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Why is Hegel's Philosophy Relevant Today? Hegel and Modern Society: Part 1
Hegel and Modern Society by Charles Taylor - Book Overview and Thoughts
The more I read and study Hegel's philosophy, the more I believe it is relevant today.
However, I lacked the necessary skills and vocabulary to articulate this significance. That said, philosopher Charles Taylor provides one of the greatest explanations of Hegel's fundamentals and how they apply to current societies.
Taylor leaves out Hegel's logic and phenomenology, focusing exclusively on his philosophy of history and politics, which are more than enough to produce a good thesis for his purposes.
I enjoyed this book, and discussing it deserves to be done in parts. Let's start with Hegel's synthesis, his general philosophy, and how it came to be. And we'll talk about its current significance in a future newsletter.
Hegel's philosophy emerged as a response to two historical movements: the Enlightenment (emphasizing reason and individual rights) and Romanticism (focused on emotions and nature).
Hegel's synthesis aimed at reconciling freedom vs. nature and individual vs. society. He believed that as human development progressed, these oppositions would become more evident, but would eventually reach a point of reconciliation.
The subject and its embodiment represent the conflict between human rationality and our natural impulses, with the goal of achieving self-awareness and harmony. Hegel explored the inner struggle between our rational thinking and our natural desires, aiming to achieve self-awareness and balance.
Humanity has an inherent need for rationality and self-expression. For Hegel, man is a self-defining subject, and it needs to express in order to define itself.
Hegel states that reason struggles as the subject and its embodiment, or in simple words, his self-expression, “progress.” In other words, it means that reason struggles to realize itself in its own embodiment.
Ancient Greece is an example of a society in perfect harmony with nature and the highest human expressive form, but in order for reason to develop to a greater level of clarity, this type of society had to die. Hegel seeks to achieve this unification while retaining the benefits of rational consciousness.
The process of reconciliation involves understanding the relationship between different stages and realizing that contradictions are essential for the development of man’s self-consciousness.
Hegel talks about identity and opposition as being interconnected. To reconcile oppositions is to recognize that each term in a dichotomy is not just opposed to, but also essentially connected to its opposite. In other words, the basic relationship of opposition and identity is interconnected. Each opposition comes from an earlier state of identity, which in turn leads to opposition. Hegel thinks that the true nature of reality cannot be grasped by a simple "either/or" perspective, but rather through a dialectical mode of thinking that recognizes the relationship of identity and difference.
Hegel’s “Geist” is both a life force and a cultural expression, revealing and defining who we are as individuals and as part of a community.
"Geist" must be embodied in order to manifest itself. Consciousness requires an object, and the subject must be placed against an object. "Geist" is thus humanity's collective self-expression, manifesting itself in our cultural forms, philosophy, language, and, most crucially, the State.
Hegel tries to show the contradiction or ontological conflict in finite things, which is an important part of his ontological vision. He strives to demonstrate our categorial notions' inability to fully characterize reality, while arguing that these concepts must nonetheless have some use in the real world. As a result, the contradiction exists within reality itself.
Let’s delve deeper into it!
The Hegelian Roots
Hegel’s synthesis was a reaction to his present. He lived during the transition period between Romanticism and the Enlightenment.
For those who do not know what these two currents are. The Enlightenment is basically a movement that emphasized reason, science, individual rights, and skepticism towards traditional authority.
Thinkers of this trend wanted to apply reason and rationality to all aspects of human life, including politics, ethics, and social institutions.
All these movements have always been reactions to past trends. The Enlightenment is a reaction to the superstition, blind faith and dogma that religion created in the past. However, the Enlightenment also produced a reaction, and this is the Romantic stage.
Romanticism emerged as a reaction against the Enlightenment. It emphasized emotion, nature, and a fascination with the mystical and supernatural. Romantic thinkers and artists strived to explore and express the deeper realms of human experience and emotion.
All of these reactions influenced Hegel, as well as other philosophers such as Herder, another German philosopher who was responsible for developing a new concept of man as an expressive object. This idea centered on man as the subject of egoistic desires, for whom society and its environment supplied just the means to fulfillment.
This is known as "expressivism," and it is heavily influenced by the Romantic period. The idea was to demonstrate that man finds the most fulfillment in expressive activities. As a result, art was seen as the pinnacle of human fulfillment during the Romantic period.
