The Salvageable Hegel

hegel

After reading The Accessible Hegel by Michael Allen Fox, the following Hegelian notions are the ones I came away thinking were not completely hogwash…

ABSOLUTE TRUTH

Hegel believes that we humans possess the potential to know Absolute Truth. We are rational and reflective and have the ability, at least eventually, to correct wrong beliefs.  By the very fact that we can recognize limits to our knowledge, we have already begun the process of transcending those limits– for, says Hegel, to recognize a limit is to already be imagining the place beyond that limit.

Hegel defines “rational” as anything the human mind can grasp and assimilate without contradiction. Because Hegel believes the Universe is rationally constructed, he believes we humans have the potential to understand it.

Hegel does NOT believe in some other-worldly Spiritual realm, but instead contends that the Spiritual is present in the here and now, bound-up in the things we perceive. We get a glimpse of the Spiritual through an object’s Form, for from the Form we can surmise the Function of a thing, and once we grasp the Function of a thing– that is, once we comprehend the activity that a thing was made to do– we gain an understanding of that thing’s Essence.

Besides the presence of the “Spiritual” (whatever that is) in the things around us, Hegel also asserts that what he calls “The Absolute” (and by which he also means “God”) is also embedded in the world we experience. Thus, human beings can know God because The Absolute is always “directly before us.”

HEGEL’S DYNAMIC VIEW OF THE WORLD

Hegel possesses a drastically dynamic view of the Cosmos, considering all things to be in a constant state of change, full in every instant of birth and death, growth and decay. But in spite of the unceasing creation and destruction of the parts, says Hegel, the Whole remains stable.

Hegel recognizes that all things– no matter what their state of BEING– are on the way to BECOMING something else. This “becoming something else” often looks to us as dying, but it can also take the form of birthing or growing or dividing. Things are defined not by what they are, but what they are Becoming. And their Becoming is defined via their relationships with the other things of the world. We never perceive any object in isolation; each object is always attached to, and intricately part of. its web of relationships.  Hegel hints that the understanding of the Universe is similar to the understanding of a symbolic language, and he explains that, as with any language, “the meaning of a symbol is relative to the entire system of representations containing it.”

According to Hegel’s dynamic and interrelated view of the World, Truth is not some dead and frozen fact, but contains within it –not only the result of inquiry– but the PROCESS of the inquiry, itself. The process of Truth-finding is what gives context to Truth. Truth is not just some found treasure, but also the path that leads to the treasure. “Truth,” writes Hegel, “is not a minted coin which can be given and pocketed ready-made.” Truth is an ongoing development.

The whole history of Philosophy, which some might define as the search for Truth, is not an assortment of incompatible worldviews, but a SINGLE MOVEMENT toward Truth. Unfortunately for us however, Philosophy is of little help in practical life.  Philosophy, being the attempt to understand the world, is always struggling along behind the day-to-day; this is because the world, according Hegel, can only be understood retrospectively. We can only comprehend what the day was about after night is already approaching. Or, as Hegel once famously described the situation: “The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.”

THE DIALECTIC

Hegel is probably most remembered for his theory of the Dialectic. And, indeed, I agree with many (including Marx, a sometime critic of Hegel) who claim that the general concept of the Dialectic is one of Hegel’s most important contributions to philosophy.

I was long confused by other people’s confusion as to what is meant by the term “Dialectic.” Some people today have apparently adopted a very broad view of the concept, considering more-or-less any evolving process as “Dialectic.”  When Plato first used the term many centuries ago, he was referring to the Socratic Method, in which Socrates revealed the logical flaws of his interlocutors’ arguments by asking them penetrating questions.

But when Hegel adopted the term, he ignored the question-and-answer element and concentrated instead upon the give-and-take characteristic of the method.  What Hegel specifically describes by “Dialectic” is a three-part process most often represented today as the interplay between: Thesis, Anti-Thesis, Synthesis…. The Thesis meets its Anti-Thesis in opposition, and they combine to give birth to a third thing, the Synthesis, which then becomes the next-generation Thesis, with the process starting all over again, repeating indefinitely.

For Hegel, the confrontation between Thesis and Anti-Thesis is very much a DESTRUCTIVE process, and he viewed the Dialectic as an instance of Creative Destruction, since it is the act of destruction (of Thesis and Anti-Thesis) which leads to the creation the new Synthesis.  Both Thesis and Anti-Thesis are changed by each other, each becoming something else.

The whole World is undergoing this process– in all realms, in all parts, and at all times. A ball hits an obstacle, and a new trajectory is produced. Red meets Yellow and Green is the result. Capitalism and Communism grapple, and State-Managed Capitalism emerges.

We humans have become conscious of the ongoing Dialectical process. HOW we became conscious is perhaps the most unusual story in all the Universe. Hegel believes that unconscious Nature was first on the scene, and that consciousness emerged out of it. And from consciousness eventually emerged self-consciousness.

THE WORLD SPIRIT AND WORLD HISTORY

Hegel maintains that there exists a World Spirit which is the common consciousness participated in by all humans (and please don’t confuse this with Jung’s even more preposterous notion of the “collective UNconscious[ness]”).

