Wednesday, September 9, 2015
GWF Hegel's Dialectic of History
"Pure Reason, incapable of any limitation, is the Deity itself."
Mark Twain is supposed to have said that a classic is a book everyone praises, and no one reads—an observation that we might apply to the works of Georg William Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Or perhaps we should say that many people want to read him, but few can understand him. Indeed, the obscurity of Hegel’s thought is legendary, even among philosophers, as is his passion for run-on sentences and obscure technical jargon. We shall try to reduce some of his theoretificationizing to plain English.
When an English-speaking philosopher looks out at the world, he or she usually sees a straightforward collection of objects and forces that are apprehended more or less as they are by their senses. This view stands in contrast to the typical view of German philosophers, who, following Kant, see the world as an undifferentiated and meaningless collection of who-knows-what—an impenetrable cosmic mystery—which the senses and reason conspire to impart with meaning, form, and intelligibility in general. This conspiracy is in no way arbitrary, for it resides, not in our opinions, but in the structure of the mind itself, which we cannot alter. On the first view, the object of contemplation is reality, the tool is the senses, and metaphysics, since it cannot be apprehended by the senses, is nonsense about nothing. On the second, the object of contemplation is the mind, the tool is reason, and metaphysics, defined as the necessary structure of the mind itself, is everything. The first philosophy suggests a discussion of objects and events that exist in time and space; the second a discussion of concepts that reside only within ourselves. This is the reason Hegel in particular, and German philosophy in general, makes such painfully opaque reading for English speakers. By and large, we just don’t think that way.
Part of a Series on Philosophy of History