But there is a catch. Humanity lives in community, and they are part of a culture that is always nourished by the totality of it. In other words, the community is an expressive unity, and thinking of it as only a tool for individual purposes and goals, as was observed during the Enlightenment, is inaccurate.
Furthermore, Herder believed that “Volk,” which could be described as a cultural identity, sustains its members; and that they can only isolate themselves from it at the cost of great impoverishment. This might sound like nationalism, and this is correct. Herder was the founder of modern nationalism, but he was also against extreme modern expressive individualism.
To add to this, expressivism also reinvented man’s relationship with nature, and saw man as mind and body in an expressive unity. However, since man is in a constant relationship with nature, this relationship should be seen in expressive terms. Hence, seeing the universe as a tool for potential human use is inadequate for its fulfillment. Man, therefore, has to recover communion with nature.
Now, there was a powerful reaction to the objectification of the Enlightenment thought, and it has to do with moral freedom.
This reaction said that if man was to be seen as an objectified piece, then his motivations would have to be explained by cause and effect, similar to how we would explain events in the physical world. Their motivations and actions would have to be seen as determined by external factors and internal processes, just like any other natural phenomenon. This is a bit of what Spinozism is all about.
However, from a standpoint of radical moral freedom this is unacceptable. Moral freedom has to mean that we are free to choose against desires and act according to what it's morally correct. This view also rejects the utilitarian version of morality that says that what is morally right is determined by what makes us happy and hence by desires.
Now, for those of you who have been following my posts, this is basically Immanuel Kant's perspective of morality, which you can read or listen to in my post about The Critique of Practical Reason. But to briefly explain, he wanted to look at morality as separated from the motivations of happiness and pleasure, and he thought that moral principles could be determined by reason alone.
This Kantian notion described freedom in contrast to inclination and desire, and it is evident how Kant recognized man's struggle with this. He knew that, despite being in man's nature, inclination would have to be suppressed in order for it to align with reason and so with moral law. This caused a dilemma in his doctrine.
Now, going back to the expressive theory, its main point is the idea of freedom as the fulfillment of man, which is precisely freedom of self-determination and hence not independent from external factors.
These two points of view clearly clash. Radical freedom is only possible if we disrupt nature, and the radical free subject is in constant opposition to it. As a result, Hegel saw the French Revolution as a reaction to this conflict.
The hope was that men could reconcile these opposing notions of radical freedom and expressive unity.
Moreover, Hegel belonged to Herder's successors in the 1790s, who were attempting to reconcile these two movements; and one of the best ways to see this problem is through history and looking at ancient regimes. The Greeks are the main ancient regime mentioned by Hegel. Ancient Greece is the ideal example of a civilization in perfect harmony with nature and the highest human expressive form.
Sadly, though, for the development of reason to grow to a higher state of clarity, this form of society had to die. This sacrifice was naturally inevitable and necessary to develop man to his fullest self-consciousness state.
I had talked a bit about Hegel’s philosophy of history in a previous post. But here we want to clearly understand what Hegel was all about. The main idea is that history is a spiral, where we return not to our starting point but to a higher variant of unity.
This unity happens when the sides of thought, reason, and morality, as well as desire and sensibility, come together. As well as the contradiction between self-consciousness and community, and self-conscious freedom and communion in nature.
This is essentially the barrier between Spinozism and the Kantian subject.
Furthermore, Hegel believed that this unity was only possible if we ceased to see nature as blind forces that can never fuse with the rational and autonomous man. And that in order for our interactions with nature to be harmonious, we would need to establish a relationship with some spiritual force.
Now, this might sound mystical, but let me explain.
First, if we wanted to reconcile the aspiration for radical freedom and expressive unity with nature. In other words, if we wanted man to be at one with nature while also being a self-determining subject. Man would need to see their inherent inclination as one of morality and freedom. Then, because man is a part of a larger whole, he would need to gravitate towards a spiritual goal in order to take on a form that can coexist with subjective freedom.
In other words, if man wants to be a spiritual being without being opposed to nature in its attempt to interchange and coexist with it, then the relationship must be a communion in which man enters into a relation with a spiritual force.
