DURANT 1926: A Note on Hegel

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VI, Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, Section 8 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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A Note on Hegel

Not very long ago it was the custom for historians of philosophy to give to the immediate successors of Kant to Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel as much honor and space as to all his predecessors in modern thought from Bacon and Descartes to Voltaire and Hume. Our perspective today is a little different, and we enjoy perhaps too keenly the invective leveled by Schopenhauer at his successful rivals in the competition for professional posts. By reading Kant, said Schopenhauer, “the public was compelled to see that what is obscure is not always without significance.” Fichte and Schelling took advantage of this, and excogitated magnificent spider-webs of metaphysics. “But the height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously been known only in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most bare-faced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a monument to German stupidity.” [Caird, Hegel, in the Blackwood Philosophical Classics; pp. 5-8. The biographical account follows Caird throughout.] Is this fair?

Did Hegel really spew nonsense?

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born at Stuttgart in 1770. His father was a subordinate official in the department of finances of the state of Wurtemberg; and Hegel himself grew up with the patient and methodical habits of those civil servants whose modest efficiency has given Germany the best-governed cities in the world. The youth was a tireless student: he made full analyses of all the important books he read, and copied out long passages. True culture, he said, must begin with resolute self-effacement; as in the Pythagorean system of education, where the pupil, for the first five years, was required to keep his peace.

Hegel was very patient and methodical.

His studies of Greek literature gave him an enthusiasm for Attic culture which remained with him when almost all other enthusiasms had died away. “At the name of Greece,” he wrote, “the cultivated German finds himself at home. Europeans have their religion from a further source, from the East; . . . but what is here, what is present, science and art, all that makes life satisfying, and elevates and adorns it we derive, directly or indirectly, from Greece.” For a time he preferred the religion of the Greeks to Christianity; and he anticipated Strauss and Renan by writing a Life of Jesus in which Jesus was taken as the son of Mary and Joseph, and the miraculous element was ignored. Later he destroyed the book.

Hegel was fascinated by the Greek culture.

In politics too he showed a spirit of rebellion hardly to be suspected from his later sanctification of the status quo. While studying for the ministry at Tubingen, he and Schelling hotly defended the French Revolution, and went out early one morning to plant a Liberty Tree in the market-place. “The French nation, by the bath of its revolution,” he wrote, “has been freed from many institutions which the spirit of man has left behind like its baby shoes, and which therefore weighed upon it, as they still weigh upon others, like lifeless feathers.” It was in those hopeful days, “when to be young was very heaven,” that he flirted, like Fichte, with a kind of aristocratic socialism, and gave himself, with characteristic vigor, to the Romantic current in which all Europe was engulfed.

Hegel enthusiastically supported the French revolution in his youth.

He was graduated from Tubingen in 1793 with a certificate stating that he was a man of good parts and character, well up in theology and philology, but with no ability in philosophy. He was poor now, and had to earn his bread by tutoring in Berne and Frankfort. These were his chrysalis years: while Europe tore itself into nationalist pieces, Hegel gathered himself together and grew. Then (1799) his father died, and Hegel, falling heir to some $1500, considered himself a rich man, and gave up tutoring. He wrote to his friend Schelling for advice as to where to settle, and asked for a place where there would be simple food, abundant books, and “ein gutes Bier.” Schelling recommended Jena, which was a university town under the jurisdiction of the Duke of Weimar. At Jena Schiller was teaching history; Tieck, Novalis and the Schlegels were preaching romanticism; and Fichte and Schelling were propounding their philosophies. There Hegel arrived in 1801, and in 1803 became a teacher at the University.

When Hegel graduated his certificate stated that he had no ability in philosophy.

