Athens and Jerusalem \  Part II  \ In the Bull of Phalaris


     Kant's Critique of Practical Reason especially irritated Hegel and his disciples, and precisely because they found in it, carried to the maximum, that edification of what we have spoken above. It is well-known that the Critique of Practical Reason is entirely based on the idea of pure duty: what Kant calls the categorical imperative. For Hegel the "critique of reason" (theoretical as well as practical) was generally intolerable. To criticize reason was, in his eyes, a mortal sin against philosophy. He mocked Kant's "critiques" in every way and compared the philosopher of Konigsberg to the scholastic who, before going into the water, wanted to know how to swim.

     Jesting remarks often pass for arguments, and Hegel's irony produced a certain effect, even though his comparison was completely false. Did Kant begin by asking himself how he should philosophize, and did he attack philosophic problems only after having obtained an answer to this first question? Kant finished his Critique of Pure Reason at the age of fifty-seven; he had already been occupied with philosophy for many years without asking himself whether the methods of searching for truth that he, like everyone else, used in the realm of the exact sciences could be applied to the solution of metaphysical problems. It was only in the sixth decade of his life — whether under the influence of Hume's "skepticism" or struck by the antinomies that he had encountered at the limits of thought — that Kant, as he himself relates, awoke from his dogmatic slumber; it was then that there arose in him the doubt that was to lead him to the "critique" of reason: are the methods of searching for truth that have been elaborated by the exact sciences, and that give such excellent results, inapplicable to metaphysical problems?

     It is hardly to be admitted that Hegel himself did not understand how little Kant resembled the ridiculous scholastic. Apparently he simply was not able to answer Kant, and he realized at the same time that, were the "critique" of reason carried through, the very foundations of human thought would be ruined. That this disturbing thought was not entirely strange to Hegel is to be divined from certain reflections in his Phenomenology of the Spirit: "Meanwhile, if the fear of making a mistake sets up a distrust of knowledge which, without any such scruples, goes about its work and really knows, it is not to be conceived why, conversely, a distrust of this distrust should not be set up, so that this fear of making a mistake is already itself a mistake."

     Distrust and distrust of the distrust! Is there any place in philosophy for such a struggle between distrusts? Kant knew before Hegel — and he spoke of it sufficiently in his book — that the exact sciences have no need of the critique of reason, and they can calmly accomplish their task without at all concerning themselves with the doubts and anxieties of the philosophers; nothing is more foreign to them than distrust of their work. But this is not the meaning of Hegel's remark. The important thing is that there came to Hegel's mind the thought that one could trust knowledge, but one could likewise distrust it. He immediately brushes aside this thought, it is true, by saying "what is called fear of error is rather to be recognized as fear of truth." But it is hardly probable that this consideration can make the reader forget that Hegel himself felt at times uneasily that one could trust knowledge but that one could also refuse to trust it, and to the distrust of knowledge there was nothing else to oppose than distrust of the distrust. For those who make scientific knowledge the ideal of philosophy, "the distrust of distrust" is a truly shattering thought. It turns out, then, that in the last resort knowledge is based on the trust that we accord to it and that it is up to man to decide, to choose freely, whether knowledge deserves his trust or not.

     What is to be done with this freedom? And even if it should appear that fear of error in this case is fear of knowledge, this would in no way simplify the situation: if knowledge inspires fear, it is perhaps because it really hides in itself something terrible against which man must guard himself. The fear of knowledge poses a problem as difficult as that which underlies the distrust of knowledge. And, of course, the philosopher must, before everything else, in some way overcome his distrust and his fears. As long as he sought truth naïvely without suspecting that there could be in his methods of search a defect which prevents man from recognizing truth even when he encounters it on his way, as long as he was also naïvely convinced that knowledge must be beneficial for man, the philosopher could calmly give himself over to his task. It seemed to him that trust is founded only on knowledge and that knowledge alone is capable of driving away all terrors. But suddenly it turns out that knowledge cannot found itself on itself, that it demands that trust be placed in it, and that not only does it not drive away terrors but on the contrary provokes them.

     If Hegel had decided to plumb this thought to its depths, perhaps he would have seen that Kant's sin was not in having criticized reason but in never having been able to decide to fulfill the promise he had made of giving us a critique of reason. Spinoza said: "What altar will he who insults the majesty of reason build for himself?" Kant could have taken this phrase as the motto of his "critique." And, indeed, to criticize reason — is this not to commit an offense against its sovereign rights and to render oneself guilty of laesio majestatis? Who has the right to criticize reason? What is the power that will dare put reason in its place and deprive it of its scepter? Kant, it is true, affirmed that he had limited the rights of reason in order to open the way to faith. But Kant's faith is a faith within the limits of reason; it is reason itself but under another name. Hegel, who spoke of "distrust of distrust," was — if you please - more radical, more daring than Kant; but, of course, in words only. In fact Hegel had neither the audacity nor the desire to stop for a moment and ask himself why he had such trust in reason and knowledge and whence this trust came to him. More than once he brushed up against this question but always passed it by.

     A strange thing! Hegel hardly appreciated the Bible; he did not like the New Testament, and as for the Old, he despised it. And yet, when there arose before him the fundamental philosophic problem, forgetting all that he said about Scripture, he sought support in the biblical account of original sin. Hegel writes: "This is found in another form in the old story of the fall of man — the serpent did not, according to it, deceive the man; for God says, 'See, Adam is become as one of us, to know good and evil.'" Again in his meditations on the fate of Socrates (in the same Lectures on the History of Philosophy), we read: "The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — of the knowledge that is of reason out of itself — [is] the universal principle of philosophy for all later times."

     It is not only Hegel who thinks thus. All of us are persuaded that the serpent who enticed our primal forefathers to taste of the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not deceive them, that the deceiver was God who had forbidden Adam to eat of these fruits in the fear that the man would become like God. Whether it was proper for Hegel to appeal to Scripture is another question. Hegel could permit himself everything and his disciples, whom the atheism (or pantheism) of Spinoza angered, listened piously to Hegel's discourses and almost considered his philosophy the only possible apology for Christianity. Yet here again, Hegel was only repeating Spinoza's thought, with the difference that Spinoza declared openly and forthrightly that there is no truth in the Bible and that the sole source of truth is reason, whereas Hegel spoke of revelation at the very moment when in the "dispute" between God and the serpent he took the side of the latter. There is no doubt that if the problem of truth had been posed in this form to Spinoza, he would have given his full approval to Hegel. If it is necessary to choose between God who warns us against the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the serpent who extols these fruits to us, the educated European cannot hesitate; he will follow the serpent. Daily experience convinces us that learned people enjoy great advantages over the ignorant. Consequently, he who seeks to discredit knowledge in our eyes lies, while the truth speaks through the mouth of him who glorifies knowledge. To be sure, as I have already said, according to Spinoza and to Hegel who followed him in everything, experience does not give us perfect knowledge (tertium genus cognitionis). Thus, when it is a question of choosing between the serpent and God, we are in the same situation as when we must choose between distrust of knowledge and distrust of distrust. In difficult moments reason refuses to guide us, and then we are obliged to decide at our own risk and peril without any guarantee that our decision will be justified by its results.

Orphus system

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