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Hegel’s Philosophy – Insights and Illusions. Bold Attempt of a Critical Assessment at the Occasion of Hegel’s 250th Birthday

Along with Marx, Hegel was the main opponent of some of the most influential traditions of philosophy in 20th century. Most of the philosophers of these traditions, each in his own way, rejected Hegel’s dialectical way of thinking and criticized his philosophical works at various points. This did not just happen because Marx had adopted Hegel’s dialectical way of thinking and had only abandoned Hegel’s metaphysical idealism and replaced it with his dialectical materialism. With this, however, Marx had taken over precisely the problematic structures of Hegel’s philosophical thought. But that was precisely the worst and not the best of Hegel. But what remains of Hegel if one abandons and rejects his dialectics and preserves and defends his tenable insights?

Both Hegel’s dialectical method for overcoming logical contradictions and rehabilitating speculative thinking, but also his valuable philosophical insights come from such contradictory ancient philosophers as the enthusiastic Parmenides, the dark Heraclitus, the systematic Aristotle and the two skeptics Pyrrho of Elis and Sextus Empiricus. But how can all this fit together?

In the following I will argue that we should preserve with Hegel Heraclit’s basic idea of the temporality of the world as much as Aristotle’s basic ontological question, what exists in the world that exists in and for itself and not only subjectively for me, only intersubjectively for all subjects with human consciousness and linguistic minds or only for the respective changeable spirit of the age. But do abstract entities, like propositions and logical operators, mathematical functions and sets as well as ideal geometric forms belong to that, which exists in and for itself? Since Plato this is an important philosophical problem.

Propositions are the contents of propositions, which can be true or false. Therefore some modern philosophers call them “truth bearers”. Do they exist in and of themselves or are they not rather useful fictions constructed by human imagination? The only thing that is clear is that the conviction that there are propositions whose truth value depends on facts in the world is pragmatically indispensable. Otherwise there would be no reasonable reliance in objective knowledge in science, in rational philosophy, in evidence-based human medicine and in truthful and fair jurisdiction, in legitimate constitutional states and in valid human rights.

1. Hegelian Dialectics

Hegel sometimes seems to sacrifice his empirical reason in order to reach a higher speculative reason through his dialectics. He is sometimes a Prometheus of speculative philosophical thought as in his Science of Logic (Wissenschaft der Logik) (1812-16) or in his Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften) (1817) and not a thoughtful Epimetheus like Kant, Brentano or Husserl. And yet in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts) (1820/21) he identifies philosophy with the “Owl of Minerva,” which does not begin its flight until the evening twilight.

With his dialectical thinking he apparently wanted to drive out the last remnants of an eleatic preference for the static and a Platonic love of timeless ideals, principles, norms and values from the European thinking of the philosophers of his time. The historical and temporal therefore penetrates in its way of thinking into all areas of the subjective and objective. Neither the empirical self in its life history is spared from this, nor the historically developed objective spirit of positive law and national state.

Unlike Kant, Brentano and Husserl, Hegel was seized by the radical skepticism of antiquity in his Frankfurt period (Pyrrhon of Elis and Sextus Empiricus). Through radical skepticism, all claims to truth become mere momentary expressions of living individuals. Nothing that someone has once discovered to be true or valid could then be objectively true and timelessly valid and therefore be recognized, acknowledged, handed down and taught as objectively true and valid. Even the “absolute spirit” of human self-consciousness, according to Hegel in its three forms of sensual art, imaginative religion and reflective philosophy, is not exempt from historicity and temporality. At first only his speculative drafts for the Science of Logic and Encyclopedia seem to be excluded from this. But then, like the Aristotelian writings on Metaphysics, they could only be interpreted as philosophical drafts for heuristic use in teaching and not as the timeless “system” of Aristotle’s reasoning about reason.

But what about Kant’s transcendental “I think” and Husserl’s “Transcendental I”. What about the timelessly valid principles of logic and mathematics that were discovered and not just invented? Aristotle’s logical principle of contradiction and Pythagoras’ theorem about the proportions of the sides of a right-angled triangle in Euclidean geometry are undeniable examples of such timelessly valid universal principles of logic and mathematics. Therefore, they can be understood, reproduced and viewed at any time by adults with common sense. Even extraterrestrial intelligent beings could understand them in principle and regard them as valid if they had an adequate semiotic and linguistic intelligence.

Then what about Kant’s forms of judgment and categories of mind? Even if Kant’s table of forms of  judgement is not complete, not all universal ideals and principles, values and norms of logic and mathematics as well as of morality and law can be relativized as only historically valid by the temporal stream of the history of ideas. At this point, Hegel’s titanic will to radically historicize human intellectual history as a partial stream of world history reaches insurmountable limits. For in this historical stream there are so to speak some rare shells that contain pearls of timelessly valid truths. Since Plato only the greatest philosophers have tried to understand how this is possible. Those who simply ignore the problem do not belong in this inner circle of the greatest philosophers.

