Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic. John McTaggart & Ellis McTaggart 1896
207. WE have now to enquire in what manner the results which we have gained by the dialectic process are applicable to real life. I do not propose to discuss the utility of these results as a guide to conduct, but there is another question more closely connected with the dialectic itself. How, if at all, can the pure theory, which is expounded in the Logic, be so used as to assist in the explanation of the various facts presented to us in experience? Hegel divides the world into two parts – Nature and Spirit. What can his philosophy tell us about them?
We have seen in our consideration of the dialectic that there are certain functions, with regard to our knowledge of Nature and Spirit, which pure thought cannot perform, and which there is no reason to think, in spite of the assertions of some critics, that Hegel ever intended it to perform. In the first place, we saw that the concrete world of reality cannot be held to be a mere condescension of the Logic to an outward shape, nor a mere dependent emanation from the self-subsistent perfection of pure thought. For, so far from pure thought being able to create immediate reality, it cannot itself exist unless something immediate is given to it, which it may mediate and relate. And we saw that, so far from Hegel’s theory being inconsistent with this truth, it is entirely dependent on it. The force of his deduction of Nature and Spirit from Logic lies in the fact that pure thought is a mere abstraction which, taken by itself, is contradictory. And therefore, since pure thought unquestionably exists somehow, we are led to the conclusion that it cannot exist independently, but must be a moment in that more concrete form of reality, which is expressed imperfectly in Nature and adequately in Spirit.
And we saw, in the second place, that even this deduction can only extend to the general nature of the reality, because it is only that general nature which we can prove to be essential for the existence of pure thought. We know, ā priori, that the reality must contain an immediate moment, in order that thought may mediate it, that something must be given in order that thought may deal with it. But further than this we cannot go without the aid of empirical observation. No consideration of the nature of pure thought can demonstrate to us the necessity that a particular man should have red hair. To do this we require immediate data. And here again we found no reason to suppose that this limitation of pure thought was ignored by Hegel. His attempts to apply his logical results may have gone too far, but he never attempted to deduce the necessity of all the facts he was attempting to rationalise. His object was to point out that through every part of reality there runs a thread of logical connection, so that the different parts stand in intelligible relations to one another, and to Absolute Reality. But he never tried to deduce the necessity of each detail of reality from the nature of pure thought, or even to hold out such a deduction as an ideal. This is evident, both from the number of details which he mentions without even an attempt to explain them, and also from his own direct statement. <Note: Cp. Chap. I. Section 27, and the passage from the Philosophy of Spirit there quoted. Also Chap. VI. Section 183.>
208. This then is one way in which we can apply the conclusions of the Logic in the solution of more concrete problems. We may trace the manifestations of the dialectic process in the experience round us, and in so far as we do this we shall have rationalised that experience. But, besides this, we may gain some information from the dialectic concerning the ultimate nature of Absolute Being. It will be convenient to consider this latter point first.
No idea which is self-contradictory can be true until it is so transformed that the contradictions have vanished. Now no category in the Logic is free from contradictions except the Absolute Idea. Reality can therefore be fully apprehended under no category but this. We shall find it to be true of all reality, that in it is found “der Begriff der Idee, dem die Idee als solche der Gegenstand, dem das Objekt sie ist.” <Note: Enc. Section 236.> From this we can deduce several consequences. All reality must, on this view, be Spirit, and be differentiated. Moreover, it must be Spirit for which its differentiations are, in Hegel’s phrase, “transparent,” that is, it must find in them nothing alien to itself. It might also be maintained, though the point is too large to be discussed here, that it must consist of finite self-conscious spirits, united into a closely connected whole. And it might not be impossible to determine whether the whole in question was also a self-conscious being, or whether it is a unity of persons without being itself a person. The questions discussed in the last chapter are also examples of the use that may be made, in this connection, of the results of the dialectic.
209. The information thus attained would be enough to justify us in saying that the results of Hegel’s philosophy, apart from their theoretic interest, were of the greatest practical importance. It is true that such results as these can but rarely be available as guides to action. We learn by them what is the nature of that ideal, which, sub specie aeternitatis, is present in all reality, and which, sub specie temporis, is the goal towards which all reality is moving. But such an ideal is, sub specie aeternitatis, far too implicit, and, sub specie temporis, far too distant, to allow us to use it in deciding on any definite course of action in the present. Nor can it be taken to indicate even the direction in which our present action should move. For one of the great lessons of Hegel’s philosophy is that, in any progress, we never move directly forwards, but oscillate from side to side as we advance. And so a step which seems to be almost directly away from our ideal may sometimes be the next step on the only road by which that ideal can be attained.
But those who estimate the practical utility of a theory only by its power of guiding our action, take too confined a view. Action, after all, is always directed to some end. And, whatever view we may take of the supreme end, it cannot be denied that many of our actions are directed, and rightly directed, to the production of happiness for ourselves and others. Surely, then, a philosophical theory which tended to the production of happiness would have as much claim to be called practically important, as if it had afforded guidance in action.
Now such conclusions as to the ultimate nature of things as we have seen can be reached by Hegel’s philosophy have obviously a very intimate connection with the problems which may be classed as religious. Is the universe rational and righteous? Is spirit or matter the fundamental reality? Have our standards of perfection any objective validity? Is our personality an ultimate fact or a transitory episode? All experience and all history show that for many men the answers to these questions are the source of some of the most intense and persistent joys and sorrows known in human life. Nor is there any reason to think that the proportion of such people is diminishing. Any system of philosophy which gives any reasons for deciding such questions, in one way rather than another, will have a practical interest, even if it should fail to provide us with counsel as to the organisation of society, or with explanations in detail of the phenomena of science.
