The unity of this study arranges a detailed perspective on three German philosophers: G.W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Assembled together, the philosophers confirm and contend with the historical and moral fault lines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
During his lifetime, Hegel was “called to Berlin” by “the Prussian Minister of Education, von Allenstein” to teach “a philosophy which could patiently explain the evolution of social and political realities” (from Robert S. Hartman’s 1953 Introduction to Reason in History, p. xiii).
Politics and nation states belong to history as much as they belong to nature in Hegel’s philosophy. His dialectic is his dynamic attempt to understand both the historical and natural aspects of the world as the phenomena of reason. From the perspective of their totality, history and nature acquire their rational character. Phenomenology is his methodical attempt at an objective science of sense by subjecting it to reason. To Hegel, scientific knowledge is not narrowly objective nor subjective, but must be a system for making sense of both.
The translator and philosopher Robert S. Hartman correctly identifies “the logical categories” as not only limited to the human mind but are primarily “the laws of the world” (1953, p. xvi). Reality is the totality of what is and what ought to be. From Hartman, “all is as it ought to be” since “all that is must be” (p. xvii). Both aspects of reality “belong together as two aspects of the same process” (p. xvi). The objective and subjective aspects of reality relate mutually so that each is as necessary as the other. Dialectically, sense and subject combine in a totality. History and nature only make sense together.
The effect of Hegel’s totality his translator identifies with historical paradox. Hartman differentiates between the revolutionary form and reactionary content of Hegel’s philosophy.
“The most rational and religious philosopher, Hegel unchained the most irrational and irreligious movements — Fascism and Communism. Often regarded as the most authoritarian, he inspired the most democratic: Walt Whitman and John Dewey. The philosopher who equated what is with what ought to be, he released the greatest dissatisfaction with what is; and thus, as the greatest conservative, unchained the greatest revolution.” (page xi)
Hegel is revolutionary in his method of dialectical logic. Yet he applies his method to a conservative content for justifying the Prussian absolutist monarchy (1960 edition, page 758).
“Not only students but also officers and officials listened to his lectures, and for more than a decade he was what some have called the Royal Prussian Court Philosopher.” (Hartman, p. xiii)
The standard reading of Hegel as a conservative is perfectly foiled by the work of Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution (1941) which establishes a counter argument for Hegel as a radical social theorist. Marcuse’s reading of negativity in Hegel’s thought helps explain the influence on the left-wing, young-Hegelians including Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, and the individualist anarchist Max Stirner.
Hegel’s work Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) is his speculative account of the dynamic self-experience of world history. His word for that experience is Geist translated as spirit akin to a free spirit. As any human life develops, Hegel’s idea of history is the life of spirit. The world experiences, in his words, “the spontaneous becoming of itself” (Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 11). Through history, spirit develops to realize the idea of freedom.
Beyond what he calls the concrete individual, spirit develops by experiencing consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, science, religion and finally in absolute spirit. The graded stages of spirit is a rational self-development toward completing the idea. His idea of history is “spirit striving to attain knowledge of its own nature” (Hegel, Reason in History, p. 23). That own-most spirit is a self-knowledge Hegel calls the absolute. In his Phenomenology he writes: “Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is” (Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 11).
Hegel’s idea of absolute spirit is a transcendental one by both arriving at the end and in being present in the germ. “As the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, the taste and shape of its fruit, so also the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of history” (Hegel, Reason in History, p. 23). From its beginning, spirit is guided by the idea. And the idea of spirit is freedom.
In Hegel’s early work, he distinguishes between kinds of freedom around the world through time. In his distinction, not all are free, but all freedom is divine. The idea of freedom is the culmination of “world history” from its beginning, “the progress of the consciousness of freedom — a progress” (Hegel, Reason in History, p. 24). Early in Hegel, one mind is an instance of human mind in general, and human mind is an aspect of world spirit. The historical events whose names we may recognize each contribute dialectically to the world’s process of self-knowledge. The result of the world is the absolute, the totality of self-experience.
In Hegel’s system, the events of world history contain moments of fragmented self-knowledge. The result of the world is the absolute, the totality of self-experience. The dialectic is that dynamic of each instance related to the totality of a process like world history. Only from the point of view of totality does the world take on its complete sense.
Works Cited and Further Reading
Hegel, G.W.F. Reason in History. Translated by Robert S. Hartman. Bobbs-Merrill Company. The Library of Liberal Arts 1953.
“Thus, while Hegel became the father of the revolution of the twentieth century, he pacified that of the nineteenth. For this he has often been called a reactionary, and reaction he did help.” (p. xiii)
“But as the readers of this text will find, the state that reactionaries preserved was not the State which for Hegel was the culmination of world history. Here is one of the many misunderstandings to which Hegel’s philosophy gave rise, not only through its inherent dialectic but also, it must be said, through its often careless presentation.” (p. xiii)
Hegel, G.W.F, Logic accessed in The European Philosophers: From Descartes to Nietzsche, edited by Monroe C. Beardsley. Random House. 1960.
Marcuse, Herbert. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Oxford University Press. 1941.
Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press. 1977.
Sabine, George H. A History of Political Theory, Edition Three. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1961.
For further reading, I recommend György Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (1923), “What is Orthodox Marxism?” and “The Standpoint of the Proletariat.” In his Hegelian Marxism, the worker and the capitalist are both commodities becoming self-conscious. Their experience is the self-knowledge of capitalist society.