Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831 CE) took the ideas of Kant, Fichte and Schelling and created an elaborate system that described the evolution of all human thought, including philosophy, politics, religion and art.  Most of the Continental thinkers we will be studying for the rest of the course, including Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Sartre, Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, were influenced by Hegel’s dialectical system even as most reacted against it.  The Analytic tradition, as mentioned, breaks from the Continental tradition after Kant, so they, like the Continental thinkers, are part of the reaction to Hegel as well.

french revolution painting charge

Like Kant, Hegel was fascinated as a youth by the French Revolution, a revolt of reason against traditional authority, dogmas and understandings, in an age when science was overturning many old assumptions.  The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807 CE), Hegel’s history of thought and first major work, was written as Napoleon was approaching Jena with his troops, after which he would go on to conquer much of Germany.  When he was young, Hegel enthusiastically supported the radical revolutionaries, only to find that the political infighting lead to chaos.  Then, along came Napoleon, who picked up the pieces of the revolution and pronounced himself Emperor of France.

Louis the sixteenth
Napoleon crossing the alps

Hegel interpreted the passage from King Louis the 16th to the French Revolution to Napoleon as a concrete instance of dialectic, the progression of history that works as a symbiosis of opposition.  Like Fichte and Schelling, Hegel saw individuals, ideas, and cultures as positive assertions that spawn resistance, and that in each stage of history culture is resisted by counterculture, which then merge to become a greater culture, a greater synthesis, which then repeats the cycle.  Hegel saw himself as lucky, living in the final stage of history, the age where Napoleon balanced order and freedom, authority and rights, in the modern European nation state.  Similarly, Hegel saw his own philosophy as the final synthesis of the opposed philosophies we have been studying.

Hegel Phenomenology of Spirit
Hegel Logic

After writing his Phenomenology, Hegel wrote his Logic (1816 CE), which further details the operation of understanding and reason that underlies the historical and cultural evolution of philosophy, politics, science and religion.  To understand Hegel’s system, we must examine dialectic, the roles of understanding and reason, and also the roles of dogmatism and skepticism in human thought.  Dialectic is often explained as a progression from positive to negative to synthesis, much like the passage from Louis to the French Revolutionaries to Napoleon in France.  Many ancient philosophers understood the world in terms of opposites that work together.  In ancient India with the Jains and Buddhists, in Greece with Heraclitus, skeptics and Neo-Platonists, and China with Daoism, we find the idea of the union of being and non-being together as becoming.  Thought is exercised by considering thesis and antithesis together as a unified whole that can be viewed from opposite sides.


Dialectic of Hegel Thesis Antithesis SynthesisLike the Greek Pyrrhonian skeptics, Hegel considered each point of view to be an appearance or semblance (Schein).  His system is an attempt to fuse all the previous positions of philosophy together as contradicting opposites, the sum of which give the whole.  Just as for Newton, who argued that in every instance of force there is an action and an equal and opposite reaction, in human thought for every assertion there is an opposite assertion.  Just as Napoleon took the authority of Louis the 16th and balanced it with the rationalism and freedom of the French Revolution to become the next, greater authority, a great thinker is one who sees beyond the contradiction of thesis and antithesis to create a greater synthesis, which Hegel also calls sublation (Aufhebung), a preserving and transforming.

Dogmatism & Skepticism Arrow
Newton's Cradle

Just as Napoleon came on horseback at the right time in history to balance order and freedom in its latest form, Hegel saw himself as arriving just after the dogmatism of the Rationalists and skepticism of the Empiricists to synthesize the whole out of opposing parts.  Based on the simpler opposition between belief and doubt, Hegel viewed the history of human thought as a struggle between conservative dogmatism and progressive skepticism.  Hegel considers this dialectic as “self-completing skepticism” (PS 79), and his entire project is designed to show that synthesizing both sides of a contradiction of views, bringing position and counter-position together, is the completion and concrete synthesis of the whole.  Similarly, if one looks at the front and the back of a thing, one has seen the entirety of a thing, and can put this together as an idea.  The front and back views do not cancel each other out, but complement each other as a concrete whole, symbiotically.

