The Athabasca River winds over a greater span of our planet than the distance a crow’d fly from London, England to Ljubljana, Slovenia (Travel Alberta, online). Just as for myriad organisms the river is always there—always nearby and available. Athabasca U, too, is always on demand to we students. Our coursework is there when we’re ready to learn.
The Athabasca river more or less depends on the cycles of the seasons just as how for us our course deadlines define the rhythms of our academic existence. Sometimes, to our discomfiture, we realize that class is never really out for us. Learning to manage time, those moments that had hitherto wandered into the ether of lunatic whimsy (like ocean tides drawn to and fro by the moon’s pull) is part of our success. Each hour is what we make of it as we unfold our inner selves. The processes by which we become who we are, and the personal history that abides within our actions, are themselves philosophic terrain.
And Now A Word From the Wheel of History
And so it was that many years ago I realized that I’d better not leave my cell phone ringer on while sleeping after studying and before a shift at work. Sometimes it’s the between times that matter the most.
The factory-preset ring tone woke me up with dull familiarity; no radio jingle could be more annoying, but I didn’t care to change it. Rarely does my phone make a peep overnight. But I was a bit more of a social butterfly in those days, tech-wise. That ringer tone clang right into my dreams like an angry bear at the window of a log cabin. A friend had a critical 4 AM plea; she’d met a German exchange student and the young Fraulein, new to Canada and straight off the plane, was excited to hear of a fellow traveller in the mysterious realm of Hegelian metaphysics. I was put on the spot; could I summarize George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s dialectic in a few sentences?
I could not. But I gave it a shot. As you do, right? I warbled of Hegel’s dialectic whereby a thesis meets its natural and inevitable antithesis (not unlike sleep meeting an abrupt awakening). And I continued by proclaiming how that meeting of opposites leads inexorably to a synthesis that itself rolls onward to bring forth an antithesis of its own. And on and on, like snoring. I think I even added something about how Plato had fabled a poetic yarn about how humans had once been made up of twice the number of arms and legs and had rolled around in attached pairs before being split, rent asunder like a dream from its unconscious substrate, at the dawn of Ancient Greek Time.
Shortly the conversation terminated, though, and I attempted to sleep further before my rude dawn wake up call. So I dawned my light of awareness the next day and was off on the wheel of fortune that is the dog life existence. A privilege to wake up and have work to go to, though, and I felt pleased with myself that morning.
Now, over a decade later and a little calmer and more quiescent in the academic fortress of my brain, I wonder if I’d have been better to summarize Herr Doktor Hegel with a few quotes. Staircase wit; l’esprit d’escalier, takes over even when years have flowed by like driftwood down a tight river gorge. So here they are, some explanatory lines, and I hope each imparts as much (or as little) elegance and detail as required to garner a passing interest or satisfaction about the gist of this most challenging, yet historically prescient, of all thinkers.
Hegel In A Nutshell, Or River Rock
Hegel believed that the mind is a terrible thing to waste by considering its limitations; instead, for him infinity and mind co-terminated on an endless expanse of historical possibility.
Noting the mysteries of humanity’s mental peregrinations and perambulations down through recorded time, and even as a timeless gesture of majesty in the preliterate consciousness of our race, Hegel stated that
“The plant begins with the seed, but the seed is also the product of the plant’s entire life, for it develops only in order to reproduce” (Hegel, 36)
Unlike humanity, to Hegel all of nature flows along incapable of surpassing its banks except when thrust to do so by other predetermined natural events. There are no intentional floods of rivers, he’d have said.
Next up, perhaps, we have the key ingredient to a successful post-secondary experience.
“Man can only fulfill himself through education and discipline; his immediate existence contains merely the possibility of self-realization (ie. Of becoming rational and free) and simply imposes on him a vocation and obligation which he must himself fulfill. The animal’s education is soon complete; but this should not be seen as a blessing bestowed on the animal by nature. Its growth is merely a quantitative increase in strength. Man, on the other hand, must realize his potential through his own efforts, and must first acquire everything for himself, precisely because he is a spiritual being; in short, he must throw off all that is natural in him. Spirit, therefore, is the product of itself” (Hegel, 36).
While life may feel nasty or brutish or short or dull, ground to a fine blankness like driftwood on a shore; and our sensory relations and compulsions equally fleeting, it’s certain that at AU we will, if we work at, surpass our hitherto concretized sense of the natural order of our lives and our minds.
The being of our being, as human beings that think and breathe and above all inhabit magical realms far removed from the rote disciplines of our mortal coils, interested Hegel too. He saw it as embodying a dialectical process where we constantly surpass while maintaining our sense of self and our sense of out historic time and place within it.
There are no clean breaks, from relationships or schooling or life itself. Instead, we unfold like flower petals and we churn ourselves forward. For this process, where growth and preservation combine to further impetuous evolution, Hegel here utilized the German term aufhebung. He wrote that “Being is Aufhebung. Aufhebung is being, not as a determinate state or the determinable totality of beings, but as the ‘active,’ productive essence of being. So it cannot be the object of any determinate question. We are ceaselessly referred to it, but that referral refers to nothing determinable” (Hegel, 43).
Take that, identity essentialists! At the least, the process and flow of life, like the river that is our university’s namesake, belies simple understandings and hastily wrapped bundles of certainty.
Finally and crucially, when we consider the role our education plays in us becoming more conscious and well-rounded citizens, capable both of critiquing and understanding our contexts and our times, our culture and its dalliances, Acton describes the key pedagogical theme whereby Hegel translated his description of the process of awareness of self and place and history into a prescription for mindful (now there’s a useful deployment of the term) action.
“A fundamental feature of mind, according to Hegel, is freedom, and nothing that is partial or finite can be wholly free. The mind that is the only reality is therefore infinite. Furthermore, no one is free unless he is conscious of what he is doing, and infinite mind is therefore self-conscious mind. Artists and statemen, merchants and saints, all busy themselves with their more or less partial tasks without necessarily concerning themselves with what it is that they are doing. According to Hegel, it is the function of the philosopher to make men conscious of what art and politics, commerce and religion, are, so that mind can exert itself to its utmost range and thus become absolute” (Acton, 436).
For in a decade where everything seems cancelled, blinkered, quarantined, and generally topsy turvy and tail-over-teakettle, it helps to remember that, in the end, Hegel was about one thing: explaining how the world proceeds apace, rolling and gushing ever-onward like the river and its rocks and the trees caressed by the breeze. And for us in Canada it’s a magical wind, one of liberty and freedom that we in mind throughout our education here in the Great White North.