That there are timelessly valid rational ideals, principles, norms and values, not only in logic and mathematics, but also in morality and law, cannot be denied without denying the human capacity for cognitive participation in a potentially universal reason. This would destroy the rational core of the theoretical, practical and poietic sciences and thus also the civilizing achievement of modern constitutional states. The consequences of this “destruction of reason” (Georg Lukacz and Karl Jaspers) in the 20th century through irrational nationalism, legal historicism, biologistic naturalism and dialectical materialism were devastating. They led, among other primarily economic-political and mass-psychological factors, to ideologically motivated mass-movements, to genocides and two world wars.

Turning to empiricism, naturalism and historicism can destroy not only potentially universal reason, but also current common sense. But then there is also no longer a general concept of a common nature of man, which the modern human rights conventions presuppose after all. Contemporary postmodernism, with its irrational, individualistic and emotivist tendencies, is a consequence of these three isms, although it is also only a variant of ancient skepticism.

In Gibbon’s monumental historical work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hegel found in his early Bernese period the diagnosis that skepticism had contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. At present, contemporary postmodernism seduces many people from different social groups to make their common accidental group characteristic (their skin color or ethnicity, their gender or gender, their personal diet or lifestyle, etc.) their personal identity, to claim an allegedly special victim status, and to elevate their personal identity to a political ideology.

Contemporary postmodernism leads to a new tribalism and fanatical cultural struggles, splitting formerly united modern nations into irreconcilable political camps and multiple ethnic groups, politicized religions and new gender communities. What is lost is the conviction that there is a common human nature, a common mind and a potentially universal reason. What is also lost are the long-term goals of a good life, a well-ordered society, and a legitimate rule of law. Instead, most people compete only for short-term advantages and successes, wealth and fame, striving only for health, fitness and a long life in the darwinian struggle for survival.

The ideological tendencies towards empiricism, naturalism and historicism could only be overcome argumentatively after Kant by Gottlob Frege and Edmund Husserl with their rational criticism of psychologism in logic and mathematics. Karl Popper’s conception of three “worlds” as inherently lawful but interacting object types of the one world goes back to this enlightening critique of psychologism and provided him with the logical tools for his fundamental rational critique of the dialectical and historicist thinking of Hegel and Marx.

It sometimes seems that the exuberant seeker of truth Hegel, since his youth as a enthusiastic theology student in Tübingen and as a rebellious admirer of the French Revolution, has sought to reconcile the almost irreconcilable such as faith and knowledge, natural theology and critical philosophy, antiquity and modernity, objectivity and subjectivity, nature and spirit, law and freedom in a single philosophical “system”. In doing so, he runs the constant risk of exacerbating Kant’s best contributions and illuminating distinctions to philosophical thought and losing sight of the historical origins and biblical sources of Christian theology. Faith, however, is not knowledge, and authentic Christian faith is not a philosophical speculation of the human mind and cannot be expressed, understood, or communicated through wise philosophical speculation.

The sacrifice of understanding in the form of its preference for dialectical contradictions is neither necessary for faith nor does it lead to an enlightening philosophy, because to have understanding we owe not only to ourselves, but also to our fellow men with whom we live and work. Jews, Christians and Muslims also believe that human beings have received their minds from their common Creator.

The meaningful speech of a person with a sound human mind is not a paradoxical oui-non. Rather, it is about a passionate and binding yes when someone means yes and a clear no when someone means no. And not only in front of the rabbi, pastor or priest at the wedding ceremony for a lifetime, but also in his daily business or in scientific research, medical treatment, judgments based on the rule of law or even in philosophical reflection.

2. Rational Objections to Hegel’s Dialectics

The Neo-Kantians, Logical Positivists, and early Analytical Philosophers were all unable to come to terms with Hegel’s dialectical thinking of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, because it contained three violations of the implicit logic of common that could make any conversation with a goal and task pointless and any factual discussion impossible, let alone prove itself in court, in a medical practice, in a business, or in government.

1. A cancellation of the logical principle of the contradiction (to be excluded), at first discovered and made explicit by Aristotle.

Between a thesis (statement, judgement or proposition) with a propositional content, that p and its contradicting anti-thesis (statement, judgement or proposition) with the propositional content, that not p, there can logically not be a synthesis, because contradicting statements of the form, that p and at the same time not p (p & ~ p) cancel each other, so that only an untenable contradiction or nothing useful or mere nonsense was claimed.