nihilist pool lebowski

While Hegel argued against pessimistic skepticism, what many would call nihilismthe position that there is no truth at all, an “excuse for non-philosophy”, he saw his own system as an optimistic system-building skepticism that can fuse various sides into a full completion of possible perspectives.  The problem with skepticism is that it can show both sides oppose each other, but it cannot build systems.  The problem with dogmatism is that it affirms systems, but myopically, one-sided and without critical doubt.  For Hegel, human thought as a whole must progress forward and persevere, but also contradict and criticize itself to progress.  This tension requires geniuses to leap over the hurdle of each contradiction, of each stage in history.


Hegel calls Plato’s Parmenides the most “perfect and self-contained document and system of genuine skepticism”, the greatest masterpiece of ancient dialectic.  In the dialogue, Parmenides shows Socrates, still a young boy, that by debating dialectically, our understanding of reality forms sets of contradictory positions, and that if Socrates practices these exercises over the years, arguing for position and then counter-position, he will continue to become wise and arrive at the greater understanding.  Parmenides argues that being is both one and many, does and does not exist, is known and unknown, changes and does not change, and in all of this has and does not have contrary properties, does and does not contradict itself.  You could look at existence from any of these perspectives, finding truth on whatever side you take.

Yin Yang Sideways

Like Fichte and Schelling, Hegel argues that things are opposed to each other as well as the whole, and so it is opposition that defines a thing, making it into what it is.  Hegel calls this determinate negation, and details how every way of being is a particular way of not being.  While many would consider nonbeing to be simply empty and nonexistent, each phenomena is intimately and essentially bound up with what it is not, to the thing or things it is opposed to, just as conservative and progressive, dogmatism and skepticism, define each other.  Consider Hegel’s example of a possibility, a thing that is what it is insofar as it isn’t yet but could be, as opposed to a necessity, which isn’t yet like a possibility, but unlike a possibility will certainly be.  Both are opposed to what is in not yet being, but opposed to each other as well.  Jains and Buddhists of ancient India and Daoists of ancient China used examples such as a pot or room, which are what they are by not-being, being empty in most of their being and thus useful.

Kant's Tomb

All is change, continuous becoming which Hegel says is at first disorienting as the Sun is blinding to the one who manages to find their way out of Plato’s cave.  Common sense, with its simple dogmatic assumptions, is bewildered by the “bacchantic frenzy, in which every limb is intoxicated”, which questions all of its understandings just as Kant was awoken from his slumbers by Hume.  Kant built a system crowned by reason but did not bring it to completion, failing to explain how the categories arise in time or how they are opposed to each other, which makes them dead.  For Hegel, subjectivity and objectivity are two sides of the same coin, a living, dynamic synthesis that subsumes Kant’s exclusive and elusive ‘thing-in-itself’.  The abstract is the concrete, the subjective appearance is objective reality.  For Hegel, Kant was wrong to separate the objective and subjective.

Hatian Revolution San Domingo

Kant and Fichte argued that reason is always beyond the understanding, speculating as to what should be beyond what is.  Like Kant, Hegel says that our reasoning is free and speculative in relation to the understanding, but for Hegel reason can and should contradict the understanding.  For Kant, reason extends the understanding through noncontradictory continuity.  For Hegel, Kant misunderstood reason as merely a higher understanding of understanding.  For Hegel, reason does not operate like understanding, nor does it simply conform to it.  Rather, reason is revolutionary.  While understanding works by noncontradiction, the principle Leibniz that Kant wanted to salvage as central to metaphysics, reason must be free to oppose understandings in order to bring them to greater completion.  If understandings were perfect, there would be no need for reason, just as if knowledge was complete and absolute, there would be no need for wisdom, and if authority and culture was simply good and just, there would be no need for counterculture or revolution.

