Dialectic and Historical Necessity

Dialectic and Historical Necessity.The Philosophy of Right is a book that cannot profitably be summarized. This is true in part because of the technical elaborateness of its logical apparatus but chiefly because, from any empirical point of view, it is fundamentally ill-arranged. This was not due to confusion or carelessness on Hegel’s part but precisely to the apparatus itself.

The subject matter was arranged not in accord with any canon of empirical description but in accord with its idea,by which Hegel meant its significance in the light of the dialectic. The structure of the book grew directly from the contrast of understanding and reason.

The first two parts, dealing with abstract right and subjective morality, present the theory of right or law as leading to antitheses that are inevitable from the point of view of understanding. In particular, the first part has to do substantially with the rights of property, personality, and contract as these are treated in a theory of natural law. But since the understanding is self-defeating, this part must issue in contradictions which understanding cannot solve and so must lead on dialectical to the third part, on Freedom or Objective Will, in which reason resolves the contradictions.

It was this third part, and especially its last two subdivisions on civil society and the state, that contained Hegel’s important conclusions. But the arrangement hopelessly dislocated the subject-matter. Sometimes subjects that belong together were pulled apart, as when property and contract were discussed apart from the economic order, marriage apart from the family, and crime apart from the administration of law. Sometimes subjects were inappropriately combined, as divorce and inheritance.

This distortion of subject matter in the interest of a logical arrangement dictated by the notion of dialectical development tended to obscure one of the most fruitful ideas contained in Hegel’s philosophy, namely, that economic, political, legal, and moral institutions are in fact socially interdependent. At the same time it must be conceded that the arrangement of the Philosophy of Right did accurately represent one of Hegel’s most important political conclusions, namely, that the state is morally superior to civil society.

Since an exposition of Hegel’s political philosophy cannot follow, the order or the manner in which his ideas were developed in the Philosophy of Right, it will be well to break free entirely and state his arguments and his conclusions in the simplest manner possible. Critical understanding and estimate of his philosophy turns upon two points.

First, it calls for a decision about the claim that the dialectic is a new method which reveals dependencies and relationships is society and history not otherwise discernible. Such a decision is important because the dialectic was adopted by Karl Marx, with considerable changes, to be sure, in its supposed metaphysical implications but with no important change in the conception of it as a logical method. Thus it became an inherent part of Marxian socialism and communism and the ground for the claim to scientific superiority that Marxism has always made.

Second, Hegel’s political philosophy was the classic statement of nationalism in a form which had discarded the individualism and the implicit cosmopolitanism of the rights of man. It gave to the concept of the state a special connotation which remained characteristic of German political theory throughout the nineteenth century.

Since the purpose of the dialectic was to provide a logical apparatus capable of revealing the necessity of history, the meaning of the dialectic depends upon the complicated meaning which Hegel attached to historical necessity. His thought on this subject started from the belief which he acquired early in his life, that the history of a people records the growth of a single national mentality which expresses itself in all phases of its culture. In contrast with this view of history Hegel set another view common to the Enlightenment, that philosophies and religions and institutions are conscious inventions for practical purposes.

This illusion, he believed, arose because history had been regarded merely as an adjunct to the statesman’s art, and it attributed to statesmen and legislators a much greater power to plan the life and growth of a society than they actually have. It depended upon the dogma that human nature is everywhere and always the same, that a relatively simple list of what Hume called propensities will account for all human behavior, and that accordingly conduct can be turned in any desired direction by a skillful manipulation of motives.

These were in fact principles avowed by utilitarians like Helvetius and later by Jeremy Bentham. They were historically superficial, Hegel believed, because they overlook the interdependence of institutions and the momentum with which societies and institutions follow their own inherent trends. Individuals and their conscious purposes really count for very little in the total outcome.

The individual is for the most part only an accidental variant of the culture that created him and in so far as he is different his individuality is more likely to be capricious than significant. Moreover individuals ought not to count for much because in general individuals come under the category of means. Their desires and gratifications are rightly sacrificed to the achievement of the larger purposes of nations.

