On Hegel: If the Real Is the Rational, How Real Are You?

On Hegel: If the Real Is the Rational, How Real Are You? March 19, 2018

Hegel, Creative Commons

I appreciate Hegel’s effort to unite the disparate domains in Kant’s philosophy. To repeat a quotation I used last week, Kant’s system leaves human beings in a precarious situation:

How is freedom to be instantiated or to take effect in the world of nature, if the latter is governed by causality and mechanistically determined by the laws of nature? How is the causality of the natural world reconcilable with what Kant calls ‘the causality of freedom’? How, to allude to Emerson alluding to the language of Kant’s Third Critique, is genius to be transformed into practical power? Doesn’t Kant leave human beings in what Hegel and the young Marx might have called the amphibious position of being both freely subject to the moral law and determined by an objective world of nature that has been stripped of any value and which stands over against human beings as a world of alienation? Isn’t individual freedom reduced to an abstraction in the face of an indifferent world of objects that are available to one – at a price – as commodities? {Simon Critchley, “What is to be Done? How to respond to nihilism,” in Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), page 76.}

For Hegel, the rational does not simply have epistemological significance in his philosophical system. It also has ontological merit of the highest metaphysical order. For those who are sympathetic to Hegel’s way of thinking, Hegel fills the gap left by Kant between the noumenal and phenomenal realms and between the moral and material spheres by making God the rational and rationality God, albeit not outside or beyond history, but ultimately as the historical process. Moreover, God is not beyond our reasoning, if God as rational is realized through our reasoning in history. God comes to self-consciousness through human consciousness in history. In this way, Hegel not only seeks to overcome the Kantian divide but also demonstrate the truthfulness of the Christian faith through his philosophy (Refer to my blog post: “How Hegelian Is Christianity?”).

Still, if God comes to self-consciousness through human consciousness, is there ultimately any gap/place left for us if God is the whole, albeit realized through the unfolding of human culture and thought? Moreover, given the high regard for high culture (especially Germanic culture) in Hegel’s philosophy, what does his system spell for those not deemed so bright in seemingly lower social classes and on darker continents across the world? What the philosopher Richard Rorty once quipped about another German figure, Martin Heidegger, also applies to Hegel: “one may begin to find it suspicious that Being stuck so closely to the [German] syllabus.”[1] Moreover, what does Hegel’s system spell for the Christian faith centered in Jesus who was a stumbling block to the wise and powerful, and who often calls the foolish and weak to be his own? (See 1 Corinthians1)

I can only wonder if Marx, who turned Hegel on his head, not simply seeking to understand history, but ultimately to change it, had Hegel and Germanic philosophical theology in mind when he wrote of religion as an opiate of the masses. In closing, it’s worth asking who do you and I have in mind—those on center stage in high culture, or those who fall through the gaps created by our rationale prowess?


[1] Richard Rorty, “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Theses,” in Richard Rorty and Jerome B. Schneewind, Philosophy in History: Essays in the Historiography of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 71.

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