The myth of thesis-antithesis-synthesis
" Dialectic" does not for Hegel mean " thesis,
antithesis, and synthesis." ...
Hermann Glockner's reliable Hegel Lexikon (4 volumes, Stuttgart, 1935)
does not list the Fichtean terms "thesis, antithesis, synthesis " together.
In all the twenty volumes of Hegel's " complete works " he does not use
this "triad " once; nor does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts,
published for the first time in the twentieth century. He refers to " thesis, antithesis, and synthesis " in the Preface of the Phenomenology of Mind,
where he considers the possibility of this " triplicity " as a method or logic
of philosophy. According to the Hegel-legend one would expect Hegel
to recommend this "triplicity." But, after saying that it was derived from
Kant, he calls it a "lifeless schema," "mere shadow " and concludes: " The
trick of wisdom of that sort is as quickly acquired as it is easy to practice.
Its repetition, when once it is familiar, becomes as boring as the repetition
of any bit of sleight-of-hand once we see through it. The instrument for
producing this monotonous formalism is no more difficult to handle than
the palette of a painter, on which lie only two colours. . ." (Preface,
Werke, II, 4849). (Gustav E. Mueller, 'The Hegel Legend of "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jun., 1958), pp. 411-414 : 411-12.)
[The triad] is Marxism superimposed on Hegel.
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, Marx says in Das Elend der Philosophie [The Poverty of Philosophy], is
Hegel's purely logical formula for the movement of pure reason, and the
whole system is engendered by this dialectical movement of thesis, antithesis, synthesis of all categories. (Mueller, 413.)
Marx is no safe guide to Hegel.
History and the universal
Hegel's theory of human history has two
levels, those of the universal and the particular. At the universal level
are such seemingly metaphysical entities as 'the spirit of a nation' and
'the spirit of the world'; at the particular level, there are the human
passions. The 'cunning of reason' operates at the interface between
these two levels.
The term 'spirit of a nation' is the one normally used to render
Hegel's term Volksgeist. History, for Hegel, is the story of this or that
Volksgeist. Hegel explains this term by saying (VG 75, N 65) that it
refers to the ethical life, the constitution, the art, religion and knowledge that a nation has. So the national spirit of Rome, say, is manifested in Roman law, religion and so on; these are its 'determinate
characteristics'. It was said just now that Hegel sees history as the story
of such 'spirits of nations' [Fn : History, of course, is also the story of states. For Hegel, states and nations
are closely related, but are not the same. A nation does not begin by being a
state (Philosophy of Right, par. 349), but its substantial aim is to be a state
(Encyclopaedia, par. 549)];it should, however, be stressed that this
story is not like a picaresque novel, in which one event follows another
in a more or less haphazard fashion. Rather, it is a story with a logic of
its own, a story of a gradual development, which culminates in the
coming into being of a 'world spirit', a Weltgeist, which is the universal
of which the various spirits of nations are particular forms (VG 60,
N 52-3). The reference just made to 'logic' is not a loose or metaphorical one; the term 'world-spirit' is close in meaning to terms such as
'Absolute Spirit' or 'Idea', which Hegel uses to refer to the highest stage
that thought can reach. As Hegel puts it, the world-spirit is 'the
rationality of the spirit in its worldly existence' (VG 262, N 212; cf.
VG 73, N 63).
It is now time to consider in greater detail the move from the various
nation-spirits to the one world-spirit. Hegel recognizes three stages of
human history, three 'basic principles of the universal process' (VG 157, N 1).
These are the Oriental world, the Greek world (it
might be better to call it 'Greco-Roman' or 'classical',) and the Germanic world (this might better be called the 'Northern European'
world; Hegel also calls it the 'Christian' world: VG 156-7, N 130-1;
cf. VG 62, N 54). Hegel expresses the difference between the three
stages by saying that in the Oriental world, only one is free; in the
Greek world, only some are free; in the Germanic world, man as such is
free (VG 156, N 130). The question is, what he means by 'free'. The
term can be taken to mean a person's ability to do whatever he wants:
Hegel contrasts (VG 62) the oriental despot, all of whose subjects are at
the mercy of his whim; the citizens of Greece or Rome, who made use
of slaves; and finally, people in the modern epoch, in which slavery has
disappeared. But Hegel also, and perhaps chiefly, has in mind another
sense of the term 'freedom': that sense in which the oriental despot is
himself not a free man (VG 62). In this sense, freedom is autonomy.
This is also linked with Hegel's metaphysics, in that Hegel takes the
view that spirit is self-determining reality, and claims that world-
history is the record of spirit's efforts to obtain knowledge of this.
