Why Hegel?

When a discussion group decided to take up the subject of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, my friend Charlton asked the question “Why Hegel?” No one tried to respond directly to Charlton at the time, but now, having gone through the discussion, which centered on the short book, Hegel, by Singer, I have endeavored to answer this question.

First let’s try to understand where the question is coming from. I haven’t asked Charlton, but I think it is fair to say that the general impression of Hegel among reasonably well-educated people in the United States today is that he was ‘one of those idealist German philosophers from the nineteenth century’ who was very popular then, but who couldn’t hold much interest for us in the twenty-first century. We are all materialists now. Besides, his writing was ponderous. Even Karl Marx rejected him!

The Hegel Debunkers

Before discussing the question “Why Hegel?” directly, I want to turn to some of his debunkers. Bertrand Russell was one of the perpetrators of a negative picture of Hegel. In his youth at Cambridge, Russell says in his Autobiography,

“Moore, like me, was influenced by McTaggart, and was for a short time a Hegelian. But he emerged more quickly than I did, and it was largely his conversation that led me to abandon both Kant and Hegel (page 54 of the combined edition of the Autobiography).”

Russell says in the The History of Western Philosophy:

“Hegel thought that, if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, then all its properties could be inferred by logic. This was a mistake, and from this mistake arose the whole imposing edifice of his system. This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise (The History of Western Philosophy, end of the chapter on Hegel).”

Another modern critic was Karl Popper, whose chapter on Hegel in The Open Society and its Enemies is an unmitigated attack. He says,

“Hegel’s fame was made by those who prefer a quick initiation into the deeper secrets of this world to the laborious technicalities of a science which, after all, may only disappoint them by its lack of power to unveil all mysteries. . . . In order to discourage the reader beforehand from taking Hegel’s bombastic and mystifying cant too seriously, I shall quote some of the amazing details which he discovered . . . The question arises whether Hegel deceived himself, hypnotized by his own inspiring jargon, or whether he boldly set out to deceive and bewitch others. . . . How can this (Hegel’s) immense influence be explained? My main intention is not so much to explain this phenomenon as to combat it. . . . When in 1815 the reactionary party began to resume its power in Prussia, it found itself in dire need of an ideology. Hegel was appointed to meet this demand, and he did so by reviving the ideas of the first great enemies of the open society, Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle.”

It goes on like this for 69 pages.

Walter Kaufman provides a critique of Popper’s venom:

“Popper’s treatment contains more misconceptions about Hegel than any other single essay. . . . Popper has relied largely on Scribner’s Hegel Selections, a little anthology for students that contains not a single complete work. . . . Popper takes over such a gross mistranslation as “the State is the march of God through the world,” although the original says merely that it is the way of God with the world that there should be the State, and even this sentence is lacking in the text published by Hegel and comes from one of the editor’s additions to the posthumous edition of The Philosophy of Right — and the editor admitted in his Preface that, though these additions were based on lecture notes, “the choice of words” was sometimes his rather than Hegel’s . . . . The writings of Hegel and Plato abound in admittedly one-sided statements that are clearly meant to formulate points of view that are then shown to be inadequate and are countered by another perspective. Thus an impressive quilt quotation could be patched together to convince gullible readers that Hegel was — depending on the “scholar’s” plans — either emphatically for or utterly opposed to, say, “equality.” But the understanding of Hegel would be advanced ever so much more by citing one of his remarks about equality in context, showing how it is a step in an argument that is designed to lead the reader to a better comprehension of equality and not to enlist his emotions either for it or against it. . . . Popper writes like a district attorney who wants to persuade his audience that Hegel was against God, freedom, and equality — and uses quilt quotations to convince us.”

Enough said about Popper.

