The Dangers of Philosophy

Picking a book off the shelf I walk out into the rain, the ink, my thoughts, the pages dissolving into water and transparency…   The girlfriend calls out.  The neighbours look askance.  A stranger rushes by; he thinks I’m posting leaflets - paid a pittance for posting banalities; poor sod, he must be from Poland…  And still it continues to rain, the book in my hand drooping like a flu-soaked handkerchief.  Innstetten.  A man educated into a philosophy so ubiquitous it has become invisible.  So seeped in Kant and Hegel nothing is left but the water marks.  

It began when he was a student.  I remember it clearly.  It was the day we fellow students chucked him in the lake.  He was sleeping in the library; and we carried him out into the street, wrapped him up in old lecture notes and then rolled him down to the water’s edge, where we bumped him into the boat.  He’s awake by now.  Laughing out loud and quoting some nonsense by Fichte…  “Into the barque you go old man!”  And we rowed him out into the middle of the lake.  Or that is what the locals called it.  Though really it is little more than a very large pond, hardly deep enough to drown in…  “Hallo Friedrich!”  Whose up to his knees reciting Mörike.  (There is always a character around to prove one’s point.)  By now our friend is choking with laughter, what with the beer and tobacco and the thought of Elfriede; her fire, her warm towels and her soft soft bed… “What about Schelling?”  In reply Hans lays his lecture notes across the surface of the water…  Meaning turned into metaphor…  “Watch out!”  There is a huge splash as The Phenomenology of Spirit sends a fountain into the air.  

What fun it was!  Innstetten still enjoys himself thinking about it.  His servants aren’t so sure.  Having never completely dried out he drips his transcendental self all over the carpet. They moan and tut tut tut, encouraging a colleague to tell him to “Squeeze yourself out, old fella!”  He never listens.  Soaking Effi’s dress when he puts his arm on her shoulder…

The worship due to God became a kind of ‘reverence’ for the moral law.  The faith which transcends belief became the certainty of practical reason, which surpasses understanding.  The object of esteem was not the Supreme Being, but the supreme attribute of Reason.  The moral order was the ‘realm of grace’, the actual community of rational beings the ‘mystical body’ in the world of nature, and the Kingdom of God to which mortals aspire became the Kingdom of Ends which they make real through their self-legislation.  (Roger Scruton, The Philosopher on Dover Beach in The Philosopher on Dover Beach)

Today we assume we are hard-headed empiricists when we talk of reason.  Innstetten himself may have thought of himself in this way, although his mystical side suggests that he was not altogether secure in such a workaday persona.  How things have changed.  In the eighteenth century Kant knowingly turned reason into a deity; it was the only belief left for those who relied on their intellects to give meaning to the world.  Then it was understood that reason cannot be reduced to reason, but is founded on a faith.1  This is a hard concept for a (narrowly) rational man to accept, and is easy to overlook, as we overlook it today.  Reason is a faith, and one that Kant believed was absolutely true.  Though it appears that he was mistaken about this, thinking reason had a foundation within the human mind that it in fact does not have, welded as he was to Newtonian science, which he thought was not simply a scientific theory but true.2  He assumed all men were intrinsically rational, and that all cultures could become rational in the same way (each one was waiting for its Enlightenment).  They are not.3  Reason is shaped largely by the culture in which it lives, modern anthropology undermining the idea that primitive communities are irrational and chaotic; mere children waiting to grow up.4  

There is another factor we must not forget.  It is very difficult to translate the ideas of philosophy into the duties and judgements of everyday life.  In trying to do so it is easy to make mistakes.  And the biggest mistake of all is to believe that no translation is required.  Innstetten sacrificing his life to a “community of rational beings”, only to discover, when his life demanded more than ratiocination, that it is merely an idea, “an artificial affair”.  He relied too much on reason which can never make sense of all the world.

