The culmination of the German Idealist project comes with Hegel. I’m not going to go on at length about Hegel – he’s a difficult philosopher who is the subject of considerable controversy. All I will do is attempt to offer a vague idea.
The whole of German Idealism may be seen as an attempt to answer certain problems found with Kant. Perhaps the two greatest problems are the Thing-in-Itself, which we can know nothing about, and the distinction between sensible and conceptual – the former, we are given, and the latter we produce ourselves. In this model, the human mind is responsible for the form and structure of consciousness, but not for its contents, which instead are given from outside. However, this scheme rests upon our ability to divide cleanly between content and form – and, just as the Cartesian dualism of mind and body lead to problems over how the two could interact, so too the Kantian dualism of content and form lead to problems over how the two could be divided. Already in Fichte, we see how ‘formal’ characteristics require particular content – the formal concept of self-limitation requires particular concepts of content, such as other minds, and external bodies. Thus the line is blurred – if the existence of other minds is presupposed by our formal concepts, and is therefore equally as indispensible as our formal concepts, yet at the same time as inescapable as them, is this existence not itself a formal concept, part of our schematization of the world? Perhaps we simply cannot avoid believing in other minds – in which case, we should reconsider whether our belief in them is really on the grounds of experiential evidence, rather than an innate schematic feature.
In Fichte, this blurring is peripheral, because for Fichte the prerequisites of self-consciousness are mostly negative – all that is required is the existence of a check against the self, rather than the particular positive details of that check. Hegel begins on this level, but follows Fichte’s abortive lead by considering not only the action of the Self on the Other, but their interaction. By seeing the self not as an independent thing but as the product of an interaction between Self and Other, he brings far more of the content of the Other into the requirements of consciousness – in other words, he erodes the Kantian duality by showing how much of the content of our experience is just as necessary as the form of our experience, and how the content plays a role in shaping the form just as much as vice versa – until ultimately all content is form, and form content, and the whole structure of the world is knowable through conceptualisation, rather than through sensation. At the same time, by following Schelling’s work on the impossibility of extracting the Object from the Subject, and the productive faculties of ‘the Absolute’, which Hegel conceives of in mental terms, he does away with all need for the Thing-in-Itself.
The key part of this process is Hegel’s pursuit of what Schelling called ‘a history of consciousness’ – a history that Hegel makes both finite (perceived in space and time) and infinite (existing beyond such human concepts). Like Schelling, Hegel treats self-consciousness as something that has to be attained, not started from, and that therefore appears in many different stages, each inadequate in its own way. Each stage is undermined by its inherent contradictions, which are resolved, or ‘sublated’, by the shift to a new stage. This shift has certain conceptual prerequisites; and crucially, because this history is also being played out in finite, ‘real world’ history, it has certain physical prerequisites as well – but these two sets of prerequisites are not actually distinct, only different ways of seeing the same thing. The history of the world is therefore only a way of conceiving of the rise to self-consciousness of the Absolute; and, since this conception of self-consciousness is itself a part of self-consciousness (because the Absolute, in us, cannot conceive of itself without the formal structure of our experience), history is both the conception of, and the reality of, a struggle for self-consciousness. This process of a series of stages, each of which is undermined by its inherent contradictions, Hegel called a ‘dialectic’. Hegel conceives of this dialectic as encompassing the entire evolution of the world, and of man and his societies within it.
Four other things should be observed. Firstly, Hegel follows the later work of Fichte in turning from the individual mind to the mind of the nation, and finally of humanity as a whole. Consciousness as the consciousness of multiple, interacting, competing individuals is only one stage of the dialectic, riven by its own contradictions, which will be resolved in a new form of consciousness, a new type of state, in which there is a consciousness that is not particular.
