Reason and Revolution. Herbert Marcuse 1941
GERMAN idealism has been called the theory of the French Revolution. This does not imply that Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel furnished a theoretical interpretation of the French Revolution, but that they wrote their philosophy largely as a response to the challenge from France to reorganize the state and society on a rational basis, so that social and political institutions might accord with the freedom and interest of the individual. Despite their bitter criticism of the Terror, the German idealists unanimously welcomed the revolution, calling it the dawn of a new era, and they all linked their basic philosophical principles to the ideals that it advanced.
The ideas of the French Revolution thus appear in the very core of the idealistic systems, and, to a great extent, determine their conceptual structure. As the German idealists saw it, the French Revolution not only abolished feudal absolutism, replacing it with the economic and political system of the middle class, but it completed what the German Reformation had begun, emancipating the individual as a self-reliant master of his life. Man’s position in the world, the mode of his labor and enjoyment, was no longer to depend on some external authority, but on his own free rational activity. Man had passed the long period of immaturity during which he had been victimized by overwhelming natural and social forces, and had become the autonomous subject of his own development. From now on, the struggle with nature and with social organization was to be guided by his own progress in knowledge. The world was to be an order of reason.
The ideals of the French Revolution found their resting place in the processes of industrial capitalism. Napoleon’s empire liquidated the radical tendencies and at the same time consolidated the economic consequences of the revolution. The French philosophers of the period interpreted the realization of reason as the liberation of industry. Expanding industrial production seemed capable of providing all the necessary means to gratify human wants. Thus, at the same time that Hegel elaborated his system, Saint-Simon in France was exalting industry as the sole power that could lead mankind to a free and rational society. The economic process appeared as the foundation of reason.
Economic development in Germany lagged far behind that in France and England. The German middle class, weak and scattered over numerous territories with divergent interests, could hardly contemplate a revolution. The few industrial enterprises that existed were but small islands within a protracted feudal system. The individual in his social existence was either enslaved, or was the enslaver of his fellow individuals. As a thinking being, however, he could at least comprehend the contrast between the miserable reality that existed everywhere and the human potentialities that the new epoch had emancipated; and as a moral person, he could, in his private life at least, preserve human dignity and autonomy. Thus, while the French Revolution had already begun to assert the reality of freedom, German idealism was only occupying itself with the idea of it. The concrete historical efforts to establish a rational form of society were here transposed to the philosophical plane and appeared in the efforts to elaborate the notion of reason.
The concept of reason is central to Hegel’s philosophy. He held that philosophical thinking presupposes nothing beyond it, that history deals with reason and with reason alone, and that the state is the realization of reason. These statements will be understandable, however, so long as reason is interpreted as a pure metaphysical concept, for Hegel’s idea of reason has retained, though in an idealistic form, the material strivings for a free and rational order of life. Robespierre’s deification of reason as the Être suprème is the counterpart to the glorification of reason in Hegel’s system. The core of Hegel’s philosophy is a structure the concepts of which – freedom, subject mind, notion – are derived from the idea of reason. Unless we succeed in unfolding the content of these ideas and the intrinsic connection among them, Hegel’s system will seem to be obscure metaphysics, which it in fact never was.
Hegel himself related his concept of reason to the French Revolution, and did so with the greatest of emphasis. The revolution had demanded that ‘nothing should be recognized as valid in a constitution except what has to be recognized according to reason’s right.’ Hegel further elaborated this interpretation in his lectures on the Philosophy of History: ‘Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around it had it been perceived that man’s existence centres in his head, i.e. in Thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality. Anaxagoras had been the first to say that Nous governs the World; but not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that Thought ought to govern spiritual reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch.’
In Hegel’s view, the decisive turn that history took with the French Revolution was that man came to rely on his mind and dared to submit the given reality to the standards of reason. Hegel expounds the new development through a contrast between an employment of reason and an uncritical compliance with the prevailing conditions of life. ‘Nothing is reason that is not the result of thinking.’ Man has set out to organize reality according to the demands of his free rational thinking instead of simply accommodating his thoughts to the existing order and the prevailing values. Man is a thinking being. His reason enables him to recognize his own potentialities and those of his world. He is thus not at the mercy of the facts that surround him, but is capable of subjecting them to a higher standard, that of reason. If he follows its lead, he will arrive at certain conceptions that disclose reason to be antagonistic to the existing state of affairs. He may find that history is a constant struggle for freedom, that man’s individuality requires that he possess property as the medium of his fulfillment, and that all men have an equal right to develop their human faculties. Actually, however, bondage and inequality prevail; most men have no liberty at all and are deprived of their last scrap of property. Consequently the ‘unreasonable’ reality has to be altered until it comes into conformity with reason. In the given case, the existing social order has to be reorganized, absolutism and the remainders of feudalism have to be abolished, free competition has to be established, everyone has to be made equal before the law, and so on.
