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Modern History Sourcebook:
G. W. F. Hegel:
The Dialectic of History, 1812 - 1820

An Epitome 

The Science of Logic, 1812

It is of the highest importance to ascertain and understand rightly the nature of Dialectics. Wherever there is movement, wherever there is life, wherever anything is carried into effect in the actual world, there Dialectic is at work. It is also the soul of all knowledge which is truly scientific. In the popular way of looking at things, the refusal to be bound by the abstract deliverance of understanding appears as fairness, which, according to the proverb: "Live and let live," demands that each should have its turn; we admit one, but we admit the other also.

Dialectic, it may be added, is no novelty in philosophy. Among the ancients Plato is termed the inventor of Dialectic; and his right to the name rests on the fact that the Platonic philosophy first gave the free scientific, and thus at the same time the objective, form to Dialectic. In modern times

it was, more than any other, Kant who resuscitated the name of Dialectic, and restored it to its post of honor. He did it, as we have seen, by working out the Antinomies of the reason. The problem of these Antinomies is no mere subjective piece of work oscillating between one set of grounds and another; it really serves to show that every abstract proposition of understanding, taken precisely as it is given, naturally veers round to its opposite.

Dialectic gives expression to a law which is felt in all other grades of consciousness, and in general experience. Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of Dialectic. We are aware that everything finite, instead of being stable and ultimate, is rather changeable and transient; and this is exactly what we mean by that Dialectic of the finite, by which the finite, as implicitly other than what it is, is forced beyond its own immediate or natural being to turn suddenly into its opposite. We find traces of its presence in each of the particular provinces and phases of the natural and spiritual world. Take as an illustration the motion of the heavenly bodies. At this moment the planet stands in this spot, but implicitly it is the possibility of being in another spot; and that possibility of being otherwise the planet brings into existence by moving. Similarly the "physical" elements prove to be Dialectical. The process of meteorological action is the exhibition of their Dialectic. It is the same dynamic that lies at the root of every natural process, and, as it were, forces nature out of itself.

If we consider only what it contains, and not how it contains it, the true reason-world, so far from being the exclusive property of philosophy, is the right of every human being on whatever grade of culture or mental growth he may stand; which would justify man's ancient title of rational being. The general mode by which experience first makes us aware of the reasonable order of things is by accepted and unreasoned belief; and the character of the rational is to be unconditioned, self-contained, and thus to be self-determining. In this sense man above all things becomes aware of the reasonable order of things when he knows of God, and knows him to be the completely self-determined. Similarly, the consciousness a citizen has of his country and its laws is a perception of reason-world, so long as he looks up to them as unconditioned and likewise universal powers, to which he must subject his individual will. And in the same sense, the knowledge and will of the child is rational, when he knows his parents' will, and wills it.

The absolute Idea has turned out to be the identity of the theoretical and the practical Idea. Each of these by itself is still one-sided, possessing the Idea only as a sought for beyond and an unattained goal; each, therefore, is a synthesis of endeavor, and has, but equally has not, the Idea in it; each passes from one thought to the other without bringing the two together, and so remains fixed in their contradiction. The absolute Idea, as the rational Notion that in its reality meets only with itself, is by virtue of this immediacy of its objective identity, on the one hand the return to life; but it has no less sublated this form of its immediacy, and contains within itself the highest degree of opposition. The Notion is not merely soul but free subjective Notion that is for itself and therefore possesses personality---the practical, objective Notion determined in and for itself which, as person, is impenetrable atomic individuality, but explicitly universality and cognition, and in its other has its own objectivity for its object. All else is error, confusion, opinion, endeavor, caprice and transitoriness; the absolute Idea alone is being, imperishable life, self-knowing truth, and is all truth.

Besides the fact that dialectic is generally regarded as contingent, it usually takes the following more precise form. It is shown that there belongs to some subject matter or other, for example the world, motion, point, and so on, some determination or other, for example (taking the objects in the order named), finite in space or time, presence in this place, absolute negation of space; but further, that with equal necessity the opposite determination also belongs to the subject matter, for example, infinity in space and time, non-presence in this place, relation to space and so spatiality.