2. A confusion of the logical contradiction with real conflicts of interest in living nature as well as in human society.

There are logical contradictions only between theses (statements, judgements or sentences) with a propositional content, but not between real and non-propositional conflicts of interest in living nature as well as in human society. The mute and speechless animals and plants carry out their vital conflicts of interest mostly in the instinctive fight for existence. Unfortunately, humans sometimes do too, but they can mediate conflicts of interest with the help of a common language and rational thinking through mediating compromises, agreements, contracts or institutions.

3. An inadmissible identification of thinking with being or of thought or said with being or the real.

If someone claims something, it can either be true because it corresponds to the facts or it can be false because it does not correspond to the facts. However, there is no coincidence or identity between thinking and being or between something thought or said with something existing or the real. There can only be a corresponence or correlation. The idea of such an identity is only an illusion of enthusiastic philosophers like Parmenides. Therefore his famous teaching poem is also an enthusiastically sung hymn and not a soberly written philosophical treatise (Georg Picht).

4. The self-conscious ability to affirm or deny a singular statement, a single judgement or a grammatically complete and semantically meaningful proposition in the form of the judgement “I think that p.” (Je pense que p. / Ich denke, dass p. / etc.) is the essential core of the specifically human intelligence that distinguishes us from all other intelligent beings on earth with their mere instrumental intelligence. This holds true although some mammals and birds show the capacity of some pre-linguistic cognitition and instrumental intelligence.

The capacity of judgement is the essential ingredient for the specifically human propositional self-consciousness and for the cognitive abilities for rational argumentation and discussion, for rational reasoning, will formation and decision-making, and for rational conflict resolution, cooperation and action. Unlike Kant, Brentano and Husserl, Hegel and Marx, with their anti-rational dialectics, fall behind this insight and run the risk of putting the essential core of human intelligence at risk.

3. Hegels as the Founder of Modern Social Philosophy

Existentialists following Sören Kierkegaard, phenomenologists following Edmund Husserl, philosophers of life following Friedrich Nietzsche however, could not make friends with Hegel’s consideration and appreciation of social and cultural habits, conventions, institutions, and traditions either. But perhaps Hegel’s greatest merit is precisely this post-Kantian merging of the social-philosophical insights of Plato and Aristotle, Rousseau and Montesquieu, for this made him the founder of modern social sciences and social philosophy.

Here he has indeed compensated for a blind spot in Kant’s transcendental philosophical thinking in starting from the anonymous general subject. However, this had ambivalent consequences both for the naturalistic left-wing hegelians and Marxists and for the Platonizing right-wing Hegelians and nationalists. There is therefore no such thing as an innocent Hegel any more than an innocent Marx. In this respect, Karl Popper’s criticism of some totalitarian tendencies in Hegel and Marx (despite all misunderstandings in details) was fundamentally justified, albeit too one-sided. In essence, Popper was concerned with a rational critique of ideological irrationalism as the psychological source of political totalitarianism.

However, due to their skeptical retreat to mere phenomena, most phenomenologists either denied the reality of social and cultural habits, conventions, institutions, and traditions, or they could neither cognitively grasp nor hermeneutically understand them. The existentialists usually even considered them a danger to their stubborn ideal of individuation and self-realization. The philosophers of life then regarded them rather as an inadmissible hindrance to their defiant ideal of the uninhibited development of their own lives and their personal arbitrariness.

However, these three objections to Hegel’s philosophical consideration of social and cultural habits, conventions, institutions and traditions were only partially justified. The new social and cultural studies since the 20th century, such as anthropology, ethnology and sociology, agreed with Hegel in this respect. These three objections were justified, however, because of Hegel’s philosophical blindness to individuals and individuality. This spiritual blindness ranges from the possible truth of singular propositions to the inexhaustible uniqueness, irreplaceable value and inalienable dignity of individual people.

1. There are social and cultural habits, conventions, institutions and traditions and all people with common sense and a healthy mind can recognize and understand them. Even such immediate and intimate behaviors as eating and kissing, laughing and crying, poetry and philosophy unconsciously follow not only personal habits but also social codes and cultural conventions. Even opposing young people, individualists and artists cannot completely free themselves from the social power of these codes and conventions. For their opposition is often not really autonomous, but remains heteronomous because of its opposing character. Even the existentialists and philosophers of life, with their stubborn and defiant ways of life, always tied in with certain fashions and conventions of the zeitgeist.

2. Social and cultural habits and conventions are not always only harmful to the individuation and self-realization of people from a social-philosophical point of view, but can also be beneficial to life and development. Every language acquisition, the early learning of the upright walk and the healthy growing up of a child in a family is not only based on personal and family habits, but also on certain social and cultural conventions. Many social institutions and cultural traditions can also serve to protect the healthy life, personal freedom and dignity of people.

