Hegel’s Deity: How Evolution Gave Us Postmodernism, Deconstructionism, and Political Correctness
Editor’s note: ENV is pleased to share a second excerpt from Nancy Pearcey’s new book, Finding Truth: Five Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. A Fellow of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, Pearcey is a professor and scholar-in-residence at Houston Baptist University and editor-at-large of The Pearcey Report. She is author of the 2005 ECPA Gold Medallion Award winner Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity and other books. An ID the Future podcast with Nancy Pearcey about this excerpt from her book can be found at Is Human Reason Reliable? Interview with Nancy Pearcey, pt. 2.
How has evolution shaped our view of humanity? We often hear that evolution is the key scientific prop for the philosophy of materialism, with its reduction of the human person to a complex biochemical machine.
But spiritualized versions of evolution have appeared as well — for example, in the philosophy of Hegel. In our own day, Hegel’s spiritual/cultural view of evolution has led to its own form of reductionism: the postmodern reduction of individuals to social groups based on race, class, and gender.
Hegel’s Evolutionary Deity
… Hegel called his pantheistic deity the Absolute Spirit or Universal Mind. And because it was the soul of the world, it was said to evolve along with the world.
What Hegel was offering was a spiritualized version of evolution. (Nietzsche even said that "without Hegel, there would have been no Darwin.") The difference is that Hegel applied the concept of evolution not to biology but to the world of ideas. His claim was that all our ideas — law, morality, religion, art, political ideals — result from the gradual "actualization of the Universal Mind" over the course of history.
For many people, the law of historical progress functioned as a substitute for divine Providence. "When science seemed to take God out of the universe, men had to deify some natural force, like ‘evolution,’" explains Randall….
Hegel’s philosophy is a form of historicism, the doctrine that all ideas are products of historical forces — that what is "true" at one stage of history will give way to a higher truth at the next stage. In essence, Hegel surveyed all the conflicting philosophies and worldviews, all the competing religious claims, all the warring camps and cultures, and proposed to overcome the strife by treating each one as a partial and relative truth in the upward progression of Mind, the evolution of consciousness.
What is the logical flaw in historicism? It is self-refuting. The claim that every idea is a partial and relative truth must include its own claim. Like every other evolving idea, it is relative to its own moment in history, and therefore not true in any transhistorical sense. As philosopher John Passmore says, you cannot "maintain, as a timeless philosophical truth, that there are no timeless philosophical truths."
Hegel avoided this devastating conclusion only by tacitly making an exception for himself. He wrote as though he alone was mysteriously able to rise above the evolutionary process — as though he alone was capable of an objective, timeless, complete view of the entire historical process….
Triumvirate of Race, Class, Gender
How did we get from Hegel to postmodernism? For Hegel, the real actor in history is not the individual but the Absolute Mind or Spirit, which expresses itself through a community’s laws, morality, language, social relationships, and so on. Hegel accepted Kant’s idealism in which the world is constituted by consciousness, but for him it was a collective consciousness. As one philosopher explains, the Absolute Mind creates the world "through the shared aspects of a culture, a society, and above all through a shared language."
Indeed for Hegel, individuals do not even have original ideas of their own. Their thoughts are merely expressions of the Absolute Mind. In his words, individuals "are all the time the unconscious tools of the World Mind at work within them."
Over time, Hegel’s pantheism was secularized and his Absolute Spirit was reduced to a metaphor — the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist. (In German, Zeit means time or age; Geist means spirit.) What remained, however, was the idea that individuals are "unconscious tools" of the Zeitgeist. They are not producers of culture so much as products of a particular culture. Individuals are shaped by the communities they belong to, each with its own shared perspective, values, habits, language, and forms of life.
In our own day, this has led to the extreme conclusion that everyone’s ideas are merely social constructions stitched together by cultural forces. Individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity.
Truth has been redefined as a social construction: Every community has its own view of truth, based on its experience and perspective, which cannot be judged by anyone outside the community. One postmodern theologian makes the claim in these words: "There is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate."
Postmodernism is thus a form of anti-realism, the doctrine that reality depends for its character and possibly even its existence on our minds. The term anti-realism was coined by Nietzsche to describe his own view, which he summed up in the slogan "There are no facts, only interpretations." Or as one postmodern writer puts it, "Reality has now become a mere bunch of disparate and changing interpretations, a shifting loosely held coalition of points of view in continual debate with each other."
Roots of Political Correctness
If reality has shattered into clashing interpretations, so has the concept of personal identity. Postmodernism says there is no unified self. Instead the self is simply the locus of the shifting points of view absorbed from various interpretive communities, each defining its own "truth"…
Postmodernism thus reduces individuals to puppets of social forces. The implication is that people hold certain ideas not because they have good reasons but because they are black or white, a man or a woman, Asian or Hispanic, or whatever.
This is radically dehumanizing. It implies that individuals are powerless to rise above the communities to which they belong. It is a form of reductionism that dissolves individual identity into group identity….
