THE PHILOSOPHY OF HEGEL
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)

It has been said that all philosophy is simply a series of footnotes on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.  It can also be said that all modern philosophy is a series of footnotes no the work of Emmanuel Kant. Writing in the early nineteen century, G. W. F. Hegel inherited the philosophy of Kant and accepted the (Copernican) notion that the mind constructed the world but then proceeded to modify much that was Kantian in his own philosophical system. In The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), Hegel assumed the universe was rational and that through a progress of deduction, human beings would eventually find and agree upon the truth. The question was the starting point for the process of deducing the truth. Kant had introduced the notion of the Thing-in-Itself, a concept that Hegel found difficult to accept.  Like Plato, Kant assumed there were what Plato called “Forms” that were beyond the reach of human consciousness. The forms are unseeable and unknowable and exist only as ideas. Ideas are “beings” that produce the world. All existence is Appearance and all appearance is dependent upon the world. According to Plato, Things of the world are mere “copies” of Universals or Ideas. Copies of the form/idea are made by and/or through Images of Ideas being stamped upon Matter by God(s).  Matter, for Plato was formless; matter was emptiness.  Matter is “not-being”, something that has not yet arisen from Idea. Matter is primordial and independent. The Thing comes into being only when matter is acted upon.

According to Aristotle, the Form, the Universal of a Thing, is also its End or Purpose. The final cause (end) (thing) is identical with the formal cause (form). A purpose must logically exist prior to the execution of the form. This conclusion leads Aristotle to the distinction between potentiality and actuality. Matter in itself is absolutely formless, the substrate of things. In other words, matter is actually nothing but it is also potentially all things. Matter gains actuality—becomes a “thing”—by acquiring Form. Form is actuality, for Aristotle. With the Greeks, the world process is crucial: there is the end, the form, and the universal. A “thing” is a combination of matter and form. Without form, which must always be Universal, the thing cannot exist. Compared to the universality of form, the object/matter must be particular. All things strive towards their own ends. Form molds matter and impels it to a higher state of existence. The end must be present at the beginning; otherwise the end could not exert propelling force. There is no new element, in other words, for the new must be present as a potentiality of the old. The ancients considered development to be the process by which that which was latent or hidden came to light. For the ancients, and for Plato and Aristotle, the world was driven by this dualism between idea and actuality, by these contradictions, which drive development.  These ancient ideas will be Hegel’s starting point and the source of his famous Dialectical Method, an invention that allowed him to ground truth and reality in the process of deductive Logic. An idealist, who learned from Kant, Hegel accepted Kant’s Copernican Revolution or Kant’s concept of the self or Self as an enduring entity, that is independent of events and stands alone in a condition of self-awareness. This “awareness” is the awareness of the object. The recognition of the object results in the realization of the difference between the self and the “other.”  That moment is the origin of consciousness or being, an awareness of object as “other-than-me.” Things are content, and Hegel distinguished between the object, as it is “in itself,” and the object as it is for an observer.  Although the concept of duality originated in ancient philosophy, modern philosophy credits René Descartes with the “Cartesian split.” Since Descartes, Western thought assumed a split between mind and matter.

It was David Hume who questioned Greek idealism, exposing the inherent weakness of the dualism between mind and matter by returning to the question–how do we know reality? Or what is knowledge? Hume explored the most basic concept upon which all knowledge depends: cause and effect, both of which must be both universal and necessary. True, we experience what we name “cause” and then we experience what we call “effect.” But we have done nothing more than placed a convenient label upon the events that transpired.  We have not established knowledge. Experience in itself is never universal nor is experience in itself ever necessary.  The connection between cause and effect is an assumption and any “knowledge” is therefore illusionary. Hume determined that knowledge could never arise out of experience and thus exposed the metaphysical base of philosophy. Kant immediately understood the implications of Hume’s thought: once the metaphysics of philosophy had been revealed as a “faith based” system, any knowledge of the world was now impossible.  We knew nothing but our own beliefs and belief is not knowledge. In order to correct David Hume and to put philosophy back on track, Kant proposed space and time as conditions that are both universal and necessary. The universal and necessary conditions of Space and Time give us objects.  Space and Time are a priori conditions, they preexist thought and make thought possible.  Space and Time are perceptions of our own minds and do not exist apart form us and are forms of our own perceptive faculty.  Space and time are Forms of sensations and these forms are filled with sense data.  The objects perceived by us through space and time are not real objects: they are Appearances.  Thought is conceptual and non-sense-based concepts—synthetic a priori judgments—are derived, not from experience, but from constructions made by the mind.  These concepts are the result of formal judgments of Logic.

