Shengren – Chapter – Georg W. F. Hegel

The pride and joy of Karl Friedrich Benz, the engineer, was the invention of the first true automobile, which he patented in 1886. The pride and joy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the philosopher, was the re-invention of the ‘philosophy of history,’ the most comprehensive philosophical work on world history in Europe yet written, in which Hegel re-defined fundamental philosophical concepts such as Absolute (das Absolute), Abstract (abstrakt), Consciousness (Bewusstsein), Understanding (Verstand), Universality (Allgemeinheit), Reason (Vernunft), and many more. Hegel concluded his dialectic method by announcing das Ende der Geschichte (the End of History). That end is European philosophy and Christianity: the sole standard and guidance for the future development of mankind. Such a standard can no longer be contested or reasonably doubted by anyone, because no one is powerful enough. According to Hegel, Chinese and Indian traditions only played secondary or supportive roles and could not contribute much to the formation of world history.[1] For the German orientalists, it meant that those lamas, khans, bodhisattvas, buddhas, gurus, Brahmins, and shengren of the Orient were just subcategories of Philosophen and Heilige, and that sagehood was just a form of Moralphilosophie (moral philosophy). In the next move, Hegel compared any European philosopher to an ‘Indian philosopher’ and despaired: ‘Der Verstand fehlt in Indien’ [There is no Understanding in India]. In his Die Orientalische Welt (1837), Hegel had mistaken the Indian sage for a Philosoph; that being – as we said – culturally impossible, Hegel was nevertheless furious at the ‘Indian philosopher’s’ rather sorry performances of his non-existent philosophical capacities:

The union of the external Dasein and the inwardness of existence have as its basis the absolute substantiality, which is not yet separated by the intellect in itself. There is no understanding in India. Understanding requires that the subject is determined and {the subject is} different from the objects and the objects to each other {so that} intelligible relationships {to each other or to the subject} appear. [2]

In the ‘Anhang’ to his epic lecture series Die Orientalische Welt, as part of his greater Philosophie der Weltgeschichte (1837), Hegel attached a brief essay entitled: ‘Das mongolische Prinzip’, which was published only posthumously. It is worthwhile to reproduce some paragraphs of Das Mongolische Prinzip here verbatim, and translate them, as the text illustrates well the German hubris and false sense of superiority – based on the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Hellenic rationality – over the people of the East:

[…] after we have considered in general terms the nature of Chinese life,   i n t e g r a t i o n   belongs to the spirit of the Chinese or better said to their lack of spirit.[3]

Hegel’s Geistlosigkeit is difficult to translate. ‘Lack of spirit’ or ‘lack of reason,’ and ‘mindlessness’ – all is good but inexact: Hegel was convinced that the Mongols, Tibetans, and Chinese were non-European in mind and shared a common system of values and beliefs; hence the ‘Mongolische Prinzip’ applied to all of East-Asia:

The collective of all these people is that they are nomads and they recognize the Buddha and the Lama as their god. In the Chinese empire, the patriarchal principle, the Penates (household deities), form the moral unity of the country, its spirit. But this is not meant in a civic way, but in the way of externality: a discreet, non-rational determination, not a free agent but a ratio of continuous dependency. Instead of a mindful relationship at its base for cohesion, it is rather mindless. The Chinese religion is a religion of dependency, where the mind is not free, is not truthful to itself. Its ratio is significantly dependent in such ways that the powerful, in-and-of itself being for the mind the principle of nature, like the sky: more abstract than general matter, or like rivers, mountains, or the wind presented by superficial imagination, embodied in genius; all those (metaphors) are well employed by the emperor.

The former system of dependency in itself is no truth, no reconciliation, no unit. […] But while the Chinese system of dependency is always the untruth, there also must be a (revealing) moment of elatedness; in part it is, as I said, in China itself, where it was understood only very late; in part outside the peculiarly Chinese (tradition).[4]

To recapitulate the rather difficult German text: Hegel argued that any system of untruths such as the Chinese tradition inevitable must contradict itself at some point (sooner or later in history), and correct itself accordingly:

Two sides, two destinations, of elatedness are to be distinguished: First, the altogether negative way, as one rises above the abstract principle which is the fixing on the negative, finite. Second, the elatedness of an affirmative manner in such ways that the objectivity for me is not ulterior, but that it has affirmative, present content, and that I have an affirmative, positive relationship to it.

