By Greta Sykes
Called ‘the philosopher of modernity’ Georg William Friedrich Hegel was born 250 years ago on the 27TH August 1770. His birthday is an invitation to explore some of the major ideas that led to his prominence. At the present time we find ourselves in the uncomfortable yet fascinating situation of watching the solidity of the Western world crumble and diminish to something not unlike a walnut shell being rocked on the ocean of our time, lost and about to sink. It might be useful to find out what we can learn from the originator of dialectics who had such a profound influence on Karl Marx and other philosophers of modernity.
Born only nineteen years before the French Revolution that event became a determining feature in his thinking. Throughout his life he celebrated the storming of the Bastille. He regularly raised a glass on the 14th July and declared it to be the principle of his philosophy. Whether as private tutor, grammar school director, University professor of philosophy or newspaper editor, Hegel praised the revolution even when it metamorphosed into a dictatorship and the death of Robespierre and many others. Its influence on his thinking was as fundamental as Emmanuel Kant’s theories (1724-1804).
In 1806 Hegel commented: ‘Like a dream image did previous conceptions and notions of reality fall apart, the restraints of the world have been dissolved.’
These prophetic words sound strangely modern, as we are entering a phase of late capitalism’s decadence, treachery and betrayal of ordinary working people, a process not dissimilar to dissolution.
Hegel and his friends
Hegel shared a room with Friedrich Hoelderlin and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling while studying at the ‘Stift’ in Tuebingen. The protestant residential school was founded as an Augustian monastery in the middle ages. After the reformation it was turned into scholarship residential college for theology and philosophy. It was the location where the three young men experienced the cold in their room, sparse food and disciplinarian rules. A close friendship developed during that time as well as a growing rebellion against the severe restraints, which led to a deeply felt desire for freedom. Hoelderlin and Hegel are said to have planted ‘the tree of freedom’ by the river Neckar to symbolise the ‘philosophy of collective symbiosis and love’. Hoelderlin became a famous poet with a failed romantic love expressed in lyrical poetry. He ended up being a recluse after appearing to go insane, while continuing to write poetry. By 1812, at the time of Napoleon’s defeat by Russia Hoelderlin was living in a tower by himself and Hegel and Schelling were newly married and had lost touch with their former friend.
Hegel’s fame grew steadily. Aged forty-six in 1816 he was appointed professor at Heidelberg university after years of teaching as a private tutor. Two years later he followed Johann Gottlieb Fichte to be offered the professorship of philosophy in Berlin. He was at the height of his fame. Students crowded his lectures. Among them were Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach. But these were rocky times and opinions among the Prussian elite was turning away from a politics of reforms back towards beliefs in privileges for the few. Hegel had praised the developments towards reforms towards more citizen’s rights. Critical views of Hegel’s celebration of freedom grew more pronounced.
Hegel never gave up on his belief in freedom. It was for him linked to reason, meaning that a government needed to achieve a balance between rights and responsibilities. It was not the type of freedom we are familiar with under capitalism, namely the freedom to: Buy, sell, self-destruct or make large amounts of money or both. Instead, it was a humanitarian form of freedom from: Debt, poverty, homelessness, lack of education, and health provisions; in other words, the freedom progressives and socialists speak of. Hegel’s ‘freedom’ and reason’ go further in that they are forged into a holistic notion of an ideal society. He sees it connected to what he calls the Weltgeist. For me this Weltgeist idea is not dissimilar to the pantheon of polytheism. It is comprehensive in having contradictory forces within it striving for unity or a form of equilibrium. The Gods in the Mesopotamian polytheism also work in contradictory ways. Inanna is the Goddess of love and battle. Tiamat created the world and her consort Apsu destroyed it. The individual is dialectically embedded into the social context by also being a social being. Everyone has to live with this internal contradiction, whether aware of it or not. The central paradigm of German Idealism and the Enlightenment arises out of this philosophical stance. Like Marx Hegel viewed the individual as part of the larger whole of their social setting and dependent on it. In a similar manner, Mesopotamian citizens were reassured by the presence of their Gods and Goddesses who instructed them on how to lead the ‘good life’. Juergen Habermas explained ‘only when Hegel had tied the revolution to the beating heart of the world spirit, did he feel less anxious in the face of its (the revolution’s) grandeur’. Hegel declared that the French revolution with its people battling for freedom ‘had eliminated for ever the emptiness and vagueness of the meaning of the word freedom: ‘The concept of freedom is being made in the process of the revolution.’ Hegel explained to his students at the Berlin university ‘As long as the sun stands at the firmament and the planets spin around it, we have not seen a moment when humans start with a thought and build a reality out of it.’ This phrase becomes familiar if seen in the context of Marx commenting ‘the philosophers have only explained the world, the point however, is, to change it. Hegel saw the French Revolution with its cry of ‘egalite, liberte, fraternite as an inspiring action potential in which rigid, traditional ways of life have given way to galvanise a new reality in its course.
