"Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole" - Karl Marx

My Take on This Essay

Let me just begin by saying that this is a complicated essay in which Marx is revealing the foundations of his thought. He was deeply influenced by Hegel, but is also critical of Hegel (because of the revelations of Feuerbach), believing that Hegel did not go far enough in his thinking. I am still new to Marx's writings so it may not be perfect but here is a beginning look at these ideas. If I had to summarize the essay in a few words, I would say that essentially what Marx is getting at is an analysis of the idea that the world is generated by man's self-conscious ideas and develops overtime through the incorporation of new ideas in self-reflection, and all of this being a process which is growing towards some type of totally abstract mind or idea which is fully aware of itself and reality. This is, of course, Hegel's dialectic and Absolute Spirit. What Marx thinks though is that even though Hegel comes to the conclusion that the immaterial world of rational ideas is more real than the physical world of nature, that Hegel opened the door to show the very opposite of this idea. Marx thinks that, in reality, man's idea are simply things intuited from the natural world and made to be a type of fake reality through mental projection. We create ideas and claim them to be more real than the reality we took them from. And that this is a type of alienation and estrangement of human beings by doing this. If one only looked a little deeper they would see that the idea that reality is thought which keeps reflecting more and more upon itself will eventually lead to an absurdity in that it will have no content to eventually think upon. The content of reality is that of nature. Therefore, in order to undue man's alienation from himself he must realize that all the "development" of the past are actually hinderances. Religion, politics, capitalism, social structures, and teleology that glorify these projected world must be taken down and replaced with a new type of atheism, secular humanism, communism, and naturalism. That's the gist of the essay anyway. Good luck! 


Marx begins this piece of writing by pointing out that, while Hegel and his dialectic are very important, that neither Hegel himself nor some of his most important critics have been able to breakaway from Hegel's ideas enough to consider the notion of the dialectic in their own contemporary circumstances, incorporating everything else that's been learned and going on in the world of that time. 1 He is harshly critical of the schools of "Young Hegelianism" which proclaim to have understood the meaning of history itself through the dialectic, yet fail to apply the same criticism towards themselves. 2 

Feuerbach's Critique of Hegel

Rather, it was Ludwig Feuerbach who was able to truly be critical of Hegelian criticism and step outside the traditional schools of thinking to offer a new perspective on the nature of the dialectic itself. 

Feuerbach's great achievement is: (1) The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thoughts and thinkingly expounded, and that is has likewise to be condemned as an other form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; (2) The establishment of true materialism and or real science, since  Feuerbach also makes the social relationship 'of man to man' the basic principle of the theory; (3) His opposing to the negation of the negation, which claims to be the absolute positive, the self-supporting positive, positively grounded on itself. 3

Marx then explains how Feuerbach broke down Hegel's dialectical reasoning. He explains that Feuerbach justifies the starting place of knowledge as that which can be known with the senses by showing how Hegel's choice of basing truth in that which is immaterial and absolute, an idea or mind,

as illogical. [Think of the traditional Greek and Scholastic idea of God as the absolute being, that which is immaterial, universal, simple, and unburdened by matter] Now Hegel's anti-thesis is to challenge this starting place by means of ideas emphasizing the "... actual, sensuous, real, finite, particular..." which is a contradiction of religion in that the sensuous and particular is the opposite of what God is. Feuerbach and Marx, though, think that Hegel went wrong by positing a synthesis in which the reality of the immaterial and universal can be restored. 4 If the movement towards rejecting the reality of the transcendent in favor of the material was a type of "negation" of the old belief systems, then Hegel's  synthesis in which the transcendent is restored is a "negation of the negation." Feuerbach explains this away, though, by saying that at least an internal contradiction has been brought about in which the transcendent has lost its footing. Even if it is reestablished in the synthesis, it is not a position which is filled with doubt, one that has lost its previous self-evident justifying status. It is materialism which now holds that position. And so Hegel went wrong because he accepted the premise of the reality of the abstract, immaterial, universal idea as being most fundamental he only got at an understanding of history from an "... abstract, logical, speculative expression..." which may be part of humanity's origin, but does not describe the present and future of mankind. 5

Marx's Critique of Hegel's Dialectic - Hegel Restored in His Synthesis What Should Have Been Denied

Marx then lays out a more in depth critique and explanation of Hegel's thought. Hegel's philosophy begins with logic and abstract thought and concludes with the existence of an ultimate reality of mind. Marx thinks that this in actuality is simply the person's mind which is objectifying their own consciousness and turning it into some being outside themselves. Man has generated the tool of logic, which is an estrangement from his material self and from nature. It tries to abstract from determinate reality the entities of nature and nature itself. Then this abstraction begins to work upon itself, and all the different aspects of the human mind and culture, eventually taking them to their absolute state and projecting them out into an ultimate abstract consciousness. 6