Yes We Kant Meme

Understanding’s job, as Kant recognized, is to create exclusive categories for experience, but reason has a different job, to create ideas that synthesize the understandings, resolving contradictions between them.  For Hegel, the great leaps in human thought are unifications of contradictory understandings through reason.  If reason merely operated like understanding, as Kant believed, it would be incapable of revolutionary insight.  For Hegel, Kant’s synthesis of reason fails and falls short because Kant, afraid of skepticism and contradiction, failed to understand the cooperation of noncontradiction and contradiction, the cooperation of dogmatism and skepticism.  In his Logic, Hegel writes:

Contradiction is the root of all movement and life… All things are contradictory in themselves… force which can both comprehend and endure contradiction.

hegel upsidedown

Kant, as we must add, never got beyond the negative result that the thing-in-itself is unknowable, and never penetrated to the discovery of what the antinomies really and positively mean.  That true and positive meaning of the antinomies is this: that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements.  Consequently to know, or, in other words, to comprehend an object is equivalent to being conscious of it as a concrete unity of opposed determinations.  The old metaphysic, as we have already seen, when it studied the objects of which it sought a metaphysical knowledge, went to work by applying categories abstractly and to the exclusion of their opposites.

However reluctant Understanding may be to admit the action of Dialectic, we must not suppose that the recognition of its existence is peculiarly confined to the philosopher.  It would be truer to say that Dialectic gives expression to a law which is felt in all other grades of consciousness, and in general experience.  Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of Dialectic. (118)

Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift is useful for understanding Hegel’s dialectical process.  A model always has problems, and so there are counter examples that arise as any model is used.  This creates culture and counterculture, dogmatists who support the model and skeptics who attack its weaknesses.  For a time, culture supports the continued use of the model and the skeptics and problems can be ignored, but then when the problems become unavoidable, the paradigm is changed, shifted, to resolve the problems.  This resolution brings an end to the old paradigm, and now the new paradigm, with new problems, begins to generate a new contradictory situation.

Ghost sheet

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit has also been translated into English as Phenomenology of Mind, as the German ‘Geist’, related to the English word ghost, can mean either mind or spirit, the consciousness of the human individual or group.  The overall story of the book is a dialectical rise from the ancient world to Greece and then to Germany.


For Hegel, the first stage of history is the ‘Orientals‘.  Hegel uses this term as it was used until recently, before the 1960s, to refer to everyonewho is not European, including the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.  As archeology in Hegel’s time had revealed the ancient glory of Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, Hegel puts this as the basic starting stage in human development.  It is good that it is a non-European start, but unfortunate that all further development is European (first Greek, then German) and the development is a course of Europe becoming different from others.  This is overly simplistic, somewhat racist and certainly Eurocentric, but this is still largely the view preached on college campuses today, though the emphasis is always the second and third European stages.

Giant Buddha Indian Temple

The Orientals created and understood objectivity and the state, two powerful universals.  The Orientals are the start of society and science, but they do not question their society or science.  They understood the objective as objective, but did not understand that the objective is also subjective and can be opposed and revolutionized.  In some cases, such as Buddhism in India, Hegel believes that they realized skepticism but did not develop it further, turning the world into a simple void or nothing.  Thus the Orientals get simple one-sided being or non-being, but do not put these two together to see the unity of the opposition.  Sadly, Hegel credits this insight, the unity of being and non-being as becoming, to Heraclitus, although it can also be found in the teachings of Buddhism.


In Hegel’s second stage of history, the Greeks rise above and beyond the Orientals to grasp the individual and subjectivity, creating philosophy and art.  While Hegel believes that the Greeks are the ones who are this step forward, Jaspers calls the age of the Greeks, the Indians and the Chinese the Axial Age.  While I enjoy using this term, particularly as it equates non-European cultures with the Greeks, recent critics have opposed this term, arguing that human thinking did not change significantly in this period.  Rather, we find progress in human thought before, during, and after the Axial Age, and so Hegel and Jaspers are both wrong to characterize any people or age as thetime when humanity came to understand subjectivity and individuality.  I continue to use the term Axial Age, while agreeing with these recent criticisms.

