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Why is Hegel's Philosophy Relevant Today? Hegel and Modern Society: Part 2
Hegel and Modern Society by Charles Taylor - Book Overview and Thoughts
In our last newsletter we started discussing “Hegel and Modern Society” by Charles Taylor, and went through the explanation he provided in the book to understand Hegelian thought. This is the second part of this discussion. So, if you haven’t checked out the first part yet, you may do so right here.
The first part is necessary for understanding the second one. You can also listen to the audio on my YouTube channel.
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Without further delay, let’s get right into it!
Industrialization and technological progress have solidified Enlightenment ideas in modern societies, shaping them according to efficiency and utilitarian evaluations.
Modern civilization reflects a romanticized private life alongside rationalized public life, leading to tensions and calls for reintegration of Romanticism. The expressive side of humanity.
Hegel's view seeks to reconcile autonomy and unity by embodying Geist in the State as the collective embodiment of society's spirit, norms, and culture. The State is more than just a government; it encompasses institutions, norms, culture, and the ethical line of society.
Geist, similar to Rousseau's concept of the “will,” finds realization through the State, with Hegel emphasizing the importance of collective identity.
Alienation and lack of identification with communities leads to attempts to restore purpose and identity, often through ideologies like Marxism or nationalism.
Unlike Marx's perspective, Hegel sees historical progress and the emergence of a rational state as a gradual, cultural, and spiritual evolution rather than a pre-planned formula.
“Sittlichkeit” is a term from Hegel's philosophy that refers to the ethical and social order of a community or society. It encompasses the norms, customs, institutions, and shared values that shape the collective identity and behavior of individuals within that community.
The modern individual's identity is centered around being a producer, reflecting the current "Sittlichkeit" embedded in institutions and practices. This identity is driven by growth, control over nature, and productivity. As long as this identity persists, societal structures and institutions will remain unchanged.
Hegel's philosophy remains relevant due to his exploration of how societies can maintain harmony through emotional attachment to community and institutions. Hegel believed that without this attachment, people might feel disconnected, leading to alienation that could harm civilizations.
Karl Marx tried to redefine the concept of expressive fulfillment by emphasizing the transformative power of human labor and creativity. However, Marx's focus on practical change and the absence of a comprehensive philosophical framework led to issues in his theories, such as unrealistic notions of freedom and simplification of complex societal transitions. Hence the name, dialectical materialism.
Hegel's view of language as a means to bring clarity to consciousness and his connection of language with different stages of development remain relevant in understanding human consciousness, and hence the development of the understanding of the unspoken dimensions of humanity.
The State and our Modern Society
Hegel's philosophy is still significant today, even if some aspects of his ontology about Geist are refutable.
As we already know, Hegel's roots come from an attempt to reconcile the need for radical autonomy and the desire for expressive unity with nature and society.
Furthermore, despite Romanticism's protests and attempts to merge the expressive and autonomous currents of thought, industrialization and technological progress have, in a sense, established the Enlightenment idea of man in our current societies.
Industrial civilization, for instance, extensively dominates nature, and its primary institutions enforce reorganization of society and human existence for the purpose of efficiency and greater production. Utilitarian evaluation, which measures alternative ways of life by their effectiveness in providing benefits, has been embedded in these practices and organizations. And social relations and practices, like nature, have been increasingly objectified.
On top of this, modern civilization has acquired a romantic view on its private life, along with rationalization in its public life. All of this rationalization of institutions caused worldwide protests to reintroduce Romanticism into public life. Fascism, for example, has Romantic roots. It incorporates radical autonomy and expressive unity goals for the purpose of a “generic man.”
Finally, because of all these tensions, Hegel is relevant today, since he wanted to reconcile radical autonomy with expressive unity without compromising reason.
Now, we have explained the basis of Hegelian thought in our previous newsletter, and we can now understand that the subject requires an object and that Geist must be embodied into a material form in order to recognize itself.
As a result, the principle of embodiment clearly requires that Geist creates an adequate representation in human life in order to have self-awareness. Making the State the true manifestation of Geist, which is the necessary embodiment.
On that note, it is important to say that the State in Hegel's view is much more than just the government. For him the State goes beyond the government and includes other institutions, social norms, culture, and the ethical line of society.
