Hegel, A Perspective, A New Observation

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Hegel, a perspective, a new observation

Who was he? He was George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) He was born in the same year as Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) They both were also around when Napoleon Bonaparte or “the Little Corporal” (1769-1821) invaded Prussia. He was an idealist who was born in Stuttgart; he came up with the most difficult works since Kant. His philosophy was very influential and perhaps hard to understand in any language. His best writings were ‘The phenomenology of the Spirit’ and ‘Philosophy of Right’. The former was an early work and more mature one was the latter. He tried to make up for what Kant had failed to accomplish. Let us remember that he was originally planning to become a priest but he changed his mind and chose to be on a journey to philosophy. He made an effort to build a monumental metaphysics, which would bridge the gap between appearance and reality. This is what Kant’s ‘transcendental idealism’ was to achieve but he left the door open perhaps for the next philosopher to do.

As we know, this was the goal of many thinkers all the way from Descartes to Immanuel Kant. Idealists and materialists since Cartesian dualism tried to bridge the gap between mind and body by reducing one to the other. Either everything is made of mind or body. This grand canyon remained as wide as it was and was never bridged. Reducing one into the other didn’t solve the problem either.

Kant’s subjectivism seems to have fallen into the idealist camp, because we have no knowledge of the noumenal realm after all. God is the only Reality who knows what noumenon is. But this God would be the God who is only a postulate.

In Kant’s metaphysics we have the windows to observe the world, which are called the categories. The mind imposes these categories on the world we experience. The world is constructed by us, because it is but the projection of our own mind. The entire human knowledge is a total and systematic knowledge of the phenomena presented to our mind. The reality behind what appears to us, namely, the noumenal realm is completely beyond any possible human conception, and it is totally out of reach and we’re not unable to reach it through death. Kant felt this was unavoidable while Hegel thought this conclusion was not acceptable.

According to Hegel, Ultimate Truth is gradually uncovered through the unfolding evolution of the history of ideas. There’s such a thing as absolute Truth which is not propositional but instead it is conceptual. Once we get to know Hegel’s ideas concerning the development of history and thought, then we’ll understand this difficult idea.

For Hegel, the basic principle of the understanding mind is the commitment to the untruthfulness of contradiction. It sounds like he is challenging Aristotle’s principle of contradiction. Why? After all, the logic of either/or was very important, even in ethics for Kant.

It seems Kant’s ethics is now part of his subjectivism, which is a projection of his mind on the world. He is putting man or woman back in the business of the world. Perhaps he felt through Copernican revolution and evolution, human being no longer had a central position. The earth was not the center of the universe, nor was it stationary or at rest. The earth revolved around itself as well as the sun. Copernicus made human and earth become humble Vis a’ Vis the sun as the Ultimate Reality.

Ethics is in the realm of objectivity not subjectivity. Either/or logic is part of the structure of the mind. The natural law is where either/or logic has no place to be in. May be now we understand why Hegel coming from a religious background objected the principle of contradiction. Even though he was a philosopher, he took the 13th century decisions made by the Church Fathers very seriously. For him Christ was both God and man at the same time and in the same relationship. Jesus, according to the Church Fathers, was fully man and fully God. No wonder Kierkegaard thought Christianity was not a rational Religion. This, to him, didn’t mean it was irrational. Perhaps for him it was super rational. This would defy Aristotle’s principle of contradiction. Either/or logic would say Jesus was either man or God and couldn’t be both. Buddha was once asked whether he was God or man. In response he said he was only awakened.

    Even though Kant was trying to get rid of the personal God, Hegel made an attempt to prove the existence of this Reality. It is very much possible that what Kant was doing was to reset the understanding of the Ultimate Reality without connecting it to a personal God who could be the creation of each individual. God may have created all of us in His image but we have no right to create Him in our own image.

    By going against the law of contradiction, Hegel must have tried to let his metaphysics dictate his logic. Saint Augustine once said ‘one’ and ‘many’ are one on one level of existence according to Plato. Saint Thomas Aquinas doesn’t not seem to have paid attention to this fact and being Aristotelian he accepted either/or logic principle. When he was questioned regarding the nature of Christ, he simply said just accept it by faith. This reminds us of what Kant told us when he spoke of pure reason and its limitation. Being limited  there would be more room for faith.

History becomes significant to Hegel, because Christ entered it in flash thousands of years ago. No such a thing happened when the Avatar Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu was born, because time was but an illusion.