This spiritual force idea might sound like Pantheism. And to briefly explain what this is, let's take the example of Pandora from the movie "Avatar." The Na'vi, the people of Pandora, have a strong spiritual bond with the environment and the spiritual force they worship. Pantheism is the concept that the universe, or nature as a whole, is divine and sacred, and this belief manifests in the character of this spiritual force in the film. This force is regarded by the Na'vi as the guiding spiritual force that unites all living beings on Pandora in a harmonious unity.
However, Hegel specifically argued that this kind of view could not provide a foundation for radical autonomy and expressive unity. Because being in total communion with nature would imply just submitting to the current of existence and abandoning self-determination.
In addition to this, he claimed that what man needs is to see himself not merely as a part of the universe, but as a reflection of the whole. Where the creative life of nature and the creative life of thought come into one, which was the basis of Schelling’s philosophy, another German philosopher.
But what exactly does this mean?
To understand this we need to understand that reason has been seen as the highest achievement in humanity. However, we know that by doing that, we lose communion with nature, as we achieve a high level of autonomy. Hence in order for radical autonomy to be saved, we would need to change the idea that human consciousness does not just reflect the order of nature, but completes it. Man achieves fulfillment in a form of life which is also an expression of his self-awareness. Because remember man needs to achieve a communion with radical autonomy and expressive unity.
However, this expression doesn’t exist in a transcendent realm beyond man like it does in religion. If it will it would imply that man subordinates his being to a higher force. Rather this spiritual expression reaches its self-awareness in man. Man thus ceases to see himself just as an individual, but also as the vehicle of a cosmic force, and hence achieves unity with nature and the fullest autonomous self-expression.
Now, if all this is sounding complex to you, bear with me. This cosmic idea of unity was what the Romantics wanted to express but weren’t able to, and Schelling came over to define it. After this, Hegel continued on the concept.
This concept of Spirit or “Geist” as Hegel calls it is often what this force is all about. But it isn’t anything related to theism or some higher external force, it is a spirit that only can manifest itself through humanity. Hegel saw this concept as a way where man comes to himself in the end and when he sees himself as the vehicle of a larger concept, rather than just a mere autonomous and individual subject.
But how can Hegel have this very Romantic idea of the spiritual being? Wasn’t he reacting to the Romantic movement?
In fact, what makes him different from the Romantics is that he believed that in order to achieve this unity we would need to use reason. Which is the opposite of what the Romantics thought. They were opposed to over analyzing and synthesizing everything in reality.
All this means that for Hegel, rational understanding and clear thinking were essential for self-determining freedom. If one were to rely only on intuition or creativity without rational clarity, it would result in losing autonomy and returning to an undifferentiated unity.
Furthermore, the Romantics' concept of endless creativity was also criticized by Hegel. He called this idea "bad infinity" because it failed to achieve a complete union between autonomy and the expression of subjectivity and nature. To add to this, he also criticized the Romantics' excessive focus on self-expression, which leads to a sense of loss and separation from the world.
This leads us to the conclusion that Hegel's philosophy aimed to find a balance between reason and creativity, providing a rational framework for understanding the world while acknowledging the dynamic and interconnected nature of reality. In other words, for him, reason is the highest mode of thought that puts all these contradictions back in movement and into a unity.
The Embodied Subject: Understanding Hegel’s Dialectical Concept of Opposition and Contradiction in Man
Now that we understand Hegel's synthesis, we can see how he wanted to reconcile the opposites in human experience, such as freedom vs. nature, individual vs. society, and finite vs. infinite, and how he believed that these opposites could be brought together in harmony through a process of understanding.
According to Hegel, as human development progresses, these oppositions become more pronounced, but eventually, they reach a point of reconciliation. This does not mean that we go back to a primitive state without differences. Instead, it's about retaining the benefits of these differences, like rational consciousness and freedom, while also achieving unity with nature and society.
But the main question is: How do we reconcile these oppositions that are in fact oppositions by the mere fact that they are in relation to each other?
As we discussed earlier, man only achieves self-consciousness and rational autonomy by separating himself from nature, society and fate. Hegel knew this very well and this is why he was against any attempt to return to a primitive form of life.