Hegel's Encyclopaedia, beginning as it does with Logic, with pure speculative thought, and ending with Absolute Knowledge - with the self-consciousness, self-comprehending, philosophic or absolute (i.e. superhuman) abstract mind - is in its entirety nothing but the display, the self-objectification, of the essence of the philosophic mind, and the philosophic mind is nothing but the estranged mind of the world thinking within its self-estrangement - i.e., comprehending itself abstractly. 7

Marx thinks that when man begins to think about reality, society, nature, himself abstractly as an idea that he begins to "estrange" himself in thinking that reality consists in the abstract and logical realm. "The philosopher sets up himself (that is, one who is himself an abstract form of estranged man) as the measuring-rod of the estranged world." 8 Another way he expresses this is to say that man has historically "alienated" himself through the production of abstract thought and logic. This estrangement and alienation centers around choosing the abstract and immaterial over the sensual and material world and by setting up a division between the sensual and the immaterial. One of Hegel's mistakes then was to turn the ability for abstract though, and its processes, as existing in some higher form. 9 This mistake was applied in Hegel's understanding of the human senses, the state, religion, wealth ... that this was the path "to the true human world." History, the state, religion, etc. are then the products of the mind of man and the stages of the development of that mind. 10 This is to make everything outside of man into "abstract consciousness" and man himself as "self consciousness." And this is then to consider that objects of the world are simply blips in the self consciousness of the mind which in a way is to equate the two together into one "absolute knowledge," or "the movement of abstract thought no longer directed outwards but going on now only within its own self: that is to say, the dialectic of pure thought is the result." 11

The whole of man then is only brought out over time in this process of abstraction and integration. 12 The main work of man is that of thinking about himself. All of the past philosophies and insights of history were aspects discovered about man were earlier phases leading towards this self-consciousness. Therefore a full focus on man's self-awareness in the midst of the world in which he also grasps abstractly is to come to a knowledge of the "absolute." In other words, Hegel's emphasis on humanity reflecting on itself as the object of thought is the ultimate science, as every other science and object is itself known through man's consciousness. It can be fully realized when he is able to even move beyond thinking about himself as a type of object, beyond objectivity and to regard himself as "...a non-objective, spiritual being." 13 What does this look like? Well, for Hegel the person is equivalent to self-consciousness, and therefore he must address how the self incorporates the self as an object or idea and then moves beyond this "estrangement" which occurs from his conception of himself as an abstraction. 14 One way in which this occurs is when self-consciousness incorporates the objectified things of the world not as entities outside the self, but incorporates them within the self and consciousness within them. 

"Consciousness must similarly have taken up a relation to the objects in all its aspects and phases, and have comprehended it from the point of view of each of them. This totality of its determinate characteristics makes the object intrinsically a spiritual being; and it becomes so in truth for consciousness through the apprehending of each single one of them as self or through what was called above the spiritual attitude to them." 15

The Process by Which the Mind Generates the World and Man Alienates Himself

To break this complicated process down another way, Marx goes over it again in numbered points: 1) An object presents itself to ones consciousness in some fleeting way. 2) Since man is self-consciousness, and the objects which appear to him are essentially part of that consciousness, 16 then "thing hood" cannot be anything other than a projection of the self-consciousness of man, or the objectification or alienation of man's consciousness into things. 

"But it is equally clear that a self-consciousness- can only establish thing hood through its alienation - i.e., establish something which itself is only an abstract thing, a thing of abstraction and not a real thing. It is clear, further, that thing hood is therefore utterly without any independence, any essentiality vis-à-vis self-consciousness; that on the contrary it is a mere creature - something posited by self-consciousness. And what is posited, instead of confirming itself, is but a confirmation of the act of positing in which is concentrated for a moment the energy of the act as its product, seeming to give the de-posit-but only for a moment- the character of an independent, real substance." 17

Marx says, though, that this process of the self-conscious is something grounded in the natural being of man which is objective. Man is a being of the material nature. "We see also how only naturalism is capable of comprehending the act of world history." 18 He conceives of man as having a nature and being part of nature in that man requires objects outside of himself for his survival and nourishment. 19 To not share in this materiality is not to exist. "A being which is not itself an object for some third being has no being for its object; i.e., it is not objectively related. Its be-ing is not objective. An unobjective being is a nullity - an un-being." 20 A being that is not material is nonsensical and just a thought experiment. 21 Now human objectivity is a little more complicated than simply the material things like a rock. The human experience is not given in its fullness to the human person. Rather, like all natural things, human history has a genesis and process through which it passes, "...a conscious self-transcending act of coming-to-be." 22 This coming to be is that of "pure activity," an activity which does not admit of objective truths outside of the human mind. "Thirdly, because this establishing of thinghood is itself only a sham, an act contradicting the nature of pure activity, it has to be canceled again and thinghood denied." 23 3) That consciousness externalizes itself is not just bad, but has a positive aspect to it. 4) A positive aspect for consciousness itself. 24 5) That positive aspect being that consciousness realizes that it is simply projecting objectivity on the world. 6) There is the aspect of reintegration in which it takes its projections back into itself as an aspect of its self, a greater understanding of itself. (It sees the self-consciousness now in things "... being thus at home in its other-being as such" 25) The conclusion is that the world of essences, of thinghood, of objectivity is one which is simply projected by the mind. 

