Analytic Philosophy and the Hegelian Turn

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THE BEGINNING OF THE NEW CENTURY provides a good time to reflect on the most influential philosophers of this period, or those most likely to survive, or again whom we should be reading in a hundred years. The answer one gives to this type of question obviously depends on what one thinks philosophy is about. I would like to suggest that at the beginning of the new century, at the start of the new millennium, the philosopher we will and should still be reading at the end of the new century is not one of the obvious candidates, like Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Heidegger, Peirce, or Dewey, Rorty's favorite, but the nineteenth century German thinker, G. W. F. Hegel.

Heidegger, who insists on the importance of coming to grips with Hegel but who did not know much about contemporary philosophy, seems not to understand the extent to which the discussion of his time was deeply dependent on Hegel. (1) Almost thirty years ago Richard Bernstein made a strong case for Hegel as the figure against whom the main contemporary philosophical movements react. Bernstein had in mind Hegel's influence on philosophies of action or activity, including the Marxist interest in practice (praxis). (2) A different way of making a similar claim would be through Hegel's influence on the three new philosophical movements which have emerged over the last century: American pragmatism, analytic philosophy, and what is misleadingly called the phenomenological movement. (3)

Each of these movements is built on a reaction to Hegel. Peirce, the founding figure of American pragmatism, was influenced by Hegel throughout his career, claiming finally that his own view is a nonstandard form of Hegel's. (4) The phenomenological movement is based on Husserl's influence. Sartre even claims that Husserl invented phenomenology. Yet since Hegel was also a phenomenologist, at most Husserlian and post-Husserlian forms of phenomenology represent variations on a theme but not a wholly new type of philosophy.

In considering Hegel's relation to analytic philosophy, Bernstein mainly focuses on action, especially action theory. Although he points out the utter disdain which then existed for Hegel among analytic thinkers, he notes that for reasons concerned with the internal dialectic of the analytic discussion, the possibility of a rapprochement with Hegel now exists. (5)

I believe Bernstein was right but for reasons which a generation ago he did not fully grasp. He correctly picks up the hidden continuity between the founding fathers of analytic philosophy, Russell and Moore, and the idealism against which they rebelled. (6) He notes that analytic philosophers and Hegel share a concern to describe human action, (7) but he notes neither the distortion inherent in the analytic reaction to Hegel nor the way that analytic philosophy, even then, was already returning to Hegelian idealism.

On the Analytic Reaction to Hegel. Even among great philosophers, Hegel stands out as a widely misunderstood but equally influential writer. In claiming that Hegel is often misunderstood, I am not saying anything new about someone who, in the best of cases is an astonishingly difficult thinker. (8) It would hardly be surprising if analytic philosophers, who are generally uninterested in Hegel, who tend not to know the texts well, and who are more interested in problems than people, did any better in reading Hegel than his other students.

The relation of analytic philosophy to Hegel, on which I will be concentrating here, is largely unknown, even to historians of philosophy. (9) If I am right, Hegel turns out to be a key but mainly unacknowledged figure in analytic philosophy, from whom it departs and to which it is now returning, but which it has twice misunderstood. The first, highly productive misunderstanding was one ingredient in the rise of analytic philosophy. It remains to be seen whether the second misunderstanding, which is only now taking shape, will prove as productive in the further evolution of analytic philosophy. …