Moreover, Hegel's solution to reconciling these oppositions is to recognize that each term in a dichotomy is not just opposed to, but also essentially connected to its opposite. In other words, the basic relationship of opposition and identity is interconnected. They cannot be separated because they would cease to exist.
This indicates that the relationship between these oppositions is circular. Each opposition comes from an earlier state of identity, which in turn leads to opposition. Hegel thinks that the true nature of reality cannot be grasped by a simple "either/or" perspective, but rather through a dialectical mode of thinking that recognizes the relationship of identity and difference.
Now in order to understand how this circular function works, we need to consider Hegel’s idea of “Geist” or cosmic spirit. But first, let’s explain the concept of the subject.
First, it is important to know that Hegel breaks the dualistic mindset that was so prominent in philosophy since Descartes. Which is basically the belief that mind and body, that is, consciousness and physical matter, are fundamentally different entities.
Furthermore, his definition of the subject is based on the expressive theory derived from Aristotelian terminology.
In these terms, man was seen as a subject who was realizing a certain form while simultaneously having another dimension in which the subject himself saw an expression of who he is. In other words, we can think of this as the process of self-realization, which implies that the term is anti-dualistic, because mind and matter are interconnected. Making Hegel a philosopher who believed in the path of the self-defining subject.
Now, Dualism was the concept of seeing everything in reality as mechanical. Descartes, for example, would see animals as simply complex machines. However, animals can be aware of their surroundings and themselves. Making all living things natural agents capable of development.
With this in mind, Hegel expands on the idea that humans are more than merely natural agents or rational living beings. Rather, he argued that they must be seen as something more, and that implied they had to be seen on different principles. This is because humans have a higher level of consciousness that sets them apart. This consciousness, however, creates an internal conflict between their natural instincts and their rational thoughts.
Moreover, overtime humans have the capacity to develop their rationality and strive for a higher level of consciousness. This process involves overcoming the natural inclinations and impulses of their living bodies. Through this struggle Hegel believed that humans can achieve a higher state of unity where their rationality and their embodiment are in harmony. But, as seen earlier, humans only achieve self-sufficiency of rational thought by separating themselves from nature, opposing their own selves to life and hence to be in constant opposition with themselves.
Now, in order for man's consciousness to develop by opposing itself, it must pass through what Hegel refers to as the “hierarchy of modes of thought,” which states that as man develops his rational self-awareness, so do his modes of expression of that self-consciousness.
The majority of these modes are found in language, art, religion, and philosophy, and they are essentially just ways of expression that must evolve as consciousness advances to higher levels of self-consciousness. These modes are also vehicles for understanding “Geist” for Hegel, but they all happen at various stages.
This is where Hegel states that reason struggles as the subject and its embodiment, or in simple words, his self-expression, “progress.” And to put it another way, it means that:
Reason merely struggles to realize itself in its own embodiment.
Human history is thus the climb up or the unity of different cultural forms. Man struggles with his impulses and gives shape to his reality by embodying it in its culture which expresses rationality and freedom.
This is where it all starts to make sense. The thinking subject, or man, in other words, can only exist in an embodied form. This means that human consciousness is intimately connected to a living body. However, this embodiment comes with a natural inclination or impulse that drives individuals towards unreflective unity within themselves and with nature.
Moreover, despite this inclination, the subject's rationality seeks clarity and self-awareness. The human mind has to struggle against the pull of natural instincts to achieve rationality fully. This creates an interesting dynamic where the embodiment seems to be both an ally and an opponent to the subject.
This, according to Hegel, explains that this complexity arises from the subject being characterized not just by the existence of his embodiment but also by its aspirations towards reason and freedom. These aspirations might initially clash with the conditions of existence imposed by the embodiment.
This inner complexity allows the subject to relate to itself and others. It creates a sphere of inner conflict, and sometimes even contradiction. Hegel argues that the subject's struggle with these contrasting aspects leads to two essential relations: identity and opposition.
On one hand, identity is based on the unchanging conditions of the subject's existence within the embodiment. The other relation, opposition, arises from the subject's evolving aspirations and realization of rationality over time. Thus while identity and opposition might seem separate, they are linked in a temporal pattern. The subject starts with an original identity, but as rationality grows, opposition emerges due to the conflict between reason and natural inclinations.
