A Short Piece
Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis
Misattributed to Hegel, “TAS” might still be a useful mental model since “ideas are not experiences.”
Every Hegel presentation is obligated now to make the point that Hegel never said “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” that this is a misreading. Really, Hegel talks about “abstraction, negation, and concretion,” and I think it’s important to get that right. At the same time, the very fact that the misreading of “TAS” (as I’ll say for short) has been so popular is evidence that there might be use to it, even if a misattribution. Indeed, I myself like the “mental model” and have used it to think through problems (I’m often looking for a synthesis between views). Also, I think TAS tends to be a good description of how the world works. In my opinion though, why TAS works is not so much because “ideas” form this way (as often argued), but because emotions lead us to follow TAS. Yes, after we emotionally shift, then our ideas shift, but the emotional change tends to comes first.
“Ideas Are Not Experiences” by O.G. Rose argues that history is more so driven and organized by experiences versus ideas. Experiences bring with them emotions, and emotions motivate us and our thinking, and thus are more consequential. This isn’t to say ideas don’t matter (they matter far more than we often appreciate), but to say that emotions are often “the first movers” and what motivates the majority.
Experiences and emotions are strongly tied together, and this is a big problem, because that means “the idea that we shouldn’t do x” will likely not compel us to not do x; rather, it is “the experience of x” which will compel us away from x. Of course, if we experience x, that means it is already too late to avoid x. Only ideas or abstractions can help us avoid x before x occurs (say we think through causality, hear a story about what happened to someone else, etc.), but if ideas don’t motivate us like experiences, that means it is less likely we will be motivated to avoid x before it happens than we will be motivated to avoid x after it happens. But if x happens, that means we didn’t avoid it.
Can’t we at least learn to avoid x next time? Yes, we could, and some people do, but even the notion that “x was bad and should be avoided” must reside in memory as “an idea,” and it will prove weak against the experiences in the future that make us want to do x again. Indeed, x never exactly repeats; instead, we experience something “like x” say in y, and we can always thus tell ourselves that “y isn’t like x,” because indeed it is not exactly the same. And if we are tempted to do y (and thus is relevant to discuss as we are now), then that means we will have space to convince ourselves that y is worth doing and won’t be a repetition of x. And since y will be an experience while x is an idea, x will probably not convince the majority to follow it in comparison to y. And so history will likely repeat…
The breakdown between “ideas” and “experiences” is useful for understanding why history repeats, people end up divorced, why relationships crumble, and the like, but why should that help us understand why history follows TAS? Well, because “within history” oscillations tend to occur which follow TAS. For example, societies might emphasis freedom, decide freedom without communities that guide/limit freedom is anarchistic, and then come to settle upon a blend of freedom and government, but this TAS itself is something which societies “cycle” back through time and time again, but in different ways and in different repetitions. It is never an exact repeition, and thus there is always space to believe “x isn’t y,” and thus to do y (the experience) over x (the idea).
Naturally, we experience a thesis, and when we experience its shortcomings (as every thesis must entail, perfection being impossible), then we are compelled to experience an antithesis, and when we suffer the imperfections of that, then we are compelled to experience a synthesis — on and on. Philosophy would arguably have us think of the whole TAS from the beginning, and by doing so we could save ourselves a whole lot of trouble and jump straight to the synthesis, experiencing that without delay. But doing this is extremely unnatural, and it is highly unlikely the majority will, and thus history is a story of us having to experience the movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, even though it is possible for us to “think ahead” to what the synthesis will be and simply start there in our experience. But if we did this, we could always wonder “if” the thesis would have actually lead to the antithesis, and thus we could always live with doubt. This can cause existential anxiety (we don’t like existential anxiety), and who are we to “assume” the thesis wouldn’t have worked out? Do we know for sure? Of course we don’t — we didn’t experience it — and so we tend to “go back” to fill in all the steps of TAS we skipped from experiencing. And thus history repeats.
Where TAS doesn’t unfold in experience, it often proves too difficult to maintain our state or say a synthesis “with ideas,” for ideas do not provide us with emotional confidence and stability like experiences (this also hints at why it is so hard to succeed in the stock market). Yes, we could theoretically avoid the whole TAS arch by discerning what the synthesis will be and jumping straight to that (or better yet, the synthesis of the synthesis of the synthesis — far down the chain of TASs), but practically this doesn’t tend to occur, simply because “ideas are not experiences.”
Though not found in Hegel, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis might still usefully describe how history develops and unfolds, precisely because “ideas are not experiences,” and we tend to operate in the following way: we experience a thesis, which compels us to experience the antithesis, which then compels us to experience a synthesis. Experience, and the corresponding emotions, compel us into a process of feeling and sensing an idea, the counter idea, and the blending of the two into a new thesis. The “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”-model seems to hold true because of emotion more than thought (because we don’t really take seriously as “good sense” what we don’t “sense,” per se). This isn’t to say emotions are bad, but that they can be (like everything) and tend to be when they compel us toward experiences at the expense of ideas versus in concert with them. If we must experience something for it to be true, then what will come is what we must allow — for good and for bad.