I’m reading through Marx: A Very Short Introduction, and one of its best features is its focus on Marx’s influence from Hegel. Hegel is really interesting.
I should rephrase that. Hegel is famously boring. His books are boring. His ideas are boring. He was even apparently a boring person – a recent biography of him was criticized on the grounds that “Hegel’s life was really not eventful enough to support a graceful biography of eight hundred pages”. But the phenomenon of Hegel is interesting. I don’t know of any other philosopher with such high variance.
Engels says of Hegel:
One can imagine what a tremendous effect this Hegelian system must have produced in the philosophy-tinged atmosphere of Germany. It was a triumphal procession which lasted for decades and which by no means came to a standstill on the death of Hegel. On the contrary, it was from 1830 to 1840 that Hegelianism reigned most exclusively, and to a greater or lesser extent infected even its opponents.
Such sweeping statements might be expected of the somewhat pro-Hegelian Engels. But even Russell, who mocked Hegel incessantly, admitted that:
“By the end of [the 19th century], the leading academic philosophers, both in America and Britain, were largely Hegelian”
It is fun to see what comes up on a Google search for “Hegel dominated”:
Rockmore in Marx After Marxism: “As Marx was forging his conceptual arms, Hegel dominated the philosophical debate in a way that is now difficult to comprehend.”
A Christian Appraisal Of Contemporary Philosophy: “Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel dominated all philosophy…after his death his philosophy spread from Germany, overshadowed all else in England, and was widely held in American Universities.”
Tufts course catalog: “At the end of the nineteenth century, a form of Idealism derived from Hegel dominated philosophy.”
Psychoanalysis and Culture: “Freud grew up in a Hegel-dominated cultural universe. Though we have no record that Freud read Hegel, that was unnecessary, for Hegel’s thought defined an important part of the philosophical world in which Freud’s thinking developed.”
Encyclopaedia Britannica: “From 1818 until his death in 1831, Hegel dominated the highest thought.”
A Historical Sketch Of Sociological Theory: “According to Ball, it is difficult for us to appreciate the degree to which Hegel dominated German thought in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It was largely within the framework of his philosophy that educated Germans discussed history, politics and culture”
Or, to merge all of these together, it is “difficult for us to appreciate” and “now difficult to comprehend” how Hegel “dominated”, “defined”, “overshadowed”, and “reigned” in “Germany”, “England”, “American universities”, and “the philosophical world” in “the beginning of the nineteenth century”, “from 1818 until his death in 1831”, “the time from 1830 to 1840”, “the second quarter of the nineteenth century”, “the end of the nineteenth century”, and “the time Freud’s thinking developed” (Freud was born 1856 and would have been in university in the 1870s).
I will take this as evidence that Hegel was really really important for the entire nineteenth century.
On the other hand, it’s hard to find many people who will put in good words for him now. In fact, hilarious pithy denunciations of Hegel are an entire sub-genre. Hegel’s Wikiquote page, among other sources, includes:
“Hegel’s philosophy illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.” – Bertrand Russell
“When I was young, most teachers of philosophy in British and American universities were Hegelians, so that, until I read Hegel, I supposed there must be some truth to his system; I was cured, however, by discovering that everything he said on the philosophy of mathematics was plain nonsense. Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.” – Bertrand Russell
“Among Noah’s sons was one who covered the shame of his father, but the Hegelians are still tearing away the cloak which time and oblivion had sympathetically thrown over the shame of their Master.” – Heinrich Schumacher
“Hegel’s was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Mane and Spengler after him, possessed both these qualifications.” – Bertrand Russell (are you starting to notice a trend here?)
“While scientists were performing astounding feats of disciplined reason [during the Enlightenment], breaking down the barriers of the “unknowable” in every field of knowledge, charting the course of light rays in space or the course of blood in the capillaries of man’s body — what philosophy was offering them, as interpretation of and guidance for their achievements was the plain Witchdoctory of Hegel, who proclaimed that matter does not exist at all, that everything is Idea (not somebody’s idea, just Idea), and that this Idea operates by the dialectical process of a new “super-logic” which proves that contradictions are the law of reality, that A is non-A, and that omniscience about the physical universe (including electricity, gravitation, the solar system, etc.) is to be derived, not from the observation of facts, but from the contemplation of that Idea’s triple somersaults inside his, Hegel’s, mind. This was offered as a philosophy of reason.” – Ayn Rand (unsurprisingly)
A book review by Roger Kimball helps round out the picture. Along with presenting the legend that Hegel said that “only one person ever understood me, and even he misunderstood me”, Kimball writes:
Like many people who have soldiered through a fair number of Hegel’s books, I was both awed and depressed by their glittering opacity. With the possible exception of Heidegger, Hegel is far and away the most difficult “great philosopher” I have ever studied. There was much that I did not understand. I secretly suspected that no one—not even my teachers—really understood him, and it was nice to have that prejudice supported from the master’s own lips.
Is it worth the effort? I mean, you spend a hundred hours poring over The Phenomenology of Spirit—widely considered to be Hegel’s masterpiece—and what do you have to show for it? The book is supposed to take you from the naïve, “immediate” position of “sense certainty” to Absolute Knowledge, “or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit.” That sounds pretty good, especially when you are, say, eighteen and are busy soaking up ideas guaranteed to mystify and alarm your parents. But what do you suppose it means?
Despite trying really hard to say some nice things about Hegel, just about the best that Kimball can do is:
So why read Hegel? Just as doctors learn a lot about health by studying diseases, so we can learn a lot about philosophical health by studying Hegel.
The phrase “damning with faint praise” seems insufficient here.
