Marxism and Hegel, by Edward J Khamara (Academic Article)

Space, Time, and Theology in the Leibniz-Newton ControversyHegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (Galaxy Books)The Blackwell Guide to Hegel's Charmides: Unified Edition (with All Variants from the 1781 and 1787 Editions)Western Philosophy: An Anthology (Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies)I, Robot

My aim in this article is to combat two misconceptions about Hegel for which I hold the Marxists to be largely responsible.  The two misconceptions are implicit in the label ‘Dialectical Materialism’ which the majority of Marxists are happy to adopt as characterising their central philosophical position.  The rationale for this label is that Marxists adopt Hegel’s dialectic but substitute materialism for his mystifying idealism.  As Marx himself put it in a famous passage, in Hegel the dialectic was ‘standing on its head’, because it was linked to idealism; by linking it with materialism Marx thought he had ‘turned it right side up again’, and had discovered ‘the rational kernel within the mystical shell’.  There are two assumptions here which I would contest.  The first is that Hegel was an immaterialist, that his idealism is incompatible with Marxist materialism; and the second is that Hegel’s dialectic is to be taken objectively, as embodying very general laws to which reality must conform (whether the nature of reality is ultimately material or spiritual is taken to be a further question).

These two misconceptions are not peculiar to Marxists: they pervade, for example, an influential article by Sir Karl Popper, which he published nearly seventy years ago, on which I shall venture some comments. Nor would it be fair to say that they are completely unfounded.  Hegel’s style of writing is notoriously obscure.  “If only he could have matched the vigour  of his thought with skill in self-expression …’, sighs the late Professor Walsh of Edinburgh  University in a valuable study of  Hegelian ethics; and all serious students of Hegel have wished at many points that he should have done so. (This reminds me of an aphorism, allegedly by Hegel and attributed to hisBerlin period: ‘A great man condemns mankind to make sense of him’.)  The result is that the prejudiced, unsympathetic reader, who is not prepared to put in the excessive effort that is required can sometimes easily represent Hegel as saying what he wants him to say;  this, I believe is the root of  what I have called the first misconception.  But with the second misconception the case is different; it has a good basis in Hegel and is not the result of complete misunderstanding.  Hegel did fail to distinguish between a conceptual version and an objective version of his dialectic; but one could offer reasons for sharply distinguishing between the two, and try to show that, whereas the conceptual version is philosophically enlightening, the objective version contains nothing but sophistry and confusion.  My quarrel with the Marxists is that they have located the ‘rational’ kernel’ in the wrong place; for it is the objective version of dialectic that they have (understandably) swallowed as the one relevant to their materialism.  This, however, is too big a task for the present occasion.  So I shall concentrate mainly on the first misconception.

If I am right in holding that Hegel is not an immaterialist, in what sense, then, is he an idealist? He does indeed describe his central philosophical position as a form of idealism, to which he gives the label ‘absolute idealism’.  But this description is apt to be extremely misleading: in many respects Hegel’s philosophy is the very opposite of ‘idealistic’, in the sense in which the word is commonly understood, especially by people brought up in the British tradition of doing philosophy.   Thus he is not an idealist in the sense which we associate with the name of Berkeley, in the sense of someone who upholds the principle that esseispercipi —that a thing can only exist when it is perceived, conceived or thought of. Nor is he an idealist in the sense which we associate with the name of Kant, or rather certain aspects of Kant; in the sense that the human mind somehow makes or manufactures the empirical world, that the mind imposes its own forms upon the material of sense experience and constructs the ‘objective’ world by its own activities of imagination and thought – in much the same way as a sausage machine imposes its own shapes on raw material with which it is fed.

Hegelian idealism has to do with ideals rather than the ideas of the British empiricists.  Hegel is a philosopher who recommends a certain philosophical outlook, a perspective in which to see the world and man’s place in it; and in this perspective the rational ideals of human beings supply the focal point.  But the recommendation of this philosophical perspective does not in any way commit him to either contradicting common sense or adding to it: he is not concerned to deny any everyday facts or throw doubt on any ordinary certainties, nor is he concerned to assert as factually true  what no non-Hegelian would allow to be true.  His brand of idealism may be more aptly described as teleological idealism: he urges us to regard everything in the universe as subserving certainideals, as manifesting activities inspired or undertaken in pursuitof certain rational ideals. These rational ideals are collectively called by him Mind, Spirit (Geist), the Idea or the Divine. The purpose of there being physical objects, for example, is to make possible certain higher spiritual experiences; so that nature for Hegel is a precondition of spirituality and not the latter’s creation.