According to Hegel, the French Revolution enunciated reason’s ultimate power over reality. (He sums this up by saying that the principle of the French Revolution asserted that thought ought to govern reality. The implications involved in this statement lead into the very center of his philosophy. Thought ought to govern reality. What men think to be true, right, and good ought to be realized in the actual organization of their societal and individual life. Thinking, however, varies among individuals, and the resulting diversity of individual opinions cannot provide a guiding principle for the common organization of life. Unless man possesses concepts and principles of thought that denote universally valid conditions and norms, his thought cannot claim to govern reality. In line with the tradition of Western philosophy, Hegel believes that such objective concepts and principles exist. Their totality he calls reason.
The philosophies of the French Enlightenment and their revolutionary successors all posited, reason as an objective historical force which, once freed from the fetters of despotism, would make the world a place of progress and happiness. They held that ‘the power of reason, and not the force of weapons, will propagate the principles of our glorious revolution.’ By virtue of its own power, reason would triumph over social irrationality and overthrow the oppressors of mankind. ‘All fictions disappear before truth, and all follies fall before reason.’
The implication, however, that reason will immediately show itself in practice is a dogma unsupported by the course of history. Hegel believed in the invincible power of reason as much as Robespierre did. ‘That faculty which man can call his own, elevated above death and decay. ... is able to make decisions of itself. It announces itself as reason. Its law-making depends on nothing else, nor can it take its standards from any other authority on earth or in heaven.’ But to Hegel, reason cannot govern reality unless reality has become rational in itself. This rationality is made possible through the subject’s entering the very content of nature and history. The objective reality is thus also the realization of the subject. It is this conception that Hegel summarized in the most fundamental of his propositions, namely, that Being is, in its substance, a ‘subject.,” The meaning of this proposition can only be understood through an interpretation of Hegel’s Logic, but we shall attempt to give a provisional explanation here that will be expanded later.’
The idea of the ‘substance as subject’ conceives reality as a process wherein all being is the unification of contradictory forces. ‘Subject’ denotes not only the epistemological ego or consciousness, but a mode of existence, to wit, that of a self-developing unity in an antagonistic process. Everything that exists is ‘real’ only in so far as it operates as a ‘self’ through all the contradictory relations that constitute its existence. It must thus be considered a kind of ‘subject’ that carries itself forward by unfolding its inherent contradictions. For example, a stone is a stone only in so far as it remains the same thing, a stone, throughout its action and reaction upon the things and processes that interact with it. It gets wet in the rain; it resists the axe; it withstands a certain load before it gives way. Being-a-stone is a continuous holding out against everything that acts on the stone; it is a continuous process of becoming and being a stone. To be sure, the ‘becoming’ is not consummated by the stone as a conscious subject. The stone is changed in its interactions with rain, axe, and load; it does not change itself. A plant, on the other hand, unfolds and develops itself. It is not now a bud, then a blossom, but is rather the whole movement from bud through blossom to decay. The plant constitutes and preserves itself in this movement. It comes much nearer to being an actual ‘subject’ than does the stone, for the various stages of the plant’s development grow out of the plant itself; they are its ‘life’ and are not imposed upon it from the outside.
The plant, however, does not ‘comprehend’ this development. It does not ‘realize’ it as its own and, therefore, cannot reason its own potentialities into being. Such ‘realization’ is a process of the true subject and is reached only with the existence of man. Man alone has the power of self-realization, the power to be a self-determining subject in all processes of becoming, for he alone has an understanding of potentialities and a knowledge of ‘notions.’ His very existence is the process of actualizing his potentialities, of molding his life according to the notions of reason. We encounter here the most important category of reason, namely, freedom. Reason presupposes freedom, the power to act in accordance with knowledge of the truth, the power to shape reality in line with its potentialities. The fulfillment of these ends belongs only to the subject who is master of his own development and who understands his own potentialities as well as those of the things around him. Freedom, in turn, presupposes reason, for it is comprehending knowledge, alone, that enables the subject to gain and to wield this power. The stone does not possess it; neither does the plant. Both lack comprehending knowledge and hence real subjectivity. ‘Man, however, knows what he is, – only thus is he real. Reason and freedom are nothing without this knowledge.
