Hegel Beyond Marxism

Hegel is much more than a precursor to Marx. His philosophy has a lot to offer in many subjects, not least in theology and the philosophy of religion.

I’ve been reading Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology by Gary Dorrien, a book I sort of found randomly while browsing recently. It scratches an admittedly idiosyncratic intellectual itch, my interest in both theology and nineteenth century cultural and intellectual history. The latter has basically been a thing since my senior year in high school when I was in academic decathlon and we studied Romanticism in the art, literature, and music units. Anyway, I was looking for something on theology and German Idealism and there was this book that is also conveniently available in audio format. Turns out it’s actually really good too, if you’re into that sort of thing. I was listening to it on the way to work today and Dorrien made some comments about Hegel that I really appreciated.

I was first exposed to Hegel in the context of Marx, as an influence of Marx. I learned about the concept of the dialectic first in the form of Marx’s dialectical materialism. And it’s an interesting idea, both the Marxian version and other versions of the dialectic. The basic idea being that there’s a kind of ongoing conversation, effectively, working itself out through history. Ideas, cultures, and systems develop through their interactions and conflicts. For Marx this was fundamentally an economic process with everything else, like religion, being a kind of add-on or “superstructure” on top of that. He saw economic development proceeding through feudalism and capitalism and ultimately to communism. That was his theory of history. And I knew that Hegel had a lot to say about this and that Marx sort of used him as a springboard. And that’s definitely true, Marx was very influenced by Hegel.

But Hegel was a lot more than just a precursor to Marx. And in the nineteenth century I’d say he was a more influential figure. Marx certainly dominates much of the twentieth century. But in the nineteenth century everyone was responding to Hegel. So, why? What was this guy about? Well he wrote about everything. He was a tremendous systems thinker who had a theory of the whole of reality, quite literally. So it’s almost hard to say what his schtick was. His writing is also notoriously difficult so it’s often hard to even understand what he’s talking about. But. His thought definitely includes much more than the elements picked out in the service of Marxism.

And this is something Dorrien emphasized in the parts of his book I was reading today. And he got me nodding along enthusiastically, because he was saying a lot of the stuff I had been thinking recently. I’m actually one of these gluttons for punishment who has read Hegel’s behemoth work The Phenomenology of Spirit in its entirety. I read it this year read in fact. And Dorrien was talking about how much of the Phenomenology is a disorganized mess and I have to agree. That makes it difficult to get through. Still there’s a lot of fascinating stuff there. The part that gets emphasized a lot is the section on the master and slave, which has been incredibly influential. This shows up in a redrawn form in Nietzsche and it definitely has potential political use. Dorrien talks about how interpreters of Hegel, especially those with political interests, have really latched onto this, seeing the Phenomenology through the lens of oppression and liberation. In the twentieth century Alexandre Kojève was a towering interpreter of Hegel, sort of the authority on Hegel. And he approached him through a political lens and a Marxist lens. As a consequence people have tended to downplay the metaphysical and especially the theological side of Hegel. And in my reading of the Phenomenology it’s struck me how metaphysical and theological Hegel was. Those weren’t incidental to Hegel. I’d say there were central. Far from the revolutionary Marxist and atheist interpretations of Hegel he was a profoundly spiritually-interested Christian philosopher. He wasn’t orthodox by any means. Hardly conventional. But Christianity was central to his philosophy, which is one of the reasons I find him so interesting.

Now it’s certainly true that Hegel was a political thinker. Like I said, he wrote about everything. His Philosophy of Right is one of the canonical texts of Western political philosophy. He lived through the Napoleonic wars and the emergence of liberalism. But he had many other interests as well beyond the political. I tend to think the political has a dangerous tendency to metastasize and blind us to many other important features of the world and this is just one example of that. It’s not that the political isn’t important but it’s not everything. So I really appreciated Dorrien talking about this in his book.

Just a few more comments on the Phenomenology. People have struggled to say what this book is about, not least of all Hegel himself. But I’d say it’s about the development of Reason with a capital R, starting from the barest simplicity to the most comprehensive entirety of all reality. And in between those extremes is a systematic study of the way human beings are able to think and reason. So in a way it’s analogous to titles like Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. And of course he, like everyone in his day, was responding to Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason. And I’d say that Hegel, though his language is much more poetic and difficult, is really doing something very similar. Just more epic in scope.

And you can get a pretty good idea of this from the book’s table of contents. The main sections are, in order: consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, spirit, religion, and absolute knowing. And that first section on consciousness is divided into subsections on sense-certainty and perception, so starting with just the most basic animal qualities. Then self-consciousness is more developed then consciousness, reason is more developed than self-consciousness, and so on. That famous master-slave section is actually in the section on self-consciousness. And though it probably does have political associations I’d say it’s really more about the way self-consciousness arises through realization that other people are centers of consciousness like ourselves and that this induces reflection leading to a more recursive self-consciousness, which I think is a very interesting idea, even more so than the political implications. Lots of interesting stuff there.

I’m especially interested in the sections on religion. Hegel has some very interesting ideas that he gets into into the Phenomenology that he develops further in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, which I haven’t had the opportunity to read yet directly, apart from commentaries. But he has an understanding of religion and God in relation to the world progressing through a dialectic, which leads to the religious development we see in history. Something I’m studying in the Bible right now is the way the understanding of God as well as the relationships God has with humanity change throughout history. With my Latter-day Saint background this is also very amenable to our idea of progression, line-upon-line development, and continuing revelation. So Hegel is very interesting for all of that.

So that’s the end of my soapbox on Hegel and why, even if you come across through Marx, like I did, there’s a lot more there. And he’s a very interesting philosopher and, arguably, Christian theologian in his own right.

2 thoughts on “Hegel Beyond Marxism”

  1. Isn’t it interesting how actually reading the source can bring one to totally different conclusions or at least different realizations than what the expert digests reveal? I remember being startled by Plato’s description of Socrates’ experience with Holy Ghost, something that was totally different than the digests’ description of his daemon.

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