Some thoughts on Hegel...

These thought are still under construction...

or in process, if you will...

Most courses on contemporary philosophy that include a study of Hegel treat Hegel as the end of an era or as a jumping off point to launch into a study of Marx or the Existentialists. Most source texts that include something that Hegel wrote include the section dealing with the relationship between Master and Slave from the Phenomenology. The general impression this gives a beginning student of philosophy is that Hegel is difficult to understand, was the last of the German Idealists, not nearly as significant as Kant, and apart from the influence on Marxism and Existentialism, hardly of any interest to us today.

It is true that Hegel is difficult to understand. He can be used as a perfect example of just how difficult and tedious such philosophical works can be. (See pp. 10-11of The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism for Karl Ameriks excellent explanation of why this is so.) I even suggest using him as the perfect antidote to sleeplessness. Initially, just a paragraph or two should be sufficient to put someone to sleep, even if they weren't tired to begin with. Gradually, you do develop a tolerance and you may find you have to go as much as a page or two to have the same effect.

What I find fascinating about Hegel has little to do with his being difficult to understand. Instead, it is remarks made by scholars, such as Walter Kaufmann's, "All of philosophy may be a footnote to Plato, but all of contemporary philosophy is a reaction to Hegel." Kaufmann is certainly no slouch when it comes to handling philosophers. He is a good example of a genre of writers that deserve a special place in Heaven, reserved for those that can take the tedious and difficult and somehow make it exciting and simple. James Michener does the same sort of thing for History.

What can be so exciting and simple about Hegel?

Let's look at several simple points:

1. The contemporary view of the theory of evolution begins with him.

2. The contemporary view of the evolution of culture and value begins with him.

3. The contemporary view of the evolution of personality begins with him.

4. These first three points define our contemporary perspective.

"Hold on there!" I hear folks saying. "Surely everyone knows Charles Darwin was the culprit that started the whole fuss over evolution." Certainly the same kind of feelings are there pointing the blame at the notorious Dr. Freud for point 3, and while names may not come to mind, right off the bat - (Comte), there is the whole field of sociology that takes credit for point 2. The point is, Darwin (applies it to Biology), Freud (applies it to Psychology), Einstein (applies it to physics), and sociology (arguably the philosophical perspective of today) are influenced by the Hegelian perspective. If there is a central idea that defines the Hegelian perspective, it is the concept of evolution -- or becoming, as it is normally translated -- that sets the stage for Hegel's entire point of view. He was among the first to voice this evolutionary perspective (note: Herder and Schelling should be mentioned here as well as Hegel's other friends and associates) and apply it to everything from God to goop. (Have a look at my thesis if you are interested.)

How did he come to his perspective on "becoming?" How can we miss the impact his thought had on all of us? Do we really understand all the implications this perspective has for us? Did he?

From conversations I have with students and friends, and from reading articles in daily papers, magazines and, (Yes!) even watching TV, I have come to conclude that our "common sense" understanding of the evolution perspective is "busted." (See Daniel Dennett's new book "Freedom Evolves" for his ongoing effort to fix this problem.) Sort of like the cliché of the adoring girl friend cheering at the football game for her boy friend. She knows when to cheer but has no real understanding of what is going on in the game. Offensive? How about this one, the movie version of a book, goes by the same title, but for those who have read the book, the resemblance just about stops there. The book has a lot more to offer and the plot is changed in the movie to enable more blood, sex and action, regardless of what this does to the plot and character development. (Notice this is even an issue with movies like the Harry Potter series or the new LOTR series which tries to follow the books as closely as possible in film.)

Of course, from my perspective, there is a value in both versions. Many who would never read the book at least get to enjoy the movie. I certainly can't imagine this treatment of Hegel causing The Phenomenology of Spirit hitting the best seller lists. It has been in the cellar list for too long. The value, I think, is in clearing up some of the messes we've gotten ourselves into. Taking our contemporary perspective on evolution, from moss to cosmos, from sod to God, without figuring out all the implications this has on important social institutions, laws and interpersonal relationships causes much confusion and disaster. Much of this is absolutely baffling apart from a basic understanding of what is going on here. Wrapped up in an enigma, in an ..... is a nut shell. Lets open the nut shell and see if we can figure out what is happening to us and where we are going. That is the main point of philosophy after all.

Dialectic: the nature of dialectic is movement from conflict to resolution of conflict and from resolution of conflict to conflict. The ancient Greeks are responsible for the concept, Socrates is a classic example in that the dialogues of Plato describe Socrates in dialectical arguments that gradually unfold resolutions concerning the nature of values from the conflicting views held by those in the dialogues. Hegel felt this was a better description of how events unfold and how conflict of all types are resolved and find new conflict. Life is like this. What better way to do science than to understand this movement as the logic of life?

Kant had thought he resolved the question of how knowledge is possible by positing experience as the world of phenomena, that is sense impressions viewed by psychologically similar human beings. Our universal humanity means we experience the world in the same way. What we know is all the ways we share our experience.

Following this hypothesis, Kant continued to argue that we would have common rational goals and realizations, because of our common humanity. This is an intriguing hypothesis. It does seem that we have a common humanity. Our gene pool, our basic needs, our abilities, our relationship with one another. But many of the implications of Kant's hypothesis do not ring true to our contemporary experience. Much that Kant considered basic human values turn out to be more subject to cultural associations than psychological ones.