Hegel’s belief in the necessity of history, therefore, united two important elements in his philosophy. In the first place he was a logical realist. He believed that the effective realities and causes in history are impersonal and general forces, not individual persons or events. The latter are for the most part partial and imperfect materialization of social forces. In the second place his ethics assumed that the value of a person depends upon the work that he does and the part that he plays in the social drama.

These assumptions Hegel expressed by saying that the history of civilization is the unfolding or the progressive realization and materialization of the World Spirit in time. In part his philosophy was motivated by a religious sense of dependence and of the moral value of devotion to a cause greater than oneself. In part also it was motivated by a sardonic sense of humor at the vanity of human wishes, which made him delight to see the rationalist duped by the cunning of the World Spirit. From the point of view of the human actors, history is a union of irony and tragedy; from the point of view of the Whole it is a cyclic or spiral advance.

This may be called the cunning cf reason–that it sets the passions to work for itself, while that which develops its existence through such impulsion pays the penalty, and suffers loss. The particular is for the most part of too trifling value as compared with the general: individuals are sacrificed and abandoned.

History has its own solutions to its own problems which even the wisest men understand only in a small degree. Great men neither make nor guide it,but at the most they understand a little and cooperate with forces enormously more massive than their own will and understanding.

Hegel’s remark about Richelieu, quoted above, was characteristic; the political genius is such less in virtue of his own ability than because he identifies himself with a principle, that is, with the force or trend that at the time is running. Great men are instruments of impersonal social forces that lie below the surface of history; they bow before the inherent logic of events. Hence also science and philosophy play a limited part in it.

A clear understanding of any social system, Hegel thought, comes only when that system is on the road to extinction; Plato and Aristotle created a philosophy, of the city-state in the fourth century, when the spontaneous creativeness of the Age of Pericles was already a thing of the past. Minerva’s owl begins its flight only in the gathering dusk. Like the Stoic Gog history leads the wise man and drags the fool.

Hegel, however, did not consider history to be intrinsically inscrutable or irrational. In it resides not unreason but a higher form of reason than that of the analytic understanding. The Real is the rational and the rational is the real. To penetrate its apparent confusion, however, and to apprehend process not as composed of discrete parts bu as organic growth, a different logical apparatus is needed, and this the dialectic was designed to supply.

In the abstract it was an over-simple device to open so complicated a maze. Hegel adopted, in fact, an ides as old and as vague as the first Greek speculations about nature, namely, that historical processes go by opposites. Every tendency when carried to the full breeds an opposite tendency which destroys it. This idea had always been used in defense of the mixed constitution unrestrained democracy turns into license; unlimited monarchy degenerates into despotism.

Hegel generalized the argument. Opposition and contrariety are universal properties of nature; this is at once a law of the cosmos and of thought. Everywhere forces grow into their opposites. But whereas theories of the mixed constitution had assumed that the balancing of opposites could be made a key to stability and permanence, Hegel thought of the world as an endlessly moving equilibrium. Contrary forces supply the dynamic of history but balance can never be permanent; it merely gives a continuity and direction to change. Consequently, as he thought, the opposition is never absolute. The destruction of one position in a controversial situation is never, complete.

Both sides are partly right and partly wrong, and when the rights and the wrongs have been properly weighed, a third position emerges which unites the truth contained in both. This Hegel believed to be the fundamental insight that Plato had embodied in his dialogues, and accordingly he adopted Plato’s word, dialectic, as the | name of the process.

This principle of an opposition of forces, moving in orderly equilibrium and emerging in a pattern of progressive logical development, appeared to Hegel general enough to supply a formula for all nature and all history. He applied it perhaps most plausibly to the history of philosophy. It accounts, as he supposed, for the apparent unsuccessful of all systems, while it provides for the increasing meaning and growing truth of the whole.

Every philosophy grasps a part of the truth, none grasps it all. Each supplements the other, and the eternal problem is to restate the questions in such a way as to include the apparent contradictions between opposing systems. In any absolute sense the problems are never solved; in a relative sense they are always being solved.

