Lets admit it. Trying to understand Hegel is like being hit by a gold brick with a slice of lemon on it. It’s not easy.  Considering that Hegel’s ambitions were at their simplest, all encompassing- after all, he built a huge philosophical system ordering all the knowledge of the time- he is the in the top echelons of the most complex of philosophers. Here’s an example-Through the history of humanity and its culture, Hegel perceived the Absolute- whose reason to exist is present within itself! The superior form of the spirit- the universal idea- represents at the end of the process the Absolute, in itself and by itself.We try simplifying this complex thought through our last and most courageous entry in our series on German Philosophy 101.  

Absolut Hegel:

The objective of philosophy is simple for Hegel- “to understand reality in its totality, contemplate things and history and contain all that is- to understand and seize everything!” Thus philosophy is a system that is organized and closed, all of whose elements are independent to form a cohesive unit that encompasses all elements of life and of thought.  What constitutes this system? The Idea- a dynamic, spiritual entity that is an eternal creation, which is takes several forms, as it grows, to develop at various levels.The Idea first exists as a primordial thought, then externalizes itself and finally returns back to itself to enrich itself and transform itself into a Spirit. Thus the Idea clarifies itself to get a step closer to the Absolute.These three steps of the Idea are studied in three different sciences- Logic (the science of ideas and categories), Natural Philosophy (the science of studying ideas developing in external nature) and the Philosophy of the Spirit (the science of studying the return of the Idea to itself)

Beware! The March of Ideas! 

To understand the development of the Idea, it is important to comprehend the idea of the dialectic, in philosophy. A dialectic is nothing but a rational debate that is based on logic and ideas and not on emotions and sentiments. For Hegel, the development of the Idea is a dialectic progress, where in contradictions are overcome by the Idea in its march, by going from antithesis to synthesis.One overcomes contradictions by negating them but never annihilating them. So at any point something is negated but conserved. It is as if in flowering, the flower negates the bud, but at the same time conserves it.Thus at the end of this process where each term is denied but yet integrated, one arrives at a Synthesis- which integrates and unites several antitheses. 

What’s Progressive (rock) without Synthesizers?

 In the development of the synthesis, (as any student of French who has passed her C1 would know) the contradiction plays a key role. At the end of a game of terms, where each leads to the negation of the earlier, a coherent argument arises which leads to the development of the Idea. It is as if life and death were in eternal conversation, says Hegel, in constant exchange, never isolated. No wonder, words that are contradictory like hot and cold or to be and/or not to be, call in to the spirit their contradictory partner. So working on the “negation” is also a progressive and constructive work, where you destroy, maintain and conserve in the same movement ideas by working through negations of positives.This movement through thesis-antithesis-synthesis is often called the Hegelian dialectic, although Hegel himself seems to have been against simplifying his philosophy with the term. 

Your Wish Is My Command

Hegel thought that the best example for his philosophy of negation is Man himself. In a battle of prestige, where both opponents want the other to acknowledge her superiority, the victor does not want the annihilation of the other but her enslavement, because, if the other is removed then there is no one to acknowledge her superiority. Thus a chain of assimilation, negation and synthesis is again sparked off in the master who makes the slave an object, denies his existence by reducing it to the product of his work and integrates his status into his definition of himself as master. Similarly the slave denies his existence, reduces it to his work and lives in this stage till made face to face with death, where he moves into rebellion. Human beings become aware of themselves through desire and slaves become self-aware through fear of death. 

Everyone’s a Slave

Do we all do what we really want, led by our desire? Definitely not. Often tricked by reason, we let passions act in place of reason, thinking that we are actually being “reasonable”. This Ruse of reason, makes men wear themselves out and exhaust themselves to actualize a project that is infinitely beyond them, that of divine “Reason”. In Hegel’s eyes, the historical process tends, through these various “tricks”, to increasingly perfect intelligibility and transparency. For example, the state is an achievement of absolute reason. Far from designating a relative and contingent organization, it represents the social substance that has reached full consciousness of itself. Through the state,  man asserts himself and finds himself: far from being left to arbitrariness, he experiences genuine autonomy in the state organization.

The Rest Is History

History does not therefore have a narrow meaning in Hegel, but it designates a global and universal process. Universal History is nothing other than the manifestation of the absolute divine process of Spirit, the gradual march by which the spirit becomes aware of itself. The final stages of the total spiritual process correspond to those of Art, Religion and Philosophy: the movement of the Spirit then acquires greater and greater transparency. For Hegel, everything that has happened is just a step towards the realization of the Spirit. Any historical phenomenon can find, in this context, its full legitimization, since it is called for by the very requirement of Reason.If this integral rationalism is not always considered satisfactory by our culture, the teachings of the Hegelian dialectic are by no means obsolete. Negativity and the work of contradiction remain essential instruments of analysis.

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