Hegel’s Bluff

That's what I call it. It's a rhetorical gimmick that's actually much more effective for self-deception than for the persuasion of others. It's a way of telling yourself that "Everybody thinks I'm wrong — therefore I must be right!"

It's easy once you get the hang of it. Feel free to play along.

Simply find two extreme views roughly equidistant from your own along whatever spectrum you see fit to consult. Declare one the thesis and the other the antithesis, and your own position the synthesis. Without actually having to defend your own position, or to explain the shortcomings of these others, you can reassure yourself that you are right and they are wrong. Your position, whatever its actual merits, becomes not only the reasonable middle-ground and the presumably correct stance, but the very culmination of history.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden says this is a good example of "How not to think":

… “everybody’s unhappy, so it must be fair” is magical thinking. Justice isn’t a function of averaging.

I’m reminded of the number of times I’ve seen modern reporters and editors announce that they get flak from angry right-wingers and angry left-wingers alike, so they “must be doing something right."

Centuries before Hegel was born, the early Christians in Laodicea had perfected the illogic of Hegel's Bluff. They had probably convinced themselves that they "must be doing something right." John the Revelator had a different take:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

  • B-W

    I actually don’t think that the Laodiceans were guilty of “Hegel’s Bluff” as you suggest. You seem to think that John is arguing that it would have been better that they be REALLY bad (or otherwise against God) rather than they be “lukewarm” (with REALLY good being an obviously better choice still.) This is a common interpretation but, I believe, an incorrect one.
    Remember, if you will, that Laodicea was known for their hot and cold springs of water in the area. The hot springs were therapeutic. Good for relaxing muscles and considered to have other health benefits. The cold pools provides refreshing drinking water to weary travelers. Lukewarm water might not only be unsavory for drinking (to be spat out of one’s mouth), but possibly even unhealthy (lukewarm tends to be a good temperature for bateria growth, although John certainly didn’t know this). And lukewarm water certainly does nothing to aid aching muscles. Perhaps if we think of John asking the Laodiceans to be either “therapeutic” or “refreshing,” we might be better off. But as you see, these positions do not lend themselves so well to “taking a middle position” in the same way. John merely suggests that the Laodiceans are not doing anything helpful….

  • B-W

    I actually don’t think that the Laodiceans were guilty of “Hegel’s Bluff” as you suggest. You seem to think that John is arguing that it would have been better that they be REALLY bad (or otherwise against God) rather than they be “lukewarm” (with REALLY good being an obviously better choice still.) This is a common interpretation but, I believe, an incorrect one.
    Remember, if you will, that Laodicea was known for their hot and cold springs of water in the area. The hot springs were therapeutic. Good for relaxing muscles and considered to have other health benefits. The cold pools provides refreshing drinking water to weary travelers. Lukewarm water might not only be unsavory for drinking (to be spat out of one’s mouth), but possibly even unhealthy (lukewarm tends to be a good temperature for bateria growth, although John certainly didn’t know this). And lukewarm water certainly does nothing to aid aching muscles. Perhaps if we think of John asking the Laodiceans to be either “therapeutic” or “refreshing,” we might be better off. But as you see, these positions do not lend themselves so well to “taking a middle position” in the same way. John merely suggests that the Laodiceans are not doing anything helpful….

  • pharoute

    It all plays into (ack! the “p” word) persecution and the righteous victim. It’s far easier to believe all are against me than to take that long look in a mirror. It’s the psychic balm of “I am right” rather than the bitter medicine of “just how bad a job am I doing?”
    As for the Laodiceans: along with being lukewarm they were apparently quite prosperous and I think that’s the key to this passage. That comfortable living probably lead to what I have seen in affluent churches; it’s easy to be lukewarm with a full belly. The fire and passion for revolution in a person is usually inversely related to how often he eats. The gratitude for a meal is keen when it’s the first one you’ve had in awhile. “For you say, ‘I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,’ and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich”

  • jwhook

    Hegel’s Bluff: What the MSM jumps off expressing the common wisdom. Most recent example is the commentary about the “nuclear option” compromise.

  • Ray

    Out of curiosity, what exactly was it that had John so annoyed with the Laodiceans? Just generally not living up to the standards, or some particular transgression?

  • Dave Lartigue

    This drives me crazy as well, and it seems to be a favorite Internet argument, not only in this arena, but in many others as well. “If everyone’s mad at me, I must be doing something right!” Alternatively, you could just be an asshole.

  • WatchfulBabbler

    Technically, Hegel wasn’t guilty of Hegel’s bluff either, but it’s such a good name that I’m willing to overlook that.

  • Scott

    This drives me crazy as well, and it seems to be a favorite Internet argument, not only in this arena, but in many others as well. “If everyone’s mad at me, I must be doing something right!” Alternatively, you could just be an asshole.
    Jesus was resisted, people resist me, therefore I’m Jesus. This is all based on the belief that the opposite of love isn’t hate – the opposite of love is apathy. You can’t be the Avenging Angel of Absolute Truth and have nobody even care what you have to say – one way or another, everyone else must fight you.

  • Donald Johnson

    “Hegel’s bluff” is a great name for the logical fallacy you’re talking about, assuming there isn’t already a name for it. I first noticed this kind of behavior in college, when a friend of mine would always try to find the center position on any political issue, apparently on the theory that the political center of gravity is where Truth is located. It obviously had nothing to do with any actual merit to the position–he just felt more comfortable with plenty of people on each side of him on any given issue.
    I’d offer the political spectrum in America on the slavery issue in 1860 as a counterexample, except for the ironic fact that a great many historians (Bruce Catton, for one) seem to adopt Hegel’s bluff as their governing paradigm. Crazy abolitionists on the left, advocates of expanding slavery and legalizing the African slave trade again on the right–obviously a racist like Stephen Douglas, hated by both sides, must be doing something right.

  • http://illegitimi-non-carborundum.blogspot.com/2005/06/running-scared.html illegitimi non carborundum

    Running Scared

    Slacktivist discusses this phenomenon from the opposite point of view, decrying the fallacy of justifying one’s opinion by the fact that it’s centrally located between extremes.

  • http://www.geoffarnold.com/mt-archives/000614.html Geoff Arnold

    Hegel’s bluff

    On a mailing list to which I subscribe*, an argument debate was developing about possible Supreme Court nominees. Nothing unusual about that; it happens everywhere. As on many other lists, the views of most of the participants was fairly predictable an…

  • http://www.geoffarnold.com/mt-archives/000614.html Geoff Arnold

    Hegel’s bluff

    On a mailing list to which I subscribe*, an argument debate was developing about possible Supreme Court nominees. Nothing unusual about that; it happens everywhere. As on many other lists, the views of most of the participants was fairly predictable an…

  • http://www.geoffarnold.com/mt-archives/000614.html Geoff Arnold

    Hegel’s bluff

    On a mailing list to which I subscribe*, an argument debate was developing about possible Supreme Court nominees. Nothing unusual about that; it happens everywhere. As on many other lists, the views of most of the participants was fairly predictable an…


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