Reason terminates in freedom, and freedom is the very existence of the subject. On the other hand, reason itself exists only through its realization, the process of its being made real. Reason is an objective force and an objective reality only because all modes of being are more or less modes of subjectivity, modes of realization. Subject and object are not sundered by an impassable gulf, because the object is in itself a kind of subject and because all types of being culminate in the free ‘comprehensive’ subject who is able to realize reason. Nature thus becomes a medium for the development of freedom.
The life of reason appears in man’s continuous struggle to comprehend what exists and to transform it in accordance with the truth comprehended. Reason is also essentially a historical force. Its fulfillment takes place as a process in the spatio-temporal world, and is, in the last analysis, the whole history of mankind. The term that designates reason as history is mind (Geist) which denotes the historical world viewed in relation to the rational progress of humanity – the historical world not as a chain of acts and events but as a ceaseless struggle to adapt the world to the growing potentialities of mankind.
History is organized into different periods, each marking a separate level of development and representing a definite stage in the realization of reason. Each stage is to be grasped and understood as a whole, through the prevailing ways of thinking and living which characterize it, through its political and social institutions, its science, religion and philosophy. Different stages occur in the realization of reason, but there is only one reason, just as there is only one whole and one truth: the reality of freedom. ‘This final goal it is, at which the process of the world’s history has been continually aiming, and to which the sacrifices that have ever and anon been laid on the vast altar of the earth, through the long lapse of ages, have been offered. This is the only final aim that realizes and fulfills itself; the only pole of repose amid the ceaseless chain of events and conditions, and the sole true reality in them.’
An immediate unity of reason and reality never exists. The unity comes only after a lengthy process, which begins at the lowest level of nature and reaches up to the highest form of existence, that of a free and rational subject, living and acting in the self-consciousness of its potentialities. As long as there is any gap between real and potential, the former must be acted upon and changed until it is brought into line with reason. As long as reality is not shaped by reason, it remains no reality at all, in the emphatic sense of the word. Thus reality changes its meaning within the conceptual structure of Hegel’s system. ‘Real’ comes to mean not everything that actually exists (this should rather be called appearance), but that which exists in a form concordant with the standards of reason. ‘Real’ is the reasonable (rational), and that alone. For example, the state becomes a reality only when it corresponds to the given potentialities of men and permits their full development. Any preliminary form of the state is not yet reasonable, and, therefore, not yet real.
Hegel’s concept of reason thus has a distinctly critical and polemic character. It is opposed to all ready acceptance of the given state of affairs. It denies the hegemony of every prevailing form of existence by demonstrating the antagonisms that dissolve it into other forms. We shall attempt to show that the ‘spirit of contradicting’ is the propulsive force of Hegel’s dialectical method. (Hegel himself once characterized the essence of his dialectic as the ‘spirit of contradicting’ (Eckermann, Gesprache mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, October 18, 1827).
In 1793, Hegel wrote to Schelling: ‘Reason and freedom remain our principles.’ In his early writings, no gap exists between the philosophical and the social meaning of these principles, which are expressed in the same revolutionary language the French Jacobins used. For example, Hegel says the significance of his time lies in the fact that ‘the halo which has surrounded the leading oppressors and gods of the earth has disappeared. Philosophers demonstrate the dignity of man; the people will learn to feel it and will not merely demand their rights, which have been trampled in the dust, but will themselves take them, – make them their own. Religion and politics have played the same game. The former has taught what despotism wanted to teach, contempt for humanity and the incapacity of man to achieve the good and to fulfill his essence through his own efforts."’ We even encounter more extreme statements, which urge that the realization of reason requires a social scheme that contravenes the given order. In the Erstes Systemprogramm des Deutschen Idealismus, written in 1796, we find the following: ‘I shall demonstrate that, just as there is no idea of a machine, there is no idea of the State, for the State is something mechanical. Only that which is an object of freedom may be called an idea. We must, therefore, transcend the State. For every State is bound to treat free men as cogs in a machine. And this is precisely what it should not do; hence, the State must perish.’
However, the radical purport of the basic idealistic concepts is slowly relinquished and they are to an ever increasing extent made to fit in with the prevailing societal form. This process is, as we shall see, necessitated by the conceptual structure of German idealism, which retains the decisive principles of liberalistic society and prevents any crossing beyond it.
