8 years ago: Hegel’s Bluff

June 29, 2005, on this blog: Hegel’s Bluff

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.

  • David_Evans

    Related to the xkcd gambit: http://xkcd.com/774/

  • fraser

    Another flaw in Hegel’s Gambit is that it assumes there are only two positions, which isn’t always the case.

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    No, obviously, it requires at least three positions. Did you mean only one axis, or something like that?

  • http://algol.wordpress.com/ SororAyin

    Ouch.

  • Daniel Björkman

    Yep.

    I get amazingly annoyed at the self-righteousness that some people have about having “moderate” opinions. To hear them tell it, they are thinking for themselves and seeing both sides of the issue, unlike those sheeple who’s picked a side.

    Bullshit, I say. Taking everything you ever heard on a subject and assuming that it’s all of equal value is not thinking for yourself, it’s following the law of least resistance! At least the extremists have had to consciously pick a side to dogmatically adhere to.

    (though I should admit that while it’s the lazy way out, it’s not really the coward’s way out like I used to believe before I took a few moderate stances of my own. Being a centrist means that you can get along with most people – but the ones you don’t get along with will be ALL the scary, angry people instead of just half of them! :P )

  • dpolicar

    I dunno.

    IME, many extremists have not picked a side at all. Most extremist nationalists haven’t picked a country to be loyal to; they are simply loyal to the country of their birth. Most extremist sports fans haven’t picked a sports team to be loyal to, they simply root for the home team. Most religious extremists haven’t explored different religions, found one that really suits them, and then become extremists in its support; they simply became extremists in the support of the religion they were raised with.

    Also IME, many subjects that people are extremists about seem to me to legitimately support “moderate” opinions. After investigating different countries, different sports teams, different religious traditions, I think a reasonable person concludes that many of them have valuable elements and that reasonable people can disagree on what’s best. If that’s not a moderate position, I don’t know what is.

    Of course, I do understand that there exist topics, unlike sports teams and nationality and religious denominations, which legitimately demand positions that might be extreme in a sufficiently corrupt context. Extremism in defense of liberty, or justice, or other important values, is no vice; moderation in such defense is no virtue. If my culture is unjust, unfree, or otherwise corrupt, then an appropriate defense of those values means I’m an extremist in my culture, and rightly so.

    But that’s not because extremism is valuable. It’s because liberty, justice, etc. are valuable, and my culture has gone wrong enough to justify extremism in their defense.

    To conclude from this that moderation is necessarily bullshit and extremism necessarily virtuous is to confuse superficial properties with central ones.

  • Daniel Björkman

    I should probably admit that countries and sports teams are things that I don’t see the need to have any kind of opinion on, because they are all pretty much interchangeable. The same with religions, if you must have a religion.

    I suppose you could say that I don’t think a topic where no one is right or wrong is even worth discussing. If there is no right or wrong opinion, then there is no point in having an opinion, and if you have no opinion there is no need to waste words on it.

  • aunursa

    Conservative Jonah Goldberg agrees with the sentiment in that post. In the introduction to his book The Tyranny of Clinchés, Goldberg wrote

    The point is that sometimes the extreme is 100 percent correct while the centrist position is 100 percent wrong. But there’s something about being not as wrong as one of the other extremes that some people just find so enticing and seductive. I just don’t get it.

    If I say we need one hundred feet of bridge to cross a one-hundred foot chasm that makes me an extremist. Somebody else says we don’t need to build a bridge at all because we don’t need to cross the chasm in the first place. That makes him an extremist. The third guy is the centrist because he insists that we compromise by building a fifty-foot bridge that ends in the middle of thin air? As an extremist I’ll tell you that the other extremist has a much better grasp on reality than the centrist does. The extremists have a serious disagreement about what to do. The independent who splits the difference has no idea what to do and doesn’t want to bother with figuring it out.

  • FearlessSon

    Not the only one he has done which illustrates fallacious argument to moderation: http://xkcd.com/690/

  • FearlessSon

    I think fraser meant that it requires two positions to put oneself at a point between.

  • Daniel

    “I suppose you could say that I don’t think a topic where no one is right or wrong is even worth discussing.”
    Really? So you wouldn’t consider discussions about interpretations of art or literature as worthwhile unless someone is right?