As for the negative, the collection of the spirit who reaches these heights in an abstract manner, it manifests first in the religious destination; and because it is negative, it can occur only in religious ways. It is just that what is called the religion of Fo (Buddhism) or, in a different shade, of Buddha, Gautama, or Sakjamuni. Fo is presented in his historical form as teacher, just like Buddha; his main teaching is, as already mentioned, the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation), which is proclaimed in China as well as in India. The notion that chiefly concerns us here is that nothingness is considered the end, the purpose of all things. […] The differences in the world are only emerging modifications. If things are broken apart, they lose their quality; only together they are the one substance, indivisible, unchanged: this is the nothingness. […] This nothingness is the finite, the abstraction of the supreme being, There is no God, no spirit – only the unconscious abstract in itself, indifferent to the content that nothingness is. This principle is perfected, pure, simple, at eternal rest in where the god does not reveal to the people, motionless; his essence is to be without action, intelligence, soul, and no will to be.

Happiness is to unite with that nothingness. […] In the indolence, the destruction of all activity of the mind, happiness is eternal. If man comes that far, he is equal to Fo. The god is thus only imagined as the ulterior, not as the real: what should be the truth for the people. This emptiness comes into existence in man; he puts himself into that state. This brings us to the kingdom of the Dalai Lama, where the man is revered as a god, which is quite contrary to our abstract understanding, and to Christianity. […] This religion is connected to a warped, simple, political state, actually patriarchal life.[5]

Hegel’s writing and the perceived superiority of Christianity and Western philosophy over other cultures and modes of thinking resembled very much the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his The End of All Things (1794):

In now the musing man turned to the mystique […], where his reason does not understand itself, and does not understand what it [the reason] wants, but rather romanticizes […], as it befits an intellectual inhabitants of a world of sense, that has those limits. Hence arrives the monster of system of the Lao kiun about the ‘highest good,’ which is said to consist in ‘nothingness’ […] and through the destruction of his personality, feeling consumed, [trying to feel] from what condition his pre-sentiment arose, those Chinese philosophers exert themselves while sitting in their darkened rooms with closed eyes, to think and feel that – their ‘nothingness.’[6]

Both Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel argued that Asian traditions lead to soullessness/mindlessness (Geistlosigkeit), destruction of the personality (Vernichtung der Persönlichkeit), apathy (an ihr Nichts zu denken und zu empfinden), emptiness (Leere), passivity (ohne Tätigkeit) and stupidity (ohne Intelligenz) – a defeating assessment of Asia’s intellectual capabilities. That aside, undeniable, the German philosophers could clearly identify the Chinese tradition was quite un-European. What neither Kant nor Hegel realized, however, was that at the very top of the Chinese tradition stood the shengren. It would follow, correctly, that the shengren are un-European, too. But why, if Chinese tradition was obviously so un-European, granted, why constantly talking about: ‘philosophers’ and ‘philosophy’ – this is terminology as European as it can get.

Germany had made it too easy for its philosophers – who had no experience of Asia whatsoever – to verbally reign over Eastern cultures (Deutungshoheit) and mess with those culture’s thoughts by playing manipulative word games to end up at the intended and bogus conclusion that China had –beyond Western philosophy- nothing new to offer to world history, all in the hope that no one thinks about it too much. No need to argue whether Kant and Hegel’s ideas about China were toxic and irresponsible –they benefited Germany and their own ideological cause –and that’s what matters in this brutal world. The two other philosophers mentioned before, Leibniz and Wolff, often made opposite, positive remarks about Chinese culture, so maybe the truth about Asian thought in the eyes of the German orientalists lied somewhere in between the sinophile and the sinophobe, the unreserved loathing for otherness and a mild admiration for the Eastern competitor.

If it was not for right, the German thinkers had problems with tact, the general attitude toward foreign cultures. Most commentators on Asian thought such as Herder, Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel, Humboldt, Weber, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche all tried to explain how the Eastern people think and the rest of the world works without having actual experience of the East. Indeed some bold, remarkably intellectual projects; just how much trust should international scholarship put into such philosophies? If those thinkers had spent years or even decades of learning those Eastern languages or had they made true friends with Chinese or Indians, maybe the German tendency of rigid and stone cold rationality would have been severely affected. Perhaps experience and personal relationships with Asia would have led to more respect, tolerance, and goodwill. But then, of course, respect, tolerance, and goodwill had never built good colonies. Not in the real world and not in the mind.