Worse, Hegel has been criticized as a racist, a totalitarian, a proto-Nazi, and the kind of rationalist everyone hates – complete with stories about how he proved from first principles that there were only seven planets (not quite true, although he does seem to have made some similar inexcusable scientific errors. He was mocked (with some justice) for believing that his own work represented the final achievement of God’s plan for the Universe, and that the objective progress of history had culminated in the early 19th century Prussian state.
As a result, when I spent four years getting a bachelors in Philosophy, not only did I not receive a word of instruction in Hegel, but I was actively pushed away from him with frequent derogatory references.
I should qualify all this. Part of it is the analytic-continental divide. Hegel ended up well on the continental side of that, so even though analytics have a dim opinion of him, I’m pretty sure he remains studied and well-respected within continental circles. Indeed, the split may have necessitated analytics dismiss him in order to justify ignoring him, given that not ignoring him would mean engaging him would mean reading him would meaning not having the time or energy to do anything else.
But since we’ve already brought in Google as a philosophical authority, we might as well note that it autocompletes “hegel is” into “hegel is impossible to understand”. This seems to be pretty close to a consensus position right now.
I know pretty much nothing about Hegel and am not nearly qualified to have an opinion on the debate about whether his inscrutability conceals deep wisdom or total nonsense. But there are a few points I draw from his rise and fall without being able to judge it philosophically.
I deliberately avoided discussing philosophy in my post How Common Are Science Failures?, first because it’s outside the reference class but second because philosophy can’t even get its act together enough to fail. These sorts of “science failures” are cases where the scientific community unites around a single consensus belief, but later discovers that belief was disastrously wrong. But philosophy can practically never unite around a single consensus belief, and it rarely disproves anything thoroughly enough to admit the error.
Hegel seems like a rare example of a philosophical consensus caught in contradiction. For a good chunk of the 19th century a very large part of the philosophical community agreed Hegel had solved everything, was a genius, was the be-all and end-all of philosophy. Later, at least the British and American communities did a total about-face and concluded that Hegel was a crackpot who, if he didn’t invent the technique of “if you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em”, at least perfected it.
You can go one of two directions with this. First, you can say that people in the past were very gullible, that this confirms our prejudice that philosophers are silly people who will believe pretty much anything if it is billed as metaphysics and contains some confusing references to being and spirit.
Or you could say that people nowadays are so vapid, so demanding of instant gratification and unwilling to cover large inferential distances, that we’ve lost the ability to understand difficult ideas like those of Hegel.
I am the first type of person by temperament, but trying to become more sympathetic to the second way of thinking. Part of this is because on the rare occasions I do understand something difficult, I am acutely aware of all the people accusing it of being a confusing mass of jargon disguising a lack of real insight – and of how wrong these people are. “Ha ha, look at all these smart erudite domain experts who believe a stupid thing, that just proves smart domain experts lack common sense” now seems like a huge failure mode to me. There’s also a certain intellectual version of Chesterton’s Fence which looks kind of like “Don’t dismiss an idea until you can see why it would be so tempting for other people to believe”. Right now I don’t see the temptation in Hegel or for that matter any of Continental philosophy. That half of the philosophical universe, including many people who display objective signs of brilliance – has decided to just wallow in pointless obscurantism seems to beggar belief.
My inability to be tempted by Hegel brings me to another point: what parts of my thought, right now, are Hegelian? Hegel seems like a classic case where we should read history of philosophy backwards – if almost all philosophical thought for fifty to a hundred years was Hegelian, modernity should be absolutely saturated with Hegelian ideas. That means I might get less gain from trying to read Hegel forward (to see if he has startling insights I didn’t know) and more gain from trying to read him backwards (to see if he is the source of things I assumed unquestioningly, and that negating them – as the contingent opinions of some German guy who thought 19th century Prussia was objectively perfect – would produce startling insights).
I don’t know enough Hegel to do a good job of this. One easy target might be the modern belief in human progress or linear history. Fukuyama (“The End of History”) writes:
For better or worse, much of Hegel’s historicism has become part of our contemporary intellectual baggage. The notion that mankind has progresses through a series of primitive stages of consciousness on his path to the present, and that these stages corresponded to concrete forms of social organization, such as tribal, slave owning, theocratic, and finally democratic egalitarian societies, has become inseparable form the modern understanding of man. Hegel was the first philosopher to speak the language of modern social science, insofar as man for him was the product of his concrete historical and social environment and not, as earlier natural right theorists would have it, a collection of more or less fixed “natural” attributes. The mastery and transformation of man’s natural environment through the application of science and technology was originally not a Marxist concept, but a Hegelian one. Unlike later historicists whose historical relativism degenerated into relativism tout court, however, Hegel believed that history culminated in an absolute moment — a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious
But I find both more unexpected and more plausible David Chapman’s theories that Hegel inspired modern Westernized Buddhism, the hippie movement, and the New Age. He breaks his arguments into a bunch of posts that aren’t really collected in any organized way, but I would recommend An Improbable Re-Animation, Bad Ideas From Dead Germans, and Zen vs. The US Navy. Chapman’s argument isn’t very developed, but just raising the idea is enough to make its evidential support obvious. Hegel’s system was based around the principle that the key principle of the universe was a divine Mind trying to find itself, that everything was interrelated and purposeful, that as this Mind became more self-aware it would be reflected in increasing levels of consciousness among human beings culminating in an ideal utopian social arrangement. This is the daaaaaawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius…
Philosophy makes for strange bedfellows. Imagine: December 21, 2012. A ray of crystal light emerges from the Temple of Kukulcan in the Mayan ruins, piercing the center of the Milky Way. Humans ascend to a new level of consciousness. And all around the world people throw off their shackles and self-organize into intentional communities exactly resembling early 19th century Prussia.