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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Philosophy and Faith with Father Francis Selman       

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the last of the German idealists, was born in 1770 and died in Berlin, where he had been professor of philosophy for 13 years, in 1831.  He produced his Phenomenology of Spirit when a lecturer in Jena in 1803.  We find his political theory in The Philosophy of Right, published in 1821.  His philosophy represents the attempt to fit all branches of knowledge into a unified system, which can be summarised in one sentence: absolute Spirit objectifies itself in the world and through the world comes to complete self-consciousness.  Let us see how this happens according to Hegel.

First, Hegel posits the existence of absolute Spirit (or Mind, Hegel uses the German word “Geist”, which means “spirit”).  He thought that a universal consciousness precedes all consciousness, including the consciousness of each person, because the highest objects of our knowledge are not individual things but general or universal concepts.  Philosophy thinks about the world in a more general way with these concepts.  A Spirit or Mind also precedes all other being because being originates from thought: as St Augustine said, we know things because they are but they are because they were first thought of by the One who brought everything into being, namely God.  Hegel’s absolute Spirit is thus equivalent to God.

Next, three elements are involved in thinking: (1) someone who thinks, (2) the object he thinks about, and (3) consciousness that one is thinking.  As Kant said, the thought “I think this” accompanies every thought that I have.  Thus the thinker comes to consciousness of himself through the objects he thinks about.  As we need objects of thought in order to become conscious of ourselves, the Spirit opposes to itself an object, which is the world.  Thus the Spirit objectifies itself in the world, because the world is the manifestation of the absolute Spirit or idea, just as a work of art manifests an idea of the artist’s mind.  As we come to consciousness of ourselves through objects, so the absolute Spirit comes to complete self-consciousness through the world, which has risen to its highest consciousness in human beings.  Thus the Spirit, in an evolutionary process, reaches full self-consciousness first through nature and then through human history.  Hegel criticised the philosophy of Kant for taking no notice of history.  Hegel’s own philosophy of history reflects the great interest in the historical origin of things (language, customs, etc.) which arose among scholars in Germany around the year 1800.  In Hegel’s view, all the cultural achievements of the human race were manifestations of the absolute Spirit rising to ever greater knowledge.  Hegel divided these manifestations of the absolute Idea into four areas: morality (which included law), art, religion and, highest of all, philosophy, because he said that every religion is particular and uses images but philosophy works with more general concepts.

Hegel saw history itself as the working out of ideas, for example the ideas of individual liberty and state control, democracy and despotism, through conflict, in which one idea overcomes another as humanity advances towards the ideal, or at least what those with power take to be the ideal.  Thus Hegel thought history follows a dialectical process, because every idea has an opposite and the opposition between an idea and its negation is overcome in a synthesis of the two.  To take Hegel’s own example, the opposite of being is non-being and the synthesis of the two is becoming which, as we saw in Plato, involves being and non-being (ceasing to be what you were and becoming what you were not).  As there can be no contradiction in the truth, absolute Truth is reached when all contraries are overcome, and even the distinction between a thing being in reality and in the mind.

History itself is the unfolding of the Idea through the four manifestations of consciousness which we named above.  The end of history is when the Spirit comes to complete self-knowledge and all being is known, and so absolute Truth is reached.  Then the distinction between being and being thought will be raised, when reality is identical with the absolute Idea or Spirit itself. Thus Hegel's reply to Kant, who had made reality unknowable because we only know phenomena, was that reality is knowable because it is an idea. Hegel thought that the unity of being and thought lies in self-consciousness, so that when all being is known, then, as he says in the Phenomenology of Spirit, “self-consciousness is reality”.  As he says, the Idea is only what it is in truth at the end of the development of its consciousness through the process of history, in which the Spirit’s consciousness is manifest through human consciousness.

We can perhaps see something like a universal mind in the internet through which so much knowledge can be shared all over the world.  The advance of scientific knowledge also seems to be part of a process by which complete Truth is reached.  Certainly, the growth of our knowledge of the world seems to bring with it an increase of the consciousness of ourselves as human beings.  There is truth in Hegel but also there are grave difficulties.  I want to mention three of them.

First, there is an internal inconsistency in positing an absolute Spirit at the beginning but it only becomes absolute when it has reached complete self-consciousness at the end of history.  Nature and the world come from the Spirit but there is no Spirit or absolute Idea without an object of thought.  Hegel is caught in a dilemma: either the Idea is identical with the world, which is finite and is not absolute, or it is absolute and cannot be identical with the world.  Hegel’s answer was that the Idea is distinct from the world but at the same time is the totality of all that exists.

Second, as human beings seem to be just part of a process and the means by which the Spirit rises to its own full self-consciousness through them, they lose their own individuality.  This seems to be further confirmed by Hegel’s political thought, which subordinates the individual to the state that he thought represented the will of the nation (whether a state represents the will of the people is doubtful even in a democracy).  How could Hegel reconcile human freedom with his theory of the state, which many have seen as a blue-print for the modern totalitarian state?  Hegel’s answer in his 'Philosophy of Right' was that individuals only possess liberty in a state, which protects it.  True freedom is not subjective but objective.  An individual rises above his own desires, which represent subjective freedom, when he or she adheres to the laws and customs of the state, whose institutions (in the good case) embody the rational principles which are also the foundation of the morality of individuals.  In this way, Hegel thought that the freedom of the citizens is embodied in the state, for they are both founded on the same rational principles of morality.  Hegel ascribed liberty to the individual because he thought everyone should have choice of spouse and profession, and he endorsed the ownership of private property.  There is little in his writings to let us think that he would have approved the modern police state, as manifested in the communist countries in the 20th century, and he disagreed with the strict censorship of the press by Frederick William III in the Prussia of his own day.

Third, for the Christian believer there are other difficulties.  First, Hegel’s identification of reality with the absolute Idea is a form of pantheism.  Second, in Hegel the absolute Spirit comes to full consciousness of itself through the world, but in the Christian faith it is the other way round: man returns to God through one who is God and man.  Nor does God depend on the world to have an object of thought: the Word came forth in God’s thought of himself before ever the world was.