Only a philosopher like Kant can live easily with abstractions.  This can create its own unique religion.  For a life lived in thought produces a faith in reason that is engendered during the thinking process itself.  Like a religious ritual the act of thinking manufactures its own godly essence.  Although unlike the Christian liturgy the spirit lies solely within the ritual.  Reason produces meaning and is at the same time the source of all meaning, whose essence “surpasses understanding” - we can only intuit it.  Innstetten is not a sophisticated thinker.  He is a state official who needs far more concrete signs of reason’s existence.  He finds them in the conventions of his society, dressing Mr and Mrs Reason up in the fashionable costumes of the late 19th century, and in the uniforms of the German state.

The real self, for Hegel, is an artefact, which comes to reality through the process whereby it becomes an object of its own awareness and intention (the process of Selbstbestimmung).  The self is created in society, through our dialectal resolution of conflict, and our emergence into custom, morality and civil association.  These constitute the immovable ‘given’ of the human condition, for without them there cannot be the self-conscious awareness that would enable us to question our existence… 

We should perhaps understand the relation between State and society, in the spirt of Hegel, by analogy with the human person.  The human person is neither identical with his body nor distinct from it, but joined to it in a metaphysical knot that philosophers labour fruitlessly to unite.  When treating someone as a person, we address ourselves to his rational and decision-making part: when treating him as a body (when he is ill or incapacitated) we study the anatomical functions which lie outside his will. Civil society is like the human body: it is the substance which composes the State, but whose movements and functions arise by an ‘invisible hand’ out of voluntary associations which in no way intend them.  And the State is like the human person: it is the supreme forum of decision-making, in which reason and responsibility are the only authoritative guides.  State and society are inseparable but nevertheless distinct, and the attempt to absorb the one into the other is the sure path to a stunted, crippled and pain-wracked body politic. (Hegel as Conservative Thinker in The Philosopher on Dover Beach)

When I read Scruton my first thought was that I’d been a bit hasty conflating the state with society in my One Smile was Enough, It was an Earthquake.  I should, I thought, have made the distinctions between them clearer (too often my argument slides across these different categories).  But now when I look at Innstetten ruining that old rug, and hear Effi complaining about her transparent dress, I think I was right after all; because for Innstetten there is no difference between the state and civil society.  He is an official not a professor, and to understand such a character we have to leave the lecture room and visit Kessin's courtroom to hear a morass of quotidian stuff; we imagine a farmer convicted of killing his neighbour's cow, a man found guilty of faking a gun licence, a girl accused of sodomy…  In the banalities of everyday life the metaphysical puzzle of a state’s identity is resolved into the all too concrete particular; an idea is reduced to a fact, Scruton’s “person” is collapsed into Scruton’s “body”.  This necessarily changes and coarsens the original concept; reason ceasing to be a means of expanding our sense of self, it instead becomes an instrument of society, and takes on that society’s character.  However, it is not all degradation.  For a man like Innstetten such coarsening gives him liberty, because for him the idea still retains its original meaning, and he believes in it.  Nevertheless, such freely chosen work, such Selbstbestimmung, will have a narrowing effect, as the practical uses of reason usurp its more abstract elements, thus weakening its ability to transcend mundane reality; which will debilitate its judgement, now dependent upon custom and convention.  Over time reason becomes embedded in the society, and cannot free itself from it.  Innstetten unable to make the right choice because he cannot rise above the role he has created for himself; too bound up with his society’s conventions he is unable to acquire a truly independent sense of justice.

Innstetten is not aware of this transformation.  He still believes in the abstract idea, which he correctly thinks gives him liberty. He is free and content, and unaware that he is living inside a myth.  This could go on forever.  This is because for as long as there is no crisis the tension between the original idea and its evolution into habit and custom can be ignored.  Only when it is tested to its ultimate is it found to have been emptied of metaphysical content.  Thus after the duel Innstetten discovers that reason has been reduced to merely what society itself thinks.  It has become a convention, like everything else in his life.  The free intellect has evolved into a social enslavement, Innstetten now afraid of his community’s opinion, which he has come to accept as the true measure of his worth.5  He therefore makes the wrong choice, and acts against his humanity.  Only then does he doubt his society.  It is too late.