Hegel, however, had to dissolve the principle of contradiction in order to justify the presence of Jesus in history. When an idea is realized to deal with a contradiction, a new level in the development of thought must happen, which is called the process of ‘dialectic’. This means Hegel’s dialectic starts with a thesis, which was considered to be true in the beginning like ‘being’ for instance. Reflection manifests that there’s a point of view, which is contradicting this thesis called antithesis like non-being. This has an equal claim to be valid. ‘To be or not to be’ is what we hear from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Confronting with two irreconcilable or contradictory ideas, namely, thesis and antithesis, a novel and third phenomenon comes into existence, which is called the synthesis, namely becoming. The synthesis now becomes a new thesis, for which an antithesis shall later become manifested. This process keeps on moving forward by creating another synthesis. Let us not forget that the understanding of Hegel’s dialectical logic the way we did was not what Hegel had come up with according to some scholars. Apparently the commentators of Hegel’s philosophy were the ones who interpreted his dialectic in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. If this were what Hegel had in mind, then it would mean history’s motion is the result of this dialectical process. However, in the past motion was the creator of these conflicts not the other around. In other words, change and motion were the causes of problems in history not the dialectical process of Hegel. Nevertheless, logic was more accurate than causality, which had already been questioned by David Hume in the 18th century. Hegel picks up logic to explain events in history. But he was not happy with Aristotelian logic of either/or so he came up with his own. He thought what Hume had said about causality was true, that is, we can never have a direct and immediate perception of cause and effect. Although Hume himself was a historian, his thoughts concerning cause and effect would under mind his historical assessment or perhaps that is what he wanted so historical events cannot be predicted.

As we mentioned before, Hegel was trying to prove the legitimacy of Jesus being both God and man at the same time and in the same relationship without violating the principle of non-contradiction of Aristotle, which is impossible.

Motion to Heraclitus was series of beings and non-beings. When I walk or stride, I’m here but at the same time I’m not where I was before or a moment ago. To Parmenides this cannot be, because something cannot come from nothing. Thus, motion is not possible. As we can see, for Hegel, the synthesis of being and non-being is becoming.

Let us remember, we’re not able to use either/or logic of Aristotle for divine messages such as the Ten Commandments. Perhaps that is why Hegel didn’t want to use this logic to explain the current, namely progression flow of history, which had the presence of Christ or God in it. So he morphed the body of either/or logic of Aristotle to fit into his procrustean bed. After all, Jesus was believed to have been fully man and fully God.   Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) once said: “Don’t squander time, this is the stuff life is made of”. It sounds as if he was Hegelian. Who knows, perhaps he was? Life is made of time and time and history are where Geist or Spirit dwells. We can always argue that time has no substantiality. One scholar commented on Hegel’s philosophy by saying that he turned God into time and history. Perhaps that is why time has become so precious since 19th century. But maybe it was always valuable so Hegel just made use of it to express his philosophical project. If it were an illusion like change in Hinduism, he never would have thought of mixing it with God like salt and water.

This gradual necessary unraveling or revealing of thought is an advancement or movement towards absolute Truth. This is an improvement towards an absolute universal mind or Spirit or what we believe as Godhead. However, If Geist has already entered time, then why do we have to think it still needs to move forward in order to reach perfection? Well, I think it is because what entered time and history, which is the realm of becoming, was not the Ultimate Reality but only the personal God. Besides, when transcendence is part of the world of becoming, it must struggle to free itself from this realm. This reminds me of the creation of pearls in the shell of some oysters. Once a tiny piece of rock enters these oysters, these creatures struggle to get rid of them by moving around so much that peals are finally produced. Cultured ones are made once we drop such a little rock into the shell and wait for the results. In fact we torture poor things for our own profits. This river of time once passed the grand rapid, reaches a calm water of absolute Truth. Here our personal God is no longer suffering like Christ did on the cross. But all this, according to Hegel, is taking place in time and history, which is a horizontal reality not vertical one.

When we look at the symbolism of the cross, we have a vertical Reality and a horizontal one. It seems with Hegel the vertical aspect of cross is missing. It is as if the cross with Jesus on it has fallen into the river of time and is moving forward to become the Ultimate Reality through the three process of Hegelian dialectic, namely, thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In other words this water fall never moved up back to Heaven. Was Hegel also trying to get rid of the personal God in Christianity? Did he forget that after three days Jesus was resurrected? He was among us in flesh for a while but was lifted up to Heaven later on. When he died on the cross he was not a whole but a part as human. It looked like him but it was not him. Then after he had a bodily resurrection, he was whole again.

Let us remember, truth is not propositional for Hegel.  By this we mean, truth does not assert that the world, or reality has such an essence. In contrast, achievement of truth for him is the completion or fulfillment that would transcend all limitations.

Concepts or ideas can be false. Assertions or propositions are not this way. However, limitation is falsehood to him. For example, when Kant talked about the limitation of pure reason, this was a false reality. You might ask, why? How does Kant know our pure reason is limited unless he knows the unlimited Reason? However, Kant is examining this based on his own limited reason without knowing that it is his unlimited Reason which decides what is limited. Only the infinite and uncreated Intellect knows the difference.