"Consciousness, then, knows the nullity of the object (i.e., knows the non-existence of the distinction between the object and itself, the non-existence of the object for it) because it knows the object as its self-alienation; that is, it knows itself- knows knowing as the object - because the object is only the semblance of an object, a piece of mystification, which in its essence, however, is nothing else but knowing itself, which has confronted itself and in so doing has confronted itself with a nullity- a something which has no objectivity outside the knowing." 26

Confronting the Alienation on Man by Destroying His "Projections"

We fail to see this when we have become too comfortable in living in the false objectivity of the world. 27 This is all the more pernicious when we objectify "the spiritual world" into a real thing and become living for that spiritual world. We become comfortable with our religions and living for the afterlife. Here Marx again critiques Hegel, saying that Hegel saw this flaw in man's historical thinking regarding objectivity but then in he antithesis ends up reestablishing these falsehoods in the end, and thus his criticism is not really a criticism. Thus, Marx has openly set his sights on religion and politics as two alienating systems that are projections of man made into fake realities. 

"If I know religion as alienated human self-consciousness then what I know in it as religion is not my self-consciousness, but my alienated self-consciousness confirmed in it. I therefore know my own self, the self-consciousness that belongs to its very nature, confirmed not in religion but rather in annihilated and superseded religion." 28 

In so many words, Hegel did not go far enough in pointing out these projections which falsely dominate society and man. 29 In this list Marx includes things like, "... private right, morality, the family, civil society, the state, etc." They have no objective existence, only that in the mind which is often generated in their respective philosophical disciplines, though they can take on "... sensuous disguises" which make them look real. 30 To critiques these systems then is simply to critique a set of ideas, not reality. 31 

And here Marx really explains in more detail the "positive" aspect of man's estrangement. He says that in realizing that all these aspects of reality which we previously thought were objective and had their own real essences are actually just projections of the mind of man, we can then begin to truly change reality to properly fit this discovery. Therefore, the abandonment of religion will lead to authentic humanism. The abandonment of private property will lead to authentic practical humanism through communism. This is the first time man has truly become real, become himself. 

"...just as atheism, being the annulment of God, is the advent of theoretic humanism, and communism, as the annulment of private property, is the justification of real human life as man's possession and thus the advent of practical humanism (or just as atheism is humanism mediated with itself through the annulment of religion, whilst communism is humanism mediated with itself through the annulment of private property)." 32

The Death Blow to Hegel

Hegel's system ends by coming to the conclusion that man is primarily a spiritual entity, with that absolute consciousness being something like God. "This result-the subject knowing itself as absolute self-consciousness - is therefore God - absolute Spirit - the self-knowing and self-manifesting idea." 33 The point is that the end state is a mystical one, one which is inverted for Marx. 34 Hegel's system is one ultimately of the estrangement of man in that it stays in the realm of the abstract. 35

And here is the critique of Marx against the system as a whole. Marx points out that if abstraction is the method by which self-consciousness and the absolute spirit is generated, then what ends this process of abstraction. One must end either with the absolute spirit abstracting itself or thinking itself or ... with nothing at all. Marx claims that there is no real world of immaterial abstractions or entities, all that exists is simply nature. 36

"But abstraction comprehending itself as abstraction knows itself to be nothing: it must abandon itself - abandon abstraction - and so it arrives at an entity which is its exact contrary - at nature." Thus, the entire Logic is the demonstration that abstract thought is nothing it itself; that the Absolute Idea is nothing in itself; that only Nature is something." 37

The Rejection of Teleology

The problems that fitting one's experience of the singular natural world into the Hegelian system should simply resolve itself by admitting that it was a projection, there has only been nature and the abstract thinker himself all along. 38 "This entire transition from Logic to Natural Philosophy is nothing else but the transition ... from abstracting to intuiting." 39 In other words, the logical, philosophical, and abstract world is actually an empty one. "His thoughts are therefore fixed mental shapes or ghosts dwelling outside nature and man." 40 The real world is that of the material, natural, and sensuous one known through intuition. "... to recognize nature as the essential being and to go over to intuition, the abandonment of abstract thought - the abandonment of thought revolving solely within the orbit of thought, of thought devoid of eyes, of teeth, of ears, of everything." 41

What man thought he was producing by the development of thought and dialectic were simply abstractions from intuitions of really existing nature. Therefore it is futile to try to find in nature the abstractions which one claimed to generate in thought because they are not there in that same way. 42 It is alienation to still try to find these thought productions in nature itself and to consider nature as something defective or inferior because of its externality versus those of ideas. 43 

1 - Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Prep. Institute of Marxism-Leninism. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956. Pg. 142, 143.
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