Georg Hegel: Philosophy and the Dialectic

The 18th to 19th century German philosopher Georg Hegel redefines the way history ought to be looked at. He was the head of the University of Berlin for one year, prior to his passing in 1831. His ideas are still as valuable as they were when he was alive as they are today. These ideas were outlined mostly in his books Phenomenology of Spirit and The Science of Logic.

His most pivotal, and of course most useful, idea was that society and history swings from thesis to antithesis until a synthesis is derived from the swinging of the pendulum. The reason as to why it swings from extreme to extreme is that society overcompensates for a past wrong. For instance, one can look at the French Revolution for evidence. In the late 18th century, France was an absolute monarchy until the revolution swung the pendulum to the far left. Anarchy was the name of the game here. Then, with the rise of Napoleon and his embracing of absolute power, the pendulum swung back to the right. It was only after Napoleon did French society reach a synthesis of the modern state. Progress is never linear. This is the dialectic. That with the swinging back and forth is the way society moves forward to a synthesis— this stepping from era to era is necessary and is to be expected until society finds an equilibrium. There is then this sense of hope, that if the current society is unacceptable to a person, then it will eventually change to either something greater and better or to another extreme.

He also had an interesting way of looking into history. Instead of looking at each and every society and event as inhuman when compared to modern standards, we should instead look to them as grand experiments of the human concept. This perspective transforms the view of history from that of mere memorization to that of, what Hegel calls, “mining for historical nuggets.” He argues that there is something to be learned from each ‘experiment;’ the Roman Empire can teach a society how to assimilate different cultures, whilst the medieval period can teach us the role of honor. Hegel then argues that the role of a historian is to find those lost insights.

He believed value lies in learning from ideas one dislikes. The truth is scattered among different truths, and while the opposite idea might seem scary, there is some insight into it. Then, seemingly bleak and horrific historical events are transformed into sources of insight into the human spirit. Nationalism has had many brutal manifestations; however, Hegel argues that there is some underlying good to this. He argued that with nationalism, there is a need of people to feel as though they belong to something greater than themselves. Perhaps the most important ideas are buried in people whom others hold with disdain.

Finally, the only way for ideas to become important in society are through institutions. These institutions need employees, budgets, and buildings. They are able to delegate the time and resources to bring great ideas to fruition. So then as the new ideas of society are realized, they should establish more institutions in order to uphold these truths.

Hegel provides us with greater concepts to apply to not only our lives but also in the study of history and the application of the ideas gifted to us through history.

Sources: School of Life, “Phenomenology of Spirit”, “Science of Logic”