March 02, 2010

Sri Aurobindo's theory of history and evolution in time & Hegel's

Another lacuna in the scholarship:

What, precisely, is the relationship of Aurobindo's theory of history and evolution in time to Hegel's, and to German idealism generally? This question demands a close reading of the relevant texts, of course, but it also calls for a historical treatment (not merely a comparative "Both these Great Men were Great Men of Great Genius!... stating the obvious for its cult value and not really bringing any knowledge to the table).
[Aside: "cult value" in this sense is not meant as a dismissal, just as a mark of irrelevance to the questions I am trying to get at here. Savitri as a religious object has much legitimate cult value; the nature of that cult value is an interesting scholarly question, but the scholarship should not only be cultish in the sense of being an uncritical Hooray for Savitri! sense. Similarly, the Cult of Great Men model of historiography has long been discredited, but some in this neighborhood still persist in it in their academic writing. Cut it out, friends, and try to think critically about these things.]


Back to Aurobindo and Hegel. Writers like Ken Wilber tend to feign surprise that so many writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries working the "spirituality and metaphysics" assembly line seem to agree with each other. Is it so surprising that Hegel should betray the influence of Spinoza, given that Hegel had obviously read Spinoza? No, only a complete innocence of European history would lead one to be surprised, or even to make such a claim as if it has meaning.

I have suggested in the past that Aurobindo's theory of history has its origins more in European idealism than it has in traditional Indic sources, on the basis of the Hegelian traces in his writings. How to explain these traces? I cannot prove that Aurobindo read Hegel's Philosophy of Right. He may well have; he may not have. It is an open question. However, there is no question that Hegelian ideas permeated the intellectual culture in which Aurobindo was educated in EnglandHe could not have avoided it if he tried. I. A. Richards. Whether or not Hegel exerted a direct influence on Aurobindo's thinking on history, there is no question that this mediated, Anglicized form of Hegelianism must have.

But these claims are really very tentative and exploratory in nature. I very much look forward to a systematic and rigorous treatment of this question. To the point, I look forward to the complete obsolescence of my own work on Aurobindo.

A disappointing experiment: review the recent scholarship (2005 and onward) on Aurobindo's great poem, Savitri. A quick keyword search reveals so little of critical substance, and so much of a speculative castles-in-the-clouds variety, or worse.

Savitri rewards multiple readings. It is a product of an interesting (and well-documented) time and place. There is a paucity of useful scholarship on it. For these reasons and others, it seems a very good object for a dissertation in English Lit or Cultural Studies. The hyperbolic claims made on its behalf by certain of its partisans (making of the text a cult object) constitute another question entirely.  10:02 AM


Now, why is this question on the relationship between Aurobindo's historiography and Hegel's philosophy of right (in which Spirit is determinative of changes in history, culminating in an authoritarian State) significant?

It gets at the broader question of how knowledge is made in Integral Studies circles (insofar as it constitutes some of the presuppositions of professed integral writers, Ken Wilber in the front row of these). It also suggests some possibilities for critique. How relevant to Aurobindo and those who effectively profit from his intellectual labors (again, Wilber in the front row) are materialist or at least non-idealist critiques of Hegel's historiography, and the political consequences of that historiography, for instance? Where there is earnest critique, there is a possibility to advance, to move forward, instead of retreating into the comfortable.

To give some context on this, consider the case of Sean Kelly's book on Jung and Hegel (Kelly is an important figure at the California Institute of Integral Studies, an explicitly Aurobindian institution where a lot of important work is getting done). Kelly finds that Jung and Hegel agree on a number of things, and that where they differ, contemporary readers can learn from those differences too. Now, Jung surely read Hegel, and was exposed to different forms of post-Hegelian idealism throughout his lifetime. So there is a material basis for finding these claims very plausible. There is a conceptual basis for the same: both Jung and Hegel are idealists, and as idealists, any difference between them will not be fundamental but will express differences over how the ideal is expressed: an internal debate.

Now, how does this project constitute a good fit with CIIS? Aurobindian thought is without reservation idealistic. The CIIS pedagogy? Idealistic. The culture? A new-age redaction of post-Hegelian evolutionism mixed with a new-age redaction of post-Jungian romantic hero-journey collective consciousness far out man. This may sound dismissive, but I do not think it is unfair. If it is dismissive, it is dismissive of certain intellectual mistakes made at a certain time, not dismissive of the people who made them or the institution at which those mistakes were made. Again, the only way to move forward is to recognize past and current errors and correct them. My point is that Sean Kelly's book on Jung and Hegel, conceived and researched if not completely written before he was hired at CIIS if I understand correctly, is a good example of how this nexus between Hegel and Aurobindo is constitutive of how knowledge is made in the world of Integral Studies. Therefore, some critical and objective understanding of this nexus would constitute a useful advance for integral studies.


I am fascinated with the case of Vitvan and his School of the Natural Order. I bring it up again because of its relevance to the question of Aurobindo and new age culture in the US, as well as whatever it is we currently call integral studies.

Specifically, Vitvan's doctrine and practice anticipated much of Aurobindo's mature work. Vitvan, as near as I can tell, did not have significant knowledge of Aurobindo's work until his own was well established, in fact crystallized from many of the same sources as Aurobindo himself had been exposed to (Shaktism, European idealism, post-Victorian bric a brac on race, Theosophy, &c). So: how best to characterize this? How to understand Vitvan's role in the formation of the human potential movement in North America, his contribution to new age culture, and his near absence in contemporary discussions of the same? How to understand his oeuvre vis a vis Aurobindo's?

More personally, I would love to visit the Home Farm. Some places are sacred. Some of those places are in the North American West. This may be one of those places. Look at these mountains. Those images make me homesick, longing to get away from the east and back home to the west. But I digress.

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