Notes on the Invention of the World

The principle of the modern world – thought and the universal – has given a higher form to valour, in that its expression seems to be more mechanical and not so much the deed of a particular person as that of a member of a whole.  It likewise appears to be directed not against individual persons, but against a hostile whole in general, so that personal courage appears impersonal.  This is why the principle of thought has invented the gun, and this invention, which did not come about by chance, has turned the purely personal form of valour into a more abstract form.

GWF Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §328 (addendum)

Allen W. Wood, editor of the Cambridge translation of Philosophy of Right, links the above passage to a precursor from around 15 years earlier, 1805-6, in Philosophy of the Real in Jena. While we can say that all of Hegel’s thought developed figuratively in the shadow of war and revolution, the city of Jena was literally, late during his residence there, the site of one of the most important battles of the Napoleonic Wars.  We can therefore imagine the dark clouds gathering, the battle thunder approaching, and the philosopher almost in the role of reporter.  It may help further to visualize how such battles were typically fought:  Nations mustered in representative corps; soldiers wearing uniforms designed to be seen, marching to drum beats, executing precise evolutions from one highly purposive formation to another, and holding position while preparing, giving, and accepting lethal fire.

Wrote Hegel, in Jena:

The military estate and war are the actual sacrifice of the self – the danger of death for the individual, his looking at his abstract immediate negativity, just as he is his immediate positive self… The end is the maintenance of the totality, against the enemy who is out to destroy it.  This externalization must have this same abstract form, must be without individuality – death, coldly received and given, not in a standing fight where each individual looks his opponent in the eye and kills him out of immediate hatred, but instead by giving and receiving death emptily, impersonally, out of the smoke of gunpowder.

We have previously discussed the implications of Hegel’s understanding of valor: We are unable to define the fate of the fallen soldier as less equally valid a realization of a life’s purpose than the fate of a regular civilian worked out on the longer but not necessarily more rewarding route to retirement and a quiet deathbed. We are encouraged in fact to hold the opposite view, and to accept “valor” not just as self-validating, but as definitional for a scheme of values, the highest ranking given to the sacrifice of one for the many, that latter as embodied in the nation, and this standard cannot be dismissed as merely ideological.  For Hegel and for us a category of the merely ideological may not even be tenable, since ideology is tied to a purpose, and any purpose to the whole, just as, for Hegel, the life of the individual is not separable from the life of the nation.  For the same reason evasion of duty does not merely symbolize but immediately equates with exclusion from communal life, even before active ostracization or criminal punishment. The “draft dodger” shows an incapacity for life in its collective dimension, whether through cowardice or commitment to some alternative community.  The inverted parallel of the evader’s predicament is that of the combat veteran suffering difficulties of adjustment. He may say, in the common phrase, that something in him died on the battlefield, but from another point of view his difficulty is that he lived too much there:  He lacks spare room for a civilian boarder. Those who have sacrificed for opposition to war may comprehend better than most the compulsion of the living to affirm, in what we call honor, so much having lived.

The other aspect of Hegel’s observations, this idea of inventions that arise to serve the re-configured needs of the  age, the nation, and the individual, and in so doing re-define those same needs, also implicates the rest of us, who only sit and wait.

* * *

A project aiming to update or discard Hegel’s philosophy of world history could begin at many other points, but this philosophy was in his view something he observed and recorded, not something he created as if from nowhere or its near-neighbor “creative inspiration”:  In that sense, Hegel’s philosophy of world history must itself be thought of as another one of these inventions called forth by inherent principle, at its proper time.  200 years later, it invites us, as citizens of this endlessly invented era, to make a new set of inquiries on the same basis, but this constant and accelerating self-invention and self-re-invention has left whole fields of debris in the way.  Rather than attempt to remove it all – a titanic and highly unlikely project – we seek our own path through the discards and fragments, often the leavings of prior expeditions, that have been piled up in our way, our simple objective merely being to bring the essentials in sight, on a shared horizon if not yet within reach.


An empiricist might ask whether a “principle of thought… invented the gun” or whether a set of living and breathing individuals, working with real materials across the world and over centuries, invented the gun.  We may hesitate before the numinous aura of some super- or trans-human entity conjuring what it needs as though from the ambient atmosphere, but we can also observe it very empirically sitting more comfortably in its original language, its original immediate context, and its larger philosophical context.  Right there, in ink on paper or in virtual ink on virtual paper the words say, over and over, and in every conceivable way, we refrain from setting aside a view toward the whole in favor of a particular that cannot be understood apart from it.  We refrain from pretending that the empirical description is in fact a comprehensive description, a whole truth.

