Hegel's philosophy can be approached by assessing his reaction to his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. Kant's distinction between the world of noumena (things in themselves) and the world of phenomena (appearances) attracted the criticism of later thinkers. It was unsustainable, in part because things in themselves could only be affirmed as they were known. How, then, could we posit the existence of a determinate world the contents of which remained unknowable? Along with Fichte and Schelling, Hegel rejected Kant's notion of an unknowable, mind-independent world. We can only know of the existence of a thing as it is brought to consciousness. From this, it is further claimed that mind and its contents are all that there is. Kantian dualism is thus overcome by denying the independent world of things in themselves. This is the standard epistemological setting of idealism.
Moreover, a similar tension in Kant's philosophy afflicted the human subject who seemed to inhabit both worlds. In his ethics, Kant had drawn a distinction between the prescriptions of desire and those of reason. Both the mind and the will were thus divided between two worlds. As a free and rational moral agent, the self was noumenal; but as a determined sensuous being, it also resided in the world of phenomena. Only by re-introducing God was Kant able to integrate human striving for happiness and our obligation to obey the moral law. For Hegel, however, the moral self must seek fulfillment not in some distant eschato-logical future but in the everyday world of family life, civil society, and church. This is the realm in which human freedom finds self-expression.
At the center of Hegel's philosophy is an account of logic in which the identity of a thing (what it is) is constituted by its relations to other things (what it is not). In the Science of Logic (1812),4 the act of thinking is necessarily thinking about something. This gives rise to the general, undifferentiated notion of "being," the sense that something "is." Yet through the lack of determinacy, this thought is hard to differentiate from the related notion of "nothing." The transition of thought from being to nothing must move back again toward being. This movement can be described as a "becoming" in which a measure of determinacy emerges. Here we have the logical form of that dialectical process central to Hegel's understanding of politics, ethics, and religion. The formal analysis of concepts reveals that the identity of a thing can only be known through its relation to other things. Only as we know how it is related to what it is not do we come to know it in itself. Against the atomism of earlier empiricist and rationalist thinkers, Hegel argues that reality is a continuum rather than an aggregate of disparate entities. The identity of one thing includes its total set of relations to all other things. Thus identity can only unfold as these relations are revealed. In this respect, relations are internal rather than external to a concept.
Three implications of this account are worth registering. The first is the manner in which identity unfolds through thought. For Hegel, the intellectual subject does not impose a conceptual structure upon the raw materials of the external world. This seems to be the way of Kant's critical philosophy. Instead, Hegel understands the world to disclose itself, even to emerge, as it is thought by us. The subject does not control or organize the way things are, so much as allow these to come to consciousness through the act of thinking. In this respect, the rational order of the world is immanent and emergent. The significance of this for Hegel's philosophy can hardly be underestimated. It indicates that human subjectivity is that through which the world unfolds as it is brought to consciousness. Yet our minds do not create the world so much as act as the means by which it comes to know itself. Second, this becomes central to construing the relationship between human and divine reality. In Hegel's system, God (Absolute Spirit) comes to self-knowledge through the actions of finite minds or spirit. And, third, in describing the emergent nature of the world as it is understood, Hegel is able to perceive history as possessing a deep philosophical significance. Doubtless this owes much to his Christian theological heritage, but in the history of western philosophy this can be regarded as something of a novelty. Prior to Hegel, none of the leading philosophers (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, or Kant) had devoted sustained attention to history as the medium of philosophical truth.5
While Hegel's logic and epistemology engage with some of the more abstract philosophical issues discussed by Kant, the approach he adopts is important also for his account of ethics and history. In conceptual thought, we already see the dialectical striving of the human subject toward freedom and integration. In knowing the world, the subject becomes conscious of itself. Yet to be properly self-conscious it must be related to other selves. To realize one's identity, one must be recognized and acknowledged by others. Self-esteem is reciprocally related to being esteemed by others. At times, we have to prove ourselves before others, whether as individuals or as nations. For Hegel, a nation must sometimes command self-respect by overthrowing another through the waging of war.
His treatment of the master-slave (lord-bondsman) relationship in the Phenomenology of Spirit6 is much discussed in this context. Although inevitable in human affairs, this relationship is inherently unstable; it must be superseded by mutual acknowledgment and respect. In dominating the other, the master achieves recognition. Yet since this is coerced, it is limited and rendered unsatisfactory - the slave does not offer recognition freely. Furthermore, the slave in laboring for his master steadily becomes more self-conscious, although this is limited by his status as an object of control by the master. This creates the phenomenon of the unhappy or divided consciousness. Frustrated by the shortcomings of the relationship, master and slave retreat into themselves and their own peculiar activities; for the slave this is work, and for the master vanishing enjoyment. (Hegel regards the slave as having the advantage in this respect.) Their relating is one-sided and unequal; neither can give the other what consciousness seeks. In doing so, they abandon the prospect of fulfillment in relationship. The desire for integration is suppressed or diverted. Yet all consciousness struggles for both freedom and fulfillment (reconciliation). Only in a union of free and equal persons can the limitations of the master-slave relationship be overcome. This of course has political consequences. It requires a liberal society committed to the freedom and equality of all citizens, yet one which is also shaped by institutions of civil society which make genuine social integration possible. Nevertheless, Hegel's analysis here may imply that imperialism and colonialism are necessary moments in the development of civilization.
The key to understanding ethics and politics is the struggle for freedom. This is properly exercised not in an unbridled series of choices lacking in direction or purpose. Here the will is determined by random, arbitrary desires and whims. Choice is conditioned by factors extrinsic to free will itself. (One might discern at this juncture a criticism of aspects of the free market and consumer society.) Instead, to become more fully self-limited, the will must find its freedom in ends which are in accordance with its nature as this gradually unfolds. This comes about through respect for the rights of others as these are established by the laws of the state and the institutions of civil society. Hegel can be rescued from the charge of promoting a form of authoritarian politics by attending to the ways in which freedom is to be realized socially. Like Rousseau and Kant before him, he affirms that free will must resolve to will only its own freedom. In doing so, it becomes a self-legislating will. This involves, however, the regulation of one's natural desires by entering into commitments and obligations in ways that respect the rights of each and everyone. These include the rights to property, engagement in economic activity, and freedom from enslavement to another. Such rights must be protected by a system of law that treats all citizens equally and impartially. By owning and acknowledging the customs and laws of society, the self becomes free. Freedom is thus constructed positively rather than negatively. It is freedom for self-realization. The self comes to be at home in the community through observing moral rules and social customs. In doing so, it finds its freedom and realizes its identity. Yet this is never fully settled or complete. Freedom is also limited by our inability always to act ethically, by the unequal outcomes of economic activity, and by the threat posed to each state by war and conquest. And in search of absolute freedom and truth, spirit must also attend to the spheres of art, religion, and philosophy.
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