Innstetten, although self-aware in true Hegelian fashion, doesn't question his existence until after he has killed Crampas.  Here is the oddity of the modern world that Hegel only partially describes: we are conscious individuals who yet are unaware of the social forces that determine the assumptions behind our thoughts and actions.  Or at least this is true of people like Innstetten; philosophers are a different matter. For him the Hegelian and Kantian abstractions are passive doctrines, which he has imbibed just like the folk wisdom he would have learnt as a child.  Innstetten is the servant of an abstraction, and such service necessarily changes it; his tendency is to unreflectively follow its outer forms rather than play with its inner more plastic spirit; he thus makes it more rigid and opaque.  He is no Kant or Hegel.  He has a very narrow conception of their original ideas, which although giving him liberty produces an extremely limited view of reality (it is the world seen through a town hall window).  Innstetten is an intelligent man who is not a thinker and who turns ideas into tangible things; an abstract theory transformed into a set of fixed moral rules.6  This can produce claustrophobia in those close to him.  In an unusual person like Effi such rule-bound thinking produces a life-defeating atmosphere; for she is expected to copy her husband’s behaviour, even though their souls are utterly different.  His freedom erases her own.  Living within such a small mental compass she is forced to suppress her inner self, which weakens and almost destroys her independent mind until it rebels by transmigrating into her body - she makes love to Crampas.

By the time this novel was written the state had become extremely powerful; its metaphysical essence succumbing to a large bureaucracy and the ambitions of its leaders.  An idealist abstraction had been transformed into an institution with its own ideology and working practices, creating a state far more earthbound than Hegel’s theory.  

The air becomes stuffy.  The noises increase and become grating; the quiet word is replaced by the impersonal command, and the salon is turned into a dusty office, a gallery into a school room. “That’s right!  The fine is ten marks.  Pay at the desk on your way out.  Off you go now.”  “Next supplicant please”, said sotto voce to a closed door…  The banalities of a clerk’s life.  So narrow.  So ritualistic.  So boring, these same complaints day after day, followed by weeks without end.  It is a bad habit into which generations are inevitably inducted.  Nevertheless, behind this daily cacophony and constant repetition an idea of public service remains, and Innstetten believes in it until he fights the duel.7  He has absorbed Kant’s precepts.  He exemplifies Hegel’s insight.  But he is a far smaller man than they.  His life based on a few key ideas, which he has turned into duties that are largely defined by the state that exists inside him. 

He was a student of law.  Crampas calls him a pedagogue. 

Innstetten offers us a clue as to how Kantian philosophy was transformed into a national morality during the 19th century.  He went to university and studied the law.  It was a decisive step.  It forced him to break with the organic community of his childhood to become an educated official.  School primarily a training ground for clerks and administrators… It is the place where Innstetten learns the rules of the state, and where he absorbs its character; subtracting its metaphysical nature and adding the concrete and highly particular details of his own life.  Here is the danger of education.  It can easily take out the metaphysical elements of knowledge to reduce it to mere information and professional training.  Thought is turned into action.  The transcendental state of Hegel’s imagination turned into the bureaucracies of Bismarck’s Germany.  The teachers were to blame!  Although Innstetten was a natural student…

… because he overvalues the idea, and he is a slave to his words, which define him.8  This is the problem of school.  Closely associated with the mores of society - its central purpose is to make us good citizens - it at the same time simplifies and abstracts them; the good pupil educated to rely on reading explicit signs rather than interpreting the nuances of atmosphere.  His life becomes a living book, written by authors he himself may never have read…

By abstracting society in this way there is a tendency, very evident in Innstetten, to generalise it.  The individual perception and the anomaly are thus ignored or discounted.  Life becomes a system based on rules that are expected to be obeyed.9  Perfect for a bureaucrat and an old man.  A disaster for an artist or a young woman.  Poor Effi!

