Hegel, Dialectic and Process/Evolutionary Thinking


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born on August 27 1770 of a middle-class German family and died November 14, 1831. During his lifetime, he became the most important German philosopher, and his work was influential on many thinkers, both continental and American. He is particularly remembered because of his influence on Karl Marx, who dispensed with Hegel’s idealism for a thorough-going materialist vision of history and the state. Hegel’s thought was also important for a generation of theologians who studied and profited from this thinking. He has fallen out of favor in more recent decades but during his own lifetime he was the preeminent German philosopher at a time when Germany ruled the philosophic world.

Hegel did not demonstrate in his youth the genius of his adulthood. He was a methodical as opposed to brilliant student, developing a life time habit of copying out quotes from great works and then filing them where they could be recovered. He had a deep interest in mysticism and in classical Greco-Roman culture, both of which influenced his philosophy. Hegel initially studied theology, a discipline for which he was not well-quipped because he was not a good public speaker and unlikely to be able to hold the attention and affection of a local congregation. His certificate of graduation from Tubingen described him as competent in philology and theology but lacking in the area of philosophy.

He began work as a private teacher and lecturer, gradually preparing his first work, like Kant, on logic (1812-1816). Throughout, he worked on his first great work, Phenomenology of the Spirit, and he prepared an Encyclopedia of the Philosophic Sciences (1817) which earned him a professorship and the University of Berlin, where he spent the remainder of this life. His two works, On Law and On History, both compilations of his lecture notes in Berlin, are primary sources for his political philosophy.

Hegel’s language and thought are notoriously difficult to understand. Schopenhauer described his work and the work of his disciples as “a stringing together of senseless and extravagant mazes words, such as had previously been known only in madhouses” and “barefaced mystification.” [1] Anyone who ever took a course in philosophy where reading Hegel was required can testify that there are times when these words ring true. Nevertheless, Hegel made important contributions in logic, metaphysics, and political philosophy and the philosophy of history.

Dialectical Thinking

Most students and many others have some familiarity with Hegel because of the prominence with which he placed dialectic in his Logic and the place it plays in his other works and in Marx. The basic notion is fairly simple: Human beings are inclined to compare and contrast things. The result is that human reason proceeds in a dialectical logic that unfolds something like this:

  1. A thesis (or truth claim) emerges;
  2. The thesis evokes anti-thesis; and
  3. A synthesis is developed.

Any synthesis then becomes a  new thesis, and the process begins again.

There is a similarity in this progression to the process of reasoning developed by C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce.  Peirce had the insight that all communication involves a communicator, a sign by which the message is transmitted, and a recipient, who interprets its meaning. Royce adapted Peirce’s insight and developed the notion that all communication involves the person who is communicating, signs by which the communication is made, and an interpreter who interprets the meaning. What is important in this for the purposes of political philosophy is the obvious fact that this kind of reasoning is a process by which human beings analyze the world and discover meaning and truth. The process of the logical progression of ideas is a feature with profound implications for politics and the idea of human progress.

What is not always understood (and indeed may not have been fully understood by Hegel, Marx or their interpreters) is that reasoning and historical process does not and cannot have an end inside of human history. Remember that Hegel holds that every thesis results in an anti-thesis that is resolved into a synthesis, which then results in a new thesis. This process must and will continue until the end of time because it is an inherent feature of human existence. Human beings never rest satisfied with any condition of knowledge or society. There are, and will always be, signs, communicators, and interpreters, and because the signs are able to acquire new uses and meanings, those signs will never be final.

I mention this at the beginning because both Hegel and Marx posit a supreme achievement of politics—for Hegel the German state (with a qualification I will mention later) and for Marx the dictatorship of the Proletariat. In both cases, the attempt to bring history to a conclusion is wrong-headed for the reasons set out above, as are similar attempts in our own day. The process of human becoming, the analysis of defects in the current social system, the need to make adjustments to accommodate new situations are inevitable features of human life. There can be no “End of History” within history, for people, societies, and their history will always change.

This is an important point to get clear right at the beginning: We cannot escape or “end” history. Human beings cannot bring about a final end to politics, the struggle for power, or the accommodation of the present to the emerging future. All such attempts have ended and will always end in a dictatorship as those in power desperately seek to forestall the emergence of challenge to their rule. For freedom to exist and be maintained, there has to be an understanding of the inevitability of criticism of the status quo, whatever that status quo may be.