  • Daniel

    “But that’s not because extremism is valuable. It’s because
    liberty, justice, etc. are valuable, and my culture has gone wrong
    enough to justify extremism in their defense.”

    What do you mean by this? I know it’s a banal point but those goods you describe are highly subjective- many people much richer than I am disagree with my view of social justice which involves free access to healthcare and education etc. because in their view it’s unfair to make them pay for it. I view “liberty” in a similar way- I view equality of opportunity as a social good, but this view is certainly not shared by everyone (we have a bloody monarchy for a start so right there we have a denial that anyone can become head of state). Given that I regard this as unjust, and a violation of liberty how should I defend those goods? And then we get the follow up argument- what about the freedom of those people (like in the US) who do not want to contribute to free health care etc. and feel that this is profoundly unjust? What course should they take when they feel their “culture is unjust, unfree”?

  • Daniel Björkman

    I guess that sometimes you really do just want to hear what someone else thinks out of sheer curiosity? But then it’s not a discussion so much as, well, smalltalk.

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    And how can that not be (at least) three positions total?

  • Daniel

    I still think it’s a discussion. You’re still trying to understand something better, and knowing someone else’s interpretation of a painting or a book can allow you to see ambiguities in them yourself. There are cases when an interpretation can be wrong (Dan Brown’s “John-as-a-woman” theory springs to mind) but there are other times when viewpoints really do produce the synthesis that is at the core of Hegelian* philosophy- not a moderating of views, but an absorption of other ideas that changes your initial ideas to something more complex and more layered. The point of the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” argument is not that you’re looking for binary opposites of right and wrong, but neither are you looking for moderation, What is supposed to be revealed in “synthesis” is a closer approximation of the truth.
    *I mean as in “young hegelian” rather than Hegel himself, who could never be boiled down to something that basic. More’s the pity.

  • dpolicar

    Yes, if we restrict the domain of discourse to topics where opinions really matter, then I’m more sympathetic to the claim that moderation is bullshit and extremism is valuable.

    That said, this sounds a lot like No True Scotsman to me.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    Dan Brown’s “John-as-a-woman” theory springs to mind

    Unless I’m misremembering, Dan Brown never actually refers to the Disciple John by name in “The DaVinci Code.” Instead it came across as if there were an anonymous Disciple and the big secret that Langdon discovered is that the reason that the Disciple was never named was that “he” was a woman — Mary Magdalene, specifically.

  • dpolicar

    Yes, people disagree about values, and disagree about what acts various values inhere in.

    What course should they take when they feel their “culture is unjust, unfree”?

    It depends.

    The first step I endorse is engaging the culture in discussion until I’m reasonably certain that the superficial differences reflect deeper value differences. Often, they don’t, and educating my culture on how to better achieve its real values can make it more just and more free.

    But sometimes that doesn’t work.

    The second step I endorse is trading with the culture. If my culture values money over justice, for example, I might pay to obtain greater justice.

    But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes I really am irreconcilably in opposition to my culture.

    In that case, I endorse opposing my culture and fighting for what I value. And, yes, that means that whichever of us loses suffers a loss of value.

  • Daniel

    There’s so much subtly and nuance in Brown’s work I often forget precise details like this. It’s been a while since I read it, I just needed a “bollocks misunderstanding of art” point and plucked that one so as not to seem too smug by referring to something more obscure.
    I apologise- I’m quite a prat.

  • Daniel

    The reason this is “hegel’s bluff” rather than “hegel’s telling the truth” is that people are not actually seeking the truth through the process of a dialectic, but are instead masking a milquetoast nothing position as “compromise” and thereby achieving nothing all the while contentedly proclaiming the wisdom of the middle ground.
    What do you mean “opposing your culture and fighting for what I value”? In what way and for what would you fight? And how do you square that with the fact that so many people would also feel validated in fighting for their own viewpoints?

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    This discussion appears to me to have people using “moderation” to mean different things. Some people are using it as the exact center between two points. In that case, it’s probably always going to be wrong. The exact center between “the earth is flat” and “the earth is an oblate spheroid” is nonsense, for instance.

    Other people seem to be using the term to mean “reasonable”, which would mean the “moderate” position is that the earth is an oblate spheroid.