Hegel’s other key term is reason. He saw reason as being linked to freedom in the sense that the latter can only be achieved by a route through the former. He castigated ‘beliefs, wishes, and subjectivity as hopelessly inadequate: Everything has to bow to reason. To achieve that one needs insight. He recognised that the freedom and chaos unleashed by the revolution could lead to a ‘self-destroying atomisation of needs and wants among the people.’ In other words what holds a society together can be squashed through individualisation and atomisation. How can individuals be reminded to pay attention to the society as a whole without which they could not function?
At a time when late capitalist developments, such as cancel culture, is experienced as destroying the freedom of debate, discussion and expression of diverse views, Hegel’s double notion of freedom and reason seems highly pertinent. Every week one individual or another is cast outside the social dialogue or even imprisoned for exposing lies (Julian Assange). What can we learn from Hegel and how can we best use his ideas to progress?
The relevance of Hegel’s thinking is portrayed in his main oeuvre ’Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (Fundaments of philosophy of law and natural law). Hegel’s ground breaking ideas led to the conjecture that law, politics and morality exist all in a relative relationship to each other within a particular context in a particular society within the wider global context of what he called the Weltgeist. Applying these thoughts to our present situation we learn readily that law and morality have become divorced from our particular society and thus probably are not linked to any Weltgeist anymore. When functioning as Hegel envisaged it is possible to interpret the Weltgeist as akin to a holistic, Gaia (James Lovelock) like construct in which all things are relational to each other and thus interdependent. The Chinese concept of yin and yang can also be seen as a way of interpreting activities on earth as being in a balancing act with each other. Yin and yang are dialectical entities requiring each other to produce a whole. Recently the moon and moon phases, originally researched by Frank Brown (1959) have re-emerged in scientific circles as affecting all living creatures. In this sense Hegel’s ideas sit well with philosophies and meditative theories from diverse corners of the globe.
Gegenwart und Wirklichkeit (The present time and reality)
Hegel lays great importance on the notions of ‘Gegenwart’ und Wirklichkeit. ‚Philosophy is nothing but an expression of the current time in thoughts.’ It presents the present time and reality of its time and can therefore be understood as being practical and concrete. Political action consequently derives from an understanding of the present time. Hegel criticised law specialists like Karl von Savigny for declaring that whatever law existed was good and worth keeping. Instead, Hegel argued just because something is there does not mean it was good for ever. He said getting rid of slavery and feudalism was a way of giving up something that was formerly declared right and proper. Hegel also protested against those student organisations that engaged in emotional pleas for liberalism calling them ‘a broth of the heart’. He found that their language quickly led to resentments and a corruption of a rational debate about freedom and reason. He compared both left-wing students and reactionaries as having much in common in that they did not treat citizens as citizens but as a rabble, thus denying them being persons, instead they were ‘a catholic, Jew or German or Italian’.
Hegel’s Dialectics – thesis – antithesis – synthesis is described by him as ‘a form of speculation’: It must not be applied too rigidly so that it can be applied to living situations: A part needs to be understood as a part of a whole. A human being has a body and a brain and both are part of the whole person.
When tackling the subject of metaphysics Hegel applied humour while speaking to his listeners by making fun of their hatred of abstract thought, showing the reader/listener that not liking abstract thinking, thinking for itself, the reader rejects something they most likely don’t know: ‘Das Bekannte ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, noch nicht erkannt’ (The known is not necessarily understood, just because it is known). Such metaphysical thoughts were difficult for people to stomach in Hegel’s days, but they still are alien to us in the 21st century. Climate change is forcing us today to face the planet as a whole to curb global warming. We have to understand the complexity of many systems interacting, seeing the earth as a Gaia living organism and our individual and social responsibility in it. It is a task affecting us universally. It runs counter to the neoliberal subjective and pervasive focus on the fetishism of the individual and big tech solutions currently dominating our public domain.
Barricades in Paris
In the summer of 1830 sedate Berliner students and professors were stirred by learning that barricades had been erected in Paris. The restlessness of people affected everyday life and governments. Malaria was an ever-present danger in Berlin. Hegel was disturbed by both. He moved into a flat outside town where he celebrated his 61st birthday with friends. At the time Russian soldiers driving the French army west and out of Russia were arriving via Poland in Germany and brought cholera with them. Hegel fell ill and died on the 14th November 1831 from cholera. Due to his fame, he was not buried on the cholera cemetery but next to Fichte in Berlin.
New biographies about Hegel:
Klaus Vieweg ‘Der Denker der Freiheit‘, Beck, Muenchen 2019.
Slavoj Zizek ‘Hegel in a wired brain’, Bloomsbury, 2020