An Overview of Hegelian Philosophy - Philosophy: A Historical Survey With Essential Readings by Fieser and Stumpf

An Overview of Hegel

This is a great introduction to the philosophy of Hegel, again from one of my favorite anthologies of philosophy by Fieser and Stumpf. I left out a bit about Hegel's ethics, politics, and view of world history, but I may return and fill in those parts. Here, though, is the essential look at his ultimate metaphysic which lays the foundation for everything else about his philosophy. 

The Fundamental Premise of Rationalist Philosophy
In beginning this overview of Hegel's philosophy, Fieser and Stumpf begin with an important key point, that German Idealism is the product of a longer strain of Rationalist philosophy. And by the time of Hegel, this school of philosophy is based upon the notion that the first metaphysical principle of reality is mind, not matter. "As noted, the thrust of German idealism is that mind is ultimately the source and content of knowledge - not physical objects or some mysterious thing-in-itself. As Hegel expressed it, every reality is rational, and the rational is real." 

[The important of this line cannot be understated for understanding Hegel. As different philosophies grapple with the fundamental metaphysical question about reality, What is it? or What is most real?, in creating system in which answers can be formulated there must be a fundamental principle which is the foundation for all the rest of the speculation within the system. With the idealists of this time, they are still operating on the Cartesian shift - as Descartes substituted the first metaphysical principle from a hierarchy of being outside the self to being that of the thinking mind, see my post here for more on this - and so to make sense of Hegel's philosophy is to realize that the fundamental truth of what is, of reality, begins with thinking and ideas, not physical things. Without understanding the foundation here, none of the rest of the philosophy will make any logical sense.] 

The Absolute Mind
With all that being said, if what is most real is mind/thought, then what does one make of the experience of the world which seems exterior to one's thoughts? Here is the next key step, given the premise above, the experience of things outside of one's own consciousness must mean that they are part of a mind still, only a higher consciousness to the universe, what Hegel calls the "Absolute Mind." "If all objects of our knowledge are the products of mind, but not our minds, it must be assumed that they are the products of an intelligence other than that of a finite individual. Hegel and other idealists concluded that all objects of knowledge, and therefore all objects, and indeed the whole universe, are the products of an absolute subject, an Absolute Mind." 

And so here Hegel rejects the notion that reality is subjective to each individual, but rather that each individual consciousness takes up its existence and experience of reality as part of the larger Absolute Mind which thinks all the things of our experience. And so what is real is still what is rational because its the rationality of the Absolute Mind. 1

Everything is Thinker and Thought
Here Hegel is different than both Plato and Kant. He rejects any distinction, like Plato held, between "physical" things and the universal/formal ideas of things. They are one in the same for Hegel. On the other hand, he rejects Kant's skepticism towards knowing a whole metaphysical picture of reality, because there are no more "things-in-themselves," no more realm of the forms ... the appearance and the idea are one in the same, and thus it is all probe-able by the mind. 2 "Whereas Plato made a sharp distinction between appearance and reality, Hegel argued in effect that appearance is reality." 3

"Take, for example, a chair. What is a chair, or what does it consist of? Hegel said that if we take seriously the conclusion that there can be no unknowable thing-in-itself, a chair must consist of the sum of the ideas we can have about it. On this basis a chair must consist of all the universals we find in it when we experience it. We say that a chair is hard, brown, round, and small. These are all universal ideas, and when they are related to each other in this way, they are a chair. These universals have their being in the chair; universals or categories never exist singly or independently. Since there is no unknown aspect of the chair-that is, nothing in addition to the qualities we experience - it follows that the chair is what we know about it, and what we know about it is that it consists of a combination of universals or ideas." 4

Knowing and being then are two sides of the same coin. Everything is a thinker or what is thought. We have our subjectivity and are thinkers, and yet all the things we experience in thinking are part of a higher consciousness and being. "...the essence of his idealism consisted in his notion that the object of our consciousness - the thing we experience and think about- is itself thought. In the end Hegel arrived at the notion that reality is to be found in the Absolute Idea." In other words, the objectivity of the world we experience are the ideas in the Absolute Mind experienced in our own subjectivity. 

