Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Hegel and the Western Spirit

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Hegel and the Western Spirit

Article excerpt

This paper argues that Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit ([1806] 1977) should be read as an invaluable work on the distinctive restlessness of Western culture - so long as we view this book as an account of the developmental experience of the Western spirit rather than of the human spirit as such. The basic truth contained in Hegel's Phenomenology is that the West is the only civilization in which "freedom" and "reason" have progressed over the course of history. The distinctiveness of the Western spirit is that it cannot be comprehended as a substance, a state of being, as in other civilizations, but should be apprehended as an "activity". The rational-liberal culture of the West can be known only by knowing it as an experience that developed in time.

Like Weber, Hegel detected an inner necessity (a "dialectical" logic) in the philosophical development of the West. The difference is that Hegel traced this logic to the nature of human reason per se to become actually what it was potentially from the beginning. From the first flowerings of philosophy in ancient Greece, Hegel portrayed this rational spirit as if it were in a state of dissatisfaction and alienation, ceaselessly pressing ahead, trying to understand, overcome, and sublimate every nonconceptualized unknown it encountered. He believed that reason started to display this restless disposition - its true nature - when it came to "discover" itself as a faculty in its own right in ancient times. For it was then that reason for the first time apprehended its capacity for self-reflection, to think for-itself, in terms of its own volitional abilities, ceasing to accept passively the existence of norms, gods, and natural things as if they were "things-in-themselves" beyond its own reflective judgments.

Unlike Weber, Hegel did not restrict the experience of Western reason to the rationalizing activities of formal and theoretical reason; he was less preoccupied with the way reason had subjected social life to quantification, precision, and standardization. What drew Hegel's attention was the seemingly restless desire of Western reason to become fully conscious of itself as free activity. It was this desire to be the source of its own assumptions and principles that drove Western reason forward until it brought into existence a culture wherein individuals enjoyed freedom of inquiry, tolerance of diverse views, and meritocratic advancement. According to Hegel, individuals become what they are potentially - rationally self-conscious agents - when they recognized themselves as free in their institutions and laws.

The Phenomenology is a work that seeks to capture, in a comprehensive manner, the developmental experience of the idea of freedom in its intrinsic association with the developmental experience of reason. It does so by viewing every single major Western outlook - for example, Roman stoicism, skepticism, Catholic scholasticism, Cartesian rationalism, British empiricism, German idealism, and romanticism - not as isolated or timeless viewpoints but as evolving "moments" in the effort of human reason to become what it is intrinsically: the free author of its own concepts, values, and practices. The Phenomenology thus exhibits the ways in which diverse but interrelated outlooks held sway and conviction for some time only to be seen as limited in their inability to provide answers consistent with the demands of beings that are becoming more aware of themselves as the free creators of their own beliefs, laws, and institutions.

The Phenomenology is thus an account of the entire dialectic of theses, anti-theses, and syntheses effected throughout history until Hegel's own time. Hegel believed that humanity had reached in his own time (in the post-French Revolution era of Europe) a point of true and full satisfaction asfar as the conceptualization of the human capacity for free reflection was concerned. This is why Hegel wrote that Spirit "appears in time just so long as" humans have not achieved a proper self-understanding of themselves as free rational beings; Spirit would continue to evolve in time. …

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