George Hegel (1770-1831) is a very interesting philosopher, however he is very hard to understand and that has led to many different interpretations of his work. Thanks to my philosophy teacher Dr Kerry Sanders his thoughts have been made accessible to me.
Hegel saw the French Revolution from close by, he was in Jena when perhaps one of the most defining battles of the Napoleonic wars took place here. He was inspired by the principles behind the French Revolution and saw himself as a thinker who could assist in defining the modern world that would follow this revolution (politically, socially and economically). He rapidly became a celebrity in Europe. In the tradition of philosophy, it has been said that he was the last person who’ knew everything’, the last polymath.
He also followed the other star philosopher of the time Immanuel Kant and Hegel also saw himself completing some of the works of Kant.
A key element of Hegel’s philosophy is based on ‘dialectics’. He argues that we as humans and as a society progress through a process of dialectics, learning from our own experiences in ‘conversations’ with ourselves as well as from ‘conversations’ with others. In my own work within the rapidly developing telecommunications and digital industries I have often referred to this process. Thanks to standing on the shoulders of others (giants in their own fields) I can learn, make sense of developments and ultimately have an opinion and advice others. Hopefully in this way I provide in turn another platform on which others can build again.
This trend of dialects in the ICT industry is very visible because of the rapid developments. However, this process applies to every other element of our society. We also see this applied in the dialectic process between universities around the world. The rapid development of Covid vaccines shows how powerful this process can be.
Hegel very puts this process in the context of human history and its developments over the ages.
The fact that we as humanity have been able to develop in an overall progressive way is good example of this process. Obviously, we have seen ups and downs in this process. We can bring ourselves in serious problems which we than later seem to be able to correct but over the longer period these developments have been positive. All of this is part of Hegel’s dialectic process. If we extrapolate this process than we might be able to move towards global consciousness (Weltgeist).
Everybody at certain stages is starting with certain concepts of life, society, organisation and so on. Over time others have build on this, changed them, some will have been abandoned and others expanded. This is exactly the process that Hegel is referring too.
He argues that all understanding must start with the individual’s perception. Here he thought lays the way to genuine freedom that can be achieved through self-knowledge. What also very much interested me was that he sees the history of the world as a process of the progress of the consciousness of freedom. The history of the world is according to Hegel – and I agree – an ongoing conversation. Hegel brings in the untranslatable German word of Geist (which is not quite the same as Spirit).
I like the word Zeitgeist, as this is well understood also in the Anglophone sphere. Each time has its own Zeitgeist. But equally we can link this to periods individuals and communities go through. The Zeitgeist is the outcome of society at that time and is not depending on or directed by individual persons (leaders), it is a collective development. Whether we like it or not we are all children of the time we live in, that is a given.
The Zeitgeist is what allows the actualisation of that concept of the consciousness of freedom (Freiheit). Freedom does need some explanation here, Hegel see this as in free to do or think what one wants as well as in the sense of social and political. We have been able to improve our ‘Freiheit’ especially thanks to ongoing improvements in education this has been critical in broadening and expanding the dialectic process over the last few hundred years. Hence the enormous developments in humanity over this period.
In this context, Zeitgeist is the actualisation of the mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time. History is how ideas and beliefs interact and develop out of one other, because ideas are the basic starting points and as such rule everything else. The Geist within a family or community equally influences the progress of consciousness within the community. This also clarifies the different levels of consciousness within society. The overall Zeitgeist is the common outcome, in order for the whole of society to progress it requires the majority+ to move to the next stage.
It is also interesting that Hegel links this to rationality. Hegel famously stated: “what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational”.
Bringing these two concepts from Hegel together: the process of human history is one of self-recognition, guided by the principle of reason, which in turn is based on truth. For better or worse the outcome of these processes is the human made world we live in. Hegel’s philosophy can also be linked to Spinoza’s observations of Nature being a system of cause and effect, history is also a system of cause and effect.
As Hegel indicates we need to accept the limits of knowledge, time and space because we are born this way, here and now and we therefore can only address those metaphysical questions within those limitations and therefore we will never be able to answer them in our current understanding. Interestingly we can answer these questions within our own minds; we can envisage certain outcomes based on actions we take. This than brings us back to the ideas that Hegel spoke about.
Back to ‘Freiheit’. This is also linked to free will. For Hegel free will is based on external input. This externality is one of constrains which in turn triggers us to do things. Hegel links this to the dialectic of life-duty we enact upon to be free (as in Freiheit).
So, free will must be put in relation to things that are already here. You can’t ‘will’ yourself into ‘willing’. ‘It’ appears to us first and then we will. That ‘it’ is triggered in our mind based on our own uniqueness, who we are what our experiences are, our education, upbringing, culture and so on. This also explains what I mentioned earlier the different levels of consciousness among people. There is no pure free will or what Hegel calls absolute consciousness, e.g., God.
We can improve our internal consciousness (free will) through the above-mentioned dialectic process, based on more information and more education and as such we can create more ‘Freiheit’ (free will). I also see a clear link here with what we call ‘critical thinking’.
The more we become conscious of ourselves through the whole dialectic process of history – where we come from, how we ‘produce’ ourselves within our world – the more self-productive and self-determining we become. For Hegel this also means that the development of Geist is one that must be based on truth. Free will can only be developed by raising it to its truth. According to Hegel, by understanding ourselves we can make changes to our self-understanding and as such re-invent ourselves and as such become something new.
It is not difficult to see that the Existentialist – who strongly believed in personal responsibility and free will – saw Hegel as one of them.
Another interesting conclusion from Hegel – undoubtedly influence by his experiences of the French Revolution – is that he proclaimed the ‘the age of genuine heroism’ is over, in stead we now live in a rights-oriented bureaucracy society dedicated to the rule of law. Putting this in the context of history that we most certainly have seen this trend evolve. However, with current populism and hero leaders such as Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping, the question is if we can maintain our societies, based on principles Hegel mentioned.
Other relevant comments from Hegel in this respect are that the rational state can only partly satisfy the needs of humanity. It is up to the people to look for higher needs – non rational, emotional needs to deliver them self-satisfaction, he mentions in that respect, art, music, philosophy and religion. The over emphasis on rational material well being in the western world over the last 50 years might have failed to create that broader level of human satisfaction, resulting in high levels of dissatisfaction with the current society they live in.