Sunday, March 27, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: Hegel, Dialectic & Revolution

Hegel (1770-1831) is one of my favorite philosophers. In order to understand Hegel we study Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, the book that got me and others such as Angela Davis into Hegel. In the first part of Marcuse’s book he examines Hegel’s philosophy as it developed through his life (a very Hegelian method), and in the second part he examines Marx’s philosophy and later Marxist theorists building on while transforming Hegel’s philosophy. There will be more on Marcuse and his impact on the 60s next week with Socialism, as he is again one of the central authors we will read on the subject.

In college, I took a class on Hegel from a visiting German professor. I did not understand Hegel reading Hegel, but later in graduate school I read Marcuse’s book and got into a skeptical yet Hegelian view of the mind and reality. American and British schools neglected the study of Hegel until after the fall of the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union promoted the study of both Hegel and Marx as the science of history. Marcuse’s book is in fact a post-Marxist socialist rescuing of Hegel from theorists who argued that Hegel was a fascist and his ideas lead to Stalinist dictatorial communism (such as Popper).

Today we introduce Hegel, his life and important ideas, and finish with Hegel’s Phenomenology (his theory of History) and its master/slave Dialectic. Next time, we will look at Hegel’s Logic (his theory of psychology, his Philosophy of Right (his political theory) and the following of the Young Hegelians (the most famous being Marx). This will set us for studying socialism and communism in the coming weeks.


As I mentioned already, Hegel was a teenager during the French Revolution, and like his fellow German and European youth he watched with great anticipation hoping for radical change of tradition in the name of reason and rationality. Recall the Cult of Reason that Robespierre tried to install. Hegel watched the French Revolution and became more cynical and conservative in time. Many scholars have argued that this dialectic in Hegel’s own opinions was formative for his understanding of history and philosophy. By the time Hegel wrote his major work the Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind, he believed that Napoleon was a hero who embodied a new stage of history on horseback, and that Napoleon was a transition to the final form of politics embodied in the German and Prussian state governments that balanced authority with rights and liberties. As we will see when studying communism, Hegel went from believing in continuous revolution like Trotsky to conserving the established state like Lenin, which is also a great continuous change/Reason to supporter of the state/Understanding.

Hegel began his academic career much as Nietzsche, Heidegger and other German philosophers did: studying to be a theologian and Lutheran minister. Nietzsche wrote that one only has to mention the College of Tubingen (where Hegel began study) to know what German philosophy is at bottom: a cunning theology. I myself enjoy pointing out the similarities between Christian Neo-Platonism (the central philosophy of the European middle ages, the material one would study as a German doing theology) and German philosophy and it was the topic of my master’s thesis. Hegel does believe that the process and evolution of history is that of humanity building stage by stage the full understanding and reason of the human mind, which is the mind of God and the universe (similar to the understanding of Newton who was the rage in Hegel’s time). Marx took up this idea but famously “stood Hegel on his head” by taking Hegel’s system of dialectics and arguing that this is not the mind of God but the material science of politics being established according to the necessary process of reason, taking Hegel’s idealistic theism and making it materialistic atheism.

As a youth, Hegel thought that reason and freedom were the true forces of good in the universe, sounding much like a Jacobin. After watching the collapse of the French Revolution, he continued to view reason and freedom as the forerunners of human achievement but came to see understanding and necessity as counterweights that cause history to sway in a back and forth manner that Hegel identified with the Socratic and Platonic method of dialectic, of arguing both sides of an issue back and forth to achieve greater truth.

In 1801, just two years after Napoleon’s coup in France, Hegel began his academic career as a professor of philosophy in Jena. At the time, Kant was the rage in German philosophy, and Hegel’s philosophy developed in dialogue with Kant and others in vogue at the time. Hegel particularly took up Kant’s idea that understanding and reason are oppositional forces of the human mind and conceived of all history, including philosophy and politics, to be a dialectical evolution between these two forces.