The particular form, however, that the reconciliation between philosophy and reality assumed in Hegel’s system was determined by the actual situation of Germany in the period when he elaborated his system. Hegel’s early philosophical concepts were formulated amid a decaying German Reich. As he declared at the opening of his pamphlet on the German Constitution (1802), the German state of the last decade of the eighteenth century was ‘no longer a State.’ The remains of feudal despotism still held sway in Germany, the more oppressive because split into a multitude of petty despotisms, each competing with the other. The Reich ‘consisted of Austria and Prussia, the Prince-Electors, 94 ecclesiastical and secular princes, 103 barons, 40 prelates, and 51 Reich towns; in sum, it consisted of nearly 300 territories.’ The Reich itself ‘possessed not a single soldier, its yearly income amounting to only a few thousand florins.’ There was no centralized jurisdiction; the Supreme Court (Reichskammergericht) was a breeding ground ‘for graft, caprice, and bribery.’ Serfdom was still prevalent, the peasant was still a beast of burden. Some princes still hired out or sold their subjects as mercenary soldiers to foreign countries. Strong censorship operated to repress the slightest traces of enlightenment.,’ A contemporary depicts the current scene in the following words. ‘Without law and justice, without protection from arbitrary taxation, uncertain of the lives of our sons, and of our freedom and our rights, the impotent prey of despotic power, our existence lacking unity and a national spirit ... – this is the status quo of our nation.’
In sharp contrast to France, Germany had no strong, conscious, politically educated middle class to lead the struggle against this absolutism. The nobility ruled without opposition. ‘Hardly anyone in Germany,’ remarked Goethe, ‘thought of envying this tremendous privileged mass, or of begrudging them their happy advantages.’
The urban middle class, distributed among numerous townships, each with its own government and its own local interests, was impotent to crystallize and effectuate any serious opposition. To be sure, there were conflicts between the ruling patricians and the guilds and artisans. But these nowhere reached the proportions of a revolutionary movement. Burghers accompanied their petitions and complaints with a prayer that God protect the Fatherland from ‘the terror of revolution.’
Ever since the German Reformation, the masses had become used to the fact that, for them, liberty was an ‘inner value,’ which was compatible with every form of bondage, that due obedience to existing authority was a prerequisite to everlasting salvation, and that toil and poverty were a blessing in the eyes of the Lord. A long process of disciplinary training had introverted the demands for freedom and reason in Germany. One of the decisive functions of Protestantism had been to induce the emancipated individuals to accept the new social system that had arisen, by diverting their claims and demands from the external world into their inner life. Luther established Christian liberty as an internal value to be realized independently of any and all external conditions. Social reality became indifferent as far as the true essence of man was concerned. Man learned to turn upon himself his demand for the satisfaction of his potentialities and ‘to seek within’ himself, not in the outer world, his life’s fulfillment.
German culture is inseparable from its origin in Protestantism. There arose a realm of beauty, freedom, and morality, which was not to be shaken by external realities and struggles it was detached from the miserable social world and anchored in the ‘soul’ of the individual. This development is the source of a tendency widely visible in German idealism, a willingness to become reconciled to the social reality. This reconciliatory tendency of the idealists constantly conflicts with their critical rationalism. Ultimately, the ideal that the critical aspects set forth, a rational political and social reorganization of the world, becomes frustrated and is transformed into a spiritual value.
The ‘educated’ classes isolated themselves from practical affairs and, thus rendering themselves impotent to apply their reason to the reshaping of society, fulfilled themselves in a realm of science, art, philosophy, and religion] That realm became for them the ‘true reality’ transcending the wretchedness of existing social conditions; it was alike the refuge for truth, goodness, beauty, happiness, and, most important, for a critical temper which could not be turned into social channels. Culture was, then, essentially idealistic, occupied with the idea of things rather than with the things themselves. It set freedom of thought before freedom of action, morality before practical justice, the inner life before the social life of man. This idealistic culture, however, just because it stood aloof from an intolerable reality and thereby maintained itself intact and unsullied, served, despite its false consolations and glorifications, as the repository for truths which had not been realized in the history of mankind.
Hegel’s system is the last great expression of this cultural idealism, the last great attempt to render thought a refuge for reason and liberty. he original critical impulse of his thinking, however, was strong enough to induce him to abandon the traditional aloofness of idealism from history. He made philosophy a concrete historical factor and drew history into philosophy.
History, however, when comprehended, shatters the idealistic framework.
Hegel’s system is necessarily associated with a definite political philosophy and with a definite social and political order. The dialectic between civil society and the state of the Restoration is not incidental in Hegel’s philosophy, nor is it just a section of his Philosophy of Right; its principles already operate in the conceptual structure of his system. His basic concepts are, on the other hand, but the culmination of the entire tradition of Western thought. They become understandable only when interpreted within this tradition.
We have thus far attempted in brief compass to place the Hegelian concepts in their concrete historical setting. It remains for us to trace the starting point of Hegel’s system to its sources in the philosophical situation of his time.
