Hegel and the Dialectics of History

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has remained an influential philosopher for many philosophers nowadays. He has certainly made his mark in western philosophy, even if only because he immensely influenced Karl Marx. Hegel is responsible for putting history in philosophy. He tried to create a theory where history had an end goal. Where history itself would end, something the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama announced in his book The End of History, where he claimed that capitalism and liberalism had shown its dominance as the better system. For Hegel, history was a rational way towards freedom.

            According to Hegel, reason itself is the ‘Sovereign of the World’. This means that Hegel believed that the world itself was rational instead of irrational. Reason is the ‘substance, that by which and in which all reality has its being and substance’. Thus, world exists according to rational laws. It isn’t too far a stretch to conclude that history itself is also rational.

This is because history adheres to the concept of dialectics. Dialectic goes like this: there is a thesis and there is the anti-thesis (this is not necessarily the opposite; it is rather something that negates the thesis). Because both are in conflict with one another, the result is the synthesis, which then proceeds to become a new thesis. And thus, the process continues ad finitum.

Or does it? There is a telos (a goal) where history is working itself towards and that is the full manifestation of the Spirit (Geist). This metaphysical entity is the one true goal of human history. ‘The essence of Spirit is Freedom’, claims Hegel. The Spirit needs to become self-conscious of its own freedom. But maybe it might be better to explain Spirit first. The Spirit is something ambiguous in Hegel’s philosophy (I have done too little reading on Hegel to fully understand the concept, but maybe by writing it out I’ll come one step closer). The Spirit is everything in the world. Because everything in the world is rational, everything adheres to the Spirit. We could call it God, but that is not the name that Hegel chooses. We are all part of the Spirit. Everything is part of the Spirit.

The Spirit needs to become self-conscious; it needs to acknowledge itself. And it does this via the concept of Freedom. We as human beings need to constitute the self-consciousness of the Spirit. We need to become self-conscious ourselves and we do that by acknowledging the fact that we are free. Every person ever born is free in and of itself. The only reason that people can be slaves is because they aren’t self-conscious of their own freedom. Nobody, by birth, is born a slave. It is imposed upon you.

But this conception of Freedom is not something we as human beings have had, says Hegel. Hegel proceeds to show an evolution in history where the concept of Freedom becomes more and more acknowledged. The first example he gives is the ancient Persian Empire. In that Empire only one person, namely the tyrant, was free. Though other people might have wealth by serving him, they weren’t autonomous beings. They could only act in accordance with the one ruler.

The second stage is presented by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks came to the conception that some people were free, namely the rich aristocratic elite of Athens. This, however, was only possible because there were slaves who did all the work in Greece and the wives who stayed at home. Women weren’t seen that much in public, mostly because it was believed that they had no place there. So, with the Greeks, some were free while others weren’t.

Then with the rise of Christianity the concept of every man and woman being created in the image of God, the concept of universal freedom arose. Yet, it took, according to Hegel, the German society to really incorporate that idea that everyone was free. The German society was the self-conscious society. It had conceived the essence of the Spirit. Hegel promoted the German society where he lived as the pinnacle of the concept of Freedom. This is also where history would end. When we are self-conscious then we have achieved Freedom.

Now, some questions can be asked for this conception of history, but the influence this had on many post-Hegelian thinkers is paramount. Where Hegel only wanted to describe the way, history was progressing in a rational way, Young-Hegelians said we should change the world. Hegel didn’t care to speculate because he believed that we could not know what the future would hold (even though there are normative elements in his work, although he claims to only describe). Influenced by Hegel, Karl Marx would say that philosophers have mostly interpreted the world, but now the time came to change it.

The dialectics of Hegel are very important for philosophical thought after Hegel. The dialectic already existed with Socrates, who called it the Elenchus. But to propose a history based upon a rational dialectic was something new. The dialectics of Hegel are still used by many, mostly influenced by Marxism. But even Nietzsche has committed the dialectic to his work in the form of the Apollonian and Dionysian character.

What we are doing now is dialectic. I am writing something and you’re reading it (hopefully, otherwise that would mean that I’m not that interesting, which might very well be the case; but then that would also be dialectic 🙂 ). This will culminate in synthesis and so the dialectic process will continue. At least, if we follow Hegel, history will continue to become more rational. Something we very much need nowadays.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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