Among the most notoriously inaccessible philosophers, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hegel, and Kant are sure to top many lists. Because of his discursive writing style, neologisms, reliance on previous philosophers, and the sheer complexity of his analysis, Hagle tops mine. I must admit to not fully grasping the entirety of his canon (does anyone?). Still, I feel versed enough in his work to apply it to one of the most pressing yet elusive issues we face in America today: what’s next?
“What’s next?” has a few implications I’d first like to clarify. It implies;
- There is something currently proposed as the status quo.
- The possible existence of an alternative.
- Some reason a shift from the status quo to an alternative may be necessary.
But to understand Hegel and why his philosophy is so important today, we need to investigate the background of his framework.
The Onset of German Idealism
Our journey begins earlier than you might expect. Many scholars pinpoint the 17th century as the beginning of Modern Philosophy in The West, with two of its competing schools of thought being Rationalism and Empiricism. Among their many interests, establishing the objective sources of knowledge was paramount. As is the nature of language, these terms assumed far different meanings than they do today.
Sources of Knowledge: Reason?
The combined postulations of Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and others represented Rationalism, which held that our senses are fundamentally flawed and unreliable enough to exclude them from conversations of knowledge and ultimately truth itself. One popular demonstration of this is optical illusions. In his Meditations, Objections, and Replies, Descartes writes:
Hence, when it is asserted that a stick in water appears broken on account of refraction, this is the same as saying that how it appears to us is the basis on which a child would judge it to be broken and even the basis on which we make the same judgment
Seeing a stick bent in water reflects an objective and reliable error in our sensory mechanisms.
The same could be said for mirages, our enjoymnet of skilled magicians, and spooky auditory illusions.
In light of this revelation, Rationalism asserts that the faculty of reason alone, the ability to think abstractly about the objects of our experience independent of our empirical observations of them, was the source of knowledge and regarded sensory experiences as an untrustworthy method of acquiring knowledge.
Sources of Knowledge: Experience?
The response to this idea was a new philosophical movement, including thinkers such as Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Later identified as Empiricists, they approached the errors in our sensory experiences not as killing blows to their trustworthiness, but merely as exceptions to the general rule of reliability.
Sure we sometimes mistakenly hear our names called in a crowded venue, but is that really cause to throw out the validity of hearing in every case? They would argue no, and snipe back that our very ability to reason is a consequence of years of sensory experience.
A major point of deviation between these two lines of thought is that Empiricists do not believe humans are born with any innate concepts or abilities such as reason. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke provides a helpful analogy in saying:
Let us then suppose the mind to have no ideas in it, to be like white paper with nothing written on it. How then does it come to be written on? From where does it get that vast store which the busy and boundless imagination of man has painted on it — all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience
From this position, which is often referred to as the Blank Slate (or more academically in its Latin translation, Tabula Rasa), people are not born with any natural faculty of reason to acquire knowledge. Rather, they are painted upon by the brush strokes of culture. Reason then becomes a skill like any other, which requires practice through sensory experience. Locke basically pointed out that Rationalists were putting the cart before the horse in this respect.
So which is it? How do we attain knowledge? Despite our faulty senses, many accept the doctrine of the Blank Slate to this day, so you’d likely agree with the Empiricists. But, according to Kant, both viewpoints were wrong and right at the same time.
Enter: Transcendental Idealism
With his publication of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant ushered in a new level of philosophical discourse. In this behemoth of a book, Kant sought to illustrate that while our pages may be blank at birth, the borders which constrain them represent inherent limits to certain kinds of knowledge.
These borders include the notions of time, space, and what he refers to as the categories of the understanding; outside of which, both reason and experience, and thus knowledge (or truth), are impossible. Kant then asked, why should we assume the only knowledge that exists conforms to these borders? Could it not be the case that such seemingly unattainable knowledge exists right outside of our conceptual grasp? Is that not the case for creativity, a venture outside the limits of our understanding in hopes of returning with something genuinely new?
In a (long) sentence Kant sums his philosophy in saying that:
rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something (Prolegomena, § 32)
Where “objects of sense as mere appearances” refers to the way in which we see the bent straw and “a thing in itself” signals the straw's objective property of straightness. The property of straightness, when submerged underwater, lies outside these borders due not to the nature of our eyes per se, but of our mind’s sensory-interpretive framework.
