Hegel (Frederick Beiser)

Beiser, Frederick. Hegel, 2005.


These religious and political controversies within the Hegelian school were not so easily resolvable because they involved an apparently intractable problem in the interpretation of Hegel’s metaphysics. Namely, what is the nature of Hegel’s concrete universal, his synthesis of the ideal and real, the universal and particular? Both left and right could point to some aspects of Hegel’s teaching to support their case. Further apart, the right argued that Hegel maintains that the universal exists only in a particular, that theory must conform to practice, and that the real is rational or ideal. This side of Hegel’s philosophy seemed to show that the historical facts of Christianity, and the present conditions in Prussia, were indeed the realization of Hegel’s ideals. They accused the left of creating an abstract universal, a gap between theory and practice, by too rigidly distinguishing between ideals and facts. On the other hand, the left contended that Hegel holds that the universal, the ideal or the rational, is the very purpose of history, to which everything eventually must conform. It is a mistake to assume, they replied to the right, that the ideal must exist in just these particulars when it is realized only through the whole historical process. These issues had indeed troubled Hegel himself ever since his early Jena years. The extent to which a philosophical system can explain or incorporate all the contingencies or particularities of experience proved to be an intractable problem. It seemed as if a system must include all particularities, because only then is it concrete and comprehensive; but it also seemed as if it must exclude at least some of them, since reason could never derive all the particular facts of experience. Hence, notoriously, Hegel distinguished between actuality (Wirklichkeit)¬†and existence (Existenz), where actuality conformed to the necessity of reason but existence did not. But how do we distinguish between actuality and existence? Hegel left his disciples little concrete guidance; hence the disputes among them.

This account of the disputes within the Hegelian school seems to follow, or at least confirm, Engels’s famous statement in his Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassichen deutschen Philosophie. According to that statement, the division between right and left Hegelians was essentially a split between radicals and reactionaries. While the radicals adopted Hegel’s method and his dictum that the rational is the real, the reactionaries embraced his system and his dictum that the real is rational. Engels’s account does contain some important germs of truth: that the fundamental split in the movement arose from an ambiguity in Hegel’s philosophy, and that it concerned the question of the rationality of present conditions in Prussia. However, it is important not to take it too literally or to draw broader conclusions from it. It is misleading in several respects…

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