210. We must now turn to the second way in which Hegel endeavours to apply the dialectic to experience. It is to this that he gives the greater prominence. His views on the nature of absolute reality are to be found in the Philosophy of Spirit, and also in the Philosophy of Religion, but they are not given at any length. On many important points we have no further guide than the development of the Absolute Idea in the Logic, and we must judge for ourselves what consequences can be drawn, from that development, as to the concrete whole of which the Absolute Idea is one moment.
A much larger portion of his writings is occupied in tracing, in the succession of events in time, the gradual development of the Absolute Idea. To this purpose are devoted almost the whole of the Philosophies of Nature, Spirit, Religion, Law and History, as well as the History of Philosophy. He does not, as has been already remarked, endeavour to deduce the facts, of which he treats, from the Absolute Idea. Nor does he ever attempt to deduce each stage from the one before it. We pass, for example, from Moralität to Sittlichkeit, from the Persian religion to the Syrian, or from the Greek civilisation to the Roman. But there are, in each case, many details in the second which are not the consequence of anything in the first, and which must be explained empirically by science, or else left unexplained. His object is to show that the central ideas of each stage are such that each follows from its predecessor – either as a reaction from its one-sidedness, or as a reconciliation of its contradictions – and that these ideas express, more and more adequately as the process gets nearer to its end, the Absolute Idea which had been expounded in the Logic.
It is sometimes said that Hegel endeavoured to show that the stages of development, in the various spheres of activity which he considered in his different treatises, corresponded to the various categories of the Logic. This, however, seems an exaggeration. His theories of Nature, Spirit, Religion, and Law are each divided into three main sections, which doubtless correspond, and are meant to correspond, to the three primary divisions of the Logic – Being, Essence, and the Notion. But to trace any definite correspondence between the secondary divisions of these works (to say nothing of divisions still more minute) and the secondary divisions of the Logic, appears impossible. At any rate no such correspondence is mentioned by Hegel. The connection with the Logic seems rather to lie in the similarity of development, by thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and in the gradually increasing adequacy of the manifestation of the Absolute Idea, as the process gradually develops itself.
Of the Philosophy of History, indeed, we cannot say even as much as this. For it is divided, not into three, but into four main divisions, thus destroying the triadic form and the analogy to the three divisions of the Logic. And although Hegel would probably have found no difficulty, on his own principles, in reducing the second and third divisions to one, it is a fact of some significance that he did not think it worth while to do so. It seems to indicate that he attached less importance, than has sometimes been supposed, to the exact resemblance of the scheme of the concrete processes to the scheme of pure thought in the Logic. In the History of Philosophy, again, many of the subordinate divisions are not triple.
211. The applications of the dialectic to various aspects of reality have been the part of Hegel’s work which has received of late years the most notice and approbation. This is, no doubt, largely due to a reaction against Hegel’s general position. To those who reject that position the whole of the dialectic of pure thought must seem a stupendous blunder – magnificent or ridiculous according to the taste of the critic. With the dialectic of pure thought would fall also, of course, all general and demonstrated validity of its applications. But the brilliance and suggestiveness of many of the details of these applications have often been acknowledged by those who reject the system in which they were arranged, and the basis from which it is sought to justify them.
Among the followers of Hegel a different cause has led to the same effect. The attraction of Hegel’s philosophy to many of them appears to lie in the explanations it can give of particular parts of experience rather than in its general theory of the nature of reality. These explanations – attractive by their æsthetic completeness, or because of the practical consequences that follow from them – are adopted and defended by such writers in an empirical way. It is maintained that we can see that they do explain the facts, while others do not, and they are believed for this reason, and not because they follow from the dialectic of pure thought. Hegelian views of religion, of morals, of history, of the state are common enough among us. They appear to be gaining ground in many directions. Nor can it be said that their advocates are neglectful of the source from which they derive their theories. They often style themselves Hegelians. But the dialectic of pure thought tends to fall into the background. Hegel’s explanations of the rationality to be found in particular spheres of existence are accepted by many who ignore or reject his demonstrations that everything which exists must be rational.
212. I wish to put forward a different view – that the really valid part of Hegel’s system is his Logic, and not his applications of it. In the preceding chapters I have given some reasons in support of the view that the general position of the Logic is justifiable. With regard to its applications, on the other hand, although they doubtless contain much that is most valuable, their general and systematic validity seems indefensible.
As we have already seen, there is nothing in the nature of Hegel’s object here, which should render his success impossible ā priori. The difficulties which arise are due rather to the greatness of the task, and to the imperfection of our present knowledge. These difficulties we have now to consider.
213. The movement of the Idea, as we learned in the Logic, is by thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, the first two being opposed, and the third reconciling them. If we are able to trace the progressive manifestations of the Idea in facts, these manifestations will arrange themselves in triads of this kind. And Hegel has attempted to show that they do so.
But how are we to determine which stages are theses, which are antitheses, and which again syntheses? This can, I believe, only be done safely, in the case of any one term, by observing its relation to others, which have already been grasped in the system. And, as these again will require determination by their relation to others previously determined, we shall be able to build up a dialectic system only if we have fixed points at one or both ends of the chain to start from. We cannot safely begin in the middle and work backwards and forwards.