He was still there in 1806 when Napoleon’s victory over the Prussians threw the scholarly little city into confusion and terror. French soldiers invaded Hegel’s home, and he took to his heels like a philosopher, earning with him the manuscript of his first important book, The Phenomenology of Spirit. For a while he was so destitute that Goethe told Knebel to lend him a few dollars to tide him over. Hegel wrote almost bitterly to Knebel: “I have made my guiding-star the Biblical saying, the truth of which I have learned by experience, Seek ye first food and clothing, and the kingdom of heaven shall be added unto you.” For a while he edited a paper at Bamberg; then, in 1812, he became head of the gymnasium at Nurnburg. It was there, perhaps, that the stoic necessities of administrative work cooled the fires of romanticism in him, and made him, like Napoleon and Goethe, a classic vestige in a romantic age. And it was there that he wrote his Logic (1812-16), which captivated Germany by its unintelligibility, and won him the chair of philosophy at Heidelberg. At Heidelberg he wrote his immense Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817), on the strength of which he was promoted, in 1818, to the University of Berlin. From that time to the end of his life he ruled the philosophic world as indisputably as Goethe the world of literature, and Beethoven the realm of music. His birthday came on the day after Goethe’s; and proud Germany made a double holiday for them every year.

A Frenchman once asked Hegel to put his philosophy into one sentence; and he did not succeed so well as the monk who, asked to define Christianity while standing on one foot, said, simply, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Hegel preferred to answer in ten volumes; and when they were written and published, and all the world was talking about them, he complained that “only one man understands me, and even he does not.” [Ruthless critics, as we might have expected, challenge the authenticity of this story.] Most of his writings, like Aristotle’s, consist of his lecture-notes; or, worse, of the notes taken by students who heard his lectures. Only the Logic and the Phenomenology are from his hand, and these are masterpieces of obscurity, darkened by abstractness and condensation of style, by a weirdly original terminology, and by an overcareful modification of every statement with a Gothic wealth of limiting clauses. Hegel described his work as “an attempt to teach philosophy to speak in German.” [Wallace: Prolegomena to tine Logic of Hegel, p. 16.] He succeeded.

Hegel became known for his writings that are unintelligible to most people.

The Logic is an analysis not of methods of reasoning, but of the concepts used in reasoning. These Hegel takes to be the categories named by Kant Being, Quality, Quantity, Relation, etc. It is the first business of philosophy to dissect these basic notions that are so bandied about in all our thinking. The most pervasive of them all is Relation; every idea is a group of relations; we can think of something only by relating it to something else, and perceiving its similarities and its differences. An idea without relations of any kind is empty; this is all that is meant by saying that “Pure Being and Nothing are the same”: Being absolutely devoid of relations or qualities does not exist, and has no meaning whatever. This proposition led to an endless progeny of witticisms which still breed; and it proved to be at once an obstacle and a lure to the study of Hegel’s thought.

Hegel’s “Logic” analyzes the categories (basic notions) named by Kant. The notion of relation is made up of similarities and differences. Being absolutely devoid of relations or qualities does not exist, and has no meaning whatever. It is another way of saying that absolutes do not exist.

Of all relations, the most universal is that of contrast or opposition. Every condition of thought or of things every idea and every situation in the world leads irresistibly to its opposite, and then unites with it to form a higher or more complex whole. This “dialectical movement” runs through everything that Hegel wrote. It is an old thought, of course, foreshadowed by Empedocles, and embodied in the “golden mean” of Aristotle, who wrote that “the knowledge of opposites is one.” The truth (like an electron) is an organic unity of opposed parts. The truth of conservatism and radicalism is liberalism an open mind and a cautious hand, an open hand and a cautious mind; the formation of our opinions on large issues is a decreasing oscillation between extremes; and in all debatable questions veritas in medio stat. The movement of evolution is a continuous development of oppositions, and their merging and reconciliation. Schelling was right there is an underlying “identity of opposites”; and Fichte was right thesis, antithesis and synthesis constitute the Formula and secret of all development and all reality.

Hegel focuses on how interpretation comes about. Of all relations, the most universal is that of contrast or opposition. The opposites then unite to form a higher or more complex whole.

In a more general sense, Hegel is talking about resolving inconsistencies. Two opposites always have a gradient scale of values between them. This scale may be too compressed and needs to be expanded. The idea is to recognize the continuity, harmony and consistency that exist between the apparent “opposites”. This may require discovery of data that has been out of sight or missing. This is the “dialectical movement”.