Marx on Hegel

Marx’s critique was more serious and has had more influence. Unlike Russell and Popper, Marx had a relatively deep understanding and appreciation of Hegel. There are two extended critiques of Hegel translated into English in the volume Early Writings by Marx, a partially complete Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State of 1843 and a chapter in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 entitled, “Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy.” The former is a critique of Hegel’s last published work, Philosophy of Right. Hegel’s preface to this work is dated 1820. Marx evaluates only the third section of the third part of this work, on the state. In his critique of this work, Marx’s chief complaint seems to this reader to be that Hegel gets the cart before the horse when he declares the identity of state and civil society; that he gives preference to the state and neglects the (evil) influence of civil society.

I think this criticism is unfair. At the time Hegel was writing, Germany was still very much evolving out of feudalism. Hegel was in no way as aware in 1820 of the developments in England that we now call the “Industrial Revolution” that brought capitalism into being as Marx could be in the 1840s. By the time Marx was writing his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts he was already steeped in the writings of the Scottish (Smith), English (Ricardo and Mill), and French (Say) economists and had devoured the latest empirical data on the state of the economy in England and, to a lesser extent, France. His moral outrage at the misery that capitalism inflicted on the working classes is palpable in his work from 1844 onwards. But this was a different world from Hegel’s world. In his outrage that Hegel couldn’t see the importance of capitalism in the tug of war between the state and civil society, Marx was being ungenerous, at least. It seems to me that both Hegel and Marx were right about this. Hegel was right as the first philosopher to incorporate the both/and of these two entities and to relate this linkage to a theory of consciousness that he had already developed in the Phenomenology. Marx was right to see the cruelty of the new civil society that grew out of the industrial revolution and to see that this evil infected the state.

The Modern View of Hegel

Many modern (especially continental European) commentators, however, think that this view is naïve; that Hegel represents a watershed figure in Western philosophy who has not been overtaken since. What is their argument?

Malabou and Derrida on Hegel

In his forty odd page preface to Catherine Malabou’s book, The Future of Hegel, Jacques Derrida answers our question, “Why Hegel?” as follows:

“The question cannot be limited or restricted to what one could or would want normally to categorize or include simply in the history of philosophy, even though, it must be said, Catherine Malabou treats this history with great rigour and unquestionable attention. No, nothing in the world can be in this way determined or pre-determined, for almost two centuries, whether or not we are aware of it or know about it (and in general we are aware of it, or believe we are aware of it), that does not entertain some sort of relation with the living tradition embodied by Hegel. It is simply not enough to recall the names of Marx and Heidegger, or the themes of ‘the end of history’, of ‘absolute knowledge’, of the ‘dialectic’, of the ends of this and the ends of that, the ‘death of God’, the ‘death of Man’, etc. These terms and themes are Hegel’s terms, we always finish by finding Hegel at the very origin of all these thematized and schematized ends. We are all the inheritors of Marx, of Heidegger, and a few others, and we often, perhaps always, have lived, for many decades, in the reassuring certainty that the Hegelian legacy is over and done with.”

Malabou’s book was an elaboration of her Ph.D. thesis at the Sorbonne taken under the direction of Derrida. The subtitle of her book is Plasticity, Temporality, and Dialectic. Each of these concepts is elaborated. A key emphasis of her book is encompassed in the phrase ‘voir venir’ (to see what is coming). She says (page 13 in the Introduction) “‘Voir venir’ in French means to wait, while as is prudent, observing how events are developing. But it also suggests that other people’s intentions and plans must be probed and guessed at. It is an expression that can thus refer at one and the same time to the state of ‘being sure of what is coming’ (‘etre sur de ce qui venir’) and of ‘not knowing what is coming’ (‘ne pas savoir ce qui va venir’). It is on this account that the ‘voir venir’, ‘to see what is coming’, can represent that interplay, within Hegelian philosophy, of teleological necessity and surprise.”

There is much more to say about Marabou’s book and much to say about other authors who have written persuasively on Hegel in the twnetieth century: Kojeve, Graham Priest, Gadamer, Jameson, and Zizek. And much to say about Hegel’s books, of course, especially the Phenomenology and the Logics. But this post has been too long delayed. I will try to say more about these in future.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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