The discussion begins again around a new point which takes account of all that has gone before. Consequently, as Hegel said, the history of philosophy literally is philosophy; it is absolute truth projected, so to speak, in time and progressing toward a consummation which, however, it can never reach. It is like a spiral that mounts as it turns. The driving force he called contradiction, thus giving to an ancient logical term a meaning which it never had in formal logic.

In Hegel’s logic contradiction means the fruitful opposition between systems that constitutes an objective criticism of each and leads continually to a more inclusive and a more coherent system. The dialectic, however, as Hegel conceived it, was not applicable to the development of philosophy alone. It was a method applicable to every subject matter in which the concepts of progressive change and development are relevant, and in such subjects it is indispensable, for the analytic understanding works only with the mechanical juxtaposition of discrete parts and cannot grasp the necessity inherent in process.

The dialectic, therefore, was a method applicable par excellence to the social studies. Society itself and all the principal parts of its structure its law, its morals, its religions, and the institutions that embody them -advance under the continual tension of internal forces and their endless readjustment by thought. This is the reason why there is a real historical method. By grasping der Gang der Sache selbst, the inner go of events, one perceives that there is a logical next step or manifest destiny inherent in the state of affairs.

When the dialectic is considered as the key to a theory of social change, it suggests two interpretations that can easily be opposed to each other. From the point of view of the dialectic, every act of thought contains two movements. On the one side it is negative; every affirmation or thesis has implicit in it contradictions that must become explicit and in so doing must destroy the original affirmation.

On the other side it is also affirmative or constructive; it is a restatement at a higher level on which the contradictions are sublimated (aufgehoben) and combined in a new synthesis. Since Hegel regarded all social evolution as a development of thought, this twofold property of the dialectic characterizes also the progressive changes that take place in social institutions.

Every change is at once continuous and discontinuous, carrying forward the past and also breaking with it in Order to create something new. A practical application of the dialectic to social history may with equal logic be given either of two opposite constructions. The emphasis may be upon continuity or gradualness the impossibility of making a radical and voluntary departure from norms and practices long established.

Or it may be upon discontinuity or negation-the necessity that change must be subversive and de, instructive of accepted norms and practices. Which emphasis any given thinker adopts depends as much upon the total bias of his thought, perhaps even upon his temperament, as upon logic.

Hegel on the whole, and conservative Hegelian’s generally, tended to emphasize continuity. He tended to think of revolutions as occurring in the past. Karl Marx tended to think of them as occurring in the future, but in Marxism also the continual swing of socialist theory between revolutionist and revisionism reflected the two-sidedness of the dialectic In general, it suggested that social history as a whole should be con, strewed as a succession of periods of development punctuated by periods of revolution. The stresses and strains inherent in any settled situation build up to a breaking point at which the whole system undergoes a violent change of phase.

Criticism of Dialectic:-

In forming a critical judgment of Hegel’s dialectic it is necessary to remember that it was put forward not as a mere description of the contrary tendencies that are in fact compromised and adjusted in social history but as a law of logic. Hegel intended nothing less than a complete revision of that subject, or as he himself expressed it, the creation of a logic of reason to supplement or to supersede the logic of the understanding.

The dialectic purported to revise the laws of thought, particularly the law of logical contradiction, as this was understood in logic at any time after Aristotle. Abstractly stated this would mean that a logic ought to be constructed on the principle that one and the same proposition can be at once both true and false. No logician after Hegel can really be said to have taken this proposal with entire seriousness. But the utility of such a logic, if it were constructed, must depend upon there being a definite methodology for its use.

Otherwise either its acceptance or its rejection remains subjective. Historians and other social scientists have as a rule been justifiably reluctant to face the supposition that their subjects require a logic radically different from that used by the other sciences. In philosophy, where such a supposition has sometimes been entertained it has usually taken the form of overt irrational-ism, the assertion that some sacristy -other than reason (Bergson’s intuition, for example) is needed to grasp the nature of organism and of continuous organic growth.

