Posted in Philosophy

Hegel’s dialectic influences the way we look at history

I have listened to the video, and I paused the video a few times, and googled to find out more about Hegelian dialectics, before continuing to listen to the video so as to have a more complete understanding with some background knowledge in mind.

For example, I learnt from this website that Hegel “developed his concept of dialectic, in which the contradiction between a proposition (thesis) and its antithesis is resolved at a higher level of truth (synthesis)”.

I noted that the video is about the question “In which ways did Hegel’s dialectic influence the way we look at history?” and “Hegel thought that history is dialectic, a constant change along a path towards a definite end.” The narrator said that it deals with such questions like “Why do empires rise and fall? Why do certain things change through history, eg ideas? How and why do certain people influence history?” He added that some of Hegel’s writings are very difficult to understand, such as his philosophy of history. It challenges people to fully grasp what he was saying.

The narrator said that Hegel is interested in the search for truth. He also said that one way of finding truth is through debate. But the problem with debate is that people keep their own beliefs. They want to win over the other side. They would use arguments with logic but not emotions. But to Hegel, he believed we have to go through 3 stages until we come to the point where we can say with clarity how things have become or how things have changed.

For Hegel, the first stage is known as the abstract or an idea or opinion or thesis. We then look for the opposite to it, the negative idea, or the antithesis. Moving from the original idea (thesis) to the other (antithesis), we then come to the conclusion of a new, concrete understanding called synthesis.

This is different from other kinds of ideas or reasonings, such as inductive and deductive methods of reasonings. Deductive is when there is a generalisation – many kinds of opinions, and through them we come to a conclusion; and inductive is when we have an example, and we make a proposition.

The narrator said that to come up with any concrete or definite statement about the state of affairs, or how things are happening in Europe, we must go through the abstract and the negative – we must have the thesis and the antithesis – to come to a concrete conclusion about how things have changed.

Hegel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, for Hegel, history is dialectic. It is the stages that are continually changing because a status quo – the way things are, like feudalism in Europe – will then be faced with a new way of thinking… such as the Renaissance…. and from that, there is this conflict which ends up with a new synthesis, a new way in which people see themselves and the world.

Eg if we lived in the 16th century, we would begin to get a lot of freedom, breaking away from church dogma, and we are being allowed to become more humanistic, and we will see the world not through the power of God but through the power of reasoning. That is a complete change away from the previous status quo. So we move through Reformation and Renaissance with a new understanding of where we come from.

The narrator added that history is always moving forward. It is never static. It is deterministic – it is determined to go in a particular way. It is changing because it is “geist”. We have developed through stages, where one synthesis is challenged by a new thesis, and the cycle of thesis-antithesis-synthesis goes on.

Humans are evolving in a constant change. With new technologies, we have to adapt new ways of working and communicating. In future, as technologies keep changing, we have to also keep adopt new ways of working and communicating again and again.

However, as the narrator noted, there is a flaw in this mode of thinking. There are subjective and objective ways of seeing things, which result in differences in opinions. What is change to one person may not be so for another person.

Nevertheless, Hegel’s writings certainly influence German nationalism. His ideas led to a march forward towards a higher realm in German idealism. The narrator then talked about Zeitgeist – the spirit within a certain period. He said that the prevailing feeling in the Victorian era is different from that in the 1960s due to a change in the way people see the world because of technological evolution, wars, etc.

The narrator then ended the video by saying that Hegel’s dialectic can be used in our own research and understanding of history. We can ask ourselves: Do things occur because of the status quo being challenged by new ways of thinking through whatever crisis, through whatever stages of development of technology and people’s understanding, etc, and from that, do we then reach a synthesis? What was the Zeitgeist at that time? How about today?

I remember reading recently that someone in this forum also noted that Hegel’s dialectic describes a seemingly neverending cycle of changes in history, whereby the synthesis that has emerged becomes a new thesis, which will one day be challenged by a new antithesis in future, which will in turn lead to a new synthesis, and the cycle goes on. The forum member wrote:

“It’s a theory of the evolution of knowledge or culture. Earlier posters have explained it pretty well, but the one point that’s only been touched on is that the dialectic cycle continues. So first you have your thesis. This leads to rebel thinkers or a different political viewpoint in opposition, the antithesis. Eventually these to combine (often violently) into a new paradigm which takes the best parts of both into the synthesis. Now, the synthesis is the dominant paradigm, so it’s the new thesis, meaning there will be an opposition theory, a new antithesis, which will lead to a new synthesis, which itself becomes the third thesis, leading to a third antithesis, etc.”

All in all, I see Hegel’s dialectic as a useful tool or model in helping us understand the changes in history. I would summarise it in my own words like this: What used to work in a society in the past may not work as well in the future because of changes in the way people see the world, which are influenced by cultural, technological, political changes and so on. So the prevailing system in which we function will have to evolve as well. But after a new system has been put into place, it will sooner or later become obsolete, and the status quo will again be challenged once more by a new antithesis, and then a new synthesis will be necessary to restore the balance. And this cycle continues to flow and change alongside with the evolution of humanity and the rest of the world.

