Hegel-by-HyperText Resources

Chapter Seven
What Is Living and What Is Dead in Hegel Today?

Source: from GWF Hegel, The Philosophical System, 1996, Twayne Publishers, by Howard P Kainz, published by Ohio University Press, ISBN 0-8214-1231-0 at US$19.95

First of all, I should perhaps apologise for purloining the title of a book by Benedetto Croce (1907) and affixing it to my much more modest effort in this final chapter. However, the addition of "today" will serve to differentiate the present chapter from Croce's book and, at the same time, to give an indication of the affinity between the two: an updating and a critical reassessment of Hegel and Hegelianism.

In his book on Hegel, Croce came to the conclusion that the weak point in Hegel's system was Hegel's "panlogism" - that "excrescence of Hegel's System" (Croce 192) through which the dualism of Nature and Spirit was smothered; or, to say the same thing in a different way, the unjustified and unjustifiable passage from one distinct and irreducible reality, the "Idea," to another distinct and irreducible reality, Nature. Croce also defended Hegel, however, and thought that Hegel's most important contribution was, in contrast to Bergson and others who would like to renounce thought for intuition, "to have shown that the demand of concrete knowledge is satisfied in the form of thought" (Croce, 214). Croce also indulged in a psychoanalytic speculation that Hegel's nineteenth-century adversaries - Schopenhauer, Janet, and others - hated him because they saw him as the symbol of philosophy itself, "which is without heart and without compassion for the feeble-minded and for the lazy: Philosophy, which is not to be placated with the specious offerings of sentiment and of fancy, nor with the light foods of half-science."

Whatever his strong and weak points, Hegel's appeal has apparently not diminished in our present era, and in fact there are signs of a "Hegel renaissance." A phenomenon that would lead us to believe such a renaissance is in progress is the constant increase of books on Hegel in the last four decades. What are the reasons for this continually growing interest in Hegel? One obvious reason is pragmatic: the necessity for understanding Hegel in order to assess Kierkegaard's reaction against him, Marx's and Sartre's use of Hegelian concepts in developing their own positions, Heidegger's interpretation of Hegel, and Derrida's attack on Hegelian ontotheology." A second reason is that in some quarters, interest in Hegel is concomitant with a reaction against analytic philosophy.' A third reason, however, is that elsewhere this renaissance may be an outgrowth of analytic philosophy itself Richard Bernstein broaches this third possibility, arguing that analytical philosophers are finding more and more that single and discrete analyses "spill over to other issues" (as happens in Hegel's analyses), that progress on epistemological issues requires confrontation with metaphysical issues (a requirement Hegel insisted on), that one can't deal effectively with reference and denotation without getting into ontology (another Hegelian insight), and so forth.' A fourth reason, also noted by Bernstein, has to do with developments in philosophy of science that seem to reflect Hegelian themes - e.g., theories about the evolution of scientific paradigms and recognition of the influence of social contexts on scientific theories (Bernstein, 39). A fifth reason has to do with Hegel's political theory: in 1989, renewed interest in this aspect of his work was generated when Francis Fukuyama published an article in The National Interest, portraying Hegel as a prophet of the triumph of liberalism over communism.

All in all, there is much that is living (or that deserves to be revived) in Hegel's system, but the following factors seem to me most significant:

I. Perennial Philosophy

Whether or not philosophy itself is perennial, the idea of a perennial philosophy - espoused by thinkers as diverse as Leibniz and Peirce, and revived by Mortimer Adler and his associates - certainly seems to be perennial. A few decades ago, Adler looked to scholastic realism as an anchor of sanity in a philosophical world gone adrift in sectarian rivalry and undisciplined individualism. But the synthesising power of the great scholastic edifice has proven not to be unlimited. For those still seeking a perennial philosophy but disenchanted with the scholastic model, Hegel may seem an improvement, if not the ultimate answer. For Hegel saw all philosophical schools and systems as the unfolding of one central problematic - the relationship of being to thought - and he also managed to synthesise the "transcendental turn" (Kant's "Copernican revolution") into his overall schema (something scholastic realism was constitutionally unable to accomplish). The synthesising power of the Hegelian system is of course challenged to the utmost in an intellectual world grown accustomed to evolution, relativity, the demise of monarchical political systems, the decline of the west, and multi-valued logics. But Hegel's general thesis, that philosophy in all its forms and stages has been concerned with working out the relationship of being to thought, may be worth serious reconsideration.