There is nothing in the nature of any term which can tell us, if we take it in isolation from others, whether it is a thesis or an antithesis – that is, whether it will require, as the process goes forward, the development of another term opposite and complementary to itself, before a synthesis can be reached, or whether it is itself opposed and complementary to some term that came before it, so that a reconciliation will be the next step to be expected in the process. Theses may be said to be positive, antitheses negative. But no term is either positive or negative per se. In a dialectic process we call those terms positive which reaffirm, on a higher level, the position with which the process started, the negative terms being the complementary denials which are necessary as means to gain the higher level. But to apply this test we should have to know beforehand the term with which the process started. Or we may say that the terms are positive which express the reality to which the process is advancing, though they express it inadequately, while the negative terms are those which, in recognising the inadequacy, temporarily sacrifice the resemblance. <Note: Cp. Enc. Section 85.> But this distinction, again, is useless until we know what is the last term of the whole process.
Nor would it be possible to recognise any term, taken in isolation, as a synthesis. Every term in a dialectic process, except the two first, contains within itself some synthesis of opposition, for all that is accomplished is transferred to all succeeding terms. On the other hand, every synthesis in a process, except the last, contains within itself a latent onesidedness, which will break out in the opposition of the next thesis and antithesis, and require for its reconciliation another synthesis. We can therefore only determine that a term is a synthesis if we see that it does reconcile the two terms immediately in front of it – in other words, if we see it in relation to other terms. And the impossibility of recognising a synthesis as such, if seen by itself, would be far greater in the applications of the Logic than in the Logic itself. For every fact or event has many sides or aspects, in some of which it may appear to be a reconciliation of two opposites, and in others to be one of two opposites which need a reconciliation. (So Hegel, for example, appears to regard Protestantism as the synthesis of the oppositions of Christianity, and as its highest point, while Schelling opposes it as the “religion of Paul” to the “religion of Peter,” and looks forward to a “religion of John” which shall unite the two.) Now which of these aspects is the significant one for our purpose at any time cannot be known if the term is looked at in isolation. We can only know that we must take it as a synthesis by seeing that it does unite and reconcile the opposition of the two terms that go before it. That is to say, we can only ascertain its place in the series if we have previously ascertained the places of the adjacent terms.
214. It would seem, then, that we can only hope to arrive at a knowledge of any dialectic process, when we know, at least either the beginning or the end of the process as a fixed point. For no other points can be fixed, unless those round them have been fixed previously, and unless we get a starting- point in this manner, we shall never be able to start at all. Now in the Logic we do know the beginning and end. We know the beginning before we start, and, although we do not know the end before we start, yet, when we have reached it, we know that it must be the last category of the Logic. We know that the category of Being must be the beginning, because it is the simplest of all the categories. And we should defend this proposition, if it were doubted, by showing that all attempts to analyse it into simpler categories fail, while in any other category the idea of Being can be discovered by analysis. Again, we know that the Absolute Idea is the last of the categories because it does not develope any contradiction, which will require a reconciliation in a higher category.
215. We can determine in this way the highest and lowest points of the Logic, because all the steps in the Logic are categories of pure thought, and all those categories are implicit in every act of thought. All we have to do, in order to construct the Logic, is to analyse and make explicit what is thus presented. The subject-matter of the analysis can never be wanting, since it is presented in every act of thought. But when we are trying to discover, in a series of concrete facts, the successive manifestations of the pure Idea, the case is different. For these facts can only be known empirically, and the further off they are in time the more difficult they will be to remember or to predict. We are situated at neither end of the process. Philosophy, religion, history – all the activities whose course Hegel strives to demonstrate – stretch backwards till they are lost in obscurity. Nor are we yet at the end of any of them. Years go on, and new forms of reality present themselves. And this is the first difficulty in the way of our attempts to find the fixed points from which we may start our dialectic. The beginnings of the series are too far back to be remembered. The ends, so far as we can tell, are too far forward to be foreseen.
216. And, even if we did happen to know the stage which was, as a matter of fact, the first or the last of a dialectic process, should we be able to recognise it as such on inspection? By the hypothesis, its relation to the other terms of the process is not yet known – for we are looking for an independent fixed point in order that we may begin to relate the terms to one another. And, since this is so, one term can, so far, only differ from the others in expressing the Absolute Idea more or less adequately. This is so far, therefore, only a quantitative difference, and thus below the lowest stage that we know, and above the highest stage that we know, we can imagine others yet, so that our fixed points are still not found.
If, indeed, each stage in each of the applications of the dialectic clearly corresponded to some one category of the Logic, we might know that the stage which corresponded to the category of Being was the lowest, and that the stage which corresponded to the Absolute Idea was the highest. But this is not the case. As has been mentioned above, the stages in each of Hegel’s applications of the Logic are arranged, in some cases, on the same principle as the categories of the Logic, but without any suggestion of such definite correspondence. And so, until the mutual relations of the stages are determined, they can only be distinguished by quantitative differences which can never define the beginning and end of their own series.
We cannot say of any stage, in any one of the applications of the Logic, that it completely fails to embody the Absolute Idea. For then, according to Hegel, it would have lost all semblance of reality, and could not be given in experience. And, if it does embody the Absolute Idea at all, we can always imagine that something may exist which embodies that Idea still less completely, still more abstractly. And so we can never be sure that we have got to the right basis, from which our dialectic process may start. Of course, such quantitative estimates are succeeded by far deeper and more significant relations when once the dialectic process is established. But these will not help us here, where we are seeking the point on which to establish the dialectic process.
217. In the Philosophy of Nature, indeed, the risk which we run in taking space as our starting point is perhaps not great. For, since the process of Nature includes all reality below the level of Spirit, its lowest stage must be that at which reality is on the point of vanishing altogether. And we may take space as representing the absolute minimum of reality without much danger of finding ourselves deceived. But it will be different in dealing with religion, history, law, or philosophy, where the lowest point of the particular process is still relatively concrete, and leaves room for possible stages below it.