Now Kant rather strictly regarded these borders as fixed and relegated experience and reason safely inside of them. Though other German Idealists like Fichte, Schelling, and Schopenhauer (my personal favorite) took much more relaxed positions, Hegel uniquely applied it to the progression of human history.
Hegelianism: How Ideas Drive Progress
In contrast to how we learn history today as the succession of historically significant material events (e.g., wars, revolutions, and trade), Hegel posits that these events are merely consequences of the development of ideas in our heads.
The German word Zeitgeist literally translates to “the spirit of the times” and helps elucidate what Hegel was getting at. Each era has a set of significant conversations and debates that have far-reaching consequences in the material world. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, for example, argues in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, that:
If the mind is structureless at birth and shaped by its experience, a society that wants the right kind of minds must control the experience. Twentieth-century Marxist states were not just dictatorships but totalitarian dictatorships. They tried to control every aspect of life: childrearing, education, clothing, entertainment, architecture, the arts, even food and sex. Authors in the Soviet Union were enjoined to become “engineers of human souls.”
The commonalities among these talks represent the Zeitgeist at any given point in time. In the 17th century, at least one of the Zeitgeists in Europe was the debate between the Empiricists and Rationalists, and one of the products of this debate partially laid the groundwork for the horrors perpetrated by totalitarian dictatorships roughly 200 years later.
Though it’s hard to draw causal links that spread apart, Pinker’s argument is still compelling enough to warrant a degree of seriousness around our thoughts and the potential they possess.
Dialectics in Action
Moving forward, Hegel not only pointed out how ideas are in the driver’s seat of history but also sketched out the vehicle they drive.
Dialectics refers to the lasting process of development ideas endure which lead to politically progressive events in the real world
This vehicle is usually understood as dialectics which, on its face, is a form of philosophical discourse wherein first a position is established, its counter then emerges, and finally, typically through debate or confrontation, a solution informed by both positions arrives.
Although not originated by him, the famously incisive catch-phrase “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis,” is often attributed to Hegel as it captures his core idea very well (though in truth, it was originally formulated by Fichte). It represents the trifold path of the development of ideas.
For good measure, let’s now read the above debate through a dialectical lens. First, the Rationalists proposed that reason is the source of knowledge (Thesis). Then, in response, the collective critiques of the Empiricists led to an alternative position in that reason cannot be the source of knowledge due to the fundamentality of experience underlying reason (Antithesis). Working with this in the background, Kant then attempted to reconcile these seemingly incompatible belief systems and, in doing so, created something truly new and significant in Transcendental Idealism (Synthesis).
But the story of dialectics does not conclude nor begin in the way described. Zooming out, Rationalism was actually a synthesis in itself of previous philosophical disputes. And after Transcendental Idealism resolved tensions between its preceding schools of thought, it became its own thesis which was then reacted to and critiqued by succeeding intellectuals. The process continues to this day and shows no signs of stopping.
Appropriately viewed, dialectics refers to the lasting process of development ideas endure, which lead to politically progressive events in the real world. In contrast, dialectical materialism, developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, takes Hegel’s vision and shifts it from pure idealism to the material events of class struggle that they believed drove history forward through oppression (Thesis), conflict (Antithesis), and revolution (Synthesis).
And Now for Something Completely Different
Now that we have a better understanding of how ideas developed historically, let’s fast forward our conversation to the concrete realities of contemporary political economy.
Democratic Socialism vs Social Democracy
Among the various ideologies in present conversation, capitalism, socialism, and communism are sure to bring up certain attitudes and images, particularly in Americans, partly due to how they have been taught to us and presented in popular media. However, democratic socialism and social democracy are less likely to do so because Americans are woefully underexposed to these ideologies.
Instead of painfully explaining these terms, I refer you to azureScapegoat’s informative video below
Although I will underscore a significant point of difference between democratic socialism and social democracy. Although social democracy is theoretically rooted in Marxism and communism, it is unapologetically capitalist and fundamentally opposed to its ancestral ideologies. Much in the same way that capitalism finds its inspiration in mercantilism while maintaining is independence.
Democratic socialism, on the other hand, remains deeply socialist. However, one core difference between socialist revolutionaries and democratic socialists is found in the means by which they seek to bring about a socialist society. The former favors organized and often violent overthrows of existing systems while the latter simply wants a democratic vote for a peaceful transition and, ultimately, a democratically planned economy.