On the other hand, a human nature untouched by cultural influences is an illusion. For several million years, the historical human being has always been a cultural being, which hunts and gathers food together, cooks and roasts, eats and drinks, etc. Moreover, there is not only a specifically human language gene and a specifically human language instinct (Steven Pinker), but also a specifically human instinctive weakness of infants, which is based on language acquisition and elementary care (Arnold Gehlen). In historical man, nature and culture are inseparably interwoven.

No human being can escape his cultural cradle and regressively return to the bosom of “Mother Nature” without denying him- or herself, because he would have to give up his mother tongue and fall silent. “Mother Nature” idealized by romantics and the hostile universe are cruelly indifferent to whether and how mankind will survive its current crises (population growth, global warming, epidemics, water shortages, etc.). Romantics sometimes even cynically invoke the Darwinian ideology of “natural selection” and hope for a natural decimation of the population on earth as a solution to the overpowering political problems of an optimal protection of a healthy life, personal freedom and human dignity under real conditions.

3. Personal habits, social conventions, institutions based on the rule of law and cultural traditions are, however, in social-philosophical terms not always an obstacle to the ideal of free development of one’s own personality, but can also be a communal support. However, children and adolescents, as well as adults and the elderly, are usually dependent on the free development of the life and personality of other children and adolescents, other adults and the elderly in order to develop their own personalities. Admittedly, they always come up against social and cultural limits. These limits are usually imposed on them by parental, educational or constitutional authorities when they are not respected from the outside. This happens not only through the personal arbitrariness of other citizens and people, but also through social conventions, constitutional institutions and cultural traditions that serve the life, freedom and dignity of people.

To be blind to the individual, specific, contingent and temporal is a cognitive deficit; but to be blind to the common, general, essential and timeless also. Most intellectuals are blind in one eye. Only a few can see with both eyes. These are the most excellent philosophers. Owls can open and close both eyes individually as needed. Therefore the owl is the symbolic animal of the philosophers.

4. Hegel’s Rediscovery of Aristotle

Unlike the neo-Aristotelian Franz Brentano, the Neo Kantians, the logical positivists and the early analytical philosophers, but also the existentialists and some phenomenologists and philosophers of life have neglected three philosophical insights of the Aristotelians. Although Hegel celebrated the dualistic anti-Aristotelian René Descartes as the “father of modernity” in his lecture on the history of philosophy, he rehabilitated the Aristotelian understanding of organic nature (physis) as a natural context of the living and thus went beyond Kant’s sceptical critique of teleology Franz Brentano also took up and rehabilitated these old Aristotelian insights, but without the irrational ballast of Hegelian or Marxian dialectics:

1. All mental phenomena and abilities are intentional, i.e. they refer to internal objects such as one’s own ideas or to external objects such as persons or objects. When I think of someone or something, I mentally refer to that person or object. The same applies to other mental phenomena such as judgements, emotions and motivations.

Physical phenomena (physical processes, chemical reactions and biological functions), however, are not intentional. They do not refer to something or someone. A thermostat does not feel heat and it does not intentionally or consciously or even willingly refer to the room temperature, which it only controls mechanically. A litmus test strip reacts to the pH value of the liquid, but it does not taste it like a healthy person and does not know anything about it. Human blood pressure does not only react to the physical bloodletting during a blood donation, but also to psychosomatic permanent stress, but it cannot actually sense this stress as someone can feel it by his or her psychosomatic symptoms (palpitations, sweating or pain) or find out by measuring blood pressure.

2. Living organisms, such as plants and animals are teleonomic, i.e. they contain internal causal structures and vital mechanisms of a systemic variety of natural purposes, which make them pursue immanent goals of self-preservation, growth and development.

Thus, all plants strive for water and minerals in the soil through their roots in order to feed themselves, and for oxygen and nitrogen through their leaves in order to absorb these substances and for light in order to process it in photosynthesis. Thus, all animals, through their respective searching, hunting and eating behavior, strive for drinking water and plant or animal food in order to feed, sustain themselves and reproduce. It is not the microbiological genes that strive for self-preservation and reproduction, as the biologist Richard Dawkins mistakenly thought, but the meso-biological animals themselves.

Biological teleology means that not only all healthy organs, but also all living organisms in the ecological system of nature, i.e. all plants, animals and humans, fulfill an immanent purpose (entelechy) due to their natural functions and particular purposes in the system of an organism. Whether one can infer from this some supernatural intentions of a mythological master builder, intelligent designer, or divine creator, in the sense of a teleological proof of God, is a difficult metaphysical question, which cannot be decided only by the realization of biological teleology.