Postmodernism is leagues away from the materialism rampant in the science department, but it is equally dehumanizing. Materialism reduces humans to products of physical forces. Postmodernism reduces them to products of social forces.
When postmodern thought was applied to literary theory, it gave rise to an offshoot called deconstructionism. Recall that for postmodernism, individuals are constituted by their membership within a community. The implication is that individuals do not really have original or creative ideas but merely reflect the ideas of their communities. For example, literary critic Roland Barthes said a piece of writing is merely a "tissue of quotations" absorbed from the surrounding culture.
Barthes is best known for his slogan "the death of the author" — by which he means the death of the very concept of individual creativity. In his view, writers are akin to the bards or shamans of old, who were not inventors of their own stories so much as transmitters of the stories of their clan, tribe, or community. Jacques Derrida meant the same thing in his paradoxical statement "Texts have no author."
Moreover, we all belong to a variety of communities based on attributes such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity — all with conflicting outlooks and interests. As a result, every author will unconsciously reflect conflicting social messages. For Barthes, a text is a mix "in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash." The goal of the literary critic is to dig beneath the surface of the text to excavate and disentangle those clashing meanings.
This is called deconstructing the text — hence the term deconstructionism.
What reason does Barthes give for accepting such a theory? As Alan Jacobs writes, "As soon as deconstructionists get in the business of providing reasons, they are perforce in the business of making claims and thus are subject to their own critique." What happens if we subject Barthes’s views to his own critique? We have to conclude that he, too, is merely a mouthpiece for social forces such as race, class, and gender. His "own" writings do not offer original or creative insights but are merely collages of conflicting quotations absorbed unconsciously from the communities to which he belongs. The "death of the author" must include Barthes himself.
In practice, the only way deconstructionists can function is to tacitly exempt themselves from the critique they apply to everyone else. They presume to stand above the fray, with unique insight to deconstruct everyone else’s statements as products of underlying interests and power struggles, while treating their own writings as immune to the process of deconstruction. They write as though they alone are able to transcend the social forces of race, class, and gender that render everyone else a victim of false consciousness.
Thus ironically, postmodernists contradict their own views every time they write a book or article. Deconstructionists hope their own work will be treated as a serious contribution from a creative mind, not merely a replay of cultural messages. They continue to author books arguing that there is no author.
Theologian Mark C. Taylor, himself a postmodernist, explains that the death of the author was an inevitable result of the death of God: "The death of God was the disappearance of the Author who had inscribed absolute truth and univocal meaning in world history." And because humans are made in the image of God, Taylor concludes, "the death of God implies the disappearance of the author." For if there is no Creator, then humans do not have the dignity of being sub-creators. They are merely products of social and historical forces….
The Tyranny of Diversity
Most of the founders of postmodernism were Europeans who had witnessed firsthand history’s bloodiest and most oppressive political systems — Nazism and Communism…. They decided that if totalitarianism results from totalizing metanarratives, then the way to prevent concentrations of power is to maintain a variety of mini-narratives. By celebrating the diversity of communities and their language games, postmodernists hope to avoid the coercion of a society organized by a single absolutized category.
In practice, however, only select groups are singled out to represent "diversity" — certified victim groups based on things like race, class, gender, ethnic group, and sexual identity. Rarely is there a push for intellectual or political or theological diversity, when those views run counter to postmodernism. And the analysis of the problem is typically derived from Marxism: some group is said to be victimized and oppressed, and the path to liberation is to revolt against the oppressors, often through political activism.
This explains why the typical university campus has become thoroughly politicized. In many English departments, literary criticism no longer deals with issues of aesthetics such as style, structure, or composition. Instead the trend is to apply Marxist criticism or feminist criticism or whatever the critic’s preferred theory is….
Frank Lentricchia, a critic so radical he was once dubbed the "Dirty Harry of literary theory," was finally disillusioned when he observed his own students develop a suffocating sense of moral superiority. They would pass judgment on authors as racist or sexist or capitalist or imperialist or homophobic before even reading their works. In dismay, Lentricchia said, "Tell me your [literary] theory, and I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll say about any work of literature, especially those you haven’t read."
Politically correct university courses are not liberating students to think for themselves. They are turning students into cadres of self-absorbed reactionaries ready to take orders from the faddish theorist of the moment.
Bruno Latour, a sociologist of science, likewise grew concerned about the oppressive impact of the critical theory that he himself helped found. The attraction of postmodern criticism, he writes, is that it allows you to pose as the superior thinker who humiliates "na�ve believers" by deconstructing their beliefs. "You are always right!" Latour says. "Their behavior is entirely determined by the action of powerful causalities coming from objective reality they don’t see, but that you, yes you alone can see."
Postmodernism began with the noble goal of unmasking the implicit imperialism of modernist worldviews. But, ironically, it has itself become imperialist, insisting that postmodernists alone have the ability to unmask everyone else’s underlying interests and motives — to deconstruct and debunk them. It thereby essentially silences every other perspective.
Image: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, by Muesse (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
� 2015 Nancy Pearcey. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism Secularism, and Other God Substitutes published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.