Postmodernism 101, Part 3: Hegel’s Dialectic

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.

Previous posts include:

Recap

Reason, truth, and knowledge are meaningless, argue the postmodernists, they are only political oppression.  Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism and its progeny – truth, reason, knowledge, science, individualism, free markets, and liberal democracy.

Enlightenment’s modern philosophy overthrew the Medieval philosophy of faith.  It replaced faith with reason.  It supposed individuals could use perception and reason to know reality.  Modernism produced individualism, science, liberal democracy, free markets, technology, and medicine.

The German Counter-Enlightenment reacted against Enlightenment’s threats to replace religion and community with a godless, soulless, amoral machine.  Immanuel Kant struck a blow in defense of religion.  He took logic’s razor to cut away objectivity, leaving only subjective reality.  Reason staggered on, half-blind.

Reunited
hegelGeorg W. F. Hegel

German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, like Kant, was a defender of the faith.  Hegel marked an even further break from Enlightenment thinking.  His work had profound, lasting effects on the world.

Hegel thought Kant’s defense of religion to be intolerable.  Kant separated man (the subject) from reality (the object).  In doing so, Kant denied universal truths.  This seemed no defense of religion, at all.

Hegel sought to restore universal truths (to defend religion) with a different strategy.  He would reunite man and reality by reuniting the subject with the object.

Reason Redefined

Hegel aimed to reunite man with reality by changing the perspective and redefining terms.  Enlightenment philosophy supposed that the subject (man) perceived the object (reality).  We were cut off from objective reality and universal truths.  We constructed subjective reality in our minds.

Hegel changed that perspective.  He redefined the “subject”.  The subject is not the individual, but the whole universe.  The individual is only a part.  Hegel agreed with Kant that reality comes from us.  But, he broke with Kant, arguing that we can know all of reality (universal truths) because it comes from us.

Hegel redefined reason.  Reason creates reality.  So, reason is a creative function, not a cognitive one.

Dialectic

Hegel broke western logical traditions.  Enlightenment reason argued in terms of traditional Aristotelian logic.  This logic questioned contradictions in Christian dogma:

  • How can God create something from nothing?
  • How can God be both one and three (the Trinity)?
  • How can a loving God create a world that contains evil?

Reason contains contradictions, Hegel answered, and reason must give way for them.  Logical contradictions are a problem for reason, he argued, only if we make them one.  The answer is to redefine reason, Hegel said.

  • The universe can have a beginning and be eternal.
  • God can be both one and three.
  • Loving God can create evil.

Hegel’s dialectical reasoning dispensed with individualism.  Reason’s contradictions create tensions and clash in a process of evolution, he said. Deeper universal forces act through and upon individuals, who are shaped by evolving cultures.  Universal reason realizes itself, without regard to individuals, Hegel wrote.

Hegel’s work was a major assault on Enlightenment and modern philosophy:

  • Reality.  Reality is entirely subjective.  We create reality.  Reality and reason contain contradictions.
  • Human Nature.  We have no autonomy or free will.  Culture and universal forces act through us.
  • Values. We value the collective (not the individual).  Truth is relative and constantly evolving.

Hegel’s themes of contradiction, conflict, collectivism, and relativism profoundly affected history.

Commentary

Hegel’s Counter-Enlightenment seems much a reactionary counter-revolution.  He seems to restore the Medieval philosophy of faith, in part.  He threw down individualism from its lofty perch, and restored unseen God to his throne.  Individuals were but serfs or puppets, dancing for God and other invisible forces.

Hegel’s vision differed from Medieval philosophy in other ways.  Medieval faith supposed a relatively stable divine order that changed slowly.  Hegel’s faith proposed something chaotic – ever changing, evolution, revolution.  He left God’s throne on shifting sands, amidst a whirling cyclone.

Next

German Counter-Enlightenment opens a new front: irrationalism.  Next: Part 4, Staring into the Abyss.