Confused about Hegelian dialectic

Brianna asked:

The final step of the Hegelian dialectic is thesis or the synthesis?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

You would think that synthesis must be the answer; but if the dialectical process is continuous, then the synthesis is also the thesis which continues the dialectics.

So the answer is not in fact so easy.

Look at it this way: Everything that exists is in constant process of development. Therefore every situation contains within itself conflicting elements, and these are destabilizing to the existing situation. No situation can continue forever without change.

Whatever those conflicts are, they have to work themselves out, until they achieve a resolution, and this will then constitute a new situation — and of course a situation that contains new potential conflicts.

Hegel is not concerned with outer space or even the physical situation on Earth. His philosophy revolves around the ‘Geist’, the human spirit. Among humans, this spirit comes constantly in conflict with other spirits. Ideally such conflicts should be resolved by people sitting down and thrashing out their differences.

This is a dialectical situation. How do we resolve it?

Hegel would say, let us begin with your proposition, and let’s call it the ‘thesis’.

We need to debate it, and therefore someone else has to propose a counter-thesis, or ‘antithesis’. Ideally, assuming both contestants are reasonable people, some good will come out of the conflict between these two points of view. It need not be half and half. It could be a blending of views, or the adoption of a new perspective by both parties, so that they can accommodate each other.

But whatever the new situation will be, it cannot be one or the other, but always a mingling. No one person can ever be in sole possession of the truth on any question. So when the resolution is achieved, we have made progress.

At the end of debating them, we draw conclusions or achieve a consent, and this we can then call the ‘synthesis’.

Yet even as we congratulate ourselves on having achieved consensus, it is perfectly clear that sooner or later the synthesis is bound to become the ‘thesis’ of a new conflict and a new engagement in dialectics.

Hegel is assuming that, as rational creatures, we will not relapse back into our pre-synthesis situation, but keep striving for progress.

But because we are humans, and change our situation constantly — meaning: our societies grow and change from year to year, sometimes from week to week — this dialectical process need never end. Once again Hegel is of the view that in the long run, the human spirit learns more and more things. In his philosophy the ultimate goal is to turn all knowledge into concepts, so that ultimately all theses, antitheses and syntheses issue into one grand all-embracing concept.

The philosophical dialectics is a method for examining ourselves and the state of our knowledge. In that process, we should also increase our self-knowledge and self-awareness. And now the idea of the subject as its own truth contains within itself the dialectical bifurcation. As life is growth, so it is a becoming.

And so we return to the point where your question stood. It might seem unlikely that humans will ever arrive at a stage where debate is unnecessary. So the dialectics will go on forever.

In principle, however, there is an end to all dialectics when the human spirit has attained complete mastery of itself and conceptualized all possible knowledge. This is when the last synthesis coincides with the absolute ‘Geist’.

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