To put it another way, the State is the entity that embodies the collective spirit and rationality of a society.
But, how can we start making sense of the State as having an unified expression that represents Geist?
To understand this we can start with Rousseau. He was probably the first to talk about “the will” as a crucial principle of the State. He argued that “will” represents the collective will of the entire community, which reflects the common good and the common interest of the people as a whole.
Furthermore, Hegel had a similar notion. He argued that the State was the central institution through which Geist was realized. Hence Geist could be interpreted as “the will” for Hegel, although he never referred to it this way, and there were aspects of it that were different.
For instance, one important aspect that distinguishes these two concepts is the fact that for Rousseau, as well as for Kant, morality and politics aim to have a society of individuals seeking individual happiness in their own way, despite them claiming they are not.
Now, as previously pointed out, this may appear contradictory, because Kant, for example, was opposed to individuals seeking individual happiness.
However, Taylor develops an argument that shows Kantian ethics to be fundamentally similar to the concept of individual happiness, or, in better terms, to utilitarianism.
To fully understand this, we must first grasp Kantian ethics, which attempted to reconcile negative freedoms under a universal law. The absence of external constraints or interference on an individual's behavior is referred to as negative freedom.
Furthermore, in this sense, Kant's morality and political theory tend to lean on utilitarian ideas, viewing society as a collection of individuals pursuing their own happiness while, at the same time, having the challenge of finding ways to reconcile negative freedom by harmonizing individual wills.
This, in a way, changes everything for Hegel, the notion of freedom for him was different. He saw freedom as the idea that was intrinsically from the nature of the will itself, and thus valid for everyone.
In other words, radical freedom for Hegel comes not from denying all particularity but from recognizing the link between individuals as part of a larger life. And hence “the will” becomes free when it follows its own thought or reason, which is not only that of man alone but of Geist which shapes the universe.
In other words, the problem, according to Hegel, is that Kant's and Rousseau's theories are founded on the notion of radical autonomy, which asserts that freedom requires breaking away from all external influences and determining one's actions solely based on individual will.
Now, all this might sound like we are stuck on:
“Yes, I understand that “the will,” or in Hegelian terms, Geist, is the embodiment of the subject, and this embodiment is the State, and the State should reflect the subject, and Geist, which is embodied in the State should allow us to see the link between individuals as part of a larger life.”
But, how do we know we are following Geist and not individual wills?
First, Hegel points out that Kant's moral theory is based on a formal notion of reason and focuses on individual ethics, leading to a lack of concrete content in moral obligations.
Moreover, he introduces the concept of Sittlichkeit, which is a set of moral obligations that sustain a society. It is an important concept for Hegel since it rejoins what already exists and reaches completion in the community.
One significant feature of this concept is that there is no gap between what should be and what is. This is the opposite of Moralitat, which holds that I have an obligation to fulfill something that does not exist. As a result, Moralitat is an obligation that I carry not as a member of a large community life, but as an individual with rational will.
All of this qualifies Kantian ethics as Moralitat. He presents moral obligation as an individual one, which contradicts its own nature, because man is a part of a wider existence.
This leads to the conclusion that the Hegelian Absolute Idea demands human involvement in a larger life in society, which results in morality, which is how we interact with one another in community, and reaches its highest point in Sittlichkeit.
This was last seen, as discussed in our latest newsletter, in Greek societies; where men saw community life as the essence and significance of their existence, and where people were able to act as individuals while also finding meaning in the State and what it represented.
Sittlichkeit and Alienation
We may see now why Hegelian philosophy has been considered morally harmful. This idea of Geist being embodied in the State can have Fascist consequences, sacrificing individuals for a goal that is difficult to agree upon.
However, it is important to study further this concept of the society and its relation to each individual, to avoid any reinterpretation.
Hegel uses some terms to express this relation individuals have with their society, and one of them is “substance.” The main point is that individuals exist and find their essence in the community they belong to, and the norms and practices of the community form the basis of their own identity.
Furthermore, we can see here how the concept of Sittlichkeit is implied in this concept of substance. The substance is the individual's essence, and it provides a goal, yet at the same time, it already exists.
Now, since the identity is embodied in the State, something called alienation may happen when individuals no longer feel connected to or find meaning in the community's norms and practices.