The relation of the negative to itself is to be regarded as the second premise of the whole syllogism. If the terms analytic and synthetic are employed as opposites, the first premise may be regarded as the analytic moment, for in it the immediate stands in immediate relationship to its other and therefore passes over, or rather has passed over, into it---although this relation, as already remarked, is also synthetic, precisely because that into which it passes over is its other. The second premise here under consideration may be defined as synthetic, since it is the relation of the differentiated term as such to the term from which it is differentiated. Just as the first premise is the moment of universality and communication, so the second is determined by individuality, which in its relation to its other is primarily exclusive, for itself, and different. The negative appears as the mediating element, since it includes within it itself and the immediate whose negation it is. So far as these two determinations are taken in some relationship or other as externally related, the negative is only the formal mediating element; but as absolute negativity the negative moment of absolute mediation is the unity which is subjectivity and soul.

But this determination has not issued from a process of becoming, nor is it a transition, as when above, the subjective Notion in its totality becomes objectivity, and the subjective end becomes life. On the contrary, the pure Idea in which the determinateness or reality of the Notion is itself raised into Notion, is an absolute liberation for which there is no longer any immediate determination that is not equally posited and itself Notion; in this freedom, therefore, no transition takes place; the simple being to which the Idea determines itself remains perfectly transparent to it and is the Notion that, in its determination, abides with itself. The passage is therefore to be understood here rather in this manner, that the Idea freely releases itself in its absolute self-assurance and inner poise.

Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, 1820

Universal history is the exhibition of Geist in the process of working out the knowledge of what it potentially is. Just as the seed bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, including the taste and form of its fruit, so do the first traces of Geist virtually contain the whole of its own history. What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational. Thus what is rational has the potential of actualizing itself, and thus history, far from being an undifferentiated aggregate of incomprehensible accidents and chance events, has a rational structure. Thus, the march of reason through history is a complex dialectical process, in which both individuals and nations are mere tools, unaware of the import and significance of their own deeds. Changes might be introduced by world-historical individuals such as Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, but their roles derive not from their conscious intentions or political ideas, for they are motivated, like all other men, by base desires such as ambition, greed, and glory. It is the objective consciousness of their deeds, and not their subjective intentions, that makes them historically significant. They are thus unconscious tools in the hand of the Geist. History is, thus, the development towards the consciousness of freedom as expressed in the political, cultural, and religious institutions of a nation---Volksgeist. This is expressed externally through the formation of objective institutions, in particular the State. There are three basic stages of the movement of Geist through history, each representing a further evolution of the consciousness of freedom:

1. The Oriental World. The Orientals did not attain the knowledge that Geist, in the form of Mankind, is free. They only knew that "one is free." But in those terms, the freedom of that one person was only caprice, whether exhibited as ferocity, a brutal recklessness of passion, or as mildness and tameness of the desires, either of which is merely an accident of nature. That "one" was thus only a despot. Hence the Volksgeist expressed itself through despotism, where only one had rights.

2. The Classical World. The consciousness of freedom first arose among the Greeks, and therefore they were free, though they, just as the Romans, knew only that "some are free," not Man as such. Even Plato and Aristotle did not know that. Thus the Greeks had slaves, and the whole of their life and the maintenance of their splendid liberty was implicated with the institution of slavery. That fact, on the one hand, made their liberty only an accidental, transient and limited growth and, on the other hand, constituted it a rigorous thralldom of our common nature, i.e., of the human. Hence the Volksgeist expressed itself through the city-state, where only some had rights.

3. The Germanic World. The Germanic nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to attain the consciousness that Man, as Man, is free, that it is the freedom of Geist which constitutes Geist's essence. This consciousness arose first in religion, the most inward region of Geist. Thus all could be free, and hence the Volksgeist expressed itself through the modern state, where all have rights. However, to prevent the State from degenerating into a war of all against all, mediation through rational institutions is required, as the only guarantee against arbitrariness and the threat of tyranny posed by absolute monarchy and absolute majoritarianism. The history of the world [Zeitgeist] is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.....


Source:

From: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Logic of Hegel, trans. William Wallace, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874), passim; Lectures on the History of Philosophy, (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1894), pp. i-xxv.

Scanned and organized by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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Paul Halsall, January 1999
halsall@fordham.edu