From the middle of the 19th century to the present, the philosophy of Hegel (1770-1831) would have a profound influence, at times a nearly revolutionary influence. In Hegel, one finds the merging and creative synthesis of many of the strongest tendencies in Romantic thought. First is the idea of progressive and evolving reality–not the staid mechanical repetitiousness of mere causality, but an active principle at work in the natural world. Second, there is the criticism of science as not being up to the task of comprehending this world, tied as it is to reductive schemes.
The first step in the direction of understanding, then is the identification not of a cause but of a reason. Hegel has as the reason for the evolution of human mind and society a rather Gothic and terrifying “Absolute” that uses the conflicts of history to realize itself ever more fully. The modern state is seen as the culmination of this struggle.
Hegel shares with his immediate predecessors, and with Romanticism at large, the judgment that science, as traditionally understood as “perfected” in the age of Newton, is a narrow, one-sided, misleading affair.
If science stays at the level of mechanistic explanation and the particularization of the complex into some reduced non-reality, then it will be capable ofÂ explaining very little. Science will, in fact, become merely an exercise in the vindication of its own flawed methods.
The subject of truth itself is what has real being, in the sense of nothing being added or modified by peculiar or merely conventional modes of analysis.
Descartes’s own revolution was never lost on Hegel. As understood by Hegel, Descartes’s achievement was to recognize that knowledge in all its forms is but “the unity of thought and being.”
Though he admires Newton, Hegel regards Newton’s work as making it possible for Locke’s philosophy to become nearly official. The commitment to perceptual modes of knowledge and shunning of deeper metaphysical considerations are products of this mode of thinking.
- If the world is defined as merely the action of corpuscles, the laws governing corpuscles will be all that will be studied; everything else will be ignored.
- And the discovered causal laws could, in fact, be entirely different without raising any surprise or concern. If instead of F = ma, the relationship had been F = 5m + 3.2a, it would be no occasion for debate.
- Thus, the scientist gives us no complete comprehension of the natural world. Through these mere summaries of correlations and cause-effect sequences, he never arrives at what the rest of us call “reality.”
Nothing in the Newtonian achievement explains just why the laws are as they are. Why is everything the way it is and not some different way instead?
To include Hegel within the tradition of Romanticism or German Romantic Idealism requires that we turn to Johann Fichte. Indeed, the famous “Hegelian” triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is actually Fichte’s contribution and was rarely employed by Hegel himself.
- Fichte recognized a fundamental conflict in Kant’s epistemology: If there is a conceptual or logical barrier between reality as it is and reality as it is perceived, philosophy must commit to either bypass mind in every possible way or to accept that it is mind that is the worthy object of attention.
- Fichte argues that the ultimate reality is that of idea, the starting Â point of philosophy then being the transcendental ego.
- According to Hegel, we ought to be looking not merely for those causal connections revealed in scientific laws but for the reason behind the laws, because reality is rational.
To understand an event is finally to identify the reason behind it, and reasons are not “causes” by another name.
- Causes can be final or merely efficient, but they carry no sense of necessity with them; they are merely contingent facts of the world.
- But knowing the reason for an event is to understand that the event had to take the form it did.
Hegel applies this to human history itself. There is a distinct evolutionary perspective in Romanticism. There must be a reason for human development: from basic survival to human communities to literacy and rationality, each stage higher than the previous one.
Romanticism perceives an evolutionary struggle–Sturm und Drang–that produces new and better things not predictable in a mechanistic view.
Human history is the result of something trying to work itself out or realize itself through this great evolutionary struggle. It is out of the struggle itself that something gets resolved. AndÂ it is in the resolution that we find life lived at a higherÂ plane. There is reason in human history.
Hegel gave several names to this something, most commonly “the Absolute” but also “soul” or “spirit”–Geist.
In Hegel’s day, the Absolute expresses itself in the state, declared by Hegel to be “the march of God in the world”! So called “Hegelians of the right” would defend the claims of the state against any and every claim from the mere individuals who live in it.
Hegel finds that the state, as the ethical aspect of the Absolute, takes precedence over Kant’s “good will” of the individual.
Kant claimed that good will was the only pure good in the universe: the will to bring about, if we could, that which we would bring about in our most rational moments.
For Hegel, this dependence of the will of the moral agent leaves room for arbitrary and even wicked conduct. The claims of conscience have a moral superiority over mere convention but cannot be substituted without peril for the commands of the just state.
Hegel prefers the formulations of the brilliant young philosopher Fichte: The greatest freedom of the will consists in surrendering freedom for the sake of the whole.
What really exists does so in virtue of an essentially dialectical process. Reality is the synthetic outcome of affirming and negating forces.
Fichte is important philosophically as the architect for the Hegelian ontological logic that features the famous dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis, and the synthesis–the progress through conflict reality arising from opposing tendencies.
Fichte’s description of the dialectical realization of human freedom is an example:
- Man is born free (thesis).
- But he cannot know this until his freedom is first opposed and constrained by others (antithesis).
- In the synthesis, or final stage, man passes the stage of freedom for its own sake and comes to know freedom as an instrumentality to be used for the good of all.
The dialectical ontology defended by Fichte enters Hegel’s metaphysics at every point.
Romanticism brings the recognition that with the sublime comes a dialectic of terror and conflict and conflagration, the progress is won at a price, that history is organic. Nothing stays in place. And reality is always more than what we see.
âÂ Daniel N. Robinson