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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)


Themes, Arguments, and Ideas

Themes, Arguments, and Ideas

Dialectic as the Fundamental Pattern of Thought

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’ famous principle that if we’re thinking, we can at least be sure that we exist.

Hegel used the dialectic for a different purpose than arriving at first principles. To understand what the 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.

Spirit as the Self-Awareness of Society

The German word that is normally translated as “spirit” in English versions of Hegel is Geist, a word that can mean both “spirit” and “mind,” depending on the context. Hegel uses it to refer to the collective consciousness of a society, in the sense that we might speak (following Hegel) of the spirit of the age. In both English and German, spirit can also mean a ghost, and it can be used to refer to religious phenomena as well. Both of these senses are relevant to Hegel’s term because the collective dimension of consciousness, what we might call culture, is similarly intangible and mysterious. Spirit is located neither in objects nor in individual minds, but in a nonmaterial third realm that contains ideas that a whole society has in common.

Spirit does not exist from the earliest moments of human history but is instead a modern phenomenon toward which humanity had to evolve. According to the process outlined in the Phenomenology of Spirit, human consciousness starts from a position of trying to grasp objects through sensory inputs and moves on to more sophisticated ways of relating to the external world, until it finally reaches the level of Spirit. At this stage, consciousness understands that individuals are bound to other individuals in a single communal consciousness, or culture. Spirit is the self-consciousness of the community, the whole of which individuals are only a part. As the consciousness of spirit unfolds and changes, so do the values and actions of the individual parts of which it is made.

Lordship and Bondage as the Basis of Social Relations

Hegel agrees with other idealists, such as Kant, that consciousness of an object necessarily implies consciousness of a subject, which is a self perceiving the object. In other words, human beings are not only conscious of objects but also self-conscious. Hegel takes this view a step further to suggest that self-consciousness involves not only a subject and an object but other subjects as well. Individuals become aware of selves through the eyes of another. Thus, true self-consciousness is a social process and involves a moment of radical identification with another consciousness, a taking on of another’s view of the world to obtain a self-image. Consciousness of self is always consciousness of the other. In relationships of inequality and dependence, the subordinate partner, the bondsman, is always conscious of his subordinate status in the eyes of the other, while the independent partner, the lord, enjoys the freedom of negating consciousness of the subordinate other who is unessential to him. However, in doing so, the lord is uneasy because he has negated a consciousness with which he has radically identified in order to assure himself of his independent and free status. In short, he feels guilty for denying the moment of mutual identification and sameness to preserve his sense of independence and superiority. Social life is founded on this dynamic of competing moments of mutual identification and objectification, of identifying with and also distancing oneself from the other.

Ethical Life as the Expression of an Age

Ethical life is a given cultural expression of Spirit, the collective entity that transcends all individuals and determines their beliefs and actions whether they are aware of it or not. Ethical life reflects the fundamental interdependence among individuals in a society and finds articulation in their shared customs and morals. Hegel argues that the tendency in modern life characterized by economic individualism and the Enlightenment idea of the individual as a subject possessing various rights represents a movement away from the recognition of essential social bonds. Before the Enlightenment, human beings were generally considered in terms of how they fit into social hierarchies and communal institutions, but following Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant, the individual on his own came to be considered sacred. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel explains that the modern state is the institution that will correct this imbalance in modern culture. Although economic and legal individualism play a positive role in modern society, Hegel foresees the need for institutions that will affirm common bonds and ethical life while preserving individual freedom. He believes, for example, that the state must regulate the economy and provide for the poor in society and that there should be “corporative” institutions, somewhat similar to modern trade unions, in which different occupational groups affirm a sense of social belonging and a feeling of being connected to larger society.