Before Hegel, the word dialectic referred to the process of argument and refutation through which philosophers sought to discover the truth. Plato’s dialogues offer the prime example. One person advances a proposition or belief, and Socrates refutes it and shows why that proposition is wrong, which clears the way for a better, more convincing argument to take its place. The point of dialectical reasoning, before Hegel, was to clear away misconceptions and arrive at first principles—basic, fundamental truths on which we can all agree and that the philosopher can use as a starting point on which to base a philosophical system, such as Descartes’s famous principle that if we’re thinking, we can at least be sure that we exist.

Hegel used dialectic for a different purpose than arriving at first principles. To understand what dialectic means for Hegel, we have to first understand that Hegel was an idealist, in the tradition of his predecessor, Kant. Like Kant, Hegel believed that we do not perceive the world or anything in it directly and that all our minds have access to is ideas of the world—images, perceptions, concepts. For Kant and Hegel, the only reality we know is a virtual reality. Hegel’s idealism differs from Kant’s in two ways. First, Hegel believed that the ideas we have of the world are social, which is to say that the ideas that we possess individually are utterly shaped by the ideas that other people possess. Our minds have been shaped by the thoughts of other people through the language we speak, the traditions and mores of our society, and the cultural and religious institutions of which we are a part. “Spirit” is Hegel’s name for the collective consciousness of a given society, which shapes the ideas and consciousness of each individual.

The second way that Hegel differs from Kant is that he sees Spirit as evolving according to the same kind of pattern in which ideas might evolve in an argument—namely, the dialectic. First, there is a thesis, an idea or proposition about the world and how we relate to it. Every thesis, or idea about the world, contains an inherent contradiction or flaw, which thus gives rise to its antithesis, a proposition that contradicts the thesis. Finally, the thesis and antithesis are reconciled into a synthesis, a new idea combining elements of both.

Essentially, Hegel sees human societies evolving in the same way that an argument might evolve. An entire society or culture begins with one idea about the world, which naturally and irresistibly evolves into a succession of different ideas through a dialectical pattern. Since Hegel believes that this succession is logical, meaning that it could only happen one way, he thinks that we can figure out the entire course of human history without recourse to archaeology or other empirical data, but purely through logic.

Popular pages: Selected Works of G.W.F. Hegel