Canons and Conveniences
- Ideals and Idols by E.H. Gombrich
Phaidon, 224 pp, £9.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 7148 2009 1
Sir Ernst Gombrich is not only one of the very few historians of art now alive whose ideas have aroused wide interest outside his immediate discipline, but he is also an astonnishingly skilful lecturer. It is therefore only appropriate that he should so often have been invited to give those formal university lectures devoted to the discussion of general cultural issues. Most of the pieces included in his latest volume of collected essays originate in lectures of this kind, although in some cases the original texts have been greatly expanded. The themes that he examines will be familiar to anyone who has read his earlier work, but his arguments gain immeasurably by being presented in a single volume, even though this inevitably involves a certain amount of repetition, notably in his remarks on the PhD industry and the dangers of specialisation.
Vol. 2 No. 6 · 3 April 1980
SIR: One of the roles of a critic is to expose commonly held prejudices and to offer in their stead thoughtful analyses. Unfortunately, Charles Hope’s review (LRB, 21 February) continues to propagate two popular misrepresentations of Hegelian philosophy.
According to Mr Hope, ‘the idea that all aspects of a particular society, whether in its art, its religion, or its customs, are manifestations of a single unifying principle,’ the Zeitgeist, is a critical facet of Hegelian historicism. Further on, Mr Hope claims that this ‘historicist’ analysis fails to consider ‘various strands of tradition’ but relies solely on ‘knowledge of contemporary social conditions’ to explain creative acts. That is, Mr Hope claims that a Hegelian analysis of something – for instance, the design of a building – invokes only a single idea, the Zeitgeist, to understand the thing being considered. This single idea is supposed to inform all social products and phenomena, and can therefore be employed by Hegelians to explain all manifestations of the society.
Mr Hope grossly misrepresents Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel never conceived of Zeitgeist as static or reified, but rather as a dialectically-evolving expression of mankind; change is a critical element of Zeitgeist. And thus any understanding of ‘contemporary social conditions’ must not only include a statement of the Zeitgeist: it must also explain the way in which the present has evolved from the past. If Hegel is important in the history of ideas it certainly must be for recognising and drawing the world’s attention to the influence of past history on present circumstances. The idea that what exists at present has developed and evolved in a necessary and rational manner from what has come before; the idea that to fully understand the present one must understand the necessary relationship between past and present – these ideas are among Hegel’s main contribution to the Western tradition. In no way, therefore, does Hegel ever urge consideration of any aspect of society without simultaneously urging consideration of its historical roots – ‘strands of tradition’ – because only through the latter can we understand the former.
Hegel rejects the Foucaultian philosophy which claims that the transition from one Zeitgeist, or episteme, to another is irrational, i.e. possesses no necessity which we can discover. Hegel contends that all transitions are necessary and thus rational, i.e. determined such that we can discover the underlying reasons. Mr Hope distorts this Hegelian position by contending that Hegel is thus claiming that we can predict the Zeitgeist that will succeed the present one, that we can tell ‘the type of fashions that will’ arise in the future. Hegel, however, is very clear on this point. Although change is rational, a philosopher can only capture the prevailing sentiment of his time.
Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
Charles Hope writes: It is ludicrous to assert, as Mr Emanuel does, that ‘if Hegel is important in the history of ideas it certainly must be for recognising and drawing the world’s attention to the influence of past history on present circumstances.’ This had been the practice of historians ever since the time of Thucydides. Hegel’s originality lay not in postulating ‘a necessary relationship between past and present’, but in defining the relationship in terms of a particular metaphysical system, one element of which is the notion that all aspects of a society are manifestations of a single unifying principle, often called the Zeitgeist. In my review I had no intention of claiming that Hegel conceived of this principle as static. But I did wish to suggest that concepts such as ‘a dialectically-evolving expression of mankind’ are unhelpful for a historian who wishes to discover why a particular building looks as it does. Nowhere in my review did I discuss Hegel’s attitude to the future, so I fail to see why Mr Emanuel thinks that I have distorted it.