Hegel, Marx and historical materialism

Ricky asked:

Explain how Hegel’s historical materialism tries to further the idea that the world is constantly perfecting itself. Be sure to explain how the Hegelian dialectic works in full detail. Use parliamentary democracy or the institution of science to show how Hegel’s philosophy of reality works.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Ricky, I would connect Karl Marx rather than Hegel with Historical Materialism. He developed this theory upon the influence (this is a controversial area) of Hegel. Marx however, inverted Hegel’s Dialectic ‘the right side up’ to uncover the ‘rational kernel inside the mystical shell’. (Afterword to the 2nd German Edition of Capital.) This was based on the argument that Hegel had gone about things in the wrong way. Hegel had viewed human history as primarily the development of human consciousness, of the human mind moving towards the full realisation of itself in the Absolute Idea. In other words, the unity of subjective human consciousness with the objective consciousness of the Universe/God.

The dynamic behind this movement is Dialectic. It is comprised of three moments.

 • The Abstract or that of the Understanding.

 • The Dialectic or that of Negative Reason.

 • The Speculative or that of Positive Reason. (Encyclopaedia Logic #79)

Understanding cognises things as either/or. As traditional logic, it cannot deal with Contradiction. This had been the problem confronting previous philosophy-overcoming contradictions such as those between Infinite and Finite, One and Many, Freedom and Necessity and the like. This is announced most explicitly in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In the part entitled Transcendental Dialectic, Kant describes such contradictions or Antinomies, Paralogisms and Ideals that confront Understanding. He believed Reason could not proceed beyond them.

Hegel however, maintained that his application of Dialectic can overcome them. Negative Reason brings forward the tensions in phenomena but Speculative or Positive Reason overcomes them. The negative is synthesised with the insights of positive Reason in the process of Aufgehoben: the superseding of the existing and its opposite and their preservation on a higher, cumulatively progressive outcome. For example, in the Logic, Doctrine of Being, Hegel begins to examine the concept of Being. This is examined and found to be almost indeterminate as it is so abstract. So much so that Negative Reason finds it to be Nothing. Nothing would traditionally be viewed as the irreconcilable opposite of something, of Being. As there are two moments – Being and Nothing – there is a movement of thought between the two. This movement is Becoming. So the negative dialectic between the two terms is solved by Positive or Speculative Reason in a third term – Becoming.

In the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, a similar pattern is found between the three books (and the content of the Books themselves). The first-Logic, provides the very structure of Universal Thought. This provides the ‘framework’ for the content of Nature which is the concern of the second Book. The two combine -Form and Content if you like-in the Third Book, Mind or Spirit: the dialectical unity of the previous two subjects on a higher, more comprehensive level. Thus the development of human consciousness as Reason appears before itself, is ‘For-Itself’.

This process is both linear and cumulative. It is, teleological. Like the Final Cause of Aristotle, the final end is the fruition of ‘seeds’ found in the beginning. In fact, some scholars find a lot of Aristotle in Hegel. (See ‘The Concept’ by Mike Marchetti http://www.GWFHegel.com )

Philosophy of History

This pattern is also found in Hegel’s account of the Philosophy of History. History is nothing but the progress of the consciousness of Freedom. Reason is not only the fabric of the Universe (, when physicists read Mathematics in the universe, this would be Reason for Hegel. In so doing, we connect with the Mind of the Universe or God); Reason is also its energising power or dynamic. Historically, Reason has facilitated Freedom. There are distinct periods of World History: Oriental, Greek, Roman and the Germanic. In the oriental stage, only one person -the despot – is free. In the Greek and Roman, only some were free as both were slave societies. Finally, in the Germanic Nations, the influence of Christianity (Protestantism) brings with it the consciousness that humanity is free, so all should be and are free.

Hegel maintained that Freedom-as he viewed it-could only arise through the State. The State is not just a political entity, it is both historically cumulative and organic as it enshrines the culture of a people, its history, its religion. Reason as the Divine Idea on Earth, manifests itself in the Constitution of the State. Freedom is the synthesis of the individual, subjective Will with the Rational Will of the State. Parliamentary democracy proffers divisive groups, factions above the State. Hence Hegel favoured a Constitutional, ‘enlightened monarchy’ who would be guided by state officials. These in turn would oversee the various sections of society or ‘corporations’ as Hegel termed them. For the State wills what is good for the Whole and not just for a part or parts.

Reason, as elsewhere with Hegel, is the supreme end of things and Political society is no exception. Reason brings Freedom but Freedom has responsibilities to the State that provides it:

"In a Constitution, the main feature of interest is the self-development of the Rational. That is, the political condition of the people, the setting free of successive elements of the Idea, so that the several powers in the State manifest themselves as…and yet, in this independent condition, work together for one object and are held together by it. I.e. form an organic whole. The State is thus the embodiment of Rational Freedom, realising and recognising itself in an objective form."
GWF Hegel Introduction to the Philosophy of History

I hope this is of use Ricky.


One thought on “Hegel, Marx and historical materialism

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.