A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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d) The Hegelian analysis of irony

The context in which the Hegelian critique takes place is entirely different: this one is expressed, not in an axiological perspective, but in an aesthetical one; it targets not the subjectivism of values, but the idealism of Fichte, which is considered not as nihilism, but as a kind of ‘irony’. However, despite this apparent divergence, there are many similarities between the Hegelian analysis and our problem.

Indeed, Hegel describes the idealism of Fichte as a doctrine in which all things are considered as a creation of the subject, as well as their value: Nothing is treated in and for itself and as valuable in itself, but only as produced by the subjectivity of the ego 1.

If the ego can create all things, it can destroy them too: There [is nothing] that would not first have to be laid down by the ego, and that therefore could not equally well be destroyed by it. Consequently everything genuinely and independently real becomes only a show, not true and genuine on its own account or through itself, but a mere appearance due to the ego in whose power and caprice and at whose free disposal it remains 2. This has two consequences.

First, things become mere appearances, have no real existence: every content of meaning is no longer important nor serious: In that case I am not really in earnest either with this content or, generally, with its expression and actualization. For genuine earnestness enters only by means of a substantial interest, something of intrinsic worth like truth, ethical life, etc.,-by means of a content which counts as such for me as essential 3. Even if Hegel uses different terms (in ‘idealism’, things lose their ‘interest’), I think that this idea is similar to the one I have just expressed: ‘subjectivism’ is a ‘nihilism’ in which things lose their ‘value’.

Furthermore, the self has an infinite power: But in that case the ego can remain lord and master of everything, and in no sphere of morals, law, things human and divine, profane and sacred, is there anything that would not first have to be laid down by the ego, and that therefore could not equally well be destroyed by it 4.

Hence, the ego keeps the whole value (or the ‘interest’) that it takes from the world for itself: This virtuosity of an ironical artistic life apprehends itself as a divine creative genius for which anything and everything is only an unsubstantial creature, to which the creator, knowing himself to be disengaged and free from everything, is not bound, because he is just as able to destroy it as to create it. In that case, he who has reached this standpoint of divine genius looks down from his high rank on all other men, for they are pronounced dull and limited, inasmuch as law, morals, etc., still count for them as fixed, essential, and obligatory 5.

So idealism appears to be a sign of the human presumption, at its maximum level: [It is] the general meaning of the divine irony of genius, as this concentration of the ego into itself, for which all bonds are snapped and which can live only in the bliss of self-enjoyment 6.

In short, Hegel seems to express differently the same idea: the creative subjectivism (or idealism) is, first, a kind of nihilism -hence he defines irony as the self-destruction of the noble, great, and excellent 7- and then becomes a kind of anthropocentrism or egocentrism (depending on whether the creator of values is the singular self, or human being in general).

It is this idea, used by Hegel to raise an aesthetical problem, that I hold, in an axiological perspective.

1. Lectures on fine art, Introduction, 7, 3
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.