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250 years of Hegel: the philosophical master of the Dialectic

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In the classical German history of philosophy, Hegel's work is regarded by some as its crowning achievement and, by others, as a thoroughly incomprehensible way of thinking or a particularly dangerous ideology. As a result, hardly anyone in philosophy has wanted to remain indifferent on the issue. What makes his teachings so fascinating and revolutionary now, and why are they considered to be so dangerous?

Schopenhauer, for example, thought Hegel's philosophy the "most repulsive and nonsensical gobbledegook", full of "meaningless verbiage". Nevertheless, his teachings were ultimately adopted as the philosophy to be taught in schools, and the educated middle-class and Prussian civil service gladly adorned themselves with it. The Prussian government even based its view of the state on it.

As a person, Hegel was considered sociable and humorous, but deep and ponderous. He was an awkward speaker who constantly cleared his throat and he wrote in long, rambling and incomprehensible sentences.

Hegel was born in Stuttgart in 1770, a descendant of Protestant emigrants from Carinthia and the eldest son of a pension chamber secretary. His upbringing was accordingly oriented to a pious Protestantism. In grammar school he already showed an interest in Greek and Roman classics. He studied philosophy and theology at Tübingen and then had to accept positions as a tutor in Bern and Frankfurt am Main. Through an inheritance from his father he was able to begin an academic career and settle in Jena. After accepting a position as rector in Nuremberg, he later took over the chair of philosophy in Heidelberg and finally became the successor to Fichte in Berlin, where he was then appointed rector of the university. He died there in 1831 after a short illness.

The Impulse of the Enlightenment
At the very beginning of his studies, in 1879, the storming of the Bastille in Paris, and the revolution that deprived the Absolute monarch and his court nobles of their power, was a formative event for him. In the hope of a fundamental change in Germany as well, many scholars took sides, and a political circle was formed in Tübingen, which enthusiastically read and discussed the French newspapers. Hegel was particularly enthusiastic about freedom and equality, Hölderlin used his poetic talent to create a lively language and Schelling translated the Marseillaise, the revolutionary song of the French volunteer battalions, into German.

From then on, he pursued his interest in political conditions and their possible improvement. To Schelling he wrote that he understood theory as a storming of the movement of reality. While in Jena, he joyfully welcomed the victory of the French in the battle of 1806 and on this occasion reverently described Napoleon as the "soul of the world", although he had to tolerate marauding soldiers in his apartment.

In the end, however, Hegel remained trapped in Germany's backwardness and the correspondingly lower impact of the Enlightenment. Because the class struggles of the bourgeoisie were less pronounced here, the political opposition was much weaker, and a bourgeois revolution was not yet on the agenda, the ideology of the Enlightenment could even be of some use to small-scale feudal Absolutism.

What separated Hegel from the British and French Enlightenment from the very beginning was his consistently Idealist viewpoint, which saw the spirit as the only real thing. Instead of overcoming religiosity, he saw Lutheran Christianity as the highest stage of development of religion to date, which could be brought to an even higher form with the help of philosophy, which would then become the basis of the German freedom movement. He did at least explain that the divine is not an external and alien being, but only in and for the mind of mankind.

The Idealist conception of history and the conformist state

In his conception of historical development, he was initially very inspired by Greek philosophy. The dialectic developed in this philosophy was based primarily on discussion and was developed by Plato into a special form of dialogue, through which the essence of an issue could be grasped in its context and conveyed in conversation. In this way, using the development of the conversation in the form of a dialogue, the Platonic world of ideas, understood as certainties that existed beyond what could be perceived by the senses, could be reached.