This is Hegel's most vital and relevant proposition for today's civilizations. Because when this happens, people stop feeling connected to the State, which leads to individualism and a shift in focus from public to private experiences and values.
This transition calls into question the community's integrity and shared norms, potentially leading to the breakdown of the collective identity, and hence to civilization.
So, what is Hegel trying to tell us with this thesis of the primacy of Sittlichkeit ?
First, with this he is telling us that human fulfillment is only possible through the participation in the public life of a community, not through only alienated individuals.
Second, the community must encompass the entire self-sufficient human reality. In other words, the State should express our most important norms. And thirdly, the ideas expressed by the State should express the ontological structure of everything. In other words, our reality.
As a result, all of these notions in Sittlichkeit form the Absolute Idea, and man must transcend alienation not only privately, but as a communal identity in order to fully reach the Absolute.
This leads to the conclusion that the Absolute Idea needs this synthesis of individuality and Sittlichkeit, and that, for Hegel, the purpose of human history is to realize this synthesis.
Differentiation and Absolute Freedom
We can start this part by asking this question: How do we restore the freedom of the individual with Sittlichkeit?
But before, let's delve into the concept of absolute freedom and its relationship with the idea of the general will.
First, absolute freedom is the notion that individuals should have complete and unrestricted liberty to shape their lives without external constraints. It advocates for each person's rational will to govern every aspect of their existence, including societal structures and institutions.
The general will, on the other hand, proposes that a rational society should be governed by laws and decisions that benefit all members, not just certain individuals or groups. It seeks to transcend individual desires and aims to derive decisions from rationality itself, fostering the common good.
Now, to recall a bit about our previous newsletter, Hegel sees the general will as an attempt to base morality on reason and avoid utilitarianism, which is a concept developed by Kant and Rousseau.
However, Hegel argued that the general will, despite trying to avoid individual happiness, remains like utilitarianism, since it cannot see finite beings as being connected to a larger form of life.
Furthermore, Hegel warns that the aspiration for absolute freedom can lead to destructive consequences, since pursuing it without acknowledging societal structures or differentiated roles can result in the destruction of existing institutions and social order due to its lack of a clear plan to build a new structure.
To put it another way, Hegel's main point is that he believes that all societies require differentiation, which means the existence of different social groups, roles, and structures. He argues that absolute freedom cannot exist in the absence of differentiation.
So, what does this mean? Can we maybe start to believe that Hegel did not believe in unrestricted freedom?
Hegel’s argument begins by emphasizing the need for universal and total participation in the society of absolute freedom. This implies that every member should have a say in all decisions that shape a community. This contrasts with models, such as neoliberalism, where specific sub-groups or individuals make decisions.
Moreover, this means that the society of absolute freedom rejects both traditional society models and neoliberal models. It refuses to accept structures that are beyond human decision and rejects any form of authority. Instead, it insists on the exercise of rational human will in deciding every aspect of society, guided by reason and without relying on external constraints.
Now, if we think about it, absolute freedom resembles neoliberalism in one dimension. The only difference is their concept of the rational will. In neoliberalism, which is our current reality, it is expressed in the decisions of individuals, and on the other, it is expressed by the decisions of the whole, or in better terms, the general will.
As a result, under neoliberalism, individuals have no actual voice or control over the total outcome.
All this means, as we can already imply, that we must have homogeneity among citizens in order to reach absolute freedom. Since this is the only way we can avoid any differentiation that might affect the decision-making process.
This leads us to the conclusion that the desire for general will, as expressed by Rousseau and even Kant, cannot be realized through representative institutions.
Hegel's point is that modern civilizations cannot be like the ancient Greek polis since societies back then were homogeneous by nature, and slaves performed many of the essential functions.
In addition to this, the individualism of modern societies did not exist. Making differentiation unavoidable in Hegel’s eyes.
Modern man is not only a citizen, but also thinks of himself as a man. Which implies that not all men can dedicate themselves to public life, and hence to the whole.
Furthermore, Taylor provides an interesting approach to this where people balance both private occupations and full participation in the state's affairs, like it happens in Thomas More's Utopia, for instance.
However, Hegel rejects this possibility for two reasons. First, he says that true accomplishment comes from giving yourself fully to something, which also means giving up other things.