This leads us to the concept of reconciliation where the subject understands and integrates the opposition into a higher unity. This process involves transforming both the subject's rationality and its embodiment. The subject recognizes that nature itself is part of a rational plan, and it aligns with this larger reason, resulting in a harmonious unity that, remember, doesn’t equal the primitive form, since it preserves the consciousness of division which was a necessary stage in the development of reason.
The Absolute as Subject
Now that we understand what I would say is the most difficult part of this thesis provided by Charles Taylor. We can ask ourselves how this knowledge of the subject and its embodiment translates to “Geist.”
As we saw earlier, the resolution of opposition in man is a higher unity, which is essentially the plan of “Geist.”
Following this, the “Absolute” for Hegel is the subject, which is that thing that manifests itself in all reality. This is the equivalent of “substance” for Baruch Spinoza, which is essentially that only thing that encompasses all reality.
Now if readers or listeners aren’t familiar with Spinoza or the concept of “substance,” you can check out my post on Spinozism. But to briefly explain, for Spinoza, God is the universe itself, meaning that God isn’t external to reality; or in other words, God isn’t the creator, the universe itself is God and substance is that matter that encompasses every single thing in the universe, hence making it “God” itself, which is essentially Pantheism.
This leads us to understand Hegel’s “Absolute” as basically the equivalent of substance for Spinoza. This is because, as we have learned, “Geist” cannot exist without being embodied, making it impossible to exist outside of the universe: rather the universe is his embodiment. This means that the universe itself is the embodiment of “Geist,” just as our bodies are the embodiment of our own selves.
Furthermore, Hegel's idea of “Geist is both a life force and a cultural expression, revealing and defining who we are as individuals and as part of a community. Hence, according to Hegel, the universe is structured in a way that reflects Geist's aim to attain rational self-awareness; Geist achieves this aim by embodying itself in finite spirits capable of self-awareness and expression.
This means that Geist must be embodied in order to manifest itself. Consciousness requires an object, and the subject must be placed against an object.
Readers who are familiar with Kant's transcendental arguments will understand this. This is due to the fact that the foundation is essentially the same. Kant's first Critique attempted to restore the distinction between subjective and objective within experience, as well as how we might distinguish them from the "things in themselves" that we do not have access to. In other words, Kant claimed that objective experience was necessary.
Furthermore, Hegel also agreed with something similar. He argued that consciousness is only possible when the subject is placed against an object.
However, to be set against an object is to be limited, therefore if "cosmic spirit" or "Geist" is to achieve full consciousness, it can only be through finite spirits. Beings capable of expressive actions, that is, of employing an external medium through which meaning is expressed. As a result, Geist needs rational beings.
And it follows that for the realization of Geist to happen, it needs the development of cultures. As we have already seen, man must evolve. Cultural forms and modes of consciousness evolve over time to make up human history, which is the process of self-awareness.
What is then for Geist to come to rational self-awareness?
Let's see if we can get some logic in here. Geist must be embodied since it is the structure of the universe. This means that it must be objectified.
As a result, for Geist to recognize itself, awareness must exist, and the only way for this to take place is through finite beings capable of awareness.
Geist then reaches its ultimate self-expression when we become totally self-aware. Geist is a subject embodiment, which implies it is self-expression manifested on an object. Geist, in other words, is our expressive identity. That's why Geist requires finite beings with reasoning capabilities. Geist thus transforms humans into perfect expressions of itself.
Now you may be wondering: Wasn't reason the most important thing for Hegel?
And the answer is, yes. Geist's only starting point is rational necessity. Its freedom comes from following its essence, which is the necessity of a concept.
In other words, Hegel's idea is that the world is created by Geist according to a conceptual necessity, leading to an argument that is not just about proving that the world exists, but also showing that it must exist in a certain way, following a plan or design dictated by Geist itself. Hence we are dealing here with a conceptual limit and an ontological necessity.
Conflict and Contradiction
Now, how does all this relate to the plan of Geist?
To remember, we saw that Hegel’s concept of God was different from traditional views of God as separate and independent from the world. Meaning that he was against theism.
Furthermore, Hegel's vision of the world was purposeful and designed, but rather than being designed by an external God, God creates the conditions for his own existence eternally. This means that God's existence cannot be separated from the existence of the world, and that the world is necessary for the realization of Geist.
