Philosopher Fridays is a series in which I highlight some small aspect of a philosopher’s work who influenced my thinking – for good or ill. These posts are meant by no means to be comprehensive portrayals of major canonical figures. Parts of this post are adapted from an essay I wrote for an undergraduate course on music history.
HEGEL: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, one of the heaviest hitters of German Idealism, lived from 1770–1831. He did his studies in Tubingen, where he became friends with fellow legends Holderin and Schelling. His writings cover politics, social structure, religion, logic, science, aesthetics, historiography, and more, influencing many and alienating others. He is perhaps equally famous for influencing the structure of Marxist teleology as he is annoying those would become Analytic Philosophers. Indeed, he remains divisive even among those who would seem to fall into his camp – In my very limited academic experience I’ve heard more than one Hegel scholar bristle at being called a Hegelian (for what it’s worth, I’m neither of these, though I do find Hegel insightful and inspiring). It’s not an uncommon distinction (there are not many Aristotelians who think we were mistaken to favor Newton’s version of natural philosohy), but with Hegel it seems to create teams.
This is because Hegel’s philosophy was as totalizing as any that have existed, drawing systematic connections between the very biggest picture of reality itself and the smallest details. He was absolutist in his view point, and a metaphysical idealist (not an empirical one), meaning that ideas weren’t just real, they were the apotheosis of reality, and that the Absolute Spirit – the most universal of ideas – was God. To put it as glibly as possible, his view was a sort of complexly systematized Platonism. For a thorough explanation of this, check out his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Hegel is probably most famous for his dialectics. The traditional version presented in undergrad goes something like this:
1) There is a status quo of some kind, or a main idea, which is the ‘thesis’.
2) Something comes to challenge that thesis, a rebellion of sorts, which is its ‘antithesis’.
3) There is a clash of these two opposites out of which is born something entirely new – a ‘synthesis’.
Then that new synthesis becomes the thesis, and the process begins again, repeating until the Absolute End is reached. This is most famously taken up by Marx in his understanding of political systems, which continuously collapse hierarchical levels into fewer and fewer divisions until we reach the “end of history”.
This explanation – of both Hegel and Marx – is a little crude and oversimplified, suggesting either three unconnected stages of development, or else two unconnected stages that reach some kind of compromise. A better way to understand this movement is a flow of phases, each equally as important to the whole as the next. The antithesis depends upon the thesis for its existence even as it destroys it.
This flow of growth and negation is what I find so inspiring about Hegel’s philosophy. It’s applicable to everything, and once you read it, you start to see it everywhere. Whether or not you sign up for his whole system, Hegel provides a wonderful explanatory model through which to understand complex social, historical, logical, aesthetic, and religious development in a way that carries the simplicity of a narrative, but the depth of universal interconnection.
Let’s take an example and isolate it from the grander context of Hegel’s philosophy, and just look at this simple vision of his dialectic. Since (fun fact!) I was a music minor in college, I choose the development of secular Western European medieval music in the fourteenth century.
The traditional style of music in this period is what we call Ars Antiqua. Exalted composition was defined at this time by a uniformity that dated back to Charlemagne. Music – indeed all art – was meant to give glory to God or aid humans in their quest for religious understanding, not to be enjoyed for its own sake, and so only certain kinds of harmony and tonal structure were acceptable. A movement known as Ars Nova was the antithesis of this, its music calling attention to itself in a most radical way by openly and consciously rebelling against the old rules. Similarly, Trecento (the Italian Ars Nova) also challenged the monolithic power of the church by adopting a regional style, vernacular language, and a focus on secular concerns. These two styles featured polyphony and human romance, essentially glorifying multiplicity and diversity over the homogeneity of the Ars Antiqua.
(Historical Note: During the Great Schism of the mid to late 1300s, it was not only acceptable to go against what the Pope said, indeed, it would be quite impossible not to, seeing as there were three Popes at one point and they certainly did not agree on everything at a given time. As a result, Christian European society itself began to secularize and fragment more than it ever had, and this prompted a fragmentation of music as well. The international unity of the past was crumbling as the church lost some of its compelling iron grip on all elements of life (even if it was not very much). Pope John XXII condemned the popular new styles of composition, yet no force was taken to stamp them out. Individual composers did not fear to attach their name proudly to their pieces; the overall philosophy of man’s role in the universe was changing toward a more Renaissance notion – that man is the measure of all things. This attitude is clear in both the Ars Nova tradition – in which art for art’s sake is given importance via the treatises of Philippe de Vitry and Johannes de Muris in the first half of the fourteenth century – and Trecento, in which the tonality of secular music is changed regionally.)
In a sense, Ars Nova and Trecento were united by their differences; the fragmentation of music into two separate styles was in direct antithesis to the overarching unified continentalization of music. Note that the original style was not erased, and neither was its challenger. The synthesis was neither an outright replacement the thesis and antithesis, yet it was something new – a rich musical (and historical) landscape built of these stages and yet leaving none fully intact. If you’re interested in a detailed comparison of the two styles, let me know in the comments and I’d be happy to oblige with an example.
While there are some disadvantages to using Hegel’s model in this way (oversimplification is a danger I’ve run into here, especially in my overly narrow use of these terms, and some limitations I’ll indicate in the final paragraphs) it provides a structural context that’s temptingly grounding. But this example – while it shows a great way to take up Hegelian insight – is yet still a bit crude as an explanation of Hegel’s dialectics.
In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, dialectical movement is not just a flow of changing phases, but a movement of determinate negation; a bud becomes an flower by negation of the flower. Hegel describes it thus:
The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the latter; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it instead. These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid nature makes them moment of an organic unity in which they not only do not conflict, but in which each is as necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole.
But if we’re to use this notion as more than a model for immediate movement, we need to go further. For the truth of reality – Absolute Knowledge – it is not simply enough to progress through moments, changing from one thing to another, making false that which was once true and making true that which was once only possible. It requires enlightenment and awareness of what guides this movement. Spirit is an awareness of how these moments can be both different and yet the same. Absolute Knowledge is awareness of this notion, an understanding that the truth of a thing is the whole of its separate moments. It is more than a collection of negated substance, but a systematic knowing of the organization of subject. Substance becomes subject through a recognition of the unity of the whole, and it is only then that the notion can be said to be known.