Hegel has two major ideas that became very influential for later thinkers. The first is historical explanation or explanation by process. Hegel argues that things are not simply what they are at once, but evolve through stages to become what they are, and the process by which they evolve show us how the things essentially work. Also, things are not simply what they are in themselves but are what they are in a situation with other things by which they become what they are. After Hegel, Marx, Darwin, and Freud were major thinkers who overturned old theories of static order with new theories of process to explain the workings of the mind and society. Consider that Newton thought God made the earth at the very beginning in an instant, while most believe today that there was a process by which our planet, the solar system and the galaxy formed. Consider the controversy about evolution and Darwin, and how this questions our human-centered understanding of reality.

Hegel’s second major idea, the mechanism or motion of evolution over time, is dialectic. Dialectic is a Greek term for arguing back and forth, for and against a position, to come to greater understanding. Socrates and Plato believed dialectic was the superior method of acquiring knowledge, and Plato’s dialogues present Socrates arguing against others and himself in this way. Hegel argues that all things are made of oppositions or contradictions (contra-diction means “arguing against”, like arguing both sides, the pros and cons, of a particular thing). This is similar to Newton’s idea that for every force there is an equal but opposite force.

Hegel’s dialectic works in a three stage pattern of positive, negative and synthesis. Consider the French monarchy and feudalism, the French Revolution, and Napoleon. Consider the hometown conservative, the college liberal, and someone trying to find the overall truth after taking both sides. Hegel presents ideas as starting out positive (dogmatism), flipping and becoming negative (skepticism), and then reaching a resolution of positive and negative as a joined whole which then goes on to become the next positive or dogma for another stage of evolution. Hegel argues that by looking at things as evolving over time in a situation, not immediate and isolated, and looking at things as two sided and in opposition to themselves and others, rather than categorical and without tension, we can come to understand how things actually are, which is a union (while an opposition) of how they are in the mind and world.

In the course of the history and evolution of politics and philosophy, thought has to gather everything into a universal whole while at the same time dividing everything up into their particular parts. It does this with the two opposite forces or faculties of understanding and reason. Understanding, the anchor and stability of the mind, has two jobs: keeping thought the same and keeping conceptions separate. Reason, the motion and freedom of the mind, also has two jobs, which are naturally opposite those of understanding: continuously changing thought and uniting conceptions together as a whole. This is the reason that dogmatic and conservative thought wants to keep traditions and ideas as they are and prevent them from getting mixed up, while skeptical and liberal thought want to change traditions and ideas and criticize the separate categorical differences of the understanding with inter-relativity. While everyone uses both understanding and reason continuously everyday and at every stage, dogmatists and conservatives prefer set understandings to fluid reasoning while skeptics and liberals prefer fluid reasoning to set understandings.

For Hegel, at each stage in any area of thought (religion, politics, philosophy, science etc) understanding provides the stable ground for the back and forth positions of reason. Philosophies, political positions and scientific theories reason against each other even as they share the common understandings of the time and place. Theologians fight theologians in the name of religion, lawyers fight lawyers in the name of law, philosophers fight philosophers in the name of philosophy, and scientists fight scientists in the name of science. For Hegel there really is only one tree-like being which is mind/spirit, and the philosophies are views, perspectives within the one dialectical course of things which is thought. Many have written a good deal about Hegel and Marx each coming to set understandings and then being contradicted and developed by later thinkers in the names of Hegel and Marx themselves.
Remember that Radin argued there are philosophers in all cultures, but they are rare. Hegel argues in his Logic that philosophers are rare because most get stuck in a one-sided understanding either on the side of dogma/understanding or skepticism/reason, and it is only the rare individual who can see the latest stage’s contradiction on both sides and become the understanding of the next stage (just like Napoleon). My own take on Hegel is much like that of Marcuse: dialectic is not giving us the unopposable truth, but powerful new truths (interpretations for Nietzsche, descriptions for Wittgenstein) that will be opposed but also supported by others in the continuous evolution/revolutions of truth and history. Recall Thoreau wondering about American democracy.


I disagree with Hegel’s history because it is quite simplistic and eurocentric, but it is an excellent introduction to Hegel’s thought not only because it was his first major work, after which he wrote the Logic to clarify the inner process of the mind at work in this history. Like the Logic, it shows dialectic working in three stages to complete itself as a union of contradictory sides.