For not only do thoughts develop and evolve according to this “dialectical movement,” but things do equally; every condition of affairs contains a contradiction which evolution must resolve by a reconciling unity. So, no doubt, our present social system secretes a self-corroding contradiction: the stimulating individualism required in a period of economic adolescence and unexploited resources, arouses, in a later age, the aspiration for a cooperative commonwealth; and the future will see neither the present reality nor the visioned ideal, but a synthesis in which something of both will come together to beget a higher life. And that higher stage too will divide into a productive contradiction, and rise to still loftier levels of organization, complexity, and unity. The movement of thought, then, is the same as the movement of things; in each there is a dialectical progression from unity through diversity to diversity-in-unity. Thought and being follow the same law; and logic and metaphysics are one.

Through “dialectical movement” the thoughts as well as things get increasingly refined and evolved to loftier levels.

Mind is the indispensable organ for the perception of this dialectical process, and this unity in difference. The function of the mind, and the task of philosophy, is to discover the unity that lies potential in diversity; the task of ethics is to unify character and conduct; and the task of politics is to unify individuals into a state. The task of religion is to reach and feel that Absolute in which all opposites are resolved into unity, that great sum of being in which matter and mind, subject and object, good and evil, are one. God is the system of relationships in which all things move and have their being and their significance. In man the Absolute rises to self-consciousness, and becomes the Absolute Idea that is, thought realizing itself as part of the Absolute, transcending individual limitations and purposes, and catching, underneath the universal strife, the hidden harmony of all things. “Reason is the substance of the universe; . . . the design of the world is absolutely rational.” [Hegel: Philosophy of History, Bohn ed., pp. 9, 13.]

It is like the mental matrix becoming increasingly refined and assimilated, as it resolves the inconsistencies by expanding the gradient scale between them. The task of ethics is to resolve inconsistency between character and conduct. The task of politics is to resolve inconsistency between individual and state. The task of religion is to reach and feel that Absolute in which all opposites are resolved. That would be like a fully assimilated universal matrix.

Not that strife and evil are mere negative imaginings; they are real enough; but they are, in wisdom’s perspective, stages to fulfilment and the good. Struggle is the law of growth; character is built in the storm and stress of the world; and a man reaches his full height only through compulsions, responsibilities, and suffering. Even pain has its rationale; it is a sign of life and a stimulus to reconstruction. Passion also has a place in the reason of things: “nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion”; [Hegel: Philosophy of History, Bohn ed., p. 26.] and even the egoistic ambitions of a Napoleon contribute unwittingly to the development of nations. Life is not made for happiness, but for achievement. “The history of the world is not the theatre of happiness; periods of happiness are blank pages in it, for they are periods of harmony”; [Hegel: Philosophy of History, Bohn ed., p. 28.] and this dull content is unworthy of a man. History is made only in those periods in which the contradictions of reality are being resolved by growth, as the hesitations and awkwardness of youth pass into the ease and order of maturity. History is a dialectical movement, almost a series of revolutions, in which people after people, and genius after genius, become the instrument of the Absolute. Great men are not so much begetters, as midwives, of the future; what they bring forth is mothered by the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age. The genius merely places another stone on the pile, as others have done; “somehow his has the good fortune to come last, and when he places his stone the arch stands self-supported.” “Such individuals had no consciousness of the general Idea they were unfolding; . . . but they had an insight into the requirements of the time what was ripe for development. This was the very Truth for their age, for their world; the species next in order, so to speak, and which was already formed in the womb of time.” [Hegel: Philosophy of History, Bohn ed., p. 31.]

No matter how bad things are one can always learn something from them to evolve further. Our task is to resolve inconsistencies as best as we can. That is the direction of real achievement and growth. A totally harmonious life without challenges is a dull life.

Such a philosophy of history seems to lead to revolutionary conclusions. The dialectical process makes change the cardinal principle of life; no condition is permanent; in every stage of things there is a contradiction which only the “strife of opposites” can resolve. The deepest law of politics, therefore, is freedom an open avenue to change; history is the growth of freedom, and the state is, or should be, freedom organized. On the other hand, the doctrine that “the real is rational” has a conservative color: every condition, though destined to disappear, has the divine right that belongs to it as a necessary stage in evolution: in a sense it is brutally true that “whatever is, is right.” And as unity is the goal of development, order is the first requisite of liberty.