German idealism rescued philosophy from the attack of British empiricism, and the struggle between the two became not merely a clash of different philosophical schools, but a struggle for philosophy as such. Philosophy had never ceased to claim the right to guide man’s efforts towards a rational mastery of nature and society, or to base this claim upon the fact that philosophy elaborated the highest and most general concepts for knowing the world. With Descartes, the practical bearing of philosophy assumed a new form, which accorded with the sweeping progress of modern technics. He announced a ‘practical philosophy by means of which, knowing the force and the action of fire, water, air, the stars, heavens and all other bodies that environ us ... we can employ them in all those uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.’
The achievement of this task was, to an ever increasing extent, bound up with the establishment of universally valid laws and concepts in knowledge. Rational mastery of nature and society presupposed knowledge of the truth, and the truth was a universal, as contrasted to the multifold appearance of things or to their immediate form in the perception of individuals. This principle was already alive in the earliest attempts of Greek epistemology: the truth is universal and necessary and thus contradicts the ordinary experience of change and accident.
The conception, that the truth is contrary to the matters of fact of existence and independent of contingent individuals, has run through the entire historical epoch in which man’s social life has been one of antagonisms among conflicting individuals and groups. The universal has been hypostatized as a philosophical reaction to the historical fact that, in society, only individual interests prevail, while the common interest is asserted only ‘behind the back’ of the individual. The contrast between universal and individual took on an aggravated form when, in the modern era, slogans of general freedom were raised and it was held that an appropriate social order could be brought about only through the knowledge and activity of emancipated individuals. All men were declared free and equal; yet, in acting according to their knowledge and in the pursuit of their interest, they created and experienced an order of dependence, injustice and recurring crises. The general competition between free economic subjects did not establish a rational community which might safeguard and gratify the wants and desires of all men. The life of men was surrendered to the economic
mechanisms of a social system that related individuals to one another as isolated buyers and sellers of commodities. This actual lack of a rational community was responsible for the philosophical quest for the unity (Einheit) and universality (Allgemeinheit) of reason.
Does the structure of individual reasoning (the subjectivity) yield any general laws and concepts that might constitute universal standards of rationality? Can a universal rational order be built upon the autonomy of the individual? In expanding an affirmative answer to these questions, the epistemology of German idealism aimed at a unifying principle that would preserve the basic ideals of individualistic society without falling victim to its antagonisms. The British empiricists had demonstrated that not a single concept or law of reason could lay claim to universality, that the unity of reason is but the unity of custom or habit, adhering to the facts but never governing them. According to the German idealists, this attack jeopardized all efforts to impose an order on the prevailing forms of life. Unity and universality were not to be found in empirical reality; they were not given facts. Moreover, the very structure of empirical reality seemed to warrant the assumption that they could never be derived from the given facts. If men did not succeed, however, in creating unity and universality through their autonomous reason and even in contradiction to the facts, they would have to surrender not only their intellectual but also their material existence to the blind pressures and processes of the prevailing empirical order of life: The problem was thus not merely a philosophical one but concerned the historical destiny of humanity.
The German idealists recognized the concrete historical manifestations of the problem; this is clear in the fact that all of them connected the theoretical with the. practical reason. There is a necessary transition from Kant’s analysis of the transcendental consciousness to his demand for the community of a Weltbürgerreich, from Fichte’s concept of the pure ego to his construction of a totally unified and regulated society (der geschlossene Handelsstaat); and from Hegel’s idea of reason to his designation of the state as the union of the common and the individual interest, and thus as the realization of reason.
The idealistic counterattack was provoked not by the empiricist approaches of Locke and Hume, but by their refutation of general ideas. We have attempted to show that reason’s right to shape reality depended upon man’s ability to hold generally valid truths. Reason could lead beyond the brute fact of what is, to the realization of what ought to be, only by virtue of the universality and necessity of its concepts (which in turn are the criteria of its truth). These concepts the empiricists denied. General ideas, said Locke, are ‘the inventions and creatures of the understanding, made by it for its own use, and concern only signs ... When therefore we quit particulars, the generals that rest are only the creatures of our own making ...’ For Hume, general ideas are abstracted from the particular, and ‘represent’ the particular and the particular only. They can never provide universal rules or principles. If Hume was to be accepted, the claim of reason to organize reality had to be rejected. For as we have seen, this claim was based upon reason’s faculty to attain truths, the validity of which was not derived from experience and which could in fact stand against experience. ‘’tis not ... reason, which is the guide of life, but custom.’ This conclusion of the empiricist investigations did more than undermine metaphysics. It confined men within the limits of ‘the given,’ within the existing order of things and events. Whence could man obtain the right to go beyond not some particular within this order, but beyond the entire order itself? Whence could he obtain the right to submit this order to the judgment of reason? If experience and custom were to be the sole source of his knowledge and belief, how could he act against custom, how act in accordance with ideas and principles as yet not accepted and established? Truth could not oppose the given order or reason speak against it. The result was not only skepticism but conformism. The empiricist restriction of human nature to knowledge of ‘the given’ removed the desire both to transcend the given and to despair about it. ‘For nothing is more certain, than that despair has almost the same effect upon us as enjoyment, and that we are no sooner acquainted with the impossibility of satisfying any desire, than the desire itself vanishes. When we see, that we have arrived at the utmost extent of human reason, we sit down contented.’