Secondly, an important feature of Hegel’s dialectic is the concept of the master/slave relationship: when two consciousnesses encounter each other, they lose their pre-eminence, and struggle to re-impose it by mastering the Other. They engage in a fight to the death – one wins, through its lesser fear of death, and a master/slave relation is established. Because the self-consciousness of each is dependent on their recognition of, and also by, the Other, each is only imperfectly and dependently self-conscious. This is a deficiency that is rectified through the dialectic: the relationship between the two passes through a number of different forms, stages of which are represented in history by different types of state, and by different types of religion, until both Master and Slave are able to exist no longer in a state of dominance, and hence dependence, but rather in equality, and hence mutual freedom. One driving force in this dialectic is the fact that the Slave, by being forced into labour, comes to master his environment, and achieve greater self-consciousness, while the Master can do nothing except through the Slave, upon whom he becomes entirely, childishly, dependent – this balance of power conflicts with the ostensible power of the Master over the Slave, and this contradiction fuels the evolution to later forms of relationship. The highest form of evolution known to Hegel was the political system of Prussia in the 1830s, and the form of Christianity practiced there – a state of near-perfect reason, equality and liberty; accordingly it was there that Hegel was created to spread his message, for Hegel represents the latest, and perhaps the highest, possible form of consciousness of the World-Spirit.
Thirdly, it is important to note not only that the Slave gains his greater self-actualisation ultimately from his greater fear of death, but that in fact Death can always be seen as the ultimate instantiation of the Other, by which we are checked but over which we seek to re-establish pre-eminence, and that Death is in particular the Master to our Slave, whose callous demands compel us to labour and action, and hence to self-actualisation. For Hegel, then, being-for-ourselves is in the end dependent upon being-toward-death.
Finally, in his belief that history was one telling of the story of our struggle for self-consciousness, Hegel came to portray our own, individual struggles, as represented in the works of the philosophers, as only a part of the overall struggle, just as we as individuals are only a part of the World-Spirit. Vitally, this implied that each philosopher was limited, and likewise gifted, only the stand-point of their own particular point in the history of the World-Spirit – no articulation of belief could ever reach beyond its historical situation to claim an abstract and absolute truth (except, perhaps, Hegel’s own philosophy – the question seems debated by scholars), and none could ever be understood except from its particular historical position. The radical conclusion, if it is accepted that the self-actualisation of the World-Spirit will never end in our finite perception of the world, is that we cannot fairly judge philosophers by their closeness to the truth, but only to the form and limits of truth as it could be known in their own time.
Hegel’s work has been hugely influential. If Kant set the question for the age, Hegel provided the definitive answer. Subsequent philosophy has largely been an attempt to avoid Hegel’s answer: sometimes, as in Marxism, Positivism, Existentialism and Phenomenology, by cutting out certain elements of Hegel, while retaining many facets of his presuppositions and terminology; other times, as in Analytic Philosophy, by essentially anathematizing all Hegel’s works and seeing what work can be done without drawing upon him in any way – which is a large part of the current contempt in which the Analytic tradition holds the more Hegelian Continental tradition.
Because of the divisive impact of Hegel, philosophy from this point on becomes rather harder to narrate chronologically, as different traditions explored different responses. For this reason, the rest of this post will be somewhat ahistorical, regarding some of the more important direct descendents of Hegel, even when they became influential later than some of the anti-Hegelians I will come to in subsequent posts.
One approach to Hegel was to strip out what was considered most objectionable, or most counter-intuitive, which was generally believed to be his metaphysical content (which, indeed, some Hegel scholars now deny ever existed). An influential example of this approach was the work of August Comte. Comte accepted the evolutionary account of Hegel: humanity, he believed, was progressing through different stages of knowledge, which corresponded to different stages of social organisation, and which approached but never reached an absolute truth. The stages of knowledge, Comte identified with the various sciences, which he believed were developed in a precise order: that which was most alien and distant to humanity was understood first, and later sciences progressively brought knowledge closer to our own experience: hence, science begins with such studies as mathematics and astronomy, and eventually reaches biology and then psychology. At each stage, knowledge was built – could only be built – on a systematic system of experiential, and specifically sensory, observations; but Comte also accepted the Idealist doctrine that no experience was ever pure sensation, but always required an element of pre-existing theory. Like Hegel, he saw this Kantian constraint in historicist terms, through the concept of a feedback between knowledge and theory: experience gives us knowledge, which gives us new theories, which provide new experiences, which provide new knowledge, and so forth.