Wartburg Eisenach castle

In Hegel’s third and final stage of history, it is the Western Europeans, including Germans and Hegel himself, who arrive in time to see the unity of objectivity and subjectivity, of state and individual, of law and rights, of necessity and freedom, and of science and philosophy.  Hegel leaps entirely over Islam in a page, giving them no credit for the development of later thought at all, similar to his treatment of the Indians before the Greeks.  The Europeans, specifically the Germans, who are in Hegel’s time becoming the foremost champions of philosophy, history, science, and politics, are in the position to realize the union of the mind and world.

Martin Luther Nailed It

Hegel sees Hume and Kant as the last dialectical turns before his own system of syntheses, and believes that history is almost at its completion in his time with his own philosophy and the politics of the German parliamentary state which balances collective objectivity and law with individual subjectivity and freedoms.  He also believes that German Lutheran Christianity is the final form of religion that unites the individual directly with God because each man is the priest of his household.  Hegel does not mention whether or not the opposition between man of the house and subservient wife has been resolved by history yet.

haitian revolution slave revolt

One influential idea of Hegel’s that appears early in the Phenomenology is the Master-Slave Dialectic which Hegel uses to describe the earliest evolution of human culture.  At first, being (which can be an idea, individual or culture) goes out into the world and discovers that there are other beings out there with opposing points of view, creating a tension between self and other.  If I want cake, and there are others that want cake, this seems stupid to me, as their interests are opposite my own.  The self, Fichte’s Ich, wants to eliminate the others in order to establish itself not as merely another subjectivity, but as objectivity itself.  However, if the self eliminates its other, the other is no longer around to recognize the self as objective and supreme.


Changing strategies, the self decides to show restraint and conquer the others rather than eliminate them, enslaving them as master, as it wants to prove its view, its subjectivity, to be objectivity.  This is similar to maturing from a fundamentalist who wants to convert everyone to their own position to a politician who can use opposing views to support their own.  The slave does everything for the master, and develops while the master stagnates and grows lazy.  The slave comes to realize that things can be done for another as well as oneself, such as making the master breakfast to avoid death, a lesson the master never has the opportunity to learn.  Eventually, the situation becomes unsustainable, and the slave revolts, becoming a more developed and skilled master.  This is Hegel’s explanation for why the Orientals failed to discover subjectivity and philosophy, the Greeks failed to discover the unity of subjectivity and objectivity.  The Greeks were slaves and servants of the Orientals, just as the Germans were of the Greeks!

Beauvoir Sartre Che Guevara

Hegel’s conception of the revolutionary relationship between master and slave influenced many, especially progressive left-leaning political thinkers such as Karl Marx, who transformed Hegel’s system into a vehicle for the liberation of the workers of the world.  In Sartre’s circle of existentialist friends, the feminist Simone de Beauvoir used it for the liberation of women in The Second Sex, and the post-colonialist and anti-racist Franz Fanon used it for the liberation of the colonized and enslaved in Black Skin, White Masks.  Later, Fanon was an inspiration to Black Panthers such as activist and professor Angela Davis, who went to Germany to study Hegel before being arrested by the FBI for providing two shotguns to Black Panthers in Oakland during the 60s.  Often called the Big Three, class, gender and race are the major social divisions between people that are problematic, and progressives who try to counter each of these since the 60s have found inspiration in Hegel.


Just as Hegel’s history in his Phenomenology passes through stages, philosophy similarly evolves, gathering perspective and counter-perspective.  Each stage is a move from conflict to resolution, which then is the site of another conflict.  The development of philosophy starts with sense certainty, like Samuel Johnson kicking the rock to disprove Berkeley.  The position is sometimes called naive realism: things just are as we see them.  Consider the expression, “Right as rain”.  Although rain cannot speak, and so cannot be right about anything, we consider rain to be self-evidentclear in itself and unmistakable, as Samuel Johnson considers the rock to be.  Hegel shows that what we call common sense is actually empty and abstract, and concrete understandings are the result of a process of rational reflection.  While, “The table is solid” seems to be nice and objective, we can only know how solid the table is if we doubt and test its solidity, coming to a more complex and thus more accurate, defined and concrete understanding.