This teleonomy (natural expediency) is still denied by the majority of contemporary natural scientists, because, in imitation of the causal-analytical and reductionist methods of physicists, they mainly research genetic and micro-biological causes of behavior. But they neglect the psychological attributions of affects (pain and fear of death), of needs (for movement which has to be allowed for by species-appropriate animal husbandry), and of instinctive intentions (in the instinct for food, socializing or playing), which are actually obvious to humans and can be mimetically deduced from the behavior of animals.

3. Humans have by nature a vital and psychological disposition for self-preservation and self-realization, i.e. they are biophilic and not necrophilic, they instinctively desire life and not death.

Depressives, suicides, suicide bombers, or soldiers who consider it “sweet and honorable to die for their fatherland” may desire death. The Platonic “flight into ideas” and the Neoplatonic and Heideggerian longing for the pure being beyond the concrete being that, according to Hegel, coincides with nothingness, are philosophical idolatries that are foreign to Jews and Christians.

But there are not only certain ideologies and mentalities, problematic worldviews and religions, but also social conventions, institutions based on the rule of law and cultural traditions that no longer effectively serve the protection of human life and useful education, humane education and the free development of the personality, but rather only restrict human life and make it sick.

But it is precisely biophilia (Albert Schweitzer and Erich Fromm) and humanity (Kant, Goethe, Herder, Lessing and Schiller) that decide which social conventions, constitutional institutions and cultural traditions are still good for man and nature and which are no longer. Common sense with its ability to be objective and general human reason is one of them. The predilection for contradictions and pathologies and other strange eccentricities of the human mind is neither biophilic nor productive.

4. Human beings have an immanent potential, which is inherent in their genetic make-up and which can come to psychological development in the course of their lives. The specifically human core of this potential includes the innate linguistic instinct, with which they can learn one or more languages in order to learn to think, communicate and act independently on the basis of their acquired language skills. Not a natural disposition (anlage) itself, it also enables the higher-level competences of learning to think logically and draw conclusions in order to learn to think thoroughly, to think comparatively and to make a final judgement based on reasons, in order to be able to argue rationally and reflect speculatively. However, this inherent potential can get into dramatic conflicts with the primary ties to the family of origin and social milieu, to cultural and social life. These conflicts are the psychological origin of ethical and political ideas as a longing of how things could and should be better, but in fact are not yet.

5. Human persons have an inherent potential, which is laid out in their genetic make-up and which can come to psychological development in the course of their lives. This inherent potential can, however, come into dramatic conflict with the ties of the family of origin and social milieu, of cultural and social life. These inevitable conflicts are the psychological origin of ethical and political ideas as longing ideas of how things could and should be better, but in fact are not yet.

The ethical and political ideas of freedom, equality, justice and sustainability are therefore far from being good in themselves. They can all too easily mutate into verbal idolatries and corrupt common sense. Unfortunately, the political catchword of freedom triggers a loss of common sense in some liberal-minded people. While the political catchword of social justice makes the heart of social democrats beat faster, it weakens their ability to distinguish between and consider different facets of the ethical and political concept of justice. It is similar with the political catchword of equality for many socialists and the catchword of sustainability for many ecologists. All of these political catchwords have their own right, if they are well reflected and conceptualized properly together: But this requires strenuous mental work or rare intuitive talent. Historically, hermeneutically and analytically educated philosophers are still responsible for this work on concepts and theories, and more rarely journalists in the arts pages or the fashionable suppliers of the zeitgeist.

However, the freedom of citizens and people, rightly loved for its inherent potential, is not always adequately limited, even in modern democracies. No reasonable person will approve of unlimited freedom in the sense of the so-called “right of the strongest”, because it can lead to anarchy and violence, to civil war and lynch law, to murder and manslaughter. Even the much vaunted freedom of the markets needs appropriate limits, because the interests of the powerful banks and companies collide with the interests of workers and investors, citizens and people. The ideology of unlimited freedom creates a manic frenzy and clouds common sense.

In a relatively well-functioning constitutional state, however, there is not only an ideal legal and political equality of citizens and people, but also a legitimate legal and political unequal treatment. Otherwise innocent people may be thrown into prison and guilty people spared, as happens in autocracies and dictatorships without a functioning constitutional state. But also the various problems of justice of human actions, relations and circumstances should always be treated in a differentiated way, in order to at least distinguish between an economic justice of exchange and price, a justice of services, distribution and taxes based on the rule of law, a punitive justice of fines, deprivation of liberty and correction of behavior based on the rule of law, and the social justice of communitarian solidarity with the poor, the sick and the weak.