In this way, democratic socialists are seated to the left of social democrats. Still, social democracy can seem pretty radical to most contemporary conservatives, especially those who still champion the comparatively archaic doctrine of laissez-faire economics.
Contemporary examples of social democracy are found in the Nordic Model, which refers to the collection of Northan European societies like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Standard across all these societies is a commitment to private enterprise driven and limited by public welfare. Their policy accomplishments include high median incomes, low levels of income inequality, strong labor protections, and high degrees of human freedom.
Social Democracy: A Hegelian Interpretation
Let’s now combine our two conversations by understanding social democracy through Hegel’s eyes to answer our original question: what’s next?
Some may infer that social democracy is the synthesis of capitalism and communism, but this is a misunderstanding. The synthesis between capitalism and communism has already emerged in what many term neoliberalism, which is basically “capitalism lite” or rebranded Keynesianism. And if neoliberalism is our current thesis, according to Hegel, its antithesis must also exist.
Unfortunately for us, a reactionary ideology’s label typically comes posthumously. Yet, we still see commonalities among those who stand in opposition to the neoliberal order. The Occupy movement, Antifa, aspects of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and even elements of Trumpism all declare fierce challenges to the status quo.
- Accelerating income inequality (Occupy)
- The resurgence of right-wing authoritarianism (Antifa),
- Perpetual racial and economic injustices (BLM), and
- Globalization and establishment politics (Trumpism)
all share a sentiment of antagonism against neoliberalism, which I will refer to preliminarily as anti-neoliberalism.
We stand in a nerve-racking position. Finding flaws in existing systems is much easier than inventing new ones. After 60 years of relative dormancy, American political activism has now returned with a vengeance. What hasn’t returned is the courage to be intellectually creative. Anti-neoliberals have made their discontent apparent by taking to the streets, burning buildings, clashing with the government, and so on, for good reason. But we must recognize that anti-neoliberalism alone is not a comprehensive system on which we can build a society. Its critiques may lead to a better society in the future, but its usefulness exhausts itself at that end.
Further, as Walter Benjamin warns:
Behind every rise of fascism, there is a failed revolution,
which signifies just how careful we need to be when planning and especially actualizing alternatives.
So in a way, social democracy could be on America’s horizon, but Hegel wouldn’t really see it as a synthesis. I think the implementation of social democracy would be more like a desperation move to keep neoliberalism on life-support while we deliberate what’s really next: a necessary but deeply transitional step.
Concluding Thoughts: Embracing Terror
When analyzing political economy from a Hegelian perspective, it becomes increasingly terrifying the further one zooms in. We seem today to be at a precipice of the unknown, a truly daunting position. We have the knowledge of our past; what works and what doesn’t, but instead of taking that information and going back to the drawing board we remain compelled by our delusions that we have the answer to what’s next.
The radical left’s obsession with Marxism is just as much a hindrance to our willingness to embrace the terror of our situation as the neoliberal preoccupation with free markets. In fact, every ideology is an obstacle as they sell you believable fantasies to quell your anxiety while the world slowly crumbles around you. The real solution is to escape the ideologically-driven narratives spoon-fed to us daily and embrace the terror that accompanies a leap into the void that is post-ideological being.
Paradoxically, we know today that we do require ideological narratives to make sense out of the enigmatic nature of human experience.
The world is complex and there is an almost infinite variety of facts out there. We cannot consider them all…we need rules for determining which facts are relevant, and what normative goals we should use our knowledge to pursue. Ideology of one kind or another, is essential to organizing our thinking about the facts of the political world, and systematizing our reasoning about political values.
But as Hegel would no doubt agree, through contradiction we find progress. So, I lean on Nietzsche when he said:
Man is something that shall be overcome,
and maintain that we need to transcend our perceived limitations on the grounds that their unaltered acceptance is, and I mean this literally, an existential risk.
The neoliberal ideology, as we know it today, cannot continue for long. One only needs to survey the ecological damage years of unfettered capitalism has caused to revere the temperance of this claim. And that is not even to speak of the looming split between democracy and capitalism.
So in an era of activism, I challenge us not to stop fighting for what we believe is right, the time for that is now. What’s next, however, is far more intimidating — the time to think, theorize, and expand the bounds of our conceptions is next.