History, for Hegel, is the unfolding of the World Spirit’s quest for Self-Expression and Self-Understanding.

Personally, I find Hegel’s ideas of the three entities– 1) God, 2) the World Spirit, and 3) The Absolute– conflated and confused.  Hegel speaks of God (which he prefers to call “The Absolute”) as, like the so-called World Spirit, also seeking Self-Understanding via human consciousness. However, since nothing in this area of Hegel’s thought is based whatsoever in any realm approaching empirical fact, I find this whole area of his fantasizing unworthy of much study or mental exertion.  So, let’s just skip it, shall we, and spend the time on something more productive… like sweeping a beach.

Besides all his talk about the World Spirit et al, Hegel spends a fair amount of time talking of World History. Hegel practically personifies World History, and speaks of its ambition to progress toward “the consciousness of freedom,” as well as its utter lack of concern for individuals as it determinedly pursues its path.  

Individuals are used merely as instruments to further World History’s own progress. Even the happiness of whole nations is as nothing to World History. Only a few people in the history of the world actually matter at all– and even these “world-historical individuals,” says Hegel, are deluded as to the size and importance of their actual role.

HEGEL’S EXTOLLATION OF THE STATE

One of the greatest tools of this World History pseudo-personage is the State. Hegel holds a high, almost devotional, opinion of the State, and in this, he strikes me as a German of his time.

Hegel contends that the Self has two parents: 1) itself (the Self is self-made), and 2) Community (social interaction). Hegel asserts that “self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness.” In other words, there is a feeling of loss or incompleteness if one is forced into isolation. To acquire full Selfhood, people need the feedbacks of recognition and affirmation from others.

Society offers individuals complex forms of feedback, which become formative influences on us. Hegel believes in love, and considers it, in his fantastical metaphysics, as the World Spirit experiencing the “feeling of its own unity.” Love in this view is basically a grand feeling of sympathy.

Hegel maintains that people are living ethically when they have found a way to merge together their individual wills without mutual impingement upon those wills. He believes this is why the State is the highest level of Society since it provides the combination of structure and freedom which allows for the greatest level of Self-Actualization. For Hegel, full Selfhood comes only through the State.

SELF-ALIENATION

Hegel maintains that, as God (or the World Spirit or The Absolute or whatever) is achieving Self-Realization through human self-consciousness, that He/It is having to EXTERNALIZE himself in order to get a good look at Himself. Hegel demands that we think of this externalization as an act of divine Self-Estrangement, one in which God sets Himself up in opposition to Himself. Perhaps Hegel needs to spin it this way in order to apply his Dialectical method of development. Whatever the reason, he tries to convince us that it is Human Thought that bridges the Self-Estrangement gap. Yay for us.

PHILOSOPHICAL LEGACY

I can see how this area of Hegel’s thought might be exerting influence on Marx in several areas. First, Marx shared the Hegelian notion that World History is moving along toward something, and that this progress is fueled by conflict. It seems Hegel merely implies the INEVITABILITY of this progression and its successful conclusion, whereas, as we all know, Marx made quite the big to-do about the inevitable fall of Capitalism and the victory of Communism.

Marx also may have derived some his notion of Self-Alienation from Hegel.  Marx contends that one great evil which Capitalism bestows upon Man is that of separating Man’s Existence from his Essence.  Marx explains that Man’s Essence is problem-solving-and-work, but Capitalism forces Man to work, not in fulfillment of his Essence, but merely for the sake of others, thus creating a chasm between Man’s Essence (work) and Mans’ Existence (daily drudgery). Marx probably read where Hegel had written about the severed hand– to paraphrase slightly: a severed hand might still look like a hand (has Existence), but its function (Essence) is shot to hell.

I can also see where Sartre may have been influenced by Hegel when it comes to the idea of Self-Alienation as manifested in “Bad Faith.”  While I was reading of Hegel’s belief that the Self often veils the Truth from itself, I was reminded of Sartre’s description of people who play a “role” in life instead of being their honest selves. Hegel also speaks somewhere of the “Bad State”– a condition in which a Self “merely Exists” as opposed to actualizing the potential of its Essence (fulfilling its purpose).

Hegel additionally asserts that the Self comes to know itself through the mirror of social interaction, which is also something Sartre explores when he writes that “Hell is other people”– that is, people’s opinions of ourselves are very, very important to us, and are to a large extent how we determine who we think we are (the creation of Identity) and how we feel about ourselves.

B.S. Meter

Lastly, as I consider 90% of Hegel’s philosophy crap, I can’t resisting quoting some of his more famous detractors.

Schopenhauer calls Hegel a “charlatan” and described his work as a “pseudophilosophy” entitled to “the ridicule of posterity.”  According to Schopenhauer, Hegel serves up large portions of “sheer nonsense” wrapped in a “senseless and maddening web of words.” He complained that Hegel’s immense influence “resulted in the mental ruin of a whole generation of scholars.”

Kierkegaard, Fox tells us, was also critical of Hegel, calling Hegelianism “a venture into the comic.”

Marx, though obviously greatly influenced by Hegel (and I seem to recall, at least early in life, greatly impressed by him), said that Hegel had, indeed, discovered a great truth with his Dialectic but that his communication of this wonderful notion was garbled.

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