An only spontaneous, unreflected and undifferentiated enthusiasm for only one of these political catchwords of freedom, equality, justice or sustainability at a time, as is found among many supporters of the liberals, socialists, social democrats or ecologists, is all too often emotionally charged and ideologically blinded, but is far from being theoretically undestood and practically realizable.

5. Hegel as “philosopher of freedom”? Which freedom?

Klaus Vieweg’s new biography: Hegel, the philosopher of freedom uses the partly philosophical, partly political catchword of freedom in its title. Not only philosophers, but also critically thinking citizens will ask back: Which freedom? The positive freedom of self-determination? The negative freedom of the lack of restrictions on freedom of action? The political freedom of possible influence and participation in political processes and structures? Further questions about the meaning of the word “freedom” could be added. Unfortunately, however, few philosophers currently distinguish sufficiently different phenomena and concepts of freedom and, in the face of a hasty neuroscientific determinism, defend the psychological possibility and reality of certain forms and degrees of freedom. For it depends largely on the personal freedom of the philosophers themselves what kinds of freedom they themselves know, understand, and therefore consider to be realizable.

In my opinion, at least the following abilities of human beings should be distinguished: (1.) The freedom of choice of the ability to choose between objects, behavior and action options (positive freedom or freedom of choice). (2.) The emotional freedom of will, free from inner affective disorders (fears, depressions, manias, addictions, compulsions, etc.), but not free from natural dispositions and personal motives for choosing (inner freedom or emotional freedom of the will). (3.) The inhibitory freedom of the will as the ability to pause spontaneously and not to let oneself be determined by one’s natural dispositions and personal motives (inhibitory freedom). (4.) The arbitrary freedom as the ability to let oneself be spontaneously determined by one’s natural dispositions, current impulses and personal motives (spontaneous freedom of self-determination). (5.) Reasonable freedom as the ability of a mentally healthy person to determine his or her own convictions and decisions of will on the basis of rational or moral-rational reasons. (rational freedom of the will). (6.) Freedom of the mind as the ability to discuss and evaluate objects, problems or topics in various respects (freedom of the mind). (7.) The freedom to choose and act under external circumstances, free from external restrictions and obstacles (negative freedom or freedom of action). (8.) Political freedom as the personal ability, as the fundamental right of permission or as the constitutional right to exercise very specific civil liberties (liberty), such as freedom of movement, opinion, speech, publication, science, religion, art, and assembly, freedom of demonstration, active and passive suffrage, the right to peaceful resistance, etc.

Admittedly, in public contexts there is usually talk of political freedom (liberty). Nevertheless, one must not ignore the other phenomena and concepts of freedom when speaking of political freedom (liberty). For many neuroscientists and some naturalistic philosophers deny the existence of the various forms of freedom of the will and prematurely declare it to be an illusion. This has an impact on the self-image of most people and thus on the prevailing image of humanity in a society. The prevailing image of humanity, in turn, shapes democratic consciousness and thus the shaping and transformation of political ideas, beliefs and institutions. The market-radical apologists of economic neoliberalism, on the other hand, all too often only have an exuberant understanding of the most unlimited possible freedom of design for bankers and entrepreneurs. Both convictions have psychological consequences for the readiness and willingness to defend the life chances and rights of freedom conquered by several generations in a society with a modern constitutional state.

The ideology of a personal freedom mostly unlimited by moral considerations and legal restrictions may spontaneously appeal to some citizens and people, because it awakens the longing for larger profits and a greater relief from personal responsibility and for a greater liberation from moral and legal restrictions. But this longing for an unlimited freedom can neither be morally justified nor legally realized. Neither does it promote the present or the future common good. For it often harms the communal and sustainable protection of services of general interest, health and life if a few privileged persons may take certain freedoms at the expense of others or at the expense of the common good.

Hegel was certainly not a liberal in the sense of Wilhelm von Humboldt or John Stuart Mill or even John Rawls. Nor was he merely the authoritarian Prussian state philosopher who was interpreted and criticized all too one-sidedly by Sir Karl Popper as a shady precursor of national totalitarianism and thus of the National Socialists. But the historical and real Hegel (the Hegel who is not only the figment of our own imagination) was not yet a democrat in a modern constitutional state in the sense in which we see it today. Admittedly, as a supporter of the French Revolution he was already a convinced republican with a strong preference for a legal constitution and no longer an ardent monarchist. He was also a cosmopolitan citizen and neither a German nationalist nor a Catholic romantic. Nor was he an anti-Semite and he did not long for the “good old times” of a supposedly homogeneous, Christian Europe. But the historical Hegel has become at least as strange and unknown to most contemporaries as the historical Kant.

