PowerLine knocks another one out of the park!
Joel Kotkin writes about the spread of “debate is over” syndrome. It’s a good article, but marred by the author’s surprise that this “embrace homogeneity of viewpoint” finds expression by the American left, “the same people who historically have identified themselves with open-mindedness and the defense of free speech.”
Actually, “debate is over” syndrome expresses a core tenet of American progressivism, and one that has been present from the beginning. It stems from the historicism of the German philosopher Hegel.
Hegel maintained that history unfolds through a “dialectical” process, in which each stage is the product of the contradictions inherent in the ideas that defined the preceding one. Within these tensions and contradictions, Hegel believed, the philosopher can discern a comprehensive, evolving, rational unity. He called that unity “the absolute idea.”
History consists of an inevitable and progressive march to that idea. The modern State is the final fruit of that progressive march.
It is natural for a Hegelian to pronounce a debate “over” even as it continues to rage. Having discerned the comprehensive rational unity — the absolute idea — positions contrary to that idea can be written off as things of the past.
Hegel’s place in Marxist thought is well known. But if anything, the German holds an even more central position in American Progressive thought, thanks mainly to Woodrow Wilson, the intellectual father of American Progressivism. (Theodore Roosevelt was also influenced by the German philosophy of Hegel’s day, as Jean Yarbrough has shown).
Ronald Pestritto demonstrated the connection in his book Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, which Scott Johnson and I discussed in this Weekly Standard article. Hegel’s historicism was irresistible to Wilson, who wrote, “the philosophy of any time is, as Hegel says, ‘nothing but the spirit of the time expressed in abstract thought.’”
Wilson took Hegel so much to heart that, in a love letter to his future wife, he observed that “Hegel used to search for–and in most cases find, it seems to me–the fundamental psychological facts of society.” And Wilson’s writing about the State, about administration, and about the U.S. Constitution all are founded in Hegel’s historicism.
As Scott and I argued, one can draw a straight line from Wilson’s Hegelianism to liberal constitutional theory. Wilson endorsed the emerging, Darwinian-inspired theory of a “living Constitution” under which that document’s original meaning must take a back seat whenever it stands in the way of the march of History.