Prisoners of the Real
Despite the tendency of some 19th Century thinkers to read their own anti-Enlightenment views into the works of Leibnitz, Kant, Hegel and Neitzsche, each of these philosophers to some extent sympathized with the basic intentions of the Age of Reason. Hegel, for example, wrote vitriolic attacks on Christianity as a youth, at least in part because it opposed Enlightenment ideals. His stated goal was to intellectualize romanticism and spiritualize enlightenment.
Although he eventually did turn against the negation inherent in the Enlightenment view of religion, Hegel remained faithful to reason, accepting the "truth" according to Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant. At the core of his own doctrine was Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. All knowledge begins with experience, argued Kant, but it doesn't come from experience. The capacity to have experiences of, let's say, a spatial and temporal character is an a priori possession; the occasions for use of such capacities are a posteriori factors. And the interplay of the two produces knowledge. Central to all activity, including perception, is structure. Kant provided four possible structures for thought – the categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality, the threads by which the self binds all experience together. Each of the structures, in turn, have three manifestations. Quantity, for example, is manifested as
To present his categories, he outlined the procedure he called dialectic, and said that it governed both thoughts and events in the temporal realm. Taken from the Greek word for discussion or debate, it was essentially the theory of the union of opposites. For Plato, dialectic was the art of discussion that arrives at truth by exposing contradictions and overcoming them. For Hegel, however, it was at the core of everything, the sole vehicle for progress. Thesis affirms a proposition, which antithesis denies or negates; synthesis enfolds the truth of both and moves humanity closer to reality. But synthesis, argued Hegel, is also limited, and therefore the triangular process is continually repeated. Conceptualized in this way, dialectic is a process of conflict and reconciliation in thought and time.
Hegel's philosophy was a restatement of older formulae such as matter-form-consciousness and body-soul-spirit; however, his magic triangle – being-nothing-becoming, which adopted the Pythagorean symbol of certainty and power, assumed continuous change. The triangle, sitting on its base, was also the Egyptian emblem of the Godhead, and generally signifies creative intellect, the yearning for higher things, the female element, movement from the material to the spiritual, and the wisdom inherent in nature. Turned upside down, on the other hand, the triangle becomes a symbol of the search for truth within nature, and takes on a male character. Hegel's dialectic therefore linked Greek thought, mathematics, and a variety of religious myths.
Using his dialectical process, the philosopher examined Geist as it realized its end through civilizations and great personalities. The Idea moves through time, he believed, with neither assertion nor opposition achieving a complete victory at any point. Yet he believed that it reaches its highest self-realization in art, religion, and philosophy. Through art the infinite becomes visible, in religious symbols it becomes more than art, and in philosophy is it mastered by thought. For Hegel philosophy was the goal of all development – mastery of the infinite through rational explanation.
According to Hegel, the endless struggle for self-identity has three stages – mechanics, physics, and organic life. Geist also has three – the subjective, objective, and absolute. But only the absolute, he concluded, has complete reality, or reason; the whole, and nothing else, is completely real. The only solution is for all human beings to join together and form the "divine Idea" as it exists of earth – that is, to create the State. The State, he argued, is the larger and fuller expression of the individual, the only way for people to achieve self-realization. Humanity is therefore urged to accept the laws and customs of the group, and to subject individual conscience to universal reason:
Sadly, synthesis was beyond Hegel's personal limits. In his later years he moved from the condemnation of Christianity to the celebration of its dogmas as philosophical truth. Illustrating his dialectic in motion, his personal pendulum swung from one extreme to another. He was trapped in an ennui expressed not in the self-repeating dialectic of nature (Evolutionists have since documented that novelty and purposive adaptation occur within all living systems), but in the era spanned by his 61 years of life. The energy of the Enlightenment had gradually eroded into routines, and a marsh gas of boredom and vacuity settled at the nerve endings of social life.
The line of reasoning that had brought the philosopher to propose the fuller existence of Geist in organization – that is, the coordination of the individual -- was this: to be free is to be self-consciously self-determined, not only in one's actions but in choices. The self, however, is not one's physical nature – feelings, impulses and desires – but mind conceived as rational thought. And thought is governed by laws of reason, a system determined by the nature of reason. Thus, the only free person is one who chooses in accordance with reason. Yet rationality doesn't guarantee self-government, since many individual actions are determined subjectively. The objective basis that is needed to guide actions can be found only in laws and institutions, and only when they are properly organized as embodiments of the laws of reason.
Within a decade of his death in 1831, Hegel's approach was given a practical test in Prussian politics. While conservative Hegelians argued over interpretations, leftists enriched the revolutionary potential inherent in his identification of the rational with the actual. Hegel, of course, had confined himself to considering the past, which he believed to be the philosopher's proper task. "Philosophy comes too late to teach the world what it should be," he wrote. "The owl of Minerva begins its flight when the shades of twilight have already fallen." But Karl Marx disagreed. The function of philosophy, he said, wasn't merely to define and analyze the world but also to change it. For this work, dialectic proved to be a highly flexible instrument.
Next: The Ultimate Reality of Karl Marx