Hegel’s works are complicated written documents of his philosophical thought, in which he tried to hold together seemingly irreconcilable teachings from the masterpieces of Aristotle and Kant, Rousseau and Montesquieu. This makes his main writings probably the most difficult in modern philosophy and perhaps even in the whole history of European philosophy. But like Kant, Hegel did not believe, in any case, that spontaneous arbitrary freedom, controlled by unconscious emotions and intuitions, is already the highest level of freedom of adult human beings.

Rather, this freedom is only a preliminary stage of rational freedom as a self-conscious execution of rational thinking, feeling and acting. This is a neo-stoic rather than a Christian understanding of personal freedom, since authentic Christian freedom derives from a supernatural grace that can only be experienced pneumatically and understood symbolically. But it is also a different understanding of freedom than Heinrich von Kleist in his short novel Marionettentheater or than Friedrich Schiller represented in Grace and Dignity or in his letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.

This reasonable freedom as the highest level of human freedom presupposes emotional freedom in the sense of mental health. That is why in modern times it is primarily forensic psychiatrists and psychopathologists and no longer philosophers who can decide whether someone was at all sane at the time of his positivistly illegal or ethically criminal behavior. On this depends whether someone is punishable in the sense of a psychologically and criminologically enlightened and largely integral (procedurally correct and not corrupted) legal procedure. Hegel, however still speculated in his philosophy of law that the nature and punishability of a crime could be deduced from the concept of crime alone as an act contradictory in itself.

A liberalism, however, which wants to make the respective own understanding of freedom and i.e. mostly the freedom of mere arbitrariness the absolute standard for all citizens and humans, can dialectically tip over into a virtuous terror of political correctness, which lacks understanding and tolerance for other world views, life plans and understandings of freedom. This all too well-intentioned political correctness then in turn provokes the political resistance of those who think and believe differently in the name of freedom. For the longed-for better is often the enemy of the living good.

Both political camps claim to defend “freedom” as such, but they do not sufficiently reflect and differentiate the different meanings of the keyword freedom. Everyone considers himself a freedom fighter and believes in the sacred name of freedom that he is allowed to send and fight those who think and believe differently as “enemies of freedom. This can lead to a pharisaic self-righteousness or even to a violent Jacobinism of lynch law against political opponents or to arbitrary acts of force by the police against innocent citizens.

A liberalism that wants to make its own understanding of freedom and liberty the absolute standard for all citizens and people can tip over into a virtuous terror of political correctness that lack of tolerance for other world views, life plans, and understandings of freedom. This all too well-intentioned political correctness then in turn provokes the political resistance of those who think and believe differently again in the name of freedom. For the longed-for better often is the enemy of the living good.

Both political camps claim to defend freedom an liberty, but they do not sufficiently reflect and differentiate the different meanings of these keywords. Everyone considers himself a fighter for freedom or liberty and believes that he or she is allowed to mob and fight those who think and believe differently as “enemies of freedom”. This sometimes leads to a pharisaic self-righteousness up to a violent Jacobinism of lynch law against political opponents, to gun shootings in schools or to police shootings of innocent citizens.

But this unreflected liberalism of the slogan of freedom and liberty often gets stuck in the hidden absolutism of one’s own position, because one does not reflect sufficiently differentiated or in a real political way. For genuine political thinking only begins with the public discourse on the presumed common good within the institutionalized boundaries of the community, the county, the state, the nation, the international federations.

This is something Kant and Hegel thought about most thoroughly following the political thinkers of the early modern age and the Enlightenment, such as Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and others. Their philosophical discourse on freedom and liberty in the various conceptual facets of these political buzzwords then led to a modern, constitutional democracy.

But also in such a democracy there is a need for social conventions, political institutions and cultural traditions, which, as historically developed constitutional protection structures, still protect the life, freedom and dignity of citizens and people with their different world views, life plans and understandings of freedom. Only such protective structures based on the rule of law enable the most peaceful, just and sustainable coexistence of diverse citizens and people in a common nation and federation.

6. Has Hegel overcome Kant’s critical philosophy?

The German idealists were united as young Protestant Theologians not only by the outcome of Kant’s critical philosophy, but also by their strong intention to go beyond Kant. In Faith and Knowledge (Glauben und Wissen) (1802) Hegel interpreted Kant’s critical philosophy of metaphysical criticism as a skeptical philosophy of empirical understanding and not of speculative reason. In doing so, however, he neglected Kant’s transcendental and dialectical reflections on the structure and architectonics of human reason. In doing so, however, he neglected Kant’s transcendental and dialectical reflections on the structure and architectonics of human reason.

Hegel’s philosophical central aim of surpassing Kant’s critical philosophy with his own philosophy of speculative reason may also have been the main motive for his new, no longer Kantian dialectics. But the post-Kantian controversies of the German idealists about how to go beyond Kant often followed questionable rationalist guiding ideas of a supposedly possible deduction of all knowledge from one supreme principle, and thus oriented themselves to unfulfillable ideals of a monistic idealism. These titanic leitmotifs were only seen through, abandoned and adopted as deceptive in philosophy and formal logic after German idealism.