Second, Hegel's philosophical concept of the "Idea", needs that different groups of society find embodiment in separate groups. In other words, a fully developed state will have different groups representing the various aspects of the Absolute Idea.
This finally explains why Hegel did not believe in absolute freedom as it is currently defined. He believed in the importance of social differentiation in order to construct the overall concept or the Absolute Idea.
The Modern Society
So, why are we interested in Hegel nowadays?
In the past, traditional societies were structured around clear differentiation like royalty, aristocracy, etc. This differentiation was justified as a reflection of the order of things. They were giving each person an identification with the society they lived in, and making them part of the whole. Where everyone contributed in their own way to the community.
However, with the rise of modern subjectivity and the rejection of these hierarchical conceptions, societies came to be seen, not for what they were expressing, but as instruments for fulfilling human needs, purposes and desires. This modern perspective, exemplified by utilitarianism, aims to study society scientifically and optimize its structures for human happiness.
The point is that modern societies, as argued by Hegel, do not provide a basis for a man’s identification with their community. They aim to achieve homogeneity and equality, as a way to fulfill the aspiration for absolute freedom.
Furthermore, achieving absolute freedom faces difficulties due to all the differentiation in modern society. Modern society struggles to reconcile these differences with the ideal of universal and total participation. This dilemma leads to alienation among certain groups who feel marginalized by the predominant homogenization.
As a result, for Hegel, absolute freedom needs homogeneity, and it is difficult to achieve given the inherent differences in society.
Now, something very curious happens among modern societies. We can see that, despite the rise of utilitarian thinking, current societies have not entirely abandoned their traditional outlooks. They look for ideologies like Marxism, anarchism, or even nationalism, to seek a sense of identity and belonging.
To put it another way, the concept of "absolute freedom" emerges as an attempt to address this lack in modern political theory. It represents the desire for individuals to identify with their society when they feel that it is a product of their creative and moral will. The utilitarian perspective provides an inadequate basis for individuals to identify with their society. The emphasis on individual satisfaction and interest does not fully address the desire for a sense of purpose, meaning, and connection to a broader community.
In modern society, people often feel alienated and lack a strong identification with their communities. Some advocate for programs aimed at eliminating poverty, assimilating marginalized groups, and promoting inclusivity. Others propose, as said before, absolute freedom, seeking a society where everyone participates fully in decisions.
However, both solutions have limitations. The pursuit of absolute freedom can lead to homogenization, eroding unique identities, and causing national identity to become the primary focus. The emphasis on identity can be taken too far by the drive of militant or even totalitarian ideologies.
Furthermore, Hegel always stresses that the tight unity of the Greek city cannot be recaptured because of the principle of individual freedom that we developed.
This leads to the conclusion that modern societies face the dilemma of achieving absolute freedom, preserving individual freedom, and creating a sense of purpose that becomes embedded in the society in which individuals live. Finding a balance that preserves diversity and identity while encouraging participation and inclusivity remains a significant challenge for our societies.
The Owl of Minerva: Meaningful Changes Emerge
The idea of a significant sense of purpose in a community seems relevant today.
How many of us do not feel alienated by the purposes of the institutions that represent us?
It might have been that in between the 40s and 70s, more people felt deeply connected to and identified with their institutions. This sentiment is evident in the way people passionately pursued achievements, with corporate jobs reaching their peak during this era. The pursuit of a stable career and a comfortable lifestyle became emblematic of the American Dream, for instance. Consumption, too, was viewed as a natural consequence of this progress, as families embraced the culture embedded on their societies, seeking to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
However, when we contrast this with the present, an increased sense of alienation has become palpable. Our current times are characterized by a growing detachment from traditional institutions and values. Many from the younger generations no longer feel the same compulsion to conform or to belong to the established norms of society.
Now, as we have said, Hegel was against homogenization, because it can be taken too far for the sake of national identity. This means that we cannot entirely blame him for what happened some years after his death.
Furthermore, Hegel's concept of the “Owl of Minerva,” is a notion that refers to the understanding of historical events that come only after they have occurred. It suggests that human beings can only understand the true significance and meaning of past events once they have unfolded and become part of history.
