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Fr. 385

September 5, 2013

In the short text “Who Thinks Abstractly”, published in the same year as his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel presents the case of a murder as an instance of abstract or unmediated thought. (Indeed, it should be noted that Hegel never presents the dialectic as thesis, antithesis and synthesis, but instead as the moments of the abstract, mediated and concrete.) Of this example, Hegel writes:

“A murderer is led to the place of execution. For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer. Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man. The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome? How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better! This is the corruption of morals that is prevalent in the upper classes, a priest may add, knowing the bottom of things and human hearts.

One who knows men traces the development of the criminal’s mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer! After all I remember how in my youth I heard a mayor lament that writers of books were going too far and sought to extirpate Christianity and righteousness altogether; somebody had written a defense of suicide; terrible, really too terrible! — Further questions revealed that The Sufferings of Werther [by Goethe, 1774] were meant.

This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.”

In short, of the crowd assembled before the murderer’s execution, it can only be said that it sees a symbol in this person or, more precisely, rather than this person and no longer the person as such. In other words, the person here loses depth and is reduced to one mere aspect of trait of his or her wider character; the mediation of diverse influences within this person is thus lost to sight.

Hegel’s example of abstract thinking here maps quite well on to certain entrenched debates in political discussion today where opponents invoke abstract political identities on the behalf of each as well as themselves so as to dismiss out of hand the other. Such tags as “conservative” and “liberal”, “fundamentalist” and “leftist” do away with the need to come to an understanding of the interplay and mingling of diverse influences and sources at work in the individual so that this might be reduced to a single static aspect. It is thus that a multi-layered, properly complicated model of political and personal identity, integrating both individuality and subjectivity, might hope to correct this situation and reinstate a form of mediation unknown to the present. For the implementation and process of this model, much will be required in the way of open dialogue, patience, time and empathy.

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