Importantly for Comte, however, this feedback was not purely intellectual, but was also practical – like Hegel, he believed that particular social states were pre-requisites for different types of knowledge, and thus that the advance of science required that science reconstitute society. The 19th century was particularly vital, because it was then that the final science (or possibly penultimate science, on some accounts) would be developed: a science Comte called ‘sociology’. Sociology, the study of society through the method of systematic observations, was to be the great organising force of the age – and it would re-organise not only society, but all knowledge: sociology was the queen of all the sciences, and scientific knowledge would gradually be reassessed in light of sociology, begin with a re-assessment of biology in sociological terms. A striking example of this future biology is given when Comte redefines the nature of the brain as being “that organ through which the dead have influence upon the living”.
Finally, through sociology, humanity could learn to scientifically reconstruct society, which for Comte necessitated a reform of religion – instead of the old Religion of God, there would be a new religion, the Religion of Humanity. Religion was essential, he believed, because it was a form of harmony and coherence in society – religion is to society what health is to the body. Comte’s Religion of Humanity (drawing on Kantian ideals) largely sought to retain the rituals of Catholicism while removing God from it, and instead adding liturgical feast-days for various dead heroes that represented the greatest in humanity. The core of this religion, and the core of everything, had to be love, expressed through worship, as love was the underlying principle of humanity – “we tire of thinking, and even of acting; we never tire of loving”. Doctrine and ritual were secondary to this, and could be constructed in whatever way would best enable loving worship; yet in the personal sphere, the heart had to be strictly regulated through the mind, because the heart was blind, and left to itself would quickly fall into incoherence; religion could therefore play the role in society that stoicism had played for the individual – guiding the heart in a coherent and harmonious way. The same role can be more generally played by science itself, as the supreme moral regulator – both for individuals and for society, through sociology and the scientific religion.
There is no doubt that Comte has been hugely influential: as a simple example, it is from him that we get our words “sociology” (the scientific study of society), “positivism” (the method of science by which knowledge is based on systematic observations and progressively improves itself), and “altruism”. He is also a father of scientific unity – his belief that all sciences, including religion and philosophy, are ultimately part of a single unified and coherent science that includes all valuable human knowledge. In the late 19th century, he was widely seen as a model for social and political reform, and he inspired a great many reformatory and revolutionary figures: Ataturk’s secularisation of Turkey, for instance, was founded upon Comtean ideals, and the Brazilian national motto is directly stolen from Comte’s famous slogan, “Order and Progress”. Yet the first world war ended the Comtean consensus – a belief in continual human progress no longer seemed feasible in the face of the scale of the bloodshed, and new advances in physics undermined the Comtean belief that science had progressed to sociology having completed physics. Though positivism has survived and prospered, it is a neopositivism that confines itself to science, and abandons many of the sociological and historicist claims of Comte.
However, there can be no doubt that the greatest follower of Hegel, in terms of political impact, has been one Karl Marx. The dual Marxist was first to ignore the Hegelian/Comtean focus on knowledge, and then to see economics as more important than politics. The Hegelian dialectic of social relations can thus be seen entirely in terms of economic systems, in which entire classes of people are the participants: each economic system is built on a power imbalance between Master and Slave, through which the Master exploits the Slave, but this exploitation contains internal contradictions which result in a shift to a new system of production. Crucially, Marx also did not believe, unlike many of Hegel’s students, that Prussia was the perfect state, nor capitalism the perfect economic system – he believed that capitalism was inherently exploitative, and that economic history would continue to progress until capitalism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and a new system of “communism” was ushered in by historical inevitability. Communism was to be the perfect economic system in which no exploitation existed, and all were equal – an economic equivalent of Hegel’s “Absolute Knowledge”.
Although Marx’s economic theories are now discredited, and the era of his chief political representative, Marxism-Leninism, has passed, Marxism itself remains hugely influential – in political and sociological theory, in the development of new systems of philosophy articulated by the previously marginalised and exploited (feminist philosophy, post-colonialist philosophy), and in particular in the Continental tradition, where the materialist dialectic of Marx has been remarried to the Hegelian insistence on the interrelationship between social and epistemological realities.
NEXT: British Philosophy in the 19th Century: Common Sense, Utilitarianism, Mill, and British Idealism
But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping
as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh
I'se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!