As member of the class of German philosophers, Hegel was not required by German society to be particular and exact in his writings with regards to the facts. For example, Fo is the Chinese character for Buddha; yet Hegel thought they, Fo and Buddha, are two different deities. [7] Likewise, unlike the scholarly class, the German orientalists, Hegel was not supposed to actively promote Indian or Chinese spirituality, like the ideal practitioners and sponsors should do (see section 1.4). Another privilege of the philosophers was their freedom to be as creative, universal, and abstract as they possibly can, because creativity, universality, and abstract thought would create timeless and new pieces of philosophy every other week. That’s why the verb ‘to philosophize’ in the last century had almost become a colloquialism for lofty day-dreaming, irrelevant hypothesizing, and meaningless language games – to follow criticisms from A. J. Ayer[8] or Ludwig Wittgenstein[9] for example.

What Hegel said about India (the absence of the subjective mind that is in itself separated from the objects and the objects in relations to each other) was not new to German philosophy. In the West, the 18th century was considered the Age of Reason;[10] as a logical consequence, the rest of mankind must have been considered to live in some Age of Unreason. Hegel could have said: India has no reason, instead of India has no understanding; all the same. Immanuel Kant, the father of German rationalism, made a similar claim about the unreason in China and Tibet in his The End of All Things (1794). He accused the ‘Chinese philosophers’ (wrong address, like accusing the German bodhisattvas – there are none) of living in a world of senses, not a world of reason. In Kant’s rational opinion, the Buddhists destroyed their personality by having their minds float in some limbo called absolute nothingness.[11] Hegel is excused from being a pure rationalist like Kant; instead he presents German idealism.[12] The two terms idealism and rationalism are often misleading, they are actually very close: Idealism is rationalism plus time.

Hegel invented hundreds of philosophical concepts to explain the principles of history. He either re-defined already established concepts, like arguing another lost case for India and China which were lacking essential Western concepts such as Freiheit (Freedom), Urteilskraft (Power of judgment), or Transzendentale Systematik (Transcendental systematic). In fact, logically, India and China were essentially lacking any German new word creation, and thus could be criticized any time for their backwardness. Moreover, German language is a compound language. It means that the German thinkers can create new terminology by joining two or more words together, for example in Hegel’s Weltrechtsprinzip, which means universal jurisdiction [lit. world+right+principle]). Although universal jurisdiction is a good translation, Weltrechtsprinzip was a new and unique word, and Hegel and the Germans were considered its inventors. If they knew about this strategy to extend their culture by introducing new words, the Germans must have been aware, surely, that the opposite was also true: to deny Chinese terminology to spread into Germany and Europe was the surest way to limit Chinese culture.

In effect, Hegel could do whatever he wanted with those new words since a German word always guaranteed that other languages did not have that terminology in their vocabulary. Any creative mind knows this rule: To call the names is to own the named – that is how a monopoly on thought is built.

[1] Hegel, 1919, p. 332 ff.

[2] Ibid.: ‘Diese Vereinigung des äusserlichen Daseins und der Innerlichkeit hat zu ihrer Grundlage die absolute Substantialität, die durch den Verstand noch nicht in sich getrennt ist. Der Verstand fehlt in Indien. Zum Verstand gehört, dass das Subjekt fest sei, sich von den Gegenständen und die Gegenstände untereinander unterscheide, die dann in verständigem Zusammenhange erscheinen.”

[3] Hegel (1837): ‘[…] nachdem wir die Natur des chinesischen Lebens in den Grundzügen betrachtet haben, so gehört eine   I n t e g r a t i o n   zu dem chinesischen Geiste oder vielmehr zu der chinesischen Geistlosigkeit.”

[4] Ibid.: ‘Das Gemeinschaftliche all dieser Völker ist, dass sie Nomaden sind und den Buddha und den Lama als ihren Gott anerkennen. Im chinesischen Reiche ist das patriarchalische Prinzip, die Penaten, die sittliche Einheit des Landes, der Geist. Aber es ist dies wesentlich nicht auf sittliche Weise vorhanden, sondern ist in der Weise von Äußerlichkeit, als eine verständige, nicht vernünftige Bestimmung gesetzt und ist nicht freies Wesen, sondern Verhältnis durchgängiger Abhängigkeit. Statt dass ein geistiges Verhältnis Grundlage des Zusammenhaltes wäre, so ist es geistlos. Die chinesische Religion ist eine Religion der Abhängigkeit, wo sich der Geist nicht auf freie Weise, nicht zum Geiste verhält; sondern das Verhältnis ist wesentlich abhängig, indem das Mächtige, an und für sich Seiende für den Geist Naturprinzip ist und als der Himmel, abstrakter als allgemeine Materie, oder als Flüsse, Berge, Wind von oberflächlicher Phantasie vorgestellt und in Genien verkörpert wird, die durchaus vom Kaiser eingesetzt sind.
Denn jenes System der Abhängigkeit ist in sich keine Wahrheit, keine Versöhnung, keine Einheit. […] Indem aber im chinesischen System der Abhängigkeit immer die Unwahrheit ist, so mus sich auch das Moment der Erhebung finden; zum Teil fällt es, wie gesagt, in China selbst, wo es erst später aufgenommen wurden, zum Teil ausserhalb des eigentümlich Chinesischen.”

