Hegelian Philosophy

With Hegel I have arrived at the 19th century in Bertrand Russell’s history of western philosophy. He was considered one of the foremost thinkers during the 19th and early 20th centuries, so had a significant influence on modern philosophy. In Politics he was a mouthpiece of the rising Prussian state and gave it intellectual authority, as well as having a profound influence on Karl Marx.

Russell starts by making a few general points about Hegel’s beliefs by way of introduction.  Hegel believed that the world should not be thought of as a collection of individual things – the apparent self-sufficient existence of individual things is an illusion, and not entirely real. Only ‘the whole’ is entirely real, which he conceives as a complex system (rather than a single substance, like Parmenides or Spinoza), which is like an organism. Things can only truly be understood when viewed as part of the whole, much like an eye cannot fully be understood except in terms of how it functions as part of the human body. For Hegel, no statement can be entirely true unless it is about reality as a whole. I cannot describe myself fully without describing my family relations, the people I spend time with, the places I go to etc, but then all of those things need to be fully described. By that logic, I cannot be fully known until all of reality is known. My existence is not just me physically, but the effect I have had on the world around me.

The Dialectic System

Another thing to understand about Hegel is his emphasis on logic & metaphysics, to the extent that he believed the nature of reality can be deduced purely from the starting point that nothing in reality is self-contradictory. The method for this is the dialectic system for logical argument, which consists of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The thesis and antithesis are two opposing logical propositions; the synthesis puts the two together to say what can be true given both statements. However, any synthesis will be imperfect and can be treated as a new thesis with its own antithesis. In this way dialectic argument forms a chain of ever improving logical propositions, becoming ever more general, until they become a statement about reality as a whole, and can therefore be said to be wholly true. Hegel believed it is impossible to reach a statement of truth without using this method. However, he also said that reaching the end point is theoretical, as no human being can achieve complete truth – we must use the dialectic method to get as close as we can. Only the ‘Absolute Idea’ (which is similar to Aristotle’s conception of God) can achieve complete truth.

Hegel considers perfection to be in a closely knit whole, united into an organism whose interdependent parts all work together towards a single end. This is the ultimate ‘good’, and there is no more to Hegel’s ethics than that. His ‘Philosophy of History’ is the idea that the universe has developed through time like a dialectic, starting with simple and independent things, gradually moving towards perfect unity. The nearest thing to perfection in Hegel’s time in political terms is the Prussian state. In typical style, Russell remarks that this idea requires some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. History, according to Hegel, has been the process of conferring discipline to people’s individual desires and uniting them under a general will, such that all are free. Here Hegel adopts Rousseau’s idea of the general will and his definition of freedom: when the state enforces the general will, it is forcing us to act as we would if we were free. The Prussian monarch embodies the general will of all, whereas parliamentary democracy represents only the will of the majority. The Prussian State is really a single whole, and any distinction between monarch and people is illusory. Therefore, if the monarch imprisons a dissenting subject, this is simply the general will of the state freely expressing itself.

The Glory of the State

Hegel’s belief that value is only to be found in a unified whole partly explains his glorification of the State. As individuals we are worthless; it is only as part of the State that we have value. Further, the State is essential in driving the dialect of human progress forwards towards complete truth. This importance means that States are not subject to the same moral laws that individuals are, and Hegel uses Hobbes’ state of nature to describe the relations between States. He goes further than Hobbes – war between States is not just inevitable, it is desirable. War is a key driver of human progress, and ensures that subjects remain devoted to the State, rather than be distracted by the desire for individual luxuries and pleasures. Russell notes that Hegel’s obsession with the State contradicts his desire for unity. Hegel’s logic led him to prefer a State to an anarchic collection of individuals, but should also have led him to prefer a World State to an anarchic collection of States. Hegel’s logic should also have led him to value individual subjects more highly. People are ‘a whole’ in themselves so have some value, but become more valuable when part of a greater whole. Hegel, however, appears to have believed that individuals have no value except as part of the State.  

Hegel’s philosophy raises the question as to whether the State has intrinsic value, or whether it is a means to an end. Hegel believed the former, but a liberal would believe the latter. Russell uses an analogy to explain the question. An eye by itself has no intrinsic value, but is valuable as part of the body as a means to see. Sight is valuable as a means to see food or threats, but has intrinsic value when we see things of beauty. Russell believes that Hegel ascribes intrinsic value to the State because the State is in a sense alive, and has a Spirit. This relates to Hegel’s metaphysical views, which Russell goes on to attack. Hegel’s philosophy rests on the view that to have true knowledge of anything, you must have knowledge of everything in the universe, because everything is to some extent connected. However, since it is impossible to know everything, this would suggest that we have no useful knowledge, and no way of knowing anything. Hegel believed that if we know enough about something to distinguish it from everything else, we can infer all its properties (and by extension all knowledge) by logic. Russell counters by categorising properties of things as being either qualities or relations. Qualities relate to the thing in itself, and relations to the relationship between two or more things. We can have useful knowledge of a thing’s qualities by observation, but it is impossible to infer relational properties from a thing’s qualities.

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