Hegel says that if we write down obvious truths, such as “It is now night time”, and then look at them the next day, we find that they are now longer true but have, as Hegel says, “grown stale”.  Our ‘now’, which was so immediate, changes with time, and so any statement about ‘here’ or ‘now’ is not universal, but rather contingent on time and place.  The mind attempts to understand being in terms of space and time, of here and now, but all that it can determine is that being is not non-being.  This categorical dualism between being and non-being does not satisfy the mind, as it is entirely empty of content.

Kant In-Itself meme

In Hegel’s Science of Logic, he argues that the mind turns from sense certainty, which is a part of the truth but incomplete, to the relation of subject and object.  First the mind looks for the answer in essences, beings that are stable and static behind the ever-changing and becoming beings within the world.  In the second stage of the Greeks, Hegel argues that this is Plato’s idealist response to Heraclitus’ never-ending flux.  In the third European stage, which unites the mind and its world, Hegel argues that this is Kant’s Idealist response to Hume’s charge that all truth is assumption.  Just as Heraclitus’ grasp of becoming leads to Plato’s eternal forms in the heavens, Hume’s Empiricism leads to Kant’s objective categories in the mind.  Unfortunately for Kant, the categories are disconnected and their origin unexplained.

Hegel you can run but you Kant hide

Hegel sees his own position as the superior synthesis, as the gathering up of Kant’s categories into a living, singular IdeaSubjectivity and objectivity are understood as one continuous thing, unified while opposed to itself.  The self is its world, and the self understands itself in terms of others as Fichte had argued.  Similarly, necessity and freedom are one and the same.  This is the totality of all previous positions, unified together, which goes forward as philosophy and science.  Some have argued that the final pages of the Phenomenology are Hegel’s plea for modern university system, such that philosophers and scientists can continue to speculate and seek greater truth.  In order for philosophy and science to be authentic, they must be understood as dynamic, as evolving and open, not as dead and closed.  Hegel considers Kant to have been a great thinker, but his inability to tolerate contradiction made his system a dead corpse, not a real living grasp.  Living, authentic thinking must be ready and willing to contradict any part of itself, breathing the life of opposition into any stale conception.


Alexandre Kojève, a Russian born philosopher living in Paris, introducing many French thinkers to to Hegel’s work through his seminars, informal meetings at people’s houses between 1933 and 1939 when Paris was seized by the Nazis.  His seminars were attended by the philosophers Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, the Surreal writers Bataille and Breton, and the psychoanalyst Lacan.  Later, Foucault and Derrida said that Kojève’s work on Hegel was central to their own philosophical development.  Kojève read Hegel through the lenses of Marx and Heidegger, and he focused on the Phenomenology, particularly the Master Slave Dialectic and Napoleon.


A friend of mine found a Huffington Post comedy piece roasting Republicans blocking the nomination of Chuck Hagel to the position of Defense Secretary, which reads: Senator Ted Cruz (R/TP-TX) launched a blistering attack on Defense Secretary nominee Hagel, asserting a direct link to Karl Marx: ‘History shows that Marx not only read Hagel, but took his inspiration from him,” said the Princeton-educated Harvard Law School graduate. “I should know. I was taught by at least 12 communist professors at Harvard.’  Broadening his attack on Hagel, and citing French(!) socialist professor Alexandre Kojéve’s interpretation of Hagel’s thesis, Cruz warned of the ‘danger to America having a secretary of defense who believes that history ended with the Battle of Jena.’… Former Governor Sarah Palin (R/TP-AL) revealed that, after she took a speed-reading course, she had read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in 20 minutes and concluded: ‘It’s all in German.’