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The Trouble with Hegel

Chris Christensen thinks Hegel shouldn’t have stopped where he did.

Hegel’s philosophy will always undergo revivals because he appeals to those with a bent for reason and a yen for metaphysics, and Hegel dishes that combo out in spades. This is illustrated by his work The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), parts of which Theodor Adorno called “literally incomprehensible.” Hegel’s contemporary and bitter rival Arthur Schopenhauer called him a charlatan who purposely wove his words into tangled vines of verbiage to mask his philosophical shortcomings. Still, to his admirers who have waded through the Phenomenology it is a metaphysical masterpiece. My trouble with Hegel lies elsewhere: in his Philosophy of History (1837), where Hegel traces the development of the ‘consciousness of freedom’ through several countries over three thousand years.

In the Introduction Hegel boils down his theory to one famous statement: “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” Freedom and consciousness are absolutely central to Hegel’s philosophy, so let’s see what he means by those terms. This will require dipping a toe into the Phenomenology to find Hegel’s meaning of ‘consciousness’, and looking into Philosophy of Right to find his meaning of ‘freedom’. As a guide I will use Peter Singer’s excellent exposition, Hegel (1983). But first I want to provide some background for Hegel’s motivation.

Much of the difficulty in Hegel’s work stems from his purpose: he sought to dismantle a monumental work of philosophy, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), where Kant used reason to determine its own limits. Our senses are bombarded with stimuli – raw data which our minds receive and shape and organize, creating our perception of reality. There is an objective reality out there, which Kant called the ‘thing-in-itself’. As we can’t access that reality directly, but only filtered through our perceptions, the ‘thing-in-itself’ is beyond the scope of science and even reason, so it will forever be a mystery. Despite this, Kant knew that the mind thirsts for ultimate reality: “That the human mind will ever give up metaphysical research is as little to be expected as that we should give up breathing,” he wrote. Hegel set out to prove Kant wrong. Like his contemporaries Fichte and Schelling, he felt that philosophy could find and understand Kant’s thing-in-itself.

Hegel viewed philosophical progress from a distance. He saw competing philosophies, including Kant’s, as each contributing over time to what he called ‘the progressive unfolding of truth’. This is important to understanding Hegel; all the work produced by him, his predecessors and successors, make up a whole. He beautifully illustrates this in his metaphor of a fruit tree: the buds are gone when they burst into blossom; then the blossoms, as they disappear, produce the fruit, revealing the truth or purpose of the tree. He sees the progress of history, similarly, as being a gradual unfolding of the truth through the interplay of ideas. He believed it has a purpose and an ending: the liberation of humanity.

But before we tackle his philosophy of history, let’s first look at what he means by consciousness.

The Phenomenology of Spirit

Phenomenology is the study of phenomena or ‘things made manifest’; so the title of this book means the study of how spirit or consciousness manifests in the world. Hegel’s purpose here was to examine “the relationship between objective history and the subjective development of individual consciousness.”

What goes on in the realm of consciousness as it progresses through history? Consciousness, according to Hegel, began as a simple form that finds itself inadequate, so must develop into another form; “and this in turn,” writes Singer, “will also prove inadequate and develop into something else, and so the process will continue until we reach true knowledge.” Kant’s thing-in-itself will then be known. This process involves the emergence of self-consciousness, which Hegel says cannot exist in isolation; it needs contrast, something outside of itself – another consciousness. That something is foreign and seen as threatening, so a love-hate dynamic comes to the surface in the form of desire. As Singer writes: “To desire something is to wish to possess it and thus not to destroy it – but also transform it into something that is yours, and thus strip it of its foreignness.” One therefore seeks recognition from the Other (consciousness). This leads to strife – hence Hegel’s Master-Slave dynamic, in which one consciousness contends with the other until the objective (the Other) melds with the subjective (oneself). Eventually a kind of universal consciousness comes into being where the self realizes that it’s part of a larger consciousness in a community of others. At this point the progress of the consciousness of freedom reaches the end, which Hegel called Absolute Mind or Absolute Spirit.

Now, what does Hegel mean by ‘freedom’?