We arrive at these concepts thorough the epistemological operations of the mind, Kant called “categories”, and there were twelve of them. The twelve categories were subjective, and, because they were universal, were necessarily static, and unchanging.  However, as Hegel noticed, these categories were not deduced one from another and were therefore arbitrary models made up by Kant in order to show the way the mind worked. If the categories were not Logical, then the Reason-based philosophy of Kant was not on a firm base. And this is the problem Hegel wanted to solve: to build a Logical base for the foundation of the Categories. Hegel confronted Kant on his own ground: then formalism of the Categorical Imperatives. The Categorical Imperatives are moral principles that must be followed universally and unconditionally, regardless of circumstances and situations or personal inclinations. Morality used to be handed down from above, from religion or the state, but Kant’s proposal that his “imperatives” are just that, imperative, put human reason in the place of spiritual motivations. These imperatives are derived from rational thinking and must be considered an extension of free will. The Categorical Imperatives are “practical” reasoning, fashioned for everyday use. It took many books for Kant to work out his ideas on morality, from The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals to the Critique of Practical Reason.

Using the term “formalism” indicates that Kant used conceptual models that were architectural structures. Once the structure was conceived of or built, so to speak, it needed to be inhabited.  The question is to what extent does the model drive the content? The categories are the model and the imperatives are the content and, before he could proceed with his own philosophy, Hegel had to propose an alternative to Kant. In her book, Hegel’s Critique of KantSally Sedgwick explained the objections of Hegel. “Hegel charges that the formalism of Kant’s practical philosophy is responsible for its deficiency in three principle respects. First, the formalism of he supreme practical law renders it ineffective as a guide to the derivation of specific duties..in requiring nothing more than that our intentions and actions conform to the form of universalizability, the law is too ’empty,’ in Hegel’s view, to adequately perform this function..Second Hegel has doubts about the supreme practical law’s efficacy in motivating us to act..Hegel doubts act the Kantian approach has the resources to explain why any agent would ever be moved to act morally at all. Third, Hegel is troubled by the implications of Kant’s formalism for the purposes of realizing duty..The categorical imperative commands us to submit our empirical natures to the governance of our practically rational natures, but our empirical natures can never provide the basis for duty. Because of the kinds of beings we are, the Kantian ‘ought’ can its this respect never become for us an ‘is..’ Hegel’s objections to specific features and implications of Kant’s categorical imperative reveal his resistance to Kant’s various dualisms..We learn from a careful study of Hegel’s critique of Kant’s theoretical philosophy, then, that his attack on the formalism of Kant’s categorical imperative is a specific instance of his general rejection of core commitments of Kant’s Critical system.”

Hegel’s answer to Kant, as shall be seen in the later posts, is “Dialectics,” or a back and forth argument. At first glance the concept of polarities or opposites seems as formal as Kant’s architectonic discursive structures, but Hegel’s answer to the static nature of Kant’s built philosophical environments is dynamic. Based upon the Socratic method inherited by Plato in which propositions are examined by taken the opposite position, a sort of call and response argumentative process. Process is the important idea with the Platonic dialogue for the argument moves, and with Hegel the Dialectic is not only dynamic but linear or “progressive.” In Encyclopedia of Philosophical Science Hegel explained his method and uses the dialectic in his book Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel considered his form of the dialectic to be superior to that of Plato and his mentor Socrates. In the Socratic approach, the argument/counterargument can be, by the rules of this game, arbitrary. All the interlocutor has to present is a counter argument. The argument needs only to rebut and it does not have to be logical or even refuted. However, Hegel based his Dialectic on Logic: the second statement had to follow the first statement by the necessity of logic. Thus Hegel attempted to eliminate mere cleverness and replace it with reason.

The next post on Hegel will discuss the Dialectical method in more detail.

Read also “Kant and Reason” and “Friedrich Schiller” and “Hegel and the Dialectical Method” and “Hegel, Art, and the Dialectical Method” and “Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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