The Absolute Is Behind Everything
[Now what is interesting here is that much of what has been said so far is not that much different from Descartes' or Berkeley's own philosophy. What is different is that they conceived "the Absolute" to be the ultimate being, God, but as distinct from the being of everything else.] Here, Hegel is trying more to unite the traditional dichotomies in philosophy between appearance and reality, being and becoming, the one and the many, nature and God, etc. Everything is part of the same reality. [Something like a type of pantheism, in my opinion.] 

"Nothing, said Hegel, is unrelated. For this reason, whatever we experience as separate things will, on careful reflection, lead us to other things to which they are related. Eventually, the process of dialectic thought will end in the knowledge of the Absolute." Now this is not the same as Parmenides' unification of being which posits change as an illusion. [Rather, it seems to be something of a contradiction, that being is one, but it is in an incomplete process towards that unity.] "Hegel described the Absolute as a dynamic process, as an organism having parts but nevertheless unified into a complex system. The Absolute is, therefore, not some entity separate from the world; rather, it is the world when viewed in a special way." 

If there was a common reality between the individual consciousness, nature, and the Absolute Mind would be that of immaterial thought. The question becomes, though, if the Absolute thought is not separate from the individual consciousness and nature, then is everything really only the expression of the Absolute Mind? 5 "Things behave as they do, however, because the Absolute is expressing itself through the structure of Nature. Thus, a person thinks about Nature the way the Absolute expresses itself in Nature. Just as the Absolute and also Nature are dynamic processes, so also human thought is a process - a dialectic process." 6

The Dialectic Process
If reality is both appearance and being together united in thought, then the becoming or incompleteness of the present is always logically connected with the perfect completeness of the future. The pursuit of truth and logic then exists as a continuing process of uncovering the Absolute Mind in all its fullness. Thus, philosophy and life is a process in time, also known as a dialectic. "Logic, then, is the process by which we deduce, from our experiences of the actual, the categories that describe the Absolute. This process of deduction is at the very heart of Hegel's dialectic philosophy." 

This process is triadic in that there's three repeating stages which represent the development of understanding of the Absolute Mind and its Absolute Idea. This growth also works and necessitates contradiction, as it is contradiction that drives the process. The first stage of a thesis, an understanding is put forward. Second, that thesis is contradicted in an anti-thesis. Thirdly, from the contradiction of the two a new synthesis is born. This then acts as the new thesis, and the process continues. 

The Metaphysical Dialectic - Being, Nothing, and Becoming
The anti-thesis is always contained in the thesis, and is something of its negation. For example, Hegel uses as a thesis the most general concept, that all things are, they exist. To be is universal for all things. 7 And yet, implicit in that universal notion of to be is also the concept of nothingness because a universal conception of being doesn't exist, but rather it only exists in particular forms as this or that being. And so the universal concept of being also carries with it a concept of nothingness, it's negation. And yet the existence of these two contradictory universal opposites generates a third concept, that of becoming. When being and nothing and synthesized together, the two both becoming something different, a combination of the two, that of becoming. "If we ask how something can both be and not be, Hegel would answer that it can both be and not be when it becomes." 

This synthesis must also be of a deeper reality and level than the thesis and antithesis, as the other two realities and their contradictions were only resolved by the conclusion of the third synthesis. In this sense, for Hegel, the ultimate synthesis of being is actually becoming, the existence of a process. "At each step he sets forth a thesis from which is deduced its antithesis; this thesis and antithesis then find their unity in a higher synthesis. In the end Hegel arrives at the concept of the Absolute Idea, which he describes, in accordance with his dialectic method, as Becoming - as a process of self-development." It is the existence of a process which incorporates a deeper level of unity and connections between all things, regardless of how distant their connections may appear at certain levels to us. 8

And so the more unifying ideas include the connections of diverse parts into a whole picture. For example, the idea of an engine unifies all the diversity of parts that would not necessarily make sense on their own. And so that which is most real is the most unifying idea of things, called the "Absolute Idea" which is the process of the Absolute Mind understanding itself more fully. 