The German idealists regarded this philosophy as expressing the abdication of reason. Attributing the existence of general ideas to the force of custom, and the principles by which reality is understood, to psychological mechanisms, was, to them, tantamount to a denial of truth and reason. Human psychology, they saw, is subject to change – is, in fact, a domain of uncertainty and chance from which no necessity and universality could be derived. And yet, such necessity and universality were the sole guarantee of reason. Unless, the idealists declared, the general concepts that claimed such necessity and universality could be shown to be more than the product of imagination, could be shown to draw their validity neither from experience nor from individual psychology, unless, in other words, they were shown applicable to experience without arising from experience, reason would have to bow to the dictates of the empirical teaching. And if cognition by reason, that is, by concepts that are not derived from experience, means metaphysics, then the attack upon metaphysics was at the same time an attack upon the conditions of human freedom, for the right of reason to guide experience was a proper part of these conditions.
Kant adopted the view of the empiricists that all human knowledge begins with and terminates in experience, that experience alone provides the material for the concepts of reason. There is no stronger empiricist statement than that which opens his Critique of Pure Reason. ‘All thought must, directly or indirectly, ... relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us. Kant maintains, however, that the empiricists had failed to demonstrate that experience also furnishes the means and modes by which this empirical material is organized. If it could be shown that these principles of organization were the genuine possession of the human mind and did not arise from experience, then the independence and freedom of reason would be saved. Experience itself would become the product of reason, for it would then not be the disordered manifold of sensations and impressions, but the comprehensive organization of these.
Kant set out to prove that the human mind possessed the universal ‘forms’ that organized the manifold of data furnished to it by the senses. The forms of ‘intuition’ (space and time) and the forms of ‘understanding’ (the categories) are the universals through which the mind orders the sense manifold into the continuum of experience. They are a priori to each and every sensation and impression, so that we ‘get’ and arrange impressions under these forms. Experience presents a necessary and universal
order only by virtue of the a priori activity of the human mind, which perceives all things and events in the form of space and time and comprehends them under the categories of unity, reality, substantiality, causality, and so on. These forms and categories are not derived from experience, for, as Hume had pointed out, no impression or sensation can be found that corresponds to them; yet experience, as an organized continuum, originates in them. They are universally valid and applicable because they constitute the very structure of the human mind. The world of objects, as a universal and necessary order, is produced by the subject – not by the individual, but by those acts of intuition and understanding that are common to all individuals, since they constitute the very conditions of experience.
This common structure of the mind Kant designates as ‘transcendental consciousness.’ It consists of the forms of intuition and of understanding, which, in Kant’s analysis, are not static frames, but forms of operation that exist only in the act of apprehending and comprehending. The transcendental forms of intuition or outer sense synthesize the manifold of sense data into a spatio-temporal order. By virtue of the categories, the results of this are brought into the universal and necessary relations of cause and effect, substance, reciprocity, and so on. And this entire complex is unified in the ‘transcendental apperception,’ which relates all experience to the thinking ego, thereby giving experience the continuity of being ‘my’ experience. These processes of synthesis, a priori and common to all minds, hence universal, are interdependent and are brought to bear in toto in every act of knowledge.
What Kant calls the ‘highest’ synthesis, that of transcendental apperception, is the awareness of an ‘I think,’ which accompanies every experience. Through it, the thinking ego knows itself as continuous, present, and active throughout the series of its experiences. The transcendental apperception, therefore, is the ultimate basis for the unity of the subject and, hence, for the universality and necessity of all the objective relations.
Transcendental consciousness depends on the material received through the senses. The multitude of these impressions, however, becomes an organized world of coherent objects and relations only through the operations of transcendental consciousness. Since, then, we know the impressions only in the context of the a priori forms of the mind, we cannot know how or what the ‘things-in-themselves’ are that give rise to the impressions. These things-in-themselves, presumed to exist outside of the forms of the mind, remain completely unknowable.
