Philosophy is for Everyone

Hegel Was Right: We Need the Dialectic

The title of this post “Hegel was Right: We Need the Dialectic” is probably one of the least click-bait blog post titles anyone has ever written.

I’m aware of this. And that is probably why I have hesitated to write this post, despite wanting to do so for over a year now.

And perhaps another reason I have hesitated is because Hegel, arguably one of the most famous and most influential German idealist philosophers, is notoriously hard to read.

For instance, here is a sentence from his Phenomenology of Spirit, which is my favorite book of his:

“Consciousness must act merely in order that what it is in itself may become explicit for it; in other words, action is simply the coming-to-be of Spirit as consciousness.

What the latter is in itself, it knows therefore from what it actually is.

Accordingly, an individual cannot know what he [really] is until he has made himself a reality through action.

However, this seems to imply that he cannot determine the End of his action until he has carried it out;

but at the same time, since he is a conscious individual, he must have the action in front of him beforehand as entirely his own, i.e. as an End.”[1]

I know.

Believe it or not, this is one of the clearer passages in the Phenomenology of Spirit. 

It is a very odd book, long and full of strange passages about phrenology, the French revolution, and the night in which all cows are black.

Now, I love Hegel. In fact, I wrote one of the chapters in my dissertation on Hegel’s view of education.

But I do understand why some people loathe Hegel and why his writings have inspired myriad memes like this one:

I don’t know who made this meme originally, but it makes me laugh every time I see it.

Hegel’s imposing visage reinforces the seeming inaccessibility of his philosophy.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t really defend Hegel’s prose other than to say that I think Hegel wanted to help us shift into a different way of seeing the world.

And one of the ways he does this is by writing in a way that is very different from the writing that came before him.[2]

Despite the fact that reading Hegel can be overwhelming at times, Hegel developed an idea called the dialectic that I think is very helpful.

In fact, it’s an idea I believe we desperately need to recover today.

People disagree about what exactly the dialectic is and how it works, but here is my take on it.

Hegel argues in books like the Phenomenology that consciousness (or human understanding) goes through a process of coming-to-know in the world.

That is, human consciousness doesn’t appear on the scene understanding the truth of everything. Rather, human consciousness travels through various passages of understanding.

In these passages, consciousness grasps a hold of something it believes is the truth. I’ll call this truth X. But as consciousness explores X fully, it eventually finds out something wrong about X.

And when it does so, consciousness then decides that not-X (the exact opposite of X) is the truth.

But as you can imagine, consciousness also explores not-X fully. And as it does so, it discovers something wrong about not-X.

At this point, Hegel suggests, consciousness moves to a higher stage of thinking.

It is a stage in which it realizes that the truth of the matter contains elements of both X and not-X but transformed to a higher, and more truthful, level of understanding.

The fancy terms for the process consciousness goes through in this journey is thesis (X), antithesis (not-X), and synthesis (transformed understanding).

This process, according to Hegel, is the dialectic of reason.[3]

And, in fact, the title of this post is a bit misleading because the dialectic, according to Hegel, isn’t something we need. It is rather what consciousness has done all through history. (We are probably less likely to agree today with Hegel’s optimistic view of human consciousness and the progression of reason.)

Now if you are like a lot of people, you may at first wonder how in the world Hegel’s dialectic connects with anything in real life.

But I am pretty sure you have experienced something like Hegel’s dialectic in your own life.

For example, think of a situation in which two people who disagree strongly about a topic have a discussion.

Initially, they both cling to their positions and vehemently refute the other person’s position. But then in the course of discussion, they notice some weaknesses in the views they espouse.

And then through the course of the discussion, they experience a personal transformation.

It is a transformation in which they realize that the actual truth is much bigger, and better, than the positions they both originally held.

Have you ever had an experience like this? I know I have.

Once I had a theological disagreement with a friend. I believed X about God. He believed not-X.

Thankfully, he was a really kind, gentle conversation partner. The more we discussed the issue, the more I realized that the position I held couldn’t be true in the way I thought it was.

But I didn’t think his position could be true either.

So, I kept thinking through that conversation months after it ended. And it eventually led to one of the biggest and best breakthroughs in my thinking I’ve ever experienced.

I realized that something bigger and better than what both of us had thought was actually the truth. It changed my life for the better.

And this brings me to the point of this whole post. We need the dialectic.

Too often when we disagree with someone, we think in these terms: “I’m right and they are wrong.”

And, by the way, sometimes this is an accurate assessment of a matter. Sometimes other people are wrong, and we are right.

Or vice versa.

For instance, I just recently watched a documentary on the Night Stalker,  a serial killer who terrorized Los Angeles in the mid 80s, victimizing dozens of women.

The Night Stalker was horrifically wrong, and the people who wanted to catch him were right.

So, sometimes one party is wrong and the other is right.

But sometimes the truth of the matter is much more complex than this.

Sometimes when we disagree with someone, there are elements of truth in both our positions. But our thinking is limited or untrue in other areas.  In fact, the truth is something much larger and better than we both imagine it to be.

But the only way we can reach this higher truth is through dialectical thinking, and dialectical thinking takes courage.

After all it takes courage to acknowledge the possibility that we might be wrong, even in some of our most cherished beliefs.

And it takes courage to recognize the possibility that someone who disagrees with us could be right in some way.

It takes even more courage to hold space for the idea that the truth could be even bigger than both of us imagine.

But such courage is the lifeblood of a good life and a good society. That’s because when we practice such courage, we practice loving the truth more than we love our cherished positions.

And of course, “The truth will set you free”, which, if I had to guess, is what Hegel was actually aiming for in all of his writing: freedom.


This post is for Dr. Dan Breazeale, my beloved Hegel professor who recently passed away.

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By the way, one of the philosophers I study a lot is Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher and educator. Hegel’s philosophy greatly influenced his writing. You might like to read about Freire here: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed–Chapter One.

You might also like this post: Are You in Plato’s Cave?

I recommend this book for a good introduction to Hegel: Routledge’s Guidebook to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

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[1] Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. AV Miller, Trans. Oxford University Press, 1977.

[2] By the way, in my experience, if you try to enter into Hegel’s way of viewing the world, it can change your thinking for the better.

[3] Hegel’s dialectic is much more complex than this brief description of mine. But my description will serve us for the purposes of this post.

 

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