Hegel’s hard work

February 23, 2011

Marx looked to Hegel's original method for thinking about society's problems.

"IF THERE should ever be time for such a work again," said Marx to Engels amid a flurry of letters in January of 1858, "I should greatly like to make accessible to the ordinary human intelligence, in two or three printer's sheets, what is rational in the method which Hegel discovered but at the same time enveloped in mysticism." (From The Selected Correspondence of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: 1846-1895, New York: International Publishers, 1942, p. 102.)

Sadly for us, he never got around to it. However, even Marx's extra-ordinary intelligence may have had a hard time condensing Georg Friedrich Hegel into a couple pages. And as we will see, Hegel would have rejected the very notion that it could or should be tried.

I will attempt here to accomplish the more modest goals of addressing several important ideas credited to Hegel, explain why they mattered so profoundly to Marx as a student, and then point to some places to learn more for those who are bitten by the Hegel bug.

Hegel's world

Columnist: Todd Chretien

Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.

Hegel was born in 1770. That's important because it means he was 19 years old when the French Revolution broke out about 350 miles to the east in Paris. Democratic-minded European youth stood in awe of the power of the French and American Revolutions to sweep away monarchies.

Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is titled Ode to Joy, after a poem by Friedrich Schiller from the time, which sings, "Be embraced millions. This kiss to the entire world!" The English poet William Wordsworth penned the famous lines, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!" They were both born within months of Hegel.

In 1791, Hegel even joined fellow students in a May Pole dance, reciting Schiller's poem. All very subversive, according to the authorities in Berlin.

But the revolution did not come to Germany, and Hegel spent the next 15 frustrating years tutoring the children of aristocrats and working as unsalaried part-time lecturer. He struggled to master the greats of European philosophy and to write something that would make enough waves to land him a full-time job.

He finally hit pay dirt in 1806 when he published his groundbreaking Phenomenology of Spirit. The same day that he sent the proofs to the printers, French troops under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, passed through Jena, the German city where Hegel was teaching, on their way to setting up a puppet regime in southwest Germany.

From his window, Hegel got a glimpse of Napoleon and was overcome with admiration. It seemed to him that the French Revolution was washing away the petty world of German princes. In fact, the French-backed government did enact important anti-feudal reforms over the decade or so it survived.

Hegel was well placed to take advantage of this opportunity. His new book celebrated radical philosophical and intellectual change and articulated a new way to understand history.

It also helped that the French supported liberals in the educational bureaucracy, assisting Hegel in wining appointment as the headmaster of a prestigious high school, then to a chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, and finally the chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he taught until his death in 1831.

To put it bluntly, Hegel owed his career to revolution...even if it was second-hand.

Hegel's big ideas

Hegel is hard to read. Often really hard. In fact, sometimes nearly impossible. Especially if, like nearly everyone on the planet, you are not familiar with late 18th century German philosophy. Hegel's philosophical contemporaries developed a highly formalistic language (making up new meanings for common words, for example) and built an intellectual universe based on detailed references to each other's work.

To be clear, you do not need to read lots of Hegel to understand Marx; however, doing so (at least a little) can give you an insight into how Marx developed his own revolutionary theories and, I think, provides you with a richer appreciation for his views on social change.

In my last column, I suggested reading the first four paragraphs of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Here we see that not only is Hegel unapologetic about his book's density, he explicitly justifies it, saying that it is "even inappropriate and misleading" to give a simple summary of his philosophy, because boiling it down to its essence "does not comprehend the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive unfolding of truth, but rather sees simple disagreements."

Hegel is arguing that genuine knowledge can never be simply passed along from teacher to student as a finished product, as a passive gift (or even a burden as many students might feel). Real learning is a process that requires sustained effort that must get beyond the "mere beginnings of cognition." Simplifying ideas to the point of oft-repeated slogans only creates

an impression of hard work and serious commitment to the problem. For the real issue is not exhausted by stating it as an aim, nor is the result the actual whole, but rather the result together with the process through which it came about.