For Hegel, the first stage of history is the Orientals. Hegel uses this term as it was used until recently, before the 1960s, to refer to everyone who is not European. As archeology in Hegel’s time had revealed the ancient glory of Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, Hegel puts this as the first and basic starting stage in human development. It is good that this is the non-European start, but unfortunate that all further development is European (first Greek, then German) and the development is a course of Europe becoming different from others. The Orientals understand objectivity and the state, two powerful positives. The Orientals are the start of society and science, but they do not question their society or science. They see the real as real, but do not understand that the real is also mental and can be questioned. It is the Greeks, and specifically Heraclitus, who Hegel argues make this next leap and become the second stage of history.

The Greeks now rise above the Orientals and grasp the opposite of Being as Non-Being, the opposite of the state in the individual, the opposite of objectivity as subjectivity. While Hegel believes that the Greeks are the ones who did this, it is more correct to understand the relationship with the earlier empires as more complex and also that the Greeks were only one civilization of many that made leaps forward like this (Jaspers calls the age of the Greeks, the Indians and the Chinese, the three places we studied in the ancient world in depth, the axial age). Just as the Orientals understood the positive, the Greeks understand the negative, the temporary, subjective and perspective. Hegel sees this as Heraclitus bringing Being and Non-Being together as Becoming, and sees Plato merging Heraclitus with Parmenides as a further development. However, this is not the last stage because the Greeks still put Being off in another world, either as Heraclitus’ flux of fire or Plato’s static ideal forms.

It is the Germans, and specifically Hegel himself, who see the true unity of objectivity and subjectivity, of state and individual, of necessity and freedom, of science and discovery, to complete the history of thought in three stages. Notice that Hegel leaps entirely over Islam in a page, with no credit at all. The Europeans, are in the position to realize the union of the mind and world. Hegel sees Hume and Kant as the last negative and positive before his own system of unification. Hegel believes that history is almost at its completion in his time with his own philosophy and the politics of the German parliamentary state which balances collective objectivity with individual subjectivity, balancing authority with rights, liberty and property as Locke argued it should. Rights and property are the unity of objective and subjective, the unity of the state and the individual understandings and perspectives.


One of the main ideas that structures Hegel’s Phenomenology is the Master/Slave dialectic, the continuous process of overturning that occurs at every transformation and revolution from one stage to the next in history. It works equally on the level of idea, individual and social movement. At first, the individual goes out into the world and discovers that there are other beings out there with other opinions and views. The individual thus wants to at first kill, later conquer these others, as it wants to prove its view, its subjectivity, to be objectivity. The slave, then, comes to do everything for the master, and develops understanding with reason while the master deteriorates and grows lazy in a stagnant understanding/political arrangement. The slave comes to realize that one can do things for someone else (doing things for self and other at the same time), overcoming his own desires, and thus develops and triumphs over the master and becomes the next master.

This is Hegel’s explanation for why the Orientals started but then failed to do real subjective philosophy, the Greeks followed but failed to complete subjectivity with objectivity, and the Germans bridge the gap seeing subjectivity and objectivity as two sides of the same thing. Notice that this tells us the Greeks were slaves of the Orientals, and the Germans were slaves of the Greeks! This is not often pointed out, but it is implied by Hegel and confirmed by historians today.

The Master/Slave dialectic had a great influence on many thinkers, especially progressive left-leaning political thinkers such as Hegel’s student Marx. Marx argued that just as the French Revolution threw off the old masters, the clergy and nobility, the coming communist revolutions would throw off the new masters, the industrial capitalists. Feminist Hegelians use the master/slave dialectic for women, like Simone de Beauvoir did in ‘The Second Sex’. Post-Colonialists use the master/slave dialectic for oppressed minorities, such as Franz Fanon did in ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, as did the Black Panther, activist and professor Angela Davis (who went to Germany to study Hegel before going to jail for providing two shotguns to Black Panther party members in Oakland during the 60s). Considering that class, race and gender are the ‘big 3’ issues in academia since the 60s, Hegel is quite influential.