And, except in the Philosophy of Spirit, the same may be said of the highest stage in any process. In none of the applications of the dialectic but this can we hope to meet with a perfect embodiment of the Absolute Idea. For all the other processes deal only with an aspect of reality, and their realisation of the Absolute Idea must be partial, and therefore imperfect. In no religion, in no national spirit, or form of government, in no system of metaphysics, <Note: In the Philosophy of Spirit, Hegel says that Philosophy is the highest stage of Spirit. But it is clear that Philosophy must here mean more than the existence of a system of metaphysics held by professed metaphysicians as a theory. It must be something which is universally accepted, and which modifies all spiritual life. The highest point which could be reached in such a History of Philosophy as Hegel’s would leave much to be done before Spirit had reached its full development.> can we find a complete realisation of the Absolute Idea. And so we are always in uncertainty lest some new stage should arise in each of these activities, which should embody the Absolute Idea a little less imperfectly than any yet known.
218. Let us consider this in more detail. In the first place, although the Philosophy of Spirit has a well-defined end, and the Philosophy of Nature a fairly certain beginning, yet it is impossible to find a point at which it is certain that the Philosophy of Nature ends, and the Philosophy of Spirit begins. What form can we take as the lowest in which Spirit is present? The series of forms is continuous from those which certainly belong to Spirit to those which certainly belong to Nature. If we call everything Spirit, which has the germs of self-consciousness in it, however latent, then we should have to include the whole of Nature, since on Hegel’s principles, the lower always has the higher implicit in it. On the other hand, if we reserved the name of Spirit for the forms in which anything like our own life was explicit, we should have to begin far higher up than Hegel did, and we should have the same difficulty as before in finding the exact place to draw the line.
In the Philosophy of Religion, the points at each end of the process seem uncertain. Might not something be found, by further historical investigation, which was lower even than Magic, and which yet contained the germ of religion, and ought to be treated as a form of it? And at the other end of the series a similar doubt occurs. It is clear, from the Philosophy of Spirit, that Hegel regards Christianity, like all other forms of “revealed religion,” as in some degree an inadequate representation of the Absolute Idea. How can his system guard against the possibility that a yet more perfect religion may arise, or against the possibility that Christianity may develope into higher forms? Hegel would probably have answered that the Philosophy of Religion has demonstrated Christianity to be the synthesis of all other religions. But if, as we have seen reason to think, the relations of the stages cannot be accurately determined, until one end at least of the series has been independently fixed, we cannot rely on the relation of the stages to determine what stage is to be taken as the highest, beyond which no other is possible. <Note: This criticism does not apply to Hegel’s demonstration of the nature of Absolute Religion, which is really an attempt to determine the ultimate nature of reality. (Cp. Section 208.) The difficulty arises when he tries to connect his own idea of Absolute Religion with historical Christianity.>
219. In the History of Philosophy we find the same difficulty. Hegel begins his systematic exposition with Thales, excluding all Oriental philosophy. This distinction can scarcely be based on any qualitative difference. The reason that Hegel assigns for it is that self-consciousness was not free in the earlier systems. <Note: History of Philosophy, Vol. I. p. 117. (Vol. I. p. 99 of Haldane’s translation.)> But in what sense is this to be taken? If implicit freedom is to be taken into account, Hegel himself points out, in the Philosophy of Religion, that the Oriental religions had the germ of freedom in them. But if we are only to consider freedom in so far as it is explicit, then we might find it difficult to justify the inclusion of the earlier Greek philosophies, in which the idea of freedom is still very rudimentary.
The end of the History of Philosophy, as expounded by Hegel, is his own philosophy. Yet since his death several new systems have already arisen. There is no ground to attribute to Hegel any excessive degree of self-confidence. The system in which anyone believes fully and completely will always appear to him the culminating point of the whole process of philosophy. For it has solved for him all the contradictions which he has perceived in former systems, and the fresh contradictions which are latent in it cannot yet have revealed themselves to him, or he would not have complete confidence in it. Thus it naturally seems to him the one coherent system, and therefore the ultimate system. But the appearance is deceptive, and we cannot regard with confidence any theory of the growth of philosophical systems which leaves no room for fresh systems in the future.
The Philosophy of Law has not quite the same difficulties to meet, since it is rather an analysis of the functions of a state, and of the ethical notions which they involve, than an attempt to describe a historical progression. But it is significant that it ends by demonstrating that the ideal form of government was very like the one under which Hegel was living. There seems no reason to suspect that he was influenced by interested motives. The more probable supposition is that he had come to the conclusion that constitutional monarchy was the best possible form of government for an European nation in 1820. This is a legitimate opinion, but what is not legitimate is the attempt to lay down ā priori that it will always be the best possible form. No form of government can completely embody the Absolute Idea, since the idea of government, as we learn in the Philosophy of Spirit, is itself but a subordinate one. And it is very difficult to predict social changes which are still far distant. So Hegel passed to the conclusion that the best which had appeared was the best which could appear. He thus imposed on empirical variety an ā priori limit, which was not critical but dogmatic, and liable to be upset at any moment by the course of events.
220. In the Philosophy of History the contingency of the starting point is still plainer. He begins with China, it is clear, only because he did not happen to know anything older. He had indeed a right, by his own definition of history, to exclude tribes of mere savages. But he could have no reason to assert – and he did not assert – that, before the rise of Chinese civilization, there was no succession of nation to nation, each with its distinct character and distinct work, such as he traces in later times. He did not know that there was such a succession, and he could not take it into account. But this leaves the beginning quite empirical.