II. History of Philosophy

Perhaps a more important rallying point of current interest in Hegel is a resurgence of interest in the history of philosophy as an essential - and essentially philosophical - pursuit. This renewed interest in history may quite conceivably have been brought about by the very pluralism and factionalism of contemporary philosophy, much as a society in times of confusion or anarchy may grope for stability by studying its own history and heritage. Those who seek in the history of philosophy some illumination about contemporary philosophical goings-on will find a kindred spirit in G. W F Hegel; for Hegel, perhaps more than any other modern philosopher, emphasised the history of philosophy, and in a very real sense even identified philosophy with its history.

III. Generalism

I mentioned above that in Croce's estimation Hegel was, to many of his antiphilosophical or anti-intellectual enemies, a symbol of philosophy. In our own time, yet another reason why many people are attracted to Hegel may be that they see him as a symbol of philosophy - or, more specifically, of that old-style philosophy which openly and unabashedly announced its concern with "knowing all things" in some sort of ultimate way.

Nowadays, anyone who has philosophical inclinations of this sort is best advised to keep silent about them. After all, philosophy, following the example of science, has become extremely specialised and compartmentalised, and in these days of a never-ending "knowledge explosion," who would seriously lay claim to knowing "all things" - the whole universe or even its infinite "areas of discourse"? But for one disgruntled underground species of philosophers, those who can't quite give up that grandiose aspiration, the study of Hegel allows them to do something of this sort, with a certain degree of respectability and without having to put on airs of being geniuses. However, to fend off charges of Hegelian gnosticism, I should re-emphasise that Hegel himself did not claim to "know all things"; he claimed only to have uncovered the "absolute standpoint" making possible a balanced, no longer one-sided perspective, on perennial philosophical issues. This was brought out especially in Chapter 6, in the section on "Absolute Knowledge and Spirit."

IV Metaphilosophy

The most serious and most important inducement to study Hegel, in my opinion, is an interest in, and a need for, metaphilosophy. In the contemporary world, the term "metaphilosophy" has four distinguishable connotations: (1) study of the nature of philosophy; or (2) comparison of one philosophical school with another with regard to various perspectives or points of doctrine; or (3) determining structural interrelationships among various philosophical positions and schools, so that they can be comprehended as a totality; or (4) study of philosophical discourse. (For those who understand "metaphilosophy" in the fourth sense - as a study of philosophical discourse - it becomes the study of philosophical discourse about "philosophical discourse.")

Hegel seems relevant to metaphilosophy especially in the first and third senses of the term. As regards the first sense, Hegel was acutely aware that "buck-passing" must stop with philosophy: that if philosophy does not become self-consciously aware of its own methodology and presuppositions, it can depend on no other higher discipline to inculcate such self-consciousness. In Hegel's estimation, it is precisely the critical selfconsciousness of the philosopher that supplies a dialectical impetus away from provincial, incomplete, or one-sided positions toward "Absolute Knowledge." As regards the third sense of "metaphilosophy," one of Hegel's most persistent endeavours was to develop a comprehensive "system" of philosophy in which all the various schools of thought - empiricism and idealism, materialism and rationalism, and Platonism, Cartesianism, Kantianism, etc. - would be seen in their proper perspective and interrelationships. Needless to say, Hegel was an incorrigible optimist about the possibility of finding a place for even the strangest bedfellows; and in our day - as we make our way through the intellectual wilds of ethical non-cognitivism, process philosophy and its finite God, existential Marxism, second - and third-order linguistic analysts, hermeneuticism, structuralism, and deconstructionism - we could no doubt use a good dose of Hegel's optimism about the possibility of synthesis.

V. Interdisciplinary Integration

One salutary result of the study of Hegel has been a holistic view. One cannot read Hegel seriously and sympathetically without beginning to view the specialisation and prima facie autonomy of various branches of philosophy as unnecessary (ontologically or otherwise) and even counterproductive. To Hegel's mind, metaphysics must be studied in conjunction with epistemology and logic; ethics in conjunction with politics, philosophical anthropology, and law; and so forth. We do not necessarily have to agree with Hegel that a holist' approach is the only viable approach; but we would no doubt benefit from complementing the process of specialisation with a process of integration, analysis with synthesis.

VI. Political Representation Theory

One result of the study of Hegel's political philosophy has been a critical reassessment of democratic ideology Hegel was in harmony with liberal democratic theory in his emphasis on participation by citizens in government; but he was sharply at odds with the democratic theorists regarding the mode of such participation. As mentioned earlier, Hegel had no patience with the idea that the formula "one man, one vote would guarantee political self-determination. He insisted that the "input" of the citizenry should be mediated by natural groupings (for example, labour unions as well as industrial interests), and that government should be highly structured to ensure that all the various natural or organic groupings in a state would find a place in its national assemblies. At a time when Hitler's election on the basis of the "one man, one vote" is still a fairly recent memory - and when "control" over the federal government by average American working people is often reduced to perilous choices, every few years, between congressional or presidential candidates neither of whom is thought satisfactory - it would be appropriate for us to ask, like Hegel, whether there is any more natural way to ensure constant participation by and representation of citizens in a free state. Especially with today's revolutionary advances in communication technologies, the possibilities of full democratic participation have to be rethought.

