities actually do conform themselves to the changes of the world. Indeed, the mechanism of challenge and response could be taken as one instance of the logic of time working itself out in history. (I say “one instance” because I can think of other ways in which the logic of time works itself out in history, but I will save this for later exposition.)

The title page of the unabridged first volume of Toynbee's A Study of History.

The title page of the unabridged first volume of Toynbee

Challenge and response is one of the central themes of Toynbee’s A Study of History. It might also be called the “Goldilocks Principle” (3), as the idea behind it is that a challenge to a civilization shouldn’t be “too hard” or “too soft”. Too much of a challenge can arrest the development of a people, or render them extinct, while too little of a challenge leaves a people soft and without ambition to improve their lot. A challenge that is just right, however, elicits a response from a people that advances their development, perhaps pushing them to develop a civilization if they do not yet have one, or raising their civilization to greater heights if they do have one.

I will abbreviate Toynbee’s “challenge and response mechanism” as “CRM” (not to be confused with “customer relationship management”). If this is a valid way of approaching the problem of history, Toynbee’s CRM then becomes a mechanism whereby the PHV functions, so that the former is subsumed under the latter more comprehensive principle.

In any case, all of the foregoing is to make the point that Toynbee’s CRM could be profitably applied to historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations, just as with the case of the PHV. If, then, we wished to continue the line of thought I began to develop in More on Republican Disarray, we could observe that a major electoral defeat tied to fundamental demographic changes constitutes a challenge to the Republican Party. Venerable political institutions like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have all faced challenges. The fact that they are still in existence demonstrates that their responses to past challenges have been effective. But a faltering institution, if faced with a significant challenge, may not possess the strength and vigor to effectively respond to a challenge, and that challenge then becomes not a spur to greater things, but a death knell.

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Note 1) Popper included a severe criticism of Hegel in his The Open Society and it Enemies. This was later criticized in turn in a devastating (to my mind) paper by Walter Kaufmann titled “The Hegel Myth and its Method” (collected in The Hegel Myths and Legends, edited by Jon Stewart).

Note 2) I have discovered through some Google searches that “challenge-response” is also a phrase used in computer systems for authentication, so if the reader is interested in researching this topic online, you will get more meaningful responses if you exclude terms like “spam”, “authentication”, and “password”, etc.

Note 3) The term “Goldilocks Principle” is I believe already used in SETI research to indicate the habitable zone around a star.

Note 4) Given my recent interest in Toynbee, I checked out from the library Toynbee’s Philosophy of World History and Politics, by Kenneth W. Thompson, and was reading this book this morning (Chapter VI) when the above recorded thoughts occured to me. It was my plan to compare Toynbee’s overall predictions for the West, made in the middle of the twentieth century, with the newly released Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, with its projections, simply as an intellectual exercise. I didn’t get far with this project, but I may return to it. I suspect that Toynbee, for all his faults, will be noticeably superior to this sort of speculation-by-committee.

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A Transformed World

Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World

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Grand Strategy Annex

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