This also made Hegel’s deceptive dialectics questionable. How could it be reasonable to accept contradictions? In concrete situations of everyday social and political life, e.g. to avoid an unnecessary quarrel or to recognize and respect another person with his or her contrary convictions. In concrete situations of a scientific discussion, e.g. because there does not seem to be a promising way to methodically and rationally resolve a contradiction that is unacceptable in itself. In concrete situations of a philosophical discussion, because there seems to be a real aporia, a real antinomy or a real paradox, which apparently cannot yet be resolved or overcome logically, methodically and rationally.

But what happened in philosophy after the collapse of Hegelianism? In formal logic and in mathematics since the 20th century, after Frege and Russell, Gödel and Smullyan .among others, there were philosophical discussions about real and not only apparent aporias, paradoxes and antinomies. But these discussions were only possible because the validity of formal, bivalent and truth-functional logic had already been assumed. Otherwise it would not have been possible to identify possible candidates for real aporias, paradoxes and antinomies.

In philosophical cosmology, Leibniz’s speculative question of why there is something and not rather nothing at all still seems to be unanswerable without metaphysical, mythological or religious speculation. Aristotle’s metaphysical question of how and by what means the whole universe originally came into being also led to the scientific hypothesis of the so-called Big Bang as a supposedly spontaneous and original emergence of the whole space-time universe from a mere Nothing. But even this is also only a speculation, albeit based on empirical observations of an expanding universe and retrograde calculations about its presumed beginning. However, this does not yet answer Kant’s humble, but skeptical question of whether finite humans can really recognize and know whether there can have been a real beginning in cosmic time and within the limits of cosmic space, and still leads to a real and not only apparent aporia.

Similarly, in philosophical psychology the Kantian question whether finite humans can really recognize and know whether there can be an immortal soul (and thus also a Beyond of space and time) leads into a real and not only apparent aporia. Also in philosophical psychology the Kantian question whether finite humans can really recognize and know whether there can be free will at all, which was not realized by any neuronal or psychological conditions, leads into a real and not only apparent antinomy.

But always only when such candidates for real aporias, paradoxes and antinomies can be identified under the precondition of formal, bivalent and truth-functional logic, further scientific research or philosophical thinking on a possibly still possible rational resolution can begin.

In philosophical theology the Kantian question whether finite humans can really recognize and know whether there is a God who is not only immanent but also transcendent (beyond the human self and beyond the spatio-temporal world) leads to a deep aporia, which will please neither convinced atheists nor convinced theists. Convinced agnostics, agnostic believers and agnostic disbelievers alike, can live and die with it. For faith is not knowledge.

In this respect, Hegel, especially with his bold attempts at complex syntheses between Aristotelian, Spinozist and Kantian doctrines, could still have more to say to us than Brentano, Moore, Russell and Popper could have imagined in their time. For they all reacted more to the school of the English New Hegelians of their time, such as Bradley and Green, or, like Popper, to the posthumously published notes of Hegel’s students, and did not yet study Hegel with an open and hermeneutical attitude, still curious and willing to learn.

However, the identification of real and not only apparent aporias, paradoxes and antinomies presupposes precisely the validity of formal, bivalent and truth-functional logic. Thus the Hegelian dialectic of the supposedly possible synthesis of logical contradictions may not and cannot be generalized by questioning the validity of formal logic in principle or by an arbitrary decision. Such a jump into deliberately intended irrationality would be the exit from any rational philosophical discourse and also from any rational scientific, legal or political discussion. Someone may be able to cope quite well with this in everyday life; in contemporary philosophical and scientific discussions, however, it is no longer enough.

Dialectics can and may therefore only ever be used in a differentiated, dosed and targeted manner. But this requires a well-trained and well-informed philosophical judgement to find a feasible, sustainable and future-oriented way. We must therefore have understood enough of Kant and post-Kantian philosophy to date to be able to learn something from Hegel that can help us in certain discussions.



Klaus Vieweg, Hegel. Der Philosoph der Freiheit. Biographie, München: C.H. Beck 2019

Günter Zöller, Hegels Philosophie. Eine Einführung, München: C.H. Beck 2020

Ulrich Diehl

Ulrich Walter Diehl is a Philosopher and Protestant Theologian at the University of Heidelberg and held academic positions with the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of European Enlightenment (IZEA) at Martin-Luther-University in Halle-Wittenberg and the Karl-Jaspers-Edition of Heidelberger Academy of Sciences.

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