VII. Paradox

The prevalence and centrality of paradox in Hegel's system was discussed in Chapter 1. To most western philosophers, of course, paradox is something found exclusively in poetry, eastern philosophy and the Christian gospels; a paradox in philosophy is something to be avoided perhaps studied but certainly not intentionally cultivated. We have seen that Hegel's philosophy, in contrast, is replete with paradoxes, systematically produced and not infrequently proffered as a kind of solution rather than as a problem or puzzle.

The existence of paradoxes puts to the test our linguistic and logical conventions regarding univocity and non-contradiction, but we should not dismiss them simply on this ground. Dismissing paradox for such a is reason would be analogous to, say, Einstein's dismissing the change of mass of subatomic particles at high speeds because it flouted Newtonian physics. It was by going beyond this apparent contradiction that Einstein arrived at new paradoxical insights; analogously, it may just so happen that some philosophical truths are apparent contradictions on the level of ordinary logic, but paradoxical truths nevertheless. When we think of the consensus among physicists, biologists, and chemists on many foundational issues and, by contrast, the lack of consensus - and the many contradictions - among philosophers on every issue, it may not seem unlikely that paradox, which incorporates oppositions and contradictions but also surpasses them, may be the most appropriate mode of expression in philosophy. In other words, traditional questions - such as "Is essence prior to existence?" "How do you derive I 'ought' from 'is'?" "Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?" "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and "How do we know the existence of other minds?" - may be insusceptible of satisfactory answers in ordinary propositional form, so that we can respond appropriately to them only with paradox.

VIII. Christian Philosophy

I would like to suggest that one final important aspect of Hegel's philosophy is that it is a Christian philosophy. One must be careful in using the term "Christian philosophy," since it seems reminiscent of scholasticism or Thomism, which several decades ago was an object of disdain by 'mainstream" philosophers, who accused it of being partially apologetics and partly theology. Hegel's philosophy is not an apologetic, but it is thoroughly theological, as Hegel himself asserts in places (see, e.g., page 137). Hegel's theology is speculative and patristic, rather than biblical or "systematic" in the current theological sense; but it offers intensive examination of many important theological issues. Karl Barth suggests in one place that Hegel is the Thomas Aquinas of Protestantism; and the Catholic theologian Hans Küng devotes a book to a constructive elaboration of Hegel's Christology.' But the conflict between leftist and rightist interpretations of Hegel, begun after his death, is still going strong. Thus Robert Solomon, in a book on Hegel, argues at length that Hegel, in spite of his protests to the contrary, was an atheist or at least a pantheist;' and H. S. Harris suggests that Hegel's description of his Philosophy of History as a "theodicy" was a ploy to distract attention from the revolutionary social theory of the Phenomenology. But any attempt to construe Hegel's philosophy as "closet atheism" or "closet pantheism" would need to explain away literally thousands of references affirming Protestant Christianity.

It is true that, because of his confidence in the power of Reason to incorporate and supersede the doctrines of faith, Hegel seems in places to tend toward a sort of gnosticism. But one must understand that Hegel took Anselm's dictum fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) even more seriously than Anselm himself did. It would never have occurred to Anselm, for example, to actually try through "reason" to present in a philosophy of history an apologetic for the presence of God in the world, a justification of the way that divine providence is leading humankind to freedom.

It is not only leftist Hegelians who fail to appreciate such efforts, but also rightist Hegelians and many Christian philosophers, such as Eric Voegelin and Karl Löwith, for whom the fact that Hegel's God is a worldly God is a scandal. Without doubt, it is only the middle group of philosophers, who can believe in a God of this sort, who will find in Hegel a viable paradigm of Christian philosophy.

IX. Problems with Hegel

Let me now balance this account of the positive aspects of Hegelianism with an appraisal of some of Hegel's more salient deficiencies and errors.