Hegel regarded this skeptical element of Kant’s philosophy as vitiating to his attempt to rescue reason from the empiricist onslaught. ,As long as the things-in-themselves were beyond the capacity of reason, mere subjective principle without power over the objective structure of reality. And thus fell into two separate parts, subjectivity and objectivity, understanding and sense, thought and existence. This separation was not primarily an epistemological problem for Hegel. Time and again he stressed that the relation between subject and object, their opposition, denoted a concrete conflict in existence, and that its solution, the union of the opposites, was a matter of practice as well as of theory. Later, he described the historical form of the conflict as the ‘alienation’ (Entfremdung) of mind, signifying that the world of objects, originally the product of man’s labor and knowledge, becomes independent of man and comes to be governed by uncontrolled forces and laws in which man no longer recognizes his own self. At the same time, thought becomes estranged from reality and the truth becomes an impotent ideal preserved in thought while the actual world is calmly left outside its influence. Unless man succeeds in reuniting the separated parts of his world and in bringing nature and society within the scope of his reason, he is forever doomed to frustration. The task of philosophy in this period of general disintegration is to demonstrate the principle that will restore the missing unity and totality.
Hegel sets forth this principle in the concept of reason. We have attempted to sketch the socio-historical and the philosophical roots of this concept which effect a tie between the progressive ideas of the French Revolution and the prevailing currents of philosophical discussion. Reason is the veritable form of reality in which all antagonisms of subject and object are integrated to form a genuine unity and universality. Hegel’s philosophy is thus necessarily a system, subsuming all realms of being under the all-embracing idea of reason. The inorganic as well as the organic world, nature as well as society, are here brought under the sway of mind.
Hegel considered philosophy’s systematic character to be a product of the historical situation. History had reached a stage at which the possibilities for realizing human freedom were at hand. Freedom, however, presupposes the reality of reason. Man could be free, could develop all his potentialities, only if his entire world was dominated by an integrating rational will and by knowledge. The Hegelian system anticipates a state in which this possibility has been achieved. The historical optimism that it breathes provided the basis for Hegel’s so-called ‘pan-logism’ which treats every form of being as a form of reason. The transitions from the Logic to the Philosophy of Nature, and from the latter to the Philosophy of Mind are made on the assumption that the laws of nature spring from the rational structure of being and lead in a continuum to the laws of the mind. The realm of mind achieves in freedom what the realm of nature achieves in blind necessity – the fulfillment of the potentialities inherent in reality. It is this state of reality which Hegel refers to as ‘the truth.’
Truth is not only attached to propositions and judgments, it is, in short, not only an attribute of thought, but of reality in process. Something is true if it is what it can be, fulfilling all its objective possibilities. In Hegel’s language, it is then identical with its ‘notion.’
The notion has a dual use. It comprehends the nature or essence of a subject-matter, and thus represents the true thought of it. At the same time, it refers, to the actual realization of that nature or essence, its concrete existence. All fundamental concepts of the Hegelian system are characterized by the same ambiguity. They never denote mere concepts (as in formal logic), but forms or modes of being comprehended by thought. Hegel does not presuppose a mystical identity of thought and reality, but he holds that the right thought represents reality because the latter, in its development, has reached the stage at which it exists in conformity with the truth. His ‘pan-logism’ comes close to being its opposite: one could say that he takes the principles and forms of thought from the principles and forms of reality, so that the logical laws reproduce those governing the movement of reality. The unification of opposites is a process Hegel demonstrates in the case of every single existent. The logical form of the ‘judgment’ expresses an occurrence in reality. Take, for example, the judgment: this man is a slave. According to Hegel, it means that a man (the subject) has become enslaved (the predicate), but although he is a slave, he still remains man, thus essentially free and opposed to his predicament. The judgment does not attribute a predicate to a stable subject, but denotes an actual process of the subject whereby the latter becomes something other than itself. The subject is the very process of becoming the predicate and of contradicting it. This process dissolves into a multitude of antagonistic relations the stable subjects that traditional logic had assumed. Reality appears as a dynamic in which all fixed forms reveal themselves to be mere abstractions. Consequently, when in Hegel’s logic concepts pass from one form to another, this refers to the fact that, to correct thinking, one form of being passes to another, and that every particular form can be determined only by the totality of the antagonistic relations in which this form exists.