For instance, in the context of Hegel's critique of the French Revolution, he argues that the drive for absolute freedom, which seeks to destroy existing institutions and structures without providing a positive alternative, leads to a negative spiral of destruction.
This destruction is emblematic of the aspiration to absolute freedom, which lacks a coherent and rational foundation. The revolutionaries' pursuit of absolute freedom, according to Hegel, culminated in the Terror, where they tried to eliminate any opposition under the guise of defending the general will.
Moreover, Hegel can be contrasted with Karl Marx, who believed that the proletariat, once conscious of its historical role and the nature of its actions, can bring about the desired social change.
On the other hand, Hegel sees history and the actions of human beings as a complex movement unfolding without a full understanding of its implications at the time. Only after the historical process has played out can human beings understand the true significance of events.
In addition to this, one important concept that we should highlight is that Hegel knew that even if humans were to know the correct formula for an ideal state ahead of time, it couldn't simply be imposed on society. The reason for this is that the foundation of a rational state involves a deeper process of cultural and spiritual development within individuals and the collective. In other words, people must identify themselves with the realized public life, but this identification cannot be forced; it must evolve over time.
Moreover, he argued that establishing a constitution and then implementing it is essentially an Enlightenment idea led by reason that completely ignores mankind's identity.
This brings us back to where I said that we can see already an increased sense of alienation. In other words, collective consciousness is evolving and constantly changing.
This makes us conclude that Hegel believed that human progress and historical development would lead to the emergence of a rational state. This state would be characterized by the combination of individual freedom and uniqueness with the moral and ethical order known as Sittlichkeit, which was present in the ancient world. People would be able to identify with this state and find their freedom within it, as it reflects their shared values and moral principles.
Humanity’s Collective Identity
The modern man has created a new identity: that of a producer. This identity is our current Sittlichkeit, since it is more than just an idea in our minds. It is a concept embedded in our institutions and daily practices.
This implies that as long as humans identify as producers, their society and institutions will remain unchanged. The producer's identity is focused on growth and control over nature, and alienation occurs when this identity starts to fade away, which is something we are seeing more and more of as time goes on.
Now, as we can infer by now, Hegel thought that civilizations needed a meaningful structure for individuals. He asked how free societies can remain harmonious when people willingly engage in them. He thought that people should be emotionally devoted to their community and its institutions; otherwise, they would feel disconnected, which he referred to as “alienation,” and this, in turn, may harm any civilization.
To see this clearly, consider any small community and how they constantly establish a sense of common purpose that motivates people to participate in everything related to the group. For instance, we can think of a small group that identifies with a specific type of music, and how that music and the connection each member has with it unites everyone and consequently links them to a higher sense of purpose.
Furthermore, Taylor argues that Hegel’s proposed solution of building a society based on an Absolute Idea doesn't work in our world today because our societies have changed a lot since then, and the challenges we face are different from what Hegel thought. So, while his ideas are useful, we need to find new ways to address the problems we face.
For instance, we face various challenges in our societies, and one major issue comes from the division caused by modern industrial societies, where a significant wealth gap exists between the rich and the poor.
Interestingly, though, Hegel anticipated these problems and understood how they could lead to feelings of alienation among individuals. He believed that a new rational state, based on the Idea, could effectively manage this economic disparity. However, as Taylor points out, this particular idea may not be suitable for addressing the complexities of our present reality.
Nevertheless, I am of the idea that, just as we have historically conceived the concept of humans as producers, it is likely that further concepts will continue to evolve as our consciousness develops.
For example, in my discussion of "Four Futures," I explore Fraser's view on socialism, which proposes a different conception of humanity—one that perceives humans as extensions of nature, working to enhance it, rather than being perceived as a threat to it.
Additionally, Hegel's analysis of destructive forces in society remains highly relevant today. The pursuit of freedom and equality, which Hegel identified as powerful drivers, has significantly influenced the shaping of our modern societies.
However, there is another aspect to consider: these very forces have also led to homogenization, which is the process of eroding traditional community bonds and cultural identities. In other words, as societies strive for individual freedom and equality, some unique aspects of communities and their identities can be diminished or lost, leading to a more homogenous cultural landscape.
