Review: Hegel

Hegel (Past Masters)
Peter Singer
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983

Review Copyright © 1999 Garret Wilson — January 13, 1999, 2:45pm

Peter Singer’s Hegel is quite remarkable. First of all, it only numbers 97 pages. That’s including the index. The last word on Hegel actually occurs on page 86. Hegel’s rhetoric is by no means the easiest to comprehend. Before one even begins to approach the subject, at least a brief knowledge of history and several philosophers (notably Socrates, Descartes, Hume, and Kant) is needed. What’s remarkable about Hegel is that Singer manages to give a brief yet thorough introduction to the major points of Hegel, while throwing in some tidbits of several prerequisite philosophers as well — and does quite a good job at it.

To pull off such a caper, Singer employs a bit of sleight-of-hand. First, he discusses some of the "most concrete, least abstract" parts of Hegel’s ideas (viii). He moves from Hegel’s ideas of history, even though such ideas presuppose Hegel’s ideas of logic and Spirit. In fact, the concept of Geist isn’t even introduced until halfway through the book! Hegel’s logic and Spirit are introduced late, and the results are quite impressive; after having seen a bit of how Hegel’s most abstract ideas are applied and what Hegel can derive from them, tough concepts such as "absolute idea" become, when they are finally introduced, plainer — somewhat.

Singer first sums Hegel’s idea of history might by quoting Hegel himself from the introduction to Philosophy of History: "The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom" (11). The reader doesn’t yet know what consciousness and freedom mean, yet, but that’s part of Singer’s method. Trust him.

Hegel has his own interpretation of history. The "Oriental World" didn’t really have a concept of freedom (11). There was just a ruler who ruled a bunch of people who mindlessly followed the ruler’s commands. The world of Persia was somewhat better, not because the people had that much more freedom, but because the rulers of Persia used certain general principles on which to base their laws (13). Later, the people of the Greek empire actually had somewhat of a concept of freedom. The problem was that the people didn’t seem themselves as individuals, but saw themselves irrevocably a part of their respective city-state (13). What was good for the city-state was good for them.

The problem of the Greeks, then, is that they acted out of habit. If you act out of habit, Hegel thinks this isn’t rally free conscious action (14). (From what I’ve read of Sartre and existentialists in general, would not they have said that this isn't possible, that we create our own circumstances?) The Greeks looked to oracles from object around them, and were therefore hooked to the randomness of nature (14). Socrates was the person who began questioning this policy of acting out of habit (14).

The Romans set things back a bit by their harsh rule (which was in a necessary means for their ends, namely ruling over such a wide, diverse kingdom which they had just conquered) which was really less free than the city-states of the Greeks (16). When Christianity came along, it at least made humans aware of their spiritual sides (18). Although for a long time the Church restricted freedom with its materialistic ideas (e.g. indulgences), protestantism finally released humans to freedom by allowing them to talk to God themselves (19). The later The French Revolution was another setback in freedom, somehow not because of the ideas on which it was based but because of the Terror which followed it (21).

Hegel didn't think abstract freedom (the ability to do whatever you want) was real freedom, because what you want to do has been determined by society (25). Choosing abstract freedom is really making a value judgement, choosing to let people do what society dictates. Singer does a good job here of illustrating the Hegelian view of freedom by explaining different camps of economics. Hegel is very Kantian in his view that a categorical imperative, governed by rationality and not desire, would bring true freedom.

Since real freedom isn’t doing whatever one wants to do but having the freedom even from societal conditioning by using reason, Hegel thought the ideal state would be some sort of constitutional monarchy (38). Real freedom could be present because the state was rationally constructed -- Kantian universal rational morals would be given life because they would be embodied in the state. In fact, "Hegel would have thought that popular suffrage would amount to people voting in accordance with their material interests or with the capricious and even whimsical likes and dislikes that may form for one candidate rather than another" (41).

On the other hand, Singer says that readings such as Popper's, which thinks that Hegel wanted some totalitarian state, uses quotations from Hegel's students that have been edited, mistranslate some passages, and take others out of context (42). "By a 'rational State' Hegel himself meant something quite objective and quite specific. It had to be a State that individuals really did choose to obey and support, because they genuinely agreed with its principles and truly found their individual satisfaction in being part of it" (43).

Singer finally gets to the concept of Geist (45), and straightforwardly explains that the German word can be translated as either "Spirit" or "Mind", and that although most translators use "Spirit", Singer wants to use "Mind." The reasoning behind this is that most people, when they think of "Spirit," they think of some mystical, spiritual entity that somehow supernaturally affects all of us. The catch here is that Singer is not being so straightforward; in the end, it turns out that Hegel’s Geist may be closer to some universal, mystical entity, and might even be better translated as "Spirit." Singer, however, wants the reader to understand why Hegel thinks this, not by some preconceived notion of what "spirit" might mean, but by following Hegel’s line of reasoning. Clever.

