Hegel Today -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Hegel Today

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Hegel was a genius who was far ahead of his time. Unfortunately, the level of the natural sciences at the beginning of the 19th century did not furnish enough information to allow him to apply his revolutionary new method to full effect, although he had some brilliant insights, as Ilya Prigogine has pointed out. Engels applied this method to science in The Dialectics of Nature, a masterpiece of dialectical writing. But in our own time, science has furnished a wealth of material which shows the correctness of Hegel’s fundamental ideas. It is a tragedy that the 20th century lacked a Hegel to provide the necessary insights into these great discoveries.

Nowadays, many scientists adopt a contemptuous attitude towards philosophy, which they regard as superfluous to their requirements. They consider that the actual progress made by science places them far above philosophy. In reality, however, they are far below philosophy at its most primitive level. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of a consistent and worked-out philosophy, they fall pray to all kind of prejudices and false ideas which they unconsciously imbibe from the prevailing tendencies and mood in society in which they live. This flotsam and jetsam, together with a few confused recollections of bad philosophy they picked up at university, provide the sum total of the intellectual baggage of many supposedly educated persons, including scientists. As Hegel humorously observed, these are "held to be a good substitute for real philosophy, much in the way that chicory is lauded as a substitute for coffee." (Phenomenology, p. 126.)

For most of this century, Hegel has been sadly neglected. The dominant school of Western philosophy, logical positivism, which was born partly as a reaction against Hegelianism, has treated Hegel rather as extreme Protestants treat the Pope of Rome. In turn, the views of this philosophical sect has influenced many scientists. One of the very few modern scientists in the West who has been prepared to give Hegel his due is the Belgian Ilya Prigogine, who has developed the theory of chaos and complexity, a line of thinking which has much in common with dialectics. It is a very simple matter to dismiss Hegel (or Engels) because their writings on science were necessarily limited by the actual state of science of the day. What is remarkable, however, is how advanced Hegel’s views on science actually were.

In their book Order out of Chaos, Prigogine and Stengers point out that Hegel rejected the mechanistic method of classical Newtonian physics, at a time when Newton’s ideas were universally sacrosanct:

"The Hegelian philosophy of nature," write Prigogine and Stengers, "systematically incorporates all that is denied by Newtonian science. In particular, it rests on the qualitative difference between the simple behaviour described by mechanics and the behaviour of more complex entities such as living beings. It denies the possibility of reducing those levels, rejecting the idea that differences are merely apparent and that nature is basically homogeneous and simple. It affirms the existence of a hierarchy, each level of which presupposes the preceding ones." (Op. cit., p. 89.)

Prigogine and Stengers refer to the unjust neglect from which Hegel has suffered, precisely at a time when his criticisms of Newtonian mechanism had been shown to be correct:

"In a sense Hegel’s system provides a consistent philosophic response to the crucial problems of time and complexity. However, for generations of scientists it represented the epitome of abhorrence and contempt. In a few years, the intrinsic difficulties of Hegel’s philosophy of nature were aggravated by the obsolescence of the scientific background on which his system was based, for Hegel, of course, based his rejection of the Newtonian system on the scientific conceptions of his time. And it was precisely those conceptions that were to fall into oblivion with astonishing speed. It is difficult to imagine a less opportune time than the beginning of the nineteenth century for seeking experimental and theoretical support for an alternative to classical science. Although this time was characterised by a remarkable extension of the experimental scope of science and by a proliferation of theories that seemed to contradict Newtonian science, most of those theories had to be given up only a few years after their appearance." (Ibid., p. 90.)

There are only a couple of things that need to be added to this. Firstly, what was valuable in Hegel’s philosophy was not his system, but the dialectical method. Part of the reason why Hegel’s writings are obscure is precisely that he tried to force the dialectic—which he developed brilliantly—into the straitjacket of an arbitrary idealist philosophical system. When it did not fit, he resorted to all manner of subterfuges and peculiar modes of reasoning which make the whole thing extremely convoluted and obscure.