Philosophy of Right

Hegel begins the Philosophy of Right (1820) by discussing the classic liberal form of freedom – the absence of restrictions. Here the individual is free to make choices without interference by others. Hegel found this form of freedom shallow. He wrote, “If we hear it said that the definition of freedom is ability to do what we please, such an idea can only be taken to reveal an utter immaturity of thought, for it contains not even an inkling of the absolute free will, of right, ethical life, and so forth.” For Hegel, the key word in freedom is choice. But what is choice based on? That is a question unasked by most of freedom’s adherents. But, as Singer writes, “Hegel does ask, and his answer is that individual choice, considered in isolation… is the outcome of arbitrary circumstances. Hence it is not genuinely free.” In a phrase, we are not free when our choices stem from randomly conditioned desires. So when are we truly free? When our choices are based on “the social ethos of an organic community,” says Singer, interpreting Hegel. A quote by British philosopher F.H. Bradley, who adopted Hegel’s idea of an organic community, best sums up the meaning of choice based on community:

“The child… is born not into a desert but into a living world. … He learns… to speak and here he appropriates the common… tongue that he makes his own… and it carries into his mind the ideas and sentiments of the race… and stamps them in indelibly. He grows up in an atmosphere of example and general custom… The soul within him is saturated… has built itself up from, it is one and the same life with the universal life, and if he turns against this he turns against himself.”
(F.H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, Essay V)

So for Hegel, genuine freedom is connected to the freedom of others, where the subjective and the objective meld into one. Now armed with a rough understanding of Hegel’s view of freedom and of consciousness, we can proceed to his chronological and geographical journey through history.

Philosophy of History

Hegel wanted to prove that history is a rational process governed by an ultimate design. If history is governed by reason, what then propels it toward the full consciousness of freedom? According to Hegel it’s driven by strife or conflict, not so much between armies as between ideologies.

The Philosophy of History was originally a series of lectures at the University of Berlin ending a year before his death in 1831. Lawrence Evans in his article describes the different epochs or stages of history according to Hegel. What is striking is Hegel’s choice of examples to illuminate the progress of the consciousness of freedom through human history. His book’s title might as well have been The Philosophy of History through Geography, because his examples from his earliest epoch are from the East, later epochs are illustrated by cultures a little further west, and so he continues until he reaches Prussia, where history apparently ends and freedom reigns.

Hegel’s first epoch he actually calls ‘Oriental Despotism’ and he takes the prime examples of it as being ancient China and India. In this historical stage, he says, people had no consciousness of freedom of their own, law and morality being imposed from above. Only the rulers are free. Scholars might quibble with his characterisation of entire complex civilisations as ‘despotism’. It’s perhaps fair to say that Hegel isn’t too interested in details or a balanced exposition of ancient societies – he just wants to give a broad description of how history unfolds.

Moving further west and forward in time Hegel next comes to Persia, a theocratic empire where the first stirrings of the consciousness of freedom can be seen. The sun is worshipped, and it shines on all; on ruler and subject alike. This is the beginning of ‘true history’, says Hegel, albeit in its infancy.

Then westwards again to classical Greece, which becomes the first stage in the true consciousness of freedom. Its democracy allows freedom for many, but the social system is based on slavery. Still, philosophy and independent thought, free of the state religion, gently nudge humanity along the path of the consciousness of freedom. The reason and individuality cultivated by the Greeks moves west in history’s next stage, the Roman Empire. There it brings about tension between the authorities and the individual. Persons with a penchant for free thought took refuge in Stoicism, Skepticism, or Epicureanism – schools of thought that Hegel regarded as limited, if not negative.

The consciousness of freedom receives a huge boost from the rise of Christianity, which eventually weakens the Roman Empire. The Catholic Church taught its members that they were made in the image of God; that they possessed infinite value and an eternal destiny. Hegel called this ‘religious self-consciousness’; the feeling that the world is ultimately spiritual, not material. But the Church grows corrupt, its hierarchy indulges in greed, lust, and indolence – perversions of the true religious spirit. The subsequent strife sparks the Reformation, which Hegel regards as the launch pad to the end of history. Martin Luther preachs that a person doesn’t need elaborate ceremonies and trappings, and can develop a personal relationship with God without the need of the Catholic Church. In this way individual conscience could determine truth and reason.

The Reformation laid the groundwork for the next stages – the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Reason ruled here, and Hegel rejoiced: “Never since the sun has stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around it had it been perceived that a man’s existence centers in his head, i.e. in thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality… not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that thought ought to govern spiritual reality. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch.”

Then heads began to roll, literally, as the Revolution turned to terror and the guillotine. Putting Reason on a pedestal isolated from the community had brought about the failure of the French Revolution, according to Hegel. Freedom was postponed while the rule of power took over, embodied in Napoleon.

