This piece originally appeared in my book DISSENTING VIEWS (2009).
Having availed myself of the literature concerning the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), I have found that the statement expressed in this essay’s title – although it finds some support in, for example, Karl Popper – is not an altogether popular sentiment. And yet I can come to no other conclusion. Hegel, the most famous German philosopher of his time, lecturing to enormous crowds at the University of Berlin in Prussia, inventor of the dialectical concept later borrowed by Marx, was stupid – extraordinarily so.
Hegel, it is often said, was the first philosopher to take the idea of history seriously in his thought. He was the pioneer in this arena and, indeed, one of his early works bears the title The Philosophy of History. It is true that Thomas Hobbes defended the rule of kings, and Hume once wrote an academic treatise on history, but these did not specifically invoke history as a philosophical issue. Hegel’s sense of history makes him unique.
He was also a uniquely terrible writer. Some of it is unintentionally funny, and philosophy students may occasionally come to the decision that Hegel’s writings are meaningless gibberish. This is not the case; they are intelligible; and yet one cannot lay too much blame on those students. Hegel wins no awards for self-expression.
An example of Hegel’s historical sensibility can be found in his famous quote “the real is the rational, and the rational is the real.” He details it like so:
The only Thought which Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process.
Hegel pointed out the distinction between people’s rationality and their brute desires. This had often been taken to be an immutable description of humanity, torn between desire and reason. Hegel disagreed, and pointed to a historical situation in which (he claimed) there was no rift: Ancient Greece. There, he argues, the people (by which he really means the State) achieved a harmonious blend of the two. (One sees immediate oversimplification in Hegel’s thesis, but let us move on.) In any case, Hegel comes to the conclusion that the split between rationality and human desire is a historical event. He even claims to know when it occurred. It happened, he says, with the rise of individual conscience in Protestant Europe. The important thing to note here is that Hegel believes that harmony, in principle, could be restored between reason and desire. This harmonious situation Hegel calls freedom.
Now you have to understand that, for Hegel, his idea of freedom is probably not what your or my idea of freedom is, but we’ll get there in a moment.
This methodology is a radical departure from the prior rationalist philosophers. Kant, for example, did not invoke societies when spelling out his epistemology or ethics. Both are meant to apply to all people in all situations, whether he is describing the categories of existence or the Categorical Imperative. Hegel, on the other hand, like Democritus asserts a continuously changing environment.
Hegel states that historical ‘movement’ or progression is measured by a process he refers to as Dialectic. The Dialectical Process is one in which there is a Thesis, an Antithesis, and a final Synthesis. That is to say, there is a movement, a movement in opposition, and a resolution. However, this resolution does not end the process; instead, it becomes a further Thesis, generating another Antithesis and so on until it reaches a specific point of total enlightenment. As we shall see, this apex of human history comes at another specific moment in time: When Hegel, in his infinite wisdom, writes this all down.
Let’s look at a specific example of the Dialectic:
THESIS. Athenian society is in a simple (or naïve) harmony. (Hegel does not get into the issue of whether the slaves participate in this simple harmony, but we’ll take a look at that in a bit.)
ANTITHESIS. Socrates goes around asking a lot of impertinent questions. What is truth? What is the just action? What is virtue?
SYNTHESIS. The state kills Socrates. But out of this is borne a movement toward Conscience, which then results in further Antithesis, etc.
Hegel notes that the State was perfectly justified in killing Socrates, since he was in fact subverting their authority. In point of fact, Hegel is always going to end up saying that the State’s actions are morally correct; it’s the whole point of his philosophy, explained perhaps by his being Prussian, and explaining perhaps his continual popularity with those who would rule us:
Summing up what has been said of the State, we find that we have been led to call its vital principle, as actuating the individuals who compose it – Morality. The State, its laws, its arrangements, constitute the rights of its members; its natural features, its mountains, air, and waters, are their country, their fatherland, their outward material property; the history of this State, their deeds; what their ancestors have produced, belongs to them and lives in their memory. All is their possession, just as they are possessed by it; for it constitutes their existence, their being.
A very convenient doctrine from the State's point of view.
What is all this dialectical movement about? Hegel says that this movement is toward ever increasing freedom of the mind. Alas, ultimate freedom manifests itself as a police state. As Russell remarked, “This ‘freedom,’ for him, means little more than the right to obey the police.”
Also, it should be said that the essentially Prussian nature of Hegel cannot be ignored here. He eventually gets round to the idea that Germans are smarter than everyone else.
Orientals do not yet know that Spirit – Man as such – is free. And because they do not know it, they are not free…The consciousness of freedom first arose among the Greeks, and therefore they were free. But they, and the Romans likewise, only knew that some are free – not Man as such. This not even Plato and Aristotle knew…Only the Germanic peoples came, through Christianity, to realize that man as man is free and that freedom of Spirit is the very essence of man’s nature.
Cue Tannhauser. In all seriousness, is there any way to analyze these statements as anything other than demented gibberish?
By the by, these historical ideas are literally infused in history. History, as Billy Joel once said, is a “living thing.” In effect, it is a metaphysical issue. It seems to me that Hegel is anticipating the following criticism: “You say that history is constantly changing. But what is this it that changes?” To whom or what does this dialectical process operate through? Hegel has a ready answer: Geist. There is no perfect translation of the word in English, but it is commonly translated as “mind” or “spirit.” That is there is a literal spirit of History (“zeitgeist”) that serves as the conduit for all this change. Like so:
History is mind clothing itself with the form of events or the immediate actuality of nature. The stages of its development are therefore presented as immediate natural principles. These, because they are natural, are a plurality external to one another, and they are present therefore in such a way that each of them is assigned to one nation in the external form of its geographical and anthropological conditions.