One example I could think of is the Pisces age that was said to be dominant from the first century AD till around 2012, to borrow a new age theory. It was based on “approval of authority gives people a sense of self-worth.” But from 2012 onwards, a new antithesis is necessary to challenge the status quo of the Pisces Age. It is called the Aquarian Age. In the Aquarian Age, people will gain their sense of self-worth through self-approval. Each will be aware of his own divinity. But there is a conflict between the old adherents of Pisces Age who wanted to hold on to authority, power and influence and the new followers of Aquarian Age who want to promote freedom, justice and equality for everyone. Maybe a new synthesis will emerge based on new ways of understanding, that manages to combine these two apparently incompatible theories in a unique and unpredictable way. I am not sure what to call this synthesis – a new Age of consciousness? I suppose that is where subjectivity comes in because different people will have different opinions on what to call it, and whether it is really considered a change, as mentioned in the video.

As mentioned earlier, I was reading up more about Hegelian dialectics while watching the video. For example, I learnt from this website that Hegel’s logic differs from Aristotle’s logic – Hegel chose to see everything as a whole, whereas Aristotle chose to see separate, discrete entities in a deductive pattern.

“For Hegel, only the whole is true. Every stage or phase or moment is partial, and therefore partially untrue. Hegel’s grand idea is “totality” which preserves within it each of the ideas or stages that it has overcome or subsumed. Overcoming or subsuming is a developmental process made up of “moments” (stages or phases). The totality is the product of that process which preserves all of its “moments” as elements in a structure, rather than as stages or phases.”

Similarly, pages 89-90 of this book “Philosophy for Kids: Questions that help you wonder… about everything” noted that Hegel thought about all individual things, not just a particular human being. No one thing can be understood by itself. Rather, anything and everything must be seen in the light of relations to everything else.

Yes, I agree that all things are interconnected. We exist in relation to others, as we are not discrete, isolated entities.

Earlier while watching the video and grappling with difficult and new concepts and ideas, I was reflecting that generally speaking, while academics has its place, it needs to be relevant and easy to understand, as shared with you before. Otherwise, it can only create a distance itself from the rest of the world. While sometimes using highly specialised terms is necessary, the development of ideas needs to be clear and concise. Dense, complex writings are not always helpful if they confuse the readers just to give the impression that they are deep. Some of the most profound ideas are simple and yet deep, such as Jesus’ parables, and can be understood by kids. One gauge I would use to evaluate a writing, whether an academic or philosophical or any kind of writing, is by asking myself this question: “Can kids understand? If an average kid cannot understand, how can this writing really be useful? How does this writing contribute in making the world a better, more cohesive and peaceful place in a practical sense?”

I remember Jesus said “I thank You Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes” (Matt 11:25), as a rebuke to the religious leaders who did not appreciate his miracles of healing people.

Later as I continued to meditate on this, I realised that then again, sometimes certain ideas are meant to be complex. There is more than meets the eye beyond the surface of things, as quantum physics would reveal. For instance, someone from the evangelical christian background sent a mass text message on the handphone earlier on to share this verse, which I supposed was meant to encourage others – “Delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart”. (from Psalms) Yet my interpretation of this verse has changed from understanding it literally to understanding it metaphorically. To evangelicals, “the Lord” probably meant some literal judicial figure in the sky. But to me, “the Lord” is probably referring to our highest self who is Love. So, sometimes, mystical realities cannot be easily translated or described in words.

Similarly, when it comes to the philosophy of history, maybe it is not that easy to describe using words alone. Hegel’s writing comes across as difficult to understand to many people maybe because the original German language itself in which he wrote is complex. He was probably also trying to articulate his ideas in a way that made sense to him, and was not deliberately trying to obsfucate his thoughts to confuse his readers. It is probably the result of the complex subject nature he was dealing with that requires a certain way of thinking in order to go deeper beyond the surface, so the apparent complexity is somewhat inevitable.

Maybe one good thing about deep and complex philosophical ideas is that it challenges people to “decode” the mystery – it becomes like a treasure hunt where people look for clues to unlock the mystery, and will experience the thrill of uncovering the meaning behind the codes, bit by bit. It will bring a new and interesting dimension to an otherwise bland, mundane and overly simplistic way of thinking that much of the society operates on – one that is deep, mysterious and rewarding as we delve beyond the surface of reality, and feed on our own personal revelations and perceptions of life.




I am a beloved child of Divine Love/Great Spirit, and so are you. We are spiritual beings on a human journey. My main interests in life include Nature, music, spirituality, inspiration, philosophy, sports, reading and photography.

One thought on “Hegel’s dialectic influences the way we look at history

  1. Pingback: Idealism

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