And he admits in so many words that history will not stop where his Philosophy of History stops. His scheme does not include the Sclavonic races, nor the European inhabitants of America. But he expressly says that the Sclavonic races may have hereafter a place in the series of national developments, and, still more positively, that the United States will have such a place. <Note: Philosophy of History, pp. 360, and 83. (pp. 363 and 90 of Sibree’s translation.)> All attempt to fix the final point of history, or to put limits to the development which takes place in it, is thus given up.
In view of passages like these, it would seem that there is not much truth in Lotze’s reproach, that modern Idealism confined the spiritual development of the Absolute to the shores of the Mediterranean. <Note: Metaphysic. Section 217.> In the first place Hegel speaks only of this planet, and leaves it quite open to us to suppose that the Absolute Idea might be realised in other developments elsewhere. It is scarcely fair, therefore, to charge such a philosophy with ignoring the discoveries of Copernicus. And, as to what does happen on the earth, Hegel devotes a large – perhaps disproportionately large – part of the Philosophies of Religion and History to China and India, which do not lie very near the Mediterranean. We have seen also that he realised that room must be left for the development of Russia and the United States.
221. It appears, then, that of all the terminal points of the different applications of the dialectic, only two can be independently recognised, so as to give us the fixed points which we find to be necessary in constructing the processes. These are at the beginning of the Philosophy of Nature, and at the end of the Philosophy of Spirit. Now Nature and Spirit, taken together, form the chief and all-embracing process reaching from the most superficial abstraction to the most absolute reality, in which the evolution of society, of religion, and of philosophy are only episodes. And it may at first sight seem improbable that we should be able to determine, with comparative certainty, the two points most remote from our present experience – the one as the barest of abstractions, the other as absolute and almost unimaginable perfection – while points less remote are far more obscure. But further reflection shows us that it is just because these points are the extremes of all reality that they are comparatively determinable. Of the first we know that it must be that aspect of reality which, of all conceivable ways of looking at reality, is the least true, the least significant, the least adequate to the Absolute Idea. Of the second we know that it must be a conception of reality in which the Absolute Idea is expressed with perfect adequacy. We have thus the power, since the Logic tells us the nature of the Absolute Idea, to anticipate to some degree the nature of the first and last terms in the main process of reality. We may be justified in recognising Space as the one, and in predicting more or less what is to be expected in the other. But in the subordinate processes of History, Law, Religion and Philosophy, the highest and lowest points are not highest and lowest absolutely, but only the highest and lowest degrees of reality which can be expressed in a society, a creed, or a metaphysical system. How low or how high these can be, we can only know empirically, since this depends on the nature of societies, of creeds, and of systems, all of which contain empirical elements. <Note: The subject-matter of metaphysical systems is, no doubt, pure thought. But the circumstances which determine that a particular view shall be held at a particular time and in a particular shape are to a large extent contingent and only to be known empirically. Nor can we determine by pure thought how large an element in the complete perfection of Spirit consists in correct views on general questions of metaphysics – or in other words, what is the relation of the process given in the History of Philosophy to the main process of Spirit.> And if it can only be known empirically, it can never be known certainly. We can never be sure that the boundaries we place are not due to casual limitations of our actual knowledge, which may be broken down in the immediate future.
And so there is nothing mysterious or suspicious in the fact that many philosophers would be quite prepared to predict, within certain limits, the nature of Heaven, while they would own their philosophy quite incompetent to give any information about the probable form of local government which will prevail in London one hundred years hence. For on such a theory as Hegel’s we should know that in Heaven the Absolute Idea was completely and adequately manifested. But of the government of London we should only know that, like all earthly things, it would manifest the Absolute Idea to some extent, but not completely. And to determine, by the aid of the dialectic, how much and in what form it would manifest it, we should have to begin by determining the position of the municipal organisation of London in 1996 in a chain which stretches from the barest possible abstraction to the fullest possible reality. This we cannot do. Philosophers are in much the same position as Mr Kipling’s muleteer –
“We know what heaven and hell may bring,
But no man knoweth the mind of the king.”
<Note: The Ballad of the King’s Jest.> For they are on firmer ground in theology than in sociology. And perhaps there is not much to regret in this.
222. We must now pass on to a second defect in Hegel’s application of his Logic to experience. The difficulty of fixing the first and last points in the dialectic process is not the only obstacle in our way. Much of Hegel’s work, as we have seen, consisted in applying the dialectic process to various special fields – to Religion, to History, to Law, and to Philosophy. Now in doing this, he is in each case dealing with only one aspect of reality, leaving out of account many others. Can we expect such a fragment of reality, taken by itself, to be an example of the dialectic process? No side of reality can be really isolated from all the others, and, unless we fall into quite a false abstraction, we must allow for the interaction of every aspect of reality upon every other aspect. This is a truth which Hegel fully recognises, and on which, indeed, he emphatically insists. For example, he points out that the constitution possible for a country at any time must depend on its character, and both History and Philosophy are, in his exposition, closely connected with Religion.
But these various dialectical processes are not, according to Hegel, synchronous. Philosophy, for example, begins for him in Greece, which in historical development is already in the second stage. History, again, begins for him in China, whose religion on the other hand represents an advance on primitive simplicity. If, then, these three processes react on one another, it follows that the spontaneous development of each according to the dialectic will be complicated and obscured by an indefinite number of side influences introduced from other aspects of reality then in different stages. It is true that everything which influences, like that which is influenced, is obeying the same law of the dialectic. But still the result will not exhibit that law. Suppose a hundred pianos were to play the same piece of music, each beginning a few seconds after its neighbour, while the length of these intervals was unequal and regulated by no principle. The effect on the ear, when all the hundred had started, would be one of mere confusion, in spite of the fact that they were all playing the same piece.
