Reading a recent post at Literary Kicks got me to thinking about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) and his philosophical ideas and legacy. Yes, as John Maynard Keynes said: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.” A quote every historian of ideas has engraved in their mind.
Hegel has certainly left an indelible mark on the history of ideas. Karl Marx, in particular, gleaned his grand historical narrative of class conflict from the pages of Hegel. Class conflict, dialectics and the idea of “slave consciousness” are just a few Hegelian ideas that helped move Marx’s pen. Just think of what impact Hegel, via Marx, had on the world. The great ideological storms of the 2oth century and its apocalyptic violence were a result of the gathering ideological clouds of the 19th century. Indeed, ideas ruled the world and the minds of men.
Hegel was the last of the great philosophical system builders. His philosophy was intended to be about everything, as most good philosophies are. History itself, Hegel argued, is about the “Geist” slowly recognizing itself and becoming conscious. Periods of history are merely maturation points in the development of the Geist, much like being a toddler, an adolescent, a teenager, a young adult, middle aged and old age are maturation stages for a human being. The Geist is absolute being (or God) becoming conscious through historical development. It’s complicated, but that’s one of Hegel’s overarching ideas.
“Geist” is an interesting word with a number of interpretations. “Spirit” is the most accepted meaning. Most of you have probably heard the term “zit-geist”, which means “the spirit of the age” (or times) in German. A leftover Hegelian linguistic artifact we still hear regularly. But Hegel’s use of the word Geist can also mean “ghost” or “mind.” At times in Hegel’s writing, I found it helpful to see geist as meaning an “upwelling,” which is another derivation of one of geist’s root words, geyser.
I don’t actually recommend you try to read Hegel’s work, unless you’re prepared for the mental exhaustion that comes from pondering every 3rd sentence and still not being sure you know what the hell Hegel is talking about. You might start seeing philosophy as Henry Adams did, as “unintelligible answers to insoluble problems.” Or to clarify my point better, I don’t recommend you read Hegel if you’re looking for some light reading, shall we say. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from reading the great works of philosophy. They are in-fact edifying. If you’re a philosophy major or just looking for an intellectual challenge then Hegel is your man. Just be prepared for a real challenge.
Hegel was extremely well read, and his work reflects a mind pouring out a library of historical and philosophical knowledge. I suggest, if you so choose, reading him with a search engine ready in front of you. It’s probably more fruitful for the average reader to approach Hegel through secondary works, like biographies or philosophy web pages like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . You’ll learn some of the main ideas of Hegel without getting to bogged down in the weeds of his logic.
Since I suspect most of my readers haven’t read any Hegel (for good reason), let me provide a couple facile talking points, beyond what you may glean from above, to remember or to throw out in any casual conversation where the grand old philosopher’s name or ideas are bantered about.
- You must remember Hegel’s quote about The Owl of Minerva. Hegel says, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” The owl and the Roman God Minerva are both symbols of wisdom in ancient mythology. The sentence reflects Hegel’s idea that real wisdom only comes in hindsight, when we look back over an event, or history, or the lengthening span of our lives. It’s only then, in the gathering dusk, as the sun sets, that wisdom seems to comes to us. Unfortunately, as the words suggest, this wisdom usually comes too late. Here’s Hegel from his work The Philosophy of Right: “One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy [wisdom] in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it…When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.
- Remember the triad of “Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.” Usually when people start talking about Hegel these three words come in to play somewhere. Hegel never actually used these exact words himself but the triad has emerged to describe Hegel’s dialectical thinking process. Consciousness is paradoxical in nature according to Hegel’s view. We want to know the big picture (the absolute), but we can only reach this perspective through a process that draws contrary distinctions. Or more simply said, by a process of resolving opposing ideas. Hence, Thesis is the original idea and Antithesis is the counter or opposing idea to the original. Synthesis is not necessarily a combination of Thesis and Antithesis but the realization that the whole truth is a Synthesis. Okay, you got that? Yeah I know. But the truth is you see and experience a form of this dialectical process all the time in life. A detailed understanding of the concept or process isn’t easy to grasp without a background in philosophy. That’s okay. Just remember the basic idea and look for it in operation all around you. You’ll see it if you pay close attention (which, by the way, is the key to gaining wisdom). For bonus points while discussing Hegel you might want to add in that Hegel’s dialectic triad is in some degree homage to Heraclitus. Don’t worry most people won’t know who this ancient obscure philosopher is (or Hegel for that matter) so don’t worry if you don’t know either, just trust me on this.
Of course there is so very much more to Hegel and I really can’t do him justice. I’m not an expert in Hegelian philosophy. Not even close. For anyone to even attempt to discuss the vast and imposing philosophical edifice of Hegel in a blog post reminds me of something Woody Allen said. Allen said he’d taken a speed reading course and then read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. When asked to explain what the book was about Allen said, “It’s about Russia.” Hmmmm. Laughter aside, that’s about how I feel trying to explain Hegel in a short blog post. Hegel’s philosophy really is “about everything,” and that’s no joke.
Most of you will never need to know who or what Hegel’s ideas or philosophy are about. But if you do hear his name brought up in conversation you can at least remember this post and my talking points. I’m certainly not giving you any real knowledge about Hegel but at least you’ll have more than a Allenesque answer of “It’s about Russia.”