George Walford: NIAT (44)

A recent book by John Rowan describes the late Harold Walsby, creator of systematic ideology, as a Hegelian. The title is not one to be ashamed of and Rowan doubtless intended no derogation, but by presenting Walsby as a mere follower of Hegel it does suggest an unduly low estimate of his achievement. More may have been intended than meets the eye. Hegelian thinking advances by contradiction, so that in order to have been a Hegelian in the fullest sense, in the sense that Hegel was one, Walsby must also have been an anti- and a post- or super-Hegelian, but an audience without particular knowledge of the subject, and offered no explanation, can hardly have been expected to appreciate this.

Walsby’s particular effort in this connection was to cut through the haze of mysticism surrounding such Hegelian concepts as the self-development of the Idea; he sometimes spoke of advancing from philosophy to science, although here again complications arise, for one of Hegel’s main works was the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, and the science Walsby had in mind was rather more than the precise measurement of physical events that often goes by the name. Hegel used the best knowledge available, but he died in 1831. So far as information goes Walsby had all the advantage provided by the evidence from more than a century of accelerated social development, together with access to the work of Freud, Darwin, Pavlov, Einstein, Marx, Jung, Heisenberg, Frazer and many other investigators. But we cannot take it that he did no more than apply Hegelian principles to a wider range of experience, for Hegelian thinking recognises no rigid division between a principle and its application; any change in one affects the other, to extend the application of Hegel’s principles is to develop them.

John Rowan tells of his initiation by Walsby into the recognition that nothing is absolute, “a devastating intellectual experience.” (The present writer underwent the same initiation and was similarly affected). The recognition that nothing is absolute or – seen from the other side – that everything is relative, antedated Walsby, Wallace for example saying in 1893: “The Absolute … always presents itself to us in Relatives.” [2] Walsby’s particular contribution here was the formulation: “Nothing is absolutely true” – from which the present writer drew the acronym, NIAT.

Small as Walsby’s change may seem, it transforms a remote philosophical principle into an influence directly affecting every serious discussion, for if nothing is absolutely true then rational acceptance of one proposition rather than another can only rest upon examination of the evidence and reasoning supporting each of them, the conditions under which they were made and the purposes they are intended to serve. Nothing is absolutely true (put the emphasis where you like) brings the dynamic power of Hegelian thinking to bear on every serious┬ádiscussion and, in particular, it opens the way to a rational comprehension of systematic ideology. If NIAT, then the statement “this ideology is worthless” can never be absolutely true; there must be value in all ideologies, and each of them has to be studied to fmd where its truth and validity lie.

[1] Rowan J. 1990. Sub-Personalities, London: Routledge 5.
[2] Wallace W. 1931. Prolegomena to the Study of Hegel’s Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press 294.

from Ideological Commentary 44, March 1990.

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