Her friends and relatives suffer too…  By the late 19th century the power of the state had expanded to such a degree that it was beginning to take over the rest of society.  Innstetten is a symbol of this change.  A powerful character who is yet fragile, because the foundation of his existence has been weakened by his over-reliance on codes of conduct invented by others.  He is an official and therefore dependent both upon the institution that employs him and his own reputation, which is largely outside his control. In contrast a human being is anchored in themselves, their personality arising out of a fruitful debate with…

…custom, morality and civil association. These constitute the immovable ‘given’ of the human condition, for without them there cannot be the self-conscious awareness that would enable us to question our existence…

Innstetten squeezes out civil society.  For him it no longer exists as an area of independent life, but instead must conform to conventions of the wider community, which are increasingly defined by the German state.  A certain imaginative realm is lost, because morality is reduced to a set of explicit behaviours, whose meaning Innstetten takes literally.  Thus he believes that his public self must be the same as his private self.  No fictions are allowed!  This removes the idea of aesthetic play from social life.  The ability to create our own identities, real fictions that can exist only within the activities of a social grouping, are ruled out at best as a harmless game, or at worst as fakery and corruption.  Only the authentic person is morally right.10  But of course this authenticity also comes from an external source - the state.  An institution now powerful enough to seek a monopoly on its citizens’ identity.  This produces an enormous pressure to conform, and Effi feels it, and succumbs, at least for as long as she lives in Kessin.  

Using Scruton’s analogy of the person and the body, we can see that the state requires Innstetten to be far more conscious than this is good for either him or his society.  It gives rise to a self-consciousness that is the cause of the duel; Innstetten unable to live with the thought that his friend will make him doubt his own words (if he doesn't fight Crampas).

This is a narrow and unstable view of existence.  Hegel explains why.  It is only by participating in civil society that we create our identities.  Because it is only through our active engagement with custom, morality and civil association that we create ourselves as persons. It is a socially contrived place which allows us act out those selves that are inchoate in us, and which can develop only within the milieu where they are performed.11   It is a place of becoming rather than being.  Innstetten’s rather static conception of reality destroys such a civil society; the reason his wife is unable to realise her mature identity.  She is stifled.  She cannot grow.  She looks for escape…12  

The atmosphere that would stimulate her aesthetic persona has been polluted by the positivism and literalism of her husband.  He has disenchanted it. For although a cultivated German - Innstetten goes to concerts and visits galleries, and he delights in Effi's acting - he treats these activities as entertainments; they are not meant to be expressions of an artistic soul.13  Their meaning erased Effi’s sensibility dies, and her thoughts wither away inside her, for there is no public space where she can enact them and so make them real.  She is an “actress” denied her vocation.  The results are terrible…

Love enters the drama from outside the home.  It is an untamed, undomesticated force, leading to adultery (Tristan) or incest (Die Walküre). Love proves itself only in opposition to morality, and by desecrating marriage.  Children hardly get a look in; when, in the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde, a child results, it is promptly orphaned, and placed in a home which is not a home at all, but a place of servitude and alienation.  And that is why love has no fulfilment in this life, and must will its own extinction: all other means of fulfilment have been cut off by love’s own transgression.  (Roger Scruton, Modern Culture)

Wagner too, it seems, has influenced this novel - note particularly the treatment of Annie, whose is turned into a tape recorder, playing back her father’s callous instructions.  According to Scruton this anarchic love arises from out of the individual’s break from their community, whose feelings, now freed from the rituals that channel our emotions and spirit, are turned into destructive impulses.  It is part of a wider story of modern man’s alienation and his frustrated desire to return to a unified existence.  In this scenario love is a revolutionary mob burning down the local church.

In Effi Briest things are not so clear.  Here it is the community that has (unintentionally) excluded Effi; because it is too narrow and too meaningless to allow her to express her soul.  Of course Innstetten is to blame by making that society even narrower, overlaying its provincialism with his own rigid moral code.  Nevertheless, it is this society that ultimately rejects Effi.  It is too small for such a free spirit; Effie Briest the original artist who lacking the gigantic will of a Wagner is unable to impose her vision on those around her.  The local culture suppresses it.  In response Effi turns for solace to her body; thus her affair with Crampas.14  Fontane is more realistic than Wagner: the truly free individual will be suffocated by society, and their only recourse is to act in a way that (inadvertently) destroys it.  Illicit love a poor substitute for the wild spirit society denies…

True originality and freedom are dangerous.  They can destroy both the individual and the society to which they belong.  Fontane is offering us a warning: tone down the Wagnerian drama, dilute the late Romantic spirit, educate your daughters to act a little more responsibly.  But would he go as far as Hegel?

