What Would Hegel Do?

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, 1802,
Hegel on Postage Stamp, Germany, 2020.

I called myself a Hegelian for much of my academic career. Though that field is usually assigned to Continental Philosophy, the chair of one highly-regarded – and predominantly Analytic – philosophy department to which I’d applied told me that my candidacy had been seriously considered because, unlike most Hegelians, I actually “did philosophy” in a Hegelian manner instead of treating him as a bygone figure from the (nineteenth-century’s) history of ideas.

To “do philosophy” as Hegel would is to try to pick out the dominant beliefs and concerns of one’s time, and then see if these views are at risk – whether from new evidence or because, once acted on, the results contradicted the stated aims. It’s applying the method of dialectic to current worldviews. It’s something many of us do all the time without thinking to call it “Hegelian.”

A lot of what goes on in life can be clarified when seen under that lens. It helped me cope with the currents of university life. When feminism first came into cultural influence, I taught a course called “Philosophic Foundations of Feminism” and wrote an article for a well-regarded philosophy journal titled, Feminism Without Contradictions. It also allowed me to relish teaching at Brooklyn College, where students from all over the planet brought a wide spectrum of approaches to their philosophic questions. In answering a student, I would try to address the cultural assumptions behind the question. From their expressions (of satisfaction or continued puzzlement) at my reply, I could see whether or not I’d decoded what they really wanted to know!

When and why did I stop calling myself a Hegelian? It was when I needed to pray! There was a moment in my life when I needed help that came down directly – from high above – from a vantage point beyond where I stood. I needed to know which street I should take to get where I was going and when I should walk down it! I was scared, needed help and couldn’t wait for any hypothetically relevant dialectic to work itself out beforehand.

Did that mean I threw philosophy over? Certainly not. Prayer by itself won’t mail a letter. It won’t tie your shoes. It’s not magic. It doesn’t replace real life and the reasonableness called for day by day. Normally you do all you can to help yourself and the situation, though you might ask God for guidance while you do that. Meanwhile, philosophers continue to shed the lights of their intelligence – which itself seems at times inspired. Why not? If music, painting or physics can be inspired, so too can philosophy.

Well then, is our present era open to an Hegelian analysis? A few years back, Frances Fukuyama wrote a book to which he gave the Hegelian title, The End of History and the Last Man. He concluded, much as Hegel had done, that by now the major shapes or phases of consciousness (of dominant cultural opinion) had been traversed and had led humankind to a collective conclusion that representative democracy is the best form of government. It’s the form in which all citizens are recognized as bearers of rights, equal in dignity and capable of responsible decision-making. This highest form of government admits variations suitable to the diverse histories and cultures of citizens from every part of the globe. But its basic character cannot be bettered. All the alternatives have been tried and found wanting. Sooner or later every people, every nation, will get there.

The current battle to save democratic Ukraine appears to support Fukuyama’s view. The democratic world seems to have found its mirror in that fight and – thanks to its improbable actor-turned-Churchillian-statesman Zelenskyy – is actually closing ranks and shipping arms. Who would have believed it? Or predicted it?

On the other hand, what else is presently going on that would tend to refute Fukuyama’s view? Oddly and for some time, a wave of skepticism has been sweeping through the educated classes. Whether from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Volumes I-III, or from an array of Parisian postmodern advocates, the dizzying conclusions have been that all objective disciplines and lines of research – whether psychological, biological, physical, cognitive, expressive-aesthetic or spiritual – should be recast as social constructs explainable in terms of the underlying brute power relations that they disguise or rationalize.

What else tells against Fukuyama’s view? There is a related effort on the part of Western intellectuals to acknowledge a history of power unfairly exerted over non-Western peoples. The battles by which Europe was secured against Muslim conquest at Poitiers in 732 A.D., at Lepanto in 1571 and at the Gates of Vienna in 1683, are of course glossed over. More recent jihadist efforts to undo those defeats are being read as reprisals for Western hegemony.

What would Hegel say or do about those features of contemporary culture and history that look like evidence against the resolution that Fukuyama foresaw? He might note that, insofar as today’s skeptics, nihilists and revolutionaries draw on Nietzsche and Marx, they use Western categories and views while pretending to decry them, just as more violent enemies may borrow Western technology in order to destroy the cultural resources that produced it. So the West’s opponents actually rely on what they claim to repudiate.  

There is a relatively new development that doesn’t figure as such in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind: instant mass communication, often using images lifted out of context, accompanied by manipulative speech appealing to instinctual, old-brain layers of whose workings we may be unaware. The consequence is mob action and demagogic rule, whether from the left or from the right. Reasoned opinion-forming is quickly eroded and efforts to resist or undo the damage can be worrisomely slow by comparison.

Was Hegel aware of this recent threat? He wrote of the French Revolution’s reign of terror, where political and social structures were erased in order to achieve “absolute freedom” instantly. The lesson he drew, that effective political action requires – not direct democracy – but representative government to mediate competing desires and intentions, allowing them to be resolved in regular and deliberative ways, seems like the right lesson. So, neither the dangers nor the remedies seem beyond the reach of an Hegelian analysis.

Is there more to the story of human history than Hegel writes about? Certainly, but today we were only going to talk about 

what Hegel would do.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to What Would Hegel Do?

  1. Abigail says:

    Hegel is frequently derided for making outsized claims for the early nineteenth-century Prussian state in which he happened to live and the philosophic works that bore his name. Still — bracketing any and all outsized claims — Hegel’s philosophic work remains gifted, thoughtful and, in my view, potentially helpful.

  2. castaway5555 says:

    A very good read for me … I know little about Hegel, so your comments were helpful. As for Democracy – yes. It’s proven to be the way through, even though messy at times. The temptation of a “strong man” to come in and take over, is strong for many who shy away from the work of Democracy. This essay is going into my database: so many good things offered here. I’ve shared on fb and twitter. Thank you.

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