To this set of ideas, Hegel adds the concept of ‘alienation.’ The alienated soul, to use his example, is one who prays to an all-powerful God while seeing himself as base and powerless. Hegel insists that this is an incorrect, if common, way of looking at God. God and the individual are one, he states. The attributes of God are our qualities, in effect.
I mentioned before that Hegel ultimately makes himself the most important person in the world. That’s because he says that the moment when there is recognition that the individual and Geist are one and the same is the point of Absolute Knowledge. It is a state of complete freedom and total rationality. When is it that Geist realizes that it is the ultimate reality? When Hegel thinks of it and writes it down in rather large books. Therefore, Hegel's works are not merely descriptive of the Dialectical process and Geist; their creation is the precise point in human history when a rational order of the world becomes possible. Thus, Hegel’s own philosophy is the most important event in human history.
Seen Lady in the Water? It’s the one where there’s this mermaid in the swimming pool and Paul Giamatti finds her and does battle with killer hedgehogs and such. Do you remember when it was finally revealed in the movie that the whole enterprise was about a book – the most important book in the whole world – and the guy playing the writer was (producer and director) M. Night Shyamalan? Do you remember groaning at Shyamalan’s incredible ego, casting himself as the savior of mankind?
It should be clear what happens at this point. Hegel has just identified the individual with Geist, that is, historical change. The State and the individual are One. Under such conditions we can impose a rational, perfectly orderly society. It just so happens that the perfect State is militarist. And if you disagree, you are revealing yourself to be out of harmony with the State. Do you remember the example of Socrates? Let’s look at another example.
A Beatnik is reading a book and having some coffee. Hegel saunters over.
HEGEL: Say, what are you doing there?
BEATNIK: Reading Cities of the Red Night.
HEGEL: (frowning) No, I don’t think you want to read that.
BEATNIK: Sure I do.
HEGEL: You only think you want to read that novel. In truth, your wants and desires are manipulated by forces beyond your control. Once you’ve achieved rationality, you’ll realize this and then you’ll realize you don’t want to read this novel.
BEATNIK: Whatever. Can I just read in peace?
HEGEL: (getting exasperated) Put that book down.
BEATNIK: Dude, what is your damage?
HEGEL: No, no, no. (Takes book away) Off to prison you go.
BEATNIK: But I don’t want to go to prison.
HEGEL: (Secret police haul Beatnik away) See, you only think you don’t want to go to prison, but in fact…
And so it goes, as Vonnegut used to say.
Peter Singer once said:
I don’t think you can really trace Hegelian ideas at all in Hitler’s kind of racist nationalism. You can’t find that kind of racism in Hegel.
Well, Peter Singer is a famous man by philosophical standards, and he has many more degrees than I, but on this issue he is dead wrong. It’s not often you see this matter get addressed, and thanks to cultural relativism it is perhaps impertinent for me to even bring this up, but Hegel, in addition to being stupid and, incidentally, a proto-Nazi, was extremely racist. He also had a tendency to make malevolently stupid general pronouncements of racist intent without any evidence.
The peculiar African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas – the category of Universality. In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence – as for example, God, or Law – in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being…The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this…
Hegel relies on missionaries for his information, which explains a lot I suppose. However, that hardly explains the following ravings:
The Negroes indulge, therefore, that perfect contempt for humanity, which in its bearing on Justice and Morality is the fundamental characteristic of the race…Tyranny is regarded as no wrong, and cannibalism is looked upon as quite customary and proper. Among us instinct deters from it, if we can speak of instinct at all as appertaining to man. But with the Negro this is not the case, and the devouring of human flesh is altogether consonant with the general principles of the African race…
From these various traits it is manifest that want of self-control distinguishes the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and as we see them at this day, such have they always been. The only essential connection that has existed and continued between the Negroes and the Europeans is that of slavery.
This is lunacy even in 1831. I once did some research into Biblical justification for slavery, and found numerous texts predating the American Civil War of preachers who quoted from and derived support for slavery. Very few of them approached Hegel’s insane beliefs as he lays them out. Now one might argue that all of us are simply prisoners of our cultural milieu, and that Hegel is merely expressing the ruling zeitgeist. Bullshit. Hegel’s racism would invalidate his entire philosophy, or at the very least cause us to reevaluate it, even if his philosophy were not militarist drivel.
Hegel’s concept of the Dialectic gets frequent mention even today, and not just in the context of Marxist Dialectical Materialism. It is frequently asserted that when the State wants to achieve certain objectives, it follows the Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis pattern. (For example, 9/11 [thesis] provokes horror and sympathy among the general populace [antithesis], thus providing the opportunity for more police state legislation [synthesis].) There may be something to this; however, in plain terms, I think we can dispense with treating Hegel as anything more than a historical footnote. His metaphysics is singularly inane; his epistemology is guilty of false-ego identification; and the primary utility of his philosophy has been to justify the behavior of tyrants. In short, his philosophy is fatuous poison.
 G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History (Dover Publications, New York: 1956 (1831), 9.
 Ibid, pg. 52.
 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Touchstone, New York: 2007 (1945), 737.
 Hegel, Reason in History (Macmillan, New York: 1989 (1837), 25.
 It seems to me Joel was quoted as saying this in Newsweek at approximately the same time his song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was popular. I can’t find the quote, however, and it is thus possible I am mistaken.
 Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1821), 346.
 Novel by William S. Burroughs.
 Bryan Magee, The Great Philosophers (Oxford University Press: 1987), 207. Singer was responding to a question given to him by Magee regarding Hitler’s pernicious influence and possible relationship to Hegel.
 Hegel, Philosophy of History, pg. 93.
 Ibid, pg. 95.
 Ibid, pg. 98.
This is Joe Green's blog.