But this view, which was exploited in German national socialism, is in effect an acceptance of subjective and really means that rational or scientific standards cannot be applied to social problems. The peculiarity of Hegel’s philosophy,and of the Marxian reconstruction of it, was that it claimed to be genuinely rational, while at the same time it professed to supersede the theory of logical propositions by which alone logic has been able to give precise meaning to propositions. In the last resort its claim to be scientific depends on the very dubious feasibility of this project.

When Hegel’s actual use of the dialectic is examined, its most obvious characteristic is the extreme vagueness, not to say the ambiguity, of his use of terms, and the extreme generality that he attributed to words which are notoriously hard to define. Two examples of key importance for his philosophy will serve to illustrate this tendency, his use of the words thought and contradiction.

According to Hegel, any progressive social change-in religion, philosophy, economics, law, or politics-takes place by an advance in thought. This usage was not accidental but was required both by his metaphysics and by the dialectic. His idealism depended upon an identification, of process in mind with process in nature, and the dialectic depended upon the applicability of what he regarded as a law of thought to all subject-matters of which process is an essential characteristic.

All change takes place under the impulsion of thought to eliminate inherent contradictions and in pursuit of a higher level cf coherence or logical consistency. But if these words are given any precise meaning, the theory simply is not true. Even in science or philosophy, to say nothing of less highly intellectualized social products, new discoveries and the emergence of new points of view cannot plausibly be construed as always due to self-contradictions in earlier systems of ideas.

In all branches of social evolution, including philosophy, it is true as Justice Holmes said of the law that experience counts for more than logic. Hegel’s determination to universalize thought had a twofold effect upon the Hegelian writing of history either recalcitrant facts were forced into molds that were antecedent decided to be logical or else words like coherence and consistency were given a meaning so vague that they ceased to be useful.

Similarly the word contradiction as-Hegel used it had no precise meaning whatever but referred to any vague form of opposition or contrariety. Sometimes it meant merely physical forces that move in different directions or causes that tend toward opposed results, like living or dying.

Sometimes the opposition referred to moral desert, as where, he said that punishment negates crime and that evil is self-contradictory. In its actual use the dialectic was largely an exploitation of ambiguities in terminology and not in any proper sense a method. In Hegel’s hands it worked out to conclusions that he had reached without it and the dialectic contributed nothing to their proof.

The special merit claimed for the dialectic was its capacity to display and clarify the necessity which Hegel attributed to historical development. The word necessity, however, remained as ambiguous as Hume had proved it to be. it might, of course, refer merely to the relation of cause and effect in history, and in that sense all events might be regarded as alike necessary.

But this was emphatically not what Hegel meant when he said that the real is the rational, because he always distinguished between the real and that which merely exists. The real is the permanent inner core of meaning in history in comparison with which particular events are casual, transient, or apparent. Consequently the dialectic was essentially a selective process, It was a way of discriminating what is relatively accidental and insignificant from what is important and effective in the long run.

What exists is always momentary and to a large degree accidental, the mere surface manifestation of deep-lying forces which alone are real. But the basis for this discrimination of the significant and the casual was again ambiguous. It might refer to the obvious fact that some events have more weight than others in bringing about an historical result.

Or it might amount to assuming that a result comes about because it is important, that its value operates as an effective cause. Hegel systematically fused these two meanings by identifying right and force. This could be justified metaphysically because he imputed to nature an ideal constitution that inevitably gives the greatest power to right, but in effect it meant that he regarded might as the criterion of right. Thus the necessity that he saw in history was at once a physical and a moral compulsion.

When he said that Germany must become a state, he meant that it ought to do so, that the highest interests both of civilization and of its own national life require such a result, and also that there are casual forces that impel it in that direction. Hence the dialectic combines at once a moral judgment and a causal law of historical development. Germany must become a state not because Germans wish it, and not because it will do so in spite of what they wish.

The must expresses at once a volition and a fact-a will that is more than a caprice because the growth of Germany into a state is in line with the whole direction of political development and a fact that is more than a casual event because it sums up what is objectively valuable in that development. The distinctive claim of the dialectic was that it unites intelligence and will. It purported to be, as Josiah Royce said, a logic of passion, a synthesis of science and poetry.