We have emphasized the fact that, to Hegel, reality has reached a stage at which it exists in truth. This statement now needs a correction. Hegel does not mean that everything that exists does so in conformity with its potentialities, but that the mind has attained the self-consciousness of its freedom, and become capable of freeing nature and society. The realization of reason is not a fact but a task. The form in which the objects immediately appear is not yet their true form. What is simply given is at first negative, other than its real potentialities. It becomes true only in the process of overcoming this negativity, so that the birth of the truth requires the death of the given state of being. Hegel’s optimism is based upon a destructive conception of the given. All forms are seized by the dissolving movement of reason which cancels and alters them until they are adequate to their notion. It is this movement that thought reflects in the process of ‘mediation’ (Vermittlung). If we follow the true content of our perceptions and concepts, all delimitation of stable objects collapses. They are dissolved into a multitude of relations that exhaust the developed content of these objects and terminate in the subject’s comprehensive activity.
Hegel’s philosophy is indeed what the subsequent reaction termed it, a negative philosophy. It is originally motivated by the conviction that the given facts that appear to common sense as the positive index of truth are in reality the negation of truth, so that truth can only be established by their destruction. The driving force of the dialectical method lies in this critical conviction. Dialectic in its entirety is linked to the conception that all forms of being are permeated by an essential negativity, and that this negativity determines their content and movement. The dialectic represents the counterthrust to any form of positivism. From Hume to the present-day logical positivists, the principle of this latter philosophy has been the ultimate authority of the fact, and observing the immediate given has been the ultimate method of verification. In the middle of the nineteenth century, and primarily in response to the destructive tendencies of rationalism, positivism assumed the peculiar form of an all-embracing ‘positive philosophy,’ which was to replace traditional metaphysics. The protagonists of this positivism took great pains to stress the conservative and affirmative attitude of their philosophy: it induces thought to be satisfied with the facts, to renounce any transgression beyond them, and to bow to the given state of affairs. To Hegel, the facts in themselves possess no authority. They are ‘posited’ (gesetzt) by the subject that has mediated them with the comprehensive process of its development. Verification rests, in the last analysis, with this process to which all facts are related and which determines their content. Everything that is given has to be justified before reason, which is but the totality of nature’s and man’s capacities.
Hegel’s philosophy, however, which begins with the negation of the given and retains this negativity throughout, concludes with the declaration that history has achieved the reality of reason. His basic concepts were still bound up with the social structure of the prevailing system, and in this respect, too, German idealism may be said to have preserved the heritage of the French Revolution. However, the ‘reconciliation of idea and reality,’ proclaimed in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, contains a decisive element that points beyond mere reconciliation. This element has been preserved and utilized in the later doctrine of the negation of philosophy. Philosophy reaches its end when it has formulated its view of a world in which reason is realized. If at that point reality contains the conditions necessary to materialize reason in fact, thought can cease to concern itself with the ideal. The truth now would require actual historical practice to fulfill it. With the relinquishment of the ideal, philosophy relinquishes its critical task and passes it to another agency. The final culmination of philosophy is thus at the same time its abdication. Released from its preoccupation with the ideal, philosophy is also released from its opposition to reality. This means that it ceases to be philosophy. It does not follow, however, that thought must then comply with the existing order. Critical thinking does not cease, but assumes a new form. The efforts of reason devolve upon social theory and social practice.
Hegel’s philosophy shows five different stages of development:
1 The period from 1790 to 1800 marks the attempt to formulate a religious foundation for philosophy, exemplified in the collected papers of the period, the Theologische Jugendschriften.
2. 1800-1801 saw the formulation of Hegel’s philosophical standpoint and interests through critical discussion of contemporary philosophical systems, especially those of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling. Hegel’s main works of this period are the Differenz des Fichteschen und Schellingichen Systems der Philosophie, Glauben und Wissen, and other articles in the Kritische journal der Philosophie.
3. The years 1801 to 1806 yielded the Jenenser system, the earliest form of Hegel’s complete system. This period was documented by the Jenenser Logik und Metaphysik, Jenenser Realphilosophie, and the System der Sittlichkeit.
4. 1807, the publication of the Phenomenology of Mind.
5. The period of the final system, which was outlined as early as 1808-11 in the Philosophische Propadeutik, but was not consummated until 1817. To this period belong the works that make up the bulk of Hegel’s writing: The Science of Logic (1812-16), the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817, 1827, 1830), the Philosophy of Right (1821), and the various Berlin lectures on the Philosophy of History, the History of Philosophy, Esthetics, and Religion.
The elaboration of Hegel’s philosophic system is accompanied by a series of political fragments that attempt to apply his new philosophical ideas to concrete historical situations. This process of referring philosophical conclusions to the context of social and political reality begins in 1798 with his historical and political studies; is followed by his Die Verfassung Deutschlands in 1802; and continues right through to 1831, when he wrote his study on the English Reform Bill. The connecting of his philosophy with the historical developments of his time makes Hegel’s political writings a. part of his systematic works, and the two must be treated together, so that his basic concepts are given philosophical as well as historical and political explanation.