  • dpolicar

    people are not actually seeking the truth through the process of a dialectic

    When dealing with people who aren’t actually interested in seeking the truth, step one won’t work. And, sure, if I happen to know ahead of time that this is true of someone, skipping step one saves time.

    are instead masking a milquetoast nothing position as “compromise”

    Sure, some people are. I don’t approve of doing that.

    In what way and for what would you fight?

    I’m curious: if I asked you the same question (what would you fight for, in what way?) what kind of answer would you give? It mostly seems too general a question to answer; it depends on what we’re talking about.

    But in general terms, I mostly fight for equal treatment of people, and I mostly by voting for and contributing to political candidates and advocacy groups I endorse. Sometimes by arguing for or against particular positions. Sometimes by breaking unjust laws, or aiding and abetting those who do.

    There are other things I would endorse doing (e.g. civil disobedience, armed resistance, sabotage) under certain circumstances but I’ve never done those things.

    how do you square that with the fact that so many people would also feel validated in fighting for their own viewpoints?

    As I said earlier, if my values really are irreconcilably in opposition to someone, then there’s nothing left for us to do but oppose one another, and the losers lose. What else is there to say? I’m not really sure what kind of “squaring” you have in mind.

  • Daniel

    if I asked you the same question (what would you fight for, in what way?) what kind of answer would you give?

    Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what would ever motivate me to fight as opposed to argue, and in the case of voting for something I believe in I always have to be aware that I will not eventually be the one who will implement my beliefs- a good example being that I voted Lib Dem partly because they stood against university tuition fees. Once they got power they reneged on that. I stood up for my belief, for my values and those of my culture (white, middle class, university educated, left of centre), I did what I was able to do, and as the system dictates gave power to implement my cultural views to people who then refused to do so.

    I am a professional pedant, and when I see phrases like “I endorse opposing my culture and fighting for what I value” I feel the need to ask what you mean. I did not say I would fight for my values against my culture, as I think “my values” are inseparable from “my culture”- simply because the latter term can be so very specific (not just British, but English, not just English but Northern, not just northern but Mancunian…) that there is always more than just you who holds those values and thus forms “your” culture. I agree that the question I asked is too general, but that’s why I asked it- I think a lot of people like to pride themselves that if “their” values were ever truly challenged they’d fight for them. This gets turned into “well I’m not fighting for them, so they can’t be challenging them”. So I think you should be able to say what you would fight for, and how you would fight for it.

  • dpolicar

    when I see phrases like “I endorse opposing my culture and fighting for what I value” I feel the need to ask what you mean.

    OK. I’ve tried to answer your questions.

    there is always more than just you who holds those values

    Sure, agreed.

    I think a lot of people like to pride themselves that if “their” values were ever truly challenged they’d fight for them.

    Yup, agreed. And it’s often not true.

    There’s a reason that I talked about what I endorse doing, rather than try to predict what I would actually do. I’m no more brave or determined or noble than the next guy; like most people, I fail to fight for my values even in situations where I consider that the right thing to do.

    I think you should be able to say what you would fight for, and how you would fight for it.

    For my own part, I think being able to say what values I endorse is valuable, completely independent of my ability to predict my reaction to all possible challenges to those values or lay out a specific strategy for dealing with those challenges.

  • smrnda

    The problem with the ‘middle road’ position is that it assumes a symmetry of excess on the part of the 2 best-known opinions on a topic. This is not often the case in real life, and the whole ‘moderate’ opinion is often just a rhetorical trick used to present a false equivalence between one sensible point of view and an absurd and ridiculous one.

  • dpolicar

    Thinking about this some more, I’m also intrigued by “I don’t know what would ever motivate me to fight as opposed to argue.” I feel the need to ask what you mean by ‘fight’.