223. The same difficulty will not occur in the process of Nature and Spirit. For this relates, not to one side of reality only, but to the whole of it, and there are therefore no influences from outside to be considered. But there is an analogous difficulty, and an equally serious one.
It is a fact, which may perhaps be explained, but which cannot be disputed, that, if we consider the world as a dialectic process, we shall find, when we look at it sub specie temporis, that its different parts are, at any moment, very unequally advanced in that process. One part of the world is explicitly Spirit, another part is that implicit form of Spirit which we call Matter. One creature is a jelly-fish, and another is a man. One man is Shakespeare, and another is Blackmore. Now these different parts of the world will react on one another, and, since they are engaged in different parts of the process, and we cannot trace any system in their juxtaposition, the course of the dialectic will be altered in each case, as it was in Religion, History, and Philosophy, by the influence of various other forces, themselves obeying the same law of the dialectic, but producing, by casual and contingent interactions, a result in which it will be impossible to trace the dialectic scheme.
If, for example, we try to follow the working of the dialectic process in the lives of individual men, we find that one of the most prominent facts in the life of each man is his death at a certain time. Whatever importance death may have for his spiritual development, it is obviously all-important to our power of explaining his spiritual development, since with death we lose sight of him. Now it is but seldom that death comes as a consequence or even as a symbol of something significant in a man’s spiritual history. It generally comes from some purely material cause – an east wind, a falling tile, or a weak heart. And this is only the most striking of the innumerable cases in which our spiritual nature is conditioned and constrained by outside facts, which may be developing along their own paths, but which, as regards that spiritual nature, must be looked on as purely arbitrary.
And if the dialectic cannot be observed in the individual, owing to these external disturbances, we shall not be more successful in tracing it accurately in the race as a whole. In the first place, material causes – the Black Death, for example, – often produce results on the spiritual development of nations, or of the civilised world. And, secondly, the development of the race must manifest itself in individuals, and if it is hampered in each of them by material conditions, it will not exist at all, free from those conditions. This could only be denied on the supposition that, if we took a sufficient number of cases, the results of the external influences would cancel one another, leaving the inherent development of spirit unchecked. This would, however, be a pure assumption, and not likely, as far as we can judge at present, to be in accordance with the facts. For the influence which material causes have on the development of Spirit has a distinctive character, and its effects are more probably cumulative than mutually destructive.
224. Of course anyone who accepts Hegel’s Logic must believe that the nature of the Absolute, taken as a whole, is entirely rational, and that, consequently, all the facts of experience are really manifestations of reason, however irrational and contingent they may appear. But this takes us back to the other practical use of Hegel’s philosophy, which we admitted as valid, namely, that it will assure us, on general grounds, that everything must be rational, without showing us how particular things are rational. It will not alter the fact that if we are trying to explain how the various facts of any particular kind are rational, by tracing their dialectical connection with one another, we shall fail in so far as they are influenced by the facts which are not part of that chain, however sure we may be on general grounds that they, like everything else, must be rational.
The only way in which we could get a dialectic process, dealing with actual facts, secure from extraneous influences, would be to trace the connection of the state of the whole universe, taken sub specie temporis, at one moment of time, with the state of the whole universe at some subsequent moment. This, of course, could not be done, unless we knew what the state of the whole universe at one particular moment really was, which is obviously impossible, since, to mention only one point, our knowledge is almost entirely confined to this planet.
We have found so far, then, that the attempts to trace the dialectic process, as it manifests itself in Religion, Law, History, or Philosophy, suffered under two defects. In the first place, we could not hope to find the fixed points which were necessary before we could begin to construct the dialectic, and, in the second place, the course of the dialectic process must be continually disturbed by external causes. With regard to the main process of Nature and Spirit, we found that it might be free from the first fault, but not from the second.
225. I need only touch on a third obstacle which presents itself. This consists in the extent and intricacy of the subject-matter which must be known, and unified by science, before we can hope to interpret it by means of the dialectic. The hindrance which this throws in the way of Hegel’s purpose has perhaps been overestimated by his opponents. For they have represented him as trying to deduce, and not merely to explain, the facts of experience. And they have exaggerated the extent to which he believed himself to have succeeded in making his system complete. <Note: Cp. Section 220.> But after allowing for all this, it must be admitted that the task which Hegel did undertake was one which often required more knowledge of facts than he had, or than, perhaps, can be obtained. This difficulty is least prominent in Religion and Philosophy, where the facts to be dealt with are comparatively few and easy of access. It is most prominent in the Philosophy of Nature, which, as we saw, was comparatively fortunate in being able to fix its starting-point with tolerable certainty. The abuse which has been heaped on this work is probably excessive. But it cannot be denied that it has a certain amount of justification.
226. We seem thus reduced to a state of almost complete scepticism as to the value of Hegel’s applications of the dialectic, taken as systems. We may continue to regard as true the idea of the evolution, by inherent necessity, of the full meaning of reality, since that follows from the Logic. But Hegel’s magnificent attempt to trace the working of that evolution through the whole field of human knowledge must be given up.
Must we give up with it all attempts to apply the conclusions, so hardly won in the Logic, to our present experience, and content ourselves with the information that they can give us as to Absolute Reality seen in its full completeness? It seems to me that we need not do so, and that experience, as we have it now, may be interpreted by means of the dialectic in a manner possibly not less useful, though less ambitious, than that which Hegel himself attempted.