* * *

A post-modernist might come against the comprehensive view from another direction, historicizing the historicist, arguing against any presumption that what Hegel thought of as “thought” could be “universal,” could be part of a comprehensive historical movement in a single direction, but such an argument would make sense only under a set of contradictory presumptions, the same presumptions that inform the original statement. The plural-realist or perspectivist thought (or anti-thought) can never be understood as generally valid except by reference to a standard that would govern the truth and consistency of all such assertions.  This problem has always stood in the way of taking the “post-modernist insight” seriously:  If it means what it is meant to mean, then it is at best provisional, and otherwise meaningless.  As in the manner of classical skepticism and its diverse nihilist and subjectivist variants, if it happens to respond to our interrogations on behalf of the whole, it does so without recognizing their legitimacy, as if randomly.  It has no basis on its own terms to seek our consideration or consent, and its carelessness in regard to us is sooner or later reflected back.  It has already dispensed with itself.


What we today call empiricism and post-modernism – pursue here as rationalism or realism or hard science; there as multi-culturalism, deconstruction, or the wisdom of the East; there again as a return of common sense – had all been thought through long ago, long before Hegel got to work.  Such novelty as there was in his work was intended to recapitulate a new moment in history:  To whatever extent it emerged newly from within the man, it could only have been conditioned outside and prior to the man.  He already knew that the outside was the inside, and that after is before, and that he was not the first to understand as much or say so.  It makes exactly as much sense to say that he was conscious of himself as the last man to come to this realization, and that being last on the scene is alone what enabled him to put the case forward, everyone else being preoccupied, dealing with having gotten there ahead of him.

* * *

We can proceed under the sign of the modern as Hegel defines it –  thought and the universal – and, rather than fear or set out to locate or manufacture “new ideas,” we can instead restrict ourselves to re-arrangements of pre-existing elements – and such a process seems to be what that vaguely numinous passage about the gun also takes in view:   How history and experience, but also subject and substance, but also idea and object, determine, re-configure, fulfill, and realize each other.  In the event that anything new in any essential sense happens to arise in such an  investigation, it could only do so as a property of what is being examined.  A novelty of any other form – especially any self-promoting “creative innovation” – will rightly awaken our suspicions of fraud.


We cannot meaningfully question the usefulness of an investigation under the sign of the universal and under the principle of thought:  Such a question, even put forward as a protest and broken off, already proposes and begins to enact its own investigation of the same type, under the identical presumptions.  It is in that sense already implicit within that same investigation.  If this supposedly second or alternative question, of a theoretical investigation of the usefulness or meaning of such an investigation, could lead to an affirmative result, if investigations of the universal under the principle of thought were somehow to be “proven” useful, then we could have confidently proceeded with the initially proposed investigation anyway.  If such investigation could be proven to be of no use, then there would be no basis for asking the question, much less for lodging a protest, since both would already presume a negative form of usefulness, the  example of what is to be avoided, and thus as well of a positive project, calling forth the entirety all over again.

Leaving such idle play to “those back home,” thought marches to the field, assumes its position, and takes aim.  Though for all appearances the thinker is perfectly safe, the universal thought remains the counterpart to the soldier’s universal act, but only if it also risks everything.

37 comments on “Notes on the Invention of the World

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  1. The main prejudice I sense has to do with purposefulness. In every way, playfulness is equal to purposefulness. You express a wonderful awareness of that with your video posts and general humor. You also certainly understand purposefulness and are equally skilled at purposeful expression. So I blame Hegel here. There’s a failure where dialectics are concerned. Championing purposefulness, he lost the True. There is nothing True without playfulness. Both things can be expressed at the same time, and I think an awareness of playfulness’ value might lead to an understanding of how valor can’t really be valiant without both things being expressed. A soldier dying for the universal takes things too seriously. Something is missing from the mix. Country Joe and the Fish having the guts to get up and sing their famous anti-war song uses the guitar and the human voice in a way that expresses valor much more completely than the one Hegel credits to gun usage.

  2. @ bob:
    considering what happened to Kennedy, and the greater percentage of presidents (and dictators) who are killed than soldiers, your example may not be as far off as you may have intended. Most of us are I think happy not to have Oswalds, Hinckleys, and aspirants to power gunning for us.

    @ Scott Miller:
    Like many critics of Hegel, you mistake his critical explication of the material as he found it for advocacy. Like some who criticize what you perceive to be his purposes, you throw up a counter-purpose that you merely refrain through a trick of language to characterize as such. Championing play, through advocacy of playfulness seeking to defeat the purpose of purposefulness, is just the kind of self-contradiction that I was referring to under the more general category of post-modernism and skepticism. You are either in the discussion – thrown into the world (and the play) of purposes – or deflecting the discussion with an absurdity. The latter position is bad faith itself – like showing up to one of your yoga classes with a boombox and a beer keg, and calling the party your style of Hatha Yoga. Would get old fast, I suspect.