He himself is at pains to distinguish his brand of idealism from the Kantian brand in his so-called Shorter Logic, based upon a lecture note, taken down by his students, which I quote:

The view that the objects of immediate consciousness, which constitute the body of experience, are mere phenomena was [an] important result of the Kantian philosophy. Common sense believes the objects of which it has knowledge to be severally independent and self-supporting. … [But] the very opposite is the truth.  The things immediately known are mere phenomena – in other words the ground of their being is not in themselves but in something else.[Note the special sense in which the term‘phenomenon’ is here used.  Hegel frequently makes use of some technical words from Kant, but uses them quite differently, pouring new wine into old bottles.]  But then comes the important step of defining what this something else is.  According to Kant, the things that we know about are to us appearances only, and we can never know what they are in themselves, which belongs to another world which is inaccessible to us.  Plain minds have not unreasonably taken exception to this subjective idealism with its reduction of the contents of consciousness to a purely personal world, created by ourselves alone.  For the true statement of the case is rather as follows.  The things of which we have direct consciousness are mere phenomena, not for us only, but in themselves; and the true and proper case of these things, finite as they are, is to have their existence founded not in themselves but in the universal divine Idea.  This view of things, it is true, is as idealist as Kant’s; but in contradistinction to subjective idealism of the Critical [i.e. Kantian] philosophy should be termed absolute idealism.

Here Hegel is using the term ‘phenomenon’ in the unusual sense of an object whose ground of existence is not in itself but in something else; this I take to mean something which does not enjoy an independent existence.  To this extent Hegel agrees with Kant that the objects of our consciousness are phenomena.  But he disagrees with Kant over the question: Upon what do these objects depend for their existence?  To Kant their existence depends upon the human mind; for Hegel it is dependent upon ‘the universal divine Idea’.  The latter type of dependence, however, is teleological.  These objects are phenomena for Hegel because they enjoy, so to speak, a second-rate existence: their raison d’être is to provide a stimulus or stepping stone for men’s rational activities; they are a means towards realising rational ideals.  They are, therefore, as he puts it, ‘phenomena, not for us only, but in themselves’.  But the fact that they are thus teleologically dependent upon ‘the divine Idea’ does not make them mind-dependent.  Hegel’s position, according to this passage, is not only compatible with realism but actually requires it.  For this reason he gives his own brand of idealism the label ‘absolute idealism’, to distinguish it from the Kantian brand which he calls ‘subjective idealism’.

To illustrate the difference between the two brands of idealism by means of an example: Kant would say that this chair is a phenomenon, because whatever qualities it displays are in fact contributed by my mind.  There is indeed such a thing as the chair-in-itself, but its properties are absolutely inaccessible to me.  The chair that I see and touch is therefore mind-dependent; this is subjective idealism (or phenomenalism).  Hegel would disagree with all this.  He would say that the real chair is exactly the chair I see and touch, and that it can continue to exist without being perceived or thought of by anyone; to that extent Hegel is a realist.  Nevertheless, he would say that the chair would not have been there were it not for the needs and rational activities of men; it exists as a means towards making such activities possible.  For this reason Hegel would call this chair an absolute phenomenon, a ‘phenomenon in itself’. (Note the deliberate use of Kantian terminology, but in a different sense.)

 It should be clear by now that in the sense in which British philosophers understand the term ‘idealist’ Hegel was not an idealist at all; the late Professor J. N. Findlay, who was instrumental in reviving interest in Hegel in the English-speaking world after a long period of prejudice and neglect, has suggested that a far less misleading  label than the one that Hegel chose for his central thesis would have been ‘perspectival rationalism’ with a strong infusion of realism and empiricism.  By calling himself an absolute idealist he invited misunderstanding and distortion of his central philosophical position.  Karl Popper, for example, in the article I have mentioned before, says:

… Hegel in his idealism went further than Kant.  Hegel, too, was concerned with the epistemological question, ‘How can our minds grasp the world?’  With other idealists, he answered: ‘Because the world is mind-like.’  But his theory was more radical than Kant’s.  He did not say, like Kant, ‘Because the mind digests or forms the world.’  He said, ‘Because the mind is the world; because reality and reason are identical.’

Popper here does not mention the textual basis for his erroneous view as to the relation between Kant and Hegel. Yet the relevant crucial passage in Hegel just examined points to a very different interpretation; my conjecture is that Popper has simply failed to see the special sense in which Hegel meant the ‘absolute idealism’ to be understood; and in this he is in good company.  Indeed I do not believe that Hegel was worried by the problem of knowledge to which Kant mainly addressed himself –namely, the question ‘How does the mind grasp the world?’  Hegel was a realist and rationalist but he did not feel called upon to justify his realism and rationalism; in this respect he was like Aristotle.