  • Daniel

    I agree. I’m sorry if I’ve come across as a bit of an arsehole about this, I wasn’t trying to have a dig. I was asking because in your earlier comment you did say that you would fight for your values. That sort of rhetoric is used a lot to justify some really baseless shit- see the arguments about gay marriage at the moment where those opposed use the “fighting for our/family/American/traditional” values as a way of squashing the rights of others. I’ve gone overboard on the questioning, but as I say I am literally paid to be a pedant and it’s a hard habit to break…
    “Fight” as opposed to less loaded terms like “argue for” or “discuss” comes with all the brain wiping qualities of other violence based language in political contexts. It allows people to either claim they will “fight” when they don’t and, as stated earlier, do a reverse definition “if I’m not fighting, my rights can’t be being violated” which allows the infringement of civil liberties, or conversely it produces actual violence in an attempt to justify the original statement- such as the retarded storming of the house of Commons by pro-hunt supporters a few years ago, “fighting” for their rights to dress up and kill things with dogs. So I think that defining your values is a valid, that the claim you will defend them is valid, but that the claim you (or anyone) will “fight” for them leads to more trouble than just saying you will argue in their defence, particularly since if you fight for your values, necessarily someone else fights for theirs and both sides become more entrenched. It’s not moderation to actually find the synthesis of two extremes, nor is it compromise. A true synthesis is a better and more complete understanding of reality.
    Sorry, I really do come across as a total prat.

  • dpolicar

    I was asking because in your earlier comment you did say that you would fight for your values.

    Would you mind pointing out where I did that?

    As far as I can tell, I only started talking about what I do or would do after you asked me specifically about it; if that’s not true, I apologize.

    “Fight” as opposed to less loaded terms like “argue for” or “discuss”

    Can you clarify what you think fighting is? For example… if we weren’t fighting, how would you describe what happened over the last few years with Prop 8 and DOMA?

    Yes, I would have preferred it if we could somehow have resolved the disagreements between us and our opponents through discussion and education (step 1 above) or through negotiation and trade (step 2). But that failed, so we fought (step 3), and ultimately we defeated our opponents.

    You seem to equate “fight” with physical violence, so I guess you’d say we weren’t fighting. If so, well, OK… what were we doing? What word would you use?

    I’m unwilling to say we were merely arguing with our opponents. When people stop trying to convince each other and start trying to force* each other, that’s no longer mere argument.

    * I’m always a little leery of using the word “force” in conversations about government because everyone then assumes I’m a libertarian. But these laws caused (among other injustices) couples to be forcibly separated from one another. “Force” is precisely the correct word.

  • Daniel

    “In that case, I endorse opposing my culture and fighting for what I
    value. And, yes, that means that whichever of us loses suffers a loss of
    value.”

    I would call it “fighting” DOMA and Prop 8, and here’s where the unbearable pedantry that makes my life ghastly resurfaces, but I wouldn’t do that when discussing a point of philosophy like this. God I hate that I wrote that. I blame that on the fact that I studied Hegel and well…it’s basically poisoned me as you can see from these posts. What I was trying to get at, way back before my rambling walls of text started, was that the “bluff” part of “Hegel’s Bluff” is that people misunderstand what the “synthesis” part is, interpreting it as “compromise”. It is not possible to be “extreme” about something that is either true or false, you are either correct or not. In the case of values, there is so much difference between the values of different groups you cannot be objectively correct- and this is where my issue with “fighting” comes up. In using language like that both sides become convinced of the nobility of their cause and the value of fighting- to whatever extent literally- and no development is made. I appreciate it’s a common phrase, and again I apologise for focusing so much on it, but the point is that no development is made on abstract concepts like “values” when such terms can be and are used by both sides to reinforce their own sense of righteousness. I only wouldn’t use “fight” because it instills this mentality in both sides, when what is needed is persuasion. I equate “fight” with violence only because it is so easily used with “for our way of life” as a justification for physical violence and oppression. See how much shit has been done in fighting for our values since 2001. I have got too caught up in that one term, I know. Sorry for all the bother.

  • dpolicar

    “In that case, I endorse opposing my culture and fighting for what I value. And, yes, that means that whichever of us loses suffers a loss of value.”

    Thanks for specificity. I intended this as a statement about what I endorse, not about what I would do; as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t always do what I think is the right thing. Sorry if that was confusing.

    I would call it “fighting” DOMA and Prop 8 [..] but I wouldn’t do that when discussing a point of philosophy like this.

    Um… well, OK. What would you call it in a discussion like this one?

  • Daniel

    Arguing against. Objecting to. Rejecting. Any of those are good. I read what I’ve written back and honestly I find it hard to believe three years of philosophy has burrowed so deeply into me that I’m picking apart normal human conversation. It’s like a hideous, pedantic tic. I’ve actually lost track of exactly what the hell I was going on about in the first place.

  • dpolicar

    I’ll accept “rejecting.”


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