If you stop and think about it, this is really interesting. Hegel is arguing that the journey is just as important as the destination--it is a necessary part of the whole. In fact, if you become fixed only on trying to remember where you're going, you'll never learn to get there. (In philosophical terms, Hegel believed he had discovered the solution to the object-subject divide that Kant stumbled over.) This view of knowledge as a process is one of the most important things that Marx took from Hegel.

In those same paragraphs, Hegel puts forward one of the best examples of what he would come to call dialectics. To begin with, the word itself originally (from the Greek) simply meant a dialogue between two people who were trying to arrive at a common understanding of the truth.

So every time you and a friend talk about what to eat for dinner, you are practicing dialectics. Chinese, no. Italian, no. Sushi, yes! Of course, Hegel gives a broader meaning to the term as he shows with this example from nature:

The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the latter; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it instead. These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time, their fluid nature makes them moments of an organic unity in which they not only do not conflict, but in which each is as necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole.

The basic ideas contained here make up the building blocks of Hegel's specific notion of dialectics: change through conflict (the fruit consumes the blossom); quantity changing into quality (incremental growth within the bud suddenly "bursts-forth" into something entirely new); and the importance of understanding the totality of a process and not simply partial stages ("moments of an organic unity").

Hegel then applies this insight over the course of nearly 500 pages to supposedly show how all of previous thought and culture, covering thousands of years, was really a process by which the "fruit" (something he called "Absolute Knowing," which seems very much like God) became self-aware...and how Hegel was the only one clever enough to realize it.

Here is why Marx said that Hegel's version of the dialectic is "enveloped in mysticism." For Hegel, all human ideas and history are only projections--"spirits"--of the various moments or stages in Absolute Knowing/God's quest for self-consciousness. (Phenomenology, p. 493)

Hegel continued to develop his unique perspective in several other imposing works, in which he traced the development of state (government and civil society) forms, the stages of history, economics, art and even the structure of thought itself.

Hegel's theory and practice

UNFORTUNATELY, HEGEL the man was not nearly so revolutionary as Hegel the philosopher. Once ensconced in his well-paid chairs of philosophy, he made his peace with the German princes (or at least bit his tongue often enough to protect his position). Toward the end of his career, he pointedly argued that "what is rational is real and what is real is rational."

This was during the period when the authorities, especially the Prussian monarchy, were reasserting their power, purging liberal thinkers from the universities and clamping down on all forms of political dissent. Although Hegel himself spoke out against anti-Semitism and opposed a return to pre-Napoleonic royal despotism, he did make himself into a kind of (distant) intellectual advisor to the throne.

Hegel's ideas would soon inspire a generation of writers and political activists (who would salvage his emphasis on transformation, fluidity, conflict and change), but the great philosopher himself never attempted to engage in the struggle.

In his youth, he hoped that his new way of thinking was the intellectual forerunner, a natural reflection, of the revolution that Napoleon would bring to Germany. In his later years, he retreated to trying to make philosophical sense of the gap between the democratic ideals of his youth and the growing conservatism of German politics.

In the preface to his Philosophy of Right in 1820, he wrote:

When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

For Hegel, Minerva (knowledge) always comes too late to change social conditions--it can only ever be written in hindsight. This belief provided the ideological justification for accepting the status quo because any attempt to change the present was necessarily made from a position of ignorance and was therefore futile...if not downright wrong-headed.

Yet if Hegel failed to find the solutions he sought along the long road between Wordsworth's "blissful dawn" and his own "grey dusk," Marx would soon appreciate the groundbreaking contribution he made in developing an original method for thinking about society's problems and attack them in ways Hegel never dreamed.

FOR FURTHER reading on Hegel, find Introducing Hegel, written by Lloyd Spencer, with illustrations by Andrzej Krauze. And for more of Hegel himself, finish the preface to Phenomenology. It's about 45 pages long.

Next time, we'll take up the beginning of Marx's career as a revolutionary journalist. To get a jump on it, read "Debates on the Law on Theft of Wood" in the Rheinische Zeitung newspaper, October 25, 1842.

Further Reading

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