Hegel’s "Voyage of Discovery" -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Hegel’s "Voyage of Discovery"

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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart in 1770. In his youth he was a follower, and then a collaborator of Schelling, whose radical views gained him a certain notoriety, until he made his peace with the Prussian authorities in later life. But Hegel soon moved on from his early efforts. Hegel’s original contribution to philosophy begins in 1807 with the publication of The Phenomenology of Mind. The period under consideration was one of storm and stress. France had erupted in revolution when he was a nineteen year old student. The French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars set an indelible stamp on the entire epoch. In Hegel’s own words, the "composition of the book was concluded at mid-night before the battle of Jena."

This work, which Hegel describes as his "Voyage of discovery" was received with coldness and dissatisfaction by those who had previously been his teachers and friends. The Phenomenology traces the development of thought through all its phases, proceeding from the lowest, most general, and abstract to the highest form which he calls the Notion. Each form of knowledge is examined within his own conditions and limits, bringing out its dialectical relation to other forms of thought. The importance of philosophy is that it alone must consider and justify its own conceptions, unlike mathematics, which proceeds from given axioms which are accepted uncritically. Philosophy presupposes nothing, not even itself.

For the modern reader, the writings of Hegel present considerable difficulties. "Abstract and abstruse," Engels called them. This is certainly true of The Phenomenology. At times, one has the impression that Hegel is being deliberately obscure, that he is challenging the reader to penetrate the complex and difficult edifice of dialectical thought. A large part of the difficulty, in fact, stems from the fact that Hegel was an idealist, and that, therefore, the dialectic appears here in a mystified form. The Phenomenology is a good example of this.

Here historical development appears in a idealistic fashion, as the development of self conscience mind (or spirit). Nevertheless, it is possible to read Hegel, as Marx did, from a materialist point of view, bringing out the rational kernel of his thought. In The Phenomenology "self consciousness" reveals its activity in many ways, through sensation and perception, as well as through ideas. In all this, it is possible to perceive the dim outline of real processes that take place in nature, society, and the human mind. In contrast with previous idealist philosophies, Hegel displayed a lively interest in the facts of nature, human nature, and human history. Behind his abstract presentation, there lies a wealth of knowledge of all aspects of history, philosophy and contemporary science. Marx described him as "the most encyclopaedic mind of the day."

Behind the "abstract and abstruse" language, once the idealist mystification is stripped away, we see before us a full-fledged revolution in human thought. The Russian radical democrat Herzen referred to the Hegelian dialectic as "the algebra of revolution." In an algebraic equation it is necessary to fill in the missing quantities. This was later achieved by Marx and Engels, who rescued the rational kernel of Hegel’s philosophy after his death, and, by placing it on a materialist basis, gave it a scientific character. Commenting on Hegel’s philosophy, Engels writes:

"This new German philosophy terminated in the Hegelian system. In this system—and this is its great merit—the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is for the first time represented as a process, i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt was made to show internal interconnections in this motion and development. From this point of view the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgement-seat of mature philosophic reason and best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of humanity itself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways, and to trace out the inner logic running through all its apparently contingent phenomena." (Engels, Anti-D¸hring, p. 29.)

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