This leads to the conclusion that Hegel's ideas indeed provide valuable insights into the challenges we confront in our world. Nevertheless, as consciousness evolves and societies continue to change, it becomes essential to develop new, adaptive solutions to address the problems we face. These solutions should take into account the growing wealth disparity, environmental concerns, and the importance of preserving diverse cultural identities and strong communal bonds.
But why is Hegelian thought so lost today?
As we may now infer, the Romantic spirit has long been in opposition to modern society. The conception of man, and its progressive transformation of nature, has been seen as the most prestigious achievement, which is the Enlightenment's definition of man. We can see this in every single innovation humanity creates.
Additionally, the continuous transformation of our industrial society and the search for a higher individual standard of life has made the Hegelian Idea almost irrelevant.
However, the Romantic spirit and its expressivist protest continues to resonate today, as many individuals sense a profound disconnection in modern civilization. The desire for expressive fulfillment, freedom, and free expression remains strong, leading to periodic outbursts of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
Furthermore, this tension between the expressive identity and the modern world has historically led to movements like Fascism and encouraged protests against the established order, as individuals seek a sense of unity and fulfillment that seems impossible within the limitations of modernity.
Karl Marx and The Attempt of Expressive Unity
As we can see now, the malaise around modern identity is everywhere. We all think of ourselves as individuals with certain desires and goals, and think of our societies as an area of production and exchange, designed to fulfill desires and needs. However, we all sense some inadequacy which has its roots in the Romantic movement.
In fact, one figure that reinvented the expressive fulfillment and changed its focus into man himself was Karl Marx. Influenced by the radical Enlightenment's emphasis on social justice and human emancipation, Marx combined it with the expressivist tradition of self-fulfillment through creative expression. His theory highlighted the transformative power of human labor, considering it the means by which individuals could shape their world and realize their true selves.
However, Marx also observed that in capitalist societies, alienation happened when individuals' creative expressions were separated from them. In such a system, workers' labor and its products became commodities owned and controlled by others, leading to a loss of freedom and a sense of dissatisfaction.
The difference between Hegel and Marx is that for Marx, man creates himself and for Hegel man is in a process of reconciliation, which is achieved by recognizing the embodiment of Geist, which is always there.
As we can see, Marx has some problems. The main one is that from the beginning, Marx’s position was a synthesis of the Enlightenment, which sees man as capable of objectifying nature. He envisioned communism as a union of humanism and naturalism, where man achieves expressive fulfillment by dominating nature and shaping it.
Secondly, another problem with Marx is that he did not apply the concept of "Aufheben” to his writings, which means that at important times in history, the usual rules and explanations of things can change. And this can make it hard to understand certain notions by using our current ways of understanding things.
This led Marx to focus on being practical when explaining how communism emerges as a revolution against capitalism. He wanted to explain things in a way that could guide people's actions and bring about real change.
However, there was a philosophical aspect that he didn't fully address, and that is that what he wanted required much more than just a sudden change. It required solving complex philosophical issues that he did not express in the right way.
In other words, to truly explain the process of transitioning from one society's rules to another's, we would need to go beyond what traditional Enlightenment science can explain.
This perspective affected the whole communist movement, including Lenin and later Soviet leaders. They all held a simplistic view of how to manage a communist society without thinking deeply about its complexities.
Finally, the last problem with Marx is that his early views, as argued by Taylor, are unrealistic. He saw freedom as something without any restrictions. This leaves man without a situation and without anything to be overcome. And that is something that some Marxists have no answers to. This doesn't match the reality of how societies work and can lead to destructive actions in trying to achieve it.
Situating the Concept of Freedom
Now we can see that the modern concept of freedom is linked with Marx and Hegel. The concept revolves around the idea of self-dependence, meaning that it is achieved by overcoming obstacles and external influences. It contrasts with earlier concepts that related freedom to harmony or balance.
This self-dependent idea of freedom has been central to various forms of modern thinking, from classical liberalism to Marxism. But it has also encountered a dilemma:
If complete freedom means the elimination of all situations, tasks, and constraints, then it results in an empty, purposeless state.
This brings us back to Hegel and how he wanted to solve this problem by giving man a situation, without abandoning the notion of rational will. He tried to connect freedom with the idea of a cosmic spirit that generates its own articulations out of itself. However, his system is now inconceivable due to an increase in rationality and science that inevitably led to Marx's materialism.