The dialectic was in truth much easier to understand as ethics than as logic. Without being overtly hortatory it was a subtle and effective form of moral appeal. The sense of moral reconciliation which Hegel saw at the foundation of all effective human action was at once passive and active; it is both resignation and cooperation. It can cure the intolerable sense of futility and impotence to which the isolated self-consciousness is a prey precisely because it is not merely a feeling but a real identification with a higher power.

In nothing was Hegel so unmeasured as in his condemnation of sentiment and mere good feeling, what he called bitingly the hypocrisy of good intentions, which he believed to be always either weak or fanatical and in both cases futile in nothing did he disbelieve so completely as in the power of unorganized good will to accomplish anything in a world where effectiveness is the final criterion of right.

It is not sentiment that makes nations but the national will to power translating itself into institutions and a national culture. And it is the acceptance of the national task as a moral cause and of the duties imposed by one’s station in it that releases the individual’s creative efforts and raises him to the level of a freely acting moral person.

For Hegel the individuals sense of duty, which Luther and Kant had conceived as arising from his relation to God, became concrete in his vocation as a member of his nation. And the nation itself attained an aura of sanctity as a manifestation of the divine essence. However effective this may be as a moral appeal, it does not set aside Kant’s. fundamental contention that moral obligation and cause are logically different.

The form of the dialectic, however, imparted its own peculiarities to its interpretation of duty. The divergent interests and values rep resented by thesis and antithesis were assumed to stand in a relation of flat contradiction to each other, a relation of struggle and opposition. Each must be developed to its last consequences before the contradictions can be sublimated in the synthesis.

Conciliation and compromise occur indeed and emerge with the evolution of the Idea. But as matters of conscious prevision and effort on the part of human participants they tend to be pictured as marks of sentimental weakness and caprice, a kind of treason against the majesty of the Absolute. The effect was to represent society as a constellation of opposed fore that work out to an inevitable conclusion rather than as a body of human relations to be conciliated and harmonize or the assumptions of the dialectic, also, communication itself becomes peculiarly difficult, for no proposition is ever exactly true or exactly false.

It always means more or less that it seems to mean. For it was the special claim of the dialectic to unite relativism with absolutism. Every stage Carries, for the time being, the whole weight and force of the Absolute, even though in the end it is transitory.

It is, so to speak, absolute white it lasts, and its duty is to achieve complete self-expression, though its ultimate defeat in the further advance of the World Spirit is assured. Hence the dialectic implied a moral attitude which is at once completely rigid and completely flexible, and it offered no criterion of the rightness of either except the success of the outcome. It was for this reason that Hegel’s critics, Nietzsche for example, saw in the dialectic only an opportunism which is in practice an adoration of the whole series of successes.

Hegel’s dialectic was in truth a curious amalgam of historical insight and realism, of moral appeal, romantic idealization, and religious mysticism. In intention it was rational and an extension of logical method, but the intention defied exact formulation. In practice it played upon vague contrasts of popular speech, like real and apparent, essential and accidental, permanent and transitory, to which it could assign no precise meaning and for which it supplied no clear criteria.

Hegel’s historical judgments and moral evaluations, to which the dialectic was supposed to lend objectivity, were in fact as much conditioned by time and place and personality, as those of other philosophers with no such elaborate apparatus. To unite purposes so diverse and factors so incapable of definition or empirical verification into a method, and to give that method scientific precision, was In fact impossible.

What the dialectic accomplished was to give a specious air of logical certitude to historical judgments which, if true, can be based only on empirical evidence, and to moral judgments which, if sound, depend upon ethical insights open to everyone. By attempting to combine the two it tended rather to obscure than to clarify the meaning of both.

More Read from Hegel: Dialectic and Nationalism:-

  1. The Historical Method of Dialectic & Nationalism
  2. Individualism and the Theory of the State
  3. Hegel Freedom and Authority
  4. The State and Civil Society
  5. The Later Significance of Hegelianism