Woman - the eternal irony in the heart of the community - changes by intrigue the universal end of government into a private end, transforms its universal activity into the work of a specific individual, and perverts the universal property of the State into a possession and ornament for the family.  Thus she turns to ridicule the grave wisdom of maturity, which, being dead to mere particulars (pleasure, satisfaction and activity), attends only to what is universal; she makes this wisdom a laughing stock before the malice of wanton youth, as something unworthy of their enthusiasm.  She holds up as principally valuable the strength of youth, - of the son, as lord of the mother who bore him, of the brother as the man who is equal to the sister, of the youth, through whom the daughter is freed from dependence, so as to find the satisfaction and dignity of wifehood. (Quoted in Understanding Hegel, in The Philosopher on Dover Beach)15

Or would he recognise a truth in this statement that is independent of its value judgements - youth offers the promise of new things.  The “grave wisdom of maturity” is an alienating place when it is not renewed by young life.  Perhaps Innstetten realised this, the reason he married Effi; although he didn’t comprehend what this actually means, especially in a spirit that was wilder than most.  He should have read Hegel, and married an older more pliant woman.  Only then would he have been safe.  

(Review: Effi Briest)

1. Noam Chomsky, a Rationalist rarity amongst Anglophone scientists, has a slightly different formulation of this same idea.
      “My own interpretation of those proposals is that they’re suggestions about our science-forming capacities. So these epistemic limits… your proposals should be consistent, try to avoid redundancy, try to unify different aspects of science - physical reductionism, say - I think that all of those can only be understood as explorations of the way that we, as particular creatures, try to proceed to gain our best understanding of the world in a systematic fashion. That’s the way we do it… But if you want a proof that it’s the right way, well, I don’t see how that can be possible. All you can say is that it’s the best that we can do. We may discover that we’re always going off track, in which case maybe that’s irremediable. If we can’t find a different track, it’s irremediable. And sometimes - if you look at history - humans have found a different track by lowering their sights. So, for example, lowering one’s sights from understanding the world to understanding theories about the world led to a rather significant change, and it’s a change - it’s sort of symbolised by Newton - that took several centuries to become internalized.” (The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray)

2. See the Karl Popper lecture in Bryan Magee’s, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey Through Western Philosophy.

3. See Ernest Gellner’s, Reason and Culture: A Sociological and Philosophical Study of the Role of Rationality and Rationalism.

4. See for example A.R. Radcliffe-Brown’s, Structure and Function in Primitive Society.

5. Here is the puzzle of the late 19th century: its turn away from reason. Something that promised man liberty was found, when applied to society, to actually imprison him. The reaction was to deny reason completely; thus Innstetten’s rejection of a society founded upon it. However, a more fruitful (and given the intellectual background of the times more obvious) approach was to have made a distinction between the idea in abstract and the same idea in practice, analysing the changes that occur as it moves from one to the other; the corruption resident not in the idea itself, but in the process of transformation; the metaphysical content gradually leaking out as the concept is incorporated into social and political behaviour; a moment reached when it is reduced totally to its immediate context, and the original sense is lost completely. That is: social meaning is not found in the origin of an idea but in the processes that change it over time.
     This may also explain a puzzle about the work of Roger Scruton. His writings on culture and philosophy are full of insight and depth, unlike his political work which feels at times very thin indeed; opinion too often taking the place of analysis. The problem seems to lie in his lack of an adequate sociology of knowledge that would allow him to explain how ideas behave through time. Instead he treats ideas as static entities, and then proceeds to argue that they determine people’s behaviour. Here is a risible example:
     “And it is partly because America exists so manifestly as a nation, in a world where national loyalties are failing or in disarray, that there is such hostility to America in the modern world.” (In Defence of the Nation, in The Philosopher on Dover Beach.)
     One merely has to look at the history to know this is manifestly false; America in the post-war period bent on destroying independent nationalism wherever it conflicted with its geo-political goals. For a piece of art that illustrates this truth watch Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like a Kiss. Curtis exceptional in his ability to show how ideas change once they are injected into the social realm; see in particular his series Pandora’s Box.