My own view (which I hope to vindicate in the sequel) is that the root of Hegelian idealism is indeed to be found in Kant, but elsewhere in the latter’s fruitful and highly original doctrine of heuristic fictions. This is the Kantian view that what he called the ‘regulative’ use of pure reason (as opposed to their ‘constitutive’ use) is not only legitimate but necessary; it is sketched in appendix to his Critique of Pure Reason, and is arguably independent of its central thesis (if not to say incompatible with it).  Hegel, it seems to me, got hold of this Kantian idea and gave it a much wider currency:  in Kant it is confined mainly to the realm of science, in Hegel it is extended to the spheres of morality, artistic creation and religion.

To show this, let us go back to Hegel’s reasons for regarding a chair, for instance, as an absolute phenomenon.   The chair has no raison d’être of its own, and is by its very nature a means to a human end.  This, we may grant, is true of all objects of human designsuch as tables, knives, forks, books, cars and roads.  But the thesis behind Hegel’s absolute idealism is far more sweeping than this: he wants to say that everything in the universe is there to subserve man’s rational ideals and designs – that the moon and the planets, for example, are in this respect in precisely the same position as chairs and tables.  And at this point it becomes clear, I think, that Hegel’s idealism embodies a faith rather than a fact; namely the faith that in due course human reason will achieve complete mastery over the whole realm of nature, though so far it has only achieved a very partial success. (It will be plain that this idea was later enthusiastically embraced by the Marxists.)

The logical status of this faith is, I should say, similar to the status of the principle of determinism , which says that every event or thing has a cause, though we do not as yet know the causes of many things. To the latter principle Kant was willing at one place to give what he called a heuristic interpretation; it is to be regarded, according to Kant, not as a necessary fact but as a maxim, an injunction to the scientists to extend their search for causal explanations indefinitely;  behind it is what A.N. Whitehead was later to call ‘a faith in reason’, the faith that ‘the ultimate nature of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness’. Indeed the faith behind Hegelian idealism is dependent upon this latter ‘faith in reason’; for we can only widen our mastery over nature in so far as our scientific knowledge increases.

However, Hegel, unlike Kant, would also regard the ideals of morality, artistic creation, and religion as necessary heuristic ‘fictions’ on a par with the ideals of  purely scientific endeavours.   And briefly the philosophical attitude that he wishes to impart is simply this: the most adequate way of conceiving or looking at the world isto see it as having no other function than that of calling forth the intellectual and practical endeavours of rational beings, beings with an endless horizon of scientific, moral and aesthetic enterprises; and from the standpoint of these ‘spiritual’ enterprises the rest of the world provides no more than a necessary stepping-stone or stimulus;  the various unspiritual things are to be regarded as necessary conditions for keeping alive such spiritual activities.   Hegel sometimes characterises the adoption of this philosophical outlook as the removal of an illusion.  Thus he says in a lecture note inserted in his so-called Shorter or Lesser Logic:

… Within the range of the finite we can never see … that the End has been really secured.  The consummation of the infinite End … consists merely in removing the illusion which makes it seem yet unaccomplished.  The Good, the absolutely Good, is eternally accomplishing itself in the world … This is the illusion under which we live.  It alone supplies at the same time the activating force on which the interest in the world reposes. In the course of its process the Idea createsthat illusion by setting up an ‘other’ over against itself; and its action consists in getting rid of the illusion which it has created.  Only out of this error can truth be brought forth.[Emphasis added.]

We adopt the Hegelian outlook when we realise that the ideals that call forthour rational endeavours are illusions of our own creation, but surrender to their lure despite this realisation.  The Hegelian Idea is a bundle of basic ideals, each of which, to use Kantian terminology, is an ‘imaginary focus’; their value is ‘heuristic’: they give directive force to some of the most purposive activities of rationalmen.  It is the carrot that keeps the ass going, whether the  ass is a scientist or a philosopher who hopes to render the obscure intelligible, or a moralist who wants to see ‘righteousness’ prevail, or an artistic genius who aspires to transform the shapeless and the nondescript into something beautiful and aesthetically significant.

