There hasn’t been much activity on this blog all month, mainly because I’ve been involved in a few things and haven’t had the time to update as frequently as I used to. At the moment my time is being taken up by a couple of unrelated projects.
For one, I’m participating in a reading group of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Brecht Forum. In these weekly sessions we work through one of the most notoriously difficult texts in the history of Western philosophy. The Phenomenology is dense, full of unusual terminology, and probably makes more sense when understood as within the larger context of Hegel’s entire philosophical system. Although the seminar started off a bit slow, with the first two sessions being more general discussions of the emergence of humanism, modern philosophy, and positivism as the attempt of bourgeois society to understand its new place in the world, in the last few classes we have done a fairly close reading of the text and so far it’s been very worthwhile. While this class is meant more as a basic introduction to the book and to Hegel’s philosophy rather than an in-depth analysis, it has provided me with some great insights on his arguments about the nature of knowledge and consciousness as it interacts with the world. In the last session we worked through the famous chapter on the Master/Slave dialectic – a moment in the emergence of self-consciousness wonderfully captured by Hegel. I previously read sections of the book, but now feel like I didn’t really penetrate into the heart of its argument – much less so, for example, than with his Philosophy of History (on which I wrote my senior thesis as an undergrad) or the Philosophy of Right. As a result, I’m working through the book very slowly, reading each paragraph and the commentary by J.N. Findlay (using the standard A.V. Miller translation) and taking notes throughout.
The other thing that I’ve been working on (at a slower pace than I’d like) is a study of George Orwell, the patron saint of some on the modern Left. Today, Orwell has become somewhat of a mythical figure for liberals, socialists, and neoconservatives alike. People admire his frank, no-nonsense style of writing, and his passionate beliefs and willingness to defend the causes he identified with (what he actually identified with, and whether there was any consistency to it, is an entirely different matter). Still, I feel like there’s a case to be made that Orwell’s legacy now entirely overshadows the substance of his work. As I read more and more of his books and essays, I can’t help but feel that I’m reading the thoughts of an insightful but ultimately confused man. While I think Orwell was more of a literary master than he gets credit for, I’m less impressed with his opinions on the politics of his time, which too often give off the impression of an impatient man too intent on taking things “as they really were” and therefore reluctant to think deeply about the political problems he witnessed during the most tumultuous decades of the past century. The strain of conservatism in his opinions (his diatribes against homosexuals and “fruit juice drinking” socialists, his unwillingness to see patriotism as related to the nationalism he criticized, and his blatantly racist colonial writings) can certainly be attributed to a man being a product of his times; but I think not entirely. The fact that those on the interventionist liberal “Left” (Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, etc) have spent the last decade admiring him as an anti-fascist crusader and a paragon of what real socialism should be makes a reevaluation of Orwell an important task. I don’t know yet what form this project will take; at the moment I have written excerpts on Orwell’s colonial experience, his views on nationalism and patriotism, and his influence on modern liberal hawks. However, a single overarching argument is still not entirely formed.