Nothingness Pregnant with Everything: Hegel and the Dialectics of History

Hegel famously writes that “what is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational” (1991, 20). This should not be misconstrued as a statement that justifies a conservatism which seeks to maintain the status-qou or that would suggest that all ‘actually’ existing forms or patterns present are the the utmost pinnacle of reason and rationality and should therefore be preserved. Rather, as Ian Fraser explains, it is “that the rational is present even within an imperfect world and the Speculative philosopher’s task is to comprehend this rationality” (1997, 90). To understand this one must equally understand Hegel’s view of history, his dialectic, the importance of Geist (translated as Spirit or Mind) and the immense interconnectivity of all three.

Peter Singer writes that “one of Hegel’s central beliefs” was simply “the belief that history has some meaning and significance” (2001, 14). While Hegel can be said to be a teleological thinker his belief in the “meaning and significance” of history is far more a statement explaining that “reflection on our past enables us to discern the direction history is taking, and the destination it will ultimately reach” (Singer 2001, 15). Indeed, Hegel’s teleology should not be considered classical, strong, or wholly deterministic. It seems to be not so much a teleology of the future but, a teleology of the present. Perhaps one could say that Hegel’s is a ‘realized’ or a ‘sapiential’ teleology, especially as it is wholly dependent upon the efforts and actions of humanity for its realization. Here, as Peter Thompson explains, in relation to history, the dialectic, and Geist, “becoming was the password to understanding how the ‘absolute spirit’ [Geist] not only expressed itself but, more importantly, generated itself through the process of history” (2011, para. 7). Thompson continues saying that Becoming is “the process by which Hegel’s absolute spirit was not only working in the world but creating itself at the same time” (2011, para. 7). This becoming is the very essence, purpose, and function of the dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) in which Being is negated by its contradiction Nothingness which is then sublated by Becoming. Hegel makes such a determination through analyzing the sociological patterns and formations constructed throughout ‘actual’ events within human history and reveals the ‘unfolding’ of the dialectic motion of Geist through the speculative approach of a kind of philosophical/historical hindsight. Here, Hegel’s relation to history and teleology is not linear but, is more of a spiral, as the ‘synthesis’ that comes about through the interaction of the thesis and its antithesis is often open ended. As Peter Singer explains “Every dialectical movement terminates with a synthesis, but not every synthesis brings the dialectical process to a stop” (2001, 102) In many cases as Hegel illustrates with his historical overview of societal progression the synthesis is “the thesis for a new dialectical movement, and so the process will continue” (Singer 2001, 102).
This process is representative of a kind of dialectical transcendence and a radical immanence, that is, it is a transcendence (transcending that which exists) that occurs without the Transcendent (a ‘beyond’ or wholly other). For Hegel, history, humanity, the World, and Geist are a holistic totality. Hegel proposes that “spirit[/Geist] is not something individual, but the unity of the individual and the universal” (1991, 197). The Becoming of the world and history is at once the Becoming of Geist, for Geist and the world are one and the same. Thus, the evolution and progression of the world is nothing other than the self-consciousness of Geist realizing itself through itself. It is the world coming to know itself as itself. Any supposed separation is an illusion and brings about what Hegel terms ‘alienation’. Sean Sayers explains that “it is part of the essence of self-conscious spirit to strive to overcome its alienation, its separation, from nature” and as such Geist “strives to heal its breach with nature and be at home in the world” (2003, 120). As Hegel himself writes this “is not intended [as] a self-recognition that regards the specialties of one’s own weakness and defects: it is not the individual that is admonished to become acquainted with his idiosyncrasy, but humanity in general is summoned to self-knowledge” (2004, 220).
Fraser, Ian. “Two of a kind: Hegel, Marx, dialectic and form.” Capital & Class 18, no. 61 (Spring97 1997): 81-12. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed August 5, 2013).
Hegel, G.W.F. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover Publications, 2004.
Sayers, Sean. “Creative Activity and Alienation in Hegel and Marx.” Historical Materialism 11, no. 1 (March 2003): 107-128. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed August 5, 2013).
Thompson, Peter. “Karl Marx, Part 3: Men Make their Own History.” The Guardian, Feb. 27, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/18/karl-marx-men-mak
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