Hegel & the Dialectic of Genius

This piece requires knowledge of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, wherein Hegel claims that the fundamentally human quality is not the desire for survival but the desire for recognition.(i)

Dialectics: Who decided Hegel would be a genius? Was it a bunch of jittery doctors of philosophy, hopped up on free trade imported French roasts, drooling over next-to-indiscernible prose? Was it a bunch of non-Rubik’s cube solving (ii), tweed-clad intellectuals, whose intellect is defined more by their confidence in superiority than the veracity of their output? Or perhaps it was a philosophy major with an MA in sociology and a PhD in linguistics who forced himself (or herself) through five hundred odd pages of Finnegans Wake just to pull out an obscure pun—a bastardization of language—in the abstract of a submitted paper to some boutique academic conference in desperate hopes of walking away with a Top Paper Award without the first clue about Everybody or why on earth they are Coming Here?(iii)

Hegel: the genius. The Culmination of History, if you follow Kojève. The bookend to Judeo-Christian tradition, and the guy who really got it (iv). Transcendent. Trance ended. That master, Hegel. Took on the challenge to surpass the ghastly limits of sixty-one years, and tie any worth to his faint wisps of breath to permanent ink stains on a page, which now has been reduced to a digital rendering of a mass-produced replica, stuck on the bookshelf of far too many bachelors, masters, and other students who simply take for granted his genius.

GENIUS. By definition an anomaly. Less geniuses than non-geniuses, like marshmallows in Lucky Charms. Genius. The word used by Tom Wolfe-esque writers-who-test-the-upper-ends-of-normal-intellect-who-are-just-smart-enough-that-they-might-get-a-biopic-when-they-die to describe those people who are really playing in another league… the Hegels of the world. The Freuds, the Einsteins, the Nietzsches, Chomskys, and so on. But here’s the paradox: the Hegels need the Tom Wolfes. Sure, sure, the Toms need the Hegels too, to raise them above their lower selves and to give the shadows of this flickering life meaning. But the Hegels need the Toms. The Hegels need the Toms because the Toms, knowing that they are normal, can affirm the exceptional quality of the Hegels. And at that, the exceptional quality in the positive direction. After all, the Kierkegaards and the Kanyes share that fundamental quality of not-normalness, and it’s the normals, the Toms, who get to designate one as the legend and one as the lesson. The Blessing of Salieri (v). Salieri gets to watch Mozart run free from his shackles, straight out of the cave, and upon his return judge the extent of his genius or his insanity (vi). Put that in your Plato and smoke it. The Toms are always the judges of transcendence; shackles and all.

Hegel, on the other hand, is trapped. Trapped because, if he is really a genius, really transcendent, then the pencil-pushing Toms shouldn’t really be able to understand him. They really should be just a little baffled by nearly everything he says… His facts require just slight turns of your paradigms’ kaleidoscope, Tom Kuhn (vii). Hegel is trapped because to really be a genius, he needs to be told by another genius that he’s a genius. But that falls apart quickly because even if Hegel and his genius friends have convinced one another that they are exceptional in the positive direction they are still the minority by far. So even though he has met his need for recognition by a genius, he still can’t recognize whether it is, in fact, genius, or simply a colloquy of idiots. Only the Toms can tell him that. The Toms determine the difference between the Shaman and the Showman, the idiot and the elite. Genius can’t recognize itself. It can recognize normal; that’s easy. It can recognize the other extreme staring back across the chasm of intellect. But are those the eyes of the village idiot or the philosopher king?

Hegel is trapped because he needs normal to exist. He needs his normal to exist because without normal, genius is not exceptional in either direction. Without normal, genius is normal. Normal negates genius. Hegel is trapped because he isn’t genius without normal, but there’s no way that normal can discern whether he is genius. In fact, when he sits down and thinks, the propped-up-chin-by-a-fist-and-rested-elbow-on-a-knee kind of thinking, he must face the fact that he can’t discern whether any of the Toms think that they are genius. And if any given Tom does in fact consider him or herself a genius, then how can Hegel determine whether or not this is the case? Because if our Tom really is a genius, really transcendent, then it might very well be the case that our pencil-pushing Hegel isn’t quite the best judge of our Tom’s intellect. After all, Hegel, if you remember, is trapped in the tumult of being unable to discern whether he really is a genius, because, in short, he can only be a genius in comparison to a colloquy of Toms. But if Tom Wolfe isn’t a Tom after all, and is himself genius, then our Hegel has lost all hope of being rightly recognized as a genius or rightly recognizing the so called Hegel-in-Wolfe’s-clothing as genius because the Hegel-in-Wolfe’s-clothing can only be recognized as genius in comparison to normal, which Hegel assumes he is not, but he also can only be sure he is not in comparison to normal, which the Hegel-in-Wolfe’s- clothing assumes he is not either. So they’re all Toms after all, unable to discern exception in either direction… IT’S A REVERSAL, MARSHALL MCLUHAN (viii)! Sublime or sublated. Hegel is trapped. Checkmate Salieri.


(i) Hegel, G.W.F. (1977). The Phenomenology of the Spirit (A.V. Miller, Trans). Oxford. Oxford University Press.
(ii) I’m told that 99% of the population cannot solve a Rubik’s cube by the strength of their own intellect.
(iii) Joyce, James. (1939) Finnegans Wake. New York. The Viking Press.
(iv) Kojève, Alexandre. (1969). Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (Ed. Allan Bloom). Ithaca. Cornell University Press.
(v) Shaffer, Peter. (1981). Amadeus. New York. Harper & Row.
(vi) Plato. (1992). The Republic. (G. M. A. Grube, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
(vii) Kuhn, Thomas. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
(viii) McLuhan, Marshall & Eric McLuhan. (1988) Laws of Media. Toronto. University of Toronto Press.

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