Critical Analysis Of Hegelian Idealism And It’s Implications For The Individual Human Person

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Critical Analysis Of Hegelian Idealism And It’s Implications For The Individual Human Person


Chapter One


General Introduction

Statement of Problem

Throughout the history of philosophy, one peculiar trait has marked all the philosophers and served as their uniting factor. It is the desire to form a coherent and unified interpretation of reality natural to the reflective mind. Starting from the Greek philosophers, this trait is found in their quest for the “urstoff” of all that exists (thereby remaining cosmocentric in their interpretation) through the theocentric interpretation of the medieval era. In the light of this trait, the modern period becomes over-laden with anthropocentricism. In sum, we can bluntly say that philosophy has this single task of forming a unified interpretation of reality to perform.

However, the actual task to be performed presents itself in different ways at different times. For example, the development of physical science in the post-mediaeval world meant that the philosopher who wished to construct an overall interpretation had to grapple with the problem of reconciling the scientific view of the world as a mechanical system with the demands of the moral and religious consciousness. Descartes was faced with this problem. And so was Kant. Even though kant rejected the ways of dealing with this problem which were characteristic of his predecessors and offered his own original solution, it is arguable that in the long run he left us with a “bifurcated reality”[1]. On the other hand, a supersensous world of the free agent is provided. There is no valid reason to assert the existence of the phenomenal realm, as well as a theoretical proof of the supersensuous reality. Even though Kant made effort to bridge the gap between the two realities in a way comprehensible to the remote mind, he however related a problem which the German idealists refused to pass over in silence. Thus, German idealism culminating in Hegel, made effort to make the whole of reality intelligible to the human mind, provided that this mind can be regarded as the vehicle, as it were of absolute thought reflecting on itself. The result of this was the Absolute idea in Hegel’s philosophy or Hegelian idealism.

The point to be made is that Hegel’s point of departure was the theme of the relation between the infinite and the finite or more precisely, between the universal, collectivity and the individual. Hegel evaluated everything on the platform of the Absolute infinite, making the finite, including the human person, a product of the Absolute, and universal. Now, a mind-boggling question surges up: what is actually the role of the individual in this universal? It is obvious at this point that Hegel in order to solve the Kantian dualism created an existential problem for the individual human person who appears to be at sea in the whole Hegelian set up.

Hence the problem, which obviously faced Hegel as an idealist, was that of including, as it were, the finite within the life of the infinite without depriving the former of its reality[2]. The difficulty of solving this problem is responsible for a good deal of ambiguity in metaphysical idealism when it is a question of defining its relation to theism on the one hand and Pantheism on the other. However, the problem lingered on and constituted the fundamental springboard of existentialist trend. As such, it becomes consistent to ask: How can the human person become fully himself, free and independent in this existential order vis-à-vis the Hegelian abstraction that kept his reality or rather existence somewhere beyond this order. Could the individual human person be said to be free, responsible and actually existing yet remaining a moment in the “self-development” of the absolute thought or universal. If the state is the supreme will of the individual and if the individual exists for the good of the state as an institution, is the human person free from this mere objectification or relegation? How could this utilitarian principle of the many against one contribute to his survival? How could man’s authenticity be assured in this all-consuming absolute universal? In the present era, the submerging of the individual takes other forms in the society. These forms constitute the various ways the implications of Hegelian idealism become evident in our society. The powerful evidence towards political and social totalitarianism with its reduction of personal responsibility and its evaluation of personal value in terms of service to the collectivity are not apart from these forms and consequent implications. This constitutes a hard nut to crack as there arises the need to reaffirm the free individual in the face of this powerful tendency.


Purpose of the Study

In the light of the foregone (statement of the problem), one easily discovers the task or aim of the whole work. The work is an effort to reinstate the concrete existence of the individual human person which has been swallowed up in abstractions through absolute idealism. Thus, it is primarily targeted on Hegel who is a prime absolute idealist, and it is a reaction against the abstraction of his idealism, which has depersonalized the individual human person. This would be more effectively done via existentialist emphasis on man to restore the essence of individual human person. Thus, it is a piece of evaluative criticism of idealism with Hegel as a reflex point.


Scope of Study

Within the limits of this consideration, the work even though it exposes idealist tenets, does not claim an absolute and total exposition. Even at that, it does not expose these tenets to empty idealism of its content. However, in order not to build on the blues, Hegelian idealism is chosen as the reflex or focal point of our reflections. Be that as it may, the work does not claim to expose equally the whole edifice of Hegelian system, but exposes through critical inquiry and analysis some aspects of this system as it relates to the individual human person. Even when the writer toes the existentialist line in his criticism, he does not claim to exhaust all themes of the existentialist in order to buttress the deficiencies of Hegelian system.