A good example of the impossibility of an end to history involves the recent fall of the Soviet Empire, which prompted an article entitled “The End of History.” History, however, did not end, for the Western democracies were faced first with radical Islam and then with the deterioration of their own societies and the reemergence of Marxism as a force. [2] In a recent article, the New York Times made the following observation about Hegel and his influence on the original article:

Hegel, Fukuyama said, had written of a moment when a perfectly rational form of society and the state would become victorious. Now, with Communism vanquished and the major powers converging on a single political and economic model, Hegel’s prediction had finally been fulfilled. There would be a “Common Marketization” of international relations and the world would achieve homeostasis. [3]

It has turned out that capitalism has continued to evolve in most Western nations into something lire like “Oligarchical Privatism” with a consequent loss of faith in its viability among the young, who have increasingly turned to socialism as an alternative. In some ways, the West has been imitating the State Controlled Capitalist model that has evolved in Russia and China since the fall of Communism. History did not end as Fukuyama predicted—nor will it end if the current batch of neo-Marxists win power.

Wholistic-Relational Aspect of Hegel’s Philosophy

Near the beginning of his work, On Right, Hegel observes that “…legislation both in its general and its particular provisions is treated not as something isolated and abstract, but rather as a subordinate moment in a whole, interconnected with all other features which make up the character of a nation or epoch. [4] Against the reductionism of scientific empiricism, Hegel is advancing the claim that a law (or any other feature of a political system) is not to be understood alone in its particularity but in its relationship to all the features of the society in which said law or feature emerges.

This is a distinct feature in Hegel’s reasoning that nothing can be understood except in all of its connections, historical, logical, philosophical, governmental, scientific, etc. In the end, Hegel’s logic leads to his view that nothing can be fully understood except in view of the Absolute, or reality as a whole. [5] It might be noted, that this underscores the view stated above that political evolution is without an end within the boundaries of human history because there will not be a point in which any nation, society, political system, etc. will be known in its absolute connection with everything else that influences the system. [6]

This aspect of Hegel’s thought in some ways anticipates the “Quantum Revolution” of the 20th Century, with its emphasis on wholeness and systems and implicit limitations on the reductionist science of the modern world, which by implication casts doubt upon the reductionist political science and materialistic politics of the 19th and 20th Century. This, as we shall eventually see, casts doubt on Marxism, Laisse Faire Capitalism, and the kind of “State Controlled Oligopolism” we see emerging at the current moment of history. The emergence of a relational. Holistic way of thinking involves a new way of thinking in which the old dualisms and distinctions of modern thinking are replaced by a new way of thinking, which in turn will inevitably result in an end to the older, modern materialistic and power-oriented way of conceiving political life.

History as a Rational Process

As might be expected from a proponent of dialectical reasoning and a professor of logic, Hegel believes that beneath the wars, conflicts, revolutions, and innumerable events that make up human history, there is a logic, a reason, a process unfolding as reason, which is the ultimate substance of the universe unfolds within reality. This unfolding of history is the unfolding of the activity of free spirit as it is revealed in the dialectical process of history. [7] This unfolding of reason in history is not a material process; it is however embodied in the material processes, the historical forces of history and cannot be separated from them. Thus, Hegel posits:

The loftier dialectic of the concept consists not in simply producing the deterministic as a contrary and a restriction but in producing and seizing upon the positive content and outcome of the determination, because it is this that makes it solely a development of an immanent progress. Moreover, this dialectic is not an active, subjective thinking applied to some matter externally but is rather the matter’s very soul putting forth its branches and fruit organically. This development of the Idea is the proper activity of its rationality and thinking….” [8]

This way of thinking is modified and adapted by Marx who fully embraces the materialistic side of Hegel’s thought.

Freedom as the Ultimate Ground of Political Thinking

The idea of freedom sits at the basis of Hegel’s political philosophy. Hegel is a natural law thinker, and the basis of this notion of natural law is the idea of personal freedom or the freedom of the human will. In this, Hegel follows both Kant and Rousseau as a philosopher of freedom. [9] Like these other two philosophers, the freedom is the freedom of the isolated individual over and against all social structures and other intellectual constraints. Like Kant and Rousseau the actual political implications have been the reverse of what Hegel intended.