We saw that two of the difficulties in the way of Hegel’s scheme were the multiplicity of the details, which are found in any subject-matter as given in experience, and the fact that the different chains of the dialectic process acted irregularly on one another, so that none of them remained symmetrical examples of the dialectic development. Now both these difficulties would be avoided, if, instead of trying to trace the dialectic process in actual events, which are always many-sided, and influenced from outside, we tried to trace such a process in some of the influences at work on these events, taken in abstraction from other influences.
For example, it would probably be impossible to trace a dialectic process in the moral history of any man or nation, except in a few prominent features. For the causes which determine moral development are indefinitely complex, and many of them have themselves no moral significance. A man’s moral nature is affected by his own intellectual development, by his relations with other men, and by his relations with material things. All these causes, no doubt, also move in dialectic processes, but they are not processes in unison with the process of his moral nature, and so they prevent it exhibiting an example of the dialectic movement. A man may have committed a sin of which, by the inner development of his own will, he would soon come to repent. But if, through some disease, he loses his memory shortly after committing the sin, his repentance may, to say the least, be indefinitely postponed.
Difficulties like these arise whenever our subject-matter is concrete moral acts, which have always other aspects besides that of their moral quality, and which are affected by many circumstances that are not moral acts. Let us now consider what would be the case if we took comparatively abstract moral qualities – e.g. Innocence, Sin, Punishment, Repentance, Virtue. Between these there would be a much greater chance of discovering some dialectic connection. By considering abstract qualities we save ourselves, in the first place, from the complexity caused by the indefinite multiplicity of particulars which are to be found in any given piece of experience. For we deal only with those characteristics which we have ourselves selected to deal with. And, in the second place, we escape from the difficulties caused by the intrusion of outside influences. For we are not considering what does happen in any actual case, but what would happen if all but a given set of conditions were excluded, or, to put it in another way, what influence on actual facts a certain force tends to exert when taken by itself. We abstract, in the case given above, from all aspects of actions except their morality, and we abstract from all causes which influence action, except the deliberate moral choice of the agent. In the same way, every moving body is under the influence of an indefinite number of forces. But it is possible to isolate two of them, and to consider how the body would move if only those two forces acted upon it. The result, in its abstraction, will not apply exactly to any concrete ease, but it may render us important aid in explaining and influencing concrete cases.
The third difficulty which met us in dealing with Hegel’s own applications of the dialectic was the impossibility of determining the relation of the various stages to one another, unless we knew the beginning or the end of the process beforehand, which we seldom did. This difficulty does not arise in our proposed abstract applications of the dialectic, on account of their comparatively humble aim. There is no attempt here, as there was before, to construct even a part of the chain of stages which reaches from beginning to end of the whole temporal process. We only assert that, when a certain number of abstract terms are taken in connection with one another, they stand in certain relations which are an example of the dialectic movement. Here we are sure of our starting-point, because we have made it ourselves.
227. The best example of such an application of the dialectic method, which is to be found in Hegel’s own work, is his theory of Sin, referred to above. It is rather implied than directly stated, but, if we compare his treatment of the subject in the Philosophy of Spirit and in the Philosophy of Religion, it appears that he regards Innocence (Unschuldigkeit) and Virtue as the thesis and synthesis of a triad, whose antithesis consists of a subordinate triad, of which the terms are Sin, Punishment, and Repentance.
This process gains, of course, its simplicity, its independence of external influences, and its fixed starting-point, merely by abstraction – the only way in which definiteness can ever be gained in our present state of imperfect knowledge. And therefore, like every result gained by abstraction, it is more or less untrue. Its value must depend on its being approximately true sufficiently often, and with sufficient exactitude, to make it practically useful. This is the case with all abstractions. No one, for example, ever acted exclusively from purely economic motives, but most people act from them enough to make it worth while to work out what would happen if everyone always did so. On the other hand it would not be worth while to work out what would happen if everyone desired to suffer as much bodily pain as possible, because few people are greatly influenced by such a desire.
Now the conditions of Hegel’s dialectic of virtue do occur in life sufficiently often and with sufficient exactitude to make the knowledge we have gained by the abstraction practically valuable. For whenever men are acting so that their acts have a moral quality – and this is almost always the case – then the moral aspect of a particular action will be one of the most important of the factors which determine whether it shall, under given circumstances, take place or not, and what its results will be, if it does take place. And so the relation which exists between the moral aspects of actions and mental states will afford us, in many instances, materials for explaining those actions and states with sufficient accuracy, although, resting on abstraction, it will never succeed in giving a complete explanation of the facts in any actual case, and in some cases will give us scarcely any help in explaining them.
228. Another relation of abstract terms which can often throw great light on experience is that which is sometimes summed up in the maxim, Die to live. Here the thesis is the possession or assertion of something good in itself, while the antithesis is the abandonment or the denial of that good, on account of some defect or narrowness in the statement of the thesis. The synthesis, again, is the enjoyment of the original good in a deeper and better way, when the defect has been purged out by the discipline of the antithesis. As an abstraction, this relation can never express the whole nature of any event. That which, from one point of view, is positive, may from another be negative, and from a third be a reconciliation of two extremes. But when, as often happens, we are looking at things from one limited point of view, and temporarily ignoring others, the arrangement of our subject-matter upon such a scheme may be very valuable.
