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There have been widely differing interpretations of Hegel's dialectic. Until the publication of an influential 1958 article by Gustav Mueller, Hegel’s dialectic was described as a triad consisting of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. Most authors of post-1958 books about Hegel have either endorsed Mueller's interpretation, provided questionable examples of dialectics, ignored the topic, or reinterpreted dialectics to mean something other than thesis-antithesis-synthesis. In 2012, however, Leonard F. Wheat presented a new interpretation of Hegel’s thought that identified many thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics in the Phenomenology of Spirit, and several in the Philosophy of History.
Until the publication of an influential 1958 article by Gustav Mueller, Hegel's dialectic was described as a triad consisting of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. But this description was no more than an abstraction. No author had provided from Hegel's writing an accurate, concrete example of such a dialectic. Mueller concluded that the idea that Hegel used dialectical triads was just a "legend." Acknowledging that Hegel, in his preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, refers to "the triadic form," Mueller claims (falsely) that Hegel "calls it a 'lifeless schema.'" What Hegel actually says, however, is that, "in his [Kant's] work, it was still lifeless and uncomprehended," but that "since then" (since Kant, meaning in Hegel's work) dialectics "has, however, been raised to its absolute significance," becoming what Hegel not very modestly calls a "Science." Beyond the "lifeless schema" misinterpretation, Mueller' rests his case heavily on Hegel's failure to use the words "thesis," "antithesis," and "synthesis" in his writing. He then attributes the "legend" to an 1837 book by Professor Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus. Chalybäus claimed that Hegel used thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics; he gave as an example Hegel's Being-Nothing-Becoming "trilogy." Mueller implies, correctly, that the example is not really a dialectic; it is just a trilogy. (But, unknown to Mueller, genuine examples exist.) Mueller also says that "the legend was spread by Karl Marx whose interpretation of Hegel is distorted." (Marx's own dialectics actually follow Hegel's pattern exactly and demonstrate that Marx's interpretation was not distorted.) "Once the Hegel legend was established [by Marx and other 'Left Hegelians'], writers of text-books in the history of philosophy copied it from their predecessors."
The authors of post-1958 books about Hegel, with one recent exception, have either endorsed Mueller's "legend" interpretation, provided false examples of dialectics, ignored the topic, or reinterpreted dialectics to mean something other than thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Kaufmann (1966), for example, emphatically denies that Hegel used dialectics. He cites Mueller's article and repeats Mueller's argument that Hegel rarely said "thesis," "antithesis," or "synthesis" and never used the three terms together. Kaufmann also attacks the idea that a dialectic can be found in Hegel's history triad of (1) oriental despotism, where only one is free, (2) Greco-Roman slavery, where some but not the slaves are free, and (3) Hegel's own Germanic monarchy, where all are free. "Nobody could possibly construe it [one-some-all] as a dialectic," says Kaufmann. Later writers likewise endorsed Mueller's "legend" conclusion. Pinkard attacks "the ongoing myth (started by the deservedly forgfotten Heinrich Moritz Chalybaus) of Hegel's system as consisting of some oddly formal triumvirate of 'Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis' (terms that Hegel himself never uses and that also completely mischaracterize his thought)." And Dove writes: "The notorious triad thesis-antithesis-synthesis . . . misrepresents Hegel, . . . because Hegel's Phenomenology was probably the first philosophical treatise whose method was radically and consistently non-dialectical." Thus, in 2007, Verene could write, "No first-rate Hegel scholar speaks of Hegel having a dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis."
In 2012, however, Wheat presented a new interpretation of Hegel's thought that identified 28 thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics in Phenomenology of Spirit and 10 in Hegel's Philosophy of History, not counting many variants of these 38 dialectics. Hegel, he said (and most other interpreters agree), was an atheist. He needed to conceal his atheism in order to remain employable in his chosen profession. Solomon thus comments that "[Hegel's] 'Christianity' is nothing but nominal, an elaborate subterfuge to protect his professional ambitions in the most religiously conservative country in northern Europe." To conceal his hidden message of atheism (essentially the message that God is humanity), Hegel used cleverly hidden dialectics. Whereas Mueller and Kaufmann both argue that Hegel rarely said "thesis," "antithesis," or "synthesis," Wheat observes that Hegel hid –- but hinted at -– his dialectics by using inconspicuous substitute terms. "Thesis," for example, became "primitive stage," "first stage," "first moment," "first realization," "the positive element," and many other terms -– most commonly just plain "moment" (meaning "stage" of a three-stage dialectic). Wheat also asserts that Mueller looked in the wrong place, Hegel's Logic, for dialectics -- Logic has no dialectics -- whereas Mueller should have looked in The Phenomenology of Spirit (28 dialectics) and The Philosophy of History (10 dialectics). Wheat adds that Hegel, in Phenomenology's preface, praises dialectics. Hegel says that "the triadic form" was "rediscovered" but left "lifeless and uncomprehended" by Kant, whereas in Phenomenology dialectics "has been raised to its absolute significance, and with it the true form in its true content has been presented, so that the Notion of Science has emerged." Here Hegel is calling dialectics a "Science" (capitalized for emphasis) and is strongly hinting that Phenomenology develops this "Science."