Thus, CHANGE is the cardinal principle of life. There is always some inconsistency somewhere to resolve. “Unity” means consistency, harmony and continuity.

If Hegel inclined, in his later years, to the conservative rather than to the radical implications of his philosophy, it was partly because the Spirit of the Age (to use his own historic phrase) was weary of too much change. After the Revolution of 1830 he wrote: “Finally, after forty years of war and immeasurable confusion, an old heart might rejoice to see an end of it all, and the beginning of a period of peaceful satisfaction.” [In Caird, p. 93.]  It was not quite in order that the philosopher of strife as the dialectic of growth should become the advocate of content; but at sixty a man has a right to ask for peace. Nevertheless, the contradictions in Hegel’s thought were too deep for peace; and in the next generation his followers split with dialectical fatality into the “Hegelian Right” and the “Hegelian Left.”  Weisse and the younger Fichte found, in the theory of the real as rational, a philosophical expression of the doctrine of Providence, and justification for a politics of absolute obedience. Feuerbach, Moleschott, Bauer and Marx returned to the scepticism and “higher criticism” of Hegel’s youth, and developed the philosophy of history into a theory of class struggles leading by Hegelian necessity to “socialism inevitable.” In place of the Absolute as determining history through the Zeitgeist, Marx offered mass movements and economic forces as the basic causes of every fundamental change, whether in the world of things or in the life of thought. Hegel, the imperial professor, had hatched the socialistic eggs.

Change must resolve some inconsistency. Change for the sake of change is itself an inconsistency. An inconsistency must be carefully expanded as a gradient scale to find the missing factor. Arbitrary assumptions (as by Marxism) will always create new inconsistencies rather than resolve the existing ones.

The old philosopher denounced the radicals as dreamers, and carefully hid away his early essays. He allied himself with the Prussian Government, blessed it as the latest expression of the Absolute, and basked in the sun of its academic favors. His enemies called him “the official philosopher.” He began to think of the Hegelian system as part of the natural laws of the world; he forgot that his own dialectic condemned his thought to impermanence and decay. “Never did philosophy assume such a lofty tone, and never were its royal honors so fully recognized and secured, as in 1830” in Berlin. [Paulsen, Immanuel Kant, p. 385.]

Hagel was in a way correct in condemning change for change’s sake and cautious about what you want to change. Change must occur in a natural sequence. It cannot be forced. But it can be catalyzed. What needs to change comes to view automatically.

But Hegel aged rapidly in those happy years. He became as absentminded as a story-book genius; once he entered the lecture-room with only one shoe, having left the other, unnoticed, in the mud. When the cholera epidemic came to Berlin in 1831, his weakened body was one of the first to succumb to the contagion. After only a day’s illness he passed away suddenly and quietly in his sleep. Just as the space of a year had seen the birth of Napoleon, Beethoven and Hegel, so in the years from 1827 to 1832 Germany lost Goethe, Hegel, and Beethoven. It was the end of an epoch, the last fine effort of Germany’s greatest age.

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FINAL COMMENTS

Hegel was abstruse. He focused on the scale of interpretation of Kant. The interpretation came from analyzing the relations between sensations, perceptions, ideas, etc. Nothing exists without relations. Such relations are made of similarities and differences.

A person’s concern are the inconsistencies among relations that need to be resolved. An inconsistency exists because some gradient of data is out of sight or missing. The known facts needs to be refined and all gaps filled. This applies to all inconsistencies whether in ethics, politics or religion. The end product is a fully assimilated matrix of knowledge.

Things are bad because there are unresolved inconsistencies. Our task is to correctly recognize and resolve inconsistencies as best as we can. That is the direction of real achievement and growth. The resolution of inconsistencies means CHANGE; but change for change’s sake itself is an inconsistency.

The inconsistencies must be resolved in a natural sequence in which they come up. Forcing arbitrary changes will only create additional inconsistencies.

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