History has a way of turning complex philosophers into simple cliches. Through the course of my philosophical education, I’ve only ever heard of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a target for refutation, a “straight man” from an earlier age of extreme rationalism, destined to be torn to shreds by the witty talents of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, William James. With skillful opposition like this, Hegel’s legacy of crystalline idealism never stood a chance.
It also did Hegel’s legacy no favors when Karl Marx built his advanced theory of utopian Communist society upon a Hegelian framework, though Marx explicitly stated that he was doing so by transforming Hegel’s abstract intellectualism into a materialist system of thought, aiming for real-world results rather than theoretical conclusions. It’s does not seem that Marx’s Communism was a faithful friend to Hegelian idealism (Hegel died when Marx was 13 years old, so Hegel never knew about his most influential follower) — but it is clear that Marx ruined Hegel’s name for legions of anti-Communists. Once a bright light of the German renaissance, Hegel has taken such a terrible beating from the empiricists, existentialists, pragmatists, free market economists and philosophical libertarians who followed him that his reputation can barely be said to have survived at all, except as a symbol of obsolescence.
Can a beating like this ever be fair? Is it possible to find value in Hegel’s work today, and is there any point in looking for it? Well, it’s certainly possible to understand Hegel as a fuller person when one learns that he began his fruitful philosophical journey as an eager University student in Tubingen, Baden-Wurtterberg, where, incredibly enough, he shared an apartment with the future poet Friedrich Holderlin and the future philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Their dorm parties must have been intense. Hegel’s early college years were the years of the French Revolution and its tortuous aftermath, of shocking political changes that rocked all of Germany and central/eastern Europe. Eventually, after young Hegel advanced to graduate studies in the Prussian university town of Jena, he would directly witness Napoleon’s victorious entrance into that town, and would applaud the champion of French egalitarianism even though he was fighting against German armies.
If Hegel’s ideas can be reduced to a single cliche, the cliche might be stated as follows: humanity is destined to progress towards eventual intellectual perfection, towards a state of graceful wisdom. The method of progress will be the presentation and overcoming of conflict. A thesis will present itself, and will be challenged by an antithesis. The apprehension of the previously hidden harmony between the thesis and the antithesis will result in a synthesis, thrus resolving the conflict. The synthesis then presents itself as a new thesis, to be challenged by a new antithesis, and so on, until eventually the entire intellectual sphere finds itself in a state of synthesis.
What would this perfect state of synthesis feel like? Would it resemble the Platonic world of ideals, or the Christian concept of a redeemed world, or the Hindu state of nirvana? The answer is unclear, and furthermore I was surprised to learn only recently that Hegel never himself characterized his philosophy in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis at all. True to the best cliches, this specific formulation, the formulation most popularly identified with Hegel to this day, did not originate with Hegel at all, and appears rather to have been applied to his thought after his death.
However, that doesn’t mean that the concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis is wholly misleading as an introduction to Hegel; it does appear by most accounts to be a consistent capsule summary of Hegel’s belief in the method of dialectic thought, and of the inevitability of intellectual resolution of all apparent ideological conflicts.
What seems to have offended Hegel’s eventual critics so much is the idealist philosopher’s confidence in the neatness of a future better world, as well as the threat of an oppressive state that might use Hegelian ideals to mask its totalitarian intentions. We may each privately dream of floating in a philosophical state of pure wisdom, pure synthesis, but it is embarrassing to admit to such naive enthusiasm for philosophical perfection. More critically, it is politically dangerous to trust in any leadership structure that shows a tendency for ecstatic philosophical overreach (as the poor citizens of many Communist and fascist nations of the 20th century would painfully learn).
I have never read a book by Hegel, and do not remember ever being assigned a Hegel text of any kind when I was a college student (though I do remember reading original texts by other philosophers criticizing Hegel). A short article on the Oxford University Press blog recently caught my attention, prompting this blog post today. Oxford is putting out a new edition of Hegel’s late work Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, the book in which set out to address worldly ethics ranging from family values to the meaning of love to national and international politics. Two paragraphs from this book caught my attention:
The family, as the immediate substantiality of spirit, is specifically characterized by love, which is spirit’s feeling of its own unity. Hence in a family, one’s disposition is to have self-consciousness of one’s individuality within this unity as the essentiality that being in and for itself, with the result that one is in it not as an independent person but as a member.
Love means in general terms the consciousness of my unity with another, so that I am not in isolation by myself but win my self-consciousness only through the renunciation of my independence and through knowing myself as the unity of myself with another and of the other with me. Love, however, is feeling, i.e. ethical life in the form of something natural. In the state, feeling disappears,; there we are conscious of unity as law; there the content must be rational and known to us. The first moment in love is that I do not wish to be a self-subsistent and independent person and that, if I were, then I would feel defective and incomplete. The second moment is that I find myself in another person, that I count for something in the other, while the other in turn comes to count for something in me. Love, therefore is the most tremendous contradiction; the understanding cannot resolve it since there is nothing more stubborn than this point of self-consciousness which is negated and which nevertheless I ought to possess as affirmative. Love is at once the producing and the resolving of this contradiction. As the resolving of it, love is unity of an ethical type.
The idea of love — presumably, either in the context of family love, romantic love or a wider notion of societal communal love — as an all-encompassing quasi-Hegelian synthesis seems consistent with what I’ve always understood to be the Hegelian method, but it also strikes unexpected chords. It recalls Carl Jung’s analysis of the eternal crisis between individuality and unity:
The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.
It also touches on themes about individuality and the self that we have covered often here on Litkicks. Most refreshingly, these passages offer a chance to consider Hegel’s ideas from a personal point of view, rather than from the political/societal point of view that has been so destructive to his reputation.
We do not need to dismiss the achievements of a once-great philosopher because his ideas led to fatal political mistakes — especially when the tumult of history has proceeded so clumsily and violently from the philosopher’s original thought that little connection to the original work is left. Hegel stands today as a symbol of philosophical overreach, but in his own revolutionary age, his overreaching ambition must have seemed merely hopeful and constructive. Later Hegelians would take his ideas too far, but that doesn’t mean the ideas lack all value.
Indeed, even though our global societies have failed to improve themselves through the transforming magic of intellectual dialectic, we can still see small moments of Hegelian synthesis all around us, all the time. During the past week, the news media in the United States of America has been buzzing with the lessons learned by the Republican party following the defeat of Mitt Romney, and with a sense of new optimism now that President Barack Obama has been reelected. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. In the Middle East, new wars and old wars in Syria, Gaza and Israel are frustrating and infuriating peaceful observers everywhere. Thesis. Antithesis. No synthesis in sight.
Every time a human tragedy occurs or a political mistake is made, we yearn for resolution, for synthesis, for a chance to reach a greater level of wisdom to help us ensure that such tragedies or mistakes will not occur again. This yearning is often in vain. No overarching universal global dialectical climax seems likely to ever occur all over the surface of the planet Erth. However, small moments of individual or communal dialectical climax seem to occur constantly in our everyday lives, and these moments can influence or affect us greatly.
No less than during the Napoleonic age that thrilled and inspired Hegel, we live through conflicts of Hegelian magnitude still today. Revolutions occur every minute, somewhere in this world, and possibly even more often inside our own homes, or inside our own minds. I don’t know if we need to read Hegel’s long and somewhat abstract original texts or not (though, as I sample them today, I find them quite enjoyable and rewarding to graze through). But it does seem that our societies have never stopped progressing in Hegelian patterns of conflict and resolution. Two centuries after his own era of peak creativity and renown, we live in Hegelian times even today.