Method of Study

In line with the purpose of this work, the method employed here is simply expository. This exposition would be addressed via critical analysis and evaluative techniques in order to produce a comprehensive corpus that suits the entire intellectual edifice.


Division of Work

The work is divided into five chapters that are linked to one another with each succeeding stage being a further elaboration of the preceding one. The work comprises one theme running through all chapters but in a developmental manner from the first to the last chapter. Chapter one delves into idealism that exposes Hegel as an idealist. Chapter two discusses the idealist predecessors of Hegel as the springboard of Hegelian idealism. This gives us the impetus for a critical exposition of the system to be made in chapter three. Having critically exposed Hegelian idealism, a room was created for the fourth chapter that draws out the implications of this system for the individual. Lastly, chapter five aims at practical solutions by evaluating the two sides of the human person: individuality and collectivity. Consequently, the curtain is drawn with the writer’s standpoint on the whole quagmire.


A Short Biography of Hegel

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, greatest of German Idealists and one of the renowned philosophers of western tradition was born at Stuttgart on August 27th, 1770. He was the oldest son of a minor state official. In his school years at Stuttgart the future philosopher was not spectacular. However, at this period, his attraction to the great genius, especially the plays of Sophocles and above all in the Antigone was evident. At the age of eighteen he entered the University of Tubingen as a student of theology. However, he showed little aptitude for theology. The certificate which he received in 1793 commended his excellent talents but declared that his industry and knowledge were mediocre and above all deficient in philosophy. He seems to have profited most from the companionship of his friends, notably Holderlin and Schelling, with whom he read Kant and Plato. The friends studied Rousseau together and shared a common enthusiasm for the ideals of the French Revolution, which obviously might have stirred up in Hegel the later development of his philosophical ideals.

After his stay in Tubingen, Hegel became a family tutor at Berne in Switzerland and Frankfurt respectively. During his residence in Switzerland he wrote a life of Jesus, a critique of positive religion and several studies in the history of religion. Later, his attention turned to questions of economics and government, and he left writings on the reform of the Prussian land laws, a commentary on James Stuart’s Political Economy, and other studies of similar character which have since been published. In 1800, he produced a sketch, which is generally regarded as the first systematic statement of his philosophy.

At the time, when Schelling was in his heydays, Hegel made a request from Schelling demanding him to suggest a suitable town for a brief period of studious withdrawal as well as “a good beer”. He joyfully acclaimed the success of his friend in the academic world, which spurred on ambitions in him (Hegel). Consequently, he said: “the ideal of my youth has necessarily taken a reflective form and been transformed into a system… how can I return to influencing the life of mankind?”[3] Shelling must have given him an enthusiastic answer which pushed him into abandoning his previous plans and joined him (Schelling) at Jena. At the university, he became a privatdocent (an unsalaried university lecturer) and gradually famous, through the series of lectures he delivered. As such, before Schellings’s departure from Jena, in 1803, he and Hegel collaborated in the publication of the journal of critical philosophy. This work however, strengthened the impression that Hegel was to all intents and purposes a disciple of Schelling[4]. On the contrary, with the publication of his first great work, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel showed his divergence from Schelling. It was while he was engaged in the details of publication of this work that his academic career was brought abruptly to a halt by the Napoleonic campaign culminating in the battle of Jena in the autumn of 1806.

The “Phenomenology of spirit” appeared in 1807 despite the war, but Hegel himself was at loose ends. Two volumes of his science of logic were published in 1812, and a third in 1816, and he was offered professorships at Erlanges, Heidelberg, and Berlin. He accepted the invitation to Heidelberg, but after the publication of his “Encyclopedia of the philosophical sciences” in 1817, the offer of Berlin was renewed and accepted and he occupied the vacant chair following the death of Fichte.

His thirteen years of professorship at the University of Berlin brought him to the peak of his career and made him a recognized leader of philosophic thought in German world. His prestige thus rose until his name was linked with that of Goethe. His publication of “The philosophy of Right”, was significant as the last of the large works published in his life time. His lectures on aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of history, and the history of philosophy were constantly revised and improved and finally published posthumously. In 1830, he became the rector of the university and was decorated by Frederick William III of university of Berlin until his death from Cholera in 1831 at the age of sixty-one.


