On appreciating systems

by Charlie Huenemann

Kant-hegel-comicHow wonderful it would be to be a systematic thinker! One marvels at the Aristotles, the Aquinases, the Descarteses, the Kants, and the Hegels and the Marxes (well, the Karl Marxes anyway), the Freuds – those who know how to approach anything, how to incorporate any material into a systematic empire, those who can see the universe as fulfillments of their own plans. It may sound like I am satirizing them, but I really do admire them: I admire their imagination, their enthusiasm, and their persistence. Chiefly I admire their ability to take their own thought so seriously, since every time I have tried to construct a system, it turns into fits of giggles.

What causes such a mindset? Let us first see if we can discern its preconditions – those elements necessary for the possibility of system-building, as it were. One must first be convinced that reality, or human experience, is coherent – a big assumption, granted, but absolutely required for a system. And the coherence must be intelligible to a finite human mind, and specifically the specific mind of the specific system-builder. One must further believe that the coherent, intelligible world order has a kind of hierarchy that allows for some parts of it to be more basic, more foundational, or more universal than others. For the system builder is not so deluded as to believe that all of the facts can be fit within a single head: only the organizing principles need be grasped and kept forever in one’s mental field of vision.

That the world is a coherent, intelligible hierarchy – this much at least must be believed by any would-be builder of a system. But no one is going to leave it at that! To harbor that belief is to have the ambition to explain the hierarchy, and propound it to oneself and to the world. I’d say the belief and the ambition go hand in hand – but then again, if anyone has ever had the belief without the ambition, we probably would not have heard of them. Oh yes, a final thing: the system has to be new, if we are dealing with a genuine builder, and not a worker bee.

What on earth could cause anyone to believe in a coherent and intelligible hierarchy in the elements of human experience? Beats me. It’s tempting to attempt a psycho-socio-historical reduction, claiming that the system builders had overly dominant father figures – or lacked them – or lived in overly regimented times – or overly chaotic ones – but you can see already why these explanations might be less than compelling. It’s also tempting to be cynical, and explain the foundational belief in terms of self-interested, instrumental thinking: “If you wanna make a big name for yourself in this philosophical game, kid, you’re gonna need a system, so get cracking!” You might get a sort of slim Seven Habits of Reality out of such make-believe, but never Hegel’s Logic. The system builder is a true believer.

I find myself assuming that system builders are just born that way, which is not really any kind of explanation. Maybe some people just can’t help but see the world as a system they can know and articulate, and it haunts their minds in the same way a tune keeps playing in a composer’s head until the thing gets written out and delivered into the world. Maybe the ability and ambition to explain a system of the world is at root a kind of aesthetic inspiration, and we really ought to see the great philosophical systems as works of art: the portraits and symphonies of being, fashioned with arguments rather than colors and motifs.

This is in fact how I end up viewing the great philosophical systems. In my classes, once my students and I get worked up into an excited buzz over (say) Fichte, none of us dares to stop and ask “But is it true?” It would be like asking “Did Mona Lisa really look like that?” Who cares! The thing is, this is a beautiful and powerful system, and, yes, a human being can see the world this way, and it’s a breathtaking view. I like to tell them that you haven’t really understood a philosopher until you have been, for at least a moment, a total convert, a true believer yourself.

And this in turn, if true, would explain why the “progress” in the history of philosophy more closely resembles the progress in the arts than it does the progress in the sciences. (Hold on! I’m getting pretty excited now!) Understanding the history of the arts helps us to see where individual artists are coming from, how they are responding to the past, incorporating or rejecting various elements, styles, and themes, and how out of the clutter of history they manage to construct something new and captivating. It’s not a matter of seeing how the paintings are just getting better and better; it is a matter of seeing their inherent power with the right lenses. Similarly, philosophical systems arise out of the past in new and unpredictable ways, presenting new systems that challenge and may even inspire us in ways their predecessors didn’t. Their power is not in their truth so much as in their expression of truth, if you get what I mean.

I suspect that the great system builders would rise up in a chorus against me. “We are not just making philosophical art!” they protest. “We are telling you what must be true! Take us seriously!” I love it when they say that. For, again, a system builder must be a true believer. You cannot set out writing the Critique of Pure Reason thinking that you are “merely” creating a work of art – you really have to believe you are carving nature at its joints. But I regard this as in effect a kind of heuristic: when building a philosophical system, you have to believe that you are declaring the truth in order to produce something that is best appraised by the rest of us not as a declaration of truth, but as a work of art. For this reason, I hope that any would-be system builders remain totally unconvinced by anything I say in this regard. It would give me less to appreciate.