If you remember, Hegel believed the mind that truly understands knows they are false. But he seems to tell that on the one hand truth is conceptual and on the other hand he said concepts or ideas are able to be false rather than assertion or propositions. Is he contradicting him? However, if he undermines the principle of contradiction, then he could contradict himself with impunity. Didn’t Friedrich Nietzsche contradict himself when he said there would be many wars in the future, that is, the 19th century while at the same time he believed in Darwinian evolution? Did he care to be contradictory? I don’t think so. Perhaps not being a Hegelian scholar, we don’t fully understand his philosophy. But even so, this negation itself is an admission that he could not do his philosophy without the principle of contradiction he called it false.

Aristotle in fact said let us start from somewhere to lay the foundation of contradiction. If I find that Hegel was contradicting himself, then he could say, not really. But this very denial is an indication that he still believed in the principle of contradiction. Even If you want to bend the rule to fit your procrustean bed, you still have to begin having faith in this principle.

Suppose the Church Fathers were wrong in their assertion that Jesus was fully man and fully God. Then Hegel couldn’t have built his philosophical empire on this false theology, could he? Is it possible they were mistaken in their theology? The answer is, yes. There were those who rejected what the Church Father had come up with and they were not Muslim philosophers, because Islam had not even emerged as the third Abrahamic Religion. Perhaps this animosity between the children of Abraham since the crusader wars continued to block the influence this Religion that is Islam had on the Western philosophy at some point in history.

Hinduism and Buddhism going back historically only had a chance to reach Schopenhauer, who was Hegel’s colleague at the university. The former hated Hegel while the latter had many students who were interested in his philosophy.

Falsehood is simply limitation, which is not the complete understanding of absolute. It sounds like Kant who spoke of the capability of pure Reason. Hegel also believed that scientific theories which are falsified are not in themselves entirely wrong. They’re just limited all-encompassing truth.

If you noticed the Jacob’s ladder of reaching God is missing in his philosophy. Christ once said, he was this ladder upon which angels were ascending and descending. It sounds as if Hegel was thinking of railroad track and train going towards a destiny, which is the absolute truth. His dialectic process comes to an end with a great metaphysical conception of universal mind. He tells us:  “The significance of that ‘absolute’ commandment, ‘Know thyself’, whether we look at it in itself or under the historical circumstance of its first utterance- is not to promote mere self-knowledge in respect of the particular capacities… of the single self. The knowledge it commands means that of man’s genuine reality of what is essentially and ultimately true and real-of spirit as the true and essential being”.

As we remember, Kant argued that we can never know our true Self through pure reason. What is our true Self except what the Hindus called it ‘Atman’? Once we know our true Self, we know the Self of everything. It is the ray of the sun in every individual. However, the question remains, is it ‘I’ who gets to know the Ultimate Reality or my true Self? But our true Self doesn’t have to know the sun. It is one with the sun to begin with. Only the ray of the sun knows the sun and I’m not that ray. I as I wouldn’t know the Ultimate reality but the true Self within me know, because it is one with the sun. The phenomenon of time perhaps was Hegel’s most difficult obstacle to reach the Ultimate Reality. This Reality is way above the personal God, which to Lao Tzu is older than God. Once you’re in space, of course not what the astronauts are familiar with, you’re not in time any more.

Kant moved time from the real and objective world and made it one of the categories. It seems he knew time had no substantiality. He made it the property of the mind in which we live our life accordingly. When Ben says, this is the stuff life is made of he was perhaps referring to what Kant had in mind whether he knew it or not. We organize our life based on time though time has no substantiality.

As much as Kant, however, brought either/or logic of Aristotle into the realm of ethics, Hegel mixed up time with the transcendence of God or Geist in his philosophy of history. To a highly regarded scholar, Hegel turned God into time. Well, why not? If God has no substantiality, because He is Spirit, then so is time.

In Hinduism, time and change are illusions. May be they knew something we didn’t know. Those ancient sages would go through deep meditation and discover what we cannot even think about. I wish Hegel like Schopenhauer had access to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. I studied Hegel’s philosophy with Jesuit scholars at Fordham University and I never thought one day I would be able to write about him in my own humble fasion.

Outside of our own mind either/or logic has no reality. Hegel seems to have thought of this philosophical issue. Nevertheless, being a rationalist as well as idealist tried to tamper with logic though he had found it more certain than causality. You just cannot bend the rules of logic to fit the realm of noumenon of Kant. All you had to do was to accept the theology of the Church Fathers by faith as what St. Thomas was advising his followers to do in the 13th century.

Karl Marx though didn’t accept all of Hegelian philosophy; while he benefited a lot from it. He didn’t care for Hegel’s logic and instead went back to the principle of causality in spite of Hume’s criticism and paid a great price for it later on. He predicted the communist revolution would take place in England whereas it occurred in Russia. He fell into the trap of hypothetical imperative of if/then. In that sense Kant was in a safer place, which is the mind.

I personally believe Hegel built a fabulous system but on a shaky ground and that is why later on it looked like the tower of pizza.

(Philosophy, 100 Essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)