Chapter Five


5.0 Evaluation and Conclusion

This chapter is a critical examination of Hegelian idealism. It brings out the theme of the whole corpus and comes to the terminal point of the edifice in the conclusion.


5.1. Critical Evaluation

Hegel is an important philosopher; his penetrating analysis of the human predicament in modern society is perhaps unsurpassed among social observers of the past two centuries. At the same time, his thought is subtle and complex; his writings are difficult, even infuriating – laden with impenetrable and pretentious jargons from which his meaning can be separated only with skilled and careful surgery, even usually not without risk of mortal injury.

As such, the philosophy of Hegel as regards social life will be better appreciated by those who are desirous to question received views and take a profound evaluation of the problems posed by modern social life on philosophy. A critical look at Hegel’s philosophy would suggest implicitly that he does not wish to deny the right of persons and subjects. Hegel asserts bluntly the vital necessity for modern humanity to realize itself in concrete social situatedness and integration. He reminds us that without this (social situatedness) the formal freedom to make arbitrary choices and express our subjectivity would automatically lead us in the direction of alienation rather than self-actualization. He opines further that we cannot be free unless our social life is self-transparent. However, there appears an obvious implication, from the above, of overriding the individual authentic selfhood. As a result, the existentialist rose against this backdrop. They emphasized the recovery of individuals from the tendency to self-loss in the society where Hegel has mounted authenticity and self-realization. Therefore, they uphold individualism against social conformism.

However, the question arises whether these considerations of the existentialists do not present us with an atomic and indeed with chaotic individualism. If everyone is unique and is to determine who he will become, have we not abandoned the idea of a true humanity, and perhaps even the idea of morality that could be universally binding? And is this not an exaggerated liberty, which has become sheer license? In point of fact, these are pertinent questions for the existentialists. Thus, even though Heidegger criticizes the temptation to self-loss in our participation in the “they”, he also holds that all our possible ways of interpreting ourselves ultimately come from the social context in which we find ourselves. For this reason, becoming authentic is not a matter of escaping from the society, but of embracing our social existence in the right way. Marcel’s approach to social existence follows a different line vis-à-vis Sartre. He criticizes the “technocratic attitude” of mass society not because it leads to conformism, but because it breeds “atomic individualism” that robs us of our deep sense of connection and obligation to others. And Jaspers and Buber both laid emphasis on the importance of I – Thou relations in realizing a full and meaningful life. In addition, the existentialists also uphold that we are responsible not only to ourselves, but to all. In like manner we choose for all when we choose for ourselves. Thus this demands uniqueness in a social context. The above reactions portrayed the loopholes in Hegelian system. Nevertheless these reactions showed as well the merit of Hegelian idealism; for at least it served as a stepping stone for further philosophical inquiries especially existentialism. Hegelian system, it must be noted, is not purely philosophical in the sense that its subject matter was, as he himself insisted, the same as the subject matter of theology, namely, the Absolute or in religious language, God and the relation of the finite to the infinite. Hence, the background of his absolutism is not far- fetched. Together with the thought that the roots of Marxism lie in Hegel’s philosophy, this thought secured for Hegel a prominent if not an unenviable place in the popular demonology of totalitarianism and dictatorship.
Authentic selfhood arises from man’s conscious decision to face the stark realities of life, to freely choose a course of action and assume responsibility for it. This would assume further that man acts by conscious deliberation and that we ourselves are the makers of history . In line with this, Heidegger opines that human life is “an expanse of uncharted territory of possibilities which man actualizes as he pilots his everyday life”67. Thus, one becomes conscious of his uniqueness, which manifests itself in productivity. On the practical parlance, we would sternly opine that development in science and technology accrues from man’s recognition of his uniqueness, freedom and innate potentials and possibilities. If this recognition is deprived him, he would simply live a vegetative life. Thus, if man has the possibility to make himself what he wants to become, so has he the possibility to modify his immediate environment in order to realize his freedom in praxis. Such modification takes the form of physical developments such as construction of fine network of roads to facilitate transport and communication; the building of bridges across streams and rivers; the cutting of passes through large mountains as the Americans have done in the Appallachins and the Rockies of North America. Physical development can also assume other dimensions of technological advancement such as ship building, construction of impressive architecture, manufacture of motor cars, homes, air planes, electronic equipments and gadgets etc. Obviously, if social determinism prevails, the above may not be obtainable as its springboard is individual freedom and possibilities.