6. Here is the danger of knowledge. It changes its character when it leaves the classroom, but most people are not aware that this has occurred.

7. In what is essentially a critical attack on what he believes is a jaded organisation Peter Hennessy notes the strong corporate ethos of Britain’s Civil Service, and contrasts it with the atmosphere of a private corporation (Whitehall).

8. Tellingly, Ernest Gellner equates modern nationalism with language (Nations and Nationalism). For a fuller analysis of Innstetten’s reliance on words see my previous posts on Effi Briest.

9. There is always the danger that I too am falling into the same trap; inventing the genus Official when in truth there is a wide variety of individual species. A useful corrective can be found in Whitehall, where Peter Hennessy makes a distinction between the Home Office and the rest of the Civil Service. He argues that it is more conservative than the other departments because it is concerned primarily with case work; a continuous flow of individual cases that are often decided on precedent develops a mind that is very precise but rigid. Although elsewhere he can write:
     “And when a group of similarly accultured young men and women spend the next three decades rising, more or less in parallel, up the Civil Service hierarchy, they will, by the time they gather each Wednesday as mature persons in their fifties at the regular permanent secretaries’ meeting, be more or less indistinguishable from each other whatever the stratum of society into which they are born, the school they attended or the subject they read at this or that university. Their habits, modes of thought, patterns of speech, style of drafting will have rubbed off one to the other to the point where but a few free or tough or independent spirits resist mutation into a sludgy administrators’ amalgam.”

10. Thus he cannot read the double nature of the artist Miss Trippelli:
     “‘The authenticity of the woman is priceless; it’s all down to the last dot on the i.’” (He is referring to a letter which mentions a rich lover.)
     For Innstetten Miss Trippelli is “play-acting”; that is: she is a fake. For a truer picture see footnote 12.

11. For a brilliant analysis of the breakdown of play in public life during the 19th century see Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man. He places the emphasis for this change on the rise of a bourgeois morality, which tended to separate the private life from the public role.
     Innstetten is an example of this new public morality, although he cannot divide his life into two separate compartments. He needs his personality to be unified. This may reflect his own unique character. Alternatively, it could suggest the particular nature of Germany in the late 19th century, when an aristocracy was beginning to adopt the functions and mores of the bourgeoisie; Innstetten a composite figure, someone who represents a period of transition between an early-modern and a modern state.

12. Interestingly one of her means of escape is to act in Crampas’ play.

13. Contrast their reactions to Miss Trippelli.
     Effi: “‘If only I could find words to say, my dear Fräulein, how grateful I am to you. All so beautiful, so assured, so accomplished. But there is another thing, if you will pardon me, that I admire almost more than all that, and that is the serenity with which you are able to perform these pieces. I am so susceptible to impressions that I’m all a-quiver at the merest mention of ghosts and can scarcely recover my self-control. And you perform these things so powerfully, so shatteringly and are yourself perfectly cheerful and good-humoured.’
     “‘Yes my lady, art is like that.’””
     Innstetten: “The main topic of their conversation had been the seductiveness of any kind of public appearance, the constant vulnerability, to which Miss Trippelli had blithely replied, taking up the second half of the sentence only, ‘Yes, constant vulnerability; especially of the voice.’”
     This concern with morals is continued later in a conversation with Effi:
     “‘So you think it’s all play-acting.’
     “‘What else? All calculated for wherever she chances to be, for Kochukov and for Gieshübler. Gieshübler will probably set up a fund for her, or perhaps just leave her a legacy.’”
     For all this high moral tone there is something cheap about Innstetten. He can only see surfaces; in this case he is too influenced by the brash character of this talented singer, and so ignores her art.

14. Of course I am wilfully abstracting from the novel. Effi has an aesthetic soul, but as yet she is not an artist; and it is largely Innstetten’s lack of love, his inability to be tactile, that pushes her into Crampas’ arms.

15. Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels (see in particular Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn) give much support to what now seems an anachronistic statement of male prejudice. Of course what Hegel is describing is not some timeless quality of gender but the effects of a social system that relegated the wife to a domestic role; Trollope’s heroines often intensely interested in politics but forced by circumstance to channel it into the idealisation of individual men whose political careers they cultivate.