Dialectics of Being
By Matt McKeown
Though his philosophy seems to be the airiest and most abstract of any thinker, we grapple with the consequences of Hegel's ideas on a daily basis.
The study of the nature of being, or metaphysics, is arguably the oldest of all the branches of philosophy. Though it went hand in hand with what we would now call natural science in the days of the pre-Socratics, by the time of Plato, the idea of being in itself, distinct from matter, had already been articulated by Pythagoras, and Plato’s doctrine of the Forms established it. Varying between the more realist, empirical attitudes associated with Aristotle and the more a priori, idealist theories of men like St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, and Immanuel Kant, western philosophy has maintained this interest for thousands of years.
It is in the latter tradition of idealism that we find Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His philosophy, like that of many idealists, is famously difficult and more than a little controversial; nevertheless, he is one of the most influential thinkers in history, both intellectually and in the political sphere.
Hegel conceptualized his own work as “logic,” but this should not be taken in the more limited sense in which we use the term today. Besides inferences and reasoning, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the term “logic” covered all of metaphysics. Building on foundations laid by Kant, Hegel’s initial work was upon categories—the kinds of things and relations between things that are not merely conventional, but inhere in the things themselves. For instance, while there are different lists of categories, quantity appears in most lists, with derivative ideas contained in that category such as unity, plurality, and totality. Hegel sought to derive all of his categories from being as such; as the category of quantity, though coherent in itself, also contains mutually contradictory aspects like oneness and plurality, likewise he argued that every contrasting aspect of each category unfolds from, or (depending on our perspective) resolves into, a profounder unity.
This is where the famous notion of dialectic comes in. Hegel is often credited with the notion that history is driven by a metaphysical logic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: a thesis (a given outlook, state of affairs, etc.) is confronted by its antithesis, and the clash of the two results in a synthesis. The terminology actually comes from a slightly earlier author, Johann Fichte; Hegel’s own names for the three elements of historical dialectic were abstract-negative-concrete, and the historical progression was not merely one of clashing forces that result in a compromise, but of an incomplete thing (the abstract) passing through a kind of gauntlet of trial or opposition (the negative), in order to surpass its present limitations and reach a greater perfection (the concrete). He called this process Aufhebung, which roughly translates to “transcendence” or “sublation.”
One of the most famous examples of this is the master-slave dialectic, set forth in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Two people, encountering each other for the first time with no prior idea of other “subjects,” both assume that this other person is just an object; on meeting the other’s resistance to being treated as an object, a struggle to the death ensues between the two, for the right to recognition as “the” subject. Whichever of them fears death more will ultimately surrender, and the victor assumes the status of master, whose subjectivity the other must acknowledge as his slave. But recognition from an inferior is unsatisfying, and, because of the nature of slavery, the master depends upon the slave’s work, thus allowing the slave to reassert his own subjectivity against the master on new terms: the abstractions of the first meeting give way through struggle to a new concrete situation, and then that concrete situation itself encounters new problems that lead to a new and different struggle, each concrete result built on the ruins of the last.
All this, in turn, means that history is not merely a chain of causation, but a purposive thing—its changing phases represent not merely the laws of cause and effect, but the will of God. This “dialectical view of history” has driven many political movements and philosophies since, both with and without the Christian coloring Hegel gave his thought: colonial doctrines like “manifest destiny,” Marxism, most forms of fascism, and many varieties of utopianism all drink from Hegelian springs. To this day we are, it would seem, putting Hegel’s thesis through the gauntlet of opposition.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our others here at the Journal, like this profile of Antoine Lavoisier, this “Great Conversation” post on the idea of oligarchy, or this student essay on Shakespeare’s Mark Antony. And check out our podcast, Anchored, released every week and hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.