Spirit in the Phenomenology
In Phenomenology, the basic overarching dialectic describes the three-stage "life" of an ersatz God Hegel usually calls Spirit but sometimes calls "God." Regarding Hegel's use of "God," Findlay writes: "Hegel often speaks the language of a metaphysical theology, but such language, it is plain, is a mere concession to the pictorial mode of religious expression. As a philosopher, Hegel believes in no God and no Absolute." Spirit, defined by Hegel as "all reality," has a physical side and a mental side. The physical side is every object in the universe, including both natural objects (stars, flowers, rivers, mice) and artificial objects (fences, teacups, doorknobs, shirts). The mental side is the collective mind of man, for which reason Spirit is essentially humanity. Tucker can therefore write: "Hegelianism . . . is a religion of self-worship whos fundamental theme is given in Hegel's image of the man who aspires to be God himself, who demands 'something more, namely infinity.' The whole system is spun out of the formula concerning man's self-elevation from finite [human] to infinite [divine] life." In short, Hegel "gives us a picture of a self-glorifying humanity striving compulsively, and at the end successfully, to rise to divinity." Solomon summarizes the self-glorification process in these words: "What then does Hegel's conception of God admit which any atheist would not? To say that God exists is no more than to say that humanity exists. That is atheism."
Examples of dialectics
Spirit's life begins in a prehuman state of nature. Here Spirit has no mind, hence no consciousness, because man (the source of Spirit's mind) is not yet present on earth. Pinkard writes, "God, as spirit, is already metaphorically asleep [unconscious] in nature, and the divine principle of 'spirit' comes to fruition only as humans appear on the planet and create religions." When humans arrive, "spirit...wakes up from its natural slumber and becomes conscious of itself." Without a mind in its unconscious state, Spirit is not conscious of the many seemingly separate "objects" that constitute reality, so Spirit is unconsciously united as one entity. This is the thesis stage: unconscious unity. When man arrives on the planet, Spirit acquires its mind and becomes conscious. Each person or "subject" perceives a multitude of seemingly alien "objects" that subject (Spirit's mind) does not recognize as essentially itself, Spirit. This is the antithesis stage: conscious separation. Finally, Hegel arrives and becomes part of Spirit's mind. In Spirit's act of "self-realization," Hegel realizes that all the "alien" objects are not really alien but are essentially himself, Spirit, because everything is Spirit. This is the synthesis stage of Spirit's life: conscious unity. The following dialectic results:
- Thesis: unconscious + unity
- Antithesis: conscious + separation
- Synthesis: conscious + unity
This dialectic illustrates Hegel's usual (but not sole) dialectical format. That format has four characteristics: (1) Each stage features two simple concepts that usually consist of just one or two words. (2) Each antithesis concept is the opposite of, not just different from, its thesis counterpart (conscious is the opposite of unconscious, separation the opposite of unity). (3) The synthesis truly synthesizes (combines), borrowing one concept from the thesis ("unity") and one from the antithesis ("conscious"). (4) The dialectic embodies the bible's Johannine concept of "separation and return," separating from and returning to something in the thesis. (Tillich, himself a dialectician, wrote: "Obviously–and it was so intended by Hegel–his dialectics are the religious symbols of estrangement [separation] and reconciliation [return] reduced to empirical descriptions.") Confirming the presence of separation and return in his dialectics, Hegel wrote, "Spirit becomes . . . . alienated [separated] from itself and then returns to itself from this alienation."
