There is a basic problem for us all, individually and as a total humanity. It is a problem that is approached from many angles, and each of us deals with it every day it our own way. Many academic subjects bore away at it in different ways. What I would like to do here is to introduce it, and give some background on approaches to the problem, especially in how it developed. This is a tough topic and I may not be the best guide to this topic, but I wanted to give it a stab. But I wanted to tell the philosophical history as I know it so far.
Western philosophy describes and introduces the problem, traditionally from a basic mental process, starting with (most famously) Descartes’ cognito ergo sum. I’ll spare you the play by play because the basic problem is this: human self awareness and consciousness. We apart of nature, in that we are part of the environment, we are a species on planet Earth, and we need food and shelter, and yet we are outcasts in Nature. We are not like, say ants or deer or fish who live their lives completely at one with nature. There is no angst, no ennui, no suicides, no wars in animal life. We are not gods, nor are we animals. We are a part of Nature, but not reducible too it. Humanity is the ultimate outcast, doomed to loneliness.
There is a further problem, in that a analytic philosopher will tell you that our ability to know the outside world or “the object” by us as “the subject” is flawed, and ultimately unreliable. Our senses are flawed and easily tricked. But further, the ‘input’ from our sense is also subject to our various mental processes (there are many different terms deployed by western philosophy to describe our mental ability to know and understand “the object” this is an area where neuroscience might actually produce some really meaningful answers on this point, thought a hardcore philosopher will tell you that we cannot ultimately know if that science is accurate as its correspondence to an objective truth); Kant uses the term ‘categories’ for example. It is easy to get bogged down in the lexicon and process of each of these philosophers.
So we could present the Problem as one of mediation between humanity and Nature. What is the proper, or what is the best or the true relationship here? You will be unsurprised to learn that each philosopher critiques the one before him, and has his own answer.
This is where the dialectic comes in. A dialectic, I think, is best understood as two opposing concepts, say Black and White. The idea is that when you have these two opposing opposites, when one investigates closer, one finds that they are really the same thing. I don’t mean Grey; I mean here they are really just aspects of light waves (absorption, really). This is a simplistic example. Hegel (top right), in investigating presupposition-less thought, the idea of “being” quickly slid into the idea of nothingness, or non-being. This is a dialectic. Hegel then observes that because when one thinks constantly about being and non-being, what really is happening is that one is thinking about ‘becoming’ as the one idea quickly slides into its opposite. ‘Becoming’ then is the synthesis.
Kant (top left), as the grandfather and starting point for pretty much all philosophy these days, I will not linger on (sorry; I just don’t know enough about it). But Hegel takes this idea of ‘becoming’ and the idea of dialects and works his way to the idea of Freedom as the ultimate destiny of the human race. I can’t help but joke that for Hegel, the ultimate realization and Freedom of humanity is when everyone realizes that we’re Hegelians (though this might be a joke you can use on all of ’em). This Freedom of Hegel’s is not physical or political, but rather a kind of existential, emotional, psychological Freedom. He sees a “Spirit” behind this, at work in and through human history, slowly working towards this Ultimate Freedom. I’m not really doing it justice, Hegel brings an emphasis on dialectics, and a sense of historical processes to philosophy.
Marx comes next, and he’s actually a bit easier to understand. For Marx, the idea of “Spirit” is a bit out there too; Marx is a strict materialist. This means that for him, economics, modes of production are everything, determining history, culture, art, religion, etc. The mediation between humanity and Nature is purely material (not a sort of historical Spirit working in and through us), says Marx.
Marx’s dialectical materialism was a huge advance in terms of intellectual understanding of human society, and it led to modern strides of sociology and anthropology, amongst others. Marx begins a sense of hidden structures to life and society; hidden forces at work below the surface which runs through many academic discourses today. By the 1920s, Communism was seen to have failed by Western intellectuals, leading to the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. I should mention here that each of these philosophers would be absolutely horrified by the way I, as well as everyone one else has interpreted their work. Marx (I bet you a million bucks) would have strongly divorced himself from the communism we know of. Anyway, his importance as an economist and intellectual quite massive, and I think he was important to steer a lot of philosophy away from more metaphysics like Hegel, etc…
I will be continuing in this vein in several subsequent posts, given time…