Hegel discovered from this that the philosophical dialogues of Plato actually took place throughout the development of the history of philosophy, in which the philosophers always found new answers so that a philosophical dialogue extends, so to speak, over the entire history of philosophy. In contrast to Plato's idea of an unchanging truth, however, Hegel recognised the necessity of movement in the search for truth. For him, the history of philosophy concentrated primarily on "the necessary movement of pure concepts" and thus on "the elevation of reason above the limitations of understanding". As a consequence, he ultimately arrived at nothing less than the assumption of an identity of reality and spirit, of world and reason. "Pure science ... contains thought inasmuch as it is just as much the thing in itself, or the thing in itself inasmuch as it is just as much pure thought." (Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, vol. 1, p. 43, in: Hegel, Werke, vol. 5, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main) p.49 in ENGLISH intro

For him, the self-development of the spirit thus corresponded to a representation of the entire world process, which develops from being-in-itself through being-as-other to being-for-itself. In this view, the development of world history is understood as meaningful and purposeful, a movement towards the goal of the perfection of reason. Individuals, acting according to their individual purposes, are merely tools of the world spirit and its cunning reason.

Accordingly, this world spirit developed from the Orientals to the Greeks and Romans to the Germans, and in the process went through an increase in the freedom of individuals to the freedom of all in the spirit of the Germans - even if this was only expressed in the will of an individual monarch.

The older Hegel ultimately proved to be quite biased in favour of the king. From a former critic of Prussia, he transformed himself into a wholehearted supporter of the Prussian state as the embodiment of reason, despite the police system and denunciation to the point of persecuting dissenters.

His assumed identity of reason and reality was shown here in a particularly fatal form as unconditional trust in the state as the "reality of the moral idea". With this he postulated the basis for a theory that had actually capitulated to the reality it was supposed to move.

Hegel's state fetishism ultimately identifies the purpose of the life of individuals as their share in the general life of the state: "The state, as the reality of the substantial will, which it has in the special self-confidence elevated to its generality, is that which is in itself rational. This substantial unity is an absolutely immovable end in itself, in which freedom comes to its highest right, just as this end has the highest right against individuals whose highest duty it is to be members of the State". (Translated from, Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, p. 399, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/ Main 1976) Ultimately, he hoped for a spiritual renewal of the German people and state according to the ideal of the ancient community in the Greek polis.

The lasting merit of dialectics
Hegel certainly deserves the greatest credit for the elaboration of his "Science of Logic". In this, dialectic takes on a fundamental and comprehensive meaning, which simply removes all the limitations imposed by the teachings of Aristotle to Kant. If, for example, formal logic dictates the Aristotelian principle of identity, according to which an A is and remains always an A, then for Hegel this represents only a boring kind of superfluous rumination. "Identity is, in itself, absolute non-identity." (Translated from, Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, vol. 2, p. 41)

The second logical basic rule, the principle of contradiction, according to which A cannot also be not-A, does not fare better with Hegel. If a not-A appears only in order to disappear, then the mental preoccupation with it would also be finished. However, a system of concepts could not be created without the path of negation. "The only thing to gain scientific progress - and to make an essential effort for its very simple insight - is the realisation of the logical proposition that the negative is just as positive ...". (Hegel, Science of Logic, Vol. 1, p. 49)
He explains the background to this position by a universal contradiction. "All things are contradictory in themselves, in the sense that this sentence against the others rather expresses the truth and the essence of things." (Hegel, Logik, Vol. 2, p. 74)
In Hegel's dialectic, the contradiction is even the most essential category. "But it has been a fundamental prejudice of hitherto existing logic and of ordinary imagination that Contradiction is a determination having less essence and immanence than Identity; but, indeed, if there were any question of rank, and the two determinations had to be fixed as separate, contradiction would have to be taken as the more profound and more fully essential. For, as opposed to it, identity is only the determination of simple immediacy, or of dead being, while contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality, and it is only insofar as it contains a contradiction that anything moves, has impulse and activity."
(Hegel, Logic, Vol. 2, quoted by Lenin in Conspectus of Hegel's Science of Logic, Collected Works Vol 38. p.139)

Marx took up this approach: "Self-affirmation, self-affirmation in contradiction with itself, both with knowledge and with the essence of the object, is ... true knowledge and life. (Translated from Marx, Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, in: Marx Engels Werke 40, p. 581)

Engels explains that we do not encounter any contradictions as long as we consider things as dormant and lifeless, each one for itself, side by side and one after the other. However, the contradictions become immediately apparent when things move and change, come to life and interact with each other. "Life is ... a contradiction which is present in the things and processes themselves, and which constantly originates and resolves itself; and as soon as the contradiction ceases, life, too, comes to an end, and death steps in. (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 149)

Lenin puts it somewhat more pointedly: "The manifold entities acquire activity and vitality in relation to one another only when driven on to the sharp point of contradiction; thence they draw negativity, which is the inherent pulsation of self-movement and vitality" (Lenin, ibid., p.142)

With dialectics as an instrument of knowledge, there were many possibilities for a better understanding of historical developments and social contexts, which would have remained completely hidden with a positivist instrument. The most well-known example of an exemplary application of the dialectical method became the teachings of Marx.

