Boris Sidis, Stuart Chase and Friedrich Hegel on the language of love

Ever since Darwinism gained a hoof-hold onto many organs of academia, the gap between science and philosophy has been growing wider. And to such an extent that many modern scientists “drivialize” philosophy. In the last two decades, the most famous spokesman of this view is the swashbuckling biologist, Richard Dawkins. In the 1930-40s, it was the economist-sociologist, Stuart Chase who, arguably, wore the same mantle that Dawkins wears today. Here is Stuart Chase on the 18th century German philosopher, Friedrich Hegel. Hegel claimed that his philosophical system surpassed all previous systems of philosophical thought. Stuart Chase in his personal philosophy, “I believe”, writes:

“A correspondent has sent me a quotation; Hegel’s definition of love. “Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal proton of the absolute totality of the Infinite Being.” (in “I believe. The Personal Philosophies of twenty-three eminent men and women of out time,” 1952 (first published 1940), London, George Allen and Unwin, p. 56).

“This, said Chase, sounds alarmingly like nonsense, but the influence of Hegel is profound…Whatever he meant, he was unable to communicate it to me. I doubt if it has ever been communicated to anyone. The verbal structure itself forbids communication. I could spend my life contemplating this string of symbols and receive no more reward than in contemplating “X is the A of the B of the C of an infinitesimal portion of the D of the E.”

“So, Chase continues, I cease to contemplate it. I pass it up, I pass up all such talk, from Aristotle to Spengler. It saves a lot of time. But the talk of Einstein and Planck I do not pass up. I do not understand all of it , but I know by diligence I could come to understand it. The symbols connect with real things. The talk checks with observable phenomena. Nobody can do anything but obfuscate himself with Hegel’s symbols about love…In reading, in listening, I try to separate talk which goes round and round from talk which refers to something outside my head.”

In sum, science is useful, philosophy is useless.

Stuart Chase and many others heckle at Hegel’s “tyranny of words.” Boris Sidis, a contemporary of Stuart Chase, and one of America’s most celebrated psychologists of the 20th century (and Jewish, of course) thinks that Hegel warrants a good laugh and so includes Hegel’s definition of love in his “The Psychology of laughter,”

We saw that Chase quoted Hegel’s definition of love:

“Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal part of the absolute totality of the Infinite Being.”

Sidis also quotes this definition, but with not exactly the same wording:

“Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal part of the infinite totality of the Absolute Being.” ( Sidis or Chase have switched “infinite” and “absolute” in the definition).

Whatever the correct “Hegelian” definition, Chase and Sidis would regard either as nonsense. Actually, the first definition contains more nonsense than the second, because “absolute totality” (first definition) makes no sense in either philosophy or science, whereas “infinite totality” (the second definition) makes good scientific and philosophic sense.

But wait. There is a difference between Chase’s and Sidis’ criticism. Chase believes that he is bashing Hegel’s definition of love. Sidis, in contrast, is knocking merely a “semi-Platonic, semi-Hegelian definition of love”, in other words, something that Sidis thinks could have come from the right half of Hegel’s brain, but is, however, not in fact from Hegel. Here is an important point: before making judgments, we need to ensure that we have the required background knowledge. With regard to higher learning such as science, linguistics, history and philosophy, each discipline has its own technical language (“jargon” if you hate the “tyranny”of words – recall Stuart Chase), which you need to master. With regard to Hegel’s philosophy, the demands are even greater, because he coined many neologisms (new terms), and with it came a swathe of difficult concepts.

Hegel’s “Idea-lism tried to synthesise the relative and the absolute in such a way as to explain the totality of being. As love is part of that totality, one could say the “Hegelian” definition of love (of this discussion) might apply. For Hegel, the love that carries greatest weight is the love that is “outside of myself and in the other.” (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion). The question whether love is merely an infinitesimal part of the totality of being as in the definition, to wit:

“Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal part of the infinite totality of the Absolute Being.”

If we accept Hegel’s definition of (the purest kind of) love, namely, the love that is outside of myself and in the other, then perhaps “infinitesimal” does apply, because (total) selfless love is a rare.

Boris Sidis was a behaviourist in the mould of John Watson (1878 – September 25, 1958). Watson is famous for this dictum:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years” (Behaviorism (1930), p. 82).

Sidis believed that with the right upbringing, you could make a genius of any child. Sidis’ son William turned out to be the greatest child prodigy of his time. He ended up a misfit and a wreck, and died at the age of 46; a prodigiously wasted – seemingly loveless – life. And Hegel? Was he better off devoting his genius to the Absolute Idea, to pure Ethical freedom? Let Augustine of Hippo have the last word:

“My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me. By your gift we are set on fire and carried upwards: we grow red hot and ascend. We climb “The ascents in our heart” (Ps. 83:6), and sing “the song of steps” (Ps. 119:1). Lit by your fire, your good fire, we grow red-hot and ascend, as we move upwards “to the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 121:6). “For I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord” (Ps. 121:1). There we will be brought to our place by a good will, so that we want nothing but to stay there for ever” (Book 13 of the Confessions).


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