After Marx, freedom has been redefined, corrected, reinvented, and in some sense, even dismissed. Schopenhauer, for instance, had the pessimistic view that human freedom, meaning the instinctual nature of man, is incompatible with rational freedom. He argued that real freedom involved breaking free from the suffering caused by our desires and wants, which he called “the will.”
Furthermore, Kierkegaard offered another definition, where he believed that true liberation from the despair Schopenhauer defines in his work can only come by connecting with an external Power, such as God.
In contrast, Nietzsche argued that radical freedom can lead to an emptiness that causes nihilism, which is the philosophical idea that denies or rejects traditional values, beliefs, and meaning in life.
The modern notion of freedom is thus under threat from two sides. On one hand, there is despair about the realization of freedom. On the other, the ultimate emptiness of self-dependent freedom seems to lead to nihilism.
This means that modern philosophy has been trying to recover a conception of free activity which has a response to a situation, mainly the virtue of our condition as natural and social beings, or in virtue of some inescapable vocation of purpose.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The increasing significance of the problem of situating freedom may be linked to changes in political and social environments. People naturally perceive themselves as self-sufficient individuals pursuing their personal goals in modern societies where nature and social structures push towards individual utility.
However, these perspectives often don't ask serious questions about the nature of freedom or its relationship with the external world. One perspective treats nature as an object to be controlled while the other aligns freedom with natural desires.
Moreover, when societies face challenges or disruptions, such as recessions or depressions, and aspirations for radical freedom emerge, the concept of an independent self comes into question.
Moving forward to the twentieth century, philosophy focused on placing subjectivity within nature. But, perhaps, the most significant development of the century is the development of meaning theories and the entire philosophy of language, and how it began to be understood as more than just a tool for describing things in the world, but as a means of achieving self-awareness and full consciousness.
In other words, language started to be seen as an outlet for consciousness, which raised questions about its relationship to other types of awareness and activities in our lives. This perspective challenged the concept that the basic linguistic activity is describing things, and it started to be seen as a means of understanding meaning - our "form of life."
This is where we can see Hegel coming back into the picture. Hegel's philosophy can be linked to a certain perspective on language and consciousness. There are basically two ways of understanding language's role in our awareness: one focuses on language as a means of expressing our thoughts; the other sees language as a system of signs primarily for referring to things.
Hegel belongs to the first approach, where language helps us bring our thoughts to clarity. He believed that through language, our unclear initial consciousness becomes part of a conceptual necessity. This perspective is rooted in Hegel's idea that the fundamental reality is the Concept or the Absolute Idea, and conceptual thought ultimately finds clear necessity.
This is the key of Hegel’s embodiment, which situates subjectivity in life, nature, and social practices. He saw language and symbols as vehicles of awareness, each corresponding to different stages like art, religion, and philosophy.
However, as time passed, Hegel's ideas began to fade. The emphasis on descriptive conceptual thinking gained popularity, emphasizing its independence from implicit understanding.
This aligns with those who view language in a purely descriptive manner, relevant for scientific discourse, and one of our examples was Karl Marx, who had the problem of trying to explain a concept that required a different level of understanding, or in other words, different language, another level of consciousness; and decided to aim to a more practical way of explaining his ideas, just like any mechanistic Enlightenment notion.
Meanwhile, those trying to connect language to unreflective experiences see explicit thought as linked to implicit understanding. In essence, the departure from Hegel's ontology raises questions about the relationship between linguistic consciousness and unreflective experiences.
This leads us to the conclusion that, while language limits our collective consciousness, mankind nonetheless relies on conceptual necessity.
As a result, Hegel is still significant today as a way to understand that humanity needs to explore the unspoken aspects of human experience in order to achieve a conceptual necessity that leads to a harmonious and non-alienated way of life for all.
Nonetheless, our awareness has developed, and we may require new methods, instruments, and unexplored ways of thought to make his concepts relevant to the rest of the world. I encourage everyone to think on what has been discussed in the last two newsletters and to believe in the power of philosophy. Because after all, it is the development of our own self-awareness as human beings.
Taylor, C. (2015). Hegel and Modern Society. Cambridge Philosophy Classics.
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