The Hegelian Heritage
As if to illustrate Hegel's lessons of history, his supporters divided into the Right wing "Old Hegelians" like Göschel, Gabler, Rosenkranz and Gans and the Left wing Young Hegelians like Köppen, Bauer, Marx and Engels. The abstract character of this philosophy understandably caused a fundamental questioning. Feuerbach even criticised Hegel in the same breath as Theology. "Absolute philosophy may well have made the other side of theology into this side, but in return it made the this side of the real world, the other side for us." (Translated from: Feuerbach, Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft, in: Selected Writings, Vol. 1, Ullstein, Frankfurt/Main 1985)

For Feuerbach, the only acceptable form of dialectic existed within the framework of its starting position before Plato. "The true dialectic is not a monologue of the lonely thinker with himself, it is a dialogue between me and you." (ibid, p. 156)
From Hegel's teachings and Feuerbach's criticism, however, the possibility of a synthesis arose, which drew from abstract logic as well as from its materialistic criticism. Marx began with an appreciation: "What the other philosophers did ....., Hegel knows as the doing of philosophy. That is why his science is absolute" (Marx, Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, MEW 40, p. 574f.)

While Hegel dealt with the "people's spirit" and the "people's religion", for Marx, "class consciousness" arose in the context of the class struggles that ultimately determined history.

Marx adopted Hegel's dialectic, but in reverse, so to speak. In order to make "the rational core in the mystical shell" recognisable, Marx turned Hegel's dialectic upside down. "My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of 'the Idea', is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me, the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man and translated into forms of thought. (Marx, Capital Vol 1, p.102.)

Engels saw this reversal in a similar way: "We comprehended the concepts in our heads once more materialistically - as images of real things, instead of regarding the real things as images of this or that stage of the absolute concept. (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, and The End of Classical German Philosophy, in, Marx and Engels Selected Works, London 1968, p.609)

And from this follows: "Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world, and thus the dialectic of Hegel was placed upon its head: or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet. (ibid).

In this way, Marx and Engels also set themselves apart from the Old Hegelians, who believed they could understand everything as soon as it could be traced back to a logical category of Hegel. The materialistic dialectic, by contrast, sees itself as,
"... the science of thought and its laws - formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history" Engels, Anti-Duhring p.36)

Revisionist Anti-Dialectic
Significantly, the reformism forming within the framework of the Second International no longer referred to Hegel as the essential precursor of the Marxist world view, but rather to Kant. The dialectical regularity of Hegel appeared to Bernstein, the spokesman for this movement, as "crooked" and his logic of contradiction as "speculative", "deceptive" and "dangerous". "The logical somersaults of Hegelianism shimmer radically and wittily. Like the will-o'-the-wisp, he shows us, in vague outlines, the prospect of the other world. But as soon as we choose our path by trusting in him, we will regularly end up in the mire. What great things Marx and Engels have achieved, they have not achieved by means of the Hegelian dialectic, but despite it." (Translated from, Bernstein, "Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie", Göttingen 1984, p. 62)

While reformism turned decisively away from Hegel, revolutionary Marxism continued the dialectical understanding. Beyond the idealistic understanding and the dogmatic contents in the philosophical system, its dialectic is precisely its revolutionary side. To express these different sides of Hegel, Engels described him as "Olympic Zeus" but with a "German Philistine pigtail".

The Stalinist tradition, developing within the framework of the Third International, appeared to stick to the revolutionary tradition but, instead of anything more than a formal reference to the dialectical method, Hegel's reference to "the people" and state fetishism usually flourished here again. Thus, how they relate to Hegel remains an indication and guideline for judging the various philosophical outlooks and political convictions.

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