A Critique of Hegel

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I seek to come to grips with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the late 18th and early 19th century German philosopher. Why Hegel? Because of Hegel’s influence on a broad range of philosophical movements and traditions that have sprung up over the last 200 years, and because there are elements within his system of belief that strike me as manifestly false (and, consequently, serve as a false foundation for spin-off theories), and I seek to articulate why.

For those unfamiliar with Hegel, here’s a summation of what he believes:

First, there is Hegel’s methodology:

  1. Kant is wrong when he says that we cannot directly experience the world but can only experience the world through the medium of our minds, such that we know only the illusion of reality rather than reality itself–this is termed “estrangement”.
  2. We can show that what we perceive is real by demonstrating that it is logically necessarily rational, that it could not be otherwise, thereby overcoming estrangement.
  3. We can only demonstrate rational necessity about things that have existed in the past; therefore philosophy is not predictive or speculative but is an inherently historical endeavour.

Then we have Hegel’s dialectical reasoning, in which ideas are split between a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. An excellent representation of the triad is here:

The synthesis takes the good of the thesis and antithesis and leaves the bad. It is not a compromise between the two–it is wholly superior to both. Say for instance I propose the thesis “the state is all-powerful” and you propose the antithesis “the state has no power”. The synthesis would contain the true elements of both leaving the false elements behind.

Next we have Hegel’s theory of history:

  1. The end of human endeavour is freedom–not in a negative liberty sense (as in not being restricted from X, Y, Z) but in a positive liberty sense (as in being able to achieve one’s goals and objectives, to impart one’s personality and vision upon the world).
  2. Freedom progresses through four cultures, the oriental (in which only the ruler is free), the Greek (in which everyone identifies with the state unthinkingly), the Roman (in which the state is universal and uses everyone), and finally the Germano-Christian (in which everyone identifies with the state rationally).
  3. The modern state (by which Hegel means the state of his period–the 19th century Kingdom of Prussia) is the manifestation of the community rationally identified with.

This leads into Hegel’s broader argument for the rational necessity of the state as set down in Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right:

  1. Property rights (individualist) serve as a thesis; our Christian moral conscious (communal) serves as an antithesis; the synthesis will be “ethical life”, a reconciliation of the individual with the community.
  2. Family serves as a thesis (a limited group to which we are sympathetic without calculation); the wider economy serves as an antithesis (a universal group with which we are self-interested); the synthesis will be the state, a universal communal sympathy that represents and cares for and rectifies disputes among various economic interests.
  3. The state should be a monarchy as the monarch embodies the state’s universality, and through this we can see that only through the state have we been able to rectify the split between the individualism of our economic system and the communalism of our Christian morality.

An interesting split opens up in the ensuing generation of philosophers after Hegel. On one side are the Right Hegelians, who believed that Hegel’s conclusions about the state matched up with his methodology, by which I mean that they referred to the state as it was and not how it should be–the 19th century Kingdom of Prussia as it existed was being deemed rationally necessary, and Hegel’s argument’s normative value, to the extent that it had any, was conservative. On the other side are the Left Hegelians, most notably Karl Marx, who believed that Hegel’s conclusions about the state were not reflected by his methodology, by which I mean that they referred to the state as it could and should be rather than how it was–the 19th century Kingdom of Prussia was deemed inadequate at achieving Hegelian freedom and new alternatives were proposed. Left Hegelians essentially drop Hegel’s point about the impossibility of knowing or speculating about the future–Marx speculates about a socialist and communist future that is very much at odds with traditional Hegelian thought, which deemed such speculations logically impossible.

To this point, all I have done is offer the reader an introduction to Hegel and demonstrate some facility with his system of thought. What are my particular problems with Hegel? They are dispersed throughout the structure I laid out above.

Firstly, Hegel’s entire philosophy is an attempt to wriggle out of Kant’s argument about our inability to know reality. It all stems back from that central disagreement between Hegel and Kant. The entire principle of rational necessity upon which all of the argument depends is the result of Hegel’s squirming efforts at escape. Marx offers a polemical response to the conclusion Hegel is forced into from here, but it’s an interesting one:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Kant offers what amounts to an unearned sceptical view. To say that we cannot know reality is itself a knowledge claim about morality. On top of that, it is not a useful claim, because it does not offer us anything. If we believe Kant here, then we must reject Kant everywhere else (Kant is anything but a sceptic on moral issues–he makes very clear, objective claims about ethics), because all Kant can pronounce upon is illusion. Rather than rejecting the unearned scepticism of Kant’s position, Hegel seeks to at once embrace is and wriggle out of it. He wishes to accept the reasoning by which Kant comes to the conclusion that what we know is illusion and not reality without agreeing to that conclusion. His conclusion may be preferable to Kant’s in so far as it does justify something rather than nothing at all, but it is no more validly reached than Kant’s position is. It is still founded on the same unearned sceptical move that Kant made, namely to deny that the senses and the mind can give us objective knowledge of the real world. Hegel allows us to know the real world only by logically deducing that it can be no other way from what it appears to us to be, thereby making our illusions rationally necessarily true pictures of reality. He still embraces the sceptical argument that says that we cannot directly learn about the world through the senses and the mind.

If Kant’s sceptical argument is unearned and of no value, then Hegel’s sceptical argument is also unearned and of no value, despite the fact that many of Hegel’s conclusions may be very attractive. I’m very partial to the notion that the state reconciles individualism with communalism, but the way in which Hegel reaches this conclusion is fundamentally misguided. Could some of Hegel’s conclusions be correct? Possibly, but if they are correct, they are correct for non-Hegelian reasons.

There are many smaller criticisms one could make (Hegel’s theory of history is extremely racist and arbitrary; Hegel’s moral and communal conception is dependent on Christianity; the dialectic has a variety of limitations, and so on). But, broadly speaking, I think the accusation of unearned scepticism is most foundational and most total in its power of refutation.