[5] Ibid.: ‘Zwei Seiten sind zu unterscheiden, zweierlei Bestimmungen der Erhebung: erstens die negative Art überhaupt, indem ich mich ueber das abstrakte Prinzip erhebe, das Fixieren des Negativen, Endlichen ist, zweitens die Erhebung affirmativer Art, dass das Gegenständliche für mich nicht das Jenseitige sei, sondern dass es affirmativen, präsenten Inhalt, Gehalt und ich zu ihm ein affirmatives, positives Verhältnis habe.
Was die Negative, die Sammlung des Geistes betrifft, der zu diesem Höheren kommt, auf abstrakte Weise kommt, so tritt dies zunächst in religiöser Bestimmung auf; und weil es negativ ist, kann es nur in religiöser Beziehung auftreten. Es ist eben das, was die Religion des Fo genannt wird oder, was eine andere Schattierung ist, des Buddha, Gautama oder Sakjamuni. Fo wird wie auch Buddha in geschichtlicher Form als Lehrer vorgestellt; seine Hauptlehre ist, wie schon erwähnt, das Dogma der Metempsychose [reincarnation], das in China wie in Indien verkündigt wird. Die Vorstellung, die uns hier hauptsächlich angeht, ist die, dass das Nichts das Prinzip und das Ende, der Zweck aller Dinge ist. […] Die Unterschiede der Welt sind nur Modifikationen des Hervorgehens. Wenn man die Dinge zerlegt, so verlieren sie ihre Qualitäten; zusammen sind sie die eine Substanz, untrennbar, unverändert: diese ist das Nichts. […] Dies ist das Nichts des Endlichen überhaupt, das Abstraktum des höchsten Wesens; es ist kein Gott, kein Geist, sondern nur das in sich besinnungslose Abstrakte, gleichgültigen Inhalts, wessen Nichts es ist. Dies Prinzip ist ganz fertig, rein, einfach, eine ewige Ruhe, worin der Gott dem Menschen nicht erscheint, regungslos; sein Wesen besteht darin, ohne Tätigkeit, Intelligenz, Seele, ohne Willen zu sein.
Das Glück besteht darin, sich dem Nichts zu vereinigen. […] In der Indolenz, Vernichtung aller Tätigkeit des Geistes besteht die Ewigkeit, das Glück. Ist der Mensch so weit gekommen, so ist er vollständige dem Fo gleichgestellt. Der Gott wird also auch nur als das Jenseitige vorgestellt, nicht als das Wahre, was für die Menschen die Wahrheit sein soll. Diese Leere komme im Menschen zur Existenz, er versetzt sich in diesem Zustand. Damit sind wir zu dem Reich des Dalai Lama gekommen, wo der Mensch als Gott verehrt wird, was dem abstrakten Verstandes ganz zuwider ist, auch am Christentum. […] Mit dieser Religion ist verbunden ein eingehüllter, einfacher, politischer Zustand, eigentlich patriarchalisches Leben.”

[6] Kant, 1794: ‘Darüber gerät nun der nachgrübelnde Mensch in die Mystik […] , wo seine Vernunft sich selbst, und was sie will, nicht versteht, sondern lieber schwärmt […], wie es einem intellektuellen Bewohner einer Sinnenwelt geziemt, innerhalb den Grenzen dieser eingeschränkt zu halten. Daher kommt das Ungeheuer von System des Lao-kiun von dem höchsten Gut, das im Nichts bestehen soll […] und also durch Vernichtung seiner Persönlichkeit, verschlungen zu fühlen; von welchem Zustande die Vorempfindung zu haben, sinesische Philosophen sich in dunkeln Zimmern, mit geschlossenen Augen, anstrengen, dieses ihr Nichts zu denken und zu empfinden.’

[7] Hegel, 1919, p. 332 ff.

[8] Ayer, 1936; Ayer, 1973

[9] Wittgenstein, 2001

[10] Oxford Dictionary, 2005

[11] Kant, 1794

[12] Herling, 2006, p. 3

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York