The above dialectic leads to a closely related one. In the closing pages of Phenomenology, Hegel three times characterizes self-realization (the synthesis) as achieving "freedom." Freedom is a concept that, according to almost all interpreters who have discussed Hegel's concept of freedom, involves reaching a proper balance between the rights of the state and the rights of the individual. But that balance hasn't been discussed in Phenomenology. Hegel is instead treating freedom as the opposite of bondage, or slavery. In its initial unconscious state (stage 1: thesis), Spirit has no mind, hence hasn't created gods and can't be in bondage to them. So Spirit is potentially free – but can't be actually free until it acquires a mind. Now recall Pinkard's statement that, when Spirit achieves consciousness (stage 2: antithesis), the humans who gave Spirit its mind and its consciousness "create religions." Man thus incurs bondage to – becomes a slave of – God and religious superstition. The bondage entails worship, prayer, monetary support, obedience to arbitrary rules (e.g., kill every witch), embarrassing confession and penance (in Catholicism), self-flagellation (in Islam), inquisitions, and the fear of burning in hell for all eternity for such petty offenses as saying "you fool" or having wealth. Self-realization (stage 3: synthesis) destroys God and religion by elevating man to godhood, or "infinity"; the supernatural God vanishes. The result is the freedom dialectic:
- Thesis: potential + freedom
- Antithesis: actual + bondage
- Synthesis: actual + freedom
Concerning Kaufmann's rebuttal of the supposed one-some-all history dialectic, Wheat says that Kaufmann misses the real dialectic, which is hidden. The hidden dialectic:
- Thesis: One ruler + one territory (Oriental despotism)
- Antithesis: Many rulers + many territories (Greco-Roman democracy and aristocracy)
- Synthesis: One ruler + many territories (Prussia, or Hegel's Germanic monarchy)
Whereas Mueller claimed that Marx's interpretation of Hegel was "distorted," Wheat argues that Marx, in his "dialectical materialism," understood Hegel's two-concepts-per-stage dialectical format perfectly -– and copied it in his own dialectics. Marx actually praises Hegel for using dialectics, saying he (Marx) has "openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel]." But, says Marx, Hegel has dialectics "standing on its head," for which reason dialectics "must be turned riight side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell." By this Marx meant that Hegel's dialectics take place in the realm of ideas, whereas dialectics really takes place in the material world, the realm of production and other economic activity. Marx's most basic dialectic is this:
- Thesis: Communal ownership + poverty (primitive communism, or Gens)
- Antithesis: Private ownership + wealth (slavery, feudalism, and capitalism)
- Synthesis: Communal ownership + wealth (final communism, a future stage)
The four characteristics of Hegel's format are clearly displayed. (1) Each stage consists of two concepts, each of which can be stated in one or two words. (2) Each antithesis concept is the opposite of, not just different from, its thesis counterpart (wealth is the opposite of poverty). (3) The synthesis borrows one concept from the thesis (communal ownership) and one from the antithesis (wealth). (4) The dialectic embodies "separation and return": the dialectic separates from and returns to communism. This Marxian dialectic removes all doubt that Hegelian dialectics really exist: Marx could not have copied Hegel's format if Hegel's format didn't exist.
- Gustav E. Mueller, "The Hegel Legend of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis," Journal of the History of Ideas 19:3 (1958), 411-14
- G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), para. 50
- Mueller, 413
- Mueller, 414
- Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: A Reinterpretation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966, 154-55, 249.
- Terry Pinkard, Hegel's Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994),17.
- Kenley R. Dove, "Hegel's Phenomenological Method," in The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader, ed. Jon Stewart (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 52-75.
- Donald P. Verene, Hegel's Absolute: An Introduction to Reading The Phenomenology of Spirit (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 18.
- Leonard F. Wheat, Hegel's Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012), 47, 96-100.
- Robert Solomon, From Hegel to Existentialism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 582
- Wheat, 60-62.
- Wheat, 18-19.
- G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, tran. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), para. 50.
- J. N. Findlay, The Philosophy of Hegel: An Introduction and Re-Examination (New York: Collier, 1958), 353.
- Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961),43.
- Tucker, 66.
- Robert Solomon, From Hegel to Existentialism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 67.
- Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 580.
- Wheat, 93-144
- Wheat, 43-44, 108-112, 120-21, 221-23.
- Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, v. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 329.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 36.
- Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels (New York: Modern Library, n.d., first published 1906), 100.
- Wheat, 255