Nonetheless, some of the Revolution’s beneficent principles were carried into Germany with Napoleon’s invasion. (But that is eastwards!) In Hegel’s homeland, Prussia, ordinary citizens gained certain rights, such as freedom of movement and property, and offices of the state were opened to qualified citizens. But the parliament was weak, most people had little or no say in government, and the king could impose strict censorship. Despite these restrictions, Hegel believed that freedom is best nurtured through a constitutional monarchy. The monarch (in his case Frederick William III) embodies the spirit and desires of the governed, who have now become free. Hegel thus declares his own Prussian society the final stage of the development of the consciousness of freedom.

The Trouble With Hegel

Considering Hegel’s expansive view of freedom, his deep exploration of consciousness, and the majestic arc of his theory, this conclusion is disappointing, to say the least. What happened to the westward movement? Hegel, the great champion of speculative thought, should not mind a bit of speculation from me at this point.

Recall that Hegel’s purpose is to lift the veil from Kant’s thing-in-itself. Whether he succeeds or not is irrelevant; he believes he has. As Bryan Magee writes in Confessions of a Philosopher (1999), “Hegel believed that total reality consists of a single something, Geist (mind or spirit), which is going through a process of change and development towards a goal of self-consciousness.” So let’s assume the thing-in-itself that Kant claimed would forever be a mystery is none other than the world spirit as the progress of the consciousness of freedom. In Hegel’s terms, it is objective reality; and its process, and its ending, are inevitable. Hegel does not create the process; he discovers it. Indeed, if allowed to follow its course, history could not end in the Prussian state; it would continue its westward path.

Hegel is aware of this. There is an elephant in his study; the United States. As he sits in his armchair, he tries to ignore it, but his own world consciousness – or conscience – will not allow it. So Hegel attempts to hide it. In the book of his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel does not mention the United States, or its Constitution, in the main text. In the final pages of the text he briefly mentions Britain’s constitution and parliament; but he dismisses Britain as being preoccupied with commerce and industry centered on the spirit of empire “to form connections with barbarous peoples, to create wants and stimulate industry, and first and foremost to establish the conditions necessary to commerce, viz. the relinquishment of a life of lawless violence, respect for property, and civility to strangers.” But what about the United States? Philosophy of History contains a 103-page Introduction. Tucked in on pages 84-86 of my copy (translated by J. Sidree in 1944), Hegel concedes that the US Constitution explicitly provides freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly to express grievances, among other protections and rights. He even points out that “there is a President… who for the sake of security against any monarchical ambition, is chosen only for four years” (my emphasis). This screams out that Hegel’s consciousness of freedom is heading west.

Hegel must find a way to escape this conclusion. He finds it in Europe’s need for interaction between states due to their close proximity. True statehood can only be gained through such interaction, just as true self-consciousness can only be gained through interacting with others. Because America has immense room for expansion, it could not yet develop true statehood. Hegel makes this explicit: “Only when, as in Europe… the inhabitants, instead of pressing outwards… press inwards upon each other, will America form a compact system of civil society, and require an organized state.” He concludes that “America is therefore the land of the future… and as a land of the future it has no interest for us here, for as regards History, our concern must be with that which has been and that which is.” The US declared its independence in 1776; Hegel lectured on the philosophy of history during the 1820s. It seems that a mere half-century of existence did not qualify the US for the status of “that which has been.” But I quibble. Hegel missed a more salient argument against fitting the States into his scheme – slavery in America. Of course Greek democracy was based on slavery; yet Greece was thought by Hegel to be at the beginning of the march of freedom.

I believe Hegel inserted his commentary on the United States in the Introduction to the Philosophy of History as a way of preempting considering the US as the next stage of the consciousness of freedom. Hegel knew who buttered his bread (or at least paid for the butter) – King Frederick William III. So to protect his privileged status in Prussian society, Hegel declared Prussia the culmination of the march of freedom.

Nonetheless, I still admire Hegel’s expansive view of freedom and his deep exploration of consciousness. He said history unfolds as the interaction of ideas – and many of the most influential philosophers ever since have themselves been profoundly influenced by Hegel’s ideas.

© Chris Christensen 2018

Chris Christensen is a delivery driver in Portland, Oregon, where he studies philosophy and takes lessons in algebra from his wife, Bobbie.

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