Notes on reading Hegel: Why bother?
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is the single most influential European philosopher his era. That is simply statement of fact.
Note that I do not say that he is the most important European philosopher of his era. That would probably be Kant. Kant left philosophy with a set of problems with which philosophers wrestle with to this day. For instance, the Analytic tradition rarely mentions Kant, but still occasionally struggles over the possible usage of ‘synthetic apriori’ principles in logic and mathematics, which is a problematic residual from Kant’s epistemology. Even if one doesn’t find an answer to one’s question in Kant, frequently one finds a way to phrase it properly. After all, Kant’s major contribution was construction of a critical philosophy, one that would discover the limits of human reason, rather than a means to settle all questions. Thus, consider his response to Hume’s rejection of the epistemological claim on the reality of causation; i.e., Hume’s revelation that, although we can witness two events, one following the other, we can’t say with certainty that the first even caused the second. ‘Causation’ is thus revealed as a habit of mind. It is Kant who then, critically, reaches the limit that Hume only suggests – namely that it is in the structure of the human mind that we cannot help but read the relation of such two events as ‘causative’ in nature, especially should those events recur regularly in the same way under the same conditions; that is ‘lawfully,’ in accordance with presumed ‘laws of nature.’ These ‘laws’ are in our heads, but we will continue to discover them in nature, because that’s just how human reasoning works. This doesn’t settle whether there are in fact such ‘laws,’ but gives us a reason for rephrasing that question whenever we come across an apparent anomaly, such as the behavior of particles at the quantum level.
And it was also Kant who first described that in our perception of nature, what we judge as its beauty is its apparent “purposeless purposiveness” – that is its apparent purposive presentation and behavior that in fact has no discernible purpose. Two hundred years later, although they’re not talking about the beauty of nature, yet still talking about our perceptions of it, biologists now agree that living organisms must be allowed to present a ‘teleonomy’ – that is, a tendency to develop and behave in ways that seem to be moving towards a goal, even if such goal cannot be determined (and most organisms wouldn’t know what it was, anyway). Or to put it simply – a purposeless purposiveness.
So if we ask which philosopher’s legacy (from the era at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries) has provided the most or the best tools for thinkers in a number of fields – from aesthetics to philosophy of science to anthropology – we probably need to answer with Kant; that makes him important.
But if we ask which philosopher has had the greatest impact, both on philosophy and assorted academic endeavors, as well as beyond the Academy and deep into the cultures of his day and ours – that would be Hegel.
There are a number of ways we know this, but I will present one easily demonstrated, and one that would require pages of quotation and citation to support properly – but which quotations and citations can be discovered; I know since I remember having bumped into them at one point or other in my graduate studies and beyond.
The simplest demonstration is to remind my reader that at one point in recent history, half the globe was dominated by governments founded on a narrow interpretation of Marxist socialism (i.e., ‘Communism’). Now, disciples of Communism who haven’t read much beyond Marx or Mao like to quote Marx’s claim that he had “turned Hegel on his head,” but if they haven’t read Hegel, they don’t even know what that means. Most Marxist intellectuals (including Lenin) not only understand this quote, but many of them understand that it’s not possible to do this. If one thinks one has gotten the best of Hegel and properly flipped him around, one has simply slipped into a blind spot Hegel has prepared in advance.
Marx isn’t alone in getting his hands “stuck in the tar baby” (as one of my professors put it) of Hegel’s “Dialectic.” Dialectic is an old term originally referring to strategies of argumentative discourse, primarily a means of deciding between conflicting syllogisms. (Kant provides an extraordinary demonstration of classical dialectics in his Antinomies – instances of conflicting arguments that cannot be properly resolved.) Hegel decided that dialectics was determinant of the very structure of knowledge, and thus generated not only the process of reasoning, but the process of inquiry, and the inevitable behaviors that inquiry itself generates. Thus it also inscribes the process of intellectual history, and insofar as intellection influences politics and culture, just history per se. The story of human kind (well, at least in Europe) is the playing out of this Dialectic.
I’m going to set aside adequate discussion of the nature of Hegel’s dialectic for now. I once wrote a pretty good description of it, but re-reading it recently, it’s far too complicated to get the point home with any force. And the usual reduction of the dialectic to a process of “thesis/ antithesis/ synthesis” is really far too simple to get across anything like its real flavor.
For now, let me go back to discussion of Hegel’s influence: I left off remarking that Marx was not alone in being influenced by Hegel. In fact pretty much every thinker of the 19th Century had to come to terms with Hegel in some way or another. Generally this “coming to terms” followed one of four paths: There were the Hegelians (including Right Hegelians and Left Hegelians, but also Idealists of one kind or another who tried to expand on Hegel); these included people like Feuerbach but also the English thinker F. H. Bradley and the American Josiah Royce. This also include a slew of politicians, public servants, and educators across Europe and America. But the identifiable Hegelians somewhat lost influence after WWI (except in France, where they blossomed).
Then there were those influenced by Hegel, but who worked their way to original ideas, largely by back-tracking to the insights of earlier philosophers, primarily Kant or Hume (sometimes as far back as Aristotle), and then letting any ‘dialectic,’ if it existed, play out in practice, letting theory follow after. This was largely how Pragmatism originated in America (possibly also Transcendentalism), but it can also be found in the work of Dilthey and his inheritors, including certain Phenomenologists. (One can also see this operating in parts of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.)
Then we have those who, in one way or another, can be said to have rebelled against Hegel after having learned from him. We’ve already remarked Marx; for this camp, I would also nominate the like of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bakunin, and other iconoclasts of the 19th century. But it would also have to include those in Britain who first learned from, then rebelled against British Idealism – such as Bertrand Russell.
Finally, perhaps the most interesting response to Hegel is to be found among those who hated him right from first impressions on. Some were Kantians; some were conservative Lutherans or Catholics; some were dogmatic empiricists or materialists. These included Schopenhauer, but also Schleiermacher, progenitor of modern hermeneutics; and Kuno Fischer and Herman Lotze, the teachers of Frege. This sounds like a meaningless category – after all, if they didn’t like Hegel to begin with, well, they couldn’t be said to be influenced by him.
But I didn’t say they didn’t like him; I said they hated him. They knew of his ideas and were repulsed by them. Their own ideas thus reach maturity partly as a result of this repulsion. They stand at the real limit of possible responses to Hegel. One adopts, rebels, learns from, or simply hates – but no one in the 19th Century could simply pretend that Hegel didn’t exist.
As we can see, all of contemporary philosophy can be traced back to some response to Hegel – back to someone who was a Hegelian, or who learned from him, or who rebelled against him, or who hated him. (A similar claim cannot be made for Kant – some in the 19th Century couldn’t find a use for Kant, but I don’t think anybody actually hated him.)
There are lots of contemporary philosophers who are not aware of this. (Although most of those practicing in the so-called Continental tradition do; which is one of the reasons Anglo-Americans, having forgotten Hegel, have a difficulty understanding what Continentalists are talking about.)
But whatever side of the Dialectic on which we find ourselves in Modern philosophy, we are still within its domain – maybe only partly, maybe only slightly. But Hegel prepared the way for us – whether we like it or not.