Magazine article UNESCO Courier

From Hegel to Marx: The Saga of the Dialectic

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

From Hegel to Marx: The Saga of the Dialectic

Article excerpt



In the closing years of the eighteenth century, when the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel appeared on the scene, philosophical thought bore the profound imprint of the teachings of Immanuel Kant.

Kant had left philosophy in a state of apparently irreconcilable schism. There was the split between subject and object, the resolution of which was then seen as the central problem facing the philospher; there was the split within the subject, between the observable individual and the transcendental "I", which alone was capable of constituting knowledge; there was the split within the object, between the phenomenon and the inaccessible "thing-in-itself"; there was the conflict, with regard to human conduct, between the necessity imposed by the world and freedom of the will, and, in the field of ethics, between the concepts of duty and happiness.

At each of these levels, Kant placed in opposition two terms or elements between which no unity or harmony seemed conceivable. Whereupon, all those who came after him set about re-establishing the lost unity and reconciling the adversaries that Kant had drawn up in opposing ranks.

The method adopted by Hegel to achieve this objective was to accept the dichotomy and antagonism as the outward appearance of present reality and to propound reconciliation as a future necessity. He therefore introduced the notion of time into the relationships between subject and object, between the rational and the real. These relationships were no longer to be seen as fixed for all time by "the nature of things"; they had to be seen in the context of an evolutionary process during which two opposing elements would change each other and be transformed into each other.

The process described by Hegel has three main stages. During the first stage, the concept, the original and fundamental entity, is formed within the framework or setting of the ideal, of the abstract. This gives rise to the great categories of philosophical thought--being, nothingness, becoming, number, measure, and so on--the classification and study of which make up the science of Logic.

During the second stage, in a spasm of self-negation, the concept becomes the thing, reality, nature. Nature, in fact, is nothing more than the concept become reality--which is why it is, by definition, understandable--but as such, nature is "the thing in itself", blind, deaf and dumb.

Then comes the third stage, when the concept re-asserts itself, yet without losing its quality as object. This is the stage of history, and history itself could be described as the process whereby reason gradually gains ascendancy over the real, which it orders in conformity with its own requirements. At the end of the process, reconciliation is achieved, and unity is restored between subject and object, so that, as Hegel wrote in the preface to his Philosophy of Right, "All that is real is rational and all that is rational is real".

Absolute knowledge, the driving force of history

Each of the great periods of history is thus seen as one of the stages in this process, one of the phases of the movement by which reason takes control of the world and submits it to its law. Hegel opens our eyes to the unity of each historical period. This unity takes the form of the Volksgeist, or national spirit. A manifestation of the Weltgeist, or world spirit, at a particular stage of its historical development, the Volksgeist in its turn inspires and moulds all the institutions and all the great works of the historical period concerned. Politics, religion, the economy, the arts, all bear its imprint. Each epoch can thus be described as "the expression of a totality" in which each element mirrors the other elements separately and as a whole.

Naturally, the various nations do not make equal progress. For each stage, one nation acts as model and guide, providing us with a criterion by means of which we can judge to what extent the other nations' achievements match up to the demands of historical development. …

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