Existentialist quest for freedom of individual could be disastrous when over-emphasized. It could breed a society where everyone does his own thing his own way. Everyone becomes the master and lord unto himself. It could breed chaotic and anarchic environment since to impose rules and regulations on the citizens would be odd to their idiosyncrasies. This might be the reason why Hegel upholds the unification in the state in order to checkmate the arbitrariness of individual actions.

More often than not, some critics of Hegel see his opinion that institutions are expressions of a universal reason as detrimental, since it could lead men to think more about order and stability and less about change and progress. However, a critical exposition of Hegelian idealism would simply oppose this since the central thesis of Hegelian thought is the notion of change and development through the force of the spirit of nations. Hegelian system could be said to be a mere metaphysical speculation tainted with a religious apology. This blemish could be attributable to Hegel, if the question of what the reality of Absolute spirit entails is raised. Also, when one views it closely, it is discoverable in religious parlance that its (absolute spirit) description has a religious undertone. As such, some people, precisely right-wing Hegelians, who interpret Hegel in this theistic or religious sense, believe that Hegel has given a philosophical, rational exposition of the Christian doctrine of divine providence and that he is talking about God68.

Despite all odds, Hegelian idealism is still very important in the areas of moral and social philosophy as well as in the social and political sciences even though it could be added that modern totalitarianism depends upon the doctrines of Hegel. Philosophers of History and education still acknowledge his philosophical genius despite its lack of genuine scientific foundation.

It could be said that one of the major problems of Hegelian system is its apparent incomprehensibility. As a result, in line with Marx, we would say that most of the critics of Hegel did not understand his philosophical thought properly. They equally did not as well grasp its proper historical setting in the light of its connection with other systems. There is still an oversight of his personal temperament, his education coupled with the historical and social situation or circumstances of his time. Hence, most of the critics could not have viewed Hegelian idealism in the light of the philosophical trend. Hegel’s philosophy is to be seen not as an isolated piece, since philosophy is not a mere concatenation of opinions or narration of isolated items of thought that have no connection.

Hegel was accused of having religious bias for he was a student of theology. Also his socio-cultural situation must have influenced his philosophical thought. He was just like any other philosopher searching for truth through discursive reasoning and was limited to the direction his thought took him, considering the immediate preceding and contemporary systems. The criticisms levelled against Hegelian thought are a part of philosophical development and progress. Consequently Hegelian idealism does not claim to be “Philosophia perenis” (Philosophy forever), rather it is an open system that gives room for advancement and development. Hence, from the apertures of Hegelian idealism, fresh ideas and insights may be opened up as efforts are made to address the problems created in the system. Therefore, Hegelian idealism could be said to be contributory to the progress and development in philosophical system.


5.2. Conclusion

Whatever the shortcomings of Hegel’s philosophy might be, it represented one of the most sustained attempts that the history of thought has known, since it aimed at achieving a unified conceptual view of reality and experience as a whole. Thus, even if one rejects the presupposition of Hegelian idealism, his system retains the power of stimulating the natural impulse of the reflective mind to strive after a unified conceptual synthesis. However when narrowed to the practical level, Hegel’s effort to synthesize the finite and infinite, the universal and particular, the state and the individual meets its waterloo as a disintegration in disguise. For Hegel, the essence and basis of the world is an absolute idea or spirit, which exists outside man and is independent of him. Hegel’s absolute idea is, in effect, human consciousness itself separated from man and enshrined as supernatural reason. As the Marxists uphold, Hegel’s system was one of objective idealism containing a subtle apology of religion and regarding the material world as something secondary, as derivative of ideal69. Hegel like many other idealists stresses the organic unity of world process. To him, the whole and the parts cannot be separated except through untenable abstraction when only one aspect is over-emphasized to the exclusion of others which are equally important. Hence, the central principle of idealism is organic wholeness. Sequel to this, Hegel made a monistic approach to the problem of dualism or bifurcation of reality to produce a unified reality. However, the approach was detrimental to the individual. Hegelian idealism cannot suit the world of today. For it to be relevant, the existential questions of man as individual in the society have to be incorporated in the system. Thus, there is the need for a unified synthesis of idealism and existentialism, a synthesis that is incorporating and reconciliatory, bringing down Hegelian abstractions to existential reality. This would eschew extremism in Hegel’s philosophy and achieves a balanced system. In this manner equally, the individual would be properly integrated in the society, no longer as a mere transitory moment and a mere part of the institution, but as an active participant and an actor in the affairs of the society. As such the Individual becomes appreciated in the society instead of being swallowed up.


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