Nor does Hegel’s brand of idealism involve any ‘transcendent’ metaphysics; it does not, that is to say, commit him to a belief in any entities beyond the bounds of possible experience.  In this respect Hegel is a thoroughgoing anti-metaphysician.  I believe that this positivistic strand of Hegel becomes abundantly clear when we study some of his typical doctrines.  Even his Spirit, or the Idea, which is said to be the supreme reality of the world, is given what would nowadays be called a reductive analysis; Spirit has reality for Hegel only in so far as it is revealed or manifested in the creative activities of the artist, the ‘righteous’ actions or reforms of the moralist and the systematic insights of the philosopher and the scientist. Thus he says, ‘The Good, the final end of the world, has reality only while it constantly produces itself.’In short, the Hegelian Idea is just the old Platonic triad of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, but given a heuristic and reductive interpretation.  And the result seems to me to be no more than a philosophical refinement of what we ordinarily mean by Idealism.  For in ordinary parlance we do mean by an idealist someone who pursues some  ideals, but such ideals may be highly individual or capricious;  Hegel, however, has incorporated into his Idealism only those ideals that are rationally and collectively pursued, ideals whose lure is perennial, and has excluded ideals which he believes to be individual, subjective or capricious. Hegelian Idealism is what we ordinarily mean by idealism, but idealism refined, stripped of what is irrelevant, transitory or insubstantial.  Moreover, the fact that the Hegelian outlook is anthropocentric does not seem to me to be a demerit; as human beings we cannot help seeing the world from our own point view.  And in our moments of sanity, rationality and optimism we cannot help sharing this outlook, even though we may not be consciously aware it. We are bound to act as if the requirements of reason embodied in the ideals of rational endeavours can and (with luck) will be satisfied; which is the same as viewing the world as being such as to be capable of satisfying them.  Hegel’s famous affirmation that ‘the real is rational’, which has often been misunderstood, can, I think, be legitimately regarded as no more than a proclamation of this rationalist faith.

A notable consequence of this interpretation of Hegelian idealism is that the difference between the real Marx and the real Hegel turns out to berather smaller than it is commonly believed to be.  Substitute the ‘classless society’ for the Hegelian Idea and you get what we may regard as the rationalkernel of historical materialism; for the so-called classless society of the Marxists is, if anything, only an anthropocentric political ideal.  Of course this is not the official Marxist doctrine. The communism of the future is said to be historically inevitable, and it is characterised in Marx’s phrase as a society abiding by the rule ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. But this formula has baffled many generations of commentators.  What constitutes a need?  If by needs is meant desires, it seems senseless to suggest that at any stage of technological development human desires would be completely satisfied. And even if we confined ourselves to basic material needs, it may be pointed out that technological advance may not only satisfy ‘old’ needs but also create new ones (such as cars, television sets, mobile phones, and so on).  And what are we to do with a man who has the ability but is not inclined to do a certain job?  But waiving these difficulties let us try to imagine that the society envisaged by Marx did come about.  ‘The levellers’, says Burke in a memorable statement, ‘never equalise’; and Marx here clearly admits that in the communist society of the future men would still be unequal both in their abilities and in their needs.  So the result is that there would be in such a society not one but three classes among productive people; namely (i) the class of those whose abilities are ‘equal’ to their needs; (ii) the class of those whose abilities exceed their needs; and (iii) the class of those whose needs exceed their abilities; and the third class will be partly, though not wholly, parasitic upon the second.

We can, however, give the Marxist ideal of the classless society a ‘heuristic’ interpretation, as expressing a political ideal and not a wholly realisable, historically inevitable social set-up.  Its rational kernel is the anthropocentric idea of social and political equality, an ideal to which we may (with luck) gradually approximate but never fully realise;  an ideal which can nonetheless give directive force to agitation towards various types of social, economic and political reform.  Hegel, on this interpretation, would regard this ideal as one of the components of that bundle of rational ideals which he calls Spirit; so that, on a more satisfactory interpretation, historical materialism turns out to be no more than an impoverished version, a pale shadow, of Hegelian idealism.

Note: The quotations from Hegel are from his so-called Lesser or Shorter (or Encyclopaedia) Logic, third edition, OUP1975; the quotations from Popper are from his 1940 article in Mind entitled ‘What is Dialectic?’, reprinted in his  Conjectures and Refutations, London 1963; the quotation from W.H. Walsh is from his Hegelian Ethics, London 1969.


Dr Edward J Khamara is a retired senior lecturer in philosophy from Monash University, and is currently an honorary Adjunct Research Associate in philosophy in Monash University’s School of Philosophical, Historical, and International Studies.

Space, Time, and Theology in the Leibniz-Newton ControversyHegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (Galaxy Books)The Blackwell Guide to Hegel's Charmides: Unified Edition (with All Variants from the 1781 and 1787 Editions)Western Philosophy: An Anthology (Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies)I, Robot

The Australian Literature Review

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