    When you assert playfulness, you assert purposefulness. Each pre-supposes the other. That’s not Hegel’s fault.

  3. bob wrote:

    So the more abstract valor is, the higher is it’s form.

    Also, I’m not sure that he said that, though, depending on how you define the various terms, I’m also not sure that it’s wrong: Sacrificing oneself to save the entire human race would be both more abstract and arguably “higher” than sacrificing oneself to save your child. Very few of us – possibly only one person per species, if that – are face with the former opportunity.

  4. Well Kennedy was killed for basically fullfilling his policy goals, and Kruschev was removed for failing at his. Which left the old guard
    apparatchik, Brezhnev, and the beginning of the real stagnation of
    the Soviet system, which carried through to Andropov and Chernenko,
    Gorbachev tried to resurrect the system, but failed at that goal. Because the system can’t be salvaged. Yeltsin tried to clean house,
    in some ways, but the system stagnated in it’s own way. The answer
    found among the oprichniki, of old was Putin, the czar in all but crown.

  5. bob wrote:

    The height of valor, then.

    Interesting to analyze in these terms. I may use that illustration for a piece I have planned examining how the atomic bomb brings the age of the gun and the age of the nation-state (the same age, as per my Hegelian example here) as world-historical engines to a close (these notes were mainly the spillover from that piece).

  6. @ CK MacLeod:
    Hegel set up the example. I find the example wildly assertive. He’s doing what you accuse me of doing. The advocacy is clear. He champions purposefulness by coming up with the idea that something is being “turned into valour.” He’s not just calling them as he sees them. He’s projecting something onto something.
    CK MacLeod wrote:

    you throw up a counter-purpose that you merely refrain through a trick of language to characterize as such

    Again, so does Hegel, and so do you here. That’s my point. Without a counterbalancing amount of playfulness, all we ever get is “counter-purpose.” There’s nothing wrong with purposefulness. The problem is when it isn’t balanced out with playfulness. Country Joe had a purpose. He expressed the purpose, but at the same time realized a state of playfulness. Your “keg” example is also an example of what psychologists refer to as “borderline” thinking. It fails to see the middle, where dynamic dualism takes place. You don’t bring a keg of beer into class and call it playfulness. Obviously, a keg is brought in as a counter-purpose to the class. There’s no real playfulness to it. There’s only counter-purpose. If someone brings real playfulness into the class, it balance the purposefulness and can be expressive of valor. Country Joe expressed a counter-purpose, but not just that. He expressed playfulness as well and because of the dynamic dualism of that, he managed to create an expression that became universally powerful.

  7. Scott Miller wrote:

    Hegel set up the example.

    No, Napoleon and all of the others set up the example, and in a way that Hegel, who eventually had to leave town carefully guarding his papers, was made aware of. I find his willingness to think through to a principle of thought rather than just an escape route wonderfully playful and purposeful.

    I don’t have anything to say for or against Country Joe, but your insistence on his example strikes me as more expressive of your bias – that is, your insistent overarching purposes – than of an example for or against any particular thesis of mine.

    The beer keg example is about unacknowledged self-contradictions. Now you advocate dynamic dualism and finding the middle, but in a way that comes across to me as dismissive and pitched to one side. You’re advocating “rolling with it” while refusing to roll with it. Now, if you just wanted to role with it, I can understand that, but I think it could be more playful and dynamic, and therefore more purposeful, too.

  8. @ CK MacLeod:

    AT least part of my point is that nuclear weapons are today’s Hegelian guns. So even with the (valorious) motivation to save the nation, the world, the universe (more and more abstract) we increase, as abstraction and valor increase, the likelhood of annihilating the nation, the world the universe.

  9. bob wrote:

    So even with the (valorious) motivation to save the nation, the world, the universe (more and more abstract) we increase, as abstraction and valor increase, the likelhood of annihilating the nation, the world the universe


  10. Actually the problem occurred with the Soviet acquisition of the bomb in 1949, that created the balance of terror, which exploded exponentially, ironically that did usher in the space age with Korolyev
    on one end, and Von Braun on the other, it did limit major conflicts to brushfires, like Vietnam and Afghanistan, Cuba, Hungary, all fell into
    the maw on that circumstance