The Philosophy of Nature as Dialectic 
When the Absolute Mind conceives of itself to varying degrees in the development of the Absolute Idea, nature it generated, as nature is an externalized version of the Absolute Mind's self. Before all things can be resolved into Idea and subjectivity, the Absolute Idea must externalize and objectify itself. [Something like a person writing a journal about their lives in order to come to grips with one's own mind and experiences.] When Mind and nature are reunited, a new Spirit of unity or "Geist" is born. "Hegel's distinction between the logical Idea 'behind' all things, on the one hand, and Nature, on the other, is his attempt simply to distinguish between the 'inner' and 'outer' aspects of the self-same reality. Nature, in short, is the opposite (the antithesis) of the rational Idea (thesis). Our thought moves dialectically from the rational (Idea) to the non-rational (Nature). The concept of Nature leads our thought finally to a synthesis represented by the unity of Idea and Nature in the new concept of Spirit (Geist, translated as either 'Spirit' or 'Mind')." 9

This concept of externalized nature is a process of development, then. At the beginning of the externalization there is only space, an empty and indeterminate concept like "being." The end of the process of a return back to full idea and spirit. In between is process of development from space to all the things of the world and universe before being resolved. 

The Human Person/Culture as Dialectic 
In this dialectic Hegel puts forward individual human thought/subjectivity as a thesis, what he calls "subjective spirit." From here its anti-thesis is that of the "objective spirit." If the subjective spirit is the mind of individuals, then the objective spirit is how these ideas take on concrete form in the design of the structures of society. Finally, there is a synthesis, the Absolute spirit in which individuals come together with social institutions to produce a higher level of understanding of reality in art, philosophy, religion, etc. 

One of Hegel's most lasting and influential ideas is in relation to the objective spirit. If this dialectic of the Absolute Mind is true, then society and its institutions and structures are not random, but rather are manifestations of the underlying rational dialectic of the Absolute seeking to understand itself. They are physical manifestations of the ideas of the day. "For this reason Hegel viewed institutions not as human creations but as the product of the dialectic movement of history, of the objective manifestation of rational reality. ... This identification of the actual state with the very grounds of reality is what caused Hegel's political theory to have such a captivating influence among those who wished to think about the state in totalitarian or at least nondemocratic terms." 

[I cannot understate the important of this last quote. If you have followed any of my posts on Hannah Arendt, the Nazis, or totalitarianism then you are aware of how the Communist and Fascist movements in the 20th century justified themselves as inevitable movements of nature and history which could not be stopped, only joined or destroyed by them. Darwin's law of the survival of the fittest, Marx' law of history and oppression, and the Nazis spiritualist evolution of pure races.] 10 

Triumph of the Absolute Spirit
History, the universe itself, has an ultimate dialectic which will be completed at some stage, and thus Hegel's philosophy is culminated at this ultimate point. "In the process of dialectic, knowledge of the Absolute is the synthesis of subjective spirit and objective spirit. Because reality is rationality (Thought, Idea), it followed for Hegel that our knowledge of the Absolute is actually the Absolute knowing itself through the finite spirit of human beings. Just how this movement of self-consciousness of the Absolute occurs in the spirit of people is described by Hegel in a final dialectic." 

This Absolute consciousness of itself is expressed in three stages, through art, religion, and philosophy. In art there is an aesthetic experience of beauty which enmeshes an idea within itself, many times latent in the experience of the art. More perfect than art is religion in that it deals with ideas more explicitly and formally. These ideas, though, are garnered from experience of events and, to Hegel, imagination. And so even though they deal in ideas more explicitly, they still use art and images and sense in their practice. More purified than religion is philosophy. [Here philosophy is the rational purified of art and experience, leading to the eternal and everlasting rationality of the universe.]

"Philosophy leaves behind the pictorial forms of religion and rises to the level of pure thought. But philosophy does not offer the knowledge of the Absolute at any particular moment, for such knowledge is the product of the dialectic process. Philosophy itself has a history, a dialectic movement, in which the major periods and systems of philosophy represent the necessary succession of ideas required by the progressive unfolding of the Idea. The history of philosophy is for Hegel, therefore, the development of the Absolute's self-consciousness in the mind of people." 11

1 -  Fieser, James and Samuel Stumpf. Philosophy: A Historical Survey With Essential Readings. Pg. 330
2 - 329, 330
3 - 331
4 - 330, 331
5 - 331
6 - 331, 332
7 - 332
8 - 333
9 - 334
10 - 335
11 - 340