Many critics of Hegel, including Marx and Kierkegaard, have pointed out that his "system" was a magnificent failure, though they flattered Hegel by extensive imitation. Marx tried to use Hegel's dialectical methodology without succumbing to Hegel's ontology; Kierkegaard in his "aesthetic" works reinterprets or reapplies many ideas from Hegel's phenomenology. Others exonerate Hegel's system but consider his dialectic the drawback. I side with the former group. Hegel's system is obviously patterned after Fichte's and Schelling's attempts to build systems and is thus "dated." Although Hegel's system provides a wealth of insights, it would not be worthwhile to follow in his footsteps by philosophising in sets of intertwining and nested triads. However, alternative systems are conceivable; and in any case, there seems to be something instinctive, for humans, about building systems. Kierkegaard, for instance, could never have been an effective antagonist to Hegel without his own counter-system.

Again, not to pass over the shadows for the light, I should mention that Hegel, influenced by his own cultural milieu, also had some very deep-seated prejudices. For one thing, in line with the Hellenist sentiment of his era, he idolised the Greeks, but he saw fit to characterise the Romans - of the republic and the empire - as essentially a band of robbers who got together and then required strong, practical laws and eventually tyranny to keep them from turning on each other (PH, 344ff, 512). And although one could interpret parts of Hegel's chapter on "Faith and Insight" in the Phenomenology of Spirit as a defence of the Catholic veneration of relics, crucifixes, and the host, nevertheless when Hegel speaks explicitly in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History and Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion about Catholicism, he frequently refers to it, with extreme Lutheran bias, as an example of superstition and brainwashing, and as a major obstacle to human freedom in the modern world.

Hegel's historical and geographical provinciality likewise seems remarkable, if we consider that he was the great exponent of a universal "Absolute Spirit." In the Philosophy of History, Hegel not only "writes off China as being outside history but refuses to give any serious attention to Russia or the other Slavic countries because they contributed nothing important to (European) history. And even Hegel's empathy with western European nations was severely limited, as is shown by his disagreement with Kant about the possibility of anything like a league of nations (PR, §333, Zusatz).

Hegel, like Kant, seemed to think of Negroes as a definitely inferior race. He theorised that although they were stronger and more educable than American Indians (PH, 109), Negroes represented the inharmonious state of "natural man," before humans' attainment of consciousness of God and their own individuality (PH, 123); and that, in general, white skin was the most perfect harbinger of both physical health and conscious receptivity!" In line with these sentiments, he of course eliminated the whole continent of Africa from explicit historical consideration, except insofar as certain Africans were influenced by European Mediterranean culture. He offered a left-handed compliment to "the Negroes," in that he ascribed natural talent to them, whereas the American Indians, he opined, had no such natural endowments (PH, 82).

Hegel's ideas of women similarly reflect "scientific" attitudes that prevailed at the time but would now be considered sexist. For example, in his treatment of the family in the Philosophy of Right, he generalises that women are ruled by feeling, can be educated only by something like osmosis, and should never be put in charge of a state (PR, § 166, Zusatz).

Hegel's praise of war and overall militarism (see, e.g., PR, §324 and Zusatz), even though it was tempered by his opposition to nationalism (Hösle 582n), strongly influenced nineteenth- and twentieth-century war ideologies, up to and including Nazism (Hösle 581). Actually, such sentiments are surprising, coming from Hegel, if we take into account the importance of sublimation (Aufhebung) in his philosophy. If, for example, the "life and death struggle" (PSK, §187) is "sublimated" (aufgehoben) into a master-slave relationship, and if that relationship in its turn is sublimated into Stoicism, etc. - why cannot the propensity to war itself be sublimated into some higher form of resolving conflict?

Still, as we assess Hegel's evaluations in hindsight, we have to keep in mind his admonition that philosophers are a product of their time and cannot rise above it (PR, Preface, 26). This is certainly true in his own case; but it is worth noting that he has been unique in seeing this time-boundedness to be an insuperable limitation on a philosopher's prophetic capabilities.

I would like to conclude by asking the question Benedetto Croce ,posed at the end of his book: Should we be Hegelians today? Like Croce, I would answer, "yes and no". No, because the sorts of deficiencies I have just mentioned are a formidable obstacle to presenting Hegel's philosophy as the philosophy for our times. I am sure that Hegel himself, who insisted strongly on the historical and cultural limitations of any philosophy, would not be a Hegelian now - if by "Hegelian" is meant someone who champions monarchy, systems built out of triads, outdated scientific ideas, and so forth. But, yes, we should be Hegelians if by "Hegelian" is meant, for example, someone who gives explicit attention to dialectical oppositions in the sciences and in the contemporary spirit and tries to bridge these oppositions on a philosophical level; who tries to bring the fragmented specialisations in philosophy into some type of systematic unity; who sees the subject-object relationship as a fundamental philosophical problematic worthy of serious attention and hard work; who is interested in fashioning a new rapprochement between faith and knowledge; and who is concerned with ensuring meaningful and effective participation by citizens in their government.