  11. @ bob:
    I agree with you, though it’s not just the atom bomb. However, you could also say that the possibility/likelihood of annihilating the nation, the world, the universe was always inherent. As the prospect draws closer, the call for an even higher abstraction – or for the forms of a world/universal state – grows louder and more irresistible. I don’t want to pre-empt the other piece too much, though I’m glad to see the discussion already moving towards it. The totalism of denial that Hegel wrongly or rightly equated with the East, Buddhism as well as Islam, may play a major role here, and arguably already is: Mr. Miller, for example, the playful Yogi peacenik negates (or in Hegelian terms sublates) American nationalism as pacifistic transnationalism – perhaps incompletely or primitively (I think Scott would happily confess not to having all the answers yet, in the sense of having a way actually to bring all of the answers to everyone who needs them). If I observe fatalistically that a new higher freedom, collective satori if that’s the right word, is required, but that the human material may work that out in material forms that are meaningful to them, but ugly to Scott, that’s not the same as advocating things go that way, take those material forms – war, terror, risk, conflict, danger, etc. Also, when I say “world state,” I’m not saying “world government,” though I’m also not excluding it.

    Now please be kind to me as I”m typing with a hand tied behind my back – on a borrowed laptop on a bad connection, my regular modem having up and died this afternoon…

  12. I know the feeling, I had to switch between laptop and blackberry around this time last year, something I picked up at Hot Air or Politico,
    now Orwell predicted this state of events, one year before the Soviets
    detonated their bomb, he cribbed off James Burnham, but the Malabar
    front, just one of the overlapping spheres of influence, was not unlike
    many of the conflicts in the cold war, Kennedy didn’t really proceed with the Bay of Pigs, because he feared a confrontation in Berlin, Brendan Dubois’s ‘Resurrection Day’ takes that notion to it’s logical conclusion in it’s alt apocalyptic tale

  13. And please feel free to aim fire from your formation at mine. But also, since H gets such bad press, I want to bend over backwards and also point out that the observation on the gun is an addendum to paragraph 328 of a late major work, and the precursor in the Jena philosophy of the real was also just one small piece of a larger work. Both were works directly concerned with philosophy in the world: “philosophy of the real” and “philosophy of right (rights/law/state).” I seized upon the gun because it was to me such an interesting “jar in Tennessee” – articulating and coordinating the relationships between different orders and events. If you’re going to shoot a messenger, shoot me.

  14. @ CK MacLeod:
    I surmised all that. It’s why I took it easy to begin with. The “dismissiveness” you felt actually may have stemmed from that passivity. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of one little quote and I liked what Fuster did with it (especially since the last time Hegel came up, he really was dismissive). So I was juggling a lot of positions at once. Plus, I have second-hand Hegelian appreciation due to Ken Wilber. He combined Hegel and Buddhism successfully, and while my pushing of the Purposefulness-Playfulness duality didn’t go so well, that way of addressing reality comes from Wilber’s Hegelian ideas. Hence, I have no interest in shooting you. On the contrary, I want to help you help your dead friend with his project. I think it connects with my dead friend Ken Kesey’s project. Kesey didn’t protest Vietnam because he thought protesting was just a counter-purpose too relatable to the original purpose. He, therefore, took up playfulness describable as merry-pranksterism.

  15. @ Scott Miller:
    Hold everything! How weird. I thought Fuster wrote the original post. Jesus. The avatar didn’t come up originally, and I got it in my head that Fuster had written the post. So sorry. Wow. What a mix-up. I just noticed this. Then your computer problem probably kept you from noticing my original confusion. Oh, well. That was probably good.

  16. The Highlander is the Hegel enthusiast, Lagushka is the odd bits from
    the Near East one, Scott you’re sui generis

  17. iCK MacLeod wrote:

    Only you could have posted it.

    Nobody likes a smart-aleck. And no I didn’t put the i before your name there on purpose. But it’s perfect. iCK. Icky.

  18. @ Scott Miller:
    I’m a friend of the frogs, of the itsy bitsy frogs and the flying frogs and kamikaze frogs and the raining frogs and of Frog above us all, and even of the rigid frogs, though I admit that the newt swamp gave me pause and the frogballs are a bit much for me. But I’m learning.

  19. @ CK MacLeod:
    I thought you were smart-aleckily pointing out that anyone could post the frog picture by posting it again yourself. Doesn’t matter because what I wrote isn’t true. Some people do like smart-alecks. Actually, being one myself, I like smart-alecks.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Notes on the Invention of the World"
  1. […] When the “principle of thought” – and “not by chance” –  “inven…, the line of development traced in Hegel’s passage on the mechanization and distantiation of valor reached a self-contradictory, self-immolating conclusion. The eclipse of the gun as engine of world-history took place as a hyper-extension of the gun:  “Little Boy” housed a miniaturized cannon and firing range, with atoms of U-235 as ammunition. […]

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