So too, his theory of knowledge is not satisfying. No human wants to be told what they can not do. The moment Kant laid down the law that we can not know the thing in itself, the natural desire to go beyond the limit was upon us. But this limit was tricky. It is the limit of our own perceptions. We can not see what we cannot see. We cannot hear the words that are not of our hearing. Yet we have such a marvelous wit about us that says, "I'll figure a way." We can not go beyond the barrier to see what is out there? Bring what is out there into our world, sucker it in from beyond the barrier and trap it in our net. Hegel suckered everything in by doing away with such a barrier.

Suppose someone said, "Do not open this door. There is nothing on the other side." We know right away that there is nothing on the other side and we can picture this nothing. What was Kant trying to do? Was he trying to say there were things we could not know anything about and tell us what those things were? This is not a mistake in reasoning, this is a problem with his picture of what our world is like. Hegel goes about building us a new picture of how the world works that does away with the problem of how we know. Gone is the concept of "I human" and "You world" as if the world was a picture for us to look at. Instead, Hegel takes the concept of dialectic and process and stands us there to look at this new picture. This new picture is an action video. We are no longer looking at still life, we are looking at a process of becoming, or evolution.

We still stop to describe what we see, but what we see continues to change as we describe it. Imagine describing two chimpanzees at play to someone that is wearing a blindfold. You have to give them a blow by blow description if you try to describe it as a picture, because the picture keeps changing. They are on this side of the room, now on the other, now divided, now on top of one another. If you use descriptive phrases that express the level of activity, or the nature of the activity as consistently lively, or now lively, now not, you may accomplish other things that would be useful, but whatever approximates a video camera description will be closer to the truth than a still shot. We still find wonderful uses for still life, but if a picture is worth two thousand words, a video or action movie is worth more than two thousand times two thousand words.

Compared to Kant and his predecessors' view of knowledge, knowledge as still photography, Hegel's view of knowledge is video. Holographs would be even closer to his perspective, if we can imagine those, perhaps as lively as real experiences.

In thinking about this comparison, we come from a Hegelian view of things. Very few of us could have escaped the cultural images of evolution, change, conflict, continual movement. Ours is a universe that is expanding. Various evolutionary theories are part of our "factual representation" of the world, taught to our children as science. TV and movies are part of our daily experiences. Any "picture" we have of Kant and his predecessors would include these perceptions as if we were to challenge someone who only has experience of color TV to imagine a show in only black and white. Certainly, there are those who remember both, as well as those that can not afford color, or maybe even find TV a strange device. We are from this point onward unable to escape the cultural implications of so much movement.

What I describe as Hegel's impact then, seems nothing more than common sense. This is how we view the world. But it wasn't always that way. I feel that Hegel can be pointed to as the turning point.

So, the concepts of dialectic, dialogue, evolution, becoming, all enter into our understanding of the universe. This impacts our view of the evolution of the world, will impact Darwin's view of biology, Freud's view of psychology, Wittgenstein's later view on the dynamic nature of language, Philip Kitcher's view that Mathematical Laws evolve.

A significant part of the usual presentation of Hegel's philosophy is the selection from the "Phenomenology of Spirit" While the section in the reading is titled “Master – Slave” and in other translations “Master – Servant” the piece is trying to convey the nature of consciousness once there is self-consciousness. While consciousness seems to be a characteristic of all animals (perhaps at least higher mammals) self-consciousness occurs as a result of language and thought. A person becomes self-conscious when they think about themselves. They then have a conceptual image of who they are or what they want to do which seems primarily a result of the person have the language to do this. At this point the person has a name, for example, and thinks of themselves as that named person. So self-consciousness requires a two sided conversation between the subjective self (the in itself) and the objective self (the for itself) or the conception the person has of who they are. As a result, there are “two selves” in one person that argues over what should be done next. Should I eat this candy bar? No, says one view I have of myself – it is bad for you. Yes, says the other, it is delicious. And so the internal argument continues finally with my deciding to do one or the other. The winning side is the master, the losing side is the slave or subservient side. So this sort of conflict between consciousnesses can be viewed as internal to the person arguing with themselves as if there are two selves fighting for dominance and this continues from choice to choice. But there is also the interaction between two people which can work out to be the same sort of conflict. Then again, there is the interaction between a person and a group, or two groups, or a group and a city, a city and a nation, and so on, for all the cases where self-consciousness interacts with another self-consciousness. A city can be self-conscious as well.  Even the world is self-conscious and so has a world soul (in German a Welt Geist) and is self-conscious just as people are self-consciously aware of themselves as the people of the world. So, while there are obviously classes of people, and groups, and so on that have a self-image, or group consciousness, and those come into conflict with other groups and sometimes win and sometimes lose, it is really a much more pervasive type of dialectic that Hegel intends to describe with this example. Notice, even the slave ends up dominant in an ironic twist since the master’s “existence” is actually constructed by the slave!

A fascinating book is Fukuyama's The End of History and The Last Man. This book strikes me as making use of Hegelian concepts to look at our current situation in a way that indicates agreement with what I see as the "correct" interpretation of Hegel. We could always argue over particular points. But this book supports the view that I expect to see more often. Another book that concentrates on describing Hegel's thought that is short and well done is Peter Singer's Hegel. (This is the same Peter Singer who is famous for his fight for animal rights and the Great Ape Project.)

For a collection of essays that reflect the more contemporary view of Hegel The Cambridge Companion to Hegel is a good choice. Terry Pinkard and Walter Kaufmann are others.

To be continued...of course.

My video on YouTube:

This page is maintained by William S. Jamison. It was last updated July 11, 2016. All links on these pages are either to open source or public domain materials or they are marked with the appropriate copyright information. I frequently check the links I have made to other web sites but each source is responsible for their own content.