Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich

G.W.F. Hegel portrait by Jakob Schlesinger 1831 via Wikipedia

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was a German philosopher often associated with idealism.

Hegel is arguably misunderstood by many, especially by those who suggest that he advances an elaborate metaphysical system without providing any real empirical support for it.

This kind of critique of Hegel’s “grand theory” isn’t necessarily fair. If one takes the time to go to his actual works, we find that Hegel takes great pains to support his theories with actual historical examples.

His influential theory of history, for example, could be taken as a scientific attempt to develop theory from observation. Here Hegel sees pure Spirit manifesting itself within a teleological human history.

Any given moment in history is a necessary but imperfect manifestation of Infinite Spirit. Historical events observed in the material world are progressively transformed through an ongoing dynamic known as the dialectic.

Although Hegel never used the words “thesis,” “antithesis” and “synthesis” to describe his own theory, they’re often used by academics and writers when trying to explain his idea of dialectical becoming. This kind of usage has been roundly criticized. Walter Kaufman, for example, argues that Hegel’s system is far more complicated than a simple triad moving towards perfection.¹

Hegelian dialectic, usually presented in a threefold manner, was stated by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus as comprising three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction, an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis

Because the city of Jena was occupied by Frenc...
Because the city of Jena was occupied by French troops under Napoleon in 1806, G.W.F. Hegel was forced to leave the city. But he did witness Napoleon's entry into the city and, as an admirer of the French Revolution, was delighted to witness first-hand this "world spirit on horseback" passing by. Image from Harper's Magazine, 1895 via Wikipedia

Hegel himself spoke of “overcoming” (Aufhebung) the negative in the march of human history. This overcoming of resistance to the good has also been translated as “sublation,” both terms trying to express the idea that the essential, positive core of something is retained while its limiting factors are left behind.³

While critical of generalizing triadic thinking to all of Hegel’s thought, Kaufman does, however, concede that Hegel shows a marked tendency toward it.4

So a Christian theological application of the Hegelian dialectic could go as follows: Jesus Christ enters the world as the perfect Son but meets opposition from less than perfect people living during the Roman occupation of Israel under the Emperor Tiberius.

The “thesis” of the perfect, human Christ is physically destroyed by the “antithesis” of the evil actions of the people around him. But Christ’s bodily resurrection and ascension signifies an overcoming, and the conflict between thesis and antithesis is surpassed.

This example is not too far fetched. Hegel was a baptized Christian and has been roundly critiqued as a theologian posing as a philosopher, a critique that arguably exhibits the narrow and reductive thinking of some but certainly not all philosophers.

Hegel’s thoughts on the person of Jesus Christ stood out from the theologies of the Enlightenment. In his posthumous book, The Christian Religion: Lectures on Philosophy of Religion Part 3, he espouses that, “God is not an abstraction but a concrete God…God, considered in terms of his eternal Idea, has to generate the Son, has to distinguish himself from himself; he is the process of differentiating, namely, love and Spirit”. This means that Jesus as the Son of God is posited by God over against himself as other. Hegel sees both a relational unity and a metaphysical unity between Jesus and God the Father. To Hegel, Jesus is both divine and Human. Hegel further attests that God (as Jesus) not only died, but “…rather, a reversal takes place: God, that is to say, maintains himself in the process, and the latter is only the death of death. God rises again to life, and thus things are reversed.” Hegel therefore maintains not only the deity of Jesus, but the resurrection as a reality.5

Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) mit Studenten. Lit...
Hegel lecturing, sketch by Franz Kugler, ca. 1830 via Wikipedia

Many commentators today say that the triadic dynamic in Hegel’s work had a profound influence on Karl Marx, who adapted it to his own, entirely materialistic theory of history.

Also, Hegel’s dialectic arguably had an indirect effect on Michel Foucault. For Foucault, the idea of dialectical tension could be improved upon by explaining history through a more open-ended, discontinuous outlook, one characterized by struggle.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thesis,_antithesis,_synthesis#cite_note-0

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic#Hegelian_dialectic

3 “Roughly, the term indicates preserving the useful portion of an idea, thing, society, etc., while moving beyond its limitations.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic#Hegelian_dialectic

4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thesis,_antithesis,_synthesis#cite_note-0

5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Wilhelm_Friedrich_Hegel

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