However, we are firmly convinced that the main reason for the shameful conspiracy against Hegel has nothing to do with the obscurity of his style. That did not worry the university professors a hundred years ago. Moreover, the obscurity of Hegel is nothing compared to the senseless linguistic meanderings of the logical positivists, who are held up as models of "coherent thought," though nobody quite knows why. No, the real reason why Hegel became converted into a non-person is because it was realised that his dialectical philosophy was the point of departure for the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels. Poor old Hegel, conservative that he was in real life, has been tried in his absence and found guilty by association.

The fear of Hegel’s ideas is neither accidental nor mistaken. Even in the 19th century, the danger posed by the dialectic was clear to some. James Stirling, a prominent English "Hegelian" wrote in 1867:

"This dialectic, it appears to me, has led to much that is equivocal both in Hegel and in others, and may become a pest yet." (Note to Schwegler’s History of Philosophy, p. 415.)

Even during his lifetime, the revolutionary implications of Hegel’s philosophy began to disturb the Prussian authorities. The defeat of the French in 1815 ushered in a period of reaction all over Europe. The so-called Carlsbad decrees of 1819 subjected the universities in all areas under Prussian jurisdiction to inquisitorial control. The slightest non-conformity was looked upon as subversion. A stifling atmosphere of petty provincialism prevailed in the lands of the "cabbage Junkers," as Marx later ironically called the Prussian feudal aristocrats.

In Berlin, where Hegel taught at the university, spiteful rumours were put in circulation by Hegel’s enemies that his ideas were un-Christian, or even downright atheism. From then on he was a marked man. Attacked by both Rationalists and Evangelicals, Hegel defended himself vigorously, pointing out that "all speculative philosophy on religion may be carried to atheism; all depends on who carries it; the particular piety of our times, and the malevolence of demagogues who will not let us want carriers." (Hegel, Logic, p. xxxix.)

Such was the atmosphere of persecution that Hegel even considered moving to Belgium, as Marx later did. In 1827 he wrote a letter to his wife commenting that he had looked at the universities of Liege and Louvain with the feeling that they might one day provide him a resting-place, "when the parsons in Berlin make the Kupfergraben completely intolerable for him." (ibid.) "The Roman Curia," he added, "would be a more honourable opponent than the miserable cabals of a miserable boiling of parsons in Berlin." (ibid.) It is ironical that at the end of his life, the conservative and religious Hegel should be regarded as a dangerous radical. Yet there was more than a grain of truth behind the suspicions of the reactionaries. Hidden within the philosophy of Hegel was the germ of a revolutionary idea, which would transform the world. This, in itself, constitutes the most remarkable example of a dialectical contradiction!

In his History of Philosophy Hegel revealed the hidden dialectical relationship between different schools of thought, showing how different theories revealed different aspects of the truth, which do not so much contradict, as complement and complete one another. In the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Hegel likewise attempts to show the whole of science as an integrally collective whole. It is not merely a collection of sciences or a dictionary of philosophical knowledge but science presented as a dialectically interrelated totality. This is a very modern conception.

Hegel did not set out to deny or demolish previous philosophy, but to summarise all previous schools of thought, and arrive at a dialectical synthesis. But in so doing, he pushed philosophy to its limits. Beyond this point, it was impossible to develop philosophy, without transforming it into something different. It is possible to say that, since Hegel, nothing new has really been said on the main philosophical questions. Subsequent schools of philosophy, which purport to be new and original merely rehash old ideas, invariably in a more superficial and unsatisfactory manner. The only real revolution in philosophy since Hegel was the one effected by Marx and Engels, which passes beyond the limits of philosophy as a merely intellectual exercise, and carries it into the realm of practice and the struggle to change society.

Hegel says in The History of Philosophy that "the being of mind is its act, and its act is to be aware of itself." But in Hegel, thinking is not merely a contemplative activity. The highest form of thought, reason, does not merely accept the given facts, but works upon them and transform them. The contradiction between thought and being, between "subject" and "object," is overcome in Hegel through the process of knowledge itself, which penetrates ever deeper into the objective world. From a materialist point of view, however, thinking is not a isolated activity, but is inseparable from human existence in general. Mankind develops thought through concrete, sensuous activity, not merely intellectual activity. By transforming the material world through labour, man and women also transforms themselves, and, in so doing, develop and extend the horizon of their thinking. In embryo, the elements of this dialectical conception is already present in Hegel. What Marx did was to strip it of its idealist disguise, and expresses it in a clear and scientific manner.

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