In my opinion the reason for this is that freedom is not fundamental but flows from love which is fundamental to human societies. It is love that gives the other, the one who disagrees with our opinions or questions the status quo the freedom to be what they are. A monadic or individualized basis for freedom always fails, as indeed it is failing in our own day as a multitude of individual ego’s seek power and actualized freedom. Only a communitarian basis for freedom founded on a kind of self-giving love that allows the other freedom (which is a Christian concept) can form the basis for a lasting freedom and end the power-oriented striving of the modern world, allowing a positive post-modern era to emerge. [10]


Hegel is a complex but fruitful thinker. As mentioned earlier, he viewed the German State of his day as the highest development of the state to his time. However, interestingly, his view was that the future belonged to America, thus foreseeing the role that America would play in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. If he were alive today, he might see the forces of history bringing China to the forefront of history. This is the ground of my observation that Hegel himself may not have seen history as having the kind of end that his interpreters see in his work. In any case, it is hard not to see in Hegel’s logic the reality that history can never come to an end within the history of human existence, for human society will always change and evolve.

We will return to Hegel both in looking at Marx and at Alfred North Whitehead, whose work extends Hegel’s influence into the evolving post-modern era.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Quoted in Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1951), 221.

[2] Francis Fukuyama originally wrote a book entitled “The End of History,” which he has recently rewritten as

3 Louis Menard, “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History” New York Times, September 3, 2018 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/francis-fukuyama-postpones-the-end-of-history (downloaded October 4, 2021). This is a review of Fukuyama’s revision of his thesis in his book, The End of History and the Last Man” (London, England: Routledge, 2010). His original article was roundly criticized for some of the same reasons I have given.

[4] G.F.W, Hegel, “On Right” in “Hegel” Britannia Great Books, Vol. 46: Chicago, IL: Britannia Great Books, 1987), 10. Hereinafter, all citations are to this volume unless otherwise noted.

[5] See, Bertrand Russell, History of Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1945), 723.

[6] I do not have the time or space within this blog to examine all the implications of this observation. When we return to C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce we will examine the importance of this within the context of their evolutionary pragmatisms. Royce talks about an “Absolute Pragmatism,” by which I think he means a pragmaticism driven by the hope of that hypothetical moment in which all members of a community of inquiry reach agreement about a point of truth. Royce was a student of Hegel.

[7] Russell, previously cited at 736.

[8] Hegel, “On Right” at 19.

[9] Hegel, “On Right” at 19. “It is only because right is the embodiment of the absolute concept or of self-consciousness freedom that it is something sacrosanct.

[10] See, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (New York, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985), 47. To understand Zizioulas’ argument requires a careful reading of the entire first section of his book.

One thought on “Hegel, Dialectic and Process/Evolutionary Thinking”

  1. Thank you, Chris, for this explanation of a difficult thinker. It is significant that, in light of Royce/Peirce’s insight that all communication involves a communicator, signs by which the communication is made [think of how social media has suddenly taken control of the means and signs of communication], and an interpreter who interprets the meaning. The result is that those who control the signs and means of communication have gained control of interpretation. Although there has never been more communication, there is no longer an unconstrained “flow” of communication. The oligarchs are inhibiting the dialectical process by dictating the THESIS AS the SYNTHESIS. The possibility of an ANTITHESIS has been denied by the current Regime and its affiliates, Big Tech, Big Media, and Big Corporate. Together they assert by all available means (social and broadcast media censorship, social shaming, work place censorship, spending and tax initiatives, replacement immigration theory) that the so-called “Progressive” THESIS must not be challenged by any ANTITHESIS. This may be interpreted as an attempt to control HISTORY by short-circuiting the Dialectic. As you point out, the attempt to control History is futile in the “long term”. The problem is that most of us live in the “short term” and must endure a dictatorship of control of signs and means of communication (think: political correctness, cancel culture and critical [race and other] theory) which attempts to, essentially, criminalize any potential ANTITHESIS (think “hate crime” laws that have emerged in the West).

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