229. But, after all, the main practical interest of Hegel’s philosophy does not lie in such interpretations, useful and suggestive as they are. It is rather to be found in the abstract certainty which the Logic gives us that all reality is rational and righteous, even when we cannot in the least see how it is so, and also in the general determination of the nature of true reality, which we saw above was a legitimate consequence of the Logic. <Note: Sections 208, 209.> In other words, when we ask of what value philosophy is, apart from the value of truth for its own sake, we shall find that it lies more in the domains of religion than in those of science or practice. Its importance is not that it shows us how the facts around us are good, not that it shows us how we can make them better, but that it proves, if it is successful, that they, like all other reality, are, sub specie aeternitatis, perfectly good, and, sub specie temporis, destined to become perfectly good.
The practical value of the dialectic, then, lies in the demonstration of a general principle, which can be carried into particulars or used as a guide to action, only in a very few cases, and in those with great uncertainty. In saying this we shall seem at first sight to deny that the dialectic has really any practical use at all. But reflection may convince us that the effect of philosophy on religion is quite as practical, and perhaps even more important, than the effect which it might have exercised on science and conduct, if Hegel’s applications of the dialectic could have been sustained.
That the effect on religion is one which we are entitled to consider of practical, and not merely of theoretical interest, was pointed out above. <Note: Section 209.> For, through religion, philosophy will influence the happiness of those who accept its theories, and nothing can have more immediate practical interest than any cause which increases or diminishes happiness.
230. We may go, I think, even further than this. It is more important, for our general welfare, to be able to apply philosophy to religion, than to science and conduct. We must consider that the general conviction of the rationality and righteousness of the universe must be reached by philosophy, or else not reached at all – at least as a matter of reasoning. Now the application of the dialectic to the particular facts is not indispensable in the same way. It is true that it is essential to life, and to all that makes life worth having, that we should be able to some extent to understand what goes on round us, and should have some rules by which we can guide our conduct. And, no doubt, it would assist us in both these terms if we could succeed in tracing the manifestations of the dialectic process in the facts around us, and in anticipating the facts in which it will be manifested in the future. But still, for these aims, the aid of the dialectic is not essential. The finite sciences can explain the facts of our life, incompletely, indeed, and imperfectly, but still to a great extent, and to an extent which is continually increasing. And we shall find in common sense, and in the general principles of ethics, the possibility of pursuing a coherent and reasonable course of action, even if we do not know the precise position at which we are in the dialectic process towards the perfection which is the goal of our efforts.
Here, then, philosophy would be, from the practical point of view, useful, but not necessary. But its importance with regard to religion is greater. We cannot observe that all reality is rational and righteous as a fact of experience, nor can we make it rational and righteous by any act of ours. If we do believe that it is so, it must either be by some reasoning which falls within the jurisdiction of philosophy, or by the acceptance of some form of what Hegel calls Revealed Religion. Now, without considering whether the acceptance of the latter is justifiable or not, it cannot be denied that the number of people to whom it does not seem justifiable is always considerable, and shows no marked signs of diminishing. And many of those who do accept some form of Revealed Religion, base their belief in large measure on a conviction, reached by philosophical methods, that the rationality and righteousness of the universe are antecedently probable, or, at all events, not antecedently improbable. <Note: Cp. Mr Balfour’s Foundations of Belief, Part II., Chap. 4, and Part IV., Chap. 5, Section V.>
Our religious views then, if challenged, – and they do not often pass now-a- days without being challenged – rest to a larger and larger extent on philosophical arguments. The practical importance of religious views – one way or the other – to the world’s happiness, is likely to increase rather than to diminish. For, as increasing wealth and civilisation set a greater proportion of mankind free from the constant pressure of mere bodily wants, the pressure of spiritual needs becomes more clearly felt, and is increased by every advance which is made in intelligence and culture. The more we succeed in removing such of the evils and limitations of life as can be removed, the more clearly do those which cannot be removed reveal themselves, and the more imperative becomes the demand for some assurance that these also are transitory, and that all things work together for good. Nor does this tendency of our nature deserve to be called, as it often is called, either selfish or abstract. If we care for virtue, we can scarcely fail to be interested in the ultimate righteousness or iniquity of the universe, as judged by our moral ideals. If we care for the men and women we know, it seems not unnatural that we should sometimes ask ourselves what – if anything – will happen to them when their bodies have ceased to exist.
I maintain, therefore, that we have reached a conclusion which is not really sceptical, even as to the practical value of Hegel’s philosophy, when we reject his attempts to trace the manifestations of the dialectic process in the particular facts of our experience. For the more important of the practical effects of philosophy is left untouched – more important, because here philosophy is indispensable if the result is to be attained at all.
231. It may be objected that such a view as this is more than a partial difference from Hegel, and that its abstractness violates the whole spirit of his system. To say that we know of the existence of a rationality and righteousness, which we are yet unable to trace in detail in experience, may appear at first sight to mean a trust in some other-worldly reality. Such a trust would doubtless be completely opposed to the most fundamental principles of Hegel’s philosophy. But this objection misrepresents the position. It is not asserted that the rational and righteous reality is something behind and separate from experience. On the contrary, it is and must be perfectly manifested in that experience, which is nothing but its manifestation. But we do not see in detail how it is such a manifestation. Thus it is not the reality which is abstract, but only our knowledge of it. And this is not surprising, since all imperfect knowledge must be abstract, and it is matter of common notoriety that our knowledge is as yet imperfect.
Nor need we much regret such a limitation of the province of philosophy. For if our present knowledge were completely adequate to reality, reality would be most inadequate to our ideals. It is surely at least as satisfactory a belief, if we hold that the highest object of philosophy is to indicate to us the general nature of an ultimate harmony, the full content of which it has not yet entered into our hearts to conceive. All true philosophy must be mystical, not indeed in its methods, but in its final conclusions.