The explanation of "sense-certainty" given in Socrates’ Children wasn’t very clear. Singer doesn’t clear up things a lot, but in Hegel the context becomes more evident. "Sense-certainty" is the first stage in Hegel’s description of the evolution of a person’s self-consciousness. The entire process goes something like this: "sense-certainty" (53) -> "perception" (56) -> "understanding" (56) -> "consciousness" (57) -> "self-consciousness" (57).

To finally becoming self-aware, an individual needs external things so that one can make a contrast between self and the external. But Hegel says that to be really aware, you need other self consciousnesses (58). It is here that Singer’s explanation more fully connects Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic to Hegel’s theory of the development of self-consciousness than does Socrates’ Children. The consciousness, after finding another consciousness so that the one may become truly self-conscious, the one then feels that the other is taking away from his/her self-consciousness, so the one tries to kill the other. But if the one were to kill the other, the one is back to square one: to be self-conscious, one needs another self consciousness. Therefore, each tries to form something in the middle: a master/slave relationship (58).

The fact that the slave gains identity through the things he/she makes was later used by Marx (61). Marx said that when capitalism takes away from the worker the things he/she created, this takes away the identity of the worker, who has the role of Hegel’s slave — this is the concept of alienated labor. To me there seems to be something wrong with this picture. What if capital is substituted for the product of the worker? That is, why doesn’t paying the worker give him/her a sense of identity? Maybe Marx would say that it is because the worker didn’t actually create the money. A barter system would illustrate that, if the worker was being paid in terms of what he/she created, he wouldn’t therefore get all of what his/her product. But what about the fact that some things are more important to others than it is to you, so that if you make something you can get more back for your product than it is worth to you — hence payment is more than the worth of your product to you but less than the worth of the product to the employer? Somehow the concept of labor is confusing things here, I’m sure...

Singer’s description of Hegel’s ideas of logic is brief but necessary, because these ideas pervade Hegel’s thoughts on self-consciousness and history. His dialectic that ideas meet other concepts which bring the original ideas into question, from which new ideas are formed, is essential to understanding Hegel’s progression of self-consciousness and history. The intriguing aspect of this that Singer drives home is almost as if it came from "The Never Ending Story or a Start Trek episode, for, in Hegel's grand view, the end of The Phenomenology of Mind is not just a "description of the culmination of all human history: [it is] that culmination" (71).

The earlier Hegel and the later Hegel seem to be different in some respects. First of all, the earlier Hegel seemed to reject the notion of a "God" as something externally that consciousness had created. Later in life, though, he attended Lutheran services. Furthermore, his later writings described the contemporary Prussian State in very good terms to say the least: Hegel described it as being the culmination of history, which suggests that he may have toned down or altered his writings and feelings, biased on account of the Prussian government. These led some to believe that Hegel had strayed from the inti-religious aspects of his theories, just as Hegel had thought that Kant had strayed from the implications of not being able to know a thing-in-itself (namely, that the thing-in-itself does not even exist) (66).

These later criticisms of Hegel are very important. Some believed what they thought was the true, original form of Hegel’s philosophy. David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus was one of the first to study the Gospels as open to historical criticism (85). Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity used Feuerbach’s version of Hegel to criticize all religions. Karl Marx, a member of the Young Hegalians, was to write The Communist Manifesto (86).

Singer senses where the reader might be having too much at one time. "If this seems obscure, don’t worry. It is even more obscure in Hegel’s text," he reassures the reader (58). But he doesn’t leave the reader alone. Once it’s all on the table, Singer gives you a breather and a bit of a review. For an example, see his review paragraph (71) which explains why Hegel thinks that "absolute knowledge is reached when mind realises that what it seeks to know is itself" (70). Singer guides the reader along the path of understanding Hegel’s reasoning, and his tone is relaxing. Although not out for laughs, Singer makes the reader feel at ease with, for example, "Indeed, so abstract is the tone of the Phenomenology, so devoid of a sense of time and place, that if mind had developed on Mars, Hegel would not have had to change anything" (66).

If you want to learn about Hegel, there really is no reason not to read Singer’s Hegel. It certainly won’t take much of your time: you should be able to read it in two or three sittings, and I can easily see the dedicated finishing it off in one go. It’s remarkably under 100 pages, after all. If you’re not a Hegel expert and you don’t find Singer’s book helpful, I would find that remarkable.