This concept places Hegel's philosophy in a narrow space between traditional theism and some form of pantheism, making it challenging to grasp fully.
Now, all this idea of God as a self imposed being, can help us understand identity and difference.
As we saw earlier, the human subject is prey to an inner conflict, in which the conditions of its existence are at odds with its essential goal. And we also know that the Absolute, which is the plan of Geist, has the same conflict. Since it needs to be embodied in external, finite beings living in a world of finite material things.
This means that the Absolute must also go through a cycle in which it suffers division in order to return to unity and realize its goal of self-knowledge and self-awareness. And this isn’t another story separated from that one of man, it is the same but from a wider perspective. Since man is the vehicle of Geist.
All of this implies that Geist cannot exist separately from the world, as well as his own opposition. Because the world represents dispersion, some unconsciousness that Geist must transcend in order to be itself and achieve its aim.
This is where Hegel's challenging phrase:
"Geist exists only by negating its own negation.”
Begins to make sense to us. Geist is the result of a process of self-loss and return.
In other words, when viewed impartially, contradiction is fatal, but when viewed as a whole, it is enlightening. This is because, when seen in this light, contradiction reconciles with the notion of identity.
We can see now how Hegel, as claimed by Charles Taylor, wanted to reconcile the dualistic ideas of his time. How, in short, he wanted to unite rational autonomy with the fullest expressive unity with nature.
From this it follows that his system that reconciles major oppositions by reason itself, had to be demonstrated, and he did so throughout all his books.
He starts with the hierarchy of being; tracing the hierarchical structure of being in nature. He goes from the most elementary and abstract concepts of nature, such as space, time, matter, and motion, and then progresses to more complex phenomena like organic life, the development of living organisms and, ultimately, to the development of Spirit in human history.
Furthermore, another demonstration, which can be considered prior to the previous one, focuses on studying the categories through which we think of the world. This is the task of his book “Logic,” where he argues that by analyzing categories we find inherent contradictions, leading us to the ultimate concept of the Idea, and hence a complete full circle.
However, the third demonstration can be seen in Hegel's "Phenomenology,” which is an introduction to his main system. It starts with basic notions of consciousness and reveals their inherent contradictions, leading to the understanding of self-knowing Geist or absolute knowledge.
The key point is that we should start with the forms of consciousness, realizing that the most basic form cannot stand on its own, that it has inner contradictions, and that it must give way to a higher form that eventually leads to full understanding.
Furthermore, to really see these contradictions we need to accept the world as embodiment, and as an expression of Geist. In other words, we should see the dependence of each piece on the whole.
This entire movement, rather than being a method, is a descriptive movement, or, to put it another way, a dialectical movement. And how it works is that the focus is on the things themselves rather than how we reason about them.
Now, he separated his dialectics into ontological and historical categories.
The ontological one focuses on categorical ideas, beginning with fundamental ones like "being," "quality," "essence," and so on, and probing their contradictions when applied to reality. And the historical entails interpreting historical transitions and societal developments by attributing purposes to human actions. In other words, Hegel tries to demonstrate that historical forms of life have underlying goals that lead to contradictions and conflicts.
However, there is a problem with the historical form. Taylor argues, and I tend to agree, that ontological dialectics start from a well-defined concept and proceed logically, but historical dialectics lack a definite starting point. The purposes of human actions are not self-authenticating and require external validation and interpretation of historical events.
All of this could be refuted by claiming that Hegel argued that his strict dialectics, such as the Logic, provide unquestionable starting points for historical dialectics. And this is generally why he spent so much time in the Logic.
In this book, Hegel tries to show the contradiction or ontological conflict in finite things, which is an important part of his ontological vision. He strives to demonstrate our categorial notions' inability to fully characterize reality, while arguing that these concepts must nonetheless have some use in the real world. As a result, the contradiction exists within reality itself.
His system's overall conclusions are based on these strict dialectics, which can be used as certain premises for interpreting events in history. However, the interpretive aspect of historical dialectics can lead some to believe that Hegel's system is an expression of belief and faith rather than a demonstration. And this is one of his system's major flaws…
Taylor, C. (2015). Hegel and Modern Society. Cambridge Philosophy Classics.
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