The implicit claim that history has been moving towards Hegel may
make one smile; on the other hand we shall see later, when considering
Hegel's views about the 'great men' of history, that Hegel would
consider himself to be no more than the agent of a thought process
which in a way transcends him. One may think, too, that Hegel rates
philosophy too highly. But one should take account of the fact that, for
Hegel, philosophy is not just one discipline among others; rather, it is
to be regarded as the summation of human knowledge and endeavour,
something which makes explicit what is implicit in many aspects of
human life, such as morality, art and religion.
There is at least one other respect in which what Hegel says about
world history can be misunderstood. One may say that talk of a 'world-
spirit' is mere metaphysical fantasy; there is no such entity as 'the spirit
of the world'. Hegel would doubtless sympathize with such an objection, but would say that his own position is not affected. The world-
spirit is not an entity that exists alongside the minds of human beings;
rather, it is something that 'explicates itself in human consciousness'
(VG 60, N 52. I diverge from Nisbet's translation here). Or again, he
says that 'the Idea' (i.e. that whose manifestation in the world is the
world-spirit) is 'implemented and brought to its realization by the
actions of individuals' (VG 96, N 82). In other words: to talk of the
world-spirit is to talk of what human beings think and do. At this point,
we reach what I have called the second level of Hegel's theory of history
and move from the universal to the particular. To be more specific, we
come to Hegel's account of the part played in human history by what he
calls 'the passions'. (G. H. R. Parkinson, 'Hegel, Marx and the Cunning of Reason', Philosophy, Vol. 64, No. 249 (Jul., 1989), pp. 287-302 : 289-90.)
History and the particular
Hegel asserts that 'Nothing great has been accomplished in the world
without passion' (VG 85, N 73: cf. Encyclopaedia, par. 474); passion
is 'the energy of the ego' (VG 101, N 86). Hegel does not use the word
'passion' to refer exclusively to such feelings as intense anger or love; he
means by it 'any human activity that is governed by . . . selfish intentions' (VG 85, N 72). The importance of the passions in his philosophy
of history is that they are, as he puts it, 'the arm which serves the Idea'
(VG 83, N 71; cf. VG 87, N 74). In less metaphorical terms, the point
which he is making is this. The actions of human beings are largely
determined by their selfish interests. But-and this is the 'cunning of
reason'-people who act in this way are also what Hegel calls the
'unconscious tools and organs' of the world-spirit (Philosophy of Right,
par. 344). To quote from The Philosophy of World History (VG 105,
N 89: Nisbet's translation modified):
Particular interests contend with one another, and some are
destroyed in the process. But it is from this very conflict and destruction
of the particular that the universal emerges, and it remains
unscathed itself . . . It is what we call the cunning of reason that it
sets the passions to work in its service, as a result of which the agents
by which it gives itself existence must pay the penalty and suffer the
He goes on to give an interesting example, which I will discuss in
Caesar had to do what was necessary, in order to overcome the
decaying freedom of Rome; he himself met his end in the struggle,
but the necessity survived; in relation to the Idea, freedom lay
beneath the external events.
What Hegel says elsewhere about Caesar and the end of the Roman
republic helps to explain his remarks about the 'cunning of reason'. The
reference to 'the decaying freedom of Rome' can be seen as an oblique
reference to one of Hegel's key ideas, which I have so far mentioned
only briefly-namely, the importance of contradiction in history, and
indeed in reality in general. Put crudely, Hegel's view is that a social
institution is never destroyed by external force alone; it collapses
because of its own inner contradictions, and outside forces, so to speak,
merely give the final push. To apply this to the last years of the Roman
republic: Hegel would say that to see this stage of Roman history
simply as a clash between Senate and people would be to take a
superficial view. The real clash (Philosophy of Right, par. 357) was
between 'the substantial intuition of an aristocracy' and 'the principle of
free personality in democratic form'. Hegel's point is that neither
position could be maintained. The Senate did have a certain almost
intuitive feeling of the unity of Rome (hence a 'substantial intuition'),
but it was incapable of giving the individual his due, and in the end it
declined into 'superstition and the maintenance of heartless self-seeking
power' (ibid.). The people, for their part, could not maintain the
principle of free individuality, but declined into a mere rabble. In sum,
the old-fashioned Roman republic could not be maintained -and,
Hegel says, Caesar saw this. As Hegel puts it, Caesar 'knew that the
[Roman] republic was a lie' (VG 105, N 89). But what led Caesar to act
were his passions, his self-interest; his aim was to preserve 'himself, his
position, his honour and his security' (VG 89, N 76). These of course
were particular ends, and indeed Caesar's enemies thought that his
aims were purely personal. But after his death it became clear that only
one man could rule the Roman empire.
But there is still a gap for Hegel to bridge. He needs to explain the
connection between Caesar, an individual, and such a major historical
event as the destruction of the Roman republic. Here we reach the last
feature of Hegel's philosophy of history that I shall discuss in this
paper-namely, his views about the 'great man', the 'world-historical
individual'. Caesar's work, says Hegel, was (VG 90, N 76)'an instinct,
which accomplished the end for which his age was ready (was an und
fir sich an der Zeit war). Such are the great men of history: the
substance of their own particular ends is the will of the world-spirit'.
More immediately, of course, the great man is related to the spirit of his
nation; the nations flock to the great man's standard, for 'he reveals to
them and carries out what is their own immanent impulse' (ibid.). It is,
though, the spirit of the nation and not the individual which is primary
for Hegel. As he says, when speaking of Alexander and Caesar, it is as
true 'that the time created these men as that it was created by them; they
were as much the instruments of the mind or spirit of their time and
people, as conversely' (Encyclopaedia, par. 381, Addition). One thing
that Hegel says about the great man may seem to involve an inconsistency. We have seen that the great man is said to reveal to people their
own immanent impulse; great men, says Hegel, have 'recognized the
next universal to emerge' (VG 98, N 839). This may seem to contradict
what has been said about the cunning of reason; for that suggests that
the rational pattern of history is not recognized by individuals, who
nevertheless, through their own selfish ends, carry it out. However, there is surely no contradiction here.10 Hegel is saying that people such
as Caesar have at best a limited awareness of the rational process of
which they are a part; the phases of history whose significance they do
grasp are no more than 'moments within' (sc. phases or aspects of) 'the
universal Idea' (VG 98, N 83). To illustrate: Caesar knew that the
Roman republic was finished, but he did not see that its collapse was
part of the necessary development of the Idea. To see that is the work of
the philosopher; great men, on the other hand, are (ibid.) 'men of
practice' (praktisch) and do not see the whole pattern.
I have spoken of Hegel's view that the great man reveals to the nation
its own immanent impulse. The notion of an immanent impulse, or
'inner will' (VG 104, N 88) is of great importance in Hegel's philos-
ophy of history, and incidentally provides an answer to an objection
raised by a modern philosopher of history, W. H. Dray.1 Dray argues
that Hegel fails to show how the passions of individuals are such as to
bring about the development of the world-spirit, and that the 'cunning
of reason' is an ad hoc hypothesis whose function is to explain the way in
which selfish interests can serve human progress. This objection, I
would argue, fails to do justice to the deeply teleological nature of
Hegel's system. Hegel's point is that the passions of human beings are
the manifestations of strivings towards an end of which the people
involved are not conscious. (G. H. R. Parkinson, 'Hegel, Marx and the Cunning of Reason', Philosophy, Vol. 64, No. 249 (Jul., 1989), pp. 287-302 : 291-3.)
Your final questions
Did Hegel think this law (or principle) is solely responsible for changes in social paradigms and is also inescapable? That is, it can be relied upon exclusively to explain the evolution of all human ideals that find their application to society? If “yes,” it would entail the belief that no ideals can ever be defeated entirely and as such I find no problem entertaining the possibility he was wrong. Imagine, for example, the case where a basic human ideal “withstands the test of time.”
1 If the idea that 'no ideals can ever be defeated entirely' rests on the preservation of the thesis in some form through the transformations of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, then as explained at the start Hegel is not committed to the validity of this triad and does not use it.
2 As to the 'inescapability' of the historical process Hegel describes, Hegel does regard history as rational and he sees a logic in a social condition in which only one is free giving way to a social condition in which some are free to a condition finally in which man (humankind) as such is free. If freedom is a part of the essential nature of humankind, history is the narrative of the gradual recognition of that essential nature and its embodiment in social institutions.
I do not think that Hegel sees the dialectic of freedom as explaining all social paradigms. In between the three stages are all manner of social forms that represent no progress of freedom at all and may even embody a retrogression. But, so Hegel believes, freedom as the essential nature of humankind will in the rational course of history deliver social paradigms in which humankind as such is free.
I don't endorse Hegel's view of reason, freedom, and history. I have only tried to explain it as best I can.
Joseph McCarney, Hegel on History, ISBN 10: 0415116961 / ISBN 13: 9780415116961
Published by Routledge, London, 2000.
Gustav E. Mueller, 'The Hegel Legend of "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jun., 1958), pp. 411-414.
G. H. R. Parkinson, 'Hegel